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Bern sweeps guests in right direction

The street sweepers are expected to keep the streets clean and tourists happy.

(Bern tourism)

Authorities in Bern, have come up with a novel way of helping tourists find their way to popular sites by arming street sweepers with maps and an information booklet. The men in orange are now able to point their guests in the right direction.

Heinz Küpfer is no ordinary street sweeper. He is adjusting to his new role as official information provider to lost or weary tourists.

"When a lovely young lady asks the way, it's lots of fun," Küpfer says.

The men in orange overalls received half a day's training to better equip them with answers to visitors' questions.

"What we want to do is increase the quality of information provided to visitors," says Hans-Peter Ernst, from Bern's tourist office.

"Of course most visitors come to the tourist office either at the railway station or the Bear Pit, home to Bern's mascot. But we know that they ask the cleaners tourist-related questions so we're taking advantage of this by informing the street sweepers."

Given official responsibility

"It's nothing new that tourists ask us for information," Küpfer confirms. "Now we've been given the official responsibility to do so."

Playing at being a tourist for the morning, I scoured the old town in search of a street-wise sweeper who could set me on my way to the medieval clock tower.

My first attempt was in vain when I was answered by one cleaner in a mix of High German and Bernese dialect.

"Do you speak English?" I asked.

Unfortunately, he spoke no English and any newcomer to Bern would be none the wiser about where to find one of the city's principal sites. Summer is high season and tourists from Japan and the United States are brought in by the bus and trainload.

English important

Ernst agrees that English is an important language for tourists in Bern: "Some of the street sweepers know a few English expressions or can speak the language. But we gave the information they need in a written form so that if a sweeper is asked something in a foreign language they don't understand, then they can show where a site or address is depending on the question asked."

Sandra from Lincolnshire, England, was more fortunate than me, and managed to stop Küpfer, sweeping away the rubbish left on the streets after midday. Although so close to it, she just could not find the clock tower.

Sandra asked Küpfer to point it out on a map, which he duly produced - once it was clear she was not asking for his name. He opened the map, and traced her route.

Not paid for responsibility

Ernst says the cleaners are not paid for the extra services they provide, but they are glad to help anyway because although Bern is not a big city, travellers often have limited time to explore the cobbled streets and admire the sights.

But how do tourists know to approach the men in orange? Ernst's answer is simple: "They don't know. We are not actively promoting the street sweepers as a sort of ambassador of the city of Bern."

Rather he says, anyone in the town in uniform, including the police and bus drivers, are there to help.

Still lost and needing to get to the bear pits, I continued my quest to track a street sweeper with a map of my own.

In the end, it was me who had to point a lost person in the right direction.

"Yes, the Nydegg bridge is right opposite the bear pits, should be on that side," I said confidently.

by Samantha Tonkin

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