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

Warping European Reality

Many TV producers joke that their work is all about “warping reality.” I’m working really hard to show the truth. But it occurs to me that I, too, am warping reality. I have an image of Europe that I want to share. When I learn that my wishful thinking is not the truth, it is a challenge for me to accept the new reality.

I often have a script-driven agenda: I wanted to show “typically Welsh” people in Cardiff, but could only find immigrants on the street. I wanted to show traffic that “stayed in its lanes like rocks in an avalanche” in Rome, but found only polite and law-abiding traffic. I wanted to show tough alpine peasant stock in Liechtenstein, and found only kids that looked like Americans, Swiss people on holidays, and Croatians serving them in the restaurants.

In producing our show, we don’t shoot ugly things. We want to make Europe “easy on the eyes.” (I’ve talked my producer, Simon, into showing only two toilets in 70 episodes.) Whether as a tourist, guidebook writer, or TV producer — and whether in Paris or Bergen or Prague — I acknowledge only the historic core of a city…about 5 percent of it. We just made Zürich, Luzern, and Bern look great, showing only the historic core. In doing so, we ignored 95 percent…and contributed to the tunnel-vision of prospective visitors to these cities.

Europeans cities have forests of cranes, lots of scaffolding, and plenty of graffiti. But the images we bring home — whether for our TV episodes or for your photo scrapbooks — crop that out. Cameras roll when good-looking people walk by, when slick cars roll past, and when sunshine makes colors “pop.” Someone with a huge mole or a terrible skin problem is too distracting to have talk to the camera — even if they have something important to say.

Europe is full of punks, beggars, Bolivian music troupes, and immigrants violating preconceived ideas of who will draw your beer. You won’t see them on the show. We found the perfect spot on a bridge to film an “on camera” (when I talk to the camera), but had to disguise the “F**k Bush” slogan spray-painted on the wall behind me.

I want to show a Europe untainted by corporate logos. It’s just reflex to shoot around the now omnipresent Starbucks, McDonalds, and café umbrellas advertising Coke. My camera strap has a bold yellow “Nikon” on it — which is felt-penned out and flipped upside down when filming. I don’t even show my own guidebooks in our TV shows. (I get my little “ad” at the end, but just try to find any “product placement.”)

The tourist board guides who help us have an agenda, too. In Liechtenstein, they assumed we’d shoot the casino and a falconry exhibition and not talk about the Prince, who threatened to abandon his country if he didn’t get more political power. (We compromised and did none of these.) In Bern, they could get us into their parliament building, but not the needle-distribution desk at the heroin maintenance center. (We did both.)

My earlier producers had an agenda, too: film “people of color” traveling whenever possible to imply more diversity among European travelers, and avoid showing people smoking. Those two concerns aren’t even on my radar.

But I jump at the chance to illustrate a society that is committed to public transit and pedestrian zones. I enjoy showing people biking without wearing helmets (as Europeans do) as a kind of “take that” to a society that is so diligent about that issue while so enamored with guns. I also like to show the responsible consumption of beer and wine in the presence of children — because I think a social scene that is not segregated by generation is a good thing.

Any media warps reality. Travel media generally conditions you to find the Europe of your dreams. My shows — if I’m honest — show you the Europe of my dreams. I know how easy it is to warp reality in travel media. Consequently, I know that other media, as well, can also cause me to loose track of just what’s a window and what’s a funhouse mirror.

Little, Little Liechtenstein

“Two centuries ago, there were dozens of independent states in German-speaking Europe. Today, there are only four: Germany, Austria, Switzerland…and Liechtenstein.” That’s how I start the bit on Liechtenstein in our “Little Europe” episode.

I love the way tiny countries are defined so clearly by geography. Liechtenstein is a bowl in the mountains — high ridges on the east, milky baby Rhine River still giddy from its tumble out of the Alps running south to north on its west, and a stout and classic castle guarding the entry to the valley on the south. About the size of Manhattan, it’s truly landlocked, with no seaport and no airport.

We had a day to shoot it, and a guide to make sure we got it right. The good news — it was gloriously sunny. The bad news — it was Sunday, and the streets were dead. We drove around looking for a few of the 35,000 people with Liechtenstein passports, and found little more than empty villages.

