“What is that SMELL?”

That is just one of the many questions Grey Perkins has fielded from out-of-towners when she leads walking tours of the French Quarter as a Friends of the Cabildo tour guide. Little do her temporary wards know that, to her at least, the pungent aroma of the Vieux Carré’s streets is part of its gritty charm.

Perkins and her husband moved to New Orleans in 2012 after living in Virginia for many years. The couple met and married in New Orleans in 1995 and vowed to return.

“(Moving back) was the best thing I’ve ever done. I love everything about living here — the colors, sounds, smells, food, people, festivals. Everywhere else I have lived is beige by comparison,” Perkins said. “I always tell my tours that we came back because life is too short to live anywhere but New Orleans. And I truly believe that.”

“Is New Orleans called the Beautiful Crescent because of all the croissants? I’ve seen a lot of croissants.”

Perkins’ original goal was not to become a tour guide, but simply to volunteer for a nonprofit in the French Quarter in order to immerse herself in the culture. But while working in the 1850 House Museum shop, she met a number of tour guides who had been trained by the Friends of the Cabildo and became hooked.

“I took the class in March, 2013. It was — and is — one of the most challenging and rewarding experiences of my life,” Perkins said. “The class is a graduate level history course plus expert instruction on the nuts and bolts of leading a tour, all compressed into a month.”

“Where is the old part? You know, with the re-enactors?”

Jason Strada, chief executive officer of the Friends of the Cabildo, explained that the course involves instruction three days a week, from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., over the course of one month (beginning March 4). Experts from Tulane and Loyola share their knowledge of everything from the history of the Great Fires to the local architecture to the contributions of locals to the development of jazz. Prospective guides must apply and be interviewed before being accepted to the program, and must pay a fee of $200 to take the course. After completing the course, guides commit to leading one or two tours a month for the nonprofit group for a period of two years.

“How late is the French Quarter open? Do we need tickets to get back in?”

Applicants don’t need a particular background to take the training course. In fact, Perkins said she had no previous education in history or architecture, although she has degrees in English, political science and law.

“One of the surprises of my life is my newly discovered passion for architecture, which I had never studied or, frankly, paid much attention to prior to taking this course,” she said. “For instance, because of the Great Fires of 1788 and 1794, the Spanish administrators of the time enforced a strict building code, requiring the buildings to be made of brick, have fire walls between them, and non-flammable roofs. If you’re just looking at a row of brick buildings on Chartres or Royal, you don’t know (about) the dramatic events which influenced the buildings’ design.”

“How much does it cost to buy a condo in the Cabildo?”

To keep tourgoers completely engaged, Perkins has developed strategies which may include things such as unofficial scavenger hunts for kids or organizing the tour around a theme.

“I think it’s important that your tour have a narrative, a story that binds it together. Mine is why the ‘French Quarter’ really could be called the ‘Spanish Quarter,’ and how the events of history determined the ‘look’ of the Quarter today,” she said. “I would encourage anyone who loves New Orleans to take the course. You become a front line ambassador for the city.”

And maybe along the way you will be able to think of witty — but kind and hospitable — answers to all those questions.

For more information about the course and to schedule an interview, contact Kaydee Nenninger at kaydee@friendsofthecabildo.org or call (504) 523-3939.