Tara Swenson is a tour guide who also has an interesting "day job" — assistant manager of Rick Steves' Tour Department. Her travel life has been shaped by a great empathy for first-time travelers, a soft spot for dairy cows, a brush with the IRA, being photographed with large portions of cake, and meeting her husband in Germany. In spite of all this, Tara's world actually revolves around her 3 year-old daughter, whose favorite word is "nein." Let's talk travel with Tara...
Tell us about your first experience in Europe.
"During my senior year at the University of Wisconsin, my Sociology professor was Doc Bailey, who also ran the Study Abroad program. One day he asked if I would be interested in writing my senior thesis over in Europe (Country: Northern Ireland. Topic: the IRA). My response to him was, 'Why would l leave Wisconsin?'"
Did you go? What was it like?
"With some trepidation (heels in the ground), I did move to Northern Ireland. The day I arrived, I got on a bus for Derry but they blew up the border crossing so we were rerouted to Belfast. I rented a room from a very nice couple who taught me the ins-and-outs of staying in Belfast. Given the sensitive material I was writing about, they warned me to always carry my US passport, keep my books hidden under my mattress, and don't go to church (because it would raise suspicions from the "other" side). In time, I became quite familiar with the IRA, Sinn Fein, the RUC and the police. I was frequently stopped on the street and asked to show my credentials. To interview IRA members, I would be ushered in and out of secluded areas, with guns pointed at me all the time. Deadly serious. When I returned years later on one of our Best of Ireland tours, I saw a completely different world, and it brought tears to my eyes. I never dreamed I would ever see the place as peaceful as it now is."
Did Doc like the thesis?
"I'm proud to say I got an A."
You are known as someone who is pretty crazy about Germany, Austria and Switzerland. How did that happen?
"Being based in Belfast made it pretty cheap and easy to explore more of Europe. The Berlin wall was ready to come down, and German reunification was on everybody's mind. I made a trip to Bavaria for Oktoberfest and to do some hiking, and there I started chatting with some East Berliners who were my age. I was fascinated with how different their lives had been and how hopeful they were of having new opportunities that their parents had been denied. From that point on I wanted to know everything about the past, present and future of Germany. Later, when I had the chance to work at a hotel in Garmisch, I went for it. I ended up staying there for years because I loved the small village atmosphere, and the very Bavarian sense of clockwork timing combined with a quiet, slow pace of life. (Honestly, where else can you get out of mowing your lawn on a Sunday because it's against the law to make noise?)"
Anything special that you brought back from that experience?
"That work experience has helped me understand what our tours' hotel staffers go through on a daily basis. I am also very good at pouring beer — an art that has MANY rules — but then again, so does speaking German. I also brought home my future husband, who was working as a ski instructor in Garmisch. Funny thing is, he's from Seattle."
How does working in our tour sales office help you lead tours?
"In my 'day job' I talk first-hand with hundreds of our tour members before they go to Europe. I hear about their concerns and fears — especially when they are first-time travelers. I remember what it's like to feel intimidated, scared, and to not quite get the European way of doing things. I try to keep conversations in mind when I guide because it helps me to understand where people are coming from and where, in terms of their confidence and understanding, I want to take them. As a guide, it motivates me even more to give them the best tour ever, to answer questions with patience, and make the whole experience a 'wow moment' for them. I still keep my first tattered guidebook (Let's Go: Europe) on my desk to remind me that ALL of us were first-time travelers at one time!"
When you are leading a tour, which place do you look forward to most?
"Munich — hands down! I really consider myself a Bavarian girl at heart. For me, when the tour bus pulls into Munich, it's like I'm coming home. I can't even describe how exciting it is for me to share with tour members my personal stories from having lived in this area. Also, it's like no other region in Germany, from the traditional dress and food to the beer, and even the language. I actually give a special language lesson prior to our Munich stay because the greetings and even names of foods can vary. It is an adventure!"
You also work with local guides along the way. Any favorites?
"Our local guide in Vienna – Wolfgang – is a character like no other. I always tell my tour members that he looks like a cross between a Hapsburg and Shaggy from Scooby Doo. Wolfgang loves his city, and encourages travelers to explore hidden treasures throughout the backstreets of Vienna (even if it means kayaking in a fountain until the police tell you to leave)."
Aside from the amazing mountain scenery, what makes Germany, Austria and Switzerland especially worth visiting in summer and fall?
"Everyone is so HAPPY! Festivals and events are always taking place, which is the perfect time to meet the locals. The weather is wonderful, so you can always take a nice walk, whether it's just to the local bakery or up to some castle ruins for an amazing view of the town. Open-air museums are also in full swing this time of year, and fun opportunities to really connect with the history. Finally, walking along a meadow high in the Swiss Alps, serenaded by the ringing and clanging of cowbells, is an experience that is out of this world."
You are known for being crazy about cows, too. True?
"I grew up on a small hobby farm in Minnesota. We had Holstein dairy cows which we showed in 4-H. I also participated in the Dairy Princess program — A VERY BIG DEAL in Minnesota!!! My past always comes in handy when my tours get into the Alps and we have a 'name that cow' contest. I always win."