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

Rick Steves’ Best of euRap

Photo courtesy of Justin Glow

I’ve found that the most effective way to annoy our two kids (ages 17 and 20) is to act like someone from their generation. Slang, greetings, gestures…you name it, if I try something from their generation and not mine…look out. It’s tight.

So, when Jackie’s high school radio station asked me to fund the purchase of some of their gear with a donation, in return for an ad on their station, I said, “Sweeeet…on the condition that they help me produce a rap.”

They recorded their voices over the first 30 seconds and left the last 15 seconds for me to finish. I happened to be at my audio-recording studio in Seattle (finishing up a TV show soundtrack) with a cool young engineer who jumped at the chance to coach me and produce my bit on the rap to finish the audio ad. I emailed Jackie’s classmates this track (which I like to think far exceeded their expectations). And now, Jackie’s dad is throwin’ down some sick rhymes several times a day all year long on her high school radio station.

Enjoy the Rick Steves’ Europe rap. Yeeeah, boy.

Happy New Year. Should I Roll the rr’s in Buonarroti?

I just spent five days in the studio recording audio tours. They’re designed for iPod users visiting the dozen most important museums and sights in Venice, Florence, and Rome. Reading the scripts out loud into a microphone for literally eight hours a day was a slog. But the idea that our work will help thousands of travelers made the chore a joy.

I have never been so immersed in reading, and I had two great coaches: Lyssa Brown (editor and professional voice for Cedar House Audio Productions) and Gene Openshaw (co-author of many of my guidebooks and editor of these tours). It was a fascinating week filled with quirky factoids, pronunciation challenges, and wording decisions.

As we’re investing lots of time and money in these tours, I wanted to get the pronunciation and wording just right and produce tours with a long life.

“Menagerie” (of beasts from all over the Roman Empire) has a “szh” sound in the middle. The first syllable of “obelisk” rhymes with “Bob.” Should I roll the rr’s in Buonarroti? Lay-en-ar-do or Lee-en-ar-do? …sometimes the correct pronunciation is distracting and sounds pretentious to me. I no longer struggle with “gesture” (jes-jur). How on earth should we pronounce the sculptor Pollaiuolo? I went with a Sam the Sham “Wooly Bully” accent: “pole-ay-woe-low.” Just when I got that, I came to the main pedestrian drag of Florence: Via Calzaiuoli (“kal-tsie-wolly”…take, it Sam).

While you write “A.D. 312,” we say “312 A.D.” At what point can you dispense with the “A.D.” and just say the year? We decided that while Constantine became Christian in 312 A.D., Rome fell in the year 476.

Reading the tours had me marveling at the variety of information we concern ourselves with: The Colosseum is likely named for the 100-foot-tall “colossal” statue of Nero that once stood out front. Roma spelled backwards is Amor (“love”) — and the temple of Venus (love) and Rome had a sign that said two different words with the same four letters (depending on the viewer’s vantage point). With licensed casinos and a reputed 20,000 courtesans, Venice was Europe’s Sin City. (And what happened in Venice…stayed in Venice.)

We labored over wording questions that probably didn’t matter much: Was Roman concrete made of cement and “light rocks” or “rubble”? (We said rubble.) Did exotic animals from Africa “herald” or “celebrate” Rome’s conquest of distant lands? (We went with celebrate.) Did Rome grow from a small band of “tribespeople” or a small band of “barbarians” into a vast empire? (We said tribespeople.) Should we say “The Jews of Israel believed in only one god,” or “The Israelites believed in only one god”? (We said the former.) Were they slave “marketers” or “traders”? (Traders.)

Do people care that the pavement stones in the Forum were made of basalt? Do people need the word “capital” defined (the top of a column)? Affirmative.

How did the street-corner preacher actually sound when he cried out, “Beware the Ides of March!” And how did dying Caesar utter, “Et tu, Brute?” Joking about how mean Emperor Caligula was, should we say, “He even parked his chariot in handicapped spaces” or “disabled spaces”? Is this even a sensitivity issue? (We went with handicapped at the risk of not being PC.)

Do we need to introduce Bernini by saying his entire, difficult-to-pronounce name: Gian Lorenzo Bernini? And what about Leon Battista Alberti? When noticing the tiny cross atop the towering pagan obelisk, do we say, “Here we see Christian culture is but a thin veneer over our pagan roots” or “pagan origins”? (Our choice: roots.)

The Vatican is an independent country with a few extra bits of land that come with its lead churches. Are these Vatican-owned properties called “territories”? Exactly what do people expect to gain from touching the toe of the statue of St. Peter? Can you say “ecumenistic spirit” rather than “spirit of ecumenism?” Is it too crude to say, “While seventh-century Constantinople flourished, Dark Age Europeans were still rutting in the mud”? (Yes.) Must I say “friars” rather than “monks”? (There is a difference, but “friar” makes you think of a big fat Tuck.)

