Keep on travelin’: Rick Steves says live like a local when traveling

By Brian Soergel | May 10, 2018
Courtesy of: Rick Steves

From his home office on Fourth Avenue North in Edmonds, Rick Steves continues to pump out travel guidebooks on European travel, as he has done since opening Rick Steves’ Europe 42 years ago.

“Keep on travelin’,” as he says when closing his popular PBS TV show.

Now he has released the third edition of one of his most popular books, “Travel As a Political Act,” first published in 2009. The Society of American Travel Writers named it "Travel Book of the Year" in 2010.

The third edition is updated throughout, with special attention to the impacts of President Donald Trump in the U.S., Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey, the refugee crisis, fascism and nativism, fake news and Brexit.

Steves donates all royalties from the sale of the book to Bread for the World, a nonprofit advocacy organization dedicated to ending hunger.

Steves spends four months of the year in Europe, so getting in touch with him can be difficult. But thanks to the internet and cellphones, the Beacon spoke to the 62-year-old as he took a break from exploring Sicily, where he just wrapped up a two-week shoot for “Rick Steves’ Europe,” which has released a new series every two years on public television since 1990.

Here are some excerpts:

The book title

I think it’s more important than ever, considering the power of fake news, the power of fear mongering and the challenges of globalization presented to otherwise comfortable people.

Even though we have a sophisticated and savvy electorate, political forces are getting better at confusing people and capitalizing on things that don’t need to be as scary as they’re made to be – like terrorism and refugees storming our borders.

I really believe that if you travel responsibly and get out of your comfort zone, you have empathy for the other 96 percent of humanity. You’re able to keep a grip on things, so you don’t confuse risk and fear.

You can come home and continue to do better for our country and can vote in a smarter way. That doesn’t mean voting like Rick Steves is going to vote, but based on an understanding of the world, not on a misunderstanding given to you, not because you’re naive, but because TV cable news is very good at changing your perspective.

World changes

I wanted to update the book and make it more meaningful with all these changes in the world.

A big part of (the American conversation) is nativism and refugees, and the same dynamic is going on in European countries by bombastic politicians capitalizing on people’s fear.

The thing that’s frightening to a lot of people is refugees. I mean, think of that caravan that was coming through Mexico. It’s like our country was besieged, but all it was a couple of hundred desperate people.

But it can be spun in the news where less-sophisticated consumers of news will just vote for the person that triumphs law and order and border security.

The border, jobs, that’s what people like Putin, Erdogan, autocrats in Poland and Hungary – that’s what keeps those kind of people winning elections. That’s what got Britain to a certain degree voting to leave the European Union.

Brexit is more complicated than that, but that was just a matter of complaining that they wanted laws being made by English people rather than by a collection of 25 European nations in Brussels.

I want to acknowledge that Trump is not the only wannabe autocrat threatening Western democracies. You’ve got a terrible trend in Europe when things were on a roll to be pluralistic and democratic and more easygoing.

And now there’s a more fearful base that is gripped by failed-states in the Mediterranean basin, causing millions of refugees. They’re right to be fearful about that, but what effect does that have on a traveler? What lessons can we draw from that?

I get the question, “What’s it like to go (to a certain country)? What’s an American treated like?” These are changes I deal with in the book.

Ethnicity, persistent regionalism

People ask me about “the browning of America.” I don’t call it that, but that’s what people ask me – what do I think about it? Good people think Europe is going to be Muslim in 30 years, so you better go see it now.

That really betrays somebody’s ethnocentrism and lack of world experience. Of course, we’re 4 percent of the planet, and there’s a big world out there.

I’m in Italy now, and there’s no sense of anything other than this is Sicily. What I see are persistent lifestyle traits that make the place charming. I also see modern technology that lets you and I talk into the phone almost free.

If this were the ’70s, I’d be pumping money into a machine. So we’re much closer in the world that way.

Travel is so much easier now.

On the other hand, filming in a little town earlier made me kind of sad. One of my first memories there was festival of artisans doing their traditional thing, and today it’s much more of an affluent place without the artisan characteristic. So you have to look more carefully for that, quote, “old-world character.”

Everybody’s getting wealthier. The restaurants are serving trendy, gourmet food inside of sardines and potatoes.

There’s persistent regionalism. You go to Ireland, and it’s as Irish as ever. You go to Portugal, and it’s as Portuguese as ever. In big cities, you’ve got more of an international feel. But with the nature of Europe and its free borders, you’ve got a lot of people in the poor countries working in the rich countries.

That’s what we have with Mexicans working in the U.S. In Germany, it’s Turks. In France, it’s Algerians and Moroccans. It’s a guest-worker dynamic.

Marijuana reform laws

Drug reform has changed hugely since the first edition of the book. When I first wrote the book, we were going to Europe to get experience, inspiration and advice (about marijuana). Now Europe is coming to us in taking crime out of the equation.

Amsterdam for 25 years has had a very progressive policy, but it’s never dealt with what they call a gray area – how do you wholesale and distribute it? It’s just wink-wink, don’t tell me about it. They just didn’t want to arrest a bunch of people, because it’s expensive and futile.

In Colorado and Washington, we were the first political entities in the world to actually grapple with the very complicated issue of how you thoughtfully regulate the wholesale and distribution of this industry. And now Europe is inspired by us.

In Central America, drugs and gang violence have changed everything, and liberation theology and people’s struggles for independence aren’t as much of a big deal now. Things evolve gradually, and you have to take the temperature to see what’s going on.

That’s the interesting thing for me as a travel writer.

Study up on a travel destination

You have to remember that the nature of news is to make things scarier than they are. Let’s say yesterday a person got sucked out of a plane. All of a sudden people are thinking, “Should I sit next to the window?” They didn’t think that for nine years there’s not been a fatality in the commercial airline industry in the country.

They didn’t think that 30,000 people are dying every year from opioid overdoses, and 30,000 more are the victims of gun-related homicides.

I think it’s fine to be cerebral about the risks, but not to overreact to terrorism and realize that life happens. And if you want to stay home and hide under the bed, it’s probably less safe than sitting here in Sicily where I am today.

I care about our society a lot, and I just worry that we need to know what’s going on in the rest of the world in order for us to deal with the challenges confronting us these days. You can’t have that experience any more effectively than to actually get out and travel.

It just broadens your perspective.

 


Rick Steves’ tips for making travel a political act

 

 

 

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