Travel as a Political Act is the name of Rick Steves’ latest book. It’s also the name of a thought-provoking talk we heard him give last weekend.
You may recall from an earlier post here that we ran into public TV travel guru Rick Steves twice while we were in Italy this spring. (Of course, we were following the restaurant recommendations from his book while he was coincidentally in Italy taping a new season.) We are big fans of Rick. For independent travelers like us, his books, shows, tapes, travel forums, etc., have been the backbone of more than one trip abroad. So, we were very excited to learn that he was speaking at the local junior college.
And, we were not disappointed.
Though his books are full of savvy travel advice, this was not a discussion about about itineraries, European train travel, the best way to get museum tickets or any of those nagging questions would-be travelers have. It was a talk about traveling with “purpose,” about choosing to be open to new experiences.
Personally, I think travel, especially to other countries, is a leap of faith. You may not know the language, the food will be different, and so will the money. You may find yourself somewhat humbled. People do things differently.
The first time I went to Europe was a trip to Paris with my then sixteen-year-old son. We hopped into a cab one evening and, in my Chicago way, I brusquely gave the driver a restaurant address. The driver didn’t make a move. Instead he patiently greeted us, “Bonjour madame, bonjour monsieur.” I had totally forgotten the essential niceties always observed in so many other countries. (So, we all exchanged greetings and then we proceeded to discuss our destination.) It is, however, a faux pas I have never forgotten.
It’s easy to travel checking things off your bucket list but not always really seeing and savoring what’s around you. In all honesty, Steve and I are not hugely experienced travelers, but we do try to make personal connections whenever we can. On our first post-retirement trip, we took a train from Edinburgh to London, chatting with a wonderful man who had retired after serving as the major general of the Queen’s bagpipe regiment. He talked about his many experiences and gave us a running commentary on the countryside and towns we were passing. He added a personal view of Scotland (not to mention Scottish view of the U.S.A.) to our trip.
On the same trip, we were working our way through the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh when a giggling, running, skipping pack of what could only have been kindergarten or first-graders swarmed into the gallery. The little boys hopped astride some small canons and the girls spied a memorial, exclaiming “Look, look, it’s Mary Queen of Scots!”
Then they managed to swarm around the effigy, patting her hands and her dress. While their somewhat mortified teachers tried to gather and shush them, we joined the museum guard in a good chuckle, happy to realize that kids are kids no matter where. For me, it is one of the singular moments from that trip.
Rick’s talk was 90 minutes, but the time just flew as he moved seamlessly from point to point. Among them: the importance of being open to new experiences, taking history seriously and overcoming fear. He points out that these are all things we grapple with to varying degrees and with a range of success. And, he says, that’s okay.
Some trips take you farther out of your comfort zone. As an editor I traveled on trade missions to both Istanbul and China. Despite being with co-workers and clients whom I knew well, along with charming guides charged with making sure we had a memorable time, both destinations were far afield from anything I had experienced. And while touring the Forbidden City or climbing the Great Wall in China and shopping the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul or visiting the Blue Mosque are travel moments to treasure, visiting factories, often in tiny towns, added a whole new dimension to those trips. On one hand, this is a way of life that’s totally different from ours. On the other, we’re all very much alike, working hard to lift ourselves and our families to the next level of security and safety. And that’s important to remember when we are sorting international friends and enemies.
Unfortunately we live in a scarier world these days. Is it sad or strangely reassuring to see armed soldiers at popular sights in Rome and London? I’m not sure it’s any different from this country where we walk thru metal detectors and have our purses and backpacks searched to enter a museum or a ballpark. This is the world we live in. (Sometime I’ll tell you about the first time Steve and I traveled to Paris and both lost our wallets to pickpockets on the same day!)
Finally, I’ve been pondering this post all week, and I think the concept of traveling with a purpose applies as much to domestic destinations as it does to foreign travel. My family will tell you I am the queen of hunkering down in a beach chair with a new book and happily tuning out the rest of the world. And I think that brand of travel has a well-deserved place in our busy lives. I also think that stepping out of line to talk to a museum docent or engaging the sweetgrass artist in the fine points of his craft are more than worth the effort. What about you?
I encourage you to read a text version of Rick’s talk here or to check out a copy of his book by the same name.
See you next time!