I'm sharing my travel experiences, candid opinions and what's on my mind. If you think it's inappropriate for a travel writer to stir up discussion on his blog with political observations and insights gained from traveling abroad, you may not want to read any further. — Rick

Learning the Joy of Giving in Morocco’s High Atlas Mountains

I just received a Christmas greeting from my friend George Gorayeb, who always surprises me with the thoughtful way he teaches through his travels. George shared a delightful and inspiring story, which I wanted to pass along to you. 

These are the experiences we gather from our travels that make our lives glitter for the rest of our days. And when we share them, there is more light in our world. George’s story, so gracefully told, added a delightful dimension to the idea of gift-giving, so timely during this holiday season: 

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Hello Rick, 

In this season of gift giving, I would like to share a personal story about the humblest yet most-appreciated gift that I have ever given to anyone. 

Back in the spring of 1972, I was blessed to be serving as a Peace Corps volunteer, high school English teacher in Marrakesh, Morocco, in North Africa. One day, a half dozen of us volunteers went hiking in the foothills of the High Atlas Mountains. This scenic mountain range separates the city of Marrakesh from the northern edge of the Sahara Desert. For half of the year, these mountain peaks are covered in snow because of their very high elevation. 

After hiking for several hours one morning, we came upon a young Moroccan boy named Mohammed, about ten years old, tending to his flock of sheep on a mountainside. He was shocked that this group of young Americans could speak to him in Moroccan Arabic. 

After we talked for a while, this little kid insisted that we follow him and his sheep home so we could all meet his family in the nearby village. We followed him. His house was a very modest structure made of mud walls. His family was delighted to welcome us into their home. They served us Moroccan mint tea and biscuits. Then they insisted that we stay for a traditional and delicious Moroccan lunch. 

This was a very humble family who lived from the food they raised themselves in this remote mountain village. They told us that they had never met any Americans before, and they were honored to host us. We realized that they had only a few chickens, and the mother was preparing a chicken tajine for us. A tajine is a delicious stew served in a big brown ceramic platter with a big cone top. 

We all felt guilty because we knew this family lived a very spartan life. They only ate chicken on special religious holidays. But we also knew how extremely important it is to show generous hospitality towards your guests in Arab and Muslim culture. So, they insisted that they serve us the most elaborate meal that they could. And we knew that we could not refuse their extraordinary graciousness, no matter how poor they were. 

During the lunch, one of the girls in our group asked little Mohammed if his bare feet didn’t get very cold in the winter months as he walked the mountainside in just flip flops. He said yes, but he had no socks. I spontaneously realized that I had to give this kid my socks. I was embarrassed because we had crossed a stream that morning, and my shoes got wet. My socks were still damp, and the one on my right foot had a big hole where my big toe was. 

But as Mohammed watched me take my socks off and hand them to him, his contagious smile just exploded with joy. You would have thought I was handing him the keys to a brand-new convertible. 

I learned a valuable lesson that day. This — a pair of tattered old socks — was the most humble and basic gift that I have ever given anyone. But this little kid appreciated this simple gift so much, it shocked me. He could not thank me enough when he hugged me to say goodbye that day. My bare feet in my wet shoes were really cold for the rest of that day, but it still gave me a great feeling. 

Have a joyous Christmas season! 

George Gorayeb

The Edmonds Theater — An Extra-Large Bag of Small-Town Memories

Since I was a kid, The Edmonds Theater has been part of what made Main Street the main street in my hometown. In Edmonds, it’s the ferry dock, the theater, and the fountain. If I was writing the town up in a guidebook, the chapter would be short…and the town would be a “must-see.”

The theater is filled with memories, from when first Mr. Kniest and then Jacques Mayo — community leaders who ran the theater, it seemed, more to give our town character and charm rather than to make money — would lovingly introduce the featured film in person. I remember the anxious thrill in the old days of knowing that my school buddy had to have the second reel all cued up and then scout for the little “doughnut” to show in the lower corner of the image, indicating one reel is finished and the other needs to roll.

I remember thinking (as if in Animal House), “This is really great,” while helping hoist up the new, state-of-the-art, curved screen — back before the age of giant multiplex movie palaces at the mall. Those were days when, if you knew who was working, you could sneak into the “closed” balcony, which was strewn with beat-up old sofas and delightfully dark. It was big news when the cushier seats replaced what felt like WWII-vintage ones. But thankfully the new comfort didn’t blot out the Mayberry charm.

When I was just starting my business, I’d rent the theater for my all-day Saturday travel lectures. I’d set up a stepladder in the middle of the seats, balance the old projector high, and run my hard-wired “clicker” under the seats to the stage, feeling quite high-tech to be able to advance the slides from that distance. Later, as my company grew, we continued to rent out the theater for an all-day series of “travel festival” classes — filling the place each hour, and then instructing everyone to exit out the alley door so those waiting in the lobby could refill the place quickly for the next presentation. For decades, I’d joke, “The bathrooms are upstairs…they offer a sneak preview of Italy.” As promised, we’d always clear out before the evening’s first movie.

