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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A fun part of my work is being parodied or otherwise becoming part of other people’s creative projects. I stumble into lots of examples of this. And, while I’ve heard several songs about myself, this one — which I just discovered today — is my favorite. Congratulations, Brenton Haack. I’ll take your lyrics in the most positive light possible. Happy travels!

Click to listen: https://soundcloud.com/brentonhaack/rick-steves

 

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The thought-provoking wealth distribution video I posted a few days ago stirred up more comments than anything else we’ve ever posted. Of the over 700 comments on facebook and this blog, there were many constructive suggestions, lots of questions, and — as usual — plenty of anti-government sentiment. Thanks for all of your comments.

The most common question: What can we do? There’s the obvious: Avoid needless wars. Cut back on military spending. Open up our economy for investment and growth. Go back to a more progressive tax code, as we had under Reagan and Clinton. And defend the inheritance tax (without which we encourage a future generation of idle-rich kids).

And then there’s something nobody seems willing to seriously consider: Why not institute a small but inescapable wealth tax? Imagine if just having a “net worth” here in the USA cost 1 percent of that net worth every year? If you sat on a pile of wealth (say $10 million) for 20 years, it would cost you 20 percent of that wealth ($2 million) to keep it in a country where it’s not scary to be rich. (Anywhere else on the planet, someone that rich would spend at least that much just on security.) I’m sorry, but I wouldn’t pity a person once worth $10 million now only worth “only” $8 million if it makes our country a stronger and healthier one.

Many asked why, if I care so much, don’t I just give more taxes? That’s kind of silly. We need to respond to this challenge as a society. A few caring, patriotic, wealthy people giving what all wealthy people should give would accomplish nothing. If being wealthy in the USA came with a higher tax obligation (as it did for most of the 20th  century), we could — assuming smart use of that money entrusted to the government — create a better society. Remember, not long ago our tax dollars took us to the moon and built the Interstate Highway System.

What can we do? In short, I’d say support a return to a more progressive tax code. Making it more expensive to be rich would not deter hard-driven capitalists (like me) from investing and working hard to get rich — and, assuming they’re at all patriotic, it certainly wouldn’t drive them out of the country. I believe anyone who says otherwise is either mistaken or dishonest.

For all those who say, “Why don’t you just stick to travel writing?”, “I’ve been a loyal customer for years, but with this post, you have lost me,” and “Stick to your day job, comrade Steves,” I say life is political. We have to live with the political decisions we make as a society. And so do people struggling in our country, people struggling south of our border, and people who will be struggling generations from now with the mess we leave them. Politics is like stewardship. And I believe in thoughtful stewardship.

If you missed this wonderfully intriguing little video clip, check it out below. Meanwhile, next week, I kick off my spring travels overseas — reporting from Egypt, Israel, and the Palestinian Territories.

If you can’t see the video below, watch it on YouTube.

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In my travels, I find myself noticing the relative gap between rich and poor in various societies. The measure of a healthy society is indicated, in part, by the income gap between the top and the bottom quintile (20 percent of society). All my life, I’ve considered a very wide gap to be the mark of less successful, banana republic-type societies. But in the last generation, the USA has become like a banana republic itself in its creation of a tiny economic elite and a vast swath of its population mired in structural poverty.

Sure, I am one of the elites — a hardworking business owner who creates jobs. And I see the way the status quo (which protects the obscene wealth of the top one percent) is demoralizing and demeaning our society. That’s why I’m a member of a group of wealthy people advocating for more progressive taxation so that we can build a society with a healthier balance.

I know the notion of “job creators” like me (I employ over a hundred people directly, and many more indirectly) advocating for higher taxes on the wealthy infuriates many Americans — especially those who have dropped out of what was once a healthy middle class. Part of our Cold War/Red Scare heritage is that we can’t even address class issues as problems. But I think doing so is patriotic.

Before you get really mad, watch this little video that explains the situation in a way any honest person who cares about our country can get their brain around. If you like it, share it. Then let me know what you think. Thanks.

If you can’t see the video below, watch it on YouTube.

