Rick Steves' Travel as a Political Act Blog
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At the leading edge of this thinking is the Netherlands. Historically, this corner of Europe saw some of the most devastating Catholics-versus-Protestants fighting in the religious wars following the Reformation. They learned to be inclusive, welcoming Jews when others wouldn't and providing refuge to religious refugees (such as our nation's Pilgrim founders). And, as a major maritime power during the Age of Discovery, the Netherlands became a gateway to Europe for emigrants and immigrants (and their ideas) to and from all over Asia, Africa, and the Americas. Based on lessons learned from their history, it seems the Dutch have made a conscious decision to tolerate alternative lifestyles.
When I'm in the Dutch town of Haarlem, I'm struck by the harmony and compromise people have worked out between tradition and modernity, virtuous lives and hedonistic vices, affluence and simplicity. People live well — but in small apartments, getting around by bike and public transit. While the frugal Dutch may keep the same old one-speed bike forever, they bring home new flowers every day. The typical resident commutes by train to glassy skyscrapers to work for giant corporations in nearby office parks, but no skyscraper violates Haarlem's downtown cityscape, which is still dominated by elegant old gables and church spires. In Haarlem, the latest shopping malls hide behind Dutch Renaissance facades. Streets are clogged with café tables and beer-drinkers. The cathedral towers over the market square with its carillon ringing out its cheery melody as policemen stroll in pairs — looking more like they're on a date than on duty.
Two blocks behind the cathedral, a coffeeshop (a place that legally sells marijuana) is filled with just the right music and a stoned clientele. People, enjoying a particularly heavy strain of marijuana, stare at their rolling papers as if those crinkly critters are alive. Others are mesmerized by the bubbles in their bongs.
And down by the canal, a fairytale of cobbled lanes and charming houses gather around a quiet little church, creating a scene right out of a Vermeer painting. But this neighborhood is different. Lonely men, hands in pockets, stroll as they survey prostitutes who giggle and flirt from their red-lit windows.
I recently happened upon a gay pride parade in the Netherlands. The entire gay community was out, it seemed, doing its flamboyant best to share their particular love of life. The streets were lined with tens of thousands of straight and more conservative Dutch people. I happened to be observing from the curb surrounded by what seemed like a senior center out on a field trip. I was struck by how all the leather, sex toys, and delirious mooning from a long line of slow-moving flatbed trucks was seen simply as entertainment and a celebration of freedom. Try as they might, all that in-your-face gay hedonism couldn't shock the straight and elderly crowd of onlookers. That's European tolerance for you.
Posted by Rick Steves on August 31, 2009
As the rhetoric for the Iraq War was ramping up in early 2003, a situation in Edmonds, my hometown north of Seattle, reminded me in some small way of the "tyranny of the majority" that I'd seen abroad (as explained in my previous blog entry). This was a difficult and emotional time, with all the patriotic fervor that comes with an invasion. Perhaps a third of our town opposed the war, and two-thirds supported it. The Lions Club lined the streets of our town with American flags and declared they would stay there in support of our troops until they finished the job and came home in victory.
While I supported our troops, I opposed the war because I believed that the president knowingly lied to get us there. When the Lions' Club erected all those flags — which were normally reserved for patriotic holidays — I became very uncomfortable. I wanted to embrace my flag, but was put in a regrettable position that doing so would be tantamount to supporting the war. I felt as though my flag had been demoted from something that all Americans shared (regardless of their politics) to a promotional logo for a war I didn't believe in. I knew several Edmonds merchants agreed that our Stars and Stripes had been kidnapped. But in my conservative town, they feared not flying it would threaten their business. They felt frightened. Their predicament reminded me of those frightened German shopkeepers who had to stop saying "Grüss Gott." And my own town reminded me of those red, white, and blue-drenched towns in Ulster. Although to a far lesser degree, I felt that here in my hometown, a minority (of which I was a part) was also being oppressed by a tyranny of the majority. In defense of our flag, I had to act.
I explained my concerns to the president of the Lions' Club. He understood and agreed to have his club take down the flags after a week. It didn't happen. So, humming "Yankee Doodle Dandy" to myself, I marched through town collecting and carefully stowing the flags. It was a small, symbolic, and perhaps overly righteous move on my part, motivated by what I considered patriotic concerns.
While some supported me, many were angry. I was shark bait on Seattle's right-wing radio talk shows for several days. But now, when my little town is a festival of Stars and Stripes on holidays like the Fourth of July, Presidents' Day, and Election Day, everybody can celebrate together because the flag flies for all of us — even the peaceniks.
