Getting Lost: Musings from a Rick Steves Tour Guide
|When he's not leading Rick Steves tours to the Norwegian fjords, Dave Fox is an award-winning travel writer.|
By Dave Fox
Do Nothing, Make Money. But Beware of the Birds
I'm with my tour group in Oslo, standing in front of Norway's parliament building. I'm telling my group why Norway has opted not to join the European Union. The country, I explain, has some unique economic issues that led a slim majority of Norwegians to vote against EU membership in the last referendum.
Suddenly I realize nobody is listening.
Their gaze is riveted on someone else — one of those statue people who paint their faces silver or ghost-white, and stand perfectly still for hours on end, hoping passersby will throw money into their hat.
I don't like the statue people. They creep me out. They're everywhere in Europe. I find it difficult to walk down the street without tickling them. I fantasize about arming myself one day with a squirt gun, and seeing how long they will stand still if I attack.
This one statue person has captured my group's attention because a pigeon has landed on the statue person's forearm. The pigeon is just hanging out, pacing to and fro, taking a little stroll on the statue person. I am hoping the pigeon will relieve itself, or peck the statue person.
But the statue person isn't budging. After a brief pause, I resume my talk on Norway and the EU.
I regain my group's attention. Then I lose it again. My group is laughing hysterically now. I turn around. A second pigeon has landed on the statue person's head.
Eventually the birds get bored and fly away. I continue my walking tour without further incident...but it wounds my ego as I realize that for a brief moment, my group found a guy standing completely still, doing nothing, more interesting than my tour.
I have devised a new weapon against the statue people that will be far more effective than a squirt gun. I'm going shopping for some bird seed.
Superdave and the Runaway Baby
I'm jogging through downtown Copenhagen. A chilling, antagonistic rain is stabbing my eyeballs.
My tour group is on a boat tour through the city's canals. I've left them temporarily to go find a bigger boat. In two days, we'll board the overnight ferry from Copenhagen to Oslo. The ferry terminal has moved since last year. I've run off to find the new terminal while my group cruises the canals.
On my map, the terminal is an inch and a half away. I estimate ten minutes in the real world. But 17 minutes have passed and I'm not even close.
I'm looking at my watch: 22 minutes...26 minutes...three more minutes and I must sprint back whether I find the terminal or not.
I don't find the terminal.
I'm running through a park now. The rain is still pounding down. I'm freezing. On the other side of a sea wall, I hear a garbled narration. I am pretty sure it is my group's canal tour: "On the right, you will now see an overworked, neurotic tour guide, trying to catch up with his group before he gets fired." (First in Danish, then translated to English, German, and Japanese.)
I'm not sure where I am. This park, an intended shortcut, has pathways that shoot off at angles they never taught me in high school geometry. I slow to a brisk walk and retrieve my map from my back pocket. The rain turns my map soggy.
The road should be to my left. I find a path that leads toward it. The road is a longer route back to the canal boats, but it's a familiar, major thoroughfare. I know where it goes.
The squawky narration fades forward into the distance as I start running again. Must hurry. Must not be late. I picture, in my mind, my tour group, standing out in the rain, saying, "He said he would meet us here after the cruise, didn't he? Yes. Yes he did. He's not very responsible."
I run faster.
Ahead of me is a bus stop. A mother parks her baby carriage under the bus shelter. Then she steps, ten feet away, into the rain, to check the bus schedule. But something is wrong — that world-moving-in-slow-motion kind of wrong.
The mother has forgotten to put the brake on her baby carriage. Now the baby is rolling — slowly, slow-motion'ly — right toward the heavily trafficked street.
I must make a snap decision. I can stop the baby carriage and its contents from rolling into traffic and getting smooshed. But do I have time? A tour guide's first responsibility is always his group.
"Will they understand," I wonder, "that I was late because I had to save a baby's life?"
So I lurch forward and stop the baby carriage from rolling into heavy traffic.
The mother shouts, "Thank you," to me as I speed into the distance toward the harbor.
"No problem," I shout over my shoulder.
The baby starts screaming. Unappreciative little brat.
I arrive back at the canal cruise dock just as my group is disembarking.
The next morning on the tour bus, I tell my group the story.
"Superdave!" somebody shouts from the back of the bus.
"Yes," I announce on the bus microphone. "Yes, Superdave. You must all call me that from now on."
"Only if you wear tights," somebody else shouts.
