Europhiles Get Defensive

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 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.


19 Replies to “Europhiles Get Defensive”

  1. Dear Rick, You don’t know how much I wanted to thank you. I just finished my London, Paris, Venice, Florence and Rome trip with your book Best of Europe 2006. Before the trip, I only booked the hotels, train tickets in the cities, but didn’t prepare what to see. On the plane or on the train, I began to read you book on where to find Metro, TI, how to buy 1 day, 2 day or 3 day Metro or Museums passes. And what to see, where to shop, even where to get the internet point and internet CAfe. Especially my last trip in Rome, I wanted to visit the Colosseo, I read your book first, it tells me to buy the ticket in Palatine Hill to avoid the 1 hour long line in the Colosseo, I did, I bought the ticket from Palatine, nobody was waiting at all, and after I finished the tour there, I went to the Colosseo directly without waiting. And the line to get the tickets was as long as China’s Great Wall. Another interesting story is that my 16 years old daught finished reading her 3 books in Englis

  2. While we were in Paris, my 16 years old daughter finished 3 books in English, but where to buy more books in English in Paris. I read your books and found the only English book store and I even talked to the Canadian book store owner, she was so friendly and your books are all displayed in the front of the counter. I even talked to a visitor, told him how helpful you book has helped me for the European tour, he bought your book about the Armsturdan right way. Lots of thanks to you. Besides, I finished my Scanenavian trip last 2 years with your book also. Thanks again. For my next trip, I will buy, use your book again. Aidi

  3. There are two good English-language bookstores in Paris we always visit, both on the rue de Rivoli near the Louvre. Galignani is at 224 rue de Rivoli with mostly books in French, but also a large selection of new English fiction and nonfiction, in paperback and hardcover. There’s also W.H. Smith at 248 rue de Rivoli – – two floors of new books in English and lots of magazines from the UK.

  4. Karoline moved to Berlin! Wow! I was on tour with her for GAS earlier this month and she was living in Paris. Back to her native country. She is a great guide and I’d love to tour with her again. Glad to hear you too have dead ends. Trying to find the laundry in Baden Baden mentioned in the Germany Austria book kept coming up dead ends for me. I gave up!

  5. i know the feeling. although i may not have the privilege of working on the rick steves team (yet!), i too have found a few places on this earth that create an undeniable magic and love in my heart. i shudder at the thought of slovenly tourists blitzing over it’s charms only to get to the so-called “heavy-hitters” of europe. it is easy to get defensive about a special place that has changed your perspective on life and on living. But some people are just not suited to slow down a bit and explore… perhaps this is the one part of your job that i would not want. you find these places too and because of your position, you have to share them. i hope you’ve managed to keep a little magic to yourself…

  6. For a couple of thousand stories and photos (each with a story) about our 968 nights in Europe over 25 years, go to Home At the end of each year’s European Travel Summary we had a closing comment — In 1970, “What a fabulous 28 day trip.” — The 1979 visit was “An outstanding 96 day trip.” — Our 1980 trip was “An exceptional 171 days in many fascinating places.” — The comment in 1983 was “What a wonderful 87 day trip.” — In 1985, “… our sensational 156 day trip.” — Then 1988 was “… a beautiful way to spend 130 days.” — In 1989 we said “… the best possible way to spend 115 days.” — In 1991 we “… flew home after as interesting 78 days as can be imagined.” — By 1995 we had determined, “All in all, our 107 day trip proved ‘It’s a nice place to visit, but I wouldn’t want to live there,’ is not a cliché, it’s the truth.” Norway

  7. We love the input from all of your local and international specialists because we see how well you mix it all into the best travel recommendations and tours. We second Ian’s motion for an Icelandic TV episode, as it seems a strong and attractive opportunity for an eventual Rick Steves Tour.

  8. Not sure if this is agreeing with Steve Smith, but I think calling France complex is misguided. While I have only been to France 3 times for a total of maybe 21 days, I really did not think it was more complex than any other place I have visited. I really believe there is a large group of travelers out there who, while perhaps well intentioned, really give France a bad name and are more responsible for the aloof image of the French than the French themselves. Instead of complex I would liken France to French Bistro food, simple, very enjoyable and full of flavor. Also for what its worth 1. I have been wondering when you will get to Iceland. 2. I wonder how much the cost of traveling in Scandinavia and the short good weather travel season effects travelers desire to visit there. I went there in 95 and loved it, but it was pricy and the constant need to sleep on trains to save money got a little old in the end.

  9. Our travels in France have been a thoroughly enjoyable experience — truly, it’s an exciting and beautiful country. The towns we’ve visited, the sights we’ve seen, the people we’ve met! Nearly 160 nights, were spent in over 100 different places during visits in 9 years, from 1970 to 1995. We mentioned how helpful people had been on more than one occasion. Our beautiful French friend Brigitte said, “That’s impossible, French people don’t even like each other.” Where we spent the 968 nights in Europe.

  10. I agree with Tooraj that Valencia should be included in the Spain guidebook. I spent 3 enjoyable days there in March. I had to use another guidebook but it did not have the same level of insight that you find in a RS guidebook.

  11. Only because I happened on “Europe Through The Back Door” in a bookstore in 1985 when my company was sending me to the home office in Basel, Switzerland for a couple of weeks, did I ever dare to travel in Europe on my own. At that point, I became a convert. I was amazed that I was brave enough to take the train from Amsterdam and find a “Zimmer Frei” in Cologne and cruise down the Rhine to pick up my husband in Frankfort. I was immediately popular with some of my French colleagues who were impressed that I wanted to leave work early and travel to Colmar to see the Isenheim Altarpiece instead of having dinner in a fancy hotel in Basel. Thanks so much for opening up my eyes to other cultures and the reality that we really are one world. We just finished the Best of the Adriatic Tour (a real luxury to have you do that planning!) with Cameron and loved it! There are some similarities to Tuscany, I guess, but somehow we enjoyed it more! I highly recommend it!

  12. Just wanted to say that the presumably lesser-known and therefore less popular destinations in Europe should not feel left out of our American desire to see the world. I know that in my case, my European travels started three years ago when my daughter (then 8) and I braved a two week driving tour of Ireland. We fell so in love that we joined a Rick Steves tour in Italy this past December. We are getting more confident (although probably not yet courageous enough to travel to a non-English speaking country without taking a Rick Steve’s tour first!)and we plan to continue to visit European destinations that probably weren’t originally on my top ten list, at least not until ETBD offered tours to places like Croatia that look to be irresistible!

  13. I think Iceland is an excellent idea. You should seriously consider it. I will look for it in the book stores next year.

  14. I have found the nice people who travel find nice people…period. I, too, have found France to be warm and inviting. The only places I have found, so far, that have been hyped waaaay beyond their realities are: Florence, Milan, and Mexico. There are so many other wonderful places to see!! Thank you, Rick, for introducing me to some of my favorite places and favorite people. You are incredible!

  15. Hi Rick I just started reading your blogs and find them fascinating. Our dream is to one day take a Rick Steves tour. Today I watched a Travelscope show on PBS on northern Ontario. This quote was given and I thought it so apt for your mission: Travel is a cure for prejudoice, bigotry, and narrowmindedness. (Mark Twain)

  16. My husband and I have our first RS tour planned to Italy in November for our anniversary. We plan on taking the GAS tour and the Scotalnd tour in 2008 and 2009 respectively. I love your guides enthusiasm for their areas of expertise and we would be interested in Denmark, Norway or Iceland as well. Tell them to keep up the good work!

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