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

A Few Answers to Your Questions

This summer I’ve enjoyed posting my submissions and then staying out of the conversation, letting all of you toss your ideas around. As a silent observer, I’ve learned lots and enjoyed the discussion. Here are a few questions asked via the blog that I think deserved a thoughtful response.

Question:You have talked about preparing for a trip, but how do you decompress from one? How do you make the adjustment back to your “other routine” in the States?

Answer:My big concern is not getting swept up in the home-front priorities before I can follow through on all my writing and get all my notes cleanly shuffled into the grey matter of Europe Through the Back Door. (With the glut of data plaguing our society lately, I am really into “design” of travel information these days.) My wife runs the show when I’m gone, and it’s an adjustment for her and me to be a partnership again, rather than two autocrats under one roof. I settle reluctantly from an active life to a more sedentary one — promising to keep in shape as I am in Europe…but never following through. My body agrees to stay healthy for the intense 60 consecutive days of work on the condition that I take it easy for awhile once home. If I cheat, I get sick.

Question:Regarding the girl in Bosnia who wanted you to pay her to take a photo: Did you give the scarved young lady the euro she requested? What is your policy on paying the locals for the privilege of taking their photos?

Answer:She was dressed up and positioned for the purpose of tourists taking her photo. I took her photo because she looked great — and happily paid her the euro. If I’m just grabbing a candid shot of a local, I never pay.

Question:Does it ever get old traveling?

Answer:For me, travel is accelerated living. I live and learn triple each day on the road what I’d experience at home. If I wasn’t assured of going home, I might think differently, but for me, travel is as fresh as ever. I still fly home pondering my next trip.

Question:You have wonderful descriptions of towns and cities in your books and blogs, with a mix of modern and historical significance, but I wondered if you could comment more on the area’s natural histories, its parks and preserves? Is there any wilderness left in Europe?

Answer:I report on what I am personally enthusiastic about: history, contemporary issues, efficient travel, art, culture, cities. For an enthusiastic rundown on flora, fauna, geology, folk tales and myths, adventure sports, and shopping — topics that, while perfectly legit, just aren’t that interesting to me — you’ll do better with another travel writer. I have a particularly bad attitude about geology. I know it’s silly to think this, but to me geology is “anti-history” or maybe “history without people.” As a tour guide, I recognized my shortcoming here and once offered a geologist on my bus the microphone for five minutes a day as we drove to discuss the geology of the regions we were traveling through. I tried to enjoy his rocks and ridges moments — but it was absolutely dreadful…one of the biggest mistakes of my tour guiding career.

Question:As a Swiss fan of yours, I struck by how negative your blog became while in Switzerland. I am not particularly patriotic, and I know that you are a very critical traveler, but I get the impression that (except for your favorite alpine village of Gimmelwald) you do not particularly like Switzerland. Why? Is it too sterile? Not friendly? Too expensive? Is it because of the banking industry? And please note that my family has been eating cheese fondue in summer for generations.

Answer:Sometimes I fear I’ll stutter with superlatives about the wonders of Europe. I try to hold back on the giddiness sometimes. Maybe for me, Switzerland is like the kid at high school who’s a great athlete, has perfect hair, the best girl friend and who all the teachers love. Sometimes you just want to see him trip or get a pimple. Switzerland’s cities are great — and the tourist board is expert at shaping their image. While I like the cities, I find that there are more real travel thrills per mile, minute and dollar up in the mountains. Perhaps my agenda for Switzerland was to find flaws. (It’s the opposite of humble Olomouc in Moravia, which has so little beyond its rough charm going for it.) About fondue: I’ll stand by my belief that it’s a winter meal. If it wasn’t for tourists, I think most fondue restaurants in Switzerland would shut down in the summer. Having said all this, we did bring home a show that I’m thrilled about, which makes the great Swiss cities look absolutely wonderful. Stay tuned.

[Drop by in a couple days…and we’ll sum things up.]

Flying Home

Eating breakfast after two months of hotel breakfasts, Cameron, my co-author and travel buddy, asked if I get homesick. Sure I miss my family. But living on the road — even if I don’t like the cheese pastry that is today’s breakfast — puts a curve in my road, a little syncopation in life’s beat. It makes the mundane memorable. Then a chimney sweep walks by.

I like this minimalist aspect of travel. Light bag, open mind, a humble room with heavy shutters — ready to be pushed open to greet a new morning — is all I need for a springboard into the world.

