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

Immigrants, Treasure Your Heritage…and Melt

Returning to Europe, I worried that Denmark would pale after my recent Croatian experience. My first day here dispelled that concern. While Denmark has its castles and cute towns, the real experience here is the Danish modern spirit and how it copes with today’s challenges.

Wandering into an empty, sleek train car, each seat was marked “kan reserveres.” I figured that meant “not reserved,” and sat down. Then I was bumped by a friendly guy with a reservation. He said, “The sign means ‘could be’ reserved…we don’t promise too much.” Noticing several young men with shaved heads and the finest headphones listening to MP3 players on their train commute to work, I thought Denmark seemed so minimal and efficient…and so together.

Every time I politely ask, “Do you speak English” (still thinking it’s bad style to assume Europeans will speak my language), I feel silly. “Of course” is the standard answer. Thriving Copenhagen has a thin veil of tourism. Behind that, locals really do eat open-face sandwiches. Even though the country’s eateries must be smoke-free by next August, people smoke with attitude in traditional cafés. (By law, smaller places can be exempt — so many local pubs are cutting down their “usable floor space” by adding pool tables and big furniture in order to get around the law and keep the smokers.)

I find having a bike parked in the garden of my hotel is a great way to fit in and literally “go local.” Copenhagen has as many bike lanes as car lanes, and I can literally get anywhere in town faster on my two wheels than by taxi.

Today’s big-city Denmark — which is far from blonde — has me thinking about immigration. I’m a grandchild of immigrants. Three of my grandparents sailed away from the old country speaking only Norwegian. My family assimilated.

 

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With modern communication allowing “diasporas,” where communities of foreigners settle in more comfortable places with no interest in assimilating, “melting pots” have become cafeteria plates with separate bins. I know Algerians who’ve been three generations in the Netherlands and are still enthusiastically Algerian, raising their children with barely a hint of Dutch culture. I am three generations in the USA. While I have kept my grandparents’ religion and eat fish balls and goat cheese, I can barely say hello in Norwegian. While proud of my heritage, I am American.

At Copenhagen’s City Museum, I met a Pakistani Dane. He talked earnestly of the exhibit like it was his city…as if his ancestors pioneered the place. Thinking of assimilation, I got emotional. Surprised at being choked up, I was struck by the beauty of a Pakistani Dane.

Am I wrong to wish that a Muslim living in Denmark would become a Dane? Am I wrong to wish the USA would speak English rather than Norwegian or Spanish? Am I wrong to lament districts of London that have a disdain for being British? Immigrants energize a land — and they do it best when their vision is a healthy melting pot. Melt, immigrants…treasure your heritage while embracing your adopted homelands.

Lobbing Rotten Fish at Denmark

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I just landed in Copenhagen and got a rousing welcome. This week Denmark’s streets are filled with graduating university seniors filling WWII-vintage trucks, waving beers, and hollering above the traffic. (Don’t they know they’re about to leave the wonderland of childhood and enter the work force?)

It’s a progressive beer party — the trucks take them from the graduation ceremony to each house, where the parents serve them beer…and things just get sloppier and sloppier. (Danes statistically finish university later than other Europeans, typically taking several years’ break — the government is pushing them to get through the education system faster.)

My friend, Richard, dresses up like Hans Christian Andersen to lead walking tours. He saved a day just for me. Walking through the city with HCA in a long coat and top hat is a bit strange. (Richard becomes Richard again each winter and flees “cold, dark, rainy, and expensive” Denmark with his Icelandic partner to dance the tango in Argentina.)

Kelly Clarkson is coming to town — she’s on posters everywhere. Richard explains that the Danes have their own “Danish Idol”-type TV pop craze, and the created Danish icons are local stars — but Kelly Clarkson is big league.

We climb the highest church spire in town and look across the strait to Sweden. Through the modern windmills on the Danish horizon, Richard points out a Swedish nuclear power plant in the hazy distance. He explains, “They put it 600 kilometers from Stockholm but only 20 kilometers from Copenhagen. Danes threatened to bomb it. Swedes threatened to retaliate by setting up catapults and lobbing in their national dish — a lutefisk-style fermented herring.” The stand-off was defused. Today the plant is closed.

Signs of progressive Denmark are everywhere. The basement of the Danish Design Center is now the Flow Market (www.theflowmarket.com), a supermarket of sustainability with squeeze tubes of empathy, tins of commercial-free space, syringes of tolerance, and buckets of inner calmness. The slogan: Be not “best in the world” but “best for the world.”

Home For a Couple Weeks…

Confession time: I’ve been living a few days ahead of this blog. Today I fly Seattle-Copenhagen after a quick break at home.

