The Early Tours: A Petri Dish of Love and Loathing
|Early groups came with mostly women. Well...all women. Rick figures guys were comfortable adventuring on their own. Girls wanted adventure...with company.|
This is Part III of a four-part series running monthly on the origins of Rick Steves' tour company (excerpted from Rick's travel memoirs, Postcards from Europe).
In the early 1980s, our tour groups would spend Munich evenings here at Mathauser's beerhall. Then, bellowing German drinking songs out open windows and slap-dancing in our seats, we'd follow the tracks of tram #17 out to "the Tent," Munich's giant circus tent crashpad.
I didn't know how to drive there because, without a group, I'd only been there by trolley. So, year after year, we'd follow the tram tracks through midnight Munich to the huge park at the edge of town. Picking up our blankets and mattresses, we'd stake out a corner to call home for the night. With 400 roommates under the big canvas, the Tent was a cross between Woodstock and a slumber party.
Those minibus groups were a small family-intense socially. With nine travelers slumming through Europe together, either you got along or you didn't. There was no escape. It was three weeks in a petri dish of love and loathing.
One group was particularly intense. It featured Arlene, who gave me tension headaches; Gloria, who caused perfect strangers to hum the "Wicked Witch of the West" theme song; Lorraine, a psychologist who pushed people's buttons for sport; Tammy, a slut in hot pants who couldn't understand why the local guys were tripping over themselves to be alone with her; and Lana.
Lana talked nearly as fast as I can think. She loved history much the way a little kid loves putting black olives on her fingers. She likened her sense of fashion to a troglodyte's but had a figure that hardly needed clothes. While older than I, Lana had had a child young and raised him alone. Lana was just now discovering the world. She embraced the romance of Europe and I managed to be in between.
Any tour guide knows the danger of mixing work and romance. You cannot favor one person romantically without causing major problems with the rest of the group. Many guides have tried. None have succeeded. Even the sleaziest bus company on the road-Top Deck-tells its guides, "If you sleep with one, you gotta sleep with them all."
|There was Arlene, Gloria, Lorraine...and Lana.|
We were in yodelin' good moods after our beerhall evening. Somehow we managed to get the minibus to the Tent and park. We were issued our mattresses and blankets and staked out places under the big top. Managing to cross paths behind our bus, Lana bellied up to her tour guide and said, "Hold me."
She was a head shorter than me and as we hugged, I gazed out into the lantern-lit crowd of vagabonds. There in the distance, by the ping pong table, I saw the Wicked Witch of the West. She had spied us. That tune sprung, fast and fortissimo, into my head as she ran to the group.
That night our group lay in a corral of mattresses. Lana and I got as close as we dared . . . together in a sea of roommates with the sound of drunk Australians rutting in the corner. I believe I'm the only tour organizer who ever opted for the Tent. Our group survived. But Lana's and my love lasted only until the end of the tour.
|Early tour groups stayed in circus tents. This one's in Munich...a cross between Woodstock and a slumber party.|
Several tours later-long after Lana, but in the same tent-I woke up to the amorous grunting of a nearby couple. Next to me was one of my tour members, sitting up, shaking, and silently sobbing. Sounding as if she feared disappointing me she admitted, "Rick, I don't think I can take this anymore."
I realized then that sharing a tent with 400 rutting roommates was not really a prerequisite to a broader perspective. As she swallowed the last of our tour first aid kit (Valium), I decided it was time to find a gentler way to introduce Americans to Europe. From that point on, I upgraded our accommodations.
The psychological makeup of my tour groups was changing. As tour prices went up, the carefree gangs of friends who left the worrying to me were replaced by customers-the kind who couldn't concentrate on the sightseeing if we didn't have hotel rooms reserved by mid-afternoon.
There is a delightful irony about tourists from a country that leads the rich world in homelessness, being so nervous about the remote possibility of a single bedless night. Only my growing business sense prompted me to make hotel reservations part of my fledgling tour business. Today, 25 years later, nearly everyone gets a double room with a private shower and very few remember the days when bedtime was a cross between Woodstock and a slumber party.
[This is Part III of a four-part series on Rick's early days as a tour guide and organizer back in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The article is excerpted from Rick's autobiographical and anecdotal book, Postcards from Europe. For the entire chapter, click here.]