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Wednesday, September 12, 2007 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Q&A

The world according to Rick Steves

Seattle Times staff reporter

Coming Up

"Travel as a Political Act," presented by Rick Steves, 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Town Hall, 1119 Eighth Ave.; $5 (www.townhallseattle .org).

"Travel as a Political Act" may sound about as bourgeois as Yachting for Peace.

But Rick Steves says that after Sept. 11 he wanted to talk about more as a travel teacher than just finding bargains. Hence his above-titled speech Thursday at Town Hall. Drawing upon his three decades of experience abroad, the travel-guide guru and left-leaning host of "Rick Steves' Europe" on PBS will talk about how we understand our own country better by leaving it.

I went through the front door of Europe Through the Back Door, Steves' travel office in Edmonds, to find out more about this subversive anti-ignorance ploy of his — and ask some intrusive personal questions.

Mark Rahner: When you bring up "travel as a political act," you won't be talking exclusively to prospective shoe-bombers.

Rick Steves: (Laughs.) When I talk about travel as a political act I'm talking about how travel can change your perspective in a way that when you get home, all of a sudden you're more difficult to con.

MR: I think of boycotting Thailand because of the child-sex trade, but that's nothing new. What are you adding to the issue?

RS: I'm saying when you travel, you find smart people who would not trade passports. You have people who are ethnocentric like you and I are, but they find other truths to be self-evident and God-given.

MR: Such as?

RS: Slow service is good service, instead of fast service is good service. Tolerance of alternative lifestyles. I think in Europe they've learned that society has to make a choice: you can tolerate more alternative lifestyles or you can build more prisons. And they always remind me how good we are at incarceration. We're four percent of the planet with more than a quarter of its prisoners.

MR: How about some do's and don'ts? I'll go first: If you're traveling in India, don't make a stink because you can't find an Arby's. Your turn.

RS: If you're traveling in India, don't assume you know what pain and love and the value of time is.

MR: I have to think about that one, but I'll take another turn. If you are a famous Scientologist, stay out of Berlin.

RS: If you're a famous rock star, don't hang a baby out the window in Berlin. When Americans go to the Brandenburg Gate ... it frustrates those guides, because all they want to know is "Which balcony did Michael Jackson hang his baby out on?"

MR: Don't you think the teen beauty-pageant finalist's incoherent answer about why Americans can't find America on a map says all we need to know about our ignorance of the rest of the world?

RS: (Laughs.) I love that, too. That clip would not surprise people — not even in Europe, in the developing world. It's not a fair example of an American, but you can make a case that we think we're a hub and everything relates to us. And the rest of the world interacts with each other, with or without America, which I think is real interesting. One of the most poignant moments I had last year was in Morocco, looking at a beautiful square in Tangier realizing these are successful affluent people going places and they neither emulate America or dislike America. America doesn't even enter into their awareness. And I thought that's a beautiful thing.

MR: You're suggesting actually learning about a culture before invading it? I mean traveling to it.

RS: Yeah, I'm saying if everybody traveled before they could vote, we would not be outvoted in the United Nations routinely 130 to 4. We would not go into wars alone. We would work better with the rest of the planet.

MR: What have you observed first-hand to be the effect of the Iraq war and our current foreign policies on the way people treat American travelers?

RS: People in most countries know from first-hand experience that you can elect a person that's an embarrassment, so they cut us some slack.

MR: We don't have to see Europe through the back door now because they hate us?

RS: No, they don't hate Americans. People love Americans. Some people go over there and want to put their judgments on other people to tell them how to do things right. Europeans don't need other people to tell them how to do things right and wrong. And they don't take very well to it. As long as you go to a country with a wide-open enthusiasm and an open mind and an interest in giving some of their ways of living a whirl, they love to have you visit. ...

MR: Tell me more about your speech Thursday.

RS: I'm going to share examples of the value of travel broadening your perspective and how important in a post-9/11 world that is. Because we live in a society that's using fear as a tactic to confuse us, and powerful people profit from our confusion.

