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

Packing light – flying away

Two days before departure, and I’m packed and ready to fly. (That’s part of my trip preparation ethic.) Anne and our daughter Jackie join me for a farewell breakfast — one last “eggs any style.” I’m dressed for the long flight — green t-shirt under blue work shirt. Jackie (17 and so stylish) says, “You look like a scrub — OK if you’re painting a house.”

Scrub or not, my bag is light. It is as compartmentalized as a TV dinner: A folding board with four shirts and an extra pair of pants. Stuff bags for little clothes: t-shirt to be cozy in hotel beds (many Italian hotels are unheated in April), underwear, five pairs of socks (two days each…wash every ten days). I used to recommend no electronics. Not any more. I’m packing chargers, adapters, batteries, gadgets to get online, iPod, cell phone, camera, and a laptop. Books (everything I’ll be researching ripped down to minimum, with second copies for local guides to follow). And that miscellaneous bag filled with smart little security-blanket extras you don’t actually need (spot remover, sewing kit, extra glasses, and so on). My toiletries kit is extremely small (so small my staff, claiming no one could manage with this size, refuses to sell it). A folder for papers and my on-the-road office. Valuables these days are pretty minimal: passport, credit cards, drivers’ license. Plane ticket is electronic. A sweater, light jacket, and day bag. That’s it.

All my shoes are on my feet. I broke a rule, buying them just before departure. Tried to break them in on the treadmill. They broke me in. After .7 miles I had a blister. My passport is good until 2013 — but I’m out of blank “visa” pages. I’m hoping they can register entries and departures on the “amendments and endorsements” pages. (I could be in for a lesson.) We claim I’ve tried and tested everything we sell with my name on it. Not quite true. I’m packing our “Rick Steves” liquid soap. I can’t believe it’s as good as we claim. We’ll see.

The ritual ripping of the guidebooks went very well. Slamming the industrial-strength staples into my selected chapters to make slim editions pumps me up for the trip. My black jeans are too tight…I’m committed to getting into shape. New electric gear (faster laptop, serious SLR Nikon D40 camera, portable audio recorder to grab natural sound and interviews on the fly for my radio show) is both exciting and a bit burdensome physically and emotionally. Travel should be simple.

I’m off to the airport.

Blog Gone Europe — 100 days of travel with Rick Steves

Travel writing and guidebook research are two different things. Researching is more technical than creative. I gather, assess, distill and organize data for other travelers’ needs. While travel writing, I become Lady Experience’s willing and eager dancing partner (or…sometimes…whipping boy) hoping to gather insights and lessons and stories because I’m green, vulnerable, and far from home.

Blogging gives me an excuse to write creatively (and prioritize experiences along with the more mundane fact-checking for the guidebooks). And blogging creates an online community of travelers, which I enjoy.

I am embarking upon four months of travel (basically the Mediterranean world in April and May, home for much of June, north of the Alps in July and August), and I’m kicking off a hundred-day blog. This year, I’m emailing home photos, too. If you don’t see an entry every two days, I’m having too much fun (or — more likely — behind in my research or TV work).

My general plan: update guidebooks in Italy and Spain; shoot TV shows in Barcelona and Dordogne; update the guidebook in Croatia; return home; update guidebooks in Denmark, Germany, and Switzerland; shoot TV shows in Burgundy, Switzerland, Czech Republic, and Austria; fly home (late August).

Via this blog, I’d love to sneak you into my backpack. I hope you enjoy the ride. Thanks for coming along.

Home now, final blog.

I’m home…thankful for a safe and smooth trip full of learning. I always marvel at how smooth things go in Europe if you’re on the ball. In six weeks, I can’t think of a mishap.

This blog was more fun (and more time-consuming) than I expected. I’m glad I did it. In fact, I hope to make this a regular part of my travels from now on. It reminded me of the fun I had a few years ago when I went to Europe to write my Postcards from Europe anecdotal book. I went not to make a TV show, lead a tour, or update a guidebook…but with just free time and a notebook.

Every few days on this trip, when it was blog time, I’d rummage through my collection of stray notes and cobble together an entry. Entries generally grew to be larger than I planned…but it’s hard to tell a story correctly without a few paragraphs.

While all notes started out as stray notes, most ended up building something. But some never found a home. Now that my blog is done, I empty the bucket and find these last scraps (which for some reason, I can’t bear to just chuck):

* Soviets learned it’s easier to make something go away (like religion) if it’s not completely forbidden. (I may have been trying to make a marijuana parallel.)

* Parenting on a European vacation changes radically as the kids get older. On this trip (in Dublin) our kids (aged 19 and 16) routinely stayed out later than Anne and I did. In the morning, we’d slip a paper under their hotel room door (we promised not to wake them up) inviting them to join us for breakfast if they were awake. We’d breakfast alone waiting to debrief the kids on their wee hours adventures.

