For some strange reason, the first moment that I saw an episode of Rick Steves’ Europe is indelibly fried into my frontal lobe; I may not be able to recall the particulars of where Jynx and I dined at during our first date or what the name of the boss at my first wage-jockey job was, but—for reasons both telling and extraordinary—this one sticks.
Here’s the watercolor brief, in setting the scene: Jynx and I were broke, miserable, and living in what was once the operating theater of an old hospital (which had been converted into an apartment complex) during our first few days of New Life ™ in Floptown and the Pacific Northwest. Between the shortening days and the stresses of the tear-up-the-tacks move that we’d made from California, our collective urge to go anywhere after dark had died along with the browning leaves outside of our windows: edgy and exhausted, we’d prop up a few pillows and lie on the living room rug, doing a dead-eyed thing at the few channels we could milk from the ether with our old fatback television set and its bent antennae.
Almost immediately, we started getting bombarded by fun-sized blocks of Rick Steves’ Europe re-runs, on the local public access circuit. The first time I saw it—pausing over a bowl of bitterly salty ramen, in mid-slurp—I actually thought it was a put on… some long-lost syndication from the late 80’s, or some damn thing. The sight of Steves himself—impossibly chipper, somehow maternal in the soft lines of his face and the empty kindness of his stare, providing a clipped play-by-play in a voice that should have belonged to a cartoon woodchuck—was somehow too pure for the world in which we were living. My system, soured by malaise and cankered by the usual self-loathing of the twentysomething brain, rejected it immediately: for weeks, I watched Europe with a sort of sneering condescension, mocking the simplified world view that it presented and rolling many an eye at Steves’ suffocating pleasantness.
Eventually, my interest lapsed: in 2003, my collective travel experience consisted of the previously-outlined trip to NYC, and not a whole hell of a lot else. Cynicism burns hot and fades fast, and it was replaced by a wholesale sense that Steves was selling a perspective that simply didn’t apply to my limitations as a traveler: if it wasn’t the money, then it’d be the social anxiety. If it wasn’t the social anxiety, it’d be the time investment. And if the time investment didn’t kill those hopes of boarding a plane to somewhere out of immediate reach and driving distance, then it’d go right back to the money thing. I didn’t need a rube like Rick Steves parked on my shoulder, chipmunk-chittering about the best way to rent a goddamned bike in Bruges: that was not my world.
And then, as it tends to: then became now, there became here, and that became this.
In the ten years since our arrival—and consequent retreat—from Floptown, I’ve come to grips with many a life lesson, on scales ranging from grand to pocket-change. I’ve accepted the limitations of my psychological “quirks” and have replaced stiff-armed anger with something resembling blunt-force optimism. I’ve had my eyes opened to the wonders of loving someone. I’ve become a better brother and son, but—perhaps most importantly…
… I’ve come to recognize that I really do love me some Rick Steves.
I confess as much without the slightest hint of hip irony, low-rent panderment or qualifications about how I’ve come to accept the man “as he stands,” and “despite” the various grievances of the past. The simple fact stands that Rick Steves—while many things—is far from a rube; in fact, if that designation fits anybody in this equation, it’d be those who settle for the surface read of the guy, and let that inform their opinion of what it is that he does.
Now, I do grant that it’s easy to take Steves and his schtick at face value: from that seat, he’s sort of the end result of what would happen if you poured a sixer of Ensure and Ned Flanders into a giant blender, set it on high frappe’ for a few minutes, and then dressed up the resulting cocktail with the trappings of a timeshare salesman. The chronically pleasant nature of his broadcast-safe self tempts mockery and sarcasm, but giving into these urges overlooks one absolutely crucial point: that this Steves is, himself, a construct. The Rick Steves that ushers television viewers through the genial green of Ireland and offers candy-coated commentary about back-stroking down the Rhine does, in fact, bear little resemblance to the off-hours model; unless you’d actively sought it out, you’d likely never realize that the guy is a tireless entrepreneur, philanthropist and political activist, who quietly punches up his travel blogs with op-eds about legalizing weed and giving same-sex marriage the vote. This Steves—the Man-model—is like the tenure-track version of The World’s Most Interesting Man, a realization that Jynx and I had to bite down on when we witnessed him somehow compress the entire history of cultural art in Europe into a two-hour, straight-shot, mildly-vaudevillian performance at our local PAC. The fact that Steves managed to pump the proceedings full of casually dirty jokes and bon mots was intriguing enough, but it was when we realized that he was pulling this off after DELIVERING TRAVEL WORKSHOPS FOR NINE STRAIGHT HOURS PRIOR that the real picture began to buzz into focus. That being that Steves is, in actuality, a classic standard-bearer for the American Dream, the guy who’s figured out What Works ™ and has parlayed it into a flippin’ small-scale media empire… which has allowed him all the time and finance that a person could pray for, in pursuing his personal and social interests. Regardless of what one makes of his dayjob, Steves is—simply put—no soft-serve, when it comes to living his gimmick and knowing his shit*.
Of course, like all good showmen, Steves has also honed the finest bits and bobs of his worldview and has fashioned it into something palpable, for the masses: his company**, Through the Back Door, banks its catalogue on the basics of simple leisure and total comfort with its European forays, marketing itself in the same gossamer-throated copy that Steves uses in his travelogues. In an industry fracked with flat-rate brochures and online bid-for-play sites, Steves has set himself aside as a reliable source of fun for the silver-haired set and the family traveler; the genial blitherings of a typical episode of Europe extend melodically into the outfit’s brochures (Presumably also penned by his Royal Rickness), bridging “what you see” with “what you want” and—ultimately—“what you get.”
To certain palettes, this can naturally come off as saccharine and disingenuous; however, that doesn’t preclude the fact that Steves himself is providing what I’d qualify as an absolutely crucial service. This owes itself to the fact that–in all honesty–the current mythoculture*** of travel has evolved to such a point where its very purpose has begun to buckle under the weight of the constant desire/need to self-narrate: at its worst, today’s traveler can find themselves marching numbly to the lockstep of a bucket list’s bullet-points (Generally based on what someone else has done/written about), drifting aimlessly through an entire museum with their tablet plastered to their faces and Instagram on a one-button loop, getting absolutely lost in the process of the “re-telling” of where they’re at and missing out on the most essential idea of travel…
… that it’s not about making sure that other people know that you were there. It’s about being there.
Of course, the irony of this proselytizing on a blog is not something that I can pretend to overlook, but: hell. It speaks to one of the things that I genuinely admire about Rick Steves: that he enables people who are filled with fear of foreign languages, those who may be numbed by the concept of driving along on the “wrong” side of the road and who don’t think that they’ve got what it takes to get the hell out of their house to do exactly that. He’s a wingman for the hardest-core kind of textbook tourist—the Groupey*****—and frankly, even the most cynical and incisive parts of my person has trouble finding any real fault with that. I may admire the stories that I read on this very site to a profound degree (Especially those by truly adventurous sorts, like this gem), but I also realize that the value of travelogues shouldn’t be resigned to the ballsiest of the species: for the rest of us, the rest of them, and everybody else, the world–as Rick Steves offers it–is a pretty damned good place to be.