Hi From Rick: Confessions of a Researcher
Today I'm atop an Iron Age ring fort — which must be the biggest pile of rocks this side of the pyramids — looking out over the far west tip of Ireland. This is the point from which the first telegraph cable to the New World was laid in 1866, and it's also where Charles Lindbergh first sighted land on his lucky flight in 1927. This morning, I scampered down to a rocky piece of beach where Irish paleontologists claim the first tetrapod (fish that didn't like water, with four stubby legs) climbed onto dry land. You can actually see the fin-prints. (I guess in rainy Ireland, that first visitor felt a bit more at home.)
I'm traveling through the Emerald Isle — finding new sights and re-assessing established ones — with my Ireland book co-author, Pat O'Connor. My son, Andy, is tagging along to get a taste of guidebook research. In a recent posting on my blog, I traced a day in the life of a travel writer. Here's an excerpt:
There's never really enough time. Triage is standard operating procedure. The day is divided between hotels, sightseeing, travel practicalities, and restaurants. Making a smart schedule is critical. Get a solid eight hours of sleep each night to stay healthy. Minimize walking. Get your ducks in a row. Trying to evaluate a hotel before 10:00 is bad news — people haven't checked out yet, and the staff is still busy with breakfast. It's hard to get anyone's time and it's hard to see a room. Visiting late in the afternoon is also bad — everyone's checked in for the day, so all the rooms are occupied.
I love meeting my readers...so I can quiz them. They think I'm so friendly and gracious to take time to chat — but they're actually doing me a favor. I learn what works and what doesn't, and I come to appreciate the pitfalls and frustrations people using my book are dealing with. My challenge is to write up clear and concise listings for sights and restaurants — so people can quickly decide which place is best for them when reviewing options back in their hotel room.
People think I must be a graceful traveler. But actually, if I'm good at something...it must be feeling clumsy. I was just in Spain, where, for 30 years, I've been pulling doors that say "push" and walking into doors that say "pull." My Spanish is so bad that, while in Spain, to say "where's the toilet?" I still point my index finger to the ground and say, "Psss?"
My ability to suss out good places comes from carefully compiling and building upon decades of local tips, and the advice from tour guides and European friends who generously share their expertise. My secret weapon is my own experience as a tour guide: seeing the joy, fear, frustration, exhaustion, and wonder in the eyes of my travelers up close and personal.
I wonder when I'll burn out, but I absolutely love this research work. I guess I'm powered by the proud feeling that no one in America with his name on a guidebook is actually doing this. The sight of my frayed pants and dusty old shoes gives me a triathlete's buzz.
For much more about a typical Rick Steves day — and whatever else is on my mind on this latest trip — don't miss my blog. It's just one of the features in this month's Travel News, which also gets you up to date on the changes at Versailles (and takes you back in time to the château's heyday), fills you in on the latest news about our public television series, traces the history of Europe in the Middle Ages, introduces you to a fascinating Polish innkeeper, and brings you along to some of my favorite destinations in England, Switzerland, Portugal, and Norway.
Whether you're updating a guidebook, or just happily using one, Europe is an exciting place to be these days.