The Rick Steves Contradiction

I’ll admit it. I have strange habits. I know I should be serious and maybe even care about POTUS’ SOTUS, or whatever the acronyms are. But no. I shoot videos of sheep circling the pool and marvel at how the fog seems to hang out midair. This luxury won’t last long. I’m being bad right now, writing this instead of a travel piece. I like to think of this as practice for that article, though. Yeah, practice. Y’all are my test subjects.

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So, expert procrastinator that I am, I looked at Rick Steves’ website. If you don’t know Steves, he’s the hugely popular host of travel shows on PBS. The guy is unthreatening; a Salon writer called him the Mr. Rodgers of travel. He schleps a backpack around Europe and urges people to have genuine experiences instead of the if-it’s-Tuesday-it-must-be-Belgium kind of snapshot-dominated travel. He seems to have friends everywhere, so he gets to have dinner, or take a hike with charming locals that he’s known for years.

I read an interview with him some time ago. Behind the nonthreatening facade is a guy with an agenda, one that I pretty much agree with. He’s actually deeply subversive, at least these days of Trumpian triumphalism and over the top “patriotism.” He wants Americans to realize that they’re just ordinary people, part of the 7 billion or so souls on the planet. His shows emphasize personal connections. As part of that, he takes a lot of public transport (Republicans like George Will consider trains to be socialist), stays in B&Bs and eats in popular locals places rather than temples to haut cuisine.

Here’s the thing that fascinates me, though. He’s made what seems to be a thriving business from it. And that’s great, at least for him and his employees. But in seeming contradiction to his advocacy of self-reliance and independent discovery, his company runs guided tours. I’m still wrapping my mind around this—anyone else have a problem with it? I get the rest of it, the blogs of advice, the guidebooks, podcasts, whatever helps get you from Barcelona to Berlin. But the tours make my head explode, as does the almost religious adherence that his followers seem to have to the routes he pushes in his guidebooks.

And the forums. People ask others about the tours, or run itineraries around for inspection. You see over and over again that a lot of people don’t stray from the cities and towns Steves goes to. And most of the shared itineraries are exhausting. I’d kill myself before I’d visit six cities in seven days. Then again, I’m rediscovering my true, incredibly lazy self. It’s not that I’m opposed to learning about a place—for specific sites, or meals, it’s sometimes good to have a guide. I’m lucky that here we’ve had a community that’s embraced us and helped us get settled.

Maybe I’m just jealous. I truly respect the guy and what he’s accomplished. I wouldn’t mind having a thriving business. And if he’s helped someone get over his or her fear about mixing it up with the locals, that’s great. But he also seems to be enabling that kind of fear of the other by running these tours. And, judging by the forum posts, he gets repeat customers, to the different tours. So you have to wonder if they’re even picking up on Steves’ message. Maybe at some point, he should say, two tours and you’re done with the training wheels, go off on your own.

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