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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I’ve been through a lot of airports lately, and I have to say, when people joke about TSA meaning “thousands standing around,” it has a ring of truth. In November, Bloomberg Businessweek reported that we spend about $8 billion a year on scanning machines, all that time-consuming checking, and employing those people who stand between us and our departure gate. And that cost doesn’t even consider the valuable time wasted by travelers who need to allot extra time to cover surprise delays at airport security.

Sure, we need to spend some money and time on security. But does anyone in government have the nerve to raise their hand and ask, “Could we lighten up here a bit?” or even “Aren’t we going a bit overboard there?” Bloomberg Businessweek reports that entire years go by (such as 2011) when TSA doesn’t spot a single terrorist trying to board an airplane. And then there’s s this staggering statistic: “In fact, extremist Islamic terrorism resulted in just 200 to 400 annual deaths worldwide, outside the war zones of Afghanistan and Iraq — the same number…that occur in bathtubs in the US each year.”

Following 9/11, there was, understandably, a push to strengthen our airport security measures. But these efforts may be costing us even more lives. According to Cornell University researchers cited in Bloomberg Businessweek, after 9/11, frightened travelers switching from flights to drives resulted in over 200 more traffic fatalities every month. In the long term, due to security hassles, about 5 percent fewer people fly than used to, resulting in even more road fatalities. In other words, far more people have died on the road as an indirect result of 9/11 than actually died on 9/11.

Maybe it’s time to come to grips with the risk of terrorism and finally put it in a rational perspective. Many will say, “If TSA and all the security saves just one life, it will be worth it.” The way I see it, wasting money wastes lives. Intimidating people into driving instead of flying wastes lives. A nation can reach a point where its passion for showboat security designed to make people feel safe actually kills them. Security is good, but a cost-benefit awareness is simply smart. What do you think?

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Today I’m struggling with a decision: Do I go to Egypt this spring, or put it off? Venturing there to learn and scout for a TV show won’t really help my business directly. I could spend the time being much more conventionally productive in Europe — and there’s plenty that needs doing there. But I want to connect with the Arab Spring and walk through all the dust that rises in the streets when people earn change and progress. On the other hand, I don’t want to be reckless.

In an ADD moment, I browsed over to my niece’s blog (which I link to on our website because I find her such an inspiration and want to share her experiences). Nicolina was recently in Cuba, then Haiti. Her report, recounting the fear, exhilaration, and ultimately relief she experienced landing in the poorest country in our hemisphere, reminded me of the last time I landed in Cairo. Within two days, she was surrounded by children in the vast slum of Cité Soleil. She wrote this:

These kids own less than any children I have ever met. One of the boys was playing with part of a ripped power cord as a toy, a girl was playing with a rubberband. I marvel at their joy within the confines of their poverty. Even before they knew we were going to paint they were full of happiness. These children possess something special.

When I first moved to NY from Seattle I worked as a nanny for a wealthy family on 5th avenue. They had three boys ages 13, 11, and 7, who I would pick up from school in the afternoon and watch until around 9 p.m., and then put to bed. Their mother would come from who-knows-where each night after they were sleeping. Their father worked overtime as an investment banker and had his own babysitter for them on the weekends. They had been raised by nannies. These kids had all the toys a child could dream of. They had a small basketball court on the second level of their penthouse suite. They had a mini toy castle to play in, a micro-corvette to in which to cruise around the huge apartment, and all of the latest technology and video games. They fought with each other bitterly and treated their mother and me with utter disrespect. Some days I would pick them up from school and the oldest boy just wouldn’t speak. He refused to talk with anyone for any reason. Not me, not his teachers, or even his brothers. He was mute with pain. If he absolutely had to say something he would go as far as to write it down on a piece of paper. I would take him to his therapist who told me he’d been that way for years.

What’s better? To have all the things in the world, but no love? Or to have nothing, not even enough food or fresh water but to have love, parents who are there, the emotional support of community and many friends? It’s easy to see who’s happier.