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The final leg of my Road Trip USA took me to New England and the Great Lakes. From St. Louis, I flew to Burlington, Vermont, and then stopped off in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, and at WGBH in Boston before giving talks in Cleveland and at the Rockford Public Library outside of Chicago. I’m finally back in Seattle to enjoy a week at home before packing up for Egypt. But first, here’s my final Road Trip USA report:

Burlington, Vermont, nestled just below the border of Canada, is a charming town with a fittingly charming little airport. Its pedestrian-only main drag, Church Street, feels just like England. Everyone I met was astounded that this was my first visit to Vermont.

We did a two-hour pledge event in the afternoon at Vermont Public Television — knowing that almost no one would phone in live, but that it could be rerun in prime time to get more attention (and more pledges). Then, after dinner with important supporters at Leunig’s Bistro, Vermont travelers (along with plenty of traveling viewers from Canada — Montreal is a short drive to the north) filled the Flynn Center for the Performing Arts for my talk.

Burlington’s classic old theater was one of several I’ve visited on this trip that were saved from the wrecking ball in the 1980s by caring and visionary citizens. Each is now a treasured part of its community and a delight for visiting speakers like me to use.

My weather luck ran out in Vermont. With a big storm rolling in, we cancelled my Burlington hotel so that I could head directly after my talk three hours south to Portsmouth, New Hampshire — assuring that I’d be in town to give tomorrow’s talk. Even though it meant arriving at 2 a.m., it was a good move; a huge snowfall made driving treacherous the next morning.

My hosts at New Hampshire Public Television gave me a fine tour in the snow of their town, which dates proudly back to the 1600s. It looked like a Christmas card with colonial steeples, bleak old cemeteries, and towering piles of lobster pots flocked in snow.

I was concerned that, after all the work they did to put together the event, the weather might decimate attendance. But the people of New Hampshire are hardy, and that night, the theater was nearly full — with only about a 10 percent no-show rate. I was all set to give my “European Travel Skills” talk. Then, luckily, just before show time, I noticed their promo slide on the screen saying “Travel as a Political Act.”  I rushed to the control booth, swapped out PowerPoint files, and busily changed my mindset for an entirely different talk. I’m glad I did…the talk went great.

Preparing for my European Travel Skills talk in New Hampshire, I noticed that it was being billed as Travel as a Political Act instead — giving me just enough time to swap out slideshows and switch gears.

Preparing for my European Travel Skills talk in New Hampshire, I noticed that it was being billed as Travel as a Political Act instead — giving me just enough time to swap out slideshows and switch gears. Photo Credit: NHPTV

That night, to beat more snow, we cancelled my Portsmouth hotel, and my next day’s host picked me up and drove me through more midnight flurries to Boston.

The next day was my busiest yet. The morning was spent at WGBH (Boston’s public television powerhouse) taping promo spots, including ones for a fundraiser to auction off two seats on one of our one-week city tours (any departure to London, Paris, Rome, or Istanbul). Then I rushed to the airport to catch my plane to Cleveland, where we taped five pledge breaks for WVIZ in two hours before hosting a thousand people for my European Travel Skills talk in Cleveland’s Ohio Theatre.

Enjoying Cleveland’s impressive skyline on the taxi ride into town, I passed Progressive Field, where a banner trumpeted the good news for Indians fans: “18 days until the first game of the baseball season!” My cabbie couldn’t stop talking about Cleveland’s Horseshoe Casino. She couldn’t believe I’d missed it. “You can gamble and have your food brought right to your machine. And there’s a shopping mall right there!”

That night, in the same city where a local DJ first coined the term “rock and roll,” I had so much fun with the crowd. During the Q&A period, one spry, elderly gentleman from Hamburg marched up to the stage, saying I must do more on northern Germany, and gave me his card. Later, during autograph time, a woman made her plunging neckline a little deeper and asked for my John Hancock on her chest — the highlight of my Sharpie’s day. I was given a fun little ornamental guitar and reminded that the next time I visit, I have to make more time for the city — including its beloved Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum.

caption: Kent Geist, at WVIZ/Ideastream in Cleveland, Ohio, is one of many dedicated public  television personalities I shared the airwaves with on my Road Trip USA.

