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 Black President and Europe’s Ethnic Underdogs

As Europe looks at our country with a new respect and hopeful anticipation that the new president will be inclusive and not disappoint, I’ve been reworking some of my old notes and thinking about ethnic diversity in Europe.

As Europe united, I feared its ethnic diversity would be threatened. But I find just the opposite is happening. In Europe there are three loyalties: region, nation and Europe. Ask a person from Munich where he’s from and he’ll say, “I’m Bavarian,” or “I’m German,” or “I’m European,” depending on his generation and his outlook. These days city halls all over Europe fly three flags: regional, national, and Europe.

Throughout our lifetimes the headlines have been filled by regions challenging nations. Most of the terrorism — whether Basque, Irish, Catalan, or Corsican — has been separatist movements threatening national capitals.

Modern political borders are rarely clean when it comes to dividing ethnic groups. Brittany, the west of France, is not ethnically French. People there are Celtic, related to the Welsh and the Irish. Just a generation ago, Paris was so threatened by these Celts that if you were a parent in Brittany and you named your child a Celtic name, that child would lose its French citizenship. That would be laughable today.

When I first visited Barcelona, locals were not allowed to speak Catalan, wave the Catalan flag, or dance their beloved Sardana dance. Now, in public schools, children speak Catalan first, and every Sunday in front of the cathedral, locals gather to dance the Sardana — celebrating their Catalan ethnicity.

The small languages across Europe are actually thriving. More people are speaking Irish now than a generation ago. Just recently, Scotland convened a parliament in Edinburgh for the first time since 1707.

What’s going on? Brittany no longer threatens Paris. Barcelona no longer threatens Madrid. Edinburgh not longer threatens London. The national capitals are no longer threatened by their regions because the national capitals realize their power is waning. It’s Brussels. It’s Europe. And Europe is excited not about the political boundaries that divide people often without regard to their ethnicity, but about regions.

I’ve got a friend who is the Indiana Jones of archeology in Austria’s Tirol region. When he wants money to renovate a castle, he goes to Brussels. If he says, “I’m doing something for Austria,” he’ll go home empty-handed. He says he’s doing something for the Tirol (which ignores the modern national boundary and is an ethnic region that includes part of Italy and Austria). He gets money from Brussels because Brussels is promoting ethnic regions over modern political entities.

Europe promotes the smaller ethnic groups and they support each other as well. In Barcelona, a local told me, “Catalan is Spain’s Quebec. We don’t like people calling our corner of Iberia a ‘region’ of Spain…because that’s what Franco called it. We are not a region. We are a nation without a state.” The people of Catalunya live in solidarity with other “stateless nations.” For instance, they find Basque or Galician bars a little more appealing than the run-of-the-mill Spanish ones. Even ATM machines are in solidarity, offering the correct choice of languages. In Barcelona as in Basque Country, you’ll see Catalan and Euskara (the Basque language) with Spanish and Galego (the language of Galicia, in northwest Spain) — and only then German, French, and English.

The fact that these little underdog ethnic groups are all victims to a certain degree of the “tyranny of the majority” contributes to their solidarity. It even factors into the way they travel. On a recent trip to Northern Ireland I was impressed by how many travelers I met from Basque Country and Catalunya. Because the Basques and Catalans feel a kinship with the Catholics of Ireland’s Protestant North, they choose to vacation in Ulster. On the same trip, I saw Israeli flags flying from flag posts in Protestant communities all over Northern Ireland. Understandably, the Protestants planted by a bigger power (England) in Ulster are having a tough time with their indigenous neighbors. Right or wrong, good or bad, it doesn’t matter. They are settlers and they can empathize with Israeli settlers planted in land Palestinians claim and who are having a tough time with their indigenous neighbors.

As we celebrate our first Black president and the long and difficult road America’s ethnic underdogs have traveled, we can pay attention to the modern struggles of Europe’s fascinating ethnic stew, have an empathy for its underdogs, and root for those societies (perhaps inspired by the USA) to come together as we have.

Inflicting the fear of a little homelessness on a paying customer…

Back in the 1970s as a tour guide, I drove 50 or 60 people in little minibuses around Europe with a passion for getting my travelers beyond their comfort zones. It’s fun to look back on the crudeness of my techniques. Today we have the same goals, but pursue them more maturely, gracefully, and effectively — for which the over 10,000 who join us annually can be thankful.

As a 25-year-old hippie-backpacker-turned-tour-organizer, I had this misguided notion that soft and spoiled American travelers would benefit from a little hardship. In retrospect, I was pretty cruel. I’d run tours with no hotel reservations and observe the irony of my tour members (who I cynically thought were unconcerned about homelessness issues in their own communities) being so nervous at the prospect of being homeless for a night. If, by mid-afternoon, I hadn’t arranged for a hotel, they couldn’t focus on my guided town walks. Believing they’d be more empathetic with people who never have a real bed, I thought it might be constructive to let my travelers feel the anxiety of the real possibility of no roof over their heads that night.