Posted by Rick Steves on August 28, 2009
Pulling the loose skin down from a long-ago-strong upper arm, she showed me a two-sided scar. “When I was a girl, a bullet cut straight through my arm,” she said. “Another bullet killed my father. The war took many good people. My father ran a Grüss Gott shop.”
I was stunned by her rage. But I sensed desperation on her part to simply unload her story on one of the hordes of tourists who tramp daily through her hometown to ogle at an icon of the Holocaust.
I asked, “What do you mean, a Grüss Gott shop?” She explained that in Bavaria, shopkeepers greet customers with a “Grüss Gott” (“May God greet you”). During the Third Reich, it was safer to change to the Nazi greeting, “Sieg Heil.” It was a hard choice. Each shopkeeper had to make it. Everyone in Dachau knew which shops were Grüss Gott shops and which were Sieg Heil shops. Over time there were fewer and fewer Grüss Gott shops. Pausing, as if mustering the energy for one last sentence, she stood up and said, “My father's shop was a Grüss Gott shop to the end,” then stepped off the bus.
Conflicts between the majority and the minority persist in today's Europe. Consider Northern Ireland, were the population is divided between Protestants (supporters of British rule) and Catholics (who identify with the Irish). While the familiar Union Jack of the UK is the "official" flag of Northern Ireland, minority Catholics who'd like to see Ireland united see it as a symbol of oppression. Unfortunately, they no longer consider it their flag, and call it “the Butcher's Apron” instead.
For a lesson in the power of symbolism, visit a town where about two-thirds of the community is Protestant and one-third is Catholic. These towns can be decked out like a Union Jack fantasy...or nightmare, if you happen to be Catholic. The curbs are painted red, white, and blue. Houses fly huge British flags. Streets lead under trellises blotting out the sky with flapping Union Jacks. (Not too long ago, many towns like these even came with the remains of a burned-out Catholic church.) A Catholic walking down a street strewn with this British symbolism can only be quiet and accept it. To independence-minded Catholics, the Union Jack symbolizes not a united nation, but the tyranny of the majority. The result: There is no real flag of Northern Ireland.
Before traveling to Europe, I never really grasped the sadness of a society where a majority-rules mentality can, when taken to extremes, abuse a minority and bully it into silent submission.
Posted by Rick Steves on August 26, 2009
Like the US, Europe is suffering growing pains when it comes to its immigrants. Coming from an immigrant family in a nation of immigrants, I like America's “melting pot” approach. I think it works best for all if newcomers embrace their adopted culture, learn the local language, and melt in.
But the European scene is a bit more complex. While I'm a fan of melting in, I also celebrate the cultural diversity and survival of Europe's smaller ethnic groups. If diversity is such a virtue, what's wrong with immigrants wanting to preserve their home cultures? Is it hypocritical to celebrate the preservation of the Catalan language, but expect Algerians to learn Dutch? Should Europe's famous tolerance extend only to indigenous European cultures?
While I'm glad I'm not a policymaker who needs to implement immigration laws in Europe, I'll be honest about my take on this dicey issue: I favor indigenous diversity (policies favoring European “nations without states”), but policies facilitating immigrant laborers and their families (from outside Europe) to embrace local cultural norms and assimilate.
Am I wrong to wish that a Muslim living in Denmark would become a Dane? Am I wrong to wish the US would speak only English, rather than Norwegian or Spanish as well? Am I wrong to lament districts of London that have a disdain for all things British?
Immigrants energize a land — but they do it best (as is the story of the US) when their vision is a healthy melting pot. Melt, immigrants...treasure your heritage while embracing your adopted homelands. But it's more than just an “immigrant issue.” Europeans (like Americans) fearful of encroachment, change, and differing hues of skin need to show tolerance, outreach, and understanding. From what I've seen, with these attitudes, it works better for all involved.
Posted by Rick Steves on August 24, 2009
I'm a grandchild of immigrants. Three of my grandparents sailed away from economic hardship in the old country speaking only Norwegian. While I have kept my grandparents' religion (and still eat fish balls and goat cheese), I can barely say hello in Norwegian. While proud of my heritage, I am American. My ancestors assimilated like so many others in their era — quickly.
These days, incentives to blend quickly are not as strong. Thanks to modern telecommunications advances, communities of foreigners can settle in more comfortable places while remaining in close contact with friends and family back home. When my grandparents migrated from Norway to the US, they effectively severed communications with their Norwegian relatives, and had little choice but to melt into American society. Today they could use the Internet to read newspapers and watch television shows from home, and talk to relatives around the world for free on Skype.