MR: How does travel help?

RS: If you travel to Iraq you'd be less likely to bomb a wedding party just because one guy in the crowd was tall. I've traveled across the Middle East. I've traveled in Kurdistan in eastern Turkey and Afghanistan, and it changes the sadness of being able to look at a bombing like a video game.

MR: Are you recommending then that Americans travel in the Middle East?

RS: I think if the world knew what was good for it, it would establish a fund to pay for Americans all to have a free trip for six weeks, anywhere they wanted around the world upon graduation. It would be the best investment the world could ever make. Because right now an America that is threatened by, fearful of and misunderstands the rest of the world is a costly thing on this planet.

MR: You serve on NORML's [National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws] board of directors and advocate the decriminalization of marijuana. My question to you: What's your favorite snack food?

RS: (Laughs.)

MR: Answer the question!

RS: Answer the question! My favorite snack food! Triscuits are fun to eat.

MR: With nothing on 'em?

RS: You can decide if you want to eat them with the grain or against the grain. That takes a little while.

MR: Do people who buy your travel books and watch your show ever find your marijuana advocacy incongruous? Or do they say, "No wonder he recommends grabbing uneaten food from other people's cafeteria trays!"

RS: Ha. Most people haven't put together what of my writing and my business might have been inspired from smoking marijuana. I mean, when you're overseas and you decide to go local and you're a travel writer, you take careful notes.

MR: You've cultivated a trademark look which I've heard described as "The Winkerbean."

RS: Really?

MR: Really. Do you think business would fall off if you switched to contacts?

RS: Oh, that's interesting. I've got to do TV shows where I'm looking no more out of style than I was at the time 10 years later. I don't want to make a fashion statement because it'll make a show more dated than it needs to be. But I don't have much of a fashion sense anyway.

MR: Consistency is comforting.

RS: Yeah, when I sit down at the Mexican restaurant 200 yards from here for lunch, I never order. They just bring me the same lunch I've had for five years.

MR: Which is what?

RS: Chicken tostada and cranberry juice. So I get enough variety on the road, when I come home I would rather wear the same clothes every day and not concern myself with that.

MR: Aren't you successful enough now that you don't have to follow your own advice?

RS: I could forget all the budget tricks and just spend as much as I like in Europe, but I honestly believe fundamentally the less you spend the more you experience.

MR: When I was studying abroad 20 years ago, students were advised not to wear American-looking clothing or symbols, and not to be loud, because it was likely to draw trouble. And more than once, people who overheard my accent in bars felt free to walk over to the table and start arguing. Are we back to that?

RS: Other people don't walk around with T-shirts that say "Proud to be Norwegian." It's inconceivable that a Norwegian or a Belgian or a Portuguese person would walk around with a T-shirt that says Proud to be Norwegian or Portuguese. Americans walk around with T-shirts that say essentially "America, love it or leave it." "America, right or wrong." "God bless America." When somebody to me says "God bless America," I think, well what about everybody else? I would advise people not to wear an American flag, because the American flag has been hijacked. It doesn't symbolize America anymore. It symbolizes an American war around the world. That's not my opinion. That's what it means when people see that. That's changed a lot lately, and that saddens me.

As far as Americans talking loud, we're notorious for talking loud, and that's just a matter of simple sensitivity to foreign cultures. If I'm on a train car with 40 people and I can hear one conversation, it's invariably an American conversation. And I almost feel like getting up and saying "Gee guys, listen to everybody else here, there's 40 people on this train. We could all be enjoying some peace and quiet, but we're all listening to your conversation. It's just classic American cluelessness when it comes to living in densely populated areas.

MR: What's the most clueless thing you ever did in a foreign country when you were an inexperienced traveler?

RS: I used to think the world was a pyramid with us on top and everybody else trying to figure it out. And I really traveled believing I could just share with people all the beauties of American culture, and I don't believe that anymore. I like my way of living, but I don't think that other people want to copy it.

