This weekend a dream came true – I met Rick Steves! My friends Brian and Mel got tickets to his lecture, Travel As a Political Act, at Chicago’s Josephinum Academy and I quickly snagged mine after. He’d been attending the Chicago Travel Adventure Show in Rosemont and came to do this private seminar later as his daughter teaches at the school – what a wonderful treat!
I’ve been a fan of Rick since 2012 when I first started watching him on Create TV while getting ready for class in the morning. He was fantastic! I loved how normal and humble he seemed (I mean, he wears the same shirt in every episode) and that his show had something for people of all ages. He was so thorough and interesting and made me feel so close to these foreign cities I’d never been to.
Fortunately this was before I studied abroad in Santiago de Compostela and before going I also discovered his free app and podcast tours, which took me walking all over London, Paris, Rome and even within their beautiful monuments. It was like having Uncle Rick right in my ear walking me through St. Peter’s Basilica! For more info, check out my short post on using these podcasts. Honestly, though – if you’re even thinking of solo travel in Europe, just buy an old iPod nano (the small square one that clips) on eBay and load it up with only podcasts from Rick Steves – this way you don’t waste your phone battery, and its clip feature keeps your hands free for pictures!
Anyway, now that you think I’m a loser for calling him Uncle Rick (he really is like everyone’s uncle), we were very excited for the topic of his lecture, Travel As a Political Act. Based on his latest book, the lecture was about keeping your mind open and being considerate of other cultures. Travel is more than just trying to get a selfie with the Mona Lisa – it’s learning about the people, past and present, and digging deeper into the history and politics so you can appreciate the culture without judgement.
One story that Rick discussed is from when he was in Afghanistan and a man came up to him out of nowhere, clearly with something to get off his chest. He assumed Rick was American and began to lecture him, explaining that even though Americans eat with forks, Chinese eat with chopsticks, and Afghans eat with their hands, it doesn’t make Afghans any less human than those who use cutlery.
Although Rick was caught off guard, he didn’t forget this lesson and it made him realize how true it is that many Americans seem to think less highly of cultures with habits that we aren’t used to or that American suffering is more important that the suffering of other cultures. One point that Rick really stuck to was that we all have baggage – America has 9/11, which was a terrible tragedy, but so have been the Israeli-Palestinian conflicts which have killed thousands over the years. People all over the world have suffered and lost loved ones in the name of religious extremism – not just America.
Unfortunately the American media and politics nowadays make Muslims bloodthirsty American killers (side note: Rick explained he learned in Afghanistan that when they say “Death to America” it actually means “Damn America”… good to know!). Unsurprisingly, during the Q&A section of the night, one man asked Rick his opinion on the current security situation in Europe. A question I often get as a travel agent who books European tours.
“There has never been a safer time in history for Americans to travel in Europe,” Rick replied without missing a beat. He explained that with communication and technology where it is, it is extremely safe to travel right now. It’s an understandable question, but statistics show that 2015 was the safest year for travel. Wonderful!
It was a fantastic lecture that everyone needs to hear. It was kind of disappointing that the people who attended did not really need this kind of convincing – meaning, the audience that would (hopefully) get the most out of this are the narrow-minded-Trump-follower types. As Rick suggested to the man who asked him what piece of travel advice he’d give to our current presidential candidates, “Make a law that requires people to travel before they can vote.”
It was really an intimate lecture overall of probably just a couple hundred total in the school’s gymnasium. As everyone clambered around him getting pictures and autographs we made our way over. I had my Rick Steves Ireland book in hand and phone (aka camera) in the other, slowly approaching Rick. He finally turned around and I got my autograph and a second of conversation to tell him how wonderful his podcasts are, and then a bit later we got our pictures! He even took the selfie of the four of us. We ventured out into the lobby for refreshments and to wait out the crowd for another chance with him.
Brian, Mel and I had some cookies and water and talked about how awesome Rick was and how inspired we felt by his speech. Everyone was clearing out (I was shocked by how not too many stayed later to talk to him) and while Rick slowly made his way through the last few people toward the decaf coffee, I was able to catch him one last time. He seemed tired (I mean, he just gave his third speech for the day) but patient, so I made sure to keep it short and sweet. I explained to him that I’m an aspiring travel writer and asked if he had any advice or programs that I could look into. His reply was honest – just keep traveling. Thanks, Uncle Rick! 🙂
Here’s a great version of the wonderful speech I attended!
You can buy Rick’s latest book, Travel As a Political Act, right here!