Kent Geist, at WVIZ/Ideastream in Cleveland, Ohio, is one of many dedicated public television personalities I shared the airwaves with on my Road Trip USA.

Cleveland’s climate has a unique “lake effect” from Lake Eerie. While the weather was mild and sunny a few miles away, moisture and cold air rolling off the lake brought snow as I flew to Chicago for my final talk of this tour with Rockford Public Library.

This is a vast and varied country. Visiting 12 cities in the last 12 days has been both exhilarating and exhausting. Thinking back on all the great people I worked with, and all the audiences who gobbled up my ideas about travel, I’ll conclude that it was time very well spent. To all who attended a talk or helped support their hardworking local public television station during this Road Trip USA, thank you very much. And happy travels.

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I’m in the final legs of my Road Trip USA. Over the last two weeks, I’ve been very busy, with a lecture and TV appearance in a different city each day. Earlier this week, I shared my adventures from Maryland; Washington DC; the University of Delaware; Roanoke College in Virginia; Charlotte, North Carolina; the University of Illinois in Urbana; and Westerville, Ohio. Since then, I’ve enjoyed sharing our gospel of smart budget European travel in Bloomington, Indiana (WTIU) and St. Louis, Missouri (KETC).

Bloomington — home of Hoagy Carmichael, John Mellencamp, the Dalai Lama’s brother, and Indiana University — is a fine little town with venerable old homes around its town square, which is crowned by a stately courthouse. I understand Indiana is completely run by Republicans who have a supermajority in their state government, but Bloomington felt like a liberal bastion.

Tickling the ivories with Bloomington, Indiana's native son Hoagy Carmichael

Tickling the ivories with Bloomington, Indiana’s native son Hoagy Carmichael

I enjoyed bedding down in Bloomington’s circa-1900 Showers Inn B&B. (Mr. Showers made coffins for the Union in the Civil War and had a booming business — you see his name all over town.) I made a quick pilgrimage to the statue of Hoagy Carmichael (the Bloomington native who wrote “Heart and Soul” and my dad’s favorite song from the 1940s, “Huggin’ and Chalkin’”). After a stop at the cute little on-campus studio of WTIU for a quick taping, I met an enthusiastic crowd filling the Buskirk-Chumley Theater, followed by a meet and great on the stage.

Bloomington, Indiana, offers Rick a warm small-town welcome for a lecture raising money for the local public television station.

Bloomington, Indiana, offers Rick a warm small-town welcome for a lecture raising money for the local public television station.

The next morning, my driver/assistant Keith and I drove about five hours to St. Louis. As it was St. Patrick’s Day, my talk was in the afternoon. Reviewing all the PowerPoint slideshows on my laptop, I realized I only had a couple of Ireland slides. I did my best to work them into the show so I wouldn’t ignore the Emerald Isle completely on its big day.

At the dinner KETC threw for its big supporters after my talk, I got a good feeling for how leading local families engaged in the arts and good causes like public television really make a difference in a proud city like St. Louis.

Keith and I had promised ourselves a celebratory beer to wrap up our time together and to celebrate St. Paddy’s Day. But the rain was hurling down, we were both beat, and our hotel — Hotel Ignacio — was one of the most comfortable and elegant of our entire trip. So we just both stayed in.

The next morning, Keith dropped me off at the airport. In 35 hours on the road, we had driven 2,150 miles — averaging 61 mph in our trusty Suburban. Lugging an extra bag of handout fliers for my next four lectures, I realized how much I’d miss Keith…and the car.

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On Monday evening, I enjoyed a warm welcome in Burlington, Vermont. All over the country, community public television stations like Vermont Public Television are working to stay strong in their mission of keeping one non-commercial spot on the dial healthy. Here you’ll see a few photos from VPT’s Facebook page. It shows the fun I’m having each night as I continue my Road Trip USA 2013.