Finally the palettes are full with color and I ask my little friends in Haiti, “Are you ready to paint?!” in French, and they all shout “Ouiiiiii!!!!” We pass out the paint and they go for it, attacking the panels with gusto. After they finish I notice right away a different kind of style in their work. There always is. In Japan many kids painted manga and pop-culture icons, in Mexico most of the children painted elements of nature, in NYC the hearts tended to include a lot of material things like phones, money and clothes.

A child in Haiti holding her exuberantly painted heart.

After reading of Nicolina’s rich experience, earned by getting out of her comfort zone, I decide: “Yes, I’m going to Egypt.” Thanks, Nicki! She’s in Brazil now and finished reporting on Haiti. Click on over and travel for just a few minutes with abandon…as my niece, the globetrotting street artist, shares her adventure.

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Yesterday we closed down the office at Rick Steves’ Europe to gather our staff together — all 80 of us. This annual meeting ensures that we’re all working in sync, and that our staff knows what my vision is for the coming year. After my “state of the company” address, each department shares what’s new for them. The day was both long and exhilarating.

Our marketing team has had a particularly busy year, and to share all their accomplishments, they played a video of an Italian family on the receiving end of all the travelers we’re sending them. While subtitles are necessary if you don’t speak Italian, this fun report from Rich and Rhonda in our marketing department illustrates the impact our passion for making sure our travelers have a rich cultural experience is having on Europeans. As I like to be unguarded and candid here on my Facebook page, I thought I’d give you this insider’s glimpse at what’s new with us and our impact on Europe.

The Italian folks we eavesdrop on here are girding for more American visitors than ever as they frantically discuss our new 100-show DVD anthology, our new tour catalog, the new website we are constructing, the joy of being able to stream our lectures online, and the new “unguided” option our My Way tours offer.

We broke from our annual huddle with each of us determined to help as many Americans as possible enjoy maximum travel thrills per mile, minute, and dollar in 2013… even if it might overwhelm our Italian friends.

Happy travels and buon viaggio!

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

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George Washington said that America’s most important challenge and accomplishment was “not the election of the first president, but the election of its second president.” The peaceful transfer or extension of power is a blessing. Last weekend, I traveled across our country — from our first president’s namesake state to his namesake city — to celebrate it.

With about a million gathered for Obama’s second inauguration, this could be considered a front-row seat.

The inauguration festivities were a thrill. While expensive, exhausting, and time-consuming, the journey was worth it. My son once told me it was worth two days of travel just to see Lance Armstrong speed by on an alpine stretch of the Tour de France. The same was true for us to be on Pennsylvania Avenue to watch our President and First Lady get out of their armored limo and walk hand-in-hand, waving at so many enthralled Americans… including my partner Trish and me.

We waited an hour for security at our parade bleachers, and this sight made it worth the shivers. (All photos by Trish Feaster; for more, see www.thetravelphile.com)

We dressed up and attended what must be the biggest ball ever thrown. The DC convention center opened up all its collapsible walls, and more than two football fields of floor space was absolutely jammed. We muscled our way close to the pastel patriotic stage to hear John Legend, the cast of Glee, Stevie Wonder, and Soundgarden — and to watch the second couple, Joe and Jill Biden, dance to a Jamie Foxx serenade. (The line was so long, we missed the President and First Lady.)

This shows only about a third of the floor at the Inauguration Ball. Don’t lose your partner.

But for us, the highlights were the smaller events. Being a good partisan and a co-sponsor of our winning bill to legalize marijuana in my state gave me VIP status for the weekend. My senator, Maria Cantwell, took me as her guest to a big-ticket fundraiser at the mansion of a former ambassador. She introduced me to seven senators as “the man behind Washington State’s drug policy reform law.” I met Senators Tom Harkin (Iowa), Jon Tester (Montana), Bob Casey (Pennsylvania), Bernie Sanders (Vermont), and even Chuck Schumer (New York).

