Podthoughts by Colin Marshall: Travel with Rick Steves

Posted by Maximum Fun on 2nd April 2012

Vital stats:
Format: a travel guide talks to travelers and tourists
Episode duration: exactly 53:30
Frequency: weekly

Growing up in Seattle, I thought of Rick Steves as a guru for locals aspiring to European travel just as I thought of Dan Savage as a guru for locals suffering sexual complications. But even though both men initially became famous in western Washington state and continue to reside there under auras of regional heroism, they’ve eluded the attentions of that cruelest mistress, “Seattle fame.” Unlike the work of, say, Ted Narcotic, Savage and Steves’ writing has spread across pretty much the entire Anglophone world. Both have reached even wider audiences still by launching first radio shows, then podcasts. I wager that most Max Funsters already know about Savage Love (reviewed by my esteemed predecessor Ian Brill here), but stand to benefit by learning about Travel with Rick Steves [RSS] [iTunes].

Just as Savage’s sex-advice column, reliably printed each and every week in Seattle’s “cooler” weekly paper, quickly became a fixture of my adolescence, Steves’ television program Rick Steves’ Europe felt ever-present. Yet I never really sat down and watched it, since I got from some of Steves’ fans the vague impression of a certain detached, cheapskate Europhilia, the kind that obligates Joe and Jane Washingtonian to go somewhere rustic in Italy or France, marvel photographically at boulevards and cathedrals, fumble through a phrasebook, and after two weeks return essentially unchanged to Microsoft or Boeing or wherever. This impression sounds uncharitable, I realize, but surely you understand the essential distinction of in-depth travel versus perfunctory tourism. While Steves is not to blame for the attitudes of his less intellectually engaged followers, I do faintly recall seeing him, in one of his shows, provide tips on how the busy traveler can best wash his underwear in the sink. This still horrifies me.

Yet possessed of the native amiability every advice-giver needs, Savage and Steves, both highly experienced men in their respective fields, outstretch their hands to pros and novices alike. Travel with Rick Steves brings in guests, more and more famous over the years, who have become icons of worldliness: Adam Gopnik [MP3] on France, David Sedaris [MP3] on France and Japan, Bernard-Henri Levy [MP3] on France and America, Paul Theroux [MP3] on more or less the entire world. Steves tends to spend time talking one-on-one with his guests, then bring callers into the mix. Phoning in from places like Des Moines, Eau Claire, and Minot, these people have what you might call a different set of concerns and sensibilities than, say, Bernard-Henri Levy does. But the collision between the guests’ slightly world-weary public-intellectualism, the callers’ but-will-they-understand-English practicality, and Steves’ own mixture of the two creates a conversational spark I rarely hear elsewhere. In its most fascinating moments, the show brings together three disparate perspectives on approaching the world: the traveler, the tourist, and the travel guide.

The world “avuncular” has lost a few threads to overuse, but I can’t think of a more appropriate word to describe Steves’ on-air persona. He comes off like your unfailingly friendly, goofy uncle — the one we always assume we had, but probably didn’t — who happens to know a lot about Roman budget lodging. Perhaps this very quality led me to find him a little bland in my formative Seattle years. Yet as with any television or business personality, you have only to pay close attention to discover Steves’ more distinctive qualities. Listen to enough Travel with Rick Steves and you’ll notice, for instance, his hair-trigger awareness of cannabis culture (not that “hair-trigger” and “cannabis” come as naturally associated concepts). I mean, he makes correct inferences about David Sedaris’ pot-smoking years from nothing more than the way the man phrases a single particular descriptive sentence. Read up, and you’ll learn that, chief among his many activist-type pursuits, Steves advocates for marijuana decriminalization. The decision to do it so publicly must have taken no little bravery on his part, if my assumptions about the conservative, grandmotherly slant of a large segment of his audience are valid. (Hey, maybe we did have this uncle after all!)

Charmingly, Steves produces this show from the small town of Edmonds, Washington, where he grew up and still makes his home. Maybe he draws a feeling of balance from incessantly globetrotting as a career yet basing himself within shouting distance his junior high school. For a program built around senses of place, it comes as no surprise that he occasionally mentions Edmonds, but it did at first come as a surprise that those mentions triggered fond memories for me. I never had any reason to make the 25-mile drive there except to eat Korean food, but I now realize that one particular Edmonds restaurant — Ho Soon Yi, I believe — got me interested in Korean food, which got me interested in Korean cinema, which got me interested in the Korean language, which got me interested in traveling to Korea. I haven’t actually gone there yet, but that cascade of enthusiasms did its part to break my long-standing travel trepidation. Maybe I’m just waiting for a Travel with Rick Steves episode on the country. So Rick, I know it ain’t Europe, but what’s stopping you? Haven’t you tried Ho Soon Yi yet?

[Podthinker Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture [iTunes]. Contact him at colinjmarshall at gmail or follow him on Twitter @colinmarshall.]