How to become a cultural chameleon
“The best souvenir is a broader perspective.”
Most Americans traveling in Europe have
a guidebook by Rick Steves in their luggage. For more than 40 years, the most famousntravel writer in the US has been telling
Americans what they should know about
Florence, foie gras, and folk museums.
Questions asked by Stefan Wagner
You make a living helping Americans discover Europe. How has the pandemic changed your business?
2020 was set to be our best year ever, and then coronavirus came along. In one fell swoop, we were bringing in almost zero revenue, and we had to refund 30,000 down payments on Rick Steves tours. But we got through the crisis well, and I was able to keep almost 100 employees on my payroll. We had 30 good years, and now we’ve had two bad ones.
You have to play the cards you’re dealt. I learned to cook, played music every day, and took long walks with my dogs. I just let the curiosity that usually fuels my travels flow into my daily life. Employing what I call “the traveler’s mindset,” I discovered that life at home can be as exciting as it is on the road. But I’m very hopeful that in 2022 we’ll be back on the road again.
What do Americans look for in Europe when they travel?
Like all travellers, Americans enjoy a mix of reassurance and surprise. They have an idea ahead of time of what they hope to experience: beer halls in Munich, pretzels, the Rhine, the Berlin Wall, and Black Forest cake. Then there’s the element of surprise, which is less about sights and more about unexpected experiences: a street music festival in Bern, a gay pride parade in Berlin, live music under the stars in Füssen, a visit to a spa in a Black Forest village.
It’s best to combine both worlds: Sure, you go to Neuschwanstein, but why not stay at a B&B in an unfamiliar town 10 kilometers from the castle where there are no Americans or Japanese? The big trend is moving away from bucket lists and toward experiences. Travellers used to collect cuckoo clocks, stocknagels, or T-shirts; now, they bring home photos, videos, and Instagram posts or, better yet, a broader perspective.
What are American tourists most surprised by?
By the richness behind what they see and the layers of context and history. The fact that, in one place, there used to be a pagan place of worship, then a Roman temple, and then a Christian church, which is now used as a climbing gym. Americans marvel at how rooted Europeans are — at the concept of campanilismo in Italy and Heimat in Germany. Pride, a sense of being lifted up by your neighbors, and a feeling of responsibility for, and attachment to the place where one was born or grew up, all play a part in this. And experiencing this leads to a kind of culture shock for many Americans. But I think culture shock is very important and constructive. It’s the growing pains of a broadening perspective. Travel can be a playground, a school or a church, and in my opinion, good travel includes a little bit of all three.
Why are Americans so reluctant to travel outside their country?
Many Americans are convinced that the U.S. already has it all: tropical beaches, snowy mountain towns, great cities, idyllic lakes, and lush forests. So, why go anywhere else? There is a fear of the unknown — of another language, other customs, and different money. And I believe there is a fear of upsetting your cultural self-assuredness…of learning that other people don’t have the “American Dream” and they can be happy without it.
An international trip seems more stressful and dangerous than a vacation at an amusement park in Orlando. News broadcasts in the U.S. in recent decades have increasingly become entertainment programs that thrive on generating fear: fear of possible terrorist attacks, crime, and disasters of all kinds. I believe that fear grows in the living room and is the result of too much time on the couch watching television. Fear is for people who don’t get out very much, and the flip side of fear is understanding.
Europe, you say, is a kind of “wading pool” for world travellers.
In many ways, Europe is more familiar to American travellers than the rest of the planet. That makes it a good place for first-timers to visit before venturing into the deep waters of more exotic and more challenging foreign lands.
What do Americans learn in Europe?
That there’s more to life than increasing its speed. That well-being doesn’t just depend on how many things you own. That there are societies, particularly in places like Scandinavia, where it’s not about paying as little tax as possible and getting the most for yourself. That in most countries, it is completely normal to work less (and willingly have less stuff) to have more time with your family. When Americans venture out of their comfort zone and travel thoughtfully, they gain an understanding of the other 96 percent of humanity. Many Americans make more money than Europeans, but that doesn’t automatically make us a stronger and happier society.
Do Americans travel differently?
I’ve been going to Reutte in Tyrol since I was a kid. It’s a nice town, and I’ve long recommended it to Americans. I always stay at the same hotel, and there are regulars who, for decades, have always spent a week or two a year there. It’s kind of a second home. That’s a concept that Americans often don’t grasp, that you can take time off from your regular life and go to one place every year, walk the same trail, eat at the same restaurant, and build a familiarity with the people there as well. We Americans have the shortest vacations in the rich world. Then, when we “Do Europe” there’s this bucket list that we frantically check off. If it’s Tuesday, it’s got to be Belgium, and so on.
There’s a reason Americans don’t have a word like the German word Gemütlichkeit (geniality, cosiness). We are not gemütlich, and without this cosy sense of togetherness, it’s difficult for us to be truly “in the moment.”
What changes do you perceive in Europe over the past 40 years?
It sounds a bit abstract, but it’s the economics of scale: Large chains are displacing small mom-and-pop businesses. As rents go up in historic city centers, artisans, cafés, and shops catering to locals are pushed out. I’m very worried that COVID is more likely to bankrupt a small pub than a fast-food chain. We’re forgetting that a community is much more than an environment for big corporations to make money. The regional idiosyncrasies, the local dialects, the quirky differences — all of that is sadly embattled… on the decline. For example, I think what Munich has done with its Viktualienmarkt is great. The option of market stalls for small, independent, locally-owned businesses is protected, and there are no licenses for a Starbucks or a McDonald’s there.