Essentially empty nesters — Anne and I wait for phone calls from Andy (our 20-year old who is assisting on our family tours, Rome to Paris in 14 days), and try to imagine what Jackie (our 17-year-old) is up to in Morocco. She is on her high school summer travel program — in a Berber village with no cell phone, email, computer, or iPod. With only a note pad to collect thoughts, she knows she’s in for an African village culture shock that will change her self-described materialistic, suburban outlook and put things in perspective.

Sitting on our neighbor’s deck for a plush Puget Sound sunset, we marvel at the majesty of the birds and the massive container ships gliding out to sea, and settle into a fine and leisurely dinner. Our friends note from my blog that I am wild about Sagrantino wine. They have a bottle — which I never thought I’d see outside of Umbria — and we pop it open. I say we have so much to be thankful for…nature, our health, kids embracing the world, this wine…and then my cell phone rings. My dad has had a little stroke and is in an ambulance heading for the hospital.

After spending much of the night at the hospital we learn everything’s okay. The next day as I talk with my 40- and 50-something friends it’s clear — so many of us are both marveling at how “grown up and independent” our children are, and, simultaneously, how dependent our parents are becoming.

Apart from family activities and fun, my mid-trip break was filled with business — making sure our radio shows were taped and good for the rest of the summer (including two fascinating hours interviewing Lonely Planet founder Tony Wheeler), getting ducks in a row for the four TV shows we’ll be shooting next month, and meow, meow, meow (I went to a party where people said that rather than “and so on”).

Now I’m on a plane for Copenhagen, ready to resume my trip. The man next to me is snoring while somehow holding a glass of Bloody Mary mix in his hand on his lap. Should I take it away before he spills it, or not intervene?

Booked in New York City

Stepping out of customs at JFK Airport, I spotted my name on a sign held by a man who looked like Kojak. I love it when people look at my luggage and say, “That’s all?” I’m stopping 24 hours in NYC for the big American booksellers’ convention.

Stepping out of the car in the canyons of Manhattan, I felt like Crocodile Dundee — actually giddy to be back in the USA and actually a bit clumsy with the whole scene. I’m out of practice with America.

News is everywhere. I’ve had no news for 60 days. Like being in a cave and suddenly stepping into the light, my mind was squinting. Noisy, stupid headlines. Paris Hilton out of jail. Bush declares he will fight climate change (but still refuses to call it global warming). 130 dead this month in Iraq…more than usual. I turned around…but the cave was gone.

At breakfast the next morning I share my take on Europe with a roomful of bookstore owners and publishers. The theme of my talk: the big news in Europe — affluence. The helpful new insight — if Italy is “the land of a thousand bell towers,” Europe has even more. As globalism takes hold, and the metabolism of Europe revs up, regionalism and local pride satisfies a deep seated hunger.

The creator of www.gather.com, who doesn’t like his site to be called “Face Book for Adults,” pitched me (quite effectively) on creating a little corner there. New York’s Javits Convention Center is bursting with clever ideas, as the American publishing industry huddles. There’s a frantic, almost desperate scrambling…a clamoring for niches: Chicken Soup for the Coffee Lover’s Soul. The new niche in guidebooks is “pocket color” — slimmed down, cheaper versions of existing city guides with color photos. It’s an easy retool and you fill a different price point. I don’t want to offer two versions of one book, asking, “Why can’t one book do it all?” My publisher explained, “We need to hit different price points.”

I dropped by Lonely Planet. And I enjoyed telling people, I had breakfast yesterday in Zagreb. Lonely Planet founder, Tony Wheeler, was there…hands on and enthusiastic as ever. While Tony flew in from farther than me — Australia, Arthur Frommer — who was in the next aisle over — lives close enough to walk to the convention center. I’m impressed by how these icons of travel writing keep working. Rather than dream up another Chicken Soup for the Greedy Soul, their niche is a God-given love and enthusiasm for smart travel.

The big travel publishers (Fodors, Frommers, Lonely Planet, and Avalon — that’s mine) met at lunch to discuss “coop-itition”…or was it “compit-oration” (the value of working together to keep traveling consumers enthusiastic about carrying their travel information around in printed books rather than dumping guidebooks for the web and “new media” alternatives).

I signed a hundred of my new Europe 101: History and Art for Travelerbooks for a line of librarians and book store owners. (The fine folks I met made me recall two conversations I’ve had with taxis: In Barcelona last month during the massive Building Construction convention one cabbie told me they bused in legions of prostitutes–“the biggest brothel anywhere.” Another, here in the USA, told me that at the massive American booksellers’ convention, prostitutes don’t even bother showing up for work.)

The guy who signed after me was Scott Ritter, the weapons inspector who courageously told a nation what it didn’t want to believe — that we bombed an Iraq without WMDs. He wanted to go to Ireland. I had been. I wanted to get on Jon Stewart. He had been. We talked.