Did Giotto’s tower “set the tone” for Michelangelo, or “inspire” him? Does Donatello hold his “hammer and chisel” or hold his “trusty hammer and chisel”? Do you say “The Vatican” or simply “Vatican”? (We went without the “the.”) Do people know what a tanner is, or should I say “leather tanner”?

All the decisions have been made, the recordings are finished, and the post-production work has begun. These 12 audio tours will be available here at ricksteves.com (and on iTunes) within two months. (When they are finished, we’ll let you know.)

P.S.: This summer, I ranted on this blog about how un-Christian it seemed to keep the Vatican Museum hours so short with all the tourists baking in lines for hours trying to get in. Travelers’ prayers have been answered: I just heard that the Pope will stretch the museum’s opening hours. In 2008, we can expect it to be open almost daily from 8:00 until 18:00. Hallelujah!

27 Moroccan Kids Heading for Summer Camp — from Jackie Steves

For my daughter Jackie Steves, Christmas morning had a happy Moroccan connection. I brought home the bundle of letters that readers of this blog sent to her (via my office) over the last month with donation checks to fund sending kids from the town of Sale to summer camp (as inspired by — and proposed at the end of — her high school trip to Morocco Journalfeatured recently on this blog). With her teacher/chaperone, Jackie will be sure these donations get used as intended. Here’s Jackie’s Christmas morning report:

***

It’s Christmas morning. I’m with my family at our house in Edmonds, Washington. I look out the window and there is actually some snow mixed in with the rain! What a magical morning.

I woke up this morning when my brother jumped on me, yelling obnoxiously in my ear, “Merry Christmas, Jackie!” It’s good to have him home from college. In a week he’ll leave to study abroad in Rome for a semester. He’s three years older than me, and up until now I have been the little sister watching him enviously while he has gotten to backpack and be a tour guide all around Europe (without any parents!).

Pretty soon, however, I’ll enjoy similar adventures. After I graduate from high school in June, I’ll travel through Europe with a friend for a month. I’m so excited. When my parents asked me what I would like for Christmas, what immediately came to mind was some seed money for my Europe graduation trip! When that’s what I found under the tree this morning, you can imagine my elation when I thought of how this money would be the wings for some of my travel dreams.

The last present I opened was a manila envelope. Written on the outside in my dad’s handwriting it said, “To Jackie’s friends in Morocco. From Jackie and those she inspired to care and share.” Inside I found 19 envelopes, which contained checks made out to the Sale Town Association in Morocco. Most of the checks were for $31, enough to send a Moroccan child to educational summer camp for two weeks. Many of the checks were for twice or even triple that amount, enough to provide for two or three kids!

Finding those checks and reading all the thoughtful notes that accompanied them was like having Christmas all over again. The best Christmas gift is witnessing the compassion of other people. We always hear from the media about the bad side of humanity: war, greed, and waste. I can’t tell you how refreshing it is to read all the kindhearted comments that people posted in response to reading my journal. I never expected so many people to take an interest in what I had to say. Your comments instilled in me confidence, hope, gratitude, and happiness. Receiving these letters and checks has been a huge testimony that a little exchange of cultural insight can have a tremendously positive effect.

The money people donated is enough to send 27 Moroccan children to camp! I am so excited for these kids from the poor city of Sale, some of whom live in slums, to have the opportunity to go to a summer camp by the sea. Thank you so much to all of you who took the time to mail a check. You have truly been an inspiration to me. I will follow through and be sure these kids get to camp and report on things (via this blog) again later.

Have a Merry Christmas, happy holidays, and a wonderful New Year!

Peace, love, and joy,

Jackie

Yuletide in Europe

It’s Yuletide…literally, “the turning of the sun.” Since long before the birth of Jesus, Europe has celebrated the return of light as the corner is turned on winter, the shortest day is past, and the promise of renewed life is assured.

The December 25th party was called “Saturnalia” by ancient Romans. Like Christians built churches upon the sites of pagan temples, it just made sense for them to celebrate the birth of Jesus on the pagan festival of Saturnalia.

Whether you worship the sun or the son, life and love are the theme today across Europe (and Christendom). Norwegian farmers are lashing bundles of wheat to fence poles — a treat for the birds. And families light candles at the tombstones of lost loved ones to remember them as they enter and leave their village churches.

In Burgundy, families cook and eat Le Réveillon de Noël, the biggest feast of the year, while children gather an orange and a star-shaped cookie to put in their slippers — a thank you in advance to Père Noël for his kind generosity.

