Postcards From Europe by Rick Steves
(A Book Review)
Rick Steves, mild-mannered courteous tour guide to the world in his popular television shows, reveals hidden depths of personality and many surprises in his travel book “Postcards from Europe”, now out in a new edition. The framework for this book is a trip he takes through Europe, not for business this time, just traveling to his favorite places and visiting with old friends he’s aquired over the years. We meet families who run the small hotels he recommends, guides he has worked with through the years, and other personalities. Along with him, we hang out with these people and we get to know them. The conversations he has with these old friends reveal fascinating insights into the political and cultural differences between Americans and Europeans.
Several times during the book, certain locations jog Rick’s mind, and suddenly we are drawn along with him on fascinating side journeys spiraling back in time, reliving the many and varied experiences which eventually led to his present Europe Through the Back Door business. We share his excitement at traveling with his parents to Germany at 14th to buy a piano for his father’s shop (seeing young people with backpacks sparked a burning desire to go himself). His “babtism of fire” as an independent traveler was a trip to Europe with a friend as a youth, on $3 a day, returning with mental and physical exhaustion (but still he calls that trip as “the best trip ever”).
Soon, in return for a free plane ticket, he was escorting large Cosmos tour groups, in the process learning everything he did not like about the large tour experience. This led him to begin giving travel lectures to teach people how they could go on their own and have a great time on a budget. He began to take his own small tour groups, admitting that back then he “had a personal crusade to put ‘soft’ Americans into miserable hotel rooms, forcing them to experience the ugly side of being on the road” (but they loved it.) How interesting to read all the stories which developed into Rick’s mission to show travelers the real Europe, and prove to them that this was something that everyday people could do.
With Rick’s style of writing, “what you see is what you get”. How rare is such a lack of ego or desire to create an image; he just seems to jot down his joys and sadnesses as they occur to him, with a guileless honesty. His doubts and opinions are revealed, right along with what he sees and hears and learns from people along the road. We feel the poignancy of his regrets (wondering if his guidebook caused these crowds) as the delights of serendipity. With his fame he has found which friends were true and which ones stopped being friends when he stopped recommending their no-longer-friendly hotel or their grown-too-commercial shops.
It’s true that Rick had surprised me a couple of times before I read this book. The PBS special about how his TV shows are made showed such a hard-working, almost driven perfectionist, one who truly has earned his success. I was blown away when he took that trip to Iran, proving that he is willing to “push the envelope” to help create peace and understanding.
These things made me more curious about this man, and the book “Postcards From Europe” answered all of my questions. I can hardly wait to read “Travel as a Political Act”.