My wonderful staff — the 70 people I work with at Europe Through the Back Door — is filled with specialists…people who are passionate about their favorite slice of Europe. I value that because it gives me, the generalist, experts to collaborate with and do better work. Lately I’ve noticed how my staff is actually jealous…defensive…even touchy…about their favorite regions.
Cameron, who spear-heads our Eastern Europe program and has single-handedly made Slovenia and Croatia an important part of our work, lamented how the book he co-authors doesn’t sell as well as some of my other co-authored guidebooks. And it has nothing to do with royalties. He really is saddened by the fact that Slovenia isn’t appreciated like Ireland or France. I no longer jokingly mix up Slovenia and Slovakia. (I don’t think Cameron thinks it’s funny.)
Cameron recently spent a day showing me the wonders of Istria, a trendy peninsula in Croatia. We were doing primary research — running down leads, driving down tiny dirt dead-ends, hitting and missing as any good guidebook researcher must do. All day long we were missing. It’s the hardest thing about writing a guidebook. Cameron was disappointed, concerned that I was getting a bad impression of Istria, whose fans mention it in the same breath as Tuscany and Provence. Now I know those comparisons are a bit of a stretch. While deep down, I think Cameron accepts this, he’d never actually say so.
Thankfully, the next day we hit Rovinj — a new favorite of mine. Standing on the rampart, overseeing the enchanting scene after an exhilarating day or research and writing, Cameron said triumphantly, “Sir, another back door gem in your domain.”
Steve Smith motors our France program and co-authors our France, Paris, and Provence books. Steve has single-handedly turned me into a Francophile — no easy chore — for which I am profoundly grateful. He taught me to pronounce formidable just like Louis XVI (for-mee-dah-bluh).
Steve also helps out on the TV productions in France. On our recent shoot, I closed the show saying, “The more I understand France, the more I appreciate this complex and fascinating culture.” Steve thought this was pejorative (needlessly repeating a cliché that makes the French sound aloof). I argued, “Complex is good. You want a complex wine, movie, woman…France. It’s good!” Steve, surprising me with his sensitivity on this issue, didn’t really buy it.
Dave Fox, an ace Scandinavia guide for us, is a rare Norway nut. (I am too, as I like the ear-waxy Norwegian goat cheese and three of my grandparents were born there.) The region (both books and tours) is a slow seller. For years we’ve pulled out all the stops to turn people on to the “ya sure ya betcha” wonders of Nordic Europe—and used that clichetic phrase liberally. One day recently, Dave sent me a carefully written email requesting that, out of respect for the Norwegian culture, we take “ya sure ya betcha” out of our marketing vocabulary. At first I thought he must be kidding…but (even though he’s a comedian, see www.davethefox.com) he was dead serious. Respecting Dave more than our miserable Scandinavian bottom line, we agreed. Ya sure ya betcha. It goes on and on. Every time I see tour guide Ian Watson he advocates for a TV episode on Iceland. Tour guide Karoline Vass realized a life’s dream by moving to the city of her wildest fantasies…Berlin. Our first employee, Dave Hoerlein, married his Danish teacher on a Viking holy ground in rural Denmark. And Tooraj Fooladi, another of our tour guides, just sent me a lovingly and laboriously written chapter on Valencia — his hometown — in hopes that I would wake up, smell the paella, and include it in my Spain guidebook.
So what? Well, thanks to the passions of my staff, I’ve learned that while Italy may sell the best, each corner of Europe has a unique and real charm. A destination is worthy simply because it exists with people who proudly call it home. And it’s clear to me (thanks to all our specialists), that the more you understand a region, the more you appreciate and enjoy it. And — not in spite of their sensitivities but because of their sensitivities — I’m thankful to have these travelers on my team.