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

Blog Addiction…Somebody Stop Me

Two years ago my son did a blog for his first European adventure without parents. It was nostalgic for me because he was 18 and heading out with his best buddy the day after high school graduation, exactly as I did back in the “Europe on Five Dollars a Day” era.

I bribed him (with a Eurailpass) to write a blog for our website, not realizing I would become the avid blog reader — traveling with him…checking in every couple of days…anxious — even upset — if he didn’t have a new entry. I was reliving the best trip of my life (1973) while stowing away with my son via his blog.

Inspired by the fun I had following Andy, last year I blogged my own trip. I couldn’t believe how writing it complicated an already filled-to-the-brim schedule — and I enjoyed the added responsibility immensely. It’s just fun to share. It’s a joy for me to have an excuse to write more casually than for a guidebook, TV script or newspaper column. And it’s fun to see the gang of travelers responding to my quirky insights.

This year I pledged to do a “100 days blog.” It actually stretched to five months — April through August. Last years entries totaled 16,000 words. This year’s totaled 45,000 words. All of you blog readers were my late night conversation partners…and I was chatty. (I’m distilling those 45,000 words into a 64-page printed booklet — Dancing with Europa II— which we’ll give out free at my talks and so on as we did with last year’s blog. Talk about old school…going from blog to print!)

I’ve been trying to shut the book on this year’s blog…but it’s hard to do. I’ll be in Greece (a two-week tour with my wife), Rome (filming a video on the life of St. Peter for my church), and in Istanbul (breaking in our new Istanbul guide) next month and I know I’ll want to report via a blog.

Lots of you are asking for a continuation. My staff thinks it would be good business. And I enjoy it. My concern is that I won’t have the time (I didn’t in Europe either) or interesting experiences (Edmonds vs. Istanbul…). But each day, my desk is a ping pong table of little opportunities and challenges. Perhaps they’ll be interesting to share.

I appreciate travelers enjoying our TV, radio and guidebooks, and I enjoy taking them, as friends, candidly behind the scenes a bit. So, I will continue my blog. While my goal is an entry every two days while on the road, I’ll shoot for two entries a week while at home.

Thanks for staying with me. Keep your comments coming. I enjoy reading them as much as I hope you enjoy reading mine. Happy travels, Rick

Killing Copenhagen Babies

My trip itinerary was so intense and fast-paced that I never had a chance to completely finish up many of the guidebook chapters I researched. I’ve spent the last two days doing exactly that.

I just finished editing my chapter on Copenhagen. It’s important for good writers to diligently “kill your babies.” That means don’t force your favorite little factoids into a chapter or article if they don’t fit. No matter how much you like them, throw them out rather than mucking up a well-designed bit of writing.

I had to kill a little stack of Copenhagen babies. Then the happy thought hit me: I can blog them back to life by sharing them with you. Here are a few Copenhagen factoids that will not be in the new edition of my Scandinavia book:

The Danish weather blows through. Don’t be fooled by sun in morning. Leave your hotel prepared to layer it.

Copenhagen ruled Scandinavia essentially from 1397-1523. During that time, it put the three Nordic crowns on its seals. Even today, it still clings to the three crowns notion as you’ll see the three crown emblem all over town. During its golden age, Copenhagen bottled up Baltic Sea trade.

Copenhagen suffered lots of 18th century fires. That’s why the city center is distinctly 18th century: no timber, only bricks, lots of neoclassical blocks, wider streets and corners snipped off so fire trucks could zip around in a hurry when necessary. Modern buildings keep the snipped-corners motif to this day.

Prostitution is legal, so most prostitutes are now off the streets and work as call girls. The only prostitutes remaining on the streets are drug addicts and immigrants, mostly Slavic.

Denmark is a beer-drinking nation. As late as 1921, state schools started the student’s day with a nutritious glass of beer. Until recently, Swedes came to Denmark to get drunk. But with Swedish membership in the EU, their beer is now cheaper. These days, it’s the Norwegians coming to get drunk on relatively cheap Danish beer.

There, I feel like my babies dodged a bullet.