The prince was in the news recently for threatening to actually abandon his principality if his citizens didn’t give him more political power. Liechtensteiners, who seem pretty easygoing about these things (women didn’t claim the right to vote until 1984), accepted his demands. Now, apparently, Prince Liechtenstein has more real authority than any other royal in Europe. (Though ruling a country the size of Manhattan, with the population of Yankee Stadium on an off day, doesn’t exactly give you a lot of power.)

The prince’s palace — not open to the public — overlooks his domain from atop a cliff. We knocked on the door, and the guard looked at me and my film crew like we were nuts.

I ended the segment at the literal top of the country, saying, “Like Switzerland, a big part of the principality’s modern economy is tourism and sports — hosting visitors enjoying its dramatic natural beauty. Ski lifts, busy both winter and summer, take nature-lovers to the dizzying ridge that serves as the border with Austria. Even in little, little Liechtenstein…the views are big, and the hiking possibilities are endless.”

Crossing the Rhine back into Switzerland, we snooped around to find the perfect vantage point from which to film a wide shot showing the entire country. Liechtenstein all faces west. The entire country is in shade late into the morning. And each evening it’s all bathed in the rich light of the setting sun. When our cameraman took the big camera off the tripod, our Little Europe show was in the can.

Over the last two years, we dropped into San Marino, the Vatican, Monaco, Andorra, and now Liechtenstein. In just over a year, the show will air on PBS. As we zipped back to Zürich — just an hour away on the autobahn — I pondered just how candid I want to be about the visit-worthiness of three of these little lands.

(By the way, in response to comments that I seem down on Switzerland: I really like Switzerland — from the lakefront promenades of its elegant cities to the scalps of its Alps.)

Scaloppini or Kalbsschnitzel?

There are two kinds of Swiss restaurants — with and without cooked cheese. The Swiss eat out at a “cooked cheese restaurant” because they don’t want to stink up their house with the smell. But, when eating out, the Swiss carefully avoid a “cooked cheese restaurant” if they are not having fondue or raclette. Also, only tourists eat fondue in summer. I just saw the sorriest sight in all of Luzern: a fondue restaurant in August serving two lonely tourists.

Being just over the border from France and Italy, the Swiss seem to have an inferiority complex about the quality of their restaurants. My Swiss friend brags, “In western Switzerland, our restaurants have the most Michelin stars per kilometer.” I say, “Perhaps that’s because Michelin hides its money here.” My Swiss friend says, “Let’s talk about the weather.”

At an Italian restaurant in Luzern the menu listed everything in Italian and German. The Italian sounded more appetizing than the German to me: I was all set for scaloppini…until I read the German name (Kalbsschnitzel),and went with something else.

I asked the waitress to translate “Autruche”on the menu. She said, “It’s the one that puts its head in the sand.” She was German, from Berlin. I asked how she liked working in Switzerland. She said, “Good, except we get only four weeks vacation here. In Germany, workers all get at least six.”

I bought six liters of water for the crew at supermarket for the cost of three half-liter bottles at a convenience store. Convenience stores all over Europe are convenient…but supermarkets are a far better value.

Driving out of Beaune, in Burgundy, we came to a blight of roadside billboards and it occurred to me: Europe is generally free from highway billboards.

Driving through the Swiss countryside hoping for good weather tomorrow for filming, we notice fields blanketed in fresh-cut hay. The farmers don’t cut hay unless they figure the weather will stay dry. Love to see that cut hay. We’ve been blessed with perfect weather for the production of two TV shows in a row.

Wilting War Memorials

It’s interesting to think how sightseeing thrills go cold with time. I was just at Luzern’s much-vaunted Swiss Transport Museum. A huge photo-realistic map of Switzerland showing literally every building in the country (which slipper-wearing visitors would walk on as they explored their country) is now (after Google Earth) quaint and underwhelming. We went in with the camera ready to roll…and left having dropped it from the script.

The stamp museum I just saw in Liechtenstein, while as good as a stamp museum can be, was just so 20th century. “Sound and Light Shows” were theafter-dark extravaganza throughout Europe a generation ago. Today, they are essentially extinct.