At the airport ready to fly home, I survey my luggage. My mind flies back to early trans-Asian trips when you’d routinely comb through your bags at each border crossing looking for drugs planted on you by people working with corrupt police.

I remembered a backpacker who discovered a hunk of hash in his heavy army coat three people short of the Pakistani border guard. Panic on his face, he looked around, considered his options…and just ate it like the last bite of a Mars bar.

Today, the only edible I had was a Ziploc bag of sunflower seeds I carried from Seattle through the entire trip and never used — an edible security blanket I never needed. I’ve been on the road 60 days in a row (120 out of the last 150). My body is lean but tired. My brain is still spinning — yet tired.

At Heathrow, I met Jake from Toledo, Ohio. He ran to me, abandoning his parents at the exchange desk. Wow! He watched all my shows. He and his family we’re going to “do Europe.” I asked him his age. Fourteen.

It was a beautiful encounter. I was fourteen with my parents on my first trip. Jake was just like me and my family in 1969: doing it all wrong. While they had no guidebook, were changing money at the rip-off desk, and packing heavy, they were wide-eyed and hungry for the world. As I flew home, ready to embrace home and family again…I had a hunch Jake was starting something really big.

Communalism in a Red Bull Europe

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Throughout my travels this summer, I’ve been struck by the different ways societies and great cities handle their challenges. Everyone wants to live well.

Denmark is so expensive, yet so efficient. People live better than their income would suggest — in fact, they seem to live extremely well. I don’t understand the inner-works of a society, but Danish society seems to be a social internal-combustion engine in a glass box. High taxes, all interrelated and connected. It seems Scandinavians have evolved as far as socialism can go without violating the necessary fundamentals of capitalism. Communalism.

What happens when a tune-up is needed? “Who does it?” I ask. My Danish friends say, “The government.” What does government represent in Denmark: corporate or the people’s interest? Clearly the people’s. Danes say, “If our government lets us down, we let ourselves down.”

In a Danish village, you are allowed to pick berries and nuts “no more than would fit in your hat.” I saw Danish communalism in the reaction a friend had in that village when the biggest hotel in town started renting bikes. They don’t need to do that — it is Mrs. Hansen’s (who runs the bike-rental shop next to the gas station) livelihood. Of course there’s no law forbidding it…it was a matter of neighborly decency.

Switzerland has its own approach to persistent social problems. Once someone pointed out Switzerland’s syringe-vending machines, I saw them in every city — big, blocky vending machines which, if you read the paint-overs carefully, originally sold cigarettes, then condoms, and now syringes. The same syringes cost 1 Swiss franc in Bern and 3 in Zürich. I wondered why.

Another little difference I noticed in Swiss cities is their system of garbage collection. People buy bright-blue bags for 2 SF ($1.50) each. Each plastic bag includes pick-up service. They just fill the bags with garbage, put them on the curb, and they’re picked up.

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As I travel, I have picked up these ideas in conversations. They’re not clear to me. Perhaps you can help.

Someone told me that war doesn’t shape history, successful systems and economics do. Maybe it’s roads and free trade — freedom to learn and challenge — that makes history. War powers like Sparta, Prussia, and the Third Reich have left relatively little for today’s sightseers — the warrior cultures ultimately have had little impact. English is spoken because England (and later the USA) had (and have?) the best system. Rome’s impact was thanks to trade and roads–not its centurions.

Societies advance in a Darwinian way. Like Adam Smith’s invisible hand directs the evolution of economies, what makes people happy directs the evolution of social and political systems.

As I headed to the airport earlier this summer in Zagreb, people were running to catch their trams. At the airport coffee shop, a manager had his staff scurrying to provide high-priced drinks to fast-paced, Red Bull-slurping Croats. Above the cash register was a photo of Pope John Paul II smiling on and tenderly touching the flag of a new and free nation — Croatia.

Surrounded by a shiny, new, and affluent Croatia, it was clear to me that when left to grow — nourished by democracy, capitalism, and national pride — the cultural garden of Europe (and lands beyond) can be both diverse and fruitful.

Globalization and Koyaaturismos

Globalization can be seen in European tourism. Europe is hosting more wealthy Indian, Middle Eastern, and Asian travelers than ever.

I got an email recently from a man who said, “Thanks for the TV shows. They will provide a historical documentation of a time when Europe was white and not Muslim. Keep filming your beloved Europe before it’s gone.”

