The symphonic politics of Rick Steves
When you talk to travel guru Rick Steves, the word “ethnocentrism” pops up often in conversation. Quite often, in fact. In case you’re not familiar with the term, very loosely it’s how we look at other cultures through the lens of our own experiences, and that lens isn’t always a good thing. It can often mean a nation feels superior to another based on misunderstandings and cultural stereotypes. Cue nationalism and other dangerous ideologies.
But the world has Steves, who is battling ethnocentrism one trip at a time, one book at a time, and one television show at a time. Jackie DeShannon once sang “What the world needs now is love, sweet love.” It also needs more folks like Steves.
“It’s a challenge to help people be comfortable with the world and to realize that it’s a beautiful place filled with love and wonderful people,” he said. “That’s the joy of my work as a travel writer. I see Europe as a wading pool for world exploration.”
Steves is bringing his battle against ethnocentrism (I warned you the word came up often) to the Boston Pops June 13 and 14 when he presents Rick Steves’ Europe: A Symphonic Journey.
“A few years ago, I developed this idea where I could combine travel, music, and history into a concert,” he said. “I like to take romantic age music, all done in the same generation from six different countries and set it up as a tour guide. I come out beforehand giving people context so they understand what was going on and why this piece of music would be exciting in that country.”
The screen drops, and images of European countries are projected as the audience listens to the Pops perform songs from Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg or Czech composer Bedrich Smetana. Steves plays tour guide along the way.
“It’s a symphonic journey,” he said. “Each time I illustrate how a local would be excited about this music, even if we Americans might not have that same emotional reaction. We finish with Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy,” which is the anthem of Europe. It’s a celebration of how we’re all in this together. We can move forward boldly by celebrating our diversity.”
While I had Steves on the phone I wasn’t going to miss an opportunity to chat him up about all things travel.
Q. We know you enjoy travel and history, where does the interest in classical music come from?
A. My first trip to Europe was to visit the piano factories in Germany. My dad was a piano tuner in Seattle, and he started importing pianos, the very best pianos in the world are from Germany. I would go to the factories. It introduced me to Europe and I saw that good old fashion quality of fine music instruments.
Q. I’ve always been impressed that you don’t shy away from the politics of travel in your work. It sounds cliché, but I’m wondering if you think now is more important than ever for people from the US to explore the world?
A. Oh yeah. I miss the days when people would say “Bon voyage.” Now nobody says [it]. They say “Have a safe trip.”
When somebody says “Have a safe trip,” I’m inclined to say “Have a safe stay at home.” Where I’m going is safer than where you’re staying, there’s no doubt about that. It’s safer to travel in Europe now than anytime in our lifetimes.
We’ve become an afraid nation. I think fear is a dangerous thing and it can be used against us. Fear is for people who don’t get out very much. And, the flip side of fear is understanding. We gain understanding when we travel. I think the most fearful people in our country are the people buried deep in the middle of it with no passports.
Q. The terrorist attacks in Europe seem quite infrequent compared to the gun violence in the US.
A. Statistically . . . I know statistics are optional these days, but statistically, there’s no question. If you care about your loved ones, you should take them to Europe tomorrow. It’s far safer than the United States. But, it doesn’t make the headlines like in Europe. If there was a terrorist event in Britain tomorrow, we’d all freak out.
But, the fact is, a thousand people a month are killed on our streets, just randomly. I don’t lose sleep over it. But, if you’re really hung up on your personal safety, you should be more nervous when you walk in the streets of any big city of America than traveling abroad.
Q. Do you think that your show has made a difference in terms of people stepping away from tour buses and cruise ships and feeling comfortable enough to go out on their own and explore? To allay some of that fear?
A. I work really hard to do that. I don’t know how much of a difference it makes, but it’s a positive thing. A lot of people are creative worriers. Or they hear this or that from their friends or on social media. I spend four months a year in Europe, just on the streets doing my research, making my guide books up to date, and it’s wonderful.
Q. Do you have a particular country that you gravitate toward outside of Europe?
A. For political excitement, I like to go to Central America to rough up my cultural confidence and my ethnocentrism. I go to South India or South Asia, India, Sri Lanka, Nepal, I love traveling there. But I just love my work in general. I’m kind of a workaholic. I’ve got 50 guidebooks and I’m helping hundreds of thousands of people each year travel. It’s a responsibility that I take seriously.
Q. When you’re off traveling by yourself and not for TV, are you more of the school of having everything planned out, or are you more spontaneous?
A. I like to have the basics figured out, I usually have my accommodations figured out. But each day I’m pretty free to do what I want.
Q. Given the large amount of over-tourism in Europe, are you of the mind now that people should be looking for more off-the-radar experiences to give places like Barcelona or Reykjavik a bit of a break?
A. You hit two cities that are really overwhelmed by tourists. There’s Amsterdam, Barcelona, Venice, and Reykjavik. There’s just mobs of tourists, but you still want to go there. You just need to realize that a lot of the problem in all those cities is the cruise industry and mass tourism from Asia.
People are all going to go to the famous marquee sites. So, you either go there early or late, or realize that if you get rid of those marquee sites, the other towns would still be wonderful.
Rick Steves: A Symphonic Journey, June 13 and 14 at Symphony Hall, 301 Massachusetts Ave. Tickets $30-$96. 617-638-9495, www.bso.org