Rick Steves sees himself as more than a teacher of travel.
“I play the same role the medieval jester did in the old days,” said the Edmonds travel expert and public television mainstay, who’ll give a free lecture Tuesday evening at the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma. “The king would pay the jester to be annoying. His job was to go outside the walls of the castle and hang out with the peasants and learn all the dirty jokes and all the gossip and come back and tell the king what’s going on out there.
“As a travel writer and as travelers, too, we can go out there and talk to people, and then maybe our country will operate with a little more understanding on the world stage.”
Steves will speak Tuesday about his recent television special about his visit to Israel and Palestine.
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Steves talked with the newspaper about the purpose of travel and how he wound up helping hordes of Americans find their way through Europe.
Q. What was the first travel experience you remember?
A. It was probably my first morning in Europe when I was 14 years old, and Dutch workers were waiting at a stop sign in front of my hotel with wooden shoes. They were filling their bicycle baskets and heading off to the fields to do their work.
On that same trip, I met a man on the border of Hungary who told me how he witnessed the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand in 1914 that started World War I.
And on that same trip, I was sitting on the carpet in the living room of my relatives in Norway watching Neil Armstrong take the first step on the moon, listening to the whole thing in Norwegian, and it occurred to me, “Wow, that was not just an American accomplishment. It was a human accomplishment.”
All these little things contributed to me recognizing that it’s so exciting to see yourself as part of the world.
Q. When did you know you wanted to make travel your career?
A. I was a piano teacher, and I fully expected to be a piano teacher all my life. I loved it.
I realized kids wouldn’t practice in the summer so I just went to Europe and traveled, and I kept discovering these incredible places.
I think I decided to become a travel writer after finding my own private Stonehenge. Everybody goes to Stonehenge, but there are scores of beautiful desolate stone circles, miniversions of Stonehenge, all over Britain.
I hiked through Dartmoor, and I came upon this stone circle, and it was just me and the winds of the past and these scruffy animals. It was so evocative. I thought, “This is a magical experience and I can help people find it.”
Q. In a typical year, how much time do you spend traveling?
I’m in Europe for four months, and I’m probably on the road for a month, and I’m here in greater Seattle at home for the other half of the year.
Q. How has travel expanded your world view?
I’ve been teaching for 30 years. I didn’t have any grand plan but it seems to me it’s like Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, and I’ve been covering it from the bottom to the top.
Back in the ’80s, it was all about budget travel tips. I wrote “Europe through the Back Door.” That’s the foundation of travel. You’ve got to catch the bus and pack light and stay healthy and safe and use your money smartly.
In the ’90s, I kind of upped it a little bit and I realized, “OK, you’ve got your room and board, and you’ve got the train. Now you’ve got to understand and appreciate your sightseeing.” So I wrote a book called “Europe 101,” and I was passionate about teaching history and art and culture.
Ever since 9/11, I’ve been really excited about going further up on that Maslow’s hierarchy of travel needs and helping inspire and equip people to broaden their perspectives through travel. There’s a lot of fear in our society these days, and it’s clear to me that fear is for people who don’t get out very much. When we get out, we become less afraid and more engaged with the rest of the world and more inclined to build bridges and less inclined to build walls.
You remember when people used to say “bon voyage”? Now what do they say? “Have a safe trip!” It’s terrible.
Why would you say have a safe trip? It’s not dangerous. Statistically, you’re safer when you leave this country than if you stay here. We kill 30,000 people a year on our streets.
The irony is, if everybody’s afraid and doesn’t travel, then we have a world where that fear is well founded. But if we keep traveling and we can empathize with the other 96 percent of humanity, then we’ll all be happier and safer and we can celebrate diversity.
I was just in Egypt, and I was just in Palestine and Israel and Russia. When you go to Egypt or Palestine or Russia, you understand things that you’ll never understand if you just watch the news. Commercial television news has become entertainment, and I think that’s an unfortunate thing. The U.S. is a big player on this planet, and we need to be a little more aggressive about getting out there and talking to people.
My measure of a good trip is how many people do you meet? Real people, not people in the tourist industry necessarily, but real people.
It’s kind of fun to try to challenge people to see the other side of the coin. Why do Scandinavians pay such high taxes willingly? Why do the French and the Germans have paid paternity and maternity leave?
For me, the best souvenir you can bring home is a broader perspective.
Q. What is something surprising you encountered recently?
A. I was just in the train station in Munich, and I saw them peeling birds that were squished onto the windshield of the train off of the train when it came into the station.
You’d never see that where I live. Just yesterday I took a train from Seattle to Portland. ... You never see a bird squished onto the windshield of that train.
They spend a lot of money having fast trains. What’s with that?
I was just in Stockholm, and they have a concept called “latte dads.” The latte dads are the dads who are taking their paid paternal leave. The society wants dads to bond with their little kids by taking time off of work when they have a baby.
It’s causing a problem in the cafes because there are so many guys with strollers congesting the table area.