My co-author and frequent collaborator, Cameron Hewitt, is well-traveled, smart, and insightful. And, while he and I are in perfect sync in our travel styles and priorities, he gives voice to the next generation of "Rick Steves travelers." Join me in enjoying his reports right here. —Rick

What Do You Miss About Traveling in Europe?

With my 2020 travel plans grounded, it’s now been about 10 months since I set foot in Europe. And I’m itching for a fix. I find the things I miss most aren’t the glitzy cities and the famous sights. For those of us fortunate enough to travel frequently, what we really miss is our traveling lifestyle — those everyday joys of being fully in the moment. We crave the freedom of leaving the office headaches and the household chores behind, and having a span of unstructured time to play, explore, learn, and discover. For travelers, there’s something about life on the road that’s simply magic. Here are a few of those quirky little things that I’m missing fiercely right now.

I miss that “Hey, I’m in Europe!” moment that appears out of the jet-lag haze on the afternoon of arrival. It’s that moment when you feel the cobbles underfoot, hear the swirl of other languages, and realize that foregoing sleep for 20-plus hours — half of which was spent jammed into an economy airline seat — has a huge payoff.

I miss the exhilaration of near-miss connections. Hopping on the train seconds before the doors hiss shut. Driving onto the ferry moments before it pulls out into a dreamy Norwegian fjord. Slipping in the door of a museum just before they lock it behind you.

I miss beautiful doorways, pretty as a picture.

I miss communicating with Italians. I miss telling them that I don’t speak Italian, only to have them brush aside my protests and launch into an impassioned monologue…which I can, somehow, actually understand.

I miss that moment, about a week or two into your trip, where everything starts to fit into your bag perfectly. You’ve got the system down, able to pack up at a moment’s notice and hop a train to the next adventure.

I miss stunning sunsets from the top of a castle, earned by way of a sturdy hike.

I miss the many smells of a busy big-city metro station. Yes, all of them. (But some more than others.)

I miss meeting Europeans who have dedicated their lives to doing one thing and doing it right: Nicola the gelato master.  Tina, who knows the Slovenian Alps like she was born for it (and she was). Gianluca the zero-kilometer Tuscan farmer. And Naomi, who geeks out about Scottish candies.

I miss when a local friend gives me a hot tip for a truly untouristy discovery — the kind of place where you can eat real local dishes, with real locals, for pennies on the euro. That hidden milk bar in Kraków. That back-streets bakery in Mykonos. That amazing fish house in Tangier.

I miss colorful boats serenely bobbing in tidy pastel harbors.

I miss road trips: Figuring out the controls and sound system on a new rental car…and inevitably stalling a few times that first day as I fumble with the stick shift. Scrutinizing maps the night before a long journey to make sure I have the best route chosen, and any worthwhile detours plotted out. And then…hitting the open road, with limitless potential for exploration.

I miss learning some historical tidbit that instantly brings great meaning to what, until that moment, had been just another boring church, castle, or museum. I love how it makes my brain tingle.

I miss bustling market halls.

I miss lifts that zip you up to the top of a mountain in moments…depositing you at the doorstep of a glorious day of hiking above the clouds and the crowds.

I miss hearing an insistently catchy pop song by a band I’ve never heard of — over and over and over again, incessantly, everywhere I go. And then, coming home and realizing nobody stateside has ever heard about it. Until a few months later, when suddenly, it becomes ubiquitous here, too.

I miss Icelandic waterfalls. The blast of cold air, the mist speckling my glasses, the pure, unbridled magnificence of nature.

I miss savoring an entirely new flavor. In Greece, discovering mastica — the sweet natural resin that tastes a bit like licorice, but not quite. In Portugal’s Alentejo, discovering that the unlikely combination of clams and pork is surprisingly delicious. In Moscow, going to a Georgian restaurant for a tarkhun (tarragon soda) and doughy dumplings dipped in a sweet, tart, explosively flavorful plum sauce.

I miss adorable stray cats sunning themselves on a scenic perch.

I miss those cultural epiphanies that unlock not just a new custom, but an entirely fresh way of perceiving the world. Italians scoff at cappuccino in the afternoon…because they believe that consuming too much milk late in the day hinders digestion. Seemingly “unfriendly” French clerks become kind and welcoming when you simply say, “Bonjour, Monsieur” or “Bonjour, Madame.” And all across Europe, after a few weeks, I actually begin to believe that “slow” service is good and polite service — it’s how a restaurant encourages the diner to take their time and savor the experience.

I miss funny signs in Britain.