As you can see from these shots, each stop includes a quick tour of the town; a dinner with special supporters; a big and enthusiastic crowd, generally in a classic old-time theater; and then a meet-and-greet time afterwards. Personally, to meet with so many enthusiastic fans of our shows and travelers who have enjoyed our guidebooks supercharges my teaching battery. I’ll share a rundown on the last half of my road trip in a couple of days. Right now, I’m off to Cleveland, where tonight I speak to a sold-out crowd of almost 1,200.

Happy travels, and thanks to everyone for supporting public television in their communities.

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Travelers gather outside Rick's talk in Westerville, Ohio (just outside of Columbus), to get a guidebook autographed.

Travelers gather outside Rick’s talk in Westerville, Ohio (just outside of Columbus), to get a guidebook autographed.

I’m midway through my Road Trip USA 2013. In the last week, I’ve been pretty busy. I’ve given talks in Gaithersburg, Maryland (retirement community); Washington DC (travel show); Newark, Delaware (University of Delaware); Salem, Virginia (Roanoke College); Charlotte, North Carolina (World Affairs Council); and Urbana, Illinois (WILL Public Media, at University of Illinois). As I type, I’m on the road to the Westerville Public Library near Columbus, Ohio.

The trip began in Washington, DC, where Keith Stickelmaier, my assistant and driver, picked up our trusty Chevy Suburban. Each day Keith (a guide and tour salesperson from our office) decides how many hours we’ll be on the road to determine our “wheels up” time. After driving an average of five hours, we check in to our hotel and report for duty with whoever’s hosting us. Our Garmin GPS unit is amazing in determining, to within a couple of minutes, what time we’ll arrive in each destination. We’re playing it kind of close, but each day Keith (and his sidekick, Garmin) gets us there right on time. And each day comes with about six hours of public time — meet-and-greet with VIPs, giving talks, recording pledge drives at the local TV station, and so on.

I can maintain that pace fine, but this morning I hosted a breakfast in Urbana with 70 big supporters of that community’s public TV station…and I remembered how grumpy I am before my coffee kicks in.

To pass some of the time between Indianapolis and Columbus, I collected these memories of the trip so far:

After a delightful evening at the University of Delaware, in what locals proudly remind me is our nation’s first state, our serious drive began. Stopping for a few minutes in Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia, we got a dose of this area’s rich history (especially from the Civil War era)…and how little time we have to dawdle. But we enjoyed the scenery of the gorgeous Shenandoah Valley en route to Roanoke College, in western Virginia.

I got a nice thank-you sweatshirt — my first hoodie — at Roanoke College in Salem, Virginia.

I got a nice thank-you sweatshirt — my first hoodie — at Roanoke College in Salem, Virginia.

Roanoke is a classic little 2,100-student liberal arts college with an enthusiasm for lacrosse and a Lutheran heritage. Because the evening talk filled up as soon as it was announced, I offered to give a second talk — which I gave immediately after checking in to the haunted old guest mansion (Monterey House) that stands on campus. The school leaders are determined to keep their Lutheran heritage alive, and — as I’m a Lutheran — I think that’s one reason I was invited. At the VIP dinner, I was asked which theologian I’ve read that had the biggest impact on my thinking. That reminded me I need to do a little more reading. Giving my second lecture that night, I could feel a tiny cold sore popping out on my lower lip as I spoke — God was speaking to me, as he often does, with a physical reminder that I need to take a break once in a while.

The next morning, we drove to the southernmost stop on our tour: Charlotte, North Carolina. I requested a quick city tour upon arrival, and our guide, a very blond woman in a very white Hummer, picked us up for a wonderful two-hour loop through town. Charlotte, named for the queen of King George III, has a history going back before Revolutionary times. The highlight: visiting a small plantation at the edge of town for a fun peek at life back in the days of “The Unpleasantness” (as the Civil War was called in Dixie), when people routinely “fetched” things.

At my talk that evening in Charlotte, I was introduced as many things (including a divorcee), and my host requested that I not talk about marijuana. I love giving my talk to an audience where I’m not preaching to the choir. Over the 90 minutes of my lecture, I keep an eye on the body language of the men with arms crossed tightly across their chests, dragged there by their artsy spouses. As instructed, I didn’t talk about drug reform. But the first question in the Q&A section was, “I understand you were a leader in the movement to legalize pot in Washington State. How is that going since the election?” Thinking it would be worse to say, “I’ve been instructed not to talk about drugs,” I had no choice but to answer the question.

