PARIS - There's no such thing as a casual stroll through the streets of Paris with former Philly girl Karen Reb Rudel.
Rudel, 45, is the proprietor of Sight Seeker's Delight, a company offering walking tours of Paris with a theatrical flair. She passes a brick building in her old neighborhood, Butte-aux-Cailles, renowned for its examples of art nouveau design, and explains that it holds three swimming pools fed by a thermal spring. A fountain across the street in Place Paul Verlaine, with graceful, arced silver spigots, is fed by the same spring and, she says, the water that runs beneath this part of the city is said to hold rejuvenating qualities.
There may be something to this legend; the city has certainly given Rudel a new life, enough to fill a book. For now, she's limited to a chapter in the recently published anthology My Paris Story: Living, Loving and Leaping Without a Net in the City of Light. A collection of memoirs by women who left everything behind to become Parisian entrepreneurs, the book was the brainchild of a meetup group called The Paris Women of Success, a breakfast networking club.
A Johnstown, Pa., native, Rudel studied theater at Harcum Junior College and Temple University. Philadelphia music fans might remember her better from her six years as the flute player (and one of several percussionists and singers) for E-Tribe, an 11-member - sometimes more, sometimes less - jazz/trip-hop ensemble that flourished throughout the 1990s. She also performed for four years with the Philly-based harmonic hip-hop band Tantra and with other local acts.
E Tribe broke up in 1997, and in 1998, staring down a 30th birthday, Rudel and a friend decided to celebrate with a two-month trip to London, Amsterdam, and Paris. Once in Europe, she paid for the vacation by busking and playing with bands she met along the way. With two weeks left and money running low, Rudel and her friend returned to Paris, and in exchange for a bed and unlimited wine and cheese, they passed out fliers at the hippie haven Peace and Love Youth Hostel, in the city's 10th arrondissement.
Though Rudel says the only French she knew before arriving was croissant and ménage a trois, a "past-life reader" in Philadelphia once told Rudel she had spent five previous lifetimes in Paris, and her first evening back, the fates seemed to align, encouraging her to stay. She met Ivory Coast musician Komandant Simi Ol, of the reggae-tinged French band Arrr Force, and they jammed together. By the fifth night, he hired her. She says, "I made $100 at a gig, thought, 'I'm a pro in Europe!' and decided to give it a shot."
At that show she also met an American family that asked her to baby-sit and subsequently brought her along on three trips to Morocco. Rudel's friend returned to the States, while Rudel spent the next five years alternately babysitting and touring France with Ol, until their tour bus broke down and she returned once more to Paris and Peace and Love.
Rudel took it upon herself to learn as much as she could about her new home, and when her mother visited in 2003, the introduction to Montmartre - a hill north of the city known for the white-domed basilica at its summit - was so thorough, her mother told her, "You would make a fabulous tour guide." Soon after, she began giving tours to visitors and working for other guide companies, while maintaining a base at the hostel.
During this period, she worked with Philadelphia actor Mary Tuomanen (currently performing in the Arden Theatre's Three Sisters), who was studying at the École Jacques LeCoq. Tuomanen assisted on Rudel's tours, and remembers her as "so singular, a tough, smart, resilient person. She doesn't blend in, and she doesn't give up, making friends with strangers, playing music on the streets. She's lived life on her own terms."
In 2007, Fredéric Reb, 38, a French master plumber and former professional handball player, visited the hostel and met Rudel. They fell in love, a few months later they married, and the next year Rudel gave birth to a son, Azriel and opened Sight Seekers Delight.
Today, Rudel is proud she has been able to blend her training with her love of her adopted city. She says, "People ask if I still do theater, and I say 'You're on my set right now!' And that's what I tell my guides. Your city is your set. You walk, you turn, and right behind you is Notre Dame." And among her 11 employees - nine tour guides and two administrative assistants - hailing from six countries, several are LeCoq-trained working actors.
The company, now a TripAdvisor Top 10 for Paris tours, has seven options, ranging in price from about $40 to $205 for a customized, chauffeur-driven whirlwind. The tours offer a variety of angles from which to view the city, including a four-hour overview of sights and stories along the Seine, to niche walks, such as "A Jewish History Tour of the Marais," where guests learn about the area's Jewish ties; visit a synagogue designed by architect Hector Guimard, the hand behind Paris' most photogenic Metro stops; and snack at Lenny Kravitz's favorite falafel shop. All tours are conducted in English and family-friendly, full of history and mystery, but ever since a curious little boy asked about a smoking crematorium during the "Pere Lachaise Cemetery Tour," a few are now recommended for ages 12 and older.
Rudel's homegirl roots still run deep, as evidenced in her Philly-accented French. She says, "Countless friends from Philadelphia have visited, and they bring me things like Halls Cough Drops and Annie's Mac and Cheese, which Azi can't seem to live without." She is also considering bringing one tour stateside. She says a new Montmartre script she's written, with appearances by Toulouse-Lautrec, Woody Allen, and Renoir (accompanied by Rudel on flute) might make a good fit for a future independent FringeArts show.