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

Getting Cozy with the Language Barrier

In Aurora, Illinois, I agreed to have breakfast with the winners of a “funniest story in my travels” contest before I gave my talk.

When I’m on a lecture tour, to be honest, I am focused on the big groups. (And I am amazed at how talking to a 500 people at once can be less demanding of my energy than talking to individuals before or after a talk.) Climbing down the stairs that morning, I went into the breakfast room a little tired and feeling sorry for myself.

The dozen travelers assembled were a delight and I thoroughly enjoyed the breakfast meeting I was not looking forward to. Conversation thrived as the well-traveled gang shared favorite memories of past trips — many were the results of little mishaps, generally caused by the language barrier. Here are my two favorite stories among the winners:

Dear Rick,

On my first trip to Paris several years ago, I was exploring on my own and decided to visit the Musée D’Orsay. I had a museum pass, but the line to get into the museum was still very long. People were standing very close together outside, waiting to enter.

It was a chilly spring day, and I had my left hand holding on to my shoulder bag, while my right hand was tucked into my coat pocket. Suddenly, I felt a gentle touch on my right arm; I turned my head and saw a well-dressed, nice-looking older woman standing next to me. She had linked her left arm through my right arm, and she was smiling happily, looking off to our right.

I thought, “Don’t be an Ugly American and make a scene! She’s not doing any harm, and maybe this is just something they do in France to be friendly. Chill out, relax, and see what happens.”

We stood in line together peacefully for about ten minutes, until the line finally started to move. At that point she glanced at my face and her expression turned to one of absolute horror. She pulled her arm away from mine, turned around and ran away.

I guess she must have gotten separated from her original companion, and I never did see her again, but I was very proud of myself for having kept my “savoir faire” that day.

Thanks for reading my story! Maria C, Oak Park IL

Dear Rick,

My husband and I booked a one-week hotel package at the beach in Italy. We experienced the worst July week at the Adriatic Sea in decades: it rained the whole week. My husband and I had caught a cold and sore throat which were getting worse. My husband decided to buy some Contac (US cold remedy). Being a foreign language teacher, I impressed on him to pronounce the vowels the Italian way (“kohn talk”). He came back and said, yes, he found some.

Before going to bed, I asked him for the “Contac” when I pulled two flat boxes out of the paper bag it was clear that he did not buy “Contac.” The Italian label on the boxes was CONTACTO D’AMORE. He had purchased prophylactics.

Now things became clear to my husband. The (English) conversation in the pharmacy had been difficult. The person had asked him if he wanted 2 or 4. My husband said “Give me 4, my wife has a cold too.” He recalled the clerk giving him a really puzzled look.

Since the product was fairly pricey and my husband was reluctant to return it, I went to the pharmacy and explained the whole thing again. The clerk politely asked me to wait and went to the back of the store. There was a conversation in a low voice and then muffled laughter from the pharmacy staff.

Happy travels, Petra T, Aurora, Il.

You Choose: The Kirov or the Bolshoi?

Enlarge photo

Giving talks in seven cities in seven days this week, I’ve met countless travelers with fun stories to tell. At a Chicago bookstore, I was ambushed by a man who asked me, “So which is considered the better ballet company — the Kirov or the Bolshoi?”

I vaguely remembered that, while Moscow’s Bolshoi was most famous, many contend that the St. Petersburg-based Kirov is better. The man pressed me for as assessment of the Kirov Ballet. I was starting to wonder what was with him.

Then he asked me, “Good as the Kirov is, is it still enjoyable when sitting behind a big pillar?” Then I put it together and laughed. The only person who would know that is Kurt — the guy I palled around with on my Russia trip back in 1993. We bought tickets from a scalper on the street, which got us seats behind a pillar in the nosebleed section of the St. Petersburg concert hall. Even with a seriously obstructed view, we were blown away by the Kirov Ballet.

Enlarge photo

Kurt and I chatted, dredging up fun memories of traveling through Russia in those fitful years just after the break-up of the USSR. At the ballet, the big, heavy, red curtains still had their faint hammer-and-sickle embroidery. I remember thinking that while the communists were out of power, the entire society seemed to be keeping its hammers and sickles handy, as if communism might just rekindle.

We met at the St. Petersburg youth hostel which was (and is) run by a great guy, American expat Steve Carron. Back then, Steve was paying bribes to be left alone by the mafia and doing his banking an overnight train ride away in Tallinn (Estonia).