The low point for me that evening was mistakenly calling Charlotte “Savannah.” Now I know how a confused politician feels, after that little blooper.

We had about 12 hours of driving time from Charlotte to our next stop, in central Illinois. After signing the last autograph in Charlotte, we set out for the Great Smoky Mountains and into Daniel Boone country. I couldn’t stop singing “Daniel Boone was a man, yes a beeeeg man…” But I quickly realized, with some embarrassment, that I only knew the words of a racist variation I heard around the schoolyard in the 1960s.

After finding a sleepy little hotel in the wee hours, we grabbed some shuteye and carried on at sunrise. Emerging from the Smokies, we grabbed a great breakfast at a Waffle House and felt like real tourists, getting all excited about grits. “What do you put on this stuff?”

Keith and Rick

Keith and Rick

The day was spent driving — nine hours to central Illinois through five states. Coming from the “Evergreen State,” I couldn’t help but notice that all the forests here are deciduous. In the winter, the bird nests are so easy to spot. What a drag for a little mother bird to make a nest for her babies hiding out in the leaves… and suddenly the trees are naked and any big predator can see them easily.

Each time we crossed a big river, I thought how it must have been strategic in colonial days, Daniel Boone days, and Civil War days — but, unlike in Europe, they don’t always have a road sign telling you which river it is.

At each off-ramp, I noticed a forest of colorful logos of eateries and gas stations boosted high in the sky — like fish lures on stilts — trying to catch drivers as they motor by. We passed a lonely sex mall called “Adult World XXX” in the middle of nowhere, whose neighbor had erected a 50-foot tall white cross to shame people dropping by for some dirty video entertainment.

Our routine: Subway sandwiches: Healthy and fast, a long one wrapped in two separate halves provides two meals for $8. As Keith drives, I keep up with office work, thankful for my little “Mi-Fi” gadget that lets me be online from the car. My writing project for this trip: organizing five years of Facebook/blog entries into a new book. I’m enjoying the amazing travel memories that shuffling through all this writing rekindles.

Thirty minutes before our first gig at the University of Illinois, we pulled into Urbana — a town one local bragged is “uniquely un-unique.” Actually, I thoroughly enjoyed a tuned-in and enthusiastic crowd of travelers who gathered to hear my talk and support their public TV and radio station, WILL, at the same time. I’ve been on WILL TV for 20 years. My last visit here was 15 years ago, for a pledge event. Seven years ago, when I started my radio program (which is now carried by over 200 stations), Urbana’s WILL was the third station to pick me up. For that, I am grateful.

Coming up: Bloomington, Indiana (WTIU); St. Louis (KETC), where I say goodbye to Keith and start flying; Burlington, Vermont; Portsmouth, New Hampshire; a quick stop at WGBH in Boston; Cleveland; and Chicago to talk at the Rockford Public Library…before heading home to pack for Egypt.

At each stop, the wonderful people who host me wish us “safe travels” as we head out. I wish they’d just say “happy travels.”

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Overlooking the commotion of the Washington DC Travel and Adventure Show.

Overlooking the commotion of the Washington DC Travel and Adventure Show.

Last week, I embarked on my second annual “Road Trip USA.” I had such a wonderful time doing my cross-country trip last year, I just had to do it again — this time focusing on a dozen fine communities in the Eastern Seaboard, South, and Midwest.

My trip this year began in and near our national’s capital. I kicked things off giving two talks at Asbury Methodist Village retirement community in Gaithersburg, Maryland. I could spend the entire year doing talks like these, as “progressive care organizations” pay well to have me give a talk at their facility (partly to attract prospective retirees who may want to move in). And I really enjoy these talks — I find older audiences impressively young at heart.

From there, I spent the weekend giving two talks each day (travel skills and Italy) as the headliner for the Washington DC Travel and Adventure Show. They pay us well to have a booth there and for me to give my talks, as they need to attract lots of people to pay the $10 admission. These talks are challenging for me because there’s a huge crowd and the venue is immersed in travel-fair commotion — noisy booths, other speakers just behind a curtain, and folk-dance shows. Our booth was really lively, and we gave away 3,000 newsletters and mounds of tour promotional material.

