Contrary to popular belief, I was not born loving Europe. I can’t remember when the concept of the collection of independent countries all making up one large entity known as Europe became tangible in my consciousness. It is very likely that my earliest impressions of Europe came from the Pink Panther movies and the animated Bon Voyage, Charlie Brown (and don’t come back).
Without a doubt though, Europe took on a complete new form when I was doing what college students did in the early 1990’s on a lazy Sunday afternoon while at home on a college break — flicking mindlessly thru the TV channels. That was when I came across a scene with a blond geeky guy sticking his head out of a train window with lush Swiss countryside zipping by him. Thank goodness that there was still one brain cell firing on all cylinders. One which was able to tell the synapses controlling my remote control thumb to hold on a freaking second.
What transpired left me mesmerized. I don’t remember what part of Europe I was first exposed to, but it was with great armchair traveler relief to find out that the local public television station was running a marathon of shows which promised to take the viewer not thru Europe’s front door, but thru the back. No, this was not a show about Europe’s seedy underbelly but about traveling thru Europe on a budget while prioritizing on unique local experiences rather than always following the tourist hordes.
Most Americans (if not all) reading this will know exactly what I am talking about.
The show was Travels in Europe with Rick Steves which was part of his overall concept of Europe Through the Back Door. Starting around 2000, the name became just Rick Steves’ Europe.
Rick comes across like a clean-cut hippie-turned-history-teacher with a family-friendly but flat sense of humor. Completely likeable with a natural, crisp friendly delivery. However, he also seems like the type of guy that you know is dropping the squeaky clean disposition along with a few F-bombs as soon as the camera isn’t rolling. His shows always combine a blend of just the right amount of history, travel advice, and guided tours. As I sat there entranced as an unemployed college student, it was hard not to acknowledge that this bespectacled guy in khakis probably had the world’s best job. But while I was soaking up Europe’s charm thru the television, little did I know it would still be ten years before the impact of those shows would cause me to make my way back to the world of Rick Steves, and quite literally.
At some point in 2004, leading up to a business trip to Seattle, I ordered and received my first set of Rick Steves DVD’s covering his episodes from 2000-2003. Mind you, I had not really indulged in any Rick Steves viewing since those college days, ten years prior. However, I was going thru a particularly rough patch in my life and those discs became my escape. Every travel dream began to take shape from that moment as I played and replayed those discs.
When I went to Seattle, as luck or fate would have it, my host happened to live in nearby Edmonds where Rick Steves has his store and headquarters. So one afternoon with some free time, I had a chance to visit. I waltzed into his store like I was going backstage at a rock concert. The store was full of travel guides, videos, backpacks, and all sorts of other handy travel gadgets that you can find on his website. No Rick. He was away “doing more research” in Europe according to the woman behind the counter. I may have only visited the shop for ten minutes tops. But this moment was probably the epicenter of the wanderlust that would burst from my soul for the next 16 years, right up to and including the very moment I am typing this post. And there is no end in sight, despite COVID-19 trying to slow me and everyone else down.
When I first started to travel in Europe, I would go proudly place to place with my Rick Steves guidebook in hand, frequently bumping into other Americans with their own Rick Steves guidebooks. I think Salzburg was the first city where I met my first fellow Rick Steves fan. I remember that euphoric feeling that I had found my sense of belonging. That somehow by carrying a Rick Steves guidebook, I was carrying with me some great secret or power that all of the other unwary tourists didn’t have.
But I found that all was not rosy inside the boundaries of the Rick Steves universe. The more and more I relied on a Rick Steves guidebook, the more I was constantly surrounded by other Americans with their own editions. I love my countrymen and women. But being around Americans who are traveling in Europe is akin to always having to listen to complaints that drinks have no ice in them or having to listen to competing travel experiences spoken at deafening volumes louder than everyone else’s in the room.
Over the years, my reliance on Rick Steves has waned almost to the point where I only watch his videos after the fact just to reminisce, not to gain travel tips. The content of Rick Steves videos have also changed as his financial success has self-admittedly allowed him to go beyond the backdoor budgets. His content today is geared to all classes but is more suited to the middle to upper middle class American who would be able to afford a few more splurges than the average 20-year old backpacker.
Meanwhile, the guy who giddily walked into the Rick Steves’ store in 2004 has set down his Rick Steves guidebook long ago and evolved into the blogger you see before you. After I grew weary of bumping into the Rick Steves crowd, I set out to create my own travel style and set my own travel goals which are a step and a half outside the Rick Steves genre. But somehow, I think this is exactly the type of spirit that Rick encourages. Make your own experiences and find your own connections with Europe.
But I will never forget my roots and occasionally I will still pull out those familiar dog-eared guidebooks and spend a few euros on iTunes for the latest season of his episodes just to try and recapture that innocence, that intoxicated state of wandering the world from an armchair. And until I am able to do otherwise, that is where you will find me during this COVID crisis. Sticking my virtual head out the train window with Rick and dreaming of the European countryside.