Thrilled to meet Senator Schumer, I held out my hand, and before I could say, “I’m a fan,” he said, “I love your guidebooks. We just traveled with you through Italy and had a marvelous trip.” I gave him my card, and the next day I got a call from him sharing a tip on a good restaurant in Florence. Later, along with the rest of America, I watched him introduce President Obama at the inauguration. A staffer told me, “Washington is my Hollywood.” I felt the same way.

I also went to the new Bread for the World offices and huddled with 40 or so religious leaders in the USA. Jim Wallis (of Sojourners magazine), David Beckmann (president of Bread for the World), Reverend Mark Hanson (the Presiding Bishop of my Lutheran Church) were all there, along with Gene Sperling (Obama’s principal economic advisor). We discussed the “circle of protection” we are advocating to spare our nation’s most vulnerable citizens from cuts in the federal budget. Great public servants took turns talking about how we must find “common ground for the common good” and how, “in these times, protecting gains for the hungry has the same value as winning those gains in the first place.” To be with a room full of committed leaders passionate about our fiscal soul, rather than afraid of our fiscal cliff, was an inspiration.

Inaugurations bring lots of people together. Lutherans don’t have a Pope, but we have a Presiding Bishop, Reverend Mark Hanson.

Mr. Sperling congratulated Bread for the World and Sojourners as the only voices for the voiceless in the lobbyist-infested world of Congress. He noted how, because of their hard and effective work, even after several trillion dollars of necessary cuts to government programs, the “circle of protection” they declared around our country’s poorest citizens has survived so far essentially unscathed.

Flying home on Alaska’s wonderful direct five-hour flight from DC to Seattle, the newly elected governor of Washington State, Jay Inslee, was asleep in seat 21A behind me. Thinking he’s likely tired after his meeting with Attorney General Eric Holder to discuss how the Department of Justice will respond to our marijuana law, I’m thankful I live in a nation where engaged citizens can actually take part in their government. And I’m thankful we have a government that is filled with real people who, as far as I can tell, work hard for us and really care.

It’s my hope, perhaps helped by a little inspiration that comes from considering the amazing story of our nation, that together we can indeed find common ground for the common good.

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Last Friday night, in giddy anticipation of a weekend of inaugural festivities (and feeling thankful to live in a country where a state’s voters can choose to change laws they believe don’t make sense) I stood before our floodlit Capitol building and gazed proudly at that marzipan dome glittering in the cold night sky. Our flag whipped its red, white, and blue — a flapping window of color in the center. I clouded the view with my breath and strode right to our Capitol’s base, marveling at both how lonely and how accessible it was.

Under a bright full moon that seemed to draw even not-so-wise men to this exciting time and spot, I thought to myself, “the greatest Capitol for the greatest nation.” Gazing at this floodlit dome, so bright and crisp against the black night sky, I could overlook the foibles of our present Congress and celebrate the greatness of American government.

Our Capitol building felt like a part of me. I considered how the planners of 9/11 targeted our commercial and military centers (the World Trade Center and Pentagon, with another plane heading for the White House) rather than our Capitol. But in retrospect, hitting this building might have hit us, even more, in our collective soul. We are the great nation that we are because of what our founding fathers designed for us — our government.

A chilly pilgrimage to our nation’s capital. (All photos by Trish Feaster, www.thetravelphile.com)

To get into the right frame of mind for the inauguration, my partner Trish and I walked in the bitter cold through a string of memorials. Like a four-course dinner of patriotism, we savored memorials to Thomas Jefferson, Franklin Roosevelt, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Abraham Lincoln.

The memorials that celebrate great Americans seem at the same time to celebrate the value and necessity of good and engaged government. Although stiff with the cold, we got caught up in each. I’m not sure if it was just my state of mind, but I actually read each of the inscriptions at each monument. Doing so, I meditated on how great men combine great wisdom and timeless thoughts with the tumult of their day to leave our nation stronger than when they found it. And their ideas, deservedly carved in stone, should live on. I also wondered how many great words from leaders in our generation will be carved into the stone of future monuments.