* I told Jackie “I tried to River Dance and almost drowned.” It’s the first time she’s laughed at one of my jokes in a long time.

* The pet peeves entry got me thinking about more pet peeves: Like hotels that put a decorative foot board on their beds that robs good sleep from guests like me over six feet tall. Like when I try to conserve by reusing the little soap bar and the hotel maid throws it out so I need to open a new one each day. Like European sinks that have separate cold and hot faucets (why on earth?). Like elevators that tell you what floor you’re on. And like having to walk back and forth through a long empty slalom of needless stanchions to get to a security check.

* In Helsinki, after a full night of restaurant visits, no one is still serving food. I ended up munching a McDonald’s meal in my hotel room. I actually felt ashamed to walk through the lobby with my McDonald’s bag.

* After visiting several European airports with a strangely relaxing ambiance, I realized why. They don’t have TVs playing CNN in each waiting area. It’s quiet and free of advertising.

Over the last six weeks, I’ve enjoyed the conversation. Thanks to all who participated with their comments. It was hard not to get involved in the discussion, but I made a personal rule to just upload the entries. I have to fess up that (in response to a few harsh comments) I did revisit a few of my entries to clarify points that were unclear or misunderstood. I think I enjoyed the experience so much because it gave me the daily excuse to be more than a guidebook researcher–to be a travel writer (which I really love). And doing this blog let me enjoy the best of both travel worlds: I was traveling both alone…and with a gang of travel partners. Thanks for joining me on my trip. And thanks also to the special reader who made sure I will never again misspell Chiwawa.

Happy travels, Rick

Sticky, Clammy Hands

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.

I wash you twice…relax

In my work, I struggle almost daily with this issue: is an experience actually a unique and living slice of this culture or is it a cliché kept alive by the tourist industry. For instance, in Finland: the sauna.

There are only a few public saunas still around in Helsinki. Why? Because, with the affluence here, most people have them in their homes or cabins. Gritty working-class neighborhoods are most likely to have a public sauna. So, I got on the subway and that’s where I headed. Finding the address, my first sight made it clear: this place was not for tourists. Outside, a vertical neon sign in simple red letters read: SAUNA. Under it, a gang of Finnish guys wrapped only in small towels and enjoying bottles of beer filled a clutter of white plastic chairs–expertly relaxing.

As there wasn’t a word of English anywhere, I relied on the young attendant at the window for instructions. He explained the process: pay €7, grab a towel, strip, stow everything in an old wooden locker, wear the key like a bracelet, shower, enter the sauna…and reeeeelax. “Was it mixed?” “No, there’s a parallel world upstairs for women.” “What about getting a scrub?” He pointed to a woman in an apron and said, “Talk directly with her…€6 extra.”

The sauna was far from the sleek, cedar pre-fab den of steam I expected. Six crude concrete steps with dark wooden railings and rustic walls created a barn-like amphitheater of steam and heat. A huge iron door closed off the wood stove (as it was busy burning its cubic meter of wood a day). The third step was all the heat I could take. Everyone else was on the top level–for maximum steam and heat. Taking in my towel, I wondered if it was used for hygiene or modesty. Once inside, the answer was clear…neither.

People look more timeless and ethnic when naked with hair wet and stringy. The entire scene was three colors: grey concrete, dark wood, and ruddy flesh. There was virtually no indication of what century we were in. I fantasized I was in the 1700s. From the faces, somehow it was perfectly clear: this was Finland…and these were tough working class guys. Each had a tin bucket between their legs–for cool splashing of the face. I didn’t talk to anyone actually in the sauna as I sensed they weren’t thrilled to have tourists as voyeurs in their domain. (I knew this was a lost opportunity…not good travel.)

I asked the young attendant about birch twigs. He explained that by slapping your skin with these, you enhance the circulation and the roughed up leaves emit a refreshing birch aroma. He insisted it must be birch for chlorophyll–that opens the sinuses. But the bin of birch twigs sat on the bottom concrete step, unused.

Part two of a good sauna is the scrub down. The woman in the apron–looking like a Stalin-era Soviet tractor driver–was dousing one guy who sat on the plastic chair looking like a lifeless Viking gumby. I asked “Me next?” She welcomed me to her table. Wearing a white and green vertical striped house dress under her tough apron, she scrubs men one at a time all day long. Sitting on the table, I ask “up or down?” She pushes me down…belly up…and says “This is perfect. I wash you twice.” Lying naked as a fish on the plastic sheet…I felt like a salmon on a cleaning table ready for gutting. With sudsy mitts she works me over. She hoses me off…which makes me feel even more like a salmon.

It’s extremely relaxing. (It would be entirely relaxing but for my anxiety that I might show how much I’m enjoying the experience.) From deep in my scalp to between my toes, she washes me twice. Stepping back out into that gritty Helsinki neighborhood, I have affirmed my hope: that the sauna is no cliché kept alive for tourists.