And as time passes, the immediacy of war memorials wilts, too. As everyone’s “Greatest Generation” passes, the pain of WWII will fade. I know many refuse to accept this…but the pain of WWI faded just like the pain of the Franco-Prussian war and the pain of Napoleon’s Russia campaign faded. Pretty soon those photos of our heroic loved ones will join the others in the three-for-a-dollar box at the flea market.

The city the Nazis burned and murdered in 1944 four days after D-Day — Oradour-sur-Glane — has been intentionally left as it was by the Nazis. With my last visit, it occurred to me that it is intentionally left “as is,” and that is evocative and good…except for the fact that the elements are literally wearing it away. As rust and rot gnaws at France’s Martyr-ville, time does the same to our WWII memories.

Six hundred years has failed to put a stop to the night watchman in Lausanne. Every night since the 1400s, on the hour, a night watchman steps out on the top of the church spire and hollers in four directions, “I am the watchman. I am the watchman. We just had ten o’clock. We just had ten o’clock.” He’s a human cuckoo clock in the land of Rolex and Swatch. He’s so irrelevant — he actually repeated his shout at 10:16 so we could film him a second time from street level…and no one noticed.

Alphorns, Clean Needles, and Fireworks

It’s August 1st — the Swiss National Holiday — and we’re in the capital city of Bern. The lakeside park is packed with beautiful people. I follow the steady stream of bathers hiking up the river to jump in and float down — the city’s wet, urban paseo.

Even with thousands in bathing suits and under a glorious sunshine, the Swiss are subdued. The most enthusiastic expression is the happy shudder I make as I plunge into the fast-flowing river. It’s a wonderfully free float until you near the post positioned so bathers can rescue themselves from the swift current and get out. I don’t know what would happen if someone missed the post — but you paddle like mad to grab it. This was great fun for TV.

Later, in the town, the sun is low. A Turkish girl and Swiss girl drink wine out of bottle under a flower-filled fountain featuring a medieval maiden pouring water from a jug. Trolley tracks, glinting in the sun, shoot like a bottle rocket up the cobbled lane.

A listless guy sits in a shipping container converted into a bike depot. The city has sponsored a free loaner bike program to both cut car traffic and create work for the hard-to-employ.

Enlarge photo

A threesome lies on the grass in shade of the national parliament building, passing a joint. No one cares. The new big Starbucks has a code for the toilet downstairs: 1122. Opening the door, I step into a very blue space. Blue lights make it impossible for junkies to find their veins. The last public WC I was in had a garbage box with a lid labeled “syringes.”

Down the street, I study the layered ads and labels on the coin-op dispenser. I see it was a cigarette machine, converted to a condom machine, and finally converted again to become a syringe dispenser — offering heroin addicts cheap and clean needles.

Just next to the Museum of Fine Arts, a heroin-maintenance center has a yard filled with people fighting their addictions. A steady stream of people step up to a window to get their needles. Filming that was really tricky…but extremely rewarding to bring home to the USA — a “harm-reduction” approach to drug policy. For more on this and other issues related to the European drug policy — and how it differs from ours — read this article I wrote recently for a talk I gave at an ACLU convention.

We tend to see Switzerland as so efficient and impossibly successful. But they have the same problems other countries do. Just like they opted out of the EU, and just like each of their states or “cantons” is fiercely independent, they deal with their problems their way…openly and creatively.

The city center is traffic-free except for taxis and quiet trams flying flags. The streets are filled with people, mostly young. It’s quiet enough to hear the splash of the fountains. As darkness settles, the town’s artful floodlighting becomes evident. The noise of firecrackers grows. Leaving my hotel without my camera, I knew something fun would appear. Sure enough, I came upon an open-air performance by a jazz band whose lead instrument was a long alphorn. Very cool. It would have been a fine photo bridging tradition with the present. Later I joined what seemed like half the city on the big bridge to watch the fireworks show. It was just like a Fourth of July show back home — with the same oohs and aahs for the best explosions. But the pyrotechnics were underwhelming. They’ve been celebrating the First of August since 1291…being a bit jaded would be understandable.