I remember booking a group into a horrible hotel above a sleazy bar thinking that would put what I considered petty complaints about hotels in perspective. Seeing a woman from my tour group shivering with fear on top of her threadbare sheets at the threat of bugs, I felt triumphant.

Back when I was almost always younger than anyone on my tour, I made my groups sleep in Munich’s huge hippie circus tent. With simple mattresses on a wooden floor and 400 roommates, it was like a cross between Woodstock and a slumber party. One night I was stirred out of my sleep by a woman sitting up and sobbing. With the sound of backpackers rutting in the distance, she whispered, apologetically, “Rick, I’m not taking this so very well.” I gave her some valium — which was about all I had in my “first aid kit” — and she got through the night.

Of course, I eventually learned that this was the wrong approach and you can’t just force people into a rough situation and expect it to be constructive. Today, after learning from 30 years of feedback from our tour members and the experience of our team of guides, I am still driven to get people out of their comfort zones and into the real world with the help of our tours. But we do it in a way that keeps our travelers coming back for more. (Yesterday my tour sales director told me our sales for 2009 are holding, but only because more than half of those signing up are return travelers.)

For me, seeing towering stacks of wood in Belfast destined to be anti-Catholic bonfires and talking with locals about sectarian hatred helps make a trip to Ireland meaningful. Taking groups to Turkey during the Iraq wars has helped me share a Muslim perspective on that conflict. And visiting a concentration camp memorial is a required element of any trip we lead through Germany.

As a tour guide, I always made a point to follow up these harsh and perplexing experiences with a “reflections time” when I tried only to facilitate the discussion and let tour members share and sort out their feelings and observations. I’ve learned that, even with the comfortable refuge of a good hotel, you can choose to travel to complicated places and have a rich experience. (And when our tour members complain about something, I can’t help but think back on what we used to inflict on our paying customers.)

Hugging Every Color in the Rainbow

My voice is hoarse, my head is spinning, and I can’t get to sleep. I kept hearing the charging rhythm of our daughter’s strong, light footsteps. Before turning in we checked our voice mail. Jackie had somehow accidently dialed her parents while running.

I had to get out of bed, put my clothes back on, and collect some thoughts after an evening I’ll remember for the rest of my life.

I just enjoyed the wildest night I’ve ever had in Seattle. The Westin Hotel was overrun with happy voters as our state’s Democratic Party celebrated. Our two senators and newly re-elected governor (all women) raised their hands in jubilation from a stage overlooking a jam-packed ballroom filled with the new and diverse political landscape of America.

During the party my iPhone was busy with emails from friends in Europe — Matteo in the Cinque Terre wrote “Ciao Rick, You Americans gave to the entire world, after many years, a big sign of an historical changement. Obama President is the right person in the right place for a new world.” Another Italian, Luca, said for America it was “like winning the world cup.” Steven from Ireland is now planning a road trip across the USA with his girlfriend.

And both our kids spontaneously and simultaneously had an animal instinct to rush to the charismatic new leader — the hope of their generation and suddenly a global political icon. In Washington DC, Jackie and her girlfriends ran from her Georgetown University dorm across town all the way to the White House just to jump up and down and scream for joy at the gates of the most powerful house in the world.

Meanwhile, in Indiana, Andy and his buddies had jumped into a car and drove two hours from their Notre Dame campus in South Bend to be at Grant Park in Chicago with a quarter of a million people to welcome our president-elect.

Back in Seattle, at nearly midnight Anne and I were high-fiving the garage attendant and dancing among the taxis blinking their lights and honking their horns. I hugged every color in the rainbow. It seemed every car had its windows rolled down, as if everyone wanted to savor every ounce of the convivial one-ness that was sweeping our city’s streets.

Speeches from both a gracious loser and a gracious victor reminded us that our greatest bond is not our party affiliation but the fact that we are Americans, and that we are one nation with a big job ahead. Talking with Jackie — now about 3 a.m. for her in DC — we celebrated the fact that for her very first presidential election we had just witnessed a peaceful revolution of sorts, and the resilient wonders of American democracy.

Blessed Are Those Who…

Rather than annoy people in this election season with a political blog, I thought I’d be religious today.

As Tuesday approaches, the heated discourse both in our nation’s political arena and on this blog makes me pensive. And today at church the gospel reading (Matthew 5:5-12) seemed made to order for what’s going through my mind and perhaps yours.

Jesus said: Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

Tuscany Votes for Obama

As the US presidential election nears, I am inundated with emails from Europeans telling me they will be ecstatic if Obama wins. I know that alone is enough to drive many proud Americans to vote for McCain.