I thought again how feisty fear is these days in the USA. Fear. A fear of African Americans swept the USA in the ‘60s. Jews have been feared throughout European history. Today, Muslims are feared. A Sienese friend told me how his cathedral — with its distinct black and white stripes, mixing both Byzantine arches and French Gothic arches—symbolizes to him how Siena was a power in its day because it welcomed the merging of east and west without fear.

In Austria, I shared a table with a young man from Kobe. I said I was from Seattle. He became all high-fives, since Ichiro (the Mariners baseball superstar) was from Kobe. A single traveler, he was backpacking, but with a big, red, hard-sided suitcase. Surprising me, he asked the waiter if he could park his suitcase inside the restaurant’s door for a couple hours and hiked off to explore the ruined castle overlooking the Danube. It’s great to see Asian travelers gaining the confidence to explore Europe without the crutch of a big bus tour and guide. My Swiss friend, Fritz, earns money on the side by taking travelers tandem parasailing. Fritz says, “There are 20 million Indian millionaires. They know how to be big shots.” He tells of an obese patron he took tandem flying. With a good updraft and a normal-size passenger, you take two steps and you’re flying. On this particular day there was neither. Fritz asked his customer to help by running. His big Indian patron said, “I don’t run. I pay. You run.” It was a memorable flight, perhaps foreshadowing a harsh reality to come for Western cultures — American and European alike.

After a hailstorm in Interlaken that made all the Swiss papers, the National Guard came out with their clean-up gear. A heavy fog bank settled on the vast grazing ground that marks the center of town. The children of Saudi families were running in and out of the fog banks, disappearing and reappearing with glee as their parents photographed them. Fritz said that Arab travelers are also discovering the Alps. They come here for the fog and the rain. They love the rain.

In a strange little mental detour, I considered all the fuss over our visit to the Dordogne foie gras goose farm earlier on our trip, where I was so impressed at how decently the geese were being treated for our TV cameras. Then I wondered if that farm might be the Terezín Concentration Camp of foie gras — just set up for the media.

The discussion on this blog about candor in travel reporting got me thinking about the movie Koyaanisqatsi. There’s not a word in the entire movie until the end, when we see a printed Hopi Indian proverb about “life out of balance.” Half of the movie is insane “techno-fascism” traffic, tension, people embattled by urban sadness, spinning cranes, and ugly graffiti. The other half is soothing vistas of pristine nature as if from the eyes of a soaring eagle.

Standing in the lobby of Vienna’s Schönbrunn Palace with piles of fan-waving tourists, it occurred to me that I could produce a TV special called “Koyaaturismos”: first the ugly reality of mass tourism on the road, then a pristine montage of all the glories — no words…just the rewards of exploring the natural and cultural wonders of Europe.

Cleaning Up as I Prepare to Fly Home

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Here are a few random notes from the past few weeks as I near the end of my summer travels:

My Swiss friend, Olle, takes me on my annual walk through the village of Gimmelwald. We see a rack of scythes. He demonstrates how they are sharpened not with a file, but by pounding. A sharp scythe is critical for a farmer — it cuts through hay like butter. Across the way, old boots with studs nailed on them for a grip on the steep slopes are nailed to the wall of a hut with their new use — alpine flower holder. In this case, traditional alpine culture survives…but only on show.

Traveling to the remote Czech backwater of Moravsky Krumlov to see Mucha’s Slavic Epic, it occurred to me that the Czechs keeping this grand series of canvases here is like keeping the Mona Lisain Walla Walla.

I never dreamed of wearing socks more than one day until my cameraman suggested it. After 10 minutes, you don’t notice.

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Copenhagen’s streets were noisy with grads filling decorated trucks, screaming and drinking as they went from family to family for beers at a progressive graduation party hosted by their parents. They can handle the alcohol and have promising futures. Then I saw the Greenlanders. Young people from Greenland with the best prospects often travel to Copenhagen, their colonial capital, for a higher education (there’s none in Greenland). Hoping to build their young lives, they often fail — ending up unable to handle the temptations of Danish life. It’s a sad sight — wasted Greenlanders littering the square.

I didn’t realize that in central Rome, there are no buildings from after 1938. Looking for restaurants, I noticed vines climbing the buildings and it occurred to me that the places I like to recommend have roots. Places whose regulars remember when the place was their father’s favorite. Places named for the man whose faded photo is now on the wall…or who is so old he can only pretend to contribute, and shuffles around grating cheese on the pasta his grandchildren are cooking.