This means that immigrant groups can choose whether or not they want to integrate with their adopted countries. Consequently, rather than “melting pots,” wealthy countries in Europe are becoming cafeteria trays with dividers keeping ethnic groups separate. I've met third-generation Algerians in the Netherlands who don't speak a word of Dutch, and don't expect their children to, either. And I've met third-generation Pakistanis in Denmark that speak only Danish and know and love their adopted new country just as their blond neighbors do.
Immigration can be a major wedge issue — especially in formerly homogenous nations. For example, only 40 years ago, there were virtually no foreigners in Denmark. As in many European countries, a segment of the Danish population, especially older and more insular Danes, fears immigrants and gravitates to right-wing, racist parties. Meanwhile, progressive Danes — who celebrate a multicultural future — see a paradox: a wealthy nation of high-tech, multilingual globalists who still struggle to get along with their relatively small community of Muslim immigrants. While some Danes view their growing Muslim minority as a problem, others are willing to see a more colorful society as an opportunity. In my next blog entry, I'll offer my own take on this issue.
Posted by Rick Steves on August 21, 2009
As the birthrate has dropped in recent years, Europe is becoming a geriatric continent. While this is not a problem in itself, Europe's luxurious cradle-to-grave welfare system is only sustainable with more active workers and fewer retirees. People who worked all their lives with the promise of the cushy old-age benefits their parents enjoyed won't docilely accept the harsh reality as dictated by the new arithmetic. As in the USA, it's difficult to take away expected entitlements without a fight. Europeans love to demonstrate. And as courageous politicians try to make cuts to address the emerging crisis, there will be plenty of angry marches clogging Europe's grand boulevards.
Interestingly, as Europe's native population declines, its population growth may come largely from immigrants. And Europe's immigration challenges are much like America's. Around the world, rich nations import poor immigrants to do their dirty work. If a society doesn't want to pay for expensive apples picked by rich kids at high wages, it gets cheaper apples by hiring people willing to work cheaper. If you're wealthy enough to hire an immigrant to clean your house, you do it — you get a clean house, and the immigrant earns a wage. That's just the honest reality of capitalism.
In Europe, Gastarbeiter — German for “guest worker” — is the generic term for this situation because Germans so famously imported Turkish people to do their scut work a generation ago, when Germany's post-WWII economic boom finally kicked into gear. These days, virtually every country in Western Europe has its own Gastarbeiter contingent. Berlin — with over 100,000 Turks — could be considered a sizable “Turkish city.” France's population includes millions of poor North Africans. And even newly wealthy Ireland now has 100,000 Polish people taking out its trash. It's striking to hear my Irish friends speak about their new Polish worker as if he or she were a new appliance.
But invariably, wealthy people begin to realize that their "cheap labor" is not quite as cheap as they hoped. In Europe, the importation of labor creates fast-growing immigrant communities that need help and incentives to assimilate, or society at large will pay a steep price (as we saw in 2005, when the shooting of a black teenager by French cops ignited violent riots that rocked the poor African and Arab suburbs of Paris). Working constructively with its new minority populations is a crucial issue for the future of Europe.
Posted by Rick Steves on August 19, 2009
This is a story repeated time and again through history. During difficult times, military families from Soviet Russia retired in relative comfort in little Estonia. Today Estonia — now independent — struggles with a big Russian minority that refuses to integrate.
In the 16th century, the Habsburg monarchy planted Serbs — who were escaping from the Ottomans farther south — along the Croatian-Bosnian border, to provide a "human shield" against those same Ottomans. Many centuries later, descendants of those Serbian settlers and the indigenous Croats were embroiled in some of the bloodiest fighting of that war.
Back when Britain ruled Ceylon (present-day Sri Lanka) and used it as a big tea plantation, they couldn't get the local Sinhalese to pick the tea cheaply enough, so they imported Tamils from India (who were more desperate and willing to work for less). When colonial rule became more trouble than the tea was worth, the Brits gave the island its freedom. And today the Sinhalese and Tamils are locked in a tragic civil war.
When I consider the problems that come with planting Jews in Palestine, Protestants in Ireland, Russians in Estonia, Serbs in Croatia, and Tamils in Sinhalese Sri Lanka, I'm impressed both by the spine of the people who were there first and the hardship borne by the ancestors of the original settlers. When observing this sort of sectarian strife, travelers see that when people from one land displace others from their historic homeland — regardless of the rationale or justification — a harsh lesson is learned. Too often the resulting pain (which can last for so many centuries that many even forget its roots) is far greater for all involved than the short-term gain for those doing the planting.