I miss those little serendipities that make a trip. Stumbling upon a harvest festival in a wine-growing village…and, if you’re lucky, stomping some grapes. Checking into your B&B and learning that the next town over is hosting a Highland Games tomorrow. That time I was in Eger, Hungary, and a hot-air balloon decided to land right in the middle of the main square.

And I miss that perfect trifecta of running out of deodorant, toothpaste, and shampoo on my last morning of a long trip.

What about you? What are you missing about Europe?

So, Can I Go to Europe? — How the Coronavirus Is Changing European Travel for Americans

Updated on July 1, 2020

Due to the coronavirus pandemic, the theme of my 2020 as been “cancelled trips.” And it seems that won’t be changing soon: As of July 1, the European Union is open to international travelers from certain approved countries…but the United States isn’t on the list. While Canadians, Aussies, Kiwis, Koreans, Moroccans, and many others can start planning a European trip — and good for them! — Americans like me will have to wait.

Nobody can predict exactly what the coming months will bring. The one thing we can count on is uncertainty. That said, I’ve been closely following the coronavirus news from across the Atlantic, and I’ve kept in touch with friends all over Europe. And as I look into my crystal ball, here are some informed hunches about what might — might — happen next. My goal is not to give definitive answers, but to provide a midyear snapshot of European travel in the age of coronavirus. (I updated this post on July 1, just as the EU’s reopening policy went into effect.)

Tourism in Europe Is Restarting…

Before July 1, tourism in Europe had already restarted, but it was mostly domestic: British urbanites on holiday in the Lake District, Slovenes hiking in their lush mountains, and Norwegians basking in the late-night sunshine on their dreamy fjords.

The next step is that, gradually, we’ll see the rise of intra-European tourism. Even though the EU has called for the reopening of internal borders, travel within Europe is still not “back to normal.” As the countries within Europe open up to each other, we can expect plenty to change over time, especially in response to isolated outbreaks. Quarantine requirements may be in place, and testing negative for COVID-19 and downloading contact tracing apps may become a bigger part of the picture, as well.

Travel within Europe has already come a long way. Reading accounts of crossing European borders from just over a month ago feels like time-traveling back to the Middle Ages, when Europe was a patchwork of feisty, independent city-states, each with its own borders, arbitrary regulations, and paranoid diplomacy. The first step has been for countries to waive quarantine requirements for trusted other countries — creating “air bridges” and “corridor trains” between two places with existing ties and low infection rates, while avoiding riskier stops in between. For example, a “corona corridor” connects the Czech Republic and Croatia, so Czechs can more easily enjoy their favorite summer beach destination, and Croatians can recoup some much-needed income during their peak travel time. Britain and Portugal have discussed similar options.

Of course, the news on all of this is changing rapidly; Google the details for a country you’re interested in, or check out the “Re-Open EU” site, operated by the European Union.

One silver lining of the pandemic is that formerly tourist-clogged cities are reveling in the lack of crowds. There’s far less demand for major sights — and, for the first time in perhaps decades, that demand is mostly local. Europeans — especially in notoriously “overtouristed” cities like Amsterdam, Barcelona, and Venice — are breathing easier and reclaiming their own spaces. And yet, they’re also aware of the importance of tourism in the local economy. My sense is that they’re looking forward to welcoming back visitors, but in the meantime, they’re making the most of having the place to themselves.

…But Americans Will Wait Our Turn

When hearing about European travel restarting, keep in mind this very important caveat: For now, it’s just for Europeans and residents of those approved countries (including Canadians) — Americans should not expect to easily enter Europe anytime soon.

Why? Because, by any reasonable assessment, the United States has done a rotten job of containing COVID-19. While certain cities and states have risen to the occasion, our haphazard and inept national response, reluctance (or inability) to increase testing and contact tracing, and mystifying tendency to confuse “personal freedom” with “public health protection” have put us embarrassingly far behind the European curve:

(And, just to clarify, this difference is not because of “more testing.”)

Through the lockdown of March and April, I was in steady contact with friends and colleagues all over Europe. What struck me the most was the rigidity of their quarantine. Most of them literally didn’t leave their homes — never even went outside — except for occasional runs for groceries or medicine, maybe once every two weeks. In much of Europe, the wearing of masks was embraced much earlier — and more enthusiastically — than in the US. (It’s becoming ever clearer that wearing masks is an easy and impactful weapon in the virus-fighting arsenal. Even many former mask critics now agree on this.) And by May, it became apparent that the US reopening strategy would prioritize economic recovery over human life.

