Every summer for four decades, Rick Steves would head off on an annual tour through Europe. His journeys have been well-documented in several PBS shows and specials, and replicated in a successful line of guidebooks.
But over the course of this past year, a big trip for Steves has looked more like this: a simple stroll through his hometown of Edmonds, Washington.
Ever since COVID cancelled his travel plans, he’s mostly been staying inside, practicing piano, and exploring the foreign land that is … his kitchen.
“I never knew how to make pasta!” Steve told correspondent Conor Knighton. “I never felt the joy of a knife cutting through a nice, crispy onion.”
“By that, you mean you’ve never cut an onion before?”
“I have never cut an onion before!” Steves asserted.
Knighton asked, “Are there appliances you’re discovering for the first time?”
“Yeah, an oven!” he laughed. “I didn’t know how to turn on the broiler.”
Steves never learned much about domestic life – he was too busy traveling abroad. After his first trip to Europe at 14, he was hooked. He returned time and again, eventually marketing his expertise via an empire of guidebooks and group tours. He now has his own line of suitcases and travel wallets, all on display in his Edmonds headquarters (which closed to the public back in March 2020).
Knighton asked, “What have those sales been like?”
“Our sales are almost zero, you know?” Steve replied. “And it’s understandable. Who’s gonna buy a guidebook to Paris right now?”
2020 was on track to be Steves’ best year ever. But as soon as COVID hit, he was forced to cancel all his tours. “It’s heartbreaking,” he said. “And it’s not heartbreaking ’cause I’m losing all that money. I’ve made money every year for 30 years; you take the good years with the bad. So, I’m not making any money this year. But 20,000 people dreaming, saving, planning trips of a lifetime, takin’ their kids, takin’ their grandma, all scuttled? It just breaks my heart.”
Steves sees himself as a teacher – a trip abroad is full of valuable lessons for Americans. “To me, Europe is the wading pool for world exploration. And my profit is not how much money I make, but it’s how many Americans I introduce to international travel, to help them broaden their perspective.”
Of course, right now, international travel is largely off-limits for Americans. But Steves has stayed in teacher mode, hosting lectures he’s dubbed “Monday Night Travel” parties from his living room via Zoom.
Even when things open back up, Steves doubts his group will be the first ones back.
“My idea of travel – the whole ‘Rick Steves’ Europe’ – is the opposite of social distancing,” he said. “I go to Paris to be kissed on the cheeks. I go to Rome to gather on the piazza and then do the passeggiata with all the people, walkin’ up and down the street together. I go to Ireland to step into a pub and share a Guinness with somebody.
“So, the whole beauty of travel for me is the people. And that’ll come back, but I’m gonna be patient.”
In the meantime, Steves has made sure to hang onto his employees. Knighton asked, “You’re still paying your staff?”
Steve replied, “I’m still paying my staff, yeah. It’s the right thing to do, plus it’s the smart thing to do from a business point of view, because whether it’s next year or the year after that, we’re gonna come out of this – and my staff will be intact.”
Until then, Steves is happy to keep enjoying the simple pleasures of life at home, reminiscing about past trips while finding new ways to connect with people – from a porch.
“My trumpet has been in the dark for 30 years,” he said. “And I pulled it out of its case and I oiled it up, and now I stand here at sunset and I play ‘Taps.’
“And when I’m done, all through the community, this little patter-patter of people clapping and whooping, and just for that moment, we’re all reminded that we’re together here.”
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Story produced by Amol Mhatre. Editor: Emanuele Secci.
Web Extra: Rick Steve on broadening ourselves via travel