Posted by Rick Steves on August 17, 2009
Even though things have changed — and Catalunya is increasingly free to pursue its own interests — Europe's "stateless nations" continue to live in solidarity with each other. The Catalan people find Basque or Galician bars a little more appealing than the run-of-the-mill Spanish ones. They even make a point to include the other languages on their ATMs. In Barcelona, you'll see Catalan first, then Spanish, Galego (the language of Galicia, in northwest Spain), Euskara (the Basque tongue), and then German, French, English…and a button for all the rest. While all of these groups — Catalan, Galician, and Basque — speak the common language of Spanish, they respect each other's native tongues as a way to honor their shared ethnic-underdog status.
These groups' affinity for each other even factors into where they travel. On a recent trip to Northern Ireland, I was impressed by how many travelers I met from Basque Country and Catalunya. Because the Basques and Catalans feel a kinship with the Catholic minority in Ireland's Protestant North, they choose to vacation in Ulster.
Posted by Rick Steves on August 14, 2009
I'm charmed by Europe's ethnic diversity. Hop on a train for two hours and you step out into a different culture, different language, and different heritage. As I watched Europe unite, I (like many of my European friends) feared that this diversity would be threatened. But just the opposite is happening.
In today's Europe, there are three loyalties: region, nation, and Europe. Ask a person from Munich where he's from, and he'll say, "I'm Bavarian," or "I'm German," or "I'm European," depending on his generation and his outlook. Ask somebody from Barcelona, and she'll say, "I'm Catalan," or "I'm Spanish," or "I'm European."
It wasn't always this way. Modern political borders are rarely clean when it comes to dividing ethnic groups. And most of the terrorism and troubles in Europe — whether Basque, Irish, Catalan, or Corsican — have been about ethnic-minority separatist movements threatening national capitals. Appreciating the needs of these people, peace-loving European leaders strive to make the Continent's minority groups feel like they belong.
What's going on? Barcelona is less threatening to Madrid. Edinburgh doesn't scare London. Brittany gets along with Paris (and I don't mean Spears and Hilton). As power shifts to the EU capital of Brussels, national capitals recognize and accept that their power is waning. And the European Union supports transnational groups in the hopes of reminding big nations that they have more in common than they might realize.
A castle-archaeologist friend of mine, Armin Walch, is the "Indiana Jones" in Austria's Tirol region. When Armin wants money to excavate a castle, he goes to Brussels. If he says, "I'm doing something for Austria," he'll go home empty-handed. So instead, he says he's doing something for the Tirol (an ethnic region that spans parts of Italy and Austria, ignoring the modern national boundary)...and gets funding.
Europe is burdened with the image of a too-politically-correct bureaucracy, notorious for dictating the proper curve of a cucumber in 23 official languages. But they don't mind the teasing. While attempting to honor the linguistic and idealistic wishes of its unruly gang of members isn't always efficient, Europe understands that watching out for its ethnic underdogs is essential for maintaining its hard-won peace.
Posted by Rick Steves on August 12, 2009
Eastern Europe is changing fast. Freedom is old news, communism is a distant memory, and they have long settled into the grind of capitalism. In the 1990s, societies once forced to espouse Soviet economics embraced the capitalist work ethic with gusto — as if making up for lost time. While adjusting from the security of a totalitarian system to the insecurity of freedom, my friends there reported that younger and better-educated people jumped at this opportunity to get ahead — working longer, having fewer children, and buying more cars. On the other hand, older people missed the job security and sense of safety while walking down the streets that they remember from the “good old, bad old days.” And many less-educated young people who see the new system working against them joined angry and racist groups such as eastern Germany's skinheads. Now in the 21st century, more of capitalism's realities, limits, and frustrations are sinking in.
I remember visits to the Eastern Bloc during the Cold War. Back then life was bleak, gray, and demoralizing because of ongoing political repression and their unresponsive Soviet-style command economy. Someone would dictate how many of these and how much of that would be produced, ignoring the basic laws of supply and demand. It was a fiasco. On my early visits to Poland, people were taking their windshield wipers in with them at night. The government under-produced wipers, and the thieves knew it. They'd rip off somebody's wipers and sell them for a fortune on the black market.
But Eastern Europe has put itself on a fast track to catch up with the West. Today, with a solid supply-and-demand economy, the Poles are leaving their windshield wipers on their cars at night. Compared to the 1980s, Eastern Europe feels like a festival of pent-up entrepreneurial spirit. And for me, each visit is a case study in the fundamental wisdom of supply and demand.
