My Recent Interview About Hairy Armpits, European Scams, and Saying Yes to Experiences

Photo: The Travelphile,
Photo: The Travelphile,

Every so often I give an interview that makes me think, “I’ve got to share these ideas.” This interview with Ingram Advance Travel is one of those. Enjoy!

INGRAM: Let’s just get this out of the way. We’re all jealous that part of your job entails spending four months of the year exploring Europe. But we’re glad you bring advice back — it’s better than a T-shirt. How do you approach a new place or a new experience as a traveler and as a travel writer looking to capture it?

RICK STEVES: It’s most important for me to get into the mindset of my readers — someone who is new to the city, struggling to understand the place, and overwhelmed by all of the choices. First, like in my public-television shows, we need to start each destination with a good “establishing shot.” My readers want to understand the context. My next challenge is helping people choose from among the many competing attractions that vie for their time and money. Tourists are inclined to go to the heavily promoted wax museum or torture dungeon; they need a thoughtful guidebook writer to direct them to more important and meaningful sights. So when I write something up, it needs to pass what I call my “so what?” test: Why does this matter? The Pond du Gard is not just a big, ancient Roman aqueduct. It’s the most scenic bridge in a 30-mile-long Roman aqueduct, engineered by Romans 2,000 years ago so the water would flow gently — losing one inch every hundred yards over 30 miles — and bring its life-giving power into the great city of Nîmes. Then I need to describe it in a way that gives you a vivid sense of place. Sure, I’m in a Helsinki sauna. But what is it like to sit on a well-worn bench — where my entire view is hard wood, mist, and Finnish flesh — surrounded by naked strangers with stringy blonde hair pasted to their faces? Surveying the scene, I have no idea what century it is…but there’s no doubt: I’m in Finland. These are the descriptions that I hope make the experiences more accessible and meaningful.

INGRAM: You started seeing Europe on trips with your father, visiting piano factories. What was it that struck a chord with you early on and fueled your passion for European travel?

RICK STEVES: In 1969, I flew with my parents to Europe, and within one week I fell permanently in love with travel. On the first morning, heading for the Dutch piano factory, we stepped outside the hotel and waited to cross the street as a dozen people pedaled past on their way to work in the fields. Each one had a scruffy pair of wooden shoes in their handlebar basket. Later, at the Steinway factory in Germany, the owner’s statuesque wife — whose hairy armpits had a huge impact on me — served us mushrooms. I had never tasted a mushroom. Their daughters and I flirted while enjoying a mug of special beer. It was “training beer” designed with nearly no alcohol to introduce German kids to that local specialty. And then, at the Bösendorfer factory in Vienna, we were taken to the former monastery where the finest pianos in the world were produced — not on an assembly line, but in former monks’ cells. It was as if the pianos were birthed, each with its own personality, depending upon the skills and techniques of each craftsman. While they tuned the hammer shanks, lined up the screw heads, and threw away more felt than they used in their quest for old-time perfection, I saw their pride in craftsmanship. And that Sunday, after visiting a church in a dusty Austrian village on the Hungarian border, we walked — within view of the menacing “Iron Curtain” — across the square into the wine garden where all generations gathered to eat rustic bread they smeared with lard and to listen to the old folks tell stories. At my table, a man with a tobacco-stained handlebar moustache described witnessing the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914, and explained how that provided the spark that ignited World War I. My 14-year-old eyes were made wider by these experiences, which all combined within that first week abroad to light my passion for European travel.

INGRAM: How do you work to make this particular guidebook series fresh and interesting with each new edition, and what does the 2015 version offer readers compared to others?