Among European countries, Sweden famously took a more hands-off (read: “American”) approach, and stands alone among European countries in its high infection rates and lower-than-hoped-for immunity rates. (For this reason, Sweden also joins the US in being pointedly excluded from re-opening agreements with neighboring countries.)

As lockdown eases on both sides of the Atlantic, it’s becoming unmistakably clear that the European approach was more effective at containing the pandemic, while the American approach has left us highly vulnerable to further outbreaks. Talk of a “second wave” in the US is optimistic; we’re still riding the crest of the first wave.

For these reasons, Americans should be prepared to be treated as “second-class citizens” by the rest of the developed world, who might ask us to wait a little longer before we’re welcome for a visit. Frankly, we’ve earned that status. The EU has announced plans to re-evaluate their list of approved countries every two weeks. But the USA has a long way to go to reach the EU standard.

How European Travel Will Be Affected

That said, the time will comeeventuallyfor Americans to head back to Europe. If we can get a handle on our uncontrolled virus spread, that may happen sooner; otherwise, it could take a while.

The first wave of Americans visiting Europe will, most likely, be hale-and-hearty independent travelers — either people who’ve already recovered from the virus, or those who are simply willing to assume the risk. I would guess that, initially, any American going to Europe will both be tested and be required to quarantine for 14 days. Two weeks takes a big bite out of a person’s vacation, so I imagine the first Americans on the Continent will be on long-term trips. (And Americans should also be prepared for quarantine and other requirements when returning to the US.)

And what will travelers find on the ground in Europe? They’ll find conditions that are similar to the policies dictating the US reopening. As European museums have begun to open, new guidelines are taking shape: Expect strict limits on how many visitors can enter at any one time, with staggered entrance windows. Temperature checks will be common. Also, expect social distancing and the wearing of masks to be enforced in museums and other indoor areas. Europeans aren’t the slightest bit interested in your “personal freedom,” and won’t be shy about barring entry for non-mask-wearers. Bring a supply of masks, carry one with you at all times, and expect to use it. (If that’s a deal-breaker, stay home.) As far as social distancing, while “six feet” is the standard requirement in much of the US, parts of Europe are currently waging a heated debate about whether one meter (just over three feet) is far enough.

For a sense of what things might look like, CNN recently reported on the reopening of Paris — offering a glimpse at the many ripples the coronavirus has sent through one city.

American travelers will also want to bring plenty of hand sanitizer and disposable wipes (or a bottle of disinfectant spray and paper towels). Disinfecting your hotel room will become, for cautious travelers, part of the standard checking-in ritual — not to mention wiping down your seat on a plane or train, and anywhere else that you’re settling in.

When traveling within Europe, don’t expect effortless Schengen-era “open borders.” With the pandemic, many long-gone border posts were hastily re-erected. Many of these have been tentatively re-opened, but they could slam shut at the slightest hint of an outbreak. Travelers in the age of coronavirus will need to remain more flexible than ever, and keep a close eye on local news for late-breaking changes.

Organized tourism — including bus tours — will need to wait its turn. An independent traveler is better able to control their own environment: choosing to settle in for a longer period in a space that they can personally disinfect; buying groceries and cooking for themselves or picnicking to avoid potential virus exposure in restaurants; renting their own car to move around in a safe “bubble”; and so on. A cautious independent traveler could enjoy some — if not all — aspects of Europe with some confidence.

But bus tours require a large group of travelers being together: together on the bus; together for at least some meals; all staying in the same hotel and having breakfast in the same breakfast room; and even doing much of their organized sightseeing as a group. While a few impatient tour companies may try to rush back into the market, Rick Steves’ Europe Tours is determined to wait until we’re confident that the infrastructure for tourism is reliably back up and running. We expect lots of false starts and disappointing cancellations before things are humming along smoothly…and we’d rather wait for those kinks to get out of the system before we take chances with the travel dreams of our tour members. In fact, the same day the EU announced their travel ban, we cancelled all of our remaining 2020 tours. We’re hopeful to resume our tour program in 2021.

Of course, the game-changing variable in all of this is a vaccine. Experts are divided on how quickly a safe and effective vaccine may be developed, or whether it’s even possible. If and when a vaccine becomes widely available, I expect an immediate and huge rebound in all kinds of tourism to Europe. In other frightening times (for example, post-9/11), the pent-up desire for travel never went away — and, in fact, it seemed to build the longer people stayed home. While some travelers face financial difficulties that may prevent them from going back to Europe right away, those who have the means will make up for lost time.

