The Fortress gig is the first job that has transformed me physically. It’s not exactly profound, but it’s a telling reveal of my privilege that, at 42, I’m developing work calluses for the first time. Mind you, the calluses are from carrying a replica 18th-century musket around all day, so that’s cool. Similarly, my tan is a “soldier’s tan”: my hands are bronze but my wrists are not, because the uniform covers them. And there’s a conspicuously triangular shape to my facial tan, on account of my tricorne hat.
I’m grateful for the callouses, and for the tan. I’m even grateful that my wig flattens out what little hair I have, creating a tacky central part which manages to accentuate my pattern baldness. Ordinarily, I begrudge the sorts of jobs that one has to bring home with them. But these are the markers I don’t mind bringing home with me. The sore back and feet, I could do without, but I like being marked in small ways. I think that’s because I like to think that I’m marking visitors.
My first job working with the public was a video store. I was 15 or so, and too young to understand customer service. By my second retail job, at a bookstore, I was beginning to grasp the notion that I had a responsibility to do more than simply exchange products for cash. I made fun of my bookstore customers in a short-lived comic strip called “Adventures in Retail,” wherein my aggrieved avatar fought off “Oprah Zombies” and got caught between warring factions of Men From Mars and Women From Venus. It was lovingly delivered parody; I was learning lessons about what sort of customer expected which sort of book.
My favourite “Adventures in Retail” strip involved a woman asking me for a book about vegetarian cooking. “Here’s a book called ‘Cooking with Greens.’” Then she asked if the meals were inexpensive to prepare. “You could try ‘Cooking with a Budget’” I replied. “But what about my kids?” She asked. “You want to cook your kids?” “No, I want my kids to cook too!” “I have just the book for you.” I showed her ‘Cooking with Greens with a Budget with Kids’”; the punchline, as she accepted the ridiculous tome, was “Now we’re cooking with gas!”
Consider that hoary gag a reductio ad absurdum of the process I still engage in every day at Louisbourg, where I don’t provide a product but instead a series of rarefied services. I can provide a historical lecture on the economic and political factors that led to the fall of the Fortress; I can describe how an 18th-century musket operates; I can role-play a despondent, overworked soldier or a swaggering eligible bachelor; or I can smile while they take my picture. I can do any of the above in English or French. But – unlike the “Adventures in Retail” protagonist – I can’t really quiz the visitors about what they want up front, because I’m in character. So I need to read them.
Sometimes it’s easy. When tourists charge towards me, teeth and cameras bared, I know my job. Or if they sidle up and mutter, “Seen any spies lately?” then they’re dialing up in hopes of getting a particular historical role-play experience on the line. I can also tell the way a certain type of gun nut eyes my musket, envy ablaze in his eyes. Those are the easy marks. The tough customers are those who don’t necessarily know what they want.
During my orientation, I learned that there are different types of tourists in search of different experiences. There are even online quizzes to help you identify your “travel type”! When I took the quiz (or a quiz, at least – I can’t be bothered to confirm that the link I provided is the same quiz I took), I learned that I was an “Essential Experiencer,” which means I like to do things instead of just looking at them. I guess my journey to the centre of European Beertopia confirms this…but I also like to look at things, like great art, or great buildings, or great landscapes.
According to my bosses, the majority of Louisbourg’s visitors are “Nostalgia Seekers” — maybe not what you’d expect at first, since the Fortress of Louisbourg isn’t exactly “home” to anyone living. But in this case, “nostalgia” includes the quest for something familiar, something relatable, even in the distant past. People dip a toe into the 18th century, not to see how much things have changed, but rather to find commonalities, points of reference. It’s reassuring to discover that we’re all the same, no matter where or when we’re from.
In a way, I fulfill these visitors’ needs simply by being there. If the Fortress were empty and sterile, it would be hard for them to find common ground. But when they arrive and find living soldiers and villagers on site, they feel a kinship to the past. In this case, all I need to do is be friendly and approachable. If I complain a bit about my job, or fret about the lack of marriage prospects, well, that’s a bonus. With the “Nostalgia Seekers,” I know I’ve hit my target when they say, “Some things never change, huh?” I’m grateful that I hear that a lot.
The “Essential Experiencers” are different, and occasionally more challenging. They may want to engage in some deep role-playing, or even try to trick me into dropping out of character (I’ll let them win that game most of the time, since it gives them an easy sense of satisfaction). To its credit, the Fortress has also implemented several programs for “experiencers.” Some, like the “Prisoner for the Day,” can be troublesome, but others are straightforward – and delightful.
“Fire a Musket – Have a Ball!” is exactly what it sounds like, except we don’t use balls, only black powder. When visitors pay for this program, I outfit them with a coat and hat, give them a nom de guerre and some safety tips, then I load the musket for them and let them pull the trigger. It costs $30 and takes all of five minutes, but the grins on their faces confirm they got their money’s worth. I am grateful for the chance to help these sorts of tourists try something exotic, something with an aura of danger – something they really can’t get anywhere else in Canada, at least.
In the middle, between the window-shopping nostalgists and the callus-coveting experiencers, you have visitors who want to see, hear, or learn something memorable. They’re mostly easy to please, and I’m grateful for their gratitude. I love hearing “Merci pour le francais,” when all I had to do was struggle through a French explanation of some obscure historical topic. I recognize the earnest “Thank you” I receive from parents when I’ve gone the extra distance to make their kids feel included in the magic.
In an environment like Louisbourg, exchanging gratitude is a reciprocal and exponential process. I thank the visitors for coming; they thank me for making their experience worthwhile; I thank them for acknowledging me; and so on. Maybe Canadianness is more honestly defined not by “sorry” but by “thank you.” I’m grateful for that, too.