Interview with Rolinka Bloeming

"European history is like a big puzzle. At first it's all a jumble to keep track of, but the more you bring the pieces together it actually gets easier."

Rolinka Bloeming was born and raised in the Netherlands, and now makes her home in France. Her zest for variety is reflected in her career, as she has mastered the guiding of many Rick Steves tours, ranging from Germany, Austria & Switzerland to Loire to the South of France, the Heart of Belgium & Holland, and the Best of Europe. She tackles every tour with infectious enthusiasm and a real love for teaching. This month she's slowed down just enough for us to ask her a few questions.

How did you first start traveling? Did it lead to your career as a guide?
As a little girl, I dreamed of traveling around the world. But for our vacations, my father wanted his children to discover the Netherlands first on this very Dutch thing: the bicycle!

For years in a row, we biked and biked, visiting most Dutch art museums, windmills, dams and dikes, through wind and rain. Very educational, but I had other ideas about enjoying the holidays!

One day I realized that if I ever wanted to visit the rest of Europe, it would need to be on my own — not with my dad, and not on a bike!

That day, now 25 years ago, I decided to subscribe to the Dutch Academy of Tourism. After four years of studying languages, history, art history, geography, communication techniques and speaking skills, I was trained to be a tour guide. But my education didn't stop there, because in this line of work, learning is a never-ending process. It's a big part of the fun.

Having led tours in places as different as Provence, Holland, the Rhine, and Rome, you've had to absorb and teach about a variety of cultures and perspectives on history. This is complicated stuff. How can you be so relaxed and personable on a full brain?
I don't think there is a trick. I am a happy person with lots of energy and I love to share knowledge and enthusiasm with my guests.

European history is like a big puzzle. At first it's all a jumble to keep track of, but the more you bring the pieces together it actually gets easier. The overall picture of the puzzle becomes clearer and details that seemed meaningless begin to matter. In the same way, the more you learn about Europe's history and culture, the more interesting it becomes and the easier it is to understand. You make so many links and suddenly events in history make more sense. It's the happy "aha!" of connecting the puzzle pieces. This is why the variety of so many different tours keeps me motivated and fresh.

And don't forget that Europe is not just about history. It is a modern continent with modern people and modern concerns. And Rick Steves travelers want to hear and learn about these issues, too.

You deserve some of the credit for creating our Heart of Belgium & Holland tour. What makes it special?
I am very happy with this tour, and I really enjoy working with the Dutch and Belgian people again.

This tour is a good example of focusing on more modern topics. For example, how can millions of Dutch citizens live below sea level? How do they use technology to control and manage water? Does their situation shape their attitudes about climate change?

It is also fun to visit a coffeeshop (no, not those where you go to for a cup of coffee!), walk around in the world's largest commercial building — the Aalsmeer flower auction — and eat raw herring on the street!

On this tour it is especially easy to connect with the locals. The Dutch and Belgians are not shy about expressing their opinion with others and they love discussions.

There are many ways to make a tour more personal, every tour guide has his own way of doing that. On this tour, I sometimes invite my parents or some good friends to visit us while we are in Delft or Amsterdam for a happy hour, a meal, or a Q & A about their lifestyles and attitudes.

You have spent many years living in the Netherlands and France. Can you tell us how the Dutch and French are different as neighbors? How are Dutch people received in France?
In the Netherlands we had Dutch neighbors. Today in the south of France we have Dutch neighbors! No big difference, this is Europe!

If there has been one big change in Europe in the last generation, it's how internationalized each country has become. It is fun to have summer open-air dinners together with our German, American, Irish, Belgian, and French neighbors on the square next to the 800-year-old church. We once brought the whole Rick Steves France tour group in, and it was an unforgettable dinner for all of us!

I believe that Dutch people have a relatively good reputation in France. If we are going to stay in France a while, we learn to speak some French as quickly as possible. You assimilate just a little, or as much as you want. The French in the southern countryside, where I live, seem to appreciate this. They don't bother foreigners too much, and they just do their own thing: herding sheep, producing wine, and shooting wild boar.

Several years ago, you moved out of Paris and into the countryside. How has this changed your life? Do you miss the city?
Do I miss Paris and the city dynamics? No, not really, probably because I spend at least three months per year in Paris for work or just in the off-season. My challenge in life at this moment is to find a good balance between the guiding season and time off. That is why we purchased a shepherd cottage in the remote countryside of the French Pyrenees. There was no electricity, water, natural gas, or sewer. This is what you call "roughing it," I think. 

We transformed it into an autonomous, sustainable guesthouse where one can escape to enjoy spectacular nature and a quietness that is rare in Europe today. We will open the guesthouse soon, and you all are invited to visit us!

You have an army of fans who love seeing you at Rick Steves' annual tour reunion in January. Can you tell us what it's like to be a guide during this event?
The reunion weekend in January is one of the best weekends of the whole year! There are three great reasons why I fly over to be there:

  1. It is a great pleasure for me to see tour members sharing their best travel memories with each other.
  2. It is important to meet the office staff who support us while we are leading tours, and to discuss ideas for making even good tours better and better.
  3. How lovely it is to spend a week with dozens of my fellow tour guides, many of whom have become such dear friends.