If capitalism itself is the arbiter, then there is no arbiter. I’m a capitalist, but I believe capitalism needs a chaperone to keep it ethical and sustainable. And that chaperone must be an engaged government. That is un-American and that is a fundamental difference between Europe and the US.
You don’t sound like the typical American.
What does a typical American sound like? What does a typical German sound like? We should be careful about generalizing. I’m a capitalist, I love America, and the best day of each of my trips is the day I come back home. But many of my compatriots believe that our country is the best, the most important, the only one. The interesting thing is that people in Thailand, or Wales, or Switzerland see their country the same way. With my guidebooks, my TV shows, and my bus tours, I want to pry open people’s hometown blinders. I want Americans to learn that things can be done differently, whether that’s how we treat each other or how we look at nudity, at history, at drugs, at gun ownership, or at religion. Yes, the best souvenir is a broader perspective.
What is the most challenging thing to communicate in Europe?
History. Everything has a reason and a background. Not engaging with the history of the country you’re visiting is a lot like going to a 3D movie but deciding to not put on the 3D glasses. People who always just follow the tour guide with the little flag and have no idea what they are looking at are missing out on so much. They are the sheep of tourism. They are like kindergarten children who are standing in the most beautiful library in the world but, unfortunately, can’t read.
Americans are drawn mainly to France, Italy, or Great Britain. Why not Germany?
Many Americans travel to Europe only once or twice in a lifetime, and there are simply cities, regions, attractions that they feel must be seen: The Eiffel Tower, the Colosseum, Buckingham Palace, Tuscany, or Amsterdam. Germany has none of these top must-see attractions, although Berlin is moving in that direction among younger people. But maybe something that plays a role in these preferences is that Germany has this image of being planned out, neat, reliable, and a bit boring. The endearing romantic chaos of other countries like Spain, Italy, and Greece, the desire for pleasure and beauty, is missing.
But when we visit Germany, Bavaria is at the forefront, this is where our grandfathers were as GIs after the war: Garmisch, Oberammergau, Neuschwanstein, Oktoberfest. For many Americans, there is a special emotional connection.
Let’s turn the tables: what do you notice about German tourists in the U.S.?
Germans always seem to have a plan in mind for what’s next. My impression is that they have prepared very well for their trip, and they work through a list of what they have set out to do. There’s often something very eager about them, and you can hear their “Genau!”, “Stimmt!” and “Richtig.” And you can recognise them by their hiking sticks.
Yes, they bring them from thousands of miles away to walk through a national park. If we see a robotic platoon of tourists with hiking sticks marching through the national park and hear that steady tish-tish-tish rhythm of those poles, we think “those must be Germans.” Personally, I love the poles too, but few Americans would understand why.
What experiences in Germany have
I could mention hundreds here, but I’ll just tell you about a few: There’s the Sauter piano factory in Spaichingen in the Black Forest, which for me is a symbol of what I love about Germany, this passion for excellent craftsmanship. I even bought a piano there! Another one is visiting Eltz Castle on the Rhine. It’s been in the same family since it was built, and you can feel pride in history and deep roots particularly strongly there. The Green Vault in Dresden and its incomprehensible splendor, which is still not very well known outside Germany. In Passau, I was fascinated by the incredible organ in the cathedral — but even more by an encounter later with a man in an inn. He was a descendant of Johannes Kepler, and he showed me how to snuff tobacco properly.
You have a huge influence on Americans’ image of Europe. Are you aware of the responsibility?
I see it as an opportunity and an honour. I want my travelers to experience the real Europe, to get out of their comfort zone, and see as many facets of society as possible. I want to teach Americans to be cultural chameleons that immerse themselves in their environment and adapt, or to at least think about it. I want them to get away from stereotypes. I want them to go to a soccer game to understand the passion Germans have for the sport. Travellers should visit concentration camps to see what can happen when a country turns away from democracy, a free press, and an independent judiciary.
I want visitors to realize that while Germany has dirndls and beer, it also has a thoroughly organized and effective economy and very disciplined, well-educated people and that this country is one of the guarantors of peace in Europe today. Success for me is when the people who buy my guidebooks also sometimes go to the modern suburbs, where no one sits around yodeling and wearing lederhosen, and look at life there — at least once.
You see yourself more as a describer of travel experiences or as an educator.
I work to make travel economic and efficient. And I also work to help make travel a transformational experience. Of the fifty or sixty guidebooks I’ve written, I think the most impactful and the one closest to my heart is “Travel as a Political Act.” Good Travel is a political act. Getting to know other countries, cultures, and people is the most important step in over-coming our ethnocentricism…in understanding that there are countless different approaches to living one’s life.
Everything has an impact: When we stay in a boarding house in a developing country, we strengthen the economy there. When we travel light, it’s a small statement against materialism. When I travel by train through Europe, I learn that expanding rail service would be a good alternative to car travel in the U.S., too. Europe is my true love. Europe does a lot of things better than America. America does a lot of other things better than Europe. The most important thing is that we get to know each other… and that we compare notes.
By leaving your home and looking at it from a distance, you learn things you’d never learn if you only stayed home. By traveling we make friends with the world, we become less fearful, less threatened by people who are different, and better able to celebrate diversity. We become happier and the world becomes a better place.