The Jefferson Memorial created the ambience of an ancient temple — with the author of our Declaration of Independence standing like a god in the center. After reading 360 degrees of his chiseled words, I thought it’s understandable that as a nation, we’d have an urge to deify Jefferson.

Nearby, a fallen arch, like a 450-foot-long Nike swoosh filled with inspirational quotes, cradled the towering white statue of Martin Luther King, Jr. It provided a space where people of all colors gather to remember and be thankful for progress — hard-fought, well-earned, and in need of vigilant defense. Seeing Black Americans pay tribute to MLK was thought-provoking for a person as white as me. I wanted to let them know I’m with them, but I didn’t feel worthy. It was their fight and struggle and victory. Still, this monument seems to help us all celebrate gains in civil liberties together. Perhaps that was part of the designer’s intent.

MLK, who embodied the “think globally, act locally” M.O., declared: “If we are to have peace on earth, our loyalties must become ecumenical rather than sectional. Our loyalties must transcend our race, our tribe, our class, and our nation; and this means we must develop a world perspective.”

Nearby, as if on the same team as MLK, Lincoln sat tall and soft-spoken… small but central in a giant stone temple. While he seemed dwarfed by the temple, it sat upon him as if an oversized hat of justice — declaring that, while he was only a mortal, he championed a great cause. Here and throughout official Washington, it seems much is about the Civil War and slavery and emancipation.

The Roosevelt Monument melds nature — with its rough stones, landscaping, sturdy trees, and gushing water — and the struggles of a society with high ideals for its people. It seemed brilliantly fitting for FDR. The circa-1930s figures of dignified workers and symbols of the lofty ideals of the age reminded me that the social battles being waged within our country today are nothing new. The inspirational words of FDR are timeless and, I believe, worth reviewing for caring Americans. I didn’t realize how much my political philosophy came from his until I read those inscriptions. One of my favorites: “The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little.”


Finishing with the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, I was inspired to buy a book on Washington memorials to better appreciate the designs and to re-read every inscription of each memorial. I’d love to write a guidebook to or make a TV show on Washington DC…but it’s not Europe. One thing I’d strongly recommend: Do the monuments at night and read the inscriptions — all of them. (And, especially welcome if really cold, the Jefferson Memorial offers a warm indoor exhibit with a WC that’s open nightly until 11 p.m.)

Later, inspired by our nighttime monuments walk and all the inaugural festivities, we dropped in on the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. With artifacts ranging from Washington’s collapsible telescope and compact little battlefield dining set (with nesting plates and pans) to Dorothy’s sparkling ruby slippers, it tells the story of America. My highlight: the tattered flag that inspired “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Even with much of it snipped away over the ages as souvenirs, it’s still about half the size of a tennis court. Standing between the flag and Francis Scott Key’s original handwritten lyrics got me singing our anthem…for the rest of the day.

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My niece, the globetrotting, free-spirited street artist from NYC, is adventuring again — this time in Cuba, spreading more joy with her paintbrushes. When Nicolina leaves her NYC studio, she blogs her adventures, and I’m happy to send some of my readers her way because she travels with an abandon that people triple her age and with literally ten times her budget can learn from. With little money, no reservations, and no sightseeing agenda, she meets people and experiences cultures wherever she goes from the moment she lands. Check out her latest adventures for a dose of today’s Cuba and tomorrow’s Haiti — that’s where she’s painting next.

 

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With our hometown Seattle Seahawks in the playoffs last weekend, we were in a sporty frame of mind. So I thought I’d introduce, football team-style, our newest guides. Last year was our best year of touring yet, with over 12,000 travelers enjoying over 400 of our tours. And our tours are selling far faster for 2013. While we need to have enough top-notch guides to meet that demand, we will never schedule a tour if we don’t have a guide that meets our standards. Compromising the quality of our tours by using guides or hotels we are not enthusiastic about is simply not an option. We just spent the better part of a week training our newest guides. They’ve apprenticed with our most experienced guides as assistant guides on tour in Europe. And they are ready to lead. I had so much fun getting to know these wonderful guides, and I’d like you to meet them too.