The Future of Travel

I’ve heard it said that travel will “never be the same” after the coronavirus. That’s true: In the wake of COVID-19, the world, and travel, will emerge as something different. But that’s OK. We will adjust. And we may find that the new reality has advantages over the old one.

In the weeks after 9/11, hunkered-down Americans wondered if we’d ever travel in Europe the same way again. (I remember that panicked morning in Rick Steves’ Europe Travel Center — standing by to answer phones that never rang — and wondering whether planes would even fly again.)

Sure enough, things were different. Airport security on both sides of the Atlantic became more stringent forever. The world rallied around Americans, who enjoyed a particularly warm welcome wherever they went. And for several years, many travelers were in a heightened state of anxiety, imagining a terrorist bomb hidden on every plane or bus. And yet, we persevered. As we adapted to “our new reality,” we went on to forge travel memories as beautiful as anything that came before 9/11. We may still grumble about taking off our shoes in the TSA line. But we’ve gotten used to it…it hasn’t “ruined” travel.

Humans are remarkably resilient creatures. We adapt to whatever we encounter. Sometimes change is sudden and dramatic (such as 9/11 or COVID-19). And sometimes it’s so gradual we barely notice until it’s already happened (such as the rise of “overtourism” that peaked just before the coronavirus arrived). But good travelers always figure out how to make the most of current circumstances.

Going forward, small behaviors will be different, maybe forever: Travelers will carry little bottles of hand sanitizers, masks, and instant-read thermometers tucked into their day packs. Prebooking tickets for the great sights will be more important than ever — not so much because of crowds, but because of limits on how many people can go inside at one time. And we may never quite go back to greeting new friends with vigorous handshakes or European cheek kisses.

And there will also be more sweeping, philosophical changes. My hunch is that, having survived an acute global crisis, we may begin paying more attention to a slow-motion one: Traveling in a way that’s environmentally responsible and sustainable will become more important than ever.

I also suspect that the age of “overtourism” — and of superficial, Instagram-driven, bucket-list travel — has come to an end. Our civilization briefly arrived at a point where, for a few hundred dollars, we could step onto a plane and step out anywhere on earth. Travel was easy — effortless, even — which was a boon for those of us who love to experience our world. But maybe it was too easy. And perhaps we took it for granted.

When people venture out once again, I suspect, it won’t be to collect staged-and-artificial impressions of Europe, but to connect with it more deeply. I hope that one silver lining of the pandemic is that it inspires us to pursue a more thoughtful, more mindful type of travel: Visit fewer places. Linger longer. Pause to savor a sunset or the sound of church bells. Notice and appreciate the little joys of life in another country, instead of just ticking off items on a to-do list. Skip the museum to people-watch at the market. Really get to know Europeans on a personal level. Marvel at the wonders of Europe, and fully appreciate the privilege of being able to experience them in person again.

But in the meantime, look out for yourselves and your loved ones. Socially distance and wear a mask. Wash your hands and don’t touch your face. Elect trustworthy leaders, then trust them; failing that, listen to scientists and experts, and follow their advice. Do what it takes to earn the right to head back to Europe and be reunited with dear friends and favorite places.

I, for one, can’t wait.

Unwanted Statues? A Modest Proposal, from Hungary

Across the United States, statues of Confederate figures are finally being removed from public spaces. Considering that these statues embody a shameful heritage of racism — and the majority of Americans want them gone — taking them down would seem pretty open-and-shut, not to mention long overdue. (And I, for one, would be happy to relocate all of them to the bottom of a river.) But opponents claim to be worried about one issue in particular: “Those statues represent our history. If we remove them, we run the risk of forgetting an important chapter of our past.”

Assuming that this concern is genuine, I have some great news: Hungary came up with a solution for this problem decades ago.

When European communism fell in the autumn of 1989, the people of Central and Eastern Europe turned their attention to the unwanted statues that had loomed over their lives for generations. Marx, Engels, and Lenin preached the gospel of the proletariat by the bus stop, stoic stone soldiers kept the peace over busy intersections, noble and anonymous workers stood proudly at the gates of factories, and cheery red stars and hammers-and-sickles adorned buildings all over. Each one of those symbols was a dagger in the heart of freedom-loving citizens.

The Eastern Europeans did not wait long to remove those statues; most were torn down within weeks, or even days, and tossed onto the trash heap of history. And I can promise you: More than 30 years later, nobody is in danger of “forgetting” the dark days of communism.

