Travel guru Rick Steves set to make local Dec. 6 stop
By Lou Fancher Correspondent San Jose Mercury News
Travel writer and TV personality Rick Steves may have entered Europe through the back door in 1973, but 40 years later, he's rolling on front-door, red-carpet access.
Taking the spotlight on the Orinda Theatre stage, as the Lafayette Library and Learning Center's featured guest at the Dec. 6 Distinguished Speaker Series presentation, Steves will share excursionist insights from his best-selling guidebooks, "Rick Steves' Europe" PBS broadcasts and recent European sorties.
The former piano teacher and native of Edmonds, Wash., near Seattle, began his unlikely career with 2,500 self-published books -- a compilation of his "European Travel Cheap" lecture notes, typed by his girlfriend on an IBM Selectric, with illustrations penned in ballpoint by his roommate. He sold the limited edition "Europe Through the Back Door" while continuing to use the University of Washington recital hall as a performance venue for dispensing both music and travel advice.
By 1981, people were so desperate for Steves' budget-friendly information, they were stealing the out-of-print books. Steves decided he had to choose between travel and music.
"I didn't consider a career as a pianist because I wasn't a natural talent and couldn't be good enough to perform," Steves said in an interview two weeks before his visit to the Bay Area. "But I was thrilled to be a piano teacher; I was content to be that my whole life. Travel just trumped teaching piano. It was a sad day when I let my students go."
But it wasn't a puddle of regret, and Steves moved on enthusiastically, incorporating the company he now says amplifies his teaching "beyond my wildest experience" and employs 100 people. Rick Steves' Europe produces and/or sells travel and phrase guidebooks (at 50 percent off for educators), rail passes, European tours, public television and radio shows and a syndicated travel column. In addition to live-streamed lectures -- he says a recent broadcast was followed online by 10,000 people -- Steves and his staff teach do-it-yourself travel seminars, often for free.
Inevitably, technology propelled Steves to introduce an app with 25 audio walking tours and 200 travel tip tracks, but he's a dedicated phrase-book-and-map guy when he's on the road.
"I don't use techie gadgets," he says. "I've seen people on a gondola in Italy, emailing their friends to tell them where they are. The reason to travel is to be in the moment, not to tell everybody else where you are."
Mobile devices are seductive, he suggests, but the mark of a good traveler is how well you connect to people, not how well you connect to the Internet. A spirit of curiosity and a willingness to get out of one's comfort zone enriches the experience. Writing about it, for Steves, extends that benefit.
"I write as a service and as my work, but it means I actively participate in what I see. There are two dimensions to good travel writing: jotting things down (while) on the street and finessing it into good writing."
Ideally, Steves "fleshes out" a day's journey immediately upon returning to his hotel. He often must research for the next day, so he's meticulous about clarifying his in-the-moment notes for revisiting at a later time.
In Orinda, Steves will talk about his recent visit to Israel and share why he thinks travel is valuable.
"A broader perspective is the most important souvenir you can bring home," he says. "Travel has made me a better citizen of the world and given me an empathy for humanity."
Over time, he's come to believe there are two kinds of travelers. "There are ugly Americans who think they're going to Europe to tell people who they are; and cultural chameleons who immerse themselves in the markets, make mistakes, interact."
If he could travel to only one last location, Steves would choose India, because the country "rearranges his cultural furniture" and shows him the world is not a pyramid with America on top.
The No. 1 travel tip he advises is "Splurge to save time." Even if you have a tight budget, it can be a false economy to opt for train tickets instead of hiring a taxi if four people could travel between destinations in less time for almost the same cost.
And what about people whose budgets don't allow a European vacation?
"You can travel by talking to people in your community who are outside of your comfort zone," he says. "There are beautiful societies passionate about different things right next door. You don't have to fly to Europe to be a good traveler."