Interview with Elena Zampiron

Elena Zampiron grew up in the watery wonderland of Venice, where she once led kayak tours through the canals of her hometown. After being discovered by another Rick Steves guide, Elena was hired as a guide for Rick Steves and now leads a number of our itineraries through Italy. She also offers walking, biking, and kayak tours in Venice as well as private German, Spanish, and Italian language lessons.

Ask Elena Zampiron about a "wow" moment from Venice, and she'll tell you:

That's where this adventure started. I was working as a local guide in Venice, finishing a tour inside the Clock Tower at St. Mark's Square. A Rick Steves senior tour guide who had been listening told me I had a lot of great energy and passion for telling stories. It was a wonderful and unexpected compliment. We exchanged cards and stayed in touch. A few months later she came back to Venice and we spent a few hours out on the water, kayaking around the city, chitchatting about our lives and jobs. Then, at some point, she told me very definitely that I needed to be part of the Rick Steves guiding team.

That's quite a job interview! Now that you've been leading Rick Steves tours through Italy, what do you think?

I knew these Italy tours would be fun for the tour members, but they've also been a surprising joy for me. Being a Rick Steves tour guide brings me the experience of traveling through my own country along with people from outside. I find myself seeing Italy with new eyes — the eyes of the discovery — re-appreciating little daily routines I would normally take for granted. It's an absolute pleasure to introduce cities, culture, food, and details to people who are excited to see them for the first time — so it automatically becomes the first time for my eyes and soul, too.

What was it like growing up in such a unique place as Venice?

To be honest, I never considered my childhood different because of my hometown…but there were little hazards. As kids we would always practice soccer or volleyball in a small campo. If you kicked the ball too far away, it would fall into the canal. The only thing we could do was wait for a boat to pass by and ask, "Excuse me, could you be so kind as to pick up our ball and throw it back to us?" My dad taught me how ride a bike in Venice. One day, as I was showing him how good I was, I turned my face back around toward him. The problem is, at the same time, I automatically turned the handlebars...and I went plunging into the canal. I survived because I was taught to swim at age three. To walk to school in the mornings, whenever the "high tide" sirens were activated, I had to wear big rubber boots. It was funny walking like an Egyptian…slowly, slowly down the street, to just get to school.

It sounds like the water didn't keep you away from sports.

No, and that's a good thing! Until I was 12 I was painfully shy, and I didn't speak much. I would blush bright red and that would make things even more uncomfortable. Playing volleyball and being the captain of my team for 15 years helped me a lot with confidence and social relationships. The first time I led my own tour, I couldn't believe it was me speaking in front of an audience! Now it all comes much more easily.

Earlier you mentioned kayaks. How and why did you start kayaking in Venice?

After playing volleyball for 15 years, my arm was in bad shape, so I decided to quit. But suddenly my evenings, with no practices, felt very empty. To get busy again, a very good friend and I came up with this idea: kayaking in the Venetian lagoon. We became the "Venice branch" of a kayak business that had been operating only on the mainland. So sometimes I get to store two or three kayaks in my basement, and have fun with friends who visit from all over. It is so interesting to see how people appreciate a vision of Venice from right down at sea level! It completes the picture, added to perspectives from the streets and rooftops. With kayaking I have rediscovered my own hometown. And it's another way to push through my shyness and enjoy new adventures with friends.

What makes a good trip for your tour members?

As a minimum, tour members expect to learn about the great sights — but they also want to experience other aspects of Italy. I like giving our tour members the right tools to be independent travelers, so they can explore Italy's cities with fearlessness and tolerance. Sometimes when a person faces cultural issues it's easier to give up in frustration than to calmly step back for a moment and analyze what's happening. Engaging like that is part of being a "temporary local."

Are Rick Steves travelers more open to this?

What I appreciate about a Rick Steves traveler is their love of learning that goes beyond just observing. They want to challenge their thinking. So that's what we do together. By the end of our tour, they've lived in a sort of laboratory, a special bubble of open-minded attitudes. Step by step, starting with common clichés, we work together to open up a "behind the scenes" world that is much more authentic, and reveals what being an Italian really means.

Here's what Elena won't tell you…but her tour members will:

"Elena is an absolutely terrific guide and leader. She combines wit, charm and a great sense of humor. She is very knowledgeable about the history and culture of the many cities and towns and the varied regions of Italy through which our tour passed. My wife and I appreciated her Italian language group practices on the bus and her gentle encouragement to speak a little Italian whenever the chance presented itself. Organized and ever helpful, Elena is simply great at what she does!"

— Neil in Everett, WA