In Budapest, however, they took a slightly different approach. Some entrepreneur gathered some the city’s rejected statuary to display in a big field on the outskirts of town. And today Memento Park still welcomes visitors.

I’ve been to Memento Park several times since 1999. (I even wrote up a self-guided tour of the statues in our Rick Steves Budapest guidebook.) And each visit is a surreal experience.

The valiant Red Army soldier charges boldly toward…nowhere in particular. Vladimir Lenin and Béla Kun energetically preach their socialist ideology to each other. And the happy children of the Young Pioneers remain so very proud to embody the false optimism of a worldview that has long since expired.

While it’s possible that a few nostalgic old-timers come here to get misty-eyed about the “good old days” of communism, it’s clear to me that the vast majority of visitors are here to ogle these monstrosities, to learn about the era they represent…and to take a “victory lap” around the now-pitiful remains of a failed empire. For those seeking historical context, archival photographs show the statues in situ. Because, obviously, you don’t need to keep a symbol of oppression in a prominent place just to ensure that it’s remembered.

In Sofia, the field behind the Museum of Socialist Art hosts a similar gathering of statuary. Here, too, the towering monuments offer a taste of what it would have been like to live in the People’s Republic of Bulgaria. But the nice thing is that, whenever you’re ready, you can leave the museum and never think about it again.

I still vote for entirely removing symbols of hatred and oppression. But perhaps sequestering a few in a museum would be a suitable compromise. And I must admit, some small part of me is glad that a representative sampling of communist statuary still exists, tucked away from public view. With proper context, Memento Park is a fascinating place to learn about a bygone era. But the best part is that the many people who associate these figures with trauma never have to see them…unless they want to come and thumb their nose at a vanquished foe.

Travel Memories on My Shelf: Knickknacks from 20 Years in Europe

I’ve been staring at my bookcase recently — taunted by the top shelf of knickknacks and mementos from half a lifetime of exploring Europe. It’s quite the hodgepodge. I’m not much of a shopper, and I go entire trips without buying a single souvenir. But sometimes a special item just catches my eyeusually one of those quirky little cultural footnotes that get overlooked by blitz tourists.

Around the time our world went into lockdown, I reached my 20-year mark of working at Rick Steves’ Europe…two decades as a professional traveler. But it looks like I won’t be going anywhere, anytime soon. So, instead of getting depressed, I’ve decided to use all of those European artifacts to do a little armchair travel — reliving some of my most memorable trips. If you’re stuck at home too, join me on this little “knickknack shelf” tour of Europe.

Shirtless Vladimir Putin Riding a Bear Across a Map of Russia

Clearly, this is the star of the show (and, along with the final item on this list, among my most prized possessions). It also sets the tongue-in-cheek tone for much of my collection. Some items are sentimental, but most skew to the weird. I love the way this figure pushes Putin parody to the Nth degree: It begins with the famous photo of manly Putin riding a horse, plops him on a Russian bear, and then — for good measure — positions him striding across a map of Russia. It’s also the single best conversation-starter in my office: The first time a visitor scans my shelf, their gaze is stopped in its tracks by this knickknack, which instantly becomes the only thing they want to talk about. A few years back, I saw this online and knew I had to have it; my wife managed to order me one from Russia for my birthday. What a wife! What a birthday!

Pelota Ball from Basque Country

Every little Basque town and village has a pelota court, where locals play the traditional pastime, similar to jai alai. I appreciate how this ball is even embossed with the words “Pays Basque” in that distinctive Basque script. To me, it represents those beautifully quirky cross-border regions that make Europe so richly rewarding.

Mystery Flag

I love to quiz my well-traveled colleagues when they drop by my office: What does this flag represent? The obvious first guess is Norway…but what about the yellow trim? Nope, this is the flag of Orkney, the remote archipelago off the north coast of Scotland. The one-hour ferry crossing to Orkney brings you to a very different landscape than the rugged Highlands you left behind, and a different cultural flavor — this part of the British Isles really does feel more Scandinavian, thanks to the influence of passing Norsemen way back when. This flag reminds me that those distant fringes of Europe can be the most rewarding to explore.

Bottle of Cockta

I love the idea of this Yugoslav-era Coca-Cola knock-off more than I actually like its taste. The children of Yugoslavia (where real Coke was a rare luxury item) grew up on this stuff. To me, as a child of Reagan-era America, it tastes like Coke that’s gone bad. But because it’s “the taste of your youth” (as the slogan goes), nostalgic middle-aged Slovenes and Croats and Bosniaks still love the stuff. On my first-ever Rick Steves’ Europe tour — assistant-guiding our inaugural Best of Eastern Europe route — our Slovenian bus driver stocked the on-board fridge with bottles of Cockta, then couldn’t figure out why none of his (American) passengers wanted to buy any.  (I’d watch them file on the bus and ask, “Do you have any Coke?” And he’d just shake his head and shrug, with growing impatience. Why do they need Coke? This is Cockta!) This bottle reminds me that there’s no accounting for taste.

