Some people love their jobs. Some people hate them. Then there’s 38-year-old mother of two Paula Noukas. “I’m living the dream,” she jokes. “I get perfect strangers from all around the world to sit down and eat together.”
Her job: Giving food-and-history tours of Boston’s North End, the famous and picturesque Little Italy that is also home to the Old North Church.
Her tours, named “Off The Eaten Path,” combine a physical visit to the neighborhood with a metaphorical tour of Italy. And plenty of food — including not just pizza, arancini and cannoli, but Italian olive oils, cheeses, wines, and an aged Italian balsamic vinegar that tastes absolutely nothing like any balsamic vinegar you’ve ever tasted, and which you could probably drink on its own.
The average lawyer in Boston earns $80 an hour, say government statistics. The average surgeon makes $120.
Demand is so strong that she is making a remarkable living for, effectively, showing people around her neighborhood, talking and eating. Tours last three hours. Noukas limits them to 16 people at a time. She charges $75 a person. That works out at $400 an hour. Plus tips.
“It’s not Wall Street,” says Noukas. “I lead a comfortable life.”
It may not be Wall Street but it stacks up pretty well. The average lawyer in Boston earns $80 an hour, say government statistics. The average surgeon makes $120.
And she’s busy. She gives up to eight tours a week through spring, summer and fall. The tours are full.
“I work anywhere between four and six days a week,” she said. “When I work, I work. I want to make more money, I open up a tour.”
Ten years ago, she was just another office worker. She had a job raising money for a nonprofit. “I hated it,” the Boston University art history major recalls. “I’m not an office person. I’m not a 9-to-5-er.”
At the time she was living in the North End. An elderly friend she knew in the neighborhood gave occasional tours to visitors. One day he called her up. “He couldn’t do it. He was sick. He asked me if I would do it. I’d never been a tour guide before.”
She couldn’t read his extensive notes. So she had to wing it for a bunch of strangers.
And she had a blast. “I was always a Chatty Cathy,” she says. “I was always involved in theater (at school). I loved it.”
‘I had a mentor. He helped me with a lot of information. He gave me a lot of confidence I could do it.’
Her friend retired, and she started doing her own tours on weekends. Noukas, whose family comes from Greece, is a foodie and loved the neighborhoods restaurants, cafes and delicatessens. So she built her tour around them.
“I had no idea what the hell I was doing,” she says, looking back. “I didn’t have a business plan. There’s no ‘university’ for how to become a tour guide. This was a total seat-of-the-pants operation.”
She read every book she could on the neighborhood. She tapped local experts. She ended up auditing a class at Boston University given by Jim Pasto, a history professor who is also the co-founder of the North End Historical Society. “I had a mentor,” she says. “He helped me with a lot of information. He gave me a lot of confidence I could do it.”
After getting married in 2012 she quit her job and started doing the tours full time. The first year was slow. “I was getting two to four people a tour, and doing two or three tours a week. I felt really frustrated. I thought, why am I not getting more people?”
“All of a sudden it got busy,” she says. “It got busy just as I had my first baby. People said I was really well reviewed on Trip Advisor. I’d never even put myself on Trip Advisor
” But the online reviews and travel site proved to be the key.
The job isn’t as easy as it sounds, but Noukas is an extrovert. It’s theater. She talks almost nonstop for three hours. “It’s the perfect job,” she says. “My husband says, I can’t believe you have a job where people pay you to listen to you talk.”