Rick Steves Travel Blog: Blog Gone Europe
I'm sharing my travel experiences, candid opinions and what's on my mind. If you think it's inappropriate for a travel writer to stir up discussion on his blog with political observations and insights gained from traveling abroad, you may not want to read any further. — Rick
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If you have a lot of European friends in town in Seattle, a perfect night out is dancing in your own private party boat on the Puget Sound with a 1970s disco theme. Our tour guides emptied the shelves and shirt racks at the local secondhand shop to fashion extravagant 1970s costumes, and we had the night of our lives.
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When you have guests visiting from Europe, it just makes sense to invite them into your home. So last Thursday night, we opened our doors to well over a hundred Rick Steves Tours guides from across Europe. Along with the party came an amazing sharing of music and cultures.
Then, on Sunday morning, we loaded our guides into old school buses and ventured into Seattle to feel the excitement of our quest for a second Super Bowl triumph. On our way to a rainy, city-wide tailgate party, we served Bloody Marys and Seahawks-colored donuts. What a memory for our guides — all of them instant Seahawks fans!
The annual Rick Steves’ Tour Reunion has dominated our work for the last ten days. The event is a twofer: a huge party celebrating tour members who joined us in Europe last year, and a “guide summit” with lots of strategic meetings for more than a hundred tour guides.
Last Friday and Saturday, we welcomed nearly 2,000 alums who had joined our tours in 2014. We filled a big room for six parties over two days. And with so many guides in town from Europe and across the USA, we took advantage of the opportunity to huddle before and after the parties. During the big all-guides business meeting, our homebound staff invaded the conference center and serenaded our guides with Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” (the national anthem of the EU). We also met with our guidebook research team, which includes many of our tour guides. And I took the opportunity to interview several guides for upcoming segments on my radio show and podcast, Travel with Rick Steves.
In case you missed it, here are some photos to give you a flavor of the event.
Thank you for the many thoughtful comments on my recent Seattle Times editorial (which you can read at the end of this post) about how media and corporations are working together to create “The Hamster Wheel States of America.”
I’d love to hear more of your thoughts on this issue. And if you have friends who might enjoy this discussion, please pass this post along to them.
The Hamster Wheel States of America
By Rick Steves
Watching cable news headlines about lower-than-expected holiday spending it occurred to me that here in America the business news is never allowed to be entirely good: “Purchases are up … but weaker than forecast.” “The stock market is in record territory … but leading analysts are concerned about the indicators.” “The numbers, while increasing, are lower than experts had hoped.”
We are among the wealthiest societies on the planet, with the shortest vacations anywhere. Yet, we’re told that our economic performance is perennially “sluggish” and “disappointing.” The real message? Work harder! We’re not productive enough! Our profits should be even greater! We’re becoming the Hamster Wheel States of America. And who’s hired to crack the whip? Commercial news media.
Yes, the last several years have been tough times for many. And if you’re out of work or your company just went bust, that certainly is a crisis. But as a society, we are far from “in crisis.” Ever since the first full year of the Great Recession (2009), our economy has been growing each year — just more slowly than we’d like. There’s no question that, economically, we are firmly established on top of the world. Yet, we are never reminded that half of humanity is struggling to live on $2 a day.
Maybe there is a crisis in this country — just not the one we keep hearing about. In reality, perhaps it’s a crisis of distribution within the vast and growing American economic pie. Or a crisis between our huge pie and the billions of desperately poor people elsewhere on our planet. What’s our response? A contemporary version of “Let them eat cake.”
I’ve just finished producing a TV show about the great palaces of France. These jaw-dropping châteaux were built by the Old Regime — the 17th century version of the 1 percent. Kings would spend half a year’s income of their entire realm renovating their hunting palaces, while their finance ministers squandered much of what remained building châteaux to rival the royals’. Rivers were rerouted to power the fountains. Pavilions were perched atop the palaces’ domes for aristocrats to gather and marvel at gardens that stretched for miles. From this elite point of view, the ladies would cheer as servants flushed deer out of the gated forest and their men made the kill.
The rich didn’t know what to do with all that money back then — other than to spend lots of it to ensure it stayed in their families. The First and Second estates (nobility and the church) colluded cleverly to keep down the Third Estate (peasantry). But eventually, the grinding reality of social stratification made the growing gap between rich and poor impossible to ignore. And the 99 percent marched.
Today, the headless bodies of that Old Regime are buried under gold-leaf domes, and their palaces are the domain of the commoners. Imagine: After making their king “a foot shorter at the top,” the people of Paris inherited the world’s biggest palace and its best collection of art. The Louvre Palace became the world’s first public art museum.
While aristocracy-controlled religion was the opiate of the masses back then, corporate-controlled media is the opiate of the masses today. And, just as those who accepted the Old Regime notion that some were born to be fabulously wealthy and the rest were born to labor, many present-day Americans just keep working harder than ever for less and less — all while the TV pundits tell us the score and prod us on.