Slate from a Welsh Mine

I watched a miner hand-split this shingle of slate at the Blaenau Ffestiniog mine in North Wales. It’s a reminder that in addition to great art, great food, and great culture, Europe also has some fascinating industrial sights.

“Pooping Catalan Villager” for a Manger Scene

A few years ago, I heard about a unique tradition in Catalunya: Their manger scenes include a villager taking a dump, tucked in among the donkeys and oxen and wise men and whatnot. This character is called — wait for it — “The Pooper” (caganer). But this bit of cheeky, scatological humor comes with a theological point: It’s a reminder that the story of the babe in a manger is one of divinity mingling with real-world grit and grime…it’s not just a gag, but a commentary on how God chose to enter our world. In this highly agricultural region, the figure also represents the “fertilization” of the Nativity…making the world ready for God’s incarnation to take root on earth.

That’s all well and good. But I will also admit that I simply enjoy displaying a pooping dude that also has redeeming cultural value. (And, yes, my shelf also has a tiny pewter replica of Brussels’ Manneken-Pis. Because, deep down, I am a 12-year-old boy.)

Chewits Candy

When traveling in the UK, I get a kick out of seeing my name — almost — at every candy stand. (Get it? C. Hewitt…Chewits.) I keep this on my shelf to remind me to always be sweet to my co-workers.

Wooden Model of a Slovenian Hayrack

When I wrote the first edition of our Rick Steves Croatia & Slovenia guidebook, my editor thought it bizarre that I would wax poetic about a roofed hayrack. “Why such a fuss about a farm implement?” But anyone who’s spent time in Slovenia understands why these structures are so iconic: They are uniquely Slovenian, and they are absolutely everywhere. I have several of these little wooden re-creations of hayracks, scattered around my house, and this one injects a little more Slovenia into my office.

“Golden Pen” Prize

In 2009, I worked with Rick and our TV crew to write and produce an episode of our public television series about Croatia. The Croatian Tourist Board honored the show with their “Golden Pen” award, which we were flattered to accept. I’m honestly not sure whether Rick knows that I kept this trophy, but if he’s reading this and wants to reclaim it, he knows where to find it.

Hórreo from Galicia

In college, I did a semester abroad in Spain. Our professor took us on a multi-day field trip to Galicia, the green and gorgeous area in the northwest corner of Iberia. Up in that rocky landscape, locals build rustic stone igloos — called hórreos — for protection against the elements. To help us identify them, my professor would call them out as we rolled down the highway: “There’s one again! Hórrrelllo! Hórrrrrellllllooo! Hórrrre-órrrre-órrrre-llllllllloooooo! ” Many years later, I traveled back to Galicia to research and write a new chapter for our Rick Steves Spain guidebook — and I could not resist buying this as a souvenir of both trips. Every time I see this little stone hut, I think of that formative first study-abroad experience.

Eastern Europe Slide Carousel

When I started working at Rick Steves’ Europe in 2000, I was just about the only person in the office who had traveled a fair bit in Eastern Europe…and certainly the only one who would admit to enjoying it. So, essentially by default, I was deputized to present a slideshow lecture on the region, as a part of our free travel classes (which are still going on, virtually). And I’ve been doing a version of that talk ever since. Many years ago, I replaced this old Kodak carousel with a new, digital PowerPoint. But this vintage black-and-yellow box survives as a poignant reminder of how far I, Eastern Europe, and technology have all come in the last 20 years.

Pewter Vasa

I appreciate this tiny pewter model of the good ship Vasa — which sunk to the bottom of Stockholm harbor on her maiden voyage in 1628 — for two reasons. First, the Vasa Museum in Stockholm —  where they’ve restored the entire ship, bow to stern — is one of my favorite museums in Scandinavia (and that’s saying something). And second, it reminds me of one of my favorite pearls of Rick Steves wisdom: “For the cost of a pewter Viking ship in Oslo, you can buy an actual boat in Turkey.”