In 1993, expats in Russia were more into the Internet than we in the West were because, given the lousy communication infrastructure in Russia, it was the best way to keep in touch. The book I was working on that year (covering Moscow, St. Petersburg, and the three Baltic capitals) was the first manuscript I ever emailed home.

The St. Petersburg hostel was a refuge for Western travelers — a humble “Green Zone” where we could meet, eat food that was both affordable and palatable, and be unthreatened by thugs and thieves that seemed to be everywhere.

Enlarge photo

Kurt was like a mountain man, vagabonding around the world for six months — really tough and really hairy. He had just rendezvoused with his power-dressing girlfriend who flew, it seemed, right out of a corporate board meeting in Chicago to join up with him. It was like Green Acres, Russki-style.

Together we took the night train to Moscow — booking four berths for the three of us to have the compartment all to ourselves. The buzz was that train personnel were working with thieves to gas travelers and then steal them blind while they slept — taking even the rings off their fingers.

On the train, we nervously jammed the door latch with a film canister, put a towel along the bottom of the door, left the window open for ventilation, and even put out a photo I took at a St. Petersburg amusement-park fun booth that made me look grotesquely muscular.

A conductor knocked on the door. We let him poke his head in, and he lifted up the lower bunk revealing a tin box the size of a small coffin under the mattress. He said, “You must put all of your valuables in this box for safety. And then you must sleep on it. All of your valuables.” When he was gone, we all thought, “Yeah, right…we’ll wake up with nothing.” And we searched for a hidden door in the tin coffin.

Apparently the thieves picked on some other tourists that night, and we made it safely to Moscow…just in time to see flames coming from the windows of the Russian parliament building. Communist hardliners where holed up in there, in a thrilling standoff with Boris Yeltsin and the Russian army.

Enlarge photo

Pathetic and impoverished senior citizens were demonstrating against democracy and free enterprise, knowing that they would be the ones who suffered most in the transition period. (As it turned out, they — later nicknamed “the Lost Generation” — were right.) When people ask me about the scariest situation I’ve ever been in, I think of the taxi ride out to the Moscow airport. A no-neck guy who looked like a classic Russian mafia thug picked me up in a beat-up old car, and we drove down puddle-filled alleys for an hour past derelict apartments buildings…and all I could think about was movie scenes where the good guy is taken down to the river bank in the tough side of town to be shot.

This guy knew I had a passport, lots of money, and credit cards. And he knew I was completely alone. No one knew me, where I was, or where I was going. It would have been easy for him to just finish me off.

My imagination went wild. I even thought that if I were in his shoes, I’d be seriously considering doing the dirty deed. It would be so easy.

Then the no-neck finally pulled up to the airport, shook my hand, and said, “Have a good fly.”

On the Train to Kankakee

I’m in Aurora, Illinois, back in the USA and midway through a seven-cities-in-seven-days lecture tour. I’ve given eight talks in two days in Minneapolis and Chicago, and am swimming in memories of the fun meetings I’ve had with travelers at all these gigs.

The group I’m talking to later this morning has put me up in an exquisite little “French Colonial” hotel, which I have no time to appreciate (as is generally the case when I’m on the road in the USA).

I’m lying in bed wondering why I won’t go for this opportunity to get a full eight hours of sleep. Three things are on my mind: I’ll be talking to a gang of a thousand in a sumptuous old theater. I have two hours to talk and I’m debating how light and happy versus how edgy and political to be. And I’m reminiscing about a 1993 trip to Russia.

My five events in Minneapolis were all jammed with travelers — huge, enthusiastic groups. My three events (bookstores and a luggage store) in Chicago were small and relatively disappointing. Even so, I met fascinating people. Because they were small groups, we kept things intimate and casual…with lots of Q&A.

One man asked about honeymooning in Ireland…in December. That seemed comical to me and the entire group, so we had fun with that.

A couple — the woman with harsh orange lipstick and the man with Borat hair — came up afterwards and showed me their “Rick Steves prayer cards.” The size of playing cards, they were laminated with goofy photos of me happy in Europe. One said, “Don’t be a grouch.” The other said, “Ricardo says ‘Though shalt not be grumpy.’” They explained that when they traveled, whenever one or the other was complaining or getting in a bad mood, the other would play their card…and they’d get back on track.

That reminded me of the American Girl Scout group I once met in the Swiss Alps (at Walter’s hotel in Gimmelwald). I dropped by one evening as they were eating dinner. As they had based their trip on my material, they were happy to meet me.

