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Appearances: Notes and Travel, East and West
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Customer Service. In The Spotlight. Shop Our Brands. All Rights Reserved. Everyone here was, apparently, a superfan. At one point, Steves showed a slide of tourists swimming in a sunny French river underneath a Roman aqueduct, and the whole crowd gasped. When he mentioned that his website featured a special video devoted to packing light for women, a woman in the crowd actually pumped her fist. At the end of his talk, Steves offered to sign books — but not in the traditional way.
There were too many people for a signing table, he said, and anyway, single-file lines were always inefficient. This is one of his travel credos: avoid waiting in line. Instead of sitting down, Steves walked out into the center of the room and invited everyone to open their books and surround him. He pulled out a Sharpie. And then he started to spin.
Steves held out his pen and signed book after book after book, fluidly, on the move, smiling as the crowd pressed in. A woman asked him where to celebrate Christmas in Europe.
Steves, in midrotation, still signing furiously, told her that he had made a whole special about precisely that question and that it was available free on his website. As he spun, Steves thanked everyone and gave quick, off-the-cuff advice. In an astonishingly short time, he had signed every book. The people were satisfied.
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The crowd thinned. Steves finally came to a stop. Rick Steves is absolutely American. He wears jeans every single day. He drinks frozen orange juice from a can. He likes his hash browns burned, his coffee extra hot. He has a great spontaneous honk of a laugh — it bursts out of him, when he is truly delighted, with the sharpness of a firecracker on the Fourth of July. Although Steves spends nearly half his life traveling, he insists, passionately, that he would never live anywhere but the United States — and you know when he says it that this is absolutely true.
In fact, Steves still lives in the small Seattle suburb where he grew up, and every morning he walks to work on the same block, downtown, where his parents owned a piano store 50 years ago. On Sundays, Steves wears his jeans to church, where he plays the congas, with great arm-pumping spirit, in the inspirational soft-rock band that serenades the congregation before the service starts, and then he sits down and sings classic Lutheran hymns without even needing to refer to the hymnal. Although Steves has published many foreign-language phrase books, the only language he speaks fluently is English.
He built his business in America, raised his kids in America and gives frequent loving paeans to the glories of American life. And yet: Rick Steves desperately wants you to leave America.
The tiniest exposure to the outside world, he believes, will change your entire life. The more rootedly American you are, the more Rick Steves wants this for you. If you have never had a passport, if you are afraid of the world, if your family would prefer to vacation exclusively at Walt Disney World, if you worry that foreigners are rude and predatory and prone to violence or at least that their food will give you diarrhea, then Steves wants you — especially you — to go to Europe.
Then he wants you to go beyond. He wants you to stand and make little moaning sounds on a cobblestone street the first time you taste authentic Italian gelato — flavors so pure they seem like the primordial essence of peach or melon or pistachio or rice distilled into molecules and stirred directly into your own molecules.
He wants you to hike on a dirt path along a cliff over the almost-too-blue Mediterranean, with villages and vineyards spilling down the rugged mountains above you. He wants you to arrive at the Parthenon at dusk, just before it closes, when all the tour groups are loading back onto their cruise ships, so that you have the whole place to yourself and can stand there feeling like a private witness to the birth, and then the ruination, of Western civilization.
Steves wants you to go to Europe for as long as you can afford to, and he also wants to help you afford it. Much of his guru energy is focused on cutting costs. Out of this paradoxical desire — the enlightenment of Americans through their extraction from America — Steves has built his quirky travel empire. His guidebooks, which started as hand-typed and photocopied information packets for his scraggly s tour groups, now dominate the American market; their distinctive blue-and-yellow spines brighten the travel sections of bookstores everywhere.
Steves is less interested in reaching sophisticated travelers than he is in converting the uninitiated. Steves teaches his followers everything from how to pack a toiletries kit to how to make themselves at home in a small hotel room to how to appreciate a religious tradition they may have been raised to despise.
In order to enjoy St. He is simultaneously goofy and dead serious; he can ping, in an instant, from golly-gee Pollyanna cheerfulness to deep critiques of the modern world.
I can testify, firsthand, to the power of Rick Steves. In , he spoke at my college. Nothing about the encounter seemed promising. Our campus was a tiny outpost in a tiny town, and Steves delivered his talk not in some grand lecture hall but in a drab room in the basement of the student union. I was poor, shy, anxious, sheltered, repressed and extremely pale. I was a particular kind of Pacific Northwest white guy — blind to myself and my place in the world. I had never really traveled; I was more comfortable on Greyhound buses than on airplanes.
Going to Europe seemed like something aristocrats did, like fox hunting or debutante balls. My girlfriend dragged me to the talk. I had never even heard of Steves. But what he said over the next hour or so changed the rest of my life. He paces, gesticulates and speaks very fast. He tells his favorite old jokes as if they were eternally new. Onstage, he is a combination of preacher, comedian, salesman, life-hacker, professor and inspirational speaker.
Steves told us, that day, how to pack our entire lives into a single bag measuring 9 by 22 by 14 inches. The back door, by contrast, led to revelations. He showed us impossibly enticing photos: cobblestone piazzas teeming with fruit stalls, quirky wooden hotels among wildflowers in the Alps, vast arsenals of multicolored cheese. He made travel seem less like a luxury than a necessary exploration of the self, a civic responsibility, a basic courtesy to your fellow humans.
It seemed almost unreasonable not to go. Above all, Steves told us, do not be afraid. The people of the world are wonderful, and the planet we share is spectacular. But the only way to really understand that is to go and see it for yourself. So go. My girlfriend and I left the room converts to the gospel of Rick Steves. We bought his book and highlighted it to near-meaninglessness.
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