Meet Tim Boaler|He’s been ’round the world, landed in Mississippi

Published 12:00 am Sunday, March 21, 2010

In the last 15 years, Tim Boaler has visited the Old Court House Museum more than a hundred times, and always with an entourage of about 40.

That makes him the museum’s best customer.

And if he still lived in England rather than in nearby Jackson, he would have racked up a heck of a lot of frequent flier miles.

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He’s a tour manager, representing Travelsphere from England. His stay in America has softened his British accent, or so his parents think, but a conversation with him is a bit like watching British comedy on Saturday night TV — he has a quick and sometimes subtle wit and quipped that “the Bucket woman on ‘Keeping Up Appearances’ is based on my mother.”

Tim got into the job by mistake or accident, he said. He had earned a degree in languages — he speaks not only English but also French, German and Italian — “but at the end of my four years I sat down and thought, what the hell am I going to do now? I honestly had no idea. I needed to earn some money, went from one job to another, wasted all sorts of time and, to be honest I wasn’t going anywhere.”

Gordon Cotton is an author and historian who lives in Vicskburg.

Then a unique event occurred. In a city of more than 8 million people, he met a girl on the street in London who had been a classmate. They went for a drink and had that “what are you doing now” conversation. She worked for a tour company and suggested Tim apply. She gave him some phone numbers, and on a Monday he called, gave them his credentials and they asked if he would like to go to New York for them on Thursday,

“And I said, ‘Would I ever!’” he recalled, and he mused, “If I had been walking down the street the other way, who knows what I’d be doing now.”

Tim’s training for the job, he said, was “none at all. That would be different today.” Requirements were “you had to be the right kind of person, have to be organized, resourceful, think quickly on your feet, have a thick skin — alledgedly I can do all that.”

He was also well-traveled, and he credits his grandfather, a Dutch sailor, with having the greatest influence on his life and for his love of going places.

“At a time when very few people had seen the world,” Tim said, “My grandfather definitely had. When I was a little boy, he would sit me on his knee and tell me all sorts of stories about this and that and the other and all the places he had been, which made me want to do it.”

Having a foreign-born grandfather also made Tim see the value of learning foreign languages. At 14, he swapped places with a boy from France. He was at the age “when you can learn a language in no time,” and when he went home to London he could speak French better than his teachers — “and they hated me because of it.”

His British accent in dealing with tourists from his homeland is a plus, he said. At first he had a bit of trouble understanding Southerners, and when he came here he found himself “adapting the way I speak so the people around here could understand me. I tell my tourists they may struggle at first to understand Southerners, but it works both ways.”

His accent, he said, opens doors, and he gets asked all the time, “You’re not from around here, are you?” And he answers, “No, I’m from Alabama.”

He used to do tours all over the world, he said, but that was before he met Ilicia, “so you know why I moved here — there’s a woman to blame for everything.” They met at the lunch counter at Ruby Tuesday’s in Jackson when Tim was on his way with a tour from Memphis to Vicksburg. They started talking, and she told him there were more interesting things to see in Jackson than stopping at a shopping mall. The next time he was in town, he should give her a call. That was two weeks later. Six more months and they were married; that was 10 years ago.

Tim has had some adjustments to make and doesn’t think he’ll ever get used to Mississippi summers, and “in July and August, if I can possibly be somewhere else,” he wouldn’t hesitate to go. “I was about to say I enjoy the winters here because they are like British summers — but not this year.”

Food isn’t a problem, he said, “for you know the British aren’t famous for their food. We don’t have our own food culture like the French and Italians. Traditional British food is not good and we know it — no pretending that it is.”

He likes Southern food, except for grits, which he thinks nobody really eats — “they just tell you they do.” Since living in the South and eating local cuisine, he said, “I’ve lost my hair and grown a stomach. What does that tell you?”

What does he miss most about England? “Good Indian food — we have a large Indian population — and a good game of cricket in the summer. It’s a game loosely — very loosely — like baseball. Old folks still have a set time for tea — my mother does — but I don’t even drink it, never liked it. I miss the little things, like the crossword puzzle in the London Times — and driving on the CORRECT side of the road. Nothing really makes me homesick.”

Most of the former British colonists and even the Japanese drive on the left side of the road, Tim said, and quipped that the Americans don’t “because you never did anything that you were told. You don’t even know what cricket is!”

What do the Brits call us? “We call you Yanks, but one of the first things I tell tourists is, ‘Don’t do that.’”

That’s just a minor bit of instruction. In his job, Tim is not only a tour guide but he’s also a nursemaid and a psychologist. He meets the group when it arrives and is with it throughout the trip, dealing with any problems.

“If anybody gets sick, I deal with it. If anybody goes missing, I look for them,” he said. That has included seeing after a critically sick girl in Italy who had spinal meningitis (she recovered) and a man who suffered cardiac arrest in Cody, Wyo. (he didn’t make it). Tim is convinced that “if these things are going to happen, they are going to happen somewhere where it is going to make it more of a challenge.”

He’s also arranged a marriage. He didn’t know the necessary arrangements, but he found out. That’s what he also did for a family who went home to India. Their father had planned to be on the trip — and he was, but not the way originally thought; he died, so they took his ashes along. Tim found a priest and made the funeral plans for scattering the ashes in the Ganges in a candle-lit ceremony at dawn in the holy city of Varanasi.

There have been many funny moments, but one that stands out is about a young man “who was not the smartest cookie in the jar.” In Berlin, where bathrooms were marked Damen for women and Herr for men, the tourists came out of the bathroom and told Tim there was a man in there: yep, he had gone into the one marked “Da Men.”

He has good relations with 99 percent of his tourists, Tim said, “but every now and then there are weirdos. I’ve had people, well, you know, you get the feeling their family back in England made up a collection to send them away.”

Those who come to Vicksburg, he said, are mostly interested in the Civil War. They tour the Old Court House, the national park and Cedar Grove “and they all love Jacques’ restaurant.” Most of their visits are to large cities, “so they like the small-town experience here. They like the people here, who are well-mannered and polite.”

In addition to working for several tour companies, Tim goes home at least once a year and is in the early stages of starting his own company.

Meanwhile, he has pretty much settled into a routine with a wife and two cats — “Bella, a stray starving female my daughter picked up, and the other is Bosley, a big fat bruiser of a cat.”

And he has two daughters, very reflective of the nationalities of their parents.

“One talks like me,” Tim said. “The other talks like her mother.”