I enjoy checking in with the other speakers at these shows. This time, I got to hang out with Arthur Frommer a bit. My travel writing inspiration and mentor is a gracious man, still teaching travel as he has since his first book back in the mid-1950s. The first thing Arthur asked me was, “And how is your son, Andy’s, little tour business going?”

My DC time was also busy because of everything else going on in that city. My daughter, Jackie, just happened to be flying in for an alumni gathering at Georgetown. She needed a place to crash, so she moved into my hotel room for two days. I wasn’t sure how she’d feel sharing a hotel room with her old man — but it didn’t matter, as she spent each night out with her college friends, and I barely saw her.

"Filling up" a Tesla, it's not regular or unleaded...it's AC or DC.

“Filling up” a Tesla, it’s not regular or unleaded…it’s AC or DC.

I enjoyed breakfast with the Egyptian tourism director, who assured me Egypt is stable enough for Western travelers to feel comfortable. (I’ll see if that’s true, in person, next month.) One evening I taped a pledge drive at WETA. The next I went to the European Union Ambassador’s mansion for a party. Jackie couldn’t believe I was heading out to the party without a tie, so I bought one at the hotel gift shop on my way out. That turned out to be a very good move. Ambassadors from nearly a dozen smaller European countries were invited there to meet me over drinks. I enjoyed being lobbied by each of them to give their country — from Belgium to Latvia to Greece — more attention. The EU is underwriting our radio program, and this evening provided a great opportunity for me to connect with them. It’s rare that I meet people as enthusiastic about Europe as a whole (rather than individual countries) as I am. The EU staff is evangelical about Europe.

As I’m newly elected to the board of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, my last DC night was spent at dinner connecting with the director and founder of NORML. The three of us talked about the drug policy reform business and coordinating a good plan to build upon our recent victories in Washington State and Colorado.

My DC highlight was taking a few minutes to test drive a Tesla. Wow. I have never had such an exciting driving experience. Completely electric, with almost no moving parts, no gears, a big bright touchscreen computer terminal for a control pad, and rocket-like acceleration, I felt I was piloting the jet-like car of the future as I zipped giddily around our nation’s capital. (Too bad about the price tag.)

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With this clip, we finish our series on Rick Steves’ Europe: A Symphonic Journey. This hour-long special is debuting across the USA on public television this month. Flying us musically to seven different countries, it celebrates how, in the late 19th century, Romanticism and nationalism mingled together as music partnered with freedom-lovers. This clip features a rousing composition that, while dating from the 19th century, still carries special meaning in the 21st century, as the official anthem of the European Union: Ludwig van Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy.”

I hope you’ve enjoy this musical tour through Europe. It’s my hope that my little tour-guide introductions demonstrate the value of having a guide to give meaning to your travel experiences. At Rick Steves’ Europe, all of our guides share passionately and expertly in that goal for all of our tour members.

And one final reminder: Ask your local public television station when Rick Steves’ Europe: A Symphonic Journey will air. This show is available to any station to air for free, so if yours hasn’t run it yet, request it. And if you just can’t wait, you can order the DVD and CD of this concert at my online Travel Store.

If you can’t see the video below, watch it on YouTube.

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We’re off to France for the seventh installment of Rick Steves’ Europe: A Symphonic Journey. In Revolution-era France, music supported the modern notion of government by, for, and of the people. Composer Hector Berlioz provided a stirring soundtrack for the Les Miz-type struggles of the people of 19th-century France — to whom all free people owe a mighty debt of gratitude.

This clip comes from our new one-hour public television special, a “greatest hits” panoply of Romantic and nationalistic music from seven different European nations. My role in the concert: tour guide — I had to provide a background of historical and cultural context to each composition. This is what I did for 25 years while leading our bus tours, and it shows the spirit of teaching that all our guides embrace as we prepare our tour members to find both meaning and joy in new cultural experiences.

If you can’t see the video below, watch it on YouTube.

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