Learning from Rick Steves

| Present

I have become a huge fan of Rick Steves since “discovering” him on a Public Broadcasting System station last year. I have only traveled to and in Europe 10 times, primarily as a tourist and researcher, but Steves has made Europe the primary focus of his professional life for over four decades. In case you’re not familiar with him, here is a short description from his website:

“In 1976, he started his business, Rick Steves’ Europe, which has grown from a one-man operation to a company with a staff of 100 full-time, well-travelled employees at his headquarters in Washington state. There he produces more than 50 guidebooks on European travel, America’s most popular travel series on public television, a weekly hour-long national public radio show, a weekly syndicated column, and free travel information available through his travel center and ricksteves.com.”

Steves’ fact-filled, superbly-photographed half-hour segments on PBS are an incredibly important offering to the American public about a continent – over two dozen countries and more than half a billion people – that we think we know but don’t know, in reality. While Steves in these segments is not overtly political most of the time, he often illustrates many of the ways in which Europe and its diverse citizens have created a peaceful, prosperous society for the past 70 years. When Steves takes a high-speed train, stays in a spotless lodging place, eats delicious food in a spectacular setting, visits a sublime religious edifice or museum, or examines how a major city deals with drug use, he is not only telling us what we can expect as a tourist but how real people live and thrive. The images from his travels – not only from the major cities but also from quaint, out-of-the-way rural areas – complement the positive aspects of Europe that I have discussed widely in previous blog posts.

It is instructive, however, to note that Steves’ visits to Europe actually have influenced him politically. Steves strongly believes that political action can result from the broadened perspective achieved through travel and an open mind. Steves has “incorporated his travel discoveries into real action back home,” especially in his home state of Washington. Some of the many groups that Steves supports include American Public Television, NARAL Pro-Choice Washington, Sojourners, and Washington State Democrats.

Two examples of Steves’ activism are illustrative: Bread for the World and marijuana legalization.

  • In November 2016, Steves launched a challenge to support Bread for the World. In the challenge, he stated, “I see Bread for the World not as a charity, but as a service. With our help, they are able to go into the halls of our government and speak up (or ‘lobby’) for hungry people in our country and around the world.” On January 1, 2017, Steves announced that “Rick Steves’ Europe travelers have met our goal of $500,000 to help empower Bread for the World to combat structural poverty and hunger. ⁋ 2,400 of you gave $100 or more each, totaling $309,594. As promised, I matched the first $250,000. Together, we raised more than $559,000 to fight structural causes of hunger. All this money — 100 percent — was given to Bread for the World to advocate in our halls of government for policies that help the hungry both at home and abroad. This is not ‘handouts for the lazy’ and it’s not ‘trickle down,’ either. It is smart compassion in action, as good people surrounded by a sea of abundance struggle to simply feed their children.”
  • Steves is outspoken on decriminalizing marijuana when it is dangerous for many other Americans to do so. He writes, “what most European countries have in common is an emphasis on education and prevention. They believe that, by handling drug abuse more as a public health problem than as a criminal one, they are better able to reduce the harm it causes—both to the individual (health problems and antisocial behavior) and to society (healthcare costs, policing costs, and drug-related crime). ⁋ Generally, Europeans employ a three-pronged strategy for dealing with hard drugs: law enforcement, education, and healthcare. Police zero in on dealers—not users—to limit the supply of drugs. Users generally get off with a warning and are directed to get treatment; any legal action respects the principle of proportionality.”

When I watch a segment of Rick Steves’ Europe on PBS, I am reminded of facts I have gleaned from my own research on Europe and what we as Americans can learn from Europeans’ lives and philosophies.

  • Europeans have leisure time and discretionary income to enjoy their families, their parks, their pedestrian-only city squares. Recall that EU and other European countries regulate working hours to encourage work-life balance.  Also recall that health care, retirement pensions, and other basics are taken care of automatically by the state, greatly reducing stress in those areas that most Americans feel acutely.
  • High-speed trains, spotless stations, state-of-the-art ferries and tunnels, and efficient underground (subway) and bus systems can be found throughout the continent. How and why did those come about, when our transportation infrastructures can be so limited, aging and even dangerous? The European mentality and philosophy is much more communal than ours – public transit is a common good supported by progressive taxation – and collaborations between governments and the private sector are significantly more robust than ours, resulting in highly impressive public works projects that benefit everyone.
  • Waiters and waitresses in European restaurants seem happy and truly service oriented. Recall that wait staff are paid a living wage and those positions are often lifelong careers in which incumbents take great pride.
  • In Germany and elsewhere, the ugly past is always present; the Nazi era is not glossed over, but rather the lessons learned are woven throughout the culture in positive and educational ways. Could we learn something to apply to our history of slavery and the treatment of Native Americans, for instance?

I would strongly urge every American to become acquainted with Rick Steves, his PBS shows, his website, and/or his travel guides, whether or not you ever intend to visit Europe. I can almost certainly guarantee both entertainment and enlightenment.