I’m sitting at a kebab shop, detoxing from several consecutive pasta dinners, when three college-age American travelers plop down at the next table.
The earnest, bespectacled one pulls out his dogeared Rick Steves Italy guidebook and begins reading passages aloud to his travel partners. They roll their eyes, but humor him.
Hiding behind my kebab, I’m getting a huge kick out of this scene. First of all, I can totally relate. On my first big trip to Europe 16 years ago, I was the one reading Rick’s words aloud to my friends, driving them nuts, making them wish it would stop…if only it weren’t so helpful. And I’m loving the opportunity to eavesdrop on our readers in situ. Call it “market research.” Rick’s too famous for this trick, but my anonymity allows me to go incognito.
“You know, guys, we joke around about Rick,” he says. (Though I’m guessing that the joking is mostly across the table.) “But you gotta admit, this book is really useful.”
His friends, barely acknowledging the statement, go back to their side conversation, while Poindexter keeps flipping pages.
“Whoah! Check it out, guys,” he says, eager to get in some licks of his own. “There’s a nightlife section!” This elicits more rolled eyes about the notion that a guy famous for money belts and PBS pledge drives would have the nerve to write about nightlife. “Do you suppose that every so often, ol’ Rick throws on a pair of jeans to go clubbing?”
At this point convulsing with silent laughter — making it hard to remain anonymous — I try to tune out the conversation. But I can’t stop listening.
“Wait, maybe he doesn’t do that part himself. Let’s see who his helpers are.” He turns to the “Credits” page in the back of the book, with pictures of a half-dozen guidebook researchers…including me. Three feet away, I flash a little grin just in case he glances over.
“Uh, guys? I have some bad news…” I can see his gears working, as he crafts a perfect joke about how everyone working on this book is a huge dork. I steel myself for what’s coming next.
But then his voice trails off, as he surveys the faces who make Rick’s Italy book possible: Ben, an American thirtysomething who fell in love with Rome (and one of its women) and now divides his time between Italy and Edmonds. Virginia, who moved from Abruzzo to Seattle, earned her Ph.D., and now leads Rick Steves tours back in her native Italy. Trish, a can-do Southern California gal, foodie, blogger, and tour guide. Travel nerds? Maybe. But more important, they’re all brilliant, fun, vivacious people, with a passion for Italy, and for sharing it with travelers.
The joke never comes. I release the breath I’ve been subconsciously holding. We made the cut. Apparently our crew of researchers is just cool enough for this Millennial to let slide. The Rick Steves guidebook street cred is safe for another generation.
Either that, or he finally recognized my photo and didn’t have the heart to mock me to my face. Good call, kid. Maybe someday, you’ll be the one overhearing this conversation from the next table.