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

Sweeping generalizations are fun…

I know it’s bad form for a travel writer (or anyone) to generalize about entire nationalities, but doing so intrigues me – like People Magazine intrigues many Americans. Finishing up our TV shoot in Vienna, I had lunch with a woman from the tourist board. She has her finger on the pulse of Vienna’s tourism industry. I quizzed her on her take of the main national groups who visit. Here’s how she sees these groups of tourists:

Americans–fast visits…never really arriving; Russians–great shoppers; Italians–big families, loud; Japanese–wild about classical music, taking millions of photos; and the French–well informed, sophisticated (for example, coming all the way here for special art exhibits). East Europeans: In the 1990s, they were infamous for coming in on a long overnight bus ride, munching sausages from home, and leaving on the same bus without spending a penny on a hotel or restaurant. Today, Poles, Russians, Hungarians, and other Eastern Europeans spend serious money and are a major part of Vienna’s tourism economy. I didn’t ask her to generalize about travel writers.

No Satisfaction in Vienna

I was in Demel’s, in the fanciest cafe in Vienna, today filming. They said we were welcome to work there until noon when “a famous person was coming by.” Everyone wondered who it would be…The Rolling Stones are in town and so are The Who. I thought I might be in for a rock ‘n roll treat. We were out by noon, when George Lucas dropped by for a Sacher Tort and a Coffee.

The Viennese–so finished with imperial excess–are still talking about the visit of George W. Bush last week. They’re not that fond of our president over here. Newspapers say he is greeted with all “the warmth of a legal deposition.” The president and Laura didn’t come by Demel’s. (Demels–once the Hapsburg Emperor’s favorite bakery–still has its marzipan statue bust of an edible Bill Clinton in its window…a souvenir of a happier visit.)

Speaking of the Rolling Stones: Mick Jagger booked the presidential suite in the Imperial Hotel–Vienna’s palace of hotels–a year in advance for a performance here. When President Bush and his entourage decided to visit, they wanted in at the Imperial. The Imperial asked the Stones if they would be willing to switch. The Stones said no way. Later, Keith Richards fell out of a coconut tree in Fiji, hurt his head, and they cancelled their Vienna concert. According to a now popular local legend (likely not true), the Bush party asked if they could have the room then. Mick–old, but still a bad boy–said they’d keep the reservation even if they weren’t coming.

The Bush party (locals say over 200 strong) ended up in the ugly Intercontinental Hotel. According to my local guide: “They booked four floors so no one would know which room the president was in. They flew in thirty big American cars. And they even brought with them all the president’s food along with a cook. Any cars of local people still parked along the route the president took from the airport to his hotel were towed away. They were so worried about bombs…even bicycles were removed. Entire sections of the old center of town had to be closed down when the first lady decided to do a little shopping. It was a very bad day for merchants.”

Misinformation and a phantom coffee shop menu…

Working with my film crew here in Vienna, I’m trying to get the straight story on so much history. I keep remembering Napoleon’s quote: “What is history but a legend agreed upon.”

This afternoon, I dropped into a famous cafe with my cameraman. My hope: to find its rare surviving example of the Vienna coffee menu with a dozen or so shades of brown for customers to order exactly the milkiness of the coffee they desired. The waiter laughed in a snide way, saying some stupid travel writer cooked up that legend decades ago and journalists like you keep coming here looking for a color-coded menu that never existed.

To make my point, I too often accept false history and flat out wrong “factoids.” And, my worst fear is adding to the mess.

For centuries, French was Europe’s common language. I just assumed the term for common language, linguafranca, was literally “French Language.” For a decade that’s what I’ve been “teaching,” and suddenly someone emails me the truth: ‘franca’ is Latin for free or common. The French were named for a gang of barbarians who called themselves “free people” or Franks.

For twenty years I called Paolo, the big never-smiling grumpy man who ran my favorite guest house in the Cinque Terra, Sr. Sorriso. His place was, after all, “Pension Sorriso.” I must have introduced a hundred tour groups to Paolo Sorriso at check-in time. Then Paolo died, and I read his death notice: Paolo Favetta. I ask his brother, “what’s the deal? Favetta? You never told me. All these years I called your brother Sr. Sorriso. He never corrected me!” What’s with Sorriso? His brother, just as grim as Paolo, explained Sorriso means smile. All that time I was sleeping at Pension Smile.

Teaching Falsehoods…

I’m beginning a fifty day research trip to bolster my teaching. I love to teach. The only jobs I’ve ever had are teaching what I love: music (piano teacher) and travel (tour guide/writer). Crossing a border they ask me my profession. I say teacher. But much as I try, I teach falsehoods. I try to be unbaised…but, like any teacher or journalist, my reporting is seen through my lens and is therefore distorted. With more readers, I get more friendly scrutiny.

In keeping with the global perspective I like to nurture, I want to think God and Allah are the same creator–but today I’m reminded firmly via email that the Christian God is “triune” (three-in-one–father, son and holy spirit) and Allah is just one.

When my boy Andy was just 3 or 4 I taught him to finish table prayers by putting his hands straight out, bobbing them up an down and saying “Allah, Allah, Allah”…just to freak out his ethno-centric grandpa. Now I realize I may have been mixing up my Gods. Oops.

Vienna opera…under the stars

Tonight I’m happy to include something extremely European in the Vienna TV show we’re shooting. At twilight, the park in front of the city hall here is filled with thousands of people enjoying a food circus of 24 simple stalls. There’s not a paper plate of plastic cup anywhere–just real plates and glasses, as Vienna wants the quality of eating to be as high as the music that’s about to begin. A kid on a tiny green truck toddles by, reminding me this is a multi-generational scene.

A sixty foot wide TV screen up against the neo-Gothic facade of the city hall is blank, but already people are settling into the 3,000 folding chairs. Then, darkness falls, the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra strikes up, and a performance of the Vienna State Opera begins (Donizetti’s Love Potion). Since 1991, the city has paid for this event for sixty summer nights each year (offering sixty different performances). Why? To promote culture. A year ago the original live performance of tonight’s film was sold out…much of the audience is people who couldn’t get tickets. Officials know the City Hall Music Festival is mostly a “meat market” where young people come to hook up. But they believe that many of these people will develop a little appreciation of classical music and high culture on the side. It’s the end of my third day in Europe. Tomorrow morning at 8:00 we’re all alone with Rubens, Durer, Raphael, and the best of the Hapsburg art collection.