Nina, your lifestyle seems to personify the modern European: comfortably moving between countries and cultures. What's that like?
I grew up in Flanders, the northern part of Belgium, which is flat as a pancake, so I cycled everywhere: first to kindergarten, later on to school, friends and cafes.
As an au-pair girl in France I looked after three kids, and was welcomed as part of their extended family and a big circle of friends. So I spent a lot of time enjoying French wining and dining, all the while learning French in a natural, effortless way.
Later, I spent two years working for an international charity organization in Germany. It was during that time, on a visit to South America, that I met my husband, Jamie (long before he began guiding tours for Rick Steves).
I moved with Jamie to his hometown of Bath, in England. For 18 years I was completely immersed in English weather, tea, irony, understatements and eccentricity.
We started a family in England, then decided to relocate to Italy. And now we lead tours that help Rick Steves' clients "temporarily relocate" to Italy!
Italy confronts a person with organized chaos and bewildering bureaucracy — elegance next to couldn't-care-less attitude — but what hospitality, sun-soaked climate, excellent daily cuisine and wine! And there's the free entertainment: daily life feels like a stage where everybody seems to think they are the main actor.
How did you choose Lucca to be your Italian home town?
When Jamie was 17, he ended up in Lucca while hitchhiking. He immediately fell in love with this medieval walled town. Over the years he kept going back, and that's how I was introduced to Lucca. In the summer, families are out till midnight strolling through town, and everybody is just mingling. It seemed like a very safe and fun environment for bringing up kids.
Families are very tight here, which acts as a social control: teenagers can't get up to too much trouble because Nonna (Grandma) will give them a good slap and telling off! So drinking to get drunk is a big no-no, and teenagers in general seem to be well-behaved here.
You lead a fun mix of Heart of Italy and Village Italy tours. Any advice for people trying to choose between the two?
The pace is different: the Heart of Italy tour is more intense as it packs in the big cities of Florence and Rome, yet it's balanced by the wonderful hiking in the Cinque Terre and the quieter towns. The Village Italy tour meanders gently for two weeks through smaller towns, villages and rolling countryside. Often people who have done a Heart of Italy tour will choose a Village Italy Tour next, as it gives them a chance to experience the local color a bit longer at a slower pace.
Are there other tours of Rick's that you would be interested in leading?
I can't wait to lead the Best of Italy tour. It offers such a good balance of visiting the big cities of Venice, Florence and Rome — plus outdoor experiences such as the Dolomites and the Cinque Terre.
Needless to say, I would love to lead the Heart of Belgium & Holland tour as that would take me back to my roots. Belgium and Holland share a lot of history but each very much has its own character and mentality, so richly expressed in the art, cuisine and lifestyle. Distances are small, so the tour covers a lot and you'll come away with a wonderful flavor of the Low Countries.
How do your daughters like growing up in Italy?
I don't think they've ever recovered from the shock that there is school on Saturdays. And the amount of homework during the holidays is unbelievable.
On the positive side, the girls speak Italian fluently and are at home in both cultures. No doubt the sunny climate is the biggest bonus for us all. Most of the year, we have breakfast, lunch and dinner outside in the garden. And the girls simply cannot stay in front of the computer all day as the weather is so inviting!
What Nina won't tell you — here's how her tour alums rave about her:
"Nina was a wonderful guide! Always friendly, cheerful, and lively, Nina was always brimming with enthusiasm for Italy (and Lucca). Her frequent anecdotes of life in Italy really brought the tour to life and made things fun and interesting. She was always willing (and enthusiastic) to answer questions — even late at night or during our free-time periods). Thank you, Nina, for giving us such a wonderful time!"
— Stephen in Pewaukee, WI — Heart of Italy in 9 Days