Interview with Brenna Fallon

"I love the family tours because you can be a little bit silly, with the excuse that 'it's for the kids.' I believe that adults secretly get more out of it, too. Everybody learns better from a guide or teacher who is happy and excited — and when Europe is your classroom, why that's the easiest bit."

Brenna, as a "tour guide in training" for Rick Steves, last summer you assisted on three of our Family Europe tours — with three different guides. Did it feel repetitive?
No way! While there are important similarities between guides – breadth and depth of knowledge, belief in Rick's traveling philosophy, and dynamic personalities – the manner in which they lead is full of variety. These guides know so much about Europe, and with an infinite amount of knowledge comes an infinite amount of variation in the story. While the main storyline remains consistent for each tour, each guide brings alive different angles and facts. Even on my third Family Europe tour last summer, I still learned at least 30 new facts a day. Within this variation shines each guide's favorite parts of the "curriculum." Each tour guide has a different background and personality, and you can be surprised by which aspects of teaching will make him or her positively glow. Whether it's spinning the tale of Venus de Milo in the Louvre or explaining the mechanics of a Swiss cog railway, different guides light up at different moments of the tour. And that is a delight to watch.

Besides assisting the lead guide, your job on the Family Tours was to help the kids engage with the wonders of Europe. What's the secret?
I've worked a lot with kids, and helping them get the most out of a tour is no different from teaching them any life skill – it's all about asking questions, varying types of teaching, and being excited yourself. In my opinion, kids are some of the most astute travelers and learners. They can teach us so much, and they can connect difficult, disparate pieces of history together with minimal prompting. Personally, I ask them all the questions I can think of. Where is David looking? Does he look like any teenager you know? What do you think he's thinking about? Why would Michelangelo decide to sculpt him that way? Varying the teaching can come in all forms – mini history plays, songs, art, sports, etc. I love the family tours because you can be a little bit silly, with the excuse that "it's for the kids." I believe that adults secretly get more out of it, too. Everybody learns better from a guide or teacher who is happy and excited — and when Europe is your classroom, why that's the easiest bit.

Can you tell us a favorite memory from one of your tours?
It relates to my first visit to the Accademia in Florence when I was 12 years old. I vividly remember sitting next to my brother in front of Michelangelo's David. We spent a full hour drawing him — I drew David in all his glory; my brother drew him wearing a soccer uniform. When my Family Tour visited the Accademia this past summer, I told the kids my story of drawing — and then they all wanted to draw David too! I just happened to have paper and colored pencils in my bag, so a group of eight of us sat on the museum floor, drawing away. It was beautiful to see all these kids laboring over their own works of art, observing new things about David that you only see when you try to get his hair to flow just right for 10 minutes. I loved the chance to merge my childhood with theirs. But nothing beats a parent's face when looking at sketches from their previously art-wary child.

What surprised you most about assisting on Rick Steves tours?
How much like a family each group becomes. A group of two dozen strangers are thrown together, and some of the kids are pretty wary at first. Two weeks later, those kids are crying when it's time to leave their new friends. As a guide, it's a beautiful and sad thing — I come to think of them as my family, too. I go through multiple heartbreaks in a single tour season!

You've mentioned that kids are learning on these trips, and connecting socially. Is this more than travel?
This is a growth experience for kids. Seeing that is one of my favorite parts of this job. The way the kids light up when they're telling their parents or grandparents about their favorite part of the tour…it's priceless. Travel in general is a healthy way to grow both internally and as a family, and the tours offer a way for kids to explore and develop in a comfortable environment. I see kids growing in two main ways: (1) their comfort in unfamiliar environments, whether it be speaking in front of the tour group or attempting to order lunch in French, and (2) and their understanding of Europe and of the larger history and culture that permeates the trip. I love getting emails from kids during the school year telling me about how they taught their history class about something they learned from the tour!

You're about to graduate from UC Berkeley and return for another season of traveling with Rick Steves' tours. What's next on your horizon?
One thing travel has taught me is to keep my mind open and say "Yes!" to adventures. I have some definite goals, but I'm keeping the future open. All I know for sure is…more traveling is in store.