Throughout Paris today, Christmas carousels (manèges de Noël) are thrilling wide-eyed children visiting from the countryside. The Champs-Elysées is a forest of twinkling trees. Families are out lèche-vitrine(literally, “window-licking”) as department stores fill windows with festive animation and yuletide whimsy. Stores thoughtfully even put up little wooden stepladders for kids to get a full dose of the big-city Christmas wonder. And families with muffs and mittens are ice-skating 200 feet above ground at the holiday ice rink on the first level of the Eiffel Tower.

In Nürnberg, little Germans munching gingerbread (still warm out of the oven) are marveling at market square stalls well-stocked with Prune People — figurines made with a walnut head, four-fig body, and prune limbs, all dolled up in traditional folk costumes. But their highlight is an encounter with the angelic, teenage, real-life girl crowned the “Christkind.” As the children multiply around her, she raises her gilded arms and says softly, “If you are very, very gentle…you can touch my wings.”

In 1818, Franz Gruber first sang “Silent Night” in the village of Oberndorf near Salzburg. Today Oberndorf is a muddy mess as a traffic jam of tourist buses inundates the place. Each Christmas Eve, holiday-goers from Florida to Yokohama converge on the village in search of olde time charm…and find mostly just each other.

In Salzburg, the Gunners’ Club lines up atop the castle to fire off handheld miniature cannon to shoo away evil spirits. Meanwhile, parents shoo away the children so they can decorate the tree. (Tree lots here don’t even open until the week of Christmas, as buying and decorating is done just before the big day.) Later this evening, with a fantasy of gifts under the glittering tree lit by countless real candles, the door is opened, the children stampede in, and the “land of if” becomes the here and now.

And throughout England, little ones sing while mixing their Figgie pudding, cupcake-sized mince pies are cooked up (to be eaten one a day through the 12 days of Christmas — to ensure a happy 2008), and Wassail-ers are eating, drinking and being merry.

And in a few minutes, in our household, the extended family is swooping in as we celebrate Christmas in our American way. So…I’ll post this now and wish all ye jolly travelers a Merry Christmas and happy holidays!

Souvenirs on a Christmas Tree

Our lives arc like parabolas. Just when our kids have gotten older and no longer enjoy the ritual of decorating the Christmas tree, my parents are coming to an age when they do. It occurred to me that my Mom would enjoy the toyland-wonder of selecting ornaments from our big box and — with favorite carols playing — hanging them just so on our tree.

As we shared in the creative decision-making, I took a trip down memory lane with my Mom and realized there was lots of meaning in our decorations.

There’s the little nurse and the woven Irish clover for Anne and a football player ready to throw a long bomb for Andy. A few little beach treasures and baked and painted goodies remind us of Jackie’s preschooler days. The tiny “Julens Sanger” Norwegian carol book, with its red, blue, and white flag cover, represents my family heritage. The green and red skates with the paper-clip blades were knit 20 years ago by my grandmother before her last Christmas. I remember for Grandma, Europe was as far away as the moon. Every time I packed my rucksack and headed off for Europe, her imagination would set her eyes twinkling, and she’d say, “Ooh la la…gay Pareeeee.”

There’s some artful give-and-take to our tree ritual. I let Anne crown the tree with an angel (which I find gaudy, and always seems to be being goosed by the tip of the tree). And Anne lets me drape the tree with the ancient string of popcorn I strung with an old girlfriend back in high school. (Popcorn lasts forever if you don’t eat it.) I also sneak in another souvenir from an old romance…a Japanese girlfriend gave me a kami(or god) in an exquisite little red sack that I hang as a tiny tip of the hat to Shinto on our Christmas tree. The funky cardboard “angel heads with sunglasses” struggle in their dogged battle against conformity.

From our living room, you wouldn’t know I’ve ever ventured outside the Pacific Northwest…except at Christmas, when the little treasures that hang on our tree serve as souvenirs. Two little red carved birds on a thread remind me of my early “Europe through the gutter” days. (I dropped into the trendy Marimekko shop in Helsinki, and that’s all I could afford.) And, much as I find the Käthe Wohlfahrt Christmas shop in Rothenburg a tourist trap, we dangle several delightful German-style painted wax and delicately carved trinkets from just the right branches.

We hang several little manger scenes both to keep the Christ in Christmas and, for me, to remember the politics of the Christ child…born poor in a manger under the tyranny of an empire to bring hope to the downtrodden. And, in that vein, the smallest ornament is perhaps my favorite — a tiny carved and varnished cross I picked up one Christmas season in Nicaragua, which hangs on a long black thread from the highest possible branch. It reads paz con social justicia.

Finally, my Mom and I stood back and surveyed the tree. We tweaked a few ornaments, adjusted the popcorn like the train on a wedding dress, and stood back again. Our task was done, and she said, “Good job…it’s pretty.”