And today, the Edmonds Theater remains the place I favor for enjoying a new movie. Sure, there are fancier places out at the mall. But to buy your ticket from someone who knows your name and to see a movie in a classic old theater on a classic old Main Street with a soft drink and a big bag of popcorn — a moviegoing ritual for 40 years and counting — that’s something to treasure…and to be thankful for.

Like so many beloved businesses, COVID-19 has landed our theater on hard times. These are the small businesses — the labors of love, the moms-and-pops, the plucky entrepreneurial ventures — that give our communities character. This pandemic will take a lot of lives before it’s history. And it threatens to take a lot of the personality out of our towns, too. In that case, the life-saving ventilator is our patronage. If we value these businesses, let’s do what we can to be sure they survive.

And when our theater reopens, I’ll see you there.

This post originally appeared in the Everett Herald.

Honoring One Woman’s Love of Travel

I recently received an envelope filled with 255 euros and an inspirational letter from a Rick Steves traveler who lost his wife to breast cancer — and wanted me to have their piggy bank for future trips. This is a vivid example of the many heartwarming notes we receive from the wonderful people we get to travel with through our work, and I thought you might enjoy reading it. (To keep it anonymous, I’m using pseudonyms.)

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Hello Rick!

So, you might be thinking, “Why in the world am I holding this letter and an envelope filled with euros?”

Well…as a family, my wife Nancy, our daughter Aggie, and I enjoyed wondrous ventures on 6 Rick Steves tours between 2005 – 2010! We had a fun tradition of tucking a few euros aside with the promise that they would lead to our next tour! Over those years, we had some relatives who always laughed at our budgeting wisdom of splurging on so many trips while our daughter was still in school. They thought us crazy! They always said, “Save it for retirement, and for your daughter’s college fund.”

It all worked out just fine. You make priorities, and you see them through. We loved our Europe adventures together, and we got our daughter through 8 years of college and grad school, as well.

In late 2018, Nancy died after a battle with breast cancer. If we had waited for retirement…these priceless experiences shared and family time together would NEVER have happened! While I still have the travel lust and watch your shows religiously, without my travel partner, Nancy, and with the years going by, we don’t have plans to return to Europe. But we really like the idea of somehow seeing these leftover euros in our future trip kitty return and be enjoyed. So, we are happy to send them to you.

I am confident you will be returning to Europe in 2021, and the thought that we bought you a drink in a Paris cafe, or a Greek taverna, or a floodlit square in Rome really gives me a smile! This is just a small gift for the great memories and images with Nancy that I’ll enjoy for the rest of my days. Yes, I know I could have simply exchanged the euros through my bank… and why send the cash through the mail…but what fun is that? Thanks for the memories Rick, enjoy this little gift, and happy travels to you.

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I’m so inspired by this touching gift from Nancy’s family. And here’s how I’ll put that envelope of 255 euros to good use: When in Switzerland, one of my favorite things to do is to visit the youth hostel in Gimmelwald, my favorite alpine village, and buy all the backpackers a beer. When I return to Gimmelwald in 2021 (God willing!), I will buy beer for every one of those young travelers until those 255 euros is gone. And with each round, we’ll drink to Nancy and her family, knowing she is smiling down on us from an even more wonderful high-altitude perch.

2021: A Time to Dream

This has been a rough year. For many of us, it’s been the most challenging of our entire lives. But this morning, we finally got news of a brighter future. Joe Biden and Kamala Harris are moving into the White House.

It’s been a hard-fought, and unprecedentedly ugly, campaign season. But I have supported Joe and Kamala because I am inspired by their persistence in keeping a hopeful eye to the future, with a realistic and patient view of the present.

Rick Steves’ Europe has a full slate of European tours all locked, loaded, and ready to book for 2021. But we’re holding off on taking sign-ups…because, like the president-elect (and unlike the president-unelect), we recognize that we’re not yet out of the woods of this pandemic. Anyone who knows me can tell you that I am not a patient person. But, like so many other things in 2020, being patient is something I am discovering for the first time…and I find that patience feels right.

COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations, and deaths are going up across the USA. And they’re going up across Europe, too. Europe is responding thoughtfully, with tightening restrictions and strong public messaging. America’s response has — so far — been no response at all…or flat out denial. If we want to get traveling in 2021, we have to hunker down and be safe over the next few months. Obviously, we all want our economy to be open and to thrive. Artful, smart, and temporary degrees of “shut down” may well be our best path to that open and thriving economy. Our soon-to-be-former president has made no indication of understanding that. But our next president certainly does. And that’s just one of many reasons I’m happy with the results of this election. And why, if you’re hoping to go to Europe any time soon, you should be, too.