I enjoyed meeting the CEO of Borders (the massive chain that sells roughly 20 percent of all travel books…less than Barnes & Noble…but impressive nevertheless). They seem really energized and have chosen travel to be one of their “destination” genres.

Everyone is thrilled with how Costco sold 50,000 of our new DVDs. The scary thing about a Costco venture is that publishers often get mountains of returns. With this foray into the “big box” world, they returned nothing. With a touch of Bill Gatesian megalomania, I said, “We can do better. I want a Rick Steves Europe DVD anthology — all 70 shows — on every American bookshelf.”

Right through the 1990s, this convention was an annual think tank for me. I’d systematically walk the vast floor, talking, dreaming, and scheming. As an old habit, I started to make another walk but abruptly stopped — enough ideas for now. I’m maxed out. It’s so intense. I just want to make old-fashioned guidebooks. Thankfully, my publisher knows about the price points, niches, and new platforms. Without their business savvy, I doubt anyone would be reading this blog right now. Coming to this convention reminds me of that.

Twenty-four hours after touching down at JFK, I was back at JFK taking off again.

Europhiles Get Defensive

My wonderful staff — the 70 people I work with at Europe Through the Back Door — is filled with specialists…people who are passionate about their favorite slice of Europe. I value that because it gives me, the generalist, experts to collaborate with and do better work. Lately I’ve noticed how my staff is actually jealous…defensive…even touchy…about their favorite regions.

Cameron, who spear-heads our Eastern Europe program and has single-handedly made Slovenia and Croatia an important part of our work, lamented how the book he co-authors doesn’t sell as well as some of my other co-authored guidebooks. And it has nothing to do with royalties. He really is saddened by the fact that Slovenia isn’t appreciated like Ireland or France. I no longer jokingly mix up Slovenia and Slovakia. (I don’t think Cameron thinks it’s funny.)

Cameron recently spent a day showing me the wonders of Istria, a trendy peninsula in Croatia. We were doing primary research — running down leads, driving down tiny dirt dead-ends, hitting and missing as any good guidebook researcher must do. All day long we were missing. It’s the hardest thing about writing a guidebook. Cameron was disappointed, concerned that I was getting a bad impression of Istria, whose fans mention it in the same breath as Tuscany and Provence. Now I know those comparisons are a bit of a stretch. While deep down, I think Cameron accepts this, he’d never actually say so.

Thankfully, the next day we hit Rovinj — a new favorite of mine. Standing on the rampart, overseeing the enchanting scene after an exhilarating day or research and writing, Cameron said triumphantly, “Sir, another back door gem in your domain.”

Steve Smith motors our France program and co-authors our France, Paris, and Provence books. Steve has single-handedly turned me into a Francophile — no easy chore — for which I am profoundly grateful. He taught me to pronounce formidable just like Louis XVI (for-mee-dah-bluh).

Steve also helps out on the TV productions in France. On our recent shoot, I closed the show saying, “The more I understand France, the more I appreciate this complex and fascinating culture.” Steve thought this was pejorative (needlessly repeating a cliché that makes the French sound aloof). I argued, “Complex is good. You want a complex wine, movie, woman…France. It’s good!” Steve, surprising me with his sensitivity on this issue, didn’t really buy it.

Dave Fox, an ace Scandinavia guide for us, is a rare Norway nut. (I am too, as I like the ear-waxy Norwegian goat cheese and three of my grandparents were born there.) The region (both books and tours) is a slow seller. For years we’ve pulled out all the stops to turn people on to the “ya sure ya betcha” wonders of Nordic Europe—and used that clichetic phrase liberally. One day recently, Dave sent me a carefully written email requesting that, out of respect for the Norwegian culture, we take “ya sure ya betcha” out of our marketing vocabulary. At first I thought he must be kidding…but (even though he’s a comedian, see www.davethefox.com) he was dead serious. Respecting Dave more than our miserable Scandinavian bottom line, we agreed. Ya sure ya betcha. It goes on and on. Every time I see tour guide Ian Watson he advocates for a TV episode on Iceland. Tour guide Karoline Vass realized a life’s dream by moving to the city of her wildest fantasies…Berlin. Our first employee, Dave Hoerlein, married his Danish teacher on a Viking holy ground in rural Denmark. And Tooraj Fooladi, another of our tour guides, just sent me a lovingly and laboriously written chapter on Valencia — his hometown — in hopes that I would wake up, smell the paella, and include it in my Spain guidebook.

So what? Well, thanks to the passions of my staff, I’ve learned that while Italy may sell the best, each corner of Europe has a unique and real charm. A destination is worthy simply because it exists with people who proudly call it home. And it’s clear to me (thanks to all our specialists), that the more you understand a region, the more you appreciate and enjoy it. And — not in spite of their sensitivities but because of their sensitivities — I’m thankful to have these travelers on my team.