RICK STEVES: Europe is constantly changing. Some towns get greedy, charging too much for sights, while others go lowbrow, opening up tacky attractions. Some invest brilliantly in tourist infrastructure, like adding delightful town walks, user-friendly bus service to hard-to-reach places, or English descriptions at important museums. Once-depressing industrial zones become trendy and filled with popular eateries and nightspots, and once-wasteland harborfronts become people-friendly promenades. You can’t just update an existing guidebook year after year. You need to live that guidebook. To experience and reassess each city, you cover and boldly redesign the coverage as the city morphs through the ages. In past years, our Berlin chapter focused on the western part of that city. Today, the action — and the guidebook coverage — is in the east. The 2015 editions of our guidebooks are the result of countless in-person visits in 2014. While I spend 120 days a year in Europe — dedicating about 80 of those days to researching our guidebooks, with private local guides at my side for hours each day — I’m just one of a dozen or so expert researchers who lovingly visit each destination we cover every year. The brand-new Solidarity museum in Gdańsk? My co-author was there just days after its grand opening, making sure it’s well-covered in the new edition of our Eastern Europe guidebook. Florence’s hottest spot for a quick, affordable, and tasty lunch? The tired, old Mercato Centrale is reinvigorated with an enticing food court of trendy little restaurants, each with a special angle on eating well in Tuscany. We’re constantly on the watch for anything and everything that will improve readers’ trips: New Saturday-evening hours for Amsterdam’s Van Gogh Museum? More pedestrian-only streets in Rome? A new Joan of Arc Museum in Rouen? Tips on visiting the revamped Stonehenge site? The latest on making reservations to see prehistoric cave paintings in the Dordogne? A new freeway toll system in Portugal? A glass floor at the Eiffel Tower? Tips on what to do if your credit card doesn’t work in Europe? It’s all in my guidebooks.

INGRAM: I love that you’ll intentionally try to screw up to help your readers know what to avoid in their own travels (also, that’s a brilliant excuse to have in your back pocket: “Totally did this on purpose… all in the name of research!”). What are some of the most common errors that travelers make but can easily avoid?

RICK STEVES: It’s true: When I get ripped off, I celebrate. That’s because they don’t know who they just ripped off, and I can learn that scam, go home, and tell my readers so they’ll be prepared. There are pitfalls lurking wherever you travel. You’re not going to get knifed or mugged. But if you’re not on the ball, you are likely to be conned, or simply waste some time or money. Pickpockets work the lines at crowded sights and on the bus lines handiest for tourists. Keep your valuables zipped up and battened down. I assume beggars are actually thieves. They say they want a euro. But all too often, they have their eyes on your wallet or purse. And a very common mistake is simply waiting in lines needlessly. I find there are two IQs of European travelers: those who wait in lines, and those who don’t. It’s my challenge to tackle every line my readers might be faced with and find a way around that line. If you’re waiting in line, you’re not fully utilizing your guidebook. When on the road, time is a resource just as precious as your money. Use it smartly.

INGRAM: You encourage readers to become “temporary locals” and be part of the party, rather than just a part of the economy as they travel. But it seems like a lot of us are hardwired to stay in our comfort zones and do touristy things. How can people — particularly novice travelers — ease their way off the tourist route to maybe have a more meaningful experience?

RICK: Find ways to pass time like a local rather than like a tourist. In Ireland, go to the stadium and cheer on a hurling match. In that Italian university town, go to the piazza where the students hang out in the early evening and share a spritz with young English-speaking locals who’d love to connect with an American traveler. If you don’t know how to order, that’s great — ask for help. In Wales, drop in on the small-town bingo evening and sip tea while playing a few cards with the old-timers. In a small Bavarian town, be out and strolling at twilight and see why they call it die blaue Stunde (the blue hour). In an Italian harbor town, do your vasche (laps) with the pensioners who’ve been strolling back and forth from the breakwater to the parking lot with the same crowd for decades. In Istanbul, venture into a neighborhood where locals sit on tiny curbside stools sucking on a nargile (hookah), and when they offer to share their hubbly-bubbly, say yes. In fact, put yourself in a place where opportunities to connect with locals present themselves…and when they do, make it a habit to say, “Yes!”

INGRAM: What’s next for you? Or should we say, where to next?

RICK: For 30 years, each winter I’ve enjoyed sorting out where I’ll go the next season. At this point all I know is I’ll be in the Mediterranean part of Europe in April and May, home in June, and north of the Alps in July and August. I’ll be filming five or six new public-television shows, enjoying one of my company’s bus tours through Europe, and spending the rest of the time researching and updating our family of Rick Steves guidebooks. And each time I fly away, I know I’ll be collecting new friends and life-long memories wherever I venture and steep on the learning curve even in places I know very well.


2 Replies to “My Recent Interview About Hairy Armpits, European Scams, and Saying Yes to Experiences”

  1. I like your tip on getting out of your comfort zone. The best moments in travel are when you end up somewhere totally unexpected with a bunch of locals trying to speak another language and seeing things you never would have noticed on an organised tour. CouchSurfing is a great way to get involved in this!

  2. Great article! Will you be in Italy in April/May? My husband and I are going to Italy in April. I studied abroad in Italy during college, but my husband has never been so I’m really excited for him to experience such a great culture.

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