People seem to be fascinated by how I handle “my celebrity” in Europe. It’s kind of strange to talk about it, but here’s my take on this:
When you’ve had a TV show on the air for over 100 episodes and 15 years, lots of people recognize you. I often hear about how some people in my shoes are rude to “their public” when viewers say “Hi” and want to chat. Even if I didn’t enjoy it, I think it would take more energy to be rude than to be polite to people who enjoy your show. The fact is, I flat out enjoy the fans of my books and TV shows who recognize me in Europe.
On rare occasions when I seem rude to these people, it’s impressive to me how I’ll hear about it via e-mail later on. There is a strong expectation from fans that you take time with them. I am thought to be “rude” occasionally and it’s almost always when people want to stop and talk and get an autograph when I’m under a time pressure with my TV crew (memorizing lines, trying to do an “on camera” performance, or in a TV production-related crises).
Another example of me upsetting a fan was in Rothenburg. I know when I go on the now famous “Nightwatchman’s Tour” that half the people on the tour will be there because of the high recommendation the tour gets in my guidebook. I find Georg, the Nightwatchman, so entertaining that I take his tour year after year. And, each year when I drop by, I cause a commotion that takes attention away from Georg’s performance. As a kind of performer myself, I know how this can be a problem. So, I kind of slink into the crowd hoping not to be recognized. On my last visit, I was recognized by a family while Georg was doing his shtick. I told them to direct their attention to Georg–it was his show after all–and not me. Judging from the emails that flew around after that episode, it was clear they were really upset with me.
When I meet someone, I routinely shake hands, ask where they’re from, and enjoy a little chat. While this can get out of hand and slow me down, it’s fun (and of practical value, as they have invariably been doing things I’m working on in my research–often things I don’t have time to actually do myself–and I can pick their brains about the experience).
I know a character named Jimmy in Tangiers, Morocco who when some one says their home town, he’ll respond with their telephone area code. (For instance, he asks, “Where are you from?” I say, “Seattle.” He responds, “206.”) He’s amazing about this…but the recent addition of so many new area codes must be giving Jimmy fits. I do something similar with PBS call letters. I’m generally bad at remembering such details, but for some reason, I have a knack for remembering station call letters. I always ask where someone’s from. I respond with the call letters. When someone says “I’m from Tampa” I just have to respond “WEDU.” Sacramento…”KVIE–that’s a great station”… Calgary–“KSPS” (Spokane covers Alberta)…and so on.
The only bad thing about meeting all these great people in my travels, is that many of them have sticky and clammy hands. When out in public and shaking hands all day long, you become like a Hindu in India (divvying up the job your hands do according to needs for cleanliness). While to a Hindu, the left hand is the dirty one, I shake hands with my right hand and eat finger food with my left. So many times I wash my hands for a meal and then, on the way back to the table, I hear, “Hey Rick…love your show.” And naturally, I shake hands. My TV producer, Simon, who I’ve spent probably well over 400 days in Europe with, cringes every time I take my glass of water under the table to rinse off my once clean, but now sticky again hands. Rinsing my hands (discretely) under the table has become a crude ritual for me.
Something that goes hand in hand with shaking lots of hands is posing for lots of photos. When someone tries to get a stranger to take our picture, I often just grab the camera and take the photo. While it’s quite simple, people are impressed when I hold a camera up and away and click a portrait of the two of us with my other arm around the person I’ve just met.
Interactions are often strange. For some reason many people walk right up to me out of the blue and say, “You’re not Rick Steves?!” Occasionally, I agree and walk on. Another common comment I get from strangers who recognize me: “You look just like Rick Steves.” Depending on my mood, I occasionally say, “Yeah, lots of people say that.” And I walk on. While my European friends are almost appalled at the casual “Hey Rick” I get from strangers, I really enjoy it.
I particularly enjoy meeting Canadians on the road. I thank them for being Canadians and not bending to American pressure every time they want to organize their society in a way that doesn’t please our government. I encourage them, remind them that God put Canada next to America for good reason, and I thank them again for staying strong. As we chat, the topic of my accent often comes up and I explain that many people think I sound Canadian because my Norwegian grandparents homesteaded in Edmonton, Alberta and my Mom, who is Canadian, taught me to talk.
In my guidebooks, I’m not that much into consistency. You can actually read into my material what happened to me where. If there’s lots of romantic evening coverage, it was likely a place where my wife Anne joined me. If I got sick in a town, you’ll find details about a clinic or hospital there. If I was really exhausted, you’ll find a masseuse listed. I just travel and do my best to bushwhack a smooth path. I live Europe as wide-eyed, naively, and eagerly as the image I have of my readers, hoping to collect experiences that will help those with my guidebook next year.
I don’t know if it’s because I’m getting forgetful or because there’s just more to remember (as I cover more territory deeper and deeper), but I’ve noticed a reoccurring pattern lately. As I research, I “discover” something really exciting. I take notes, write it up, then, when I turn the page…I see it’s already researched and written up. What’s interesting for me as I analyze this phenomenon is that there’s a remarkable consistency. Years after my first encounter with what I think is a new nook or cranny, it will impact me the same. I’ll observe the same quirky details to try to make it vivid and I’ll write it up–completely oblivious to my previous coverage of it. And then, when I find the previous write-up–it’s almost exactly the same. I guess that’s good.