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Sunday, 9 April 2017

Vicarious Travel with Rick Steves

I've recently discovered the travel shows of Rick Steves, which are usually carried on PBS here in the States, but are also available officially on YouTube (i.e., Rick Steves himself has published them on his channel). There are over 90 of them on YouTube so far, with some episodes going back as far as 1995, and I've been going through them, in geographical rather than chronological order.

As best I can tell, the reason I started was due to my interest in Dutch (the language I'm currently learning on Duolingo), and the fact that I was looking for YouTube videos on Amsterdam. Rick Steves's shows are all in English, of course, so there wasn't going to be any language-learning boost, but he made the city look so great that I quickly snapped up his episode on the rest of the Netherlands (which I'd actually watched once before) and from there on to the rest of Europe.

It's hard to explain the allure, beyond the fact that I'm in the midst of a big bout of wanderlust/itchy feet/whatever you want to call it. Yet he and his team make every country look great, and I've been happy to devour episodes on places I know fairly well, like London or Paris, alongside the ones I don't know as well. It helps that even in the places I know, he unearths sights and activities beyond what I've already seen.

To put it another way, in contrast with Michael Palin's travel shows, Rick Steves goes much further in-depth on each country he's visiting. This is because Michael Palin's shows are based on strict schedules imposed by the "stunt" nature of his programs - like Around the World in 80 Days or Full Circle - meaning that most countries get only a few scenes, depending on how much ground Palin's team has to cover. Which isn't to slight them, because I do love Michael Palin's shows.

The other thing that I love about Rick Steves's show is the way his interests, particularly in art and music, shine through. An episode I was watching just this evening, on Vienna, had him putting his piano skills to use in explaining the differences in sound between piano, harpsichord and clavichord (apparently at the start of his career Rick supported himself by giving piano lessons). He also has a clear background in art history, as each episode features detailed explanations of the meaning and context of various works of art or architecture - in short, he's the ideal tour guide for making sense of what you're seeing.

What's funny to me is that even just a few years ago I'd have probably scoffed at his show. I may have more fully embraced my American-ness since college, but I've long maintained a certain snobbiness when it comes to American tourists in Europe. It was a running joke between my (American) friends in Germany about avoiding American tour groups, and even now I tend to be a bit dismissive of Americans talking about Europe, as I suspect a lot of them barely go beneath the surface of the place.

It's easy for me to be snobby, of course, because I actually speak some of the local languages and spent a lot of years living in Europe - but I'm willing to accept I may be judging my fellow citizens harshly. More than that, it's likely that I take traveling through Europe for granted, which is probably unfair to people who don't have such a natural "in" to the continent as I do. But the stereotype of American tourists remains.

I won't say the Rick Steves shows are making me want to take a tour, but I can't deny that in presenting each city or region or country the way he has, Rick's making me really want to spend more time back there. Since moving back here to the US, my European visits have been limited to London and Turin, for family and friends, while my leisure travel has focused more on the rest of the world (or even on other parts of the US). The one exception was in 2014, when I finally fulfilled my dream of traveling from London to Turin by train.

If I have a criticism of Rick's shows, it's that he goes hard on the traditional tourist destinations, but has done less on Germany, despite its size and excellent infrastructure. Of the 96 episodes available on YouTube, only four are devoted to Germany, while France has 11 and Italy has a whopping 17. To put it another way, Rome and Paris were the subject of three episodes each, while Berlin has only one.

That said, the preview for season 9 (which appears to be available on PBS's site, but hasn't been uploaded to YouTube yet) shows that he's rectifying that imbalance to a certain extent, with three or four episodes on Germany. I'm also pleased that the new season has a pair of episodes on Romania and Bulgaria, which are surely on few tourists' itineraries (American or not) but deserve to be better-known.

At this point I've watched most of his episodes on Western Europe, with the German-speaking and Nordic countries still to go before I get to Eastern Europe, but I'm looking forward to all of it. Some will be to revisit places I know, while the rest will be to get acquainted with new spots, and to get ideas for places to visit. All I'd like is for Rick (or someone else) to do a similar travel show for other parts of the world - Asia, Australia, South America, even Africa, would benefit from this kind of in-depth travel TV. Here's hoping...