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

Ambushed in San Jose

Stepping out of the San Jose airport, I spied my driver waiting patiently with a little cardboard sign saying “Rick Steves.” Shaking his hand and identifying myself to him, I was interrupted by a good-looking, strapping young Marine in uniform. He apparently had seen the sign and was waiting to ambush me with a message. He said, “Excuse me, Mr. Steves. With the success of the coalition’s surge, do you take back your words about the war now?”

He caught me completely by surprise. He rattled me right out of a light and happy mood. I needed to respond. Without thinking much, I blurted out, “Surge or no surge, our war in Iraq is a waste of $2 trillion dollars and lots of blood.” As I hustled on toward my car, he responded almost as if saluting me, saying, “And we will fight and die to defend your freedom to say that.”

Settling into my car, I marveled at the illogic of soldiers “defending my freedom of speech” in Iraq. I wished I had time to actually talk with that Marine…about empire.

In preparation for a talk I was giving at the San Jose Commonwealth Club that afternoon, I looked up the meaning of “empire.” I found this definition: “An empire is a state that extends its dominion over a population that is distinct ethnically and culturally from the culture and ethnicity of that state’s center of power…usually with coercion.”

“Empire” certainly has a negative connotation — bloody, keeping people down, militaristic. The Bible teaches that empire and Christ were (and are) at odds.

While we are not your standard political empire, I see our nation acting like an empire. Our country, with four percent of the planet’s population, spends as much on its military as every other nation combined (and, these days, it’s tough to get elected without promising even more). We maintain military bases in 130 countries as if it’s our right to do so. In many foreign lands, the biggest and most fortified building in the entire country is the embassy of the USA. Only we can declare the natural resources of another nation on the opposite side of the globe (e.g., oil in the Middle East) “vital to our national security interests.” I believe it would be more honest to justify our foreign policy by calling those resources “vital to our material lifestyle.”

A friend of mine recently made a strong case trying to convince me that, as a taxpayer of a country at war, I am not an “innocent civilian” but a combatant. I do believe that, when we wage a war, every bullet that flies and every bomb that falls — whether justified or not — has my name on it. (That’s why sometimes I can’t just “lighten up.”)

In my office, I have a statue I purchased at a Christmas market in Central America. Every winter, poor children in places like El Salvador buy these painted clay figurines with three characters: a bloody slain peasant (the “Christ figure”) at the feet of two camouflaged, US-equipped-and-funded soldiers (tools of empire). Each Christmas, Christian peasants scoot these gory trios into their manger scenes along with Mary, Joseph, and the shepherds — empowered by this vivid (Liberation Theology) reminder of Roman Empire/American Empire parallels.

Good Americans can differ on whether our foreign policy is right or wrong, if our latest war is justified, and to what degree we are an empire. But it is clear that we are seen by others as an empire.

Empires always have angry people on their fringes nipping at them. Throughout history, the “Redcoats” of various empires have wished their enemies would line up in formation so they could carpet-bomb them. But any guerilla commander knows that, when fighting an empire, you strike from the bushes.

Empires call these people different things: “barbarians” eventually sacked Rome; “anarchists” assassinated the prince and eventually brought down the Hapsburgs; and today “terrorists” threaten America. Just as earlier empires broadened the meaning of those other terms, we will see more and more angry enemies of “our interests” labeled “terrorists” — whether villagers in the Niger Delta fighting international oil companies, Palestinians chafing at new walls, guerillas fighting US anti-drug forces in South America, or suicide bombers offended by Christian troops in their holy land.

As we fight “terrorists” on more and more fronts, I think it would be more honest if we called our military “forces of the empire” rather than “coalition forces.” (By the way, I found it extremely annoying that the USSR claimed to put down popular uprisings in Czechoslovakia and Hungary with “Warsaw Pact” troops — clearly a sham “coalition.”)

Thankfully, unlike empires of the past, we have the freedom (that the Marine in San Jose believes he is defending) to change a course that unites angry people against us. Using our democracy and freedom as a weapon, we can design a happier ending than that which finished the story of Rome, the Hapsburgs, and other long-gone empires.

The Tyranny of a Weekly Hour

One hundred and twenty weeks ago, when I committed myself to producing a regular radio show, someone wise with experience sighed, “You’re taking on the tyranny of a weekly hour.”

That’s a funny thing — how easy it is to jump at a creative challenge, and then realize you have just adopted a chore that continues at a regular interval until it fails or until you kill it. Thankfully nothing is failing. And I like my little creations too much to kill any of them.

Lately, I’ve felt the mounting tyrannies of my ongoing commitments: annual guidebook updates, a new TV series every two years (the tempo I’ve maintained since 1990), an hour every week for public radio, a weekly column for my newspaper syndicate, and even this blog.

Perhaps the toughest is the weekly radio show. With 70 or so stations running it each week and my wonderful producer (Tim Tattan) doing such a fine job, it’s a thrill. And we have a serious responsibility not to stumble in our production schedule. We always have a few weeks of episodes in the can…but it seems we always need to be producing more. Next week we’ve scheduled a two-and-a-half day frenzy of interview recordings to get the raw material for, I hope, 8 or 10 new shows. (We’ll be streaming the interview sessions live and taking call-ins — to be announced on our website.)

When I took on the radio show, I unrealistically figured I could crank out shows with just a couple hours of work for each. But it takes much more time. We need to set up the interviews and prepare the questions. (I’m put off by interviewers who don’t prepare before an interview with me, so I feel an obligation to the experts we have on the show to be ready with a thoughtful interview.) Then, after the recording sessions, we need to write and record all the promos. I can’t bear to have sloppy promos airing all over the country — so these take a fair amount of time, too. In January, I’m looking ahead at my annual travels (being gone for April, May, July and August), which means we’ll need shows in the can to cover us until September.

And then there’s the rest of life. (We’ve got some pretty exciting projects cookin’.)

Someone just asked where our son Andy was. I said in Prague. They asked, “What’s he doing there?” I said, “Just hanging out.” Who’s he with? Alone. Has he been there before? Nope. I offered to get Andy a room. He said he’d prefer to just get there and find a hostel that felt the most fun. Andy’s confidence as a 20-year-old on the road brings me great joy. (In a week, he’ll stop “hanging out” and report for studies for his Notre Dame semester in Rome.)

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,