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Culture » Arts & Entertainment

Traveling Man

Rick Steves opens political minds by opening the back door to Europe.



Travel writer Rick Steves has spent almost 30 years opening Europe to Americans, but he hopes to do more than find you a cheap hotel and a good meal. He also wants to open Americans to Europe by transforming our ethnocentrism into a broader worldview—revealing that Europeans actually like us—and by teaching us that post 9/11 travel is safe.

Steves’ passion for European travel began during trips he funded by teaching piano lessons, and quickly evolved into a career. He founded his travel-education company, Europe Through The Back Door, in 1976, and has since produced 31 European guidebooks, hosted around 100 episodes of the PBS series Rick Steves’ Europe, and—along with his staff of 60—has taken thousands of travelers on European tours based on his travel philosophy. “Experiencing the real Europe requires catching it by surprise, going casual ... through the back door.” Steves explains in a telephone interview.

To do this, we need to become “temporary locals” by shedding our ethnocentric notions and seeing things “as different, not better or worse.” Steves believes when Americans embrace the local ways in their travels, “things go better, they make more friends, they learn more and they spend less money.”

In fact, Steves says you should spend no more than $60 a day for an authentic European experience. “Spending more money only builds a thicker wall between you and what you came to see,” Steves argues.

But wait, don’t Europeans hate Americans? If you listened to the presidential debates last month, you might think so. One citizen told President Bush her family was “shocked at the intensity of aggravation” they felt directed towards the United States during their travels. Is it really safe to rub shoulders with the locals while visiting Europe?

Steves says yes. Although he agrees that most Europeans are “adamantly opposed to our government’s foreign policy,” he also says, “I’m amazed at how willing Europe is to not judge Americans by their government; Europeans just like Americans.” But, he speculates, “If we elect President Bush again, we may not have that much sympathy.” (Election results were not available at press time).

Steves recently created a special election edition of his newsletter, available on, that includes his liberal political views. He says those views have turned him into a post-9/11 spokesperson “to help America not be afraid of the world and diversity” and to understand the problems behind our country’s aggressive nature. He also provides a collection of letters from Europeans that support his claims that yes, they really do like us and no, they don’t hold us personally responsible for our government’s actions.

If you find Steves’ political voice surprising, you’re not alone. He reports that The New York Times and 60 Minutes have featured him recently, not because he “preaches fun in the sun at the beach,” but because he’s promoting a new political perspective through travel.

Even if Europeans do like us, is travel still safe for Americans? Steves notes that 12 million Americans visited Europe last year without an incident of terrorism: “I think to be concerned about your safety in a post-9/11 world is idiotic; it’s the one thing that embarrasses me most about my countrymen.

“I don’t have much patience for people who say ‘How are you traveling now in this age of terror?’” he laughs, “I’m traveling exactly the same, except I don’t carry my Swiss Army Knife.”

So the news is good for travelers, and Steves plans to share it when he speaks as part of the Dewey Lecture Series at City Library. He says his discussion will be an “information-packed and fast-moving” lesson on travel skills and his philosophy, with plenty of time for Q& .

Most of all, Steves is looking forward to “this wonderful chance to meet people,” which he says is the most fulfilling part of his job—along with opening the minds of American travelers.

RICK STEVES City Library Auditorium, 210 E. 400 South, Saturday Nov. 6, 7:30 p.m. 524-8200