MR: When I got to a fishing village in the north of Scotland, an embarrassing situation ensued because I wasn't aware of their meaning of "shag."

RS: Oh yeah. Well that happens all the time. If you ask for a napkin you can get a tampon. I'll never forget how shocked I was when a man at a bed and breakfast tapped on my door and said "What time would you like to be knocked up in the morning?" I used to always ask for leche caliente in Spain — that's hot milk — until somebody told me that's local slang for sperm.

MR: Hello!

RS: I didn't order it like that anymore. And for years as a tour guide I would call myself a "capa gruppa," which is a female tour guide [in Italian]. And people just understood I was a tourist struggling with the language.

MR: But you said they're more tolerant of other lifestyles and they might have assumed that you were ... Politeness abroad always makes sense. A man in a bar in Scotland once asked me, "Do you want a fag?" And I said, "Uh, no thank you," unaware at the time that he was offering me a cigarette.

RS: Actually faggots are meatballs in South Wales, which sometimes needs some explaining.

MR: That guy from "Grey's Anatomy" may have been thinking of that.

RS: "Fanny" is a vagina in Australia.

MR: Making fanny packs horribly awkward. Staying out of the country long enough to settle into the vibe somewhere showed me how oblivious American travelers can be.

RS: When you say Americans are oblivious, what you're saying is Americans have not had the opportunity to leave our country and look at our country from a distance and get to know another culture. That's just a matter of lack of experience. What I try to do is get people to travel in a way that takes advantage of that experience to let them better understand the world, broaden their perspective through travel, to look at America through French eyes.

I mean, for America to say that the French are surrender monkeys really shows what little we know about the French. Half of all their men between 15 and 30 were casualties after WWI. They lost as many people as we lost in the Vietnam War, many times on a single day. And they have one quarter of our population. There's a country that knows what war is like.

America, frankly, doesn't know what war is like. We don't have many living memories right now of what a serious war that the Europeans have experienced is. Consequently, we've sanitized it. And Europeans have many more powerful reminders of how war can devastate a society. Consequently they're inclined to find alternatives to war a little more aggressively than we are.

MR: So you were against freedom fries.

RS: Ha! I was appalled that people were pouring out good French wine! I was appalled that people were not eating Mr. French's Mustard thinking that was a French thing, when Mr. French was, I think he's English or something. It has nothing to do with France. There's people that just, as I said, they have not had the opportunity to travel. If I grew up in some middle American state and never left the country, was surrounded by people that never left the country, I would be scared to death of Muslims. I'm not scared to death of Muslims.

My daughter just spent a month in Morocco living in a village, having a life-changing experience as a 17-year-old, and she knows that people in Morocco regardless of their religion get out of bed in the morning, and they just want to live a good life. They have no ideas in their mind to hurt America. They like our music. They don't like our wars. They want to be left alone. They don't dress up with their whole heads covered up. They look just like our kids. They have different religious traditions.

MR: So mere exposure to Islam reveals that Muslim fanatics are about as exceptional as Christian fanatics?

RS: Exactly. I mean if all you know about Islam is what you've learned from American media, it's not much different from what Muslims have learned about Christians from Al-Jazeera.

MR: You and I in Amsterdam for a weekend. How's it play out?

RS: It's fun to go to a coffee shop. You've got to find a coffee shop that's comfortable for you. You want the right ambience. You want for you and me — well, for me I'd want an older crowd. Wouldn't want so much tie-dye and dreadlocks and piercings.

MR: Is that how I strike you?

RS: No, I don't know. I'd want a mellow sort of older crowd at a coffee shop. We could go to the Van Gogh museum, that'd be pretty cool. It could pan out a lot of ways. I don't care to tell you what I would do. I'd probably be working so hard that I wouldn't get high.

Mark Rahner: 206-464-8259 or mrahner@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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