Hugging Solidarity Salt-and-Pepper Shakers

Since my first visit in 2005, I have been a passionate advocate for the northern Polish Baltic port city of Gdańsk — home of Lech Wałęsa and birthplace of the Solidarity movement that toppled European communism. Anyone who loves history and/or beautiful cities is happy as a clam in Gdańsk. A few years back, Rick traveled to Gdańsk (with a healthy dose of skepticism)…and quickly became a convert. This sentimental “I love Solidarity” salt-and-pepper set was his thank-you gift to me for nudging him to a place that he found just as fascinating as I do. (Rick and I were planning to travel to Gdańsk in 2020 to film a new TV show there. Those plans are postponed…but we’ll get there eventually.)

Orthodox Icons

I’m fascinated and entranced by the Eastern Orthodox faith, and I have two icons displayed in my office. The little diptych came home with me after a trip to Greece — I think I bought it in Corfu. I appreciate its packability…very handy for travel. And up on my wall is a bigger, hand-painted Bulgarian icon of Cyril and Method — those early Christian missionaries who first translated the Bible into the language of the Slavs (and in the process, created what became the basis for the Cyrillic alphabet). I bought this one from the artist who painted it, Rashko Bonev, in Veliko Tarnovo. (You can see him at work in this clip.)

Drinking Pitcher for the Healing Waters of Karlovy Vary

Spa towns compel people to do very strange things. And Karlovy Vary (a.k.a. Carlsbad), in the Czech Republic, is no exception. Shops sell these distinctive little pitchers, which are used to drink the local “healing” waters — tepid and infused with minerals. All over town, you see arthritic Germans and Austrians filling up these tiny pitchers from free-flowing taps, then sucking on them like miniature hookahs. I decided I could not have the true Karlovy Vary experience without investing in one for myself. (Unfortunately, the water tasted exactly the same.)

Chunk of the Berlin Wall

Inside this sealed jar is a real piece of the real Berlin Wall, which was a beautiful gift to me about 20 years ago. When I started working at Rick Steves’ Europe, Rick put me in charge of re-starting his treasured tradition of the “World Travelers Slide Club” — where avid travelers would gather on a Sunday night to take turns showing each other slideshows. One couple who attended religiously recognized my passion for Europe’s communist period. They had a few chunks they’d carved off the Berlin Wall, and I think they knew I’d give this one a good home. Over the course of other trips to Berlin, I also picked up a matchbox Trabant (the classic East German car) and an armband for the DDR secret police…creating a little tableau of East Germany.

Shingle from a Maramureș Wooden Roof

When I joined Rick to film a TV show in Romania a few years ago, I was determined to take our crew to the remote, rustic region of Maramureș — where woodworking is still as vital as computer programming is in most societies today. We went to a woodworking shop where I grabbed this shingle off of the discard pile as a memento. I also picked up a funny little straw hat, traditionally worn by local men. These remind me of the rich folk culture that still survives in Europe’s remotest corners.

Paper Model of Hotel Kranenturm by Herr Jung

So many members of the Rick Steves’ Europe extended family — from guides to tour members — were touched by the beautiful soul of the German schoolteacher Herr Jung, who for decades led tours around his little Rhine town of Bacharach. Herr Jung passed away recently, but his legacy looms large in the halls of our office. One of Herr Jung’s many hobbies was making paper models of buildings around his hometown. Many years ago, when he came to Edmonds for a visit, he gifted us with this model of the Hotel Kranenturm (another Rick Steves mainstay for decades). It made its way around the building until eventually the last person who owned it realized they didn’t have a good space for it. So they sent around an email saying, basically, “If nobody claims this, I’m afraid it’s going in the trash.” I immediately ran down and rescued the Kranenturm, and now it sits on top of my bookcase. Especially now that Herr Jung is gone, I like to think I’m preserving some small part of the sprightly spirit he so generously shared with many Rick Steves travelers over the years.

And speaking of kind souls who’ve touched many, I’ve saved the best item for last…

Autographed Photo of Mister Rogers

I work for a public television icon, but I grew up watching a different one. Recently, I was going through some old childhood papers — elementary school report cards, handmade Mother’s Day cards, and so on — when I came across this photograph of Fred “Mister” Rogers, signed (presumably) by his own hand. My Mom explained that I’d written to him as a child and he’d sent back this photo…but I never got an answer as to why it’s been buried in a manila folder in our attic for the last 30 years. I’ve now framed it, and it’s the highest thing on my shelf — reminding me that everyone is special and deserving of being treated with respect. You still can’t beat that Mister Rogers wisdom.

If you’re a frustrated would-be traveler, try this at home: Glance around and notice all of those little things you picked up in your travels, and have since become the wallpaper of your life. Look at them with new eyes and let them spark some memories. For now, that’ll have to do.