As a society, we are producing more than ever. So where are the fruits of our labor? The biggest companies in America have come out of the Great Recession with bottom lines that are healthier than ever. But what would those numbers look like if standard accounting practices addressed the real costs of their success, and the costs to make that success sustainable? That balance sheet would include needed infrastructure improvements, prorated payments on future environmental damage caused by climate change, treating our immigrant laborers with dignity, and providing the child care, health care and education that would help build a workforce of the future.
I believe that, in a strong America, sustainability, economic justice, and a measure of compassion for our society’s lower rungs should be a prerequisite for corporate profit. And if corporate America knew what was good for itself — and read history — it would agree.
For my holiday season gift to you, I’m sharing three exciting glimpses of why I love traveling in Europe — and beyond. Over the last two days, we’ve covered remote and sacred slices of Europe. Today, we’re focusing on a wild sort of travel, venturing into the Judean Desert of the West Bank, in Palestine.
These images share the joy I get from my work. Along with my 100 workmates here at Rick Steves’ Europe, I’m working harder than ever. And knowing that because of our hard work, thousands of our travelers (whether taking our tours, watching our TV shows, listening to our radio programs, or reading our guidebooks) are inspired to get out of their comfort zones brings me great satisfaction. In a sense, our writers and guides here at Rick Steves’ Europe are all about helping travelers take home the very best souvenir: a broader perspective.
Happy dreams of exciting travels…
(By the way, for an hour of this kind of travel, be sure to watch our new special, Rick Steves’ The Holy Land: Israelis and Palestinians Today, on your local public television station.)
For my holiday season gift to you, I’m sharing three exciting glimpses of why I love Europe on three successive days. Yesterday was remote. Tomorrow is wild. And today, it’s sacred.
In this clip, let’s savor perhaps the most exquisite medieval art in Europe: they Byzantine mosaics in Ravenna, Italy, and the soaring Gothic architecture and stained glass at Chartres, France.
These images share the joy I get from my work. Along with my 100 workmates here at Rick Steves’ Europe, I’m working harder than ever. And knowing that because of our hard work, 20,000 happy travelers who join our tours this year will learn that they have been art lovers all their lives — and never realized it until now — brings me great satisfaction. In a sense, our writers and guides here at Rick Steves’ Europe evangelize an appreciation of art, history, and culture.
Happy dreams of travels filled with sumptuous art treasures…
For my holiday season gift to you, I’d like to share three exciting glimpses of why I love Europe. Over the next three days, we’ll travel to slices of Europe that are remote, sacred, and wild — starting today, with remote.
In today’s travel-dream-come-true, let’s canoe together on the canals of Holland, hike along the Cinque Terre (my favorite stretch of Riviera trail), and climb a tiny but dramatic and rewarding mountain in North England.
These images share the joy I get from my work. Along with my 100 workmates here at Rick Steves’ Europe, I’m working harder than ever. And knowing that because of our hard work, 20,000 happy adventurers who join our tours this year will be dealing with post-tour smile creases keeps me happily coming to my desk each day that I’m not on the road.
Happy dreams of happy travels…
We all treasure our Christmases at home. But I treasure my Christmases abroad, too. I’d love to hear your favorite memories about being in a country that celebrates Christmas with a different twist that you enjoyed.
By the way, “Xmas” is OK. While some believe that “Xmas” takes the “Christ” out of “Christmas,” it’s actually not the case at all. X was the ancient Greek abbreviation for the word “Christ.” The word for “Christ” in Greek is Xristos. During the 16th century, Europeans began using X, the first initial of Christ’s name, as shorthand for the word “Christ” in “Christmas.” Although the early Christians understood this shorthand, later Christians mistook “Xmas” as a sign of disrespect. So, if you’d like to refer to Christmas as Xmas, you’ll only offend people who don’t know their history.
My favorite feature of our Rick Steves’ European Christmas special’s structure is how in each culture, we stop just before Christmas arrives. With this clip, Christmas is finally here — and all over Europe, people are celebrating in their own unique ways. In England, families await the arrival of Father Christmas; in Norway, friends join hands in song; in Burgundy, a toast starts the celebration feast; at the Vatican, people pack St. Peter’s to attend a glorious Midnight Mass; and, as Christmas Day dawns, a joyful chorus heralds the birth of Jesus. Merry Christmas!
If you can’t see the video below, watch it on YouTube.
Dear traveling friends,
This mural reminds me how travel can help us be one with the world.
It can help us to see truths we’d never appreciate if we stayed home.
While, at first, these truths can sometimes rub us the wrong way,
once we get comfortable with them, we’re thankful for the broader perspective.
This humble yet poignant painting gracing a community center in Managua reminds me how people in places like Nicaragua and El Salvador can have an advantage when it comes to understanding the real meaning of Christmas.
It’s my Christmas wish that your travels give you a bounty of reasons to be thankful and celebrate all that is good in our world.
P.S. How have your holiday travels enriched your understanding of the real meaning of Christmas? It would be a gift to hear your stories.