I’ve been pondering the different ways Americans are received in Europe. When our current president visits a city, the place is literally shut down and his motorcade races through ghostly streets. When Obama visited Berlin, he was greeted by 200,000 Germans waving American flags. Impressively, the McCain campaign turned that into a negative, and Obama’s advisors decided not to gloat about his popularity among Europeans.

On my recent visit to Capitol Hill — where I talked with Members of Congress and their aides about American relations with the rest of the world — people from both parties were really into the concepts of “soft power” (creating goodwill, letting the ideals of America shine and inspire to complement our “hard power,” in which our military might forces compliance) and the “brand of America” (which all agreed needs some serious fixing for the good of our export trade…people just don’t want to “buy American” when it symbolizes torture, pre-emptive war, and a go-it-alone approach to the world).

While most of the European correspondence I’ve received simply begs us to elect Obama, this letter, from an American woman who married local guide Roberto Bechi in Italy, shares more introspectively the European sentiment about our election. (I have never encountered anything from a European favoring McCain over Obama, so I can’t be balanced here.)

27 October, 2008

Dear Editor,

I am a long-time Virginian, raised in Richmond and Harrisonburg. I graduated from D.S. Freeman High School in Richmond, hold two degrees from UVA, and am the (tax-paying) owner/employee of a small business based in Harrisonburg which promotes tours to Tuscany, Italy, my current residence. I am writing in hopes of contributing a bit of international perspective for those who are still undecided as to whether to vote for Senator Barack Obama or Senator John McCain in the presidential race Nov 4th.

America is and always will be my beloved homeland, despite the fact that I now live abroad. Therefore I have been greatly disheartened and dismayed by the changing attitude towards my country, seen first-hand in the comments and questions of my Italian neighbors. Ten years ago, I was the object of curiosity and admiration: upon meeting me, people proudly listed even distant relations in the USA, asked questions both about my culture and how one could visit or work there, and on occasion even marveled at my decision to move here. Alas, that is no longer the case.

Over the past eight years my neighbors’ questions have taken on an increasingly worried tone. They wondered aloud why my country consistently ignored the opinions of other nations in the events leading up to the invasion of Iraq. They asked, preoccupied, whether I really agreed with the use of preventative strikes, and wondered why even the massive public outcry against the war had no effect on public policy. The re-election of Bush made some ask whether all Americans were more concerned with terrorism than prosperity at home or abroad. The flouting of the Geneva conventions at Guantanamo Bay Naval Base further increased that impression…were Americans perhaps so obsessed with “security” that they preferred it to justice itself? It’s important to underline the fact that after 9/11, I was direct witness to an unbelievable outpouring of love and sympathy for my country even from perfect strangers who, upon hearing me speak in English, would stop to express their solidarity. The fact is that we have squandered that good will.

I don’t receive many inquiries about studying abroad in the USA anymore, despite the weak dollar. Our country is not seen to be as welcoming as it once was, for one thing: even if students wish to study in the USA, visas are much more difficult to come by. Furthermore, the attitude of the Bush administration has clearly shown that the US government prefers arms to education, and supports a quasi-religious zealotry over scientific research.

I can assure you, as an American living abroad, that we have lost our moral authority. Where we were once seen as yes, ambitious, but also thrifty, honest, and defenders of the poor, we are now seen to be a nation at once self-centered and overbearing. Europeans no longer count on us to side with projects for the greater good after our willful disregard for the U.N. and refusal to sign on to international agreements like Kyoto.

The moralizing of this administration, particularly regarding issues like human rights and the “right-to-life,” is seen as hypocritical. Why? This is in light of our own human-rights violations, among which can be counted the use of torture at undisclosed locations, our continuing use of the death penalty (illegal in most of the civilized world, and abolished here in Tuscany in 1786!), and now-well-known issues like the fact that 58 million Americans are without healthcare. While Italians are hardly unaccustomed to comical politics with a figure like Berlusconi at the helm, the nomination of Sarah Palin to the McCain ticket has inspired a mixture of amused disbelief and horror. (“Is it true she could not name a single newspaper?”)

I still believe that the United States of America can be a force for good in the world. Despite the current economic mess, we wield great economic and military power. My neighbors here in Italy have not lost faith in their neighbor across the Atlantic. But do not doubt that the world is anxiously awaiting our decision, and desperately hoping that we will turn the page, and move towards collaboration rather than bullying, generosity and outreach rather than withdrawal and protectionism, and healthy growth rather than dangerous, unrestrained greed. Like him or not, Senator Barack Obama is the president who has the best chance of healing our nation and its relationship with the rest of the world. I know — I live there.

Yours sincerely,
Patricia Robison Bechi
Siena, Italy