The woman leading the group had clearly worked hard and creatively to help make the girls good travelers. To show off, she demonstrated how they had taken a line from the Back Door travel philosophy I lay out in each of my guidebooks as a group motto.

She called the group to order and said, “If it’s not to your liking…” All twenty girls responded enthusiastically in unison, “CHANGE YOUR LIKING!”

Sorry for the delay in getting an entry up on this blog. I’ll finish this with the 1993 Russia trip (flames were coming out of the parliament building in Moscow, where Communist hardliners were holed up during the Boris Yeltsin stand-off)…on my next entry. But right now, I have a talk to give.

Jackie Steves’ Adventures in Morocco

Our daughter Jackie recently returned from a high school-sponsored trip to Morocco. And she’s written a journal about her experience.

Enlarge photo

A year ago, we went to the information session and talked to the students who had gone the year before. All had gotten sick…and still loved it. Listening to them talk about how the trip was a life-changing experience was mesmerizing.

Jackie debated between Morocco and India. She chose Morocco, got sick…and enjoyed a life-changing experience.

Living a month in a rustic village a world away from the comforts of America, Jackie became part of a family so different…and yet (as she learned) clearly so much the same.

As Jackie’s father, I’m a wide-eyed observer. For me, the hardships that came with this experience are the birthing pains of a broader perspective. And the uploading of her journal onto our website is her debut as a travel writer. (Each evening I enjoy watching her eyes as she reads the feedback from her many readers.)

Both as a concerned parent and an exacting travel writer, I read through her journal thinking I could spiff it up. I ended up simply enjoying it. It is a beautiful piece of writing coming right from Jackie’s heart, which (in the spirit of a good travel writer) is motivated to share what she learned.

I hope you can enjoy at least browsing through her Morocco photos. My hunch is, you’ll settle into the text and you’ll magically be seeing that fascinating society…through the eyes of a 17-year-old high schooler.

Thorny Turkish Issue #3: If You Mix Turkey into Europe, Will It Curdle?

I’m wrapping up my take on three thorny Turkish issues. (For the Turkish perspective on the “Armenian Holocaust” and the Kurdish question, see my last two posts.)

Today’s topic: Turkey in the EU.

Governments, corporations, people…so often, they all have a different agenda. That goes for Turkish membership in the European Union, too. Here’s what I picked up last month in Istanbul from Turkish friends:

Though more than 75 percent of Turkish people oppose joining the European Union, the Turkish government and Turkish corporations are making a strong drive to join the EU.

The idea of being a member of a union where nearly 30 member states are represented by a 15-star flag makes skeptical Turks think of the EU as a club of “elites,” where some are more “equal” than the others.

Turks who oppose EU membership are concerned about what they see as European double standards on economics, social issues, and ethnic diversity. Though one of the main assets of being an EU member is free circulation of each member’s citizens throughout Europe, this right will apparently not be granted to Turkish citizens even if the EU accepts Turkey as a member.

To help pave the way to EU membership, since 1995 Turkey has been pressured into allowing EU countries to export their products to Turkey duty-free. But many Turkish products destined for Europe are still restricted by EU quotas.

Though Turkey is a secular state (as required by its constitution), Europe insists on considering it a Muslim nation. Europeans — mindful of the challenges Europe already faces with its Muslim minority — are concerned about admitting into their union a Texas-size country with 75 million people, 90 percent of whom are practicing Muslims.

The “400-pound gorilla in the room” is Europe’s demographic shift. The Continent’s declining birth rate is making it an old folks’ continent. Europeans know that if their population is not infused with fresh immigrant blood, it will start to wither away. But the inability of white Europe and its Muslim minorities (currently 10 percent of the Continent’s population) to assimilate comfortably is a serious problem that won’t just disappear.

It’s no wonder that both Europeans and Turks are split on whether Turkish membership is in their best interests.

What do I think? I can understand Europe being reluctant to suddenly admit such a culturally different group which overnight would amount to nearly one-fifth of its total population.

I also think Turkey would do more good looking east rather than west. Potentially, it can be such a positive link between Christendom and Islam. Geopolitically, I believe the world would be better off if Turkey — which tends to be “Western,” democratic, and moderate — didn’t turn its back on the troubled Middle East and the “-Stans” beyond (opting for the affluence and stability of being a member of the EU), but worked as a leader within its own ethnic, linguistic, and religious world.