He looks like many an American in Paris: royal blue Oxford shirt half-tucked into boxy Dockers, reciting French with a really bad accent from a dog-eared phrase book. But this traveler is no tourist. Rick Steves is the hardest-working man in the travel biz. And the phrase book he's clutching is his own ― one of 30 guidebooks he's written to open the "back doors" of Europe to America.
"I'm like a child playing in the tidepool of the world," Steves says. "It still amazes me."
That's the Rick Steves most of us know from his books and PBS travelogues: enthusiastic, informative, and slightly geeky ― the kind of gee-whiz guy you'd be pleased to have as a neighbor. What you might not know is that Steves is your neighbor. And he's the last person you should ask to give you a tour of Seattle.
"I'm so clueless about this area," Steves says, gesturing from his office in the Seattle bedroom community of Edmonds out to Puget Sound sparkling in the distance. "I still have trouble telling the difference between Bainbridge and Whidbey Islands."
And there's your first hint that the "everyman" of travel in Europe, author of the best-selling guidebook in America (Rick Steves' Italy) is a man of contradictions that add up to one singular citizen.
Predictable, but not stereotypical
Rick Steves is safe, solid, square. You would trust him to take Aunt Bertha to Barcelona.
But in Edmonds, where he grew up and still lives, Steves delights in raising eyebrows with his überliberal ideas about protecting Puget Sound and making Main Street a car-free zone.
"I love our town. Look at this," Steves says, sweeping his hand toward a white church steeple. "It's like Andy of Mayberry!
But Andy of Mayberry towns need stimulus. I like being here afflicting the comfortable. It carbonates the whole experience."
As he bubbles on, Steves reveals more contradictions. He worked hard to build a travel empire that nets $30 million a year. Yet one look at his wardrobe (he wore aviator glasses until they were almost back in style) demonstrates that this man is not materialistic.
The fact that his 1990 Integra has only 50,000 miles on it exposes the core contradiction. Rick Steves, the globe-trotting PBS host, is a world-class homebody.
People can set their clocks by Steves when he's in Edmonds. "Must be 12:30," merchants say. "There's Rick walking to El Puerto."
"Yes, they have a name for me at the Mexican restaurant," Steves admits. "'The Little Tostada' ― because I always order a chicken tostada and cranberry juice. It's a beautiful thing."
In the late 1970s, Steves walked these same streets but was headed in a different direction. He was about to graduate from the University of Washington and was happily teaching piano and preparing to take over his parents' piano-importing business.
Then he took an extended backpacking trip in Europe and shared what he'd learned in a travel class he taught through UW's Experimental College. The handbook from that class grew into the book Europe Through the Back Door, and so began the Edmonds-Europe migration that Steves has been winging for more than 25 years.
If you are a "Ricknik," as his fans are known, you know what Steves does 120 days a year. He gallops through Europe, plotting a detailed course designed to keep Americans off the beaten track and in touch with local people.
The rest of the year, you won't find Steves searching for Seattle's best coffee, restaurants, B&Bs, or other attractions. Instead, Steves spends time in Edmonds with his wife and their two children. He marshals his staff of 70 people at the travel center he built in Edmonds. But what Steves likes to do best is a lot more low-key.
He soaks in his hot tub and looks at birds. He lounges on the living room sofa, listening to his daughter play piano. He burrows his backside into the sand at his favorite beach, contemplating the backdoor town he was born to love and the city he wouldn't trade for the world.
"The Seattle area is made to order for a person like me," Steves says. "It's like living in a terrarium. The rain is a blessing. The green is life. I walk on the beach in Edmonds and it just fits me."