And so: Presenting our tour guiding class of 2013…

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

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We are hoarse and exhilarated after an amazing week of hosting our tour guides here for our annual guide summit, and throwing our annual tour alumni party (a thousand tour alums came by for our parties Saturday). The days were filled with radio interviews and tour guide workshops, and the evenings were filled with lots of fun and bonding.

Also over this last week, we’ve streamed the live recording sessions for about 30 radio interviews in 12 hours, as well as five “Test Drive a Tour Guide” lectures with live video webcasts (we logged about 2,000 hours of online viewing time). This is an exciting opportunity for us to share our work with travelers outside the Seattle area. (We’re editing the lectures now to be posted in on our website for viewing at any time in the future.)

If you listened to any of the radio interviews (or even called in with a live question), or if you watched any of the talks (including my “Irreverent History of Europe Through the Back Door,” which capped the week off on Saturday evening), please let us know how you think it went. What worked? What didn’t? How can we do it better next time?

Thanks for your input. We are working diligently with all the technology we can muster to share our passion for travel with all of you.

 

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This Saturday, my Rick Steves Facebook page will host a live, all-day webcast – eight “Test Drive a Tour Guide” presentations on Europe’s best destinations as they’re covered by the itineraries in my tour program.

Visit my Facebook page between 9 a.m. and 9 p.m. Pacific Time, Saturday, January 12th and click on the “Live Festival” tab. Our lineup includes: 9:00 a.m. Italy, 10:30 a.m. Eastern Europe, 11:45 a.m. Spain, 1:00 p.m. Germany-Austria-Switzerland, 2:15 p.m. Turkey, 3:30 p.m. France, 5:30 p.m. Venice-Florence-Rome, and 7:30 p.m. my “Irreverent History of Europe Through the Back Door”.

For mobile users, the webcast is also available on my website and YouTube channel.

What prompts all this travel talk? My annual tour guides summit, which has brought dozens of European travel experts into town. They’ll be helping me with these presentations, and rubbing elbows with hundreds of tour alums at our big Tour Member Reunion Party, taking place on the same day.

If you live in the Seattle-area and would like to attend the day’s classes in person — it’s free — sign up at our Test Drive a Tour Guide page at www.ricksteves.com.

 

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Thanks so much for the helpful tips and suggestions for my upcoming work in Egypt.

Last year I had an op-ed piece published in USA Today about the value of understanding the Holy Land. I proposed that finding a way to humanize and give dignity and security to all its residents would be the best thing for Israel’s national security interests. This generated an amazing amount of feedback, both angry and encouraging. And this inspired me to produce a TV show with the same intent that my Iran TV special had: Take a troubled and complicated land that is embroiled in tension (or worse) with our government and treat it as a travel destination. It’s not hammering away at the typical divisive issues, but simply trying to understand the heritage and history of the people who live there. And it’s for viewers to see the value in visiting as a curious tourist who, rather than taking sides, simply wants to learn from a firsthand experience.

Our Iran experience was hugely gratifying. I’m hoping our Palestinian experience will be the same. In April (after Egypt), I’ll be in Israel and the West Bank to scout for two new TV shows: one on Israel and one on the Palestinian Territories. I’ve got a pretty good idea of what to feature in the Israel show. But I’m excited to learn about the West Bank as a tour guide.

There are a million video projects that take sides on the Israel/Palestine issue. The world doesn’t need a Rick Steves TV show piling it on that way. I simply want to feature the West Bank (no Gaza) as a tourist destination…to see its sights and learn about the age-old culture of its people. To humanize and better understand it.

If you have travel experience in the West Bank, what are some facets–cultural and geographic–that I should be sure to weave into my script? If you have a favorite guide who is Palestinian, I’d love the contact information.

Thanks!

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