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Spring 2004 | Volume 26, Number 6 | Features
Have Purpose Will Travel

Rick Steves Helps Americans to Journey Mindfully

What do you get when you combine frugal Norwegian roots, a passion for European history and a belief that travel makes us better citizens of the world?
Steves (right) and his TV production crew overlook Vernazza, one of several towns on the Cinque Terre in northwest Italy. The ancient towns, connected by paths, are known as a quintessential “Back Door” European hideaway. Ironically, Steves’ show has helped make the area hugely popular with American tourists.

As many Americans know, the answer is Rick Steves, host of the PBS-TV series “Rick Steves’ Europe.”

But not many know that Steves has lived most of his life just a few miles north of Seattle, in the small town of Edmonds, Washington. Or that his Christian faith is what keeps him traveling with goals that are very, very big — one might say global. “I want Americans to know there is a bigger world out there,” he says. “I want them to be able to travel so they can see that people in nations everywhere are loved by God, no more here than anywhere else.”

Globetrotter and best-selling guidebook author Steves is watched by millions each weeknight as he literally takes his show on the road, visiting little-known European villages and big-city byroads. One show might find him explaining the best way to pack for a month in Europe, while another will feature him making friends with vintners in Provence, France. In Seattle, the show is so popular that it claims the coveted prime-time spot just after “The NewsHour With Jim Lehrer.”

In February, Steves came to campus as keynote speaker for Seattle Pacific University’s 21st Annual European Studies Symposium, where he talked to a large audience about “travel with purpose.” His presentation ranged from travel tips to global terrorism. Traveling abroad, he pointed out, should require not much more than a backpack, good sturdy shoes and the ability to wash one’s dirtiest clothes in a bathroom sink. As for terrorism, he said, Americans should be no less eager to travel now than before September 11, 2001, since transportation security is the highest it has ever been.

“Since the day after September 11, our company decided it is more important than ever to travel and to have this business in operation,” said Steves. “The way the world is structured, powerful groups play hardball with desperate groups. If there’s less travel, there will be more terrorism.”

From Edmonds to Europe

In a Response interview in his Edmonds office — which overlooks his old junior high school and several childhood homes — Steves explains more. “There’s no better education or classroom than blowing around the globe,” he says. “It rearranges your cultural furniture. It lets you put away your sightseeing agenda and weave together cultural differences instead. People are the essence of travel, not buildings or scenery.”

Steves remembers his first journeys to Europe as business trips. When he was 14, his enterprising father would take him to piano factories in Vienna. Young Steves, a gifted pianist, would play several expensive and rare Bösendorfers, and his father would match the sounds of each piano to the requirements of his wealthy customers back home in Washington.

Since 1973, Steves has traveled abroad 100 days per year, most of that time in Europe. “Europe is my playground,” he says. “It’s first in travel fun, easy to get around. We have classes, lectures, books, tours and the TV show centering on Europe. Our mission is to help Americans travel smartly and smoothly.” His Europe Through the Back Door (ETBD) business, which started as a one-man operation in 1978, now employs 60 people. ETBD offers free travel information through the travel center in Edmonds, a travel newsletter and a Web site:

Even Steves’ mother, June, seems to appreciate her son’s guidance now and then. “Only my son could think up such a nifty little planning map for our next European vacation,” she says.

What Steves appreciates most about Europe goes deeper than maps and guidebooks, however. One thing is the new sense of community spurred by the European Union. “There’s a commitment many European countries have made for the first time: to work together, even though they are vastly different. Now, 300 million people from all over Europe have the same coins jingling in their pockets.”

On Europe and America

Last year, at the start of the war in Iraq, Steves ruffled many feathers in Edmonds when he wrote a letter to the editor of the local newspaper opposing the military action. Steves and the owner of an Edmonds coffee shop carried on a public argument in the paper about the war, terrorism and other global trends. When the café owner left town that year, he sold his shop to the current owner, who curried Steves’ business by stopping him on the street one day and inviting him in for coffee. “Do you allow liberals in your shop?” asked Steves.

“I allow paying liberals,” laughed the shop owner. Steves has been a regular customer ever since.

Each European country has its own flavors and textures that appeal to Steves. “One of my favorite things about Ireland is the way people love to talk in sitting rooms till well after the sun goes down, but no one turns on the light. It gets darker and darker, and we’re still talking. Only in Ireland,” he smiles with satisfaction.

“In England’s pubs, you can catch up on gossip, bring the kids and dog, and play darts together.”

The main differences between America and Europe? “We Americans,” says Steves, “have this expansiveness in us, a rugged individualism that makes us love being loners. But European cities are densely populated, so the idea there is to share in community, to sustain life together. Europeans are connected with their geography — they love the land and know all about its history — whereas I’ve lived here all my life but don’t even know the names of these particular mountains out my window. Europeans know their heritage. It’s easier to stay connected, of course, because of so many multigenerational families living together. I’m charmed by that.”

Steves doesn’t insist that an ETBD tour is the best way to view a European country, though it is a reliable option. Ideally, he says, “when you travel somewhere new, you’re alone. That way, you’re completely exposed and swept away by the culture.”

Gifts and Giving

“As a Christian,” says Steves, “you recognize the gifts you have, then use them. That’s stewardship. I’m thankful I have the opportunity to share my passion: broadening one’s perspective through travel.

”It’s a huge responsibility, he says, to run a business with Christian values, but it pays off with dividends such as high employee satisfaction and long-term business relationships. “I’m a high-profile businessperson, so I need to treat my employees with fairness and compassion. One of the proudest things for me is that we’re a family of 60 people, respectful of one another.”

What Steves doesn’t make a big noise about is his gift-giving to organizations for the homeless and other charities. Through his business, Steves has for the past 10 years donated the use of four duplexes to Seattle’s Pathways for Women/YWCA, providing emergency housing to eight local homeless single mothers and their children. “When I was a teenager living alone in Europe,” he explains, “I just ate bread and jam, becoming undernourished. I developed quite an appreciation for food and shelter that way.”

Steves and co-author Bob Effertz donated 100 percent of their royalties from the sale of their Asia Through the Back Door guidebook to charities that help developing countries become self-sufficient.

Another way Steves finds to give to God is by assisting his church with educational videos. He has written and hosted videos about Martin Luther and Germany’s part in the European Reformation. He has also filmed videos explaining development initiatives in places as distinct as Papua New Guinea and south Los Angeles.

Steves notes the similarities between his vision — broadening one’s perspective through travel — and that of Seattle Pacific University — engaging the culture and changing the world. “The two absolutely go together,” he says. “When you travel, you start to see that the six billion people in the world are equally precious to God. Across the ocean is the same as across the street: Everyone is your neighbor.”


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