A Few Answers to Your Questions

This summer I’ve enjoyed posting my submissions and then staying out of the conversation, letting all of you toss your ideas around. As a silent observer, I’ve learned lots and enjoyed the discussion. Here are a few questions asked via the blog that I think deserved a thoughtful response.

Question:You have talked about preparing for a trip, but how do you decompress from one? How do you make the adjustment back to your “other routine” in the States?

Answer:My big concern is not getting swept up in the home-front priorities before I can follow through on all my writing and get all my notes cleanly shuffled into the grey matter of Europe Through the Back Door. (With the glut of data plaguing our society lately, I am really into “design” of travel information these days.) My wife runs the show when I’m gone, and it’s an adjustment for her and me to be a partnership again, rather than two autocrats under one roof. I settle reluctantly from an active life to a more sedentary one — promising to keep in shape as I am in Europe…but never following through. My body agrees to stay healthy for the intense 60 consecutive days of work on the condition that I take it easy for awhile once home. If I cheat, I get sick.

Question:Regarding the girl in Bosnia who wanted you to pay her to take a photo: Did you give the scarved young lady the euro she requested? What is your policy on paying the locals for the privilege of taking their photos?

Answer:She was dressed up and positioned for the purpose of tourists taking her photo. I took her photo because she looked great — and happily paid her the euro. If I’m just grabbing a candid shot of a local, I never pay.

Question:Does it ever get old traveling?

Answer:For me, travel is accelerated living. I live and learn triple each day on the road what I’d experience at home. If I wasn’t assured of going home, I might think differently, but for me, travel is as fresh as ever. I still fly home pondering my next trip.

Question:You have wonderful descriptions of towns and cities in your books and blogs, with a mix of modern and historical significance, but I wondered if you could comment more on the area’s natural histories, its parks and preserves? Is there any wilderness left in Europe?

Answer:I report on what I am personally enthusiastic about: history, contemporary issues, efficient travel, art, culture, cities. For an enthusiastic rundown on flora, fauna, geology, folk tales and myths, adventure sports, and shopping — topics that, while perfectly legit, just aren’t that interesting to me — you’ll do better with another travel writer. I have a particularly bad attitude about geology. I know it’s silly to think this, but to me geology is “anti-history” or maybe “history without people.” As a tour guide, I recognized my shortcoming here and once offered a geologist on my bus the microphone for five minutes a day as we drove to discuss the geology of the regions we were traveling through. I tried to enjoy his rocks and ridges moments — but it was absolutely dreadful…one of the biggest mistakes of my tour guiding career.

Question:As a Swiss fan of yours, I struck by how negative your blog became while in Switzerland. I am not particularly patriotic, and I know that you are a very critical traveler, but I get the impression that (except for your favorite alpine village of Gimmelwald) you do not particularly like Switzerland. Why? Is it too sterile? Not friendly? Too expensive? Is it because of the banking industry? And please note that my family has been eating cheese fondue in summer for generations.

Answer:Sometimes I fear I’ll stutter with superlatives about the wonders of Europe. I try to hold back on the giddiness sometimes. Maybe for me, Switzerland is like the kid at high school who’s a great athlete, has perfect hair, the best girl friend and who all the teachers love. Sometimes you just want to see him trip or get a pimple. Switzerland’s cities are great — and the tourist board is expert at shaping their image. While I like the cities, I find that there are more real travel thrills per mile, minute and dollar up in the mountains. Perhaps my agenda for Switzerland was to find flaws. (It’s the opposite of humble Olomouc in Moravia, which has so little beyond its rough charm going for it.) About fondue: I’ll stand by my belief that it’s a winter meal. If it wasn’t for tourists, I think most fondue restaurants in Switzerland would shut down in the summer. Having said all this, we did bring home a show that I’m thrilled about, which makes the great Swiss cities look absolutely wonderful. Stay tuned.

[Drop by in a couple days…and we’ll sum things up.]

Flying Home

Eating breakfast after two months of hotel breakfasts, Cameron, my co-author and travel buddy, asked if I get homesick. Sure I miss my family. But living on the road — even if I don’t like the cheese pastry that is today’s breakfast — puts a curve in my road, a little syncopation in life’s beat. It makes the mundane memorable. Then a chimney sweep walks by.