What’s your favorite offbeat souvenir from Europe? Which knickknacks and mementos fill you with happy memories that keep you going through this challenging time?

Keep Calm and Carry On: Notes from the Coronavirus Blitz

Stuck in my house except for very cautious walks outside, feeling the lurking presence of invisible death around every turn…I’ve been thinking a lot about the Blitz.

As a lifelong European traveler (and history buff),  I can’t help but see things through that lens. And with the coronavirus lockdown tightening and everyone being encouraged to sacrifice for the greater good, it’s impossible for me not to imagine London, circa 1940.

From September of 1940 through May of 1941, London (and other English cities) lived under constant fear of aerial bombardment by the Nazi Luftwaffe. Being jolted awake by air-raid sirens in the dead of night to scurry for cover became routine. During one especially harrowing period, bombs fell daily for 11 straight weeks. More than 150,000 people slept each night in the tunnels of the Underground, trying to get comfortable on Tube tracks and platforms. The Blitz impacted everyone indiscriminately: young and old, rich and poor. By the end of it, one-third of London lay in ruins, and more than 40,000 citizens had been killed.

Like the Blitz, the current coronavirus onslaught is a battle of patience and persistence. Hitler and Göring eventually figured out that their relentless (and costly) bombardment was not going to bring about the quick surrender that they sought. Quite the contrary: Britain rose to the occasion.  (In fact, British manufacturing increased.) After eight months, the Nazi war machine gave up on the Blitz and redirected their resources into the invasion of the USSR.

In our Blitz, we, too, are determined not to let the coronavirus beat us. The way we do that is by social distancing and generally keeping apart from each other. And, yes, we’ll all have to sacrifice. But over time — nobody knows quite how long — the coronavirus will be held at bay and begin to fade, until reinforcements arrive…not the Yanks, but vaccines and treatments. (That’s the hope, anyway.)

We live in frightening times. But I’m deeply heartened by the determination I’m seeing among my fellow citizens. We stand united in refusing to let the coronavirus change who we are, even as it changes virtually every aspect of our daily lives. In my world, I’m struck by how everyone is reaching out to each other, reaffirming their sense of community. Parents have more time to be with their kids. Colleagues, now working from home, are jury-rigging ways to have water-cooler conversations and virtual “drinks after work.” Our tour guides and other European friends are comparing notes about what’s happening across the Pond. We are all in this together.

Around the time of the Blitz, UK government designers came up with a peppy slogan: Keep Calm and Carry On — big white letters cast matter-of-factly against a bright red background, under the royal crown.  (Strangely, although millions of these posters were printed, very few entered circulation — until decades later, when the design was re-discovered and popularized.)

This message — representing the British ideals of pluck, resolve, and stick-to-itiveness — has been a great inspiration to me, especially in my travels, where things are guaranteed to go sideways from time to time. In fact, I’ve adopted “Keep Calm and Carry On” as my personal travel motto. For years, I’ve had a tea towel with that phrase pinned to my office wall.

Last week, I experienced one of the saddest moments in my 20 years at Rick Steves’ Europe: On the last day our building was open — long after almost everyone had begun working from home — I made one last trip to my office to pack up anything I might need for the next several weeks. Of the many decorations that clutter my walls and bookshelves, the only thing I brought home was that tea towel. It’s currently taped up inside the front window of my home. (My neighbors have voiced their enthusiastic support.)

We need that message now more than ever. Like the battle-hardened Brits in the fall of 1940, we stand upon the precipice of something that will challenge us to the core. There will be countless disruptions to our lives. There will be sacrifices, big and small. The heroes in the medical field will fight on the front lines, while we cheer them on from the self-isolation of our couches. Instead of scrap metal drives, we’re collecting respirators and hospital gowns to support our troops. Through it all, everyone seems to recognize that if we come together and remind each other of what’s at stake, we will get through this.

This is how we beat COVID-19: By changing our lives to “flatten the curve” and slow down its spread — and by being true to who we are and finding strength in our connections. There is life (and there is travel) after the coronavirus. And we’ll get there if we can keep calm and carry on.

For travelers, that means doing the hardest thing imaginable: Staying home. But we can carry on with our travel dreaming. Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve been touched by members of our traveling community reaching out and reminding each other about the big, beautiful world out there: Sharing memories of treasured trips. Venting about the dream vacation they had to put on hold. And making plans for the next trip they’ll take, once this is all behind us.

So…where are you going on your next trip?