For Rick Steves, travel is an 'Act' of learning and growing

Rick Steves is famous as the wide-eyed guy in khakis whose guidebooks, tours, radio show and PBS series have introduced millions of American travelers to Europe. But in his new book Travel As a Political Act, he broadens his geographical and cultural horizons. USA TODAY's Laura Bly caught up with him by phone from Tuscany.

Q. You've written that Italy is your favorite country. Why?

A. Well, India is my favorite. I really enjoy being knocked off my little cultural horse, and it humbles my ethnocentricity. But in Europe, Italy is my favorite because it's most like India. I was just walking through Cortona with a wonderful guide, and he made it clear to me that if you see something here that looks all prettied-up and uniform and quaint, it's a "touristy quaint." The truth of Italy is the jumble, from the architecture, to the people-watching, to the traffic and noisy Vespas.

Q. It's also history, which you say is crucial to a great travel experience.

A. That's so true. There are two kinds of travelers: Those that are curious, and those that are basically duty-free shoppers, sun-and-fun-on the-beach, pack-heavy types. For me, it's about learning. I'm looking out my window right now over a lush plain to the south, knowing all of it was papal territory in the the Middle Ages, and it makes my experience richer and more vivid.

My life's work has been trying to understand Europe better, and I wouldn't be saleable if I didn't have practical tips. People need to know where you catch the bus and where you park. But what I also want to do is be a history, art and culture teacher, and a conduit for experiences.

Q. Many of the experiences you describe in your new book — from coming to grips with the U.S. role in El Salvador's civil war to visiting Iran — aren't typical vacation fodder.

A. I'm kind of an odd duck who would rather go to San Salvador than lie on a beach in Mazatlan. Thomas Jefferson said travel makes a person wiser, if less happy. And I think it does gives you a little cross to bear, because you can't in good conscience ignore the reality of other people. It shouldn't become a guilt trip, (but) travel is more than the basic things like staying healthy and not getting ripped off, and more than enjoying Michelangelo and a good glass of red wine. It's broadening your global perspective, and challenging truths you were raised thinking were God-given and self-evident.

I didn't know what to expect in Iran, and I was actually scared to go there. But I've never been anywhere where it was more of a plus to be an American. I was in a car in a traffic jam in Tehran, when all of a sudden our driver blurted out, "death to traffic!" I thought, "what? I thought it was supposed to be death to Americans." But he said, "no, whenever something is frustrating and out of our control, we say 'death to that.'" That get-beyond-the-bumper-sticker approach is my responsibility as a travel writer.

Q. What are three things that Americans can do to be more gracious guests in a foreign country?

A. Talk softly. Celebrate the fact that people do things differently, and assume there are other answers to the same problem. And be a cultural chameleon: In England, I drink tea, in the Czech Republic, I order a beer.

Q. With 401Ks turned into 201Ks, a lot of people are skipping vacations this year. What are you telling them?

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