National Lutheran News

ELCA layman has found key to Europe’s back door.

Star of PB S specials says U.S. citizens need to widen their horizons.

The man whose name has become a household word because of his European tour guidebooks and his PBS-TV travel programs never really wanted to go to Europe in the first place.

Rick Steves, whose company now employs 60 tour guides leading 150 European tours a year, told a large crowd at Luther Seminary on January 6, “The first time I crossed the Atlantic, my parents had to drag me along with them. I wanted to stay home with my friends.”

But, once there, he says, he fell in love with the continent, its people, culture and history. These days, the host of PBS-TV’s “Europe Through the Back Door With Rick Steves” spends 100 days a year in Europe.

On the last night of Luther Seminary’s annual Winter Convocation, Steves told listeners how he connects his faith to his vocation. The member of Trinity Lutheran Church, ELCA, Linwood (suburban Seattle), Washington, said, “I think travel is a spiritual experience. I don’t hide my Lutheran Christianity when I lead tours, but I don’t force it on people either. It’s just a natural part of who I am.”

He told how he filled the need for Sunday morning worship while on the road with travelers. “I announced we’d have a Sunday morning ‘Back-door Fellowship,’ a sort of informal ecumenical prayer service. Nobody was required to show up, but I was astonished at how many people actually did.”

One way Steves shares his faith in a secular setting is by making connections to historical locations where religion plays an important part. “My TV producer jokes I can work Martin Luther into any travel script I develop,” he said. One of those scripts, created for the ELCA MOSAIC TV series, is, in fact, a tour of Martin Luther locations in Germany, including Wittenberg.

Steves told his audience one of the main reasons to travel abroad is to meet new people and learn from them.
“I walked to the top of the new glass dome, above the old German Parliament building in Berlin and stood surrounded by teary-eyed Germans. They knew that the rehabilitation of that building meant the end of a horrible era for them. For some of them, it was almost too much to absorb.”
Some of Steves’ person-to-person connections have been humorous. “I asked an old gentleman on a road in Ireland, ‘Were you born here?’ He replied, ‘No. About five miles down the road.’ I asked, ‘Have you lived here all your life?’ He deadpanned, ‘Not yet.’”

As Europe unites, and formerly independent nations share a common currency and government, some have worried diversity might disappear. Said Steves, “That appears not to be happening. Now that the government is centering in Brussels, not their national capitals, regions are less a threat and local citizens are celebrating their identities as never before.”

One result of the consolidation has been high-speed travel between nations. “The infrastructure is growing like crazy,” he said. “You can take a fast train from London to Paris. It takes 17 minutes to get through the ‘Chunnel’ and the trip is faster than you could make it by air.”

Should terrorism keep an American from traveling overseas? “Last year 15,000 Americans were killed with handguns. In Europe, a few hundred were. I say, if you want to be safe and secure, go to Europe — soon!”

Terrorism is here to stay, he said. “We need to get used to it — and think about what causes people to do desperate things. Half of humanity tries to live on $4 a day. Americans are 4% of the world’s population, controlling one-third of the planet’s wealth.”

Said Steves, “Christians ought not behave on the basis of fear. You can’t get elected talking like this, but it’s the truth.” That comment brought loud applause.

Steves said 80% of Europeans are upset with U.S. foreign policy, but not necessarily with American travelers. He added, “If you want to fight terrorism, travel abroad — and then come home and help shrink the planet and eliminate fear of other people, by sharing what you learned overseas.”

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A conversation with Rick Steves

Packed and ready to fly away to Venice, Italy, travel expert Rick Steves slowed down long enough on January 7 for a chat with the editor of Metro Lutheran. Here’s some of what he said.

Metro Lutheran: What’s the best way for an American tourist to avoid being an “ugly American”?

Rick Steves: It’s best to travel in order to learn, not to teach. When Americans travel in groups, they often behave badly — they’re loud, they make fun of the local money, and so on.

You mix travel savvy with your political and ethical views. Have you paid a price for that?

I don’t know, but I honestly don’t care. I’m having fun with my business. Being an American should mean more than being a producer/consumer. Travel helps us change our priorities.

You keep a torrid pace. Doesn’t that wear you out?
Staying home wears me out. I get energy when I’m on the road. My wife is very supportive of my style and schedule. I’m a teacher more than a parent. But I don’t neglect my kids.

What’s the worst travel experience you’ve ever had?

Making PBS-TV specials with a skilled crew I just didn’t enjoy working with. These days I have my own TV company.

Is there a danger your tourbooks’ recommendations are turning hidden gems into tourist traps — and spoiling them?

(After some laughter): I’m like a whaler who says, “Quick, harpoon it before it’s extinct!” Seriously, I know there’s a risk I may ruin a pristine place, but my job is to share affordable out-of-the-way discoveries with “back door” travelers.

Some of us have a hard time learning foreign languages. Do Europeans resent Americans who only speak English?

It’s polite to make an effort at speaking the local language. But virtually all Europeans speak English. After you start butchering their native tongue, they’ll likely switch to English to save you embarrassment.

What’s your funniest travel experience?

Probably falling asleep on a car ferry. I woke up, discovering I’d sailed right past Denmark. We were on the way to Norway, but I wasn’t supposed to be.

What’s the most valuable lesson you’ve learned from travel?

There are parents all over the world whose children are just as precious as my two kids are. You can’t discount those people. There’s a tsunami of children dying every year. We need to care about that.

You have a heart for people in Third World countries. Have you considered leading tours there?

No. The Augsburg College Global Education Institute does it better than I could. In fact, I’m going on one of their trips to Nicaragua in 2005. They have a fabulous program.