Posted by Rick Steves on August 10, 2009
Given America's unique world-leadership position, our limited economic means, and the world's reliance on our military might, we need to choose our battles thoughtfully. There are cases where the world supports our involvement (Darfur, Kosovo, Afghanistan), and places where they don't (Central America and Iraq). We can do whatever we want...but it sure makes things easier on everybody when we wield our might with the support of our friends and allies.
Perhaps the EU wouldn't have so much money for its infrastructure if it had to do its own fighting. But consider the flipside: By their judgment, sinking money into their infrastructure rather than into their military is better for their long-term security. In the European view, America is trapped in an inescapable cycle to feed its military-industrial complex: As we bulk up our military, we look for opportunities to make use of it. (When your only tool is a hammer, you treat every problem like a nail.) And then, when we employ our military unwisely, we create more enemies...which makes us feel the need to grow our military even more. If an American diplomat complained to his European counterpart, “America is doing all the heavy lifting when it comes to military,” the European might respond, “Well, you seem to be enjoying it. We're building roads and bridges instead."
Traveling affords a good opportunity to consider how American military might has helped make our world a better place — and how it hasn't — and what kind of fiscal and military policies make a society stronger and safer.
Posted by Rick Steves on August 07, 2009
When boots do hit the ground in a war, Europeans believe it's because they have failed to prevent it. They prefer endless diplomacy to once-in-a-while war. Europe's reluctance to go to war frustrates some Americans. I believe their relative pacifism is because Europeans know the reality of war, while many Americans do not. Of course, if you have a loved one who has fought or died in Iraq, Afghanistan, or Vietnam, you know what a war is. But as a society, the US can't remember actually hosting a war. Europeans have told me that they believe Americans are more willing to use cluster bombs and napalm to pacify Fallujah because in the age of modern warfare, no American city has ever been wiped from existence like Coventry, Dresden, Rotterdam, and Warsaw. It's easier to feel detached when a war is something you watch on the nightly news, rather than something that killed your grandfather or destroyed your hometown.
Europe knows what a war is. It's ripped itself to shreds twice in the last century. Consider France in World War I. France (with one-quarter as many people as we have) lost as many people as we've lost in the entire Iraq War — over 4,000 people — in one day…many times. They lost as many people as we lost in Vietnam (60,000) in one month. And then it happened again and again until, by the end of World War I, an estimated half of all the men in France between the ages of 15 and 30 were casualties. When some Americans, frustrated at France's reluctance to follow us into a war, call the French “surrender monkeys,” I believe it shows their ignorance of history.
After World War I, Europe was awakening to the destructive power of aerial bombardments. During the Spanish Civil War in 1937, Hitler jumped at a chance to help his fellow fascist, General Francisco Franco, by bombing the Basque town of Guernica. Surveying the rubble of that town made it clear that technology had taken the destructive power of war to new heights. This inspired Picasso to create his greatest work. His mural Guernica memorialized the first city destroyed by an aerial bombardment, and gave Europe a preview of the horrors of its fast-approaching war with frightening accuracy.
In 1947, in the rubble of a bombed-out Europe, Euro-visionaries assembled and agreed that they needed to overcome the hell that they were bringing upon themselves every couple of generations with these wars. Their solution was to unite. Of course, a union is nothing without people giving up some measure of real sovereignty. Since 1947, proponents of a European Union have been convincing the people of proud and independent nations to trade away bits and pieces of their independence. It's a tough sell. But in a fitful evolution — two steps forward and one step back — over the last sixty or so years, they have created a European union.
Posted by Rick Steves on August 05, 2009
Throughout the world, people solve similar problems with different approaches. Here are some European answers.
All my life, I've paid the city for a sanitation worker to pick up my garbage. In Switzerland, the garbage bag costs more…and includes pick-up. When it's full, put it out on any curb. The next morning, it's gone.
An Italian law requires drivers to wear a seatbelt. Your car makes annoying noises if you don't buckle up. So the Italians, in their own creative way, have designed a handy little plug to quiet their car. Problema finito.
While we have stop signs in the middle of nowhere, the British have roundabouts. You don't stop. You wing into that roundabout and take off at the exit of your choice.
In the Netherlands they have four-story parking garages for bicycles. The Dutch take the train in, hop on their bike, and pedal to work. It's not necessarily out of dedication to the environment. Biking simply works well.
Junk mail exasperates us. Others don't like junk mail, either. Many Europeans have a simple solution. They put a decal on the mailbox that says simply "no" or "yes" to junk mail.
Posted by Rick Steves on August 04, 2009