I decide they don't really have to call me Superdave.
Man on the Street
Copenhagen is obsessed with beer, which might explain why I love this city so much.
On my first trip to Copenhagen, when I was living in Norway as an exchange student 21 years ago, I was shocked to hop off an overnight train from more-conservative Oslo at 7 a.m., and find the bars crowded with businessmen stopping for a breakfast beer on their way to work.
Copenhagen has no open container laws like we do in Seattle. People drink bottles of beer in parks, by the canals, on city benches, even on the grounds of royal castles, and nobody seems troubled.
"One of my favorite things to do when I first arrive in Copenhagen," I once told my friend Ivar, "is to go into a grocery store, buy a bottle of beer, and walk down the street drinking it...just because I can."
Ivar looked at me shocked. "No Dave!" he said. "We would never do that in Copenhagen!"
"What are you talking about?" I argued. "I see people drinking beer on the streets here all the time!"
"Yeah," Ivar said. "But you don't walk down the street drinking it. That's really low class. You sit down on the sidewalk and drink it."
Norwegian Chicken: "It Tastes Just Like Chicken."
I'm grabbing a quick dinner at a sandwich shop along Bergen's harbor when an American tourist walks in. She's not part of my tour group. I have never seen this woman before.
"We don't have anymore sandwiches," the lady behind the counter tells the American tourist. "We only have baguettes."
The tourist looks baffled.
There's a linguistic misunderstanding in progress. I try to help sort things out.
"They do have sandwiches," I tell the tourist, "but they're on baguettes. They're out of the other kind of bread."
Somebody in the sandwich shop, I explain, has decided a sandwich must be made on a ciabatta roll in order to be called a "sandwich." A sandwich on a baguette is called a "baguette."
"Oh," the tourist smiles. She looks relieved. I'm happy to have helped. But then, a common, unpleasant phenomenon kicks in: Tourist paralysis. "Well what do you think I should get?" she asks.
She is of that breed of tourists who refuse to think for themselves. She is asking me what kind of sandwich she should have simply because I speak Norwegian. I don't want to tell this woman what kind of sandwich she should get. Instead, I translate the menu. "They have chicken, shrimp, ham, and roast beef."
"Well what should I get?"
I have no clue what she should get. If she is violently allergic to shellfish, she should probably avoid the shrimp.
"You should get whatever sounds good to you," I smile, trying to hide my impatience. Seriously, if the four choices were rhinoceros, sea urchin, whale, or belly button lint, I could understand where this might be an intimidating decision for an American tourist. But shrimp, chicken, ham, or roast beef is hardly a choice of culturally epic proportions.
She looks terrified now, as if she might start crying. She is a stranger in a strange land, and I, the nice man who just translated the menu for her, has turned against her, proposing that she try a new experiment in autonomy and choose her own sandwich.
"I just don't know," she says. "What are you having?"
"I'm having the chicken," I say, really hoping to end our conversation.
"Should I get the chicken?"
"Well...do you like chicken?"
Her face turns a ghosty shade of pale. "I don't know," she says. "Is the chicken good?"
"It's chicken!" I want to yell. "It is just like American chicken, only here in Norway, it says kykkeliki instead of cock-a-doodle-doo! Is it good? That depends who you ask. I think it's tasty. The chicken would probably argue otherwise."
"I'll just have what you're having," she says. "Tell the girl to make me what you're having."
I do not want to tell "the girl" to make her what I am having. "The girl" speaks fluent English. But it's a hopeless situation. This woman is not going to leave me alone until I tell her what to do."She wants the chicken," I tell the cashier. Then, I look at the vast array of potential sandwich toppings this woman must now choose from, and I run – fast, far away, back to my hotel, before the tourist has a chance to ask me about the lettuce, or the tomatoes, or why they don't accept American dollars.
A 2,000-Kroner Hug
"Dave's not my uncle," Kaisa says after Kari, her mother, refers to me at dinner one night as "Onkel Dave."
Kaisa is the eight-year-old daughter of Kari and Marius. Marius is my host brother from my days as a foreign exchange student, many years ago.
"Sure he is," Kari tells Kaisa. "Dave lived with Dad for a year when he first came to Norway, and he was like a regular member of the family. So he and Dad are like brothers, which makes him your uncle."
A big smile comes to Kaisa's face. "In Monopoly," she says, "there's a card where you get 2,000 kroner from a rich uncle."
She has to settle for a hug instead.