Rick Steves to speak about travels in Europe

Published on Thu, Feb 3, 2011 by By Tara Nelson

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Travel writer and PBS persona Rick Steves will speak this Sunday, February 6, at Bellingham high school. Tickets are $5 at www.brownpapertickets.com.

Nationally-known travel guide writer and TV personality will visit Bellingham this Sunday to discuss the newest edition of his book “Europe Through The Back Door.”

Steves grew up in Edmonds and studied at the University of Washington where he earned degrees in business administration and European history. He said his real education, however, came from traveling in Europe, where’s he’s spent 120 days of every year since 1973.

Today he employs 80 people at his Europe Through the Back Door headquarters in Edmonds where he produces more than 50 guidebooks on European travel, a popular travel series on public television, a weekly hour-long national public radio show, and a weekly column syndicated by The Chicago Tribune.

He will be speaking from 2 to 4:30 p.m. Sunday, February 6, at Bellingham high school at 2020 Cornwall Avenue.

The event is hosted by Village Books. Admission is $5, and proceeds will benefit the Whatcom Peace And Justice Center.
Tickets are available by visiting www.brownpapertickets.com.

Q: You’ll be visiting February 6 to discuss your newest edition of Europe Through The Back Door. Can you give us a little preview?

A: I’ve been giving basically the same talk since I was a college kid at UW about traveling Europe on a budget, and I update it every year with four months of travel in Europe.

There are always new things to talk about and there are always lots of questions people have so I enjoy distilling all of my notes. We will get into the art history and travel as a political act, but the main idea is that Americans have the shortest vacations in the rich world, and money, is always not enough. My idea is to cut through the superlatives to show how people can use their time and money smartly.

Q: So what are some of the new things you’ll be talking about?

A: People are curious about the financial situation in Greece so I just went to Greece and found out it has zero impact on travelers.

It does have an impact on citizens of Greece, however, as just a year ago you could retire at 59 and now you have to wait until you’re 70 – that’s a big deal – but if you’re a tourist it won’t affect you. Another thing that’s new is the Acropolis museum. It’s a beautiful new addition to the things to see and do in Athens.

Q: You have two degrees: one in business and one in European history. How did you get to be America’s travel expert?

A: I didn’t know what I was doing when I got those degrees but it ended up to be perfect for what I am doing now. I always loved teaching. I was going to be a piano teacher, but I realized that kids don’t practice. So I gave it up and just started traveling and giving lectures.

In the 1980s, I wrote a book and people started thinking I was an expert so I just kept doing it hoping I could meet their expectations.

Now I have 80 employees, and we’ve gotten technology beyond our wildest dreams. Our passion is to gather all this info and design it and amplify it in a way that helps people learn from our mistakes rather than their own so they can enjoy maximum travel thrills. I’ve had my TV show for 20 years and a radio program that is broadcast in 150 cities. That’s very gratifying.

Q: Can you share a few tips on travel with us?

A: If you take the planning part of your trip as the fun part of the trip, it extends the whole trip if you get things in proper order before hand.

There are two types of European travelers, those who wait in lines and those who don’t. If you’re on the ball you can get around those lines.

A lot of people don’t understand how accessible most things really are in Europe. It used to take eight hours to get from Big Ben to the Eiffel Tower but now you can get there in two hours with a 17 minute ride through the tunnel under the English Channel.

Q: I’ve noticed you only travel to Europe. Why?

A: Europe is a world waiting for exploration for timid Americans. That and it’s a good gateway for first-time international travelers. If you go to Europe and have a good time you’ll be more likely to go to other places.

Q: You traveled to Iran in 2008 when a friend from the Washington state chapter of The United Nations called you asking if you could help build understanding between Iran and the U.S. Can you talk a little about that?

A: I went to Iran because it’s good practice for a country to know people before you bomb them. Governments are inclined to dehumanize our enemies, and I acknowledge that sometimes you have to kill people but it should hurt when you do it. I wanted to humanize 70 million Iranians. I was appalled at how little otherwise smart Americans knew about Iran.

Most people know what they know about Iran from what they learned from Ted Koppel on the nightly news during the Iran crisis and that is a pathetic understanding of a great culture. Thanks to public television, many Americans now know a little more about what makes Iranians tick.

After that trip, the state department gave me citizen diplomat of the year award.

Q: What are a few of your favorite places to travel?

A: That’s actually going to be part of the talk. I have 40 favorite discoveries, and when people come to the talk I’ll be giving out free copies of a special issue of The Smithsonian, in which I wrote a special 100-page section about my 20 favorite places in Europe. I bought 50,000 copies and I’ll be giving them out for free.

My favorite country, though, I’d have to say, is Italy. And some of my favorite places are communities that are Fiat-free (without automobiles) such as Venice and Tuscany.

Q: You’ve recently become quite the advocate for the legalization of marijuana as well as decriminalization of drugs in general. Do you think all drugs should be legalized or just marijuana?

A: I don’t think I am ready to answer that one. I will say, however, the Portuguese legalized all drugs several years ago and they think it’s a smart way to go. I’m more what people call an incrementalist, meaning I think we should tackle marijuana first and then see what we think.

Q: Do you think there should be a legal age for marijuana use?

A: I think the mature, responsible use of marijuana, as a recreational drug, is a civil liberty. Nobody wants kids to get access to marijuana.

And I think anyone caught driving intoxicated by anything they should have the book thrown at them, but criminalizing marijuana today is about as smart as criminalizing alcohol in the 1930s.

When our country came to its senses, no one was saying booze is good, they were just saying the laws were more costly than the problem they were trying to deal with. It’s just pragmatic harm reduction.

It’s not soft on drugs. Drugs are not good and they can be abused. But locking up poor people and minorities is not just.

By every measure, if a country has a law on the books that it does not intend to enforce across the board, the very existence of that law erodes respect for law enforcement in general. That’s perfectly applicable today. Every police officer knows who gets arrested and who doesn’t.

I made a show with the ACLU called “Marijuana: Time For A Discussion.” It is located at www.marijuanaconversation.org.

Q: Where do you plan on traveling next?

A: I’ll be spending most of April and May in Italy making four new TV shows and then I’ll go to Turkey for two weeks and come home in June. Then I go back in July and August to France, England and Switzerland, and then I’ll be making more guide books.

Q: What do you like about living in Seattle?

A: I like the weather, I like looking out and seeing the mountains and the Puget Sound. I like to live in a place where Katmandu is a household word.

I think people in western Washington have a good understanding that we Americans are a beautiful 4 percent of this planet but that 96 percent of humanity is before our borders and everyone is about as precious in God’s eyes as we are.

And travel is a great way to get out there to know the family.