One more note: I am sure many of you disagree with my politics — and I may disagree with yours. But, if you follow me on Facebook, I assume we are united by a love of travel. If you feel I’ve abused my “bully pulpit” the last month or so, I hope you’ll understand it’s because I love this country and desperately want to see us back on an equal footing with the rest of our planet. Every election, I have a strong preference of candidate — though normally I respect the other guy. (And, it must be noted, it’s always been a guy.) But this year, it was personal. I felt that supporting the Biden/Harris ticket was a nonpartisan act of patriotism. It was for the resilient (yet, as we’ve learned, not indestructible) ideals of what America stands for — ideals that inspire lovers of freedom and democracy and justice throughout the rest of the world.

While millions more voted for Biden, about 48% of our country did vote for Trump. One of my many dreams for 2021 is that the GOP can be reclaimed from the hateful, chaotic fringe of the Trump movement and restore respect and civility to our national discourse. Even as a proud Democrat, I have always respected Republicans. (And, as I recently confessed, I even voted for Ronald Reagan in 1980.) I have many Republican friends who I consider good people, admirable patriots, and great travelers. We’ve always found plenty of common ground, even if we agree to disagree on the issues. And I’m hopeful that the Biden Administration will be a time of national reconciliation — an opportunity to recognize that far more unites us than divides us. That’s especially important during a crisis.

And so, congratulations to Joe and Kamala! Now…get to work. Keep us safe. Spearhead the building of a sustainable and just economy. Make us proud. With your leadership, America’s gonna keep on travelin’!

Daily Dose of Europe: Monet’s “Water Lilies”

Monet’s “Water Lilies” float serenely in two pond-shaped rooms in a Paris museum. Painted on eight mammoth curved panels, they immerse you in Monet’s world. It’s like taking a stroll in the gardens at Monet’s home at Giverny, enjoying his tranquil pond dotted with colorful water lilies.

Even though we’re not visiting Europe right now, I believe a daily dose of travel dreaming can be good medicine. And for me, one of the great joys of travel is having in-person encounters with great art — which I’ve collected in a book called “Europe’s Top 100 Masterpieces.” Here’s one of my favorites.

Monet shows the pond at different times of day. Panning slowly around the museum’s hall, you can watch the scene turn from predawn darkness to clear morning light to lavender late afternoon to the glorious golden sunset.

Get close to see how Monet worked. Each lily is a tangled Impressionist smudge composed of several different-colored brushstrokes: green, red, white, lavender, blue. Only when you back up do the colors resolve into a single “pink” flower on a “green” lily pad. Monet wanted the vibrant colors to keep firing your synapses.

Now step farther back to take in the whole picture. Only then do you see that the true subject is not really the famous water lilies but the changing reflections on the pond’s surface. The lilies float among sun-kissed clouds and blue sky reflected in the water. It’s the intermingling of the classical elements — earth (the lilies), air (the sky), fire (sunlight), and water — the primordial soup of life.

The canvases at the Orangerie Museum are snapshots of Monet’s garden. In 1883, middle-aged Monet, along with his wife and eight kids, settled into a farmhouse in Giverny, near Paris. He turned Giverny into a garden paradise. Monet landscaped like he painted — filling the “blank canvas” with “brushstrokes” of shrubs and colorful flowers. He planted a garden with rose trellises, built a Japanese bridge, and made an artificial pond stocked with water lilies (nymphéas in French). Then Monet picked up his brush and painted it all — the bridge, trellises, pond — creating hundreds of canvases that brighten museums around the world. His favorite subject of all was the water lilies.

In 1914, Monet, now in his seventies, began a water-lily project on a massive scale. It would involve huge canvases — up to 6 feet tall and 55 feet long — to hang in purpose-built rooms at the Orangerie. Monet worked at Giverny, in a special studio with skylights and wheeled easels to accommodate the big canvases. He worked on several canvases at once, moving (with the sun) from one to the next to capture the pond at different times of day. For 12 years, Monet labored obsessively, even while he — the greatest “visionary,” literally, of his generation — was slowly going blind.

Like Beethoven did when going deaf, Monet wrote his final symphonies on a monumental scale. Altogether, Monet painted 1,950 square feet of canvas. In the final paintings, he cropped the scene ever closer, until there’s no reference point for the viewer — no shoreline, no horizon, no sense of what’s up or down…leaving you immersed in the experience. The last canvas shows darkness descending on the pond — painted by an 80-year-old man in the twilight of his life.

Monet never lived to see the canvases in their intended space. But in 1927, the “Water Lilies” were hung as Monet had instructed, in this specially built space to enhance the immersive experience. He’d created what many have called the first modern “art installation.”

This art moment — a sampling of how we share our love of art in our tours — is an excerpt from the new, full-color coffee-table book “Europe’s Top 100 Masterpieces” by Rick Steves and Gene Openshaw. Please support local businesses in your community by picking up a copy from your favorite bookstore, or you can find it at my online Travel Store. To enhance your art experience, be sure to check out Rick Steves Classroom Europe, my free collection of 400+ teachable video clips — including a visit to Monet’s garden at Giverny.