I like this minimalist aspect of travel. Light bag, open mind, a humble room with heavy shutters — ready to be pushed open to greet a new morning — is all I need for a springboard into the world.

At the airport ready to fly home, I survey my luggage. My mind flies back to early trans-Asian trips when you’d routinely comb through your bags at each border crossing looking for drugs planted on you by people working with corrupt police.

I remembered a backpacker who discovered a hunk of hash in his heavy army coat three people short of the Pakistani border guard. Panic on his face, he looked around, considered his options…and just ate it like the last bite of a Mars bar.

Today, the only edible I had was a Ziploc bag of sunflower seeds I carried from Seattle through the entire trip and never used — an edible security blanket I never needed. I’ve been on the road 60 days in a row (120 out of the last 150). My body is lean but tired. My brain is still spinning — yet tired.

At Heathrow, I met Jake from Toledo, Ohio. He ran to me, abandoning his parents at the exchange desk. Wow! He watched all my shows. He and his family we’re going to “do Europe.” I asked him his age. Fourteen.

It was a beautiful encounter. I was fourteen with my parents on my first trip. Jake was just like me and my family in 1969: doing it all wrong. While they had no guidebook, were changing money at the rip-off desk, and packing heavy, they were wide-eyed and hungry for the world. As I flew home, ready to embrace home and family again…I had a hunch Jake was starting something really big.

Communalism in a Red Bull Europe

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Throughout my travels this summer, I’ve been struck by the different ways societies and great cities handle their challenges. Everyone wants to live well.

Denmark is so expensive, yet so efficient. People live better than their income would suggest — in fact, they seem to live extremely well. I don’t understand the inner-works of a society, but Danish society seems to be a social internal-combustion engine in a glass box. High taxes, all interrelated and connected. It seems Scandinavians have evolved as far as socialism can go without violating the necessary fundamentals of capitalism. Communalism.

What happens when a tune-up is needed? “Who does it?” I ask. My Danish friends say, “The government.” What does government represent in Denmark: corporate or the people’s interest? Clearly the people’s. Danes say, “If our government lets us down, we let ourselves down.”

In a Danish village, you are allowed to pick berries and nuts “no more than would fit in your hat.” I saw Danish communalism in the reaction a friend had in that village when the biggest hotel in town started renting bikes. They don’t need to do that — it is Mrs. Hansen’s (who runs the bike-rental shop next to the gas station) livelihood. Of course there’s no law forbidding it…it was a matter of neighborly decency.

Switzerland has its own approach to persistent social problems. Once someone pointed out Switzerland’s syringe-vending machines, I saw them in every city — big, blocky vending machines which, if you read the paint-overs carefully, originally sold cigarettes, then condoms, and now syringes. The same syringes cost 1 Swiss franc in Bern and 3 in Zürich. I wondered why.

Another little difference I noticed in Swiss cities is their system of garbage collection. People buy bright-blue bags for 2 SF ($1.50) each. Each plastic bag includes pick-up service. They just fill the bags with garbage, put them on the curb, and they’re picked up.

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As I travel, I have picked up these ideas in conversations. They’re not clear to me. Perhaps you can help.

Someone told me that war doesn’t shape history, successful systems and economics do. Maybe it’s roads and free trade — freedom to learn and challenge — that makes history. War powers like Sparta, Prussia, and the Third Reich have left relatively little for today’s sightseers — the warrior cultures ultimately have had little impact. English is spoken because England (and later the USA) had (and have?) the best system. Rome’s impact was thanks to trade and roads–not its centurions.

Societies advance in a Darwinian way. Like Adam Smith’s invisible hand directs the evolution of economies, what makes people happy directs the evolution of social and political systems.

As I headed to the airport earlier this summer in Zagreb, people were running to catch their trams. At the airport coffee shop, a manager had his staff scurrying to provide high-priced drinks to fast-paced, Red Bull-slurping Croats. Above the cash register was a photo of Pope John Paul II smiling on and tenderly touching the flag of a new and free nation — Croatia.

Surrounded by a shiny, new, and affluent Croatia, it was clear to me that when left to grow — nourished by democracy, capitalism, and national pride — the cultural garden of Europe (and lands beyond) can be both diverse and fruitful.