Interview with Graeme Sutherland

Graeme Sutherland has been called a young Renaissance man. He has brewed beer in London, speaks French without an accent, has a master's degree in Italian studies, and has led bicycling tours through Europe. Athletic, intelligent, curious, and confident, Graeme is an example of the new generation of guides at Rick Steves' Europe. He leads four different itineraries in both France and Italy. He's also Canadian, so he fits somewhere between Americans and Europeans in his world view.

How did you become a Francophile?

I got hooked on history early, studying in Canada and Scotland. I eventually moved to France and became a guide for a bicycle touring company. At first, I found French culture mystifying, even frustrating sometimes. But after some earnest effort, I discovered that France is just a little complicated, that's all. And there's some beauty in that. Once I started asking the right questions, and really began learning about France and its people, I found the culture and the place totally intoxicating. The people have a firm grip on their identity and have a wonderful joie de vivre. Their cuisine (which includes the wine!) is often just as complicated and wonderful as the culture itself. And the French landscape offers a dizzying array of variety that can satisfy any mood and traveling taste. France simply has it all.

I'm very fortunate to have had the opportunity to learn about France from the perspective of a guide, because this is a profession that really forces you to examine and understand your surroundings. I've been sucked into this country, and I'm very happy here.

How is guiding a Rick Steves tour different from guiding a bicycle tour?

They are very different. On a cycling tour, I can't lecture to a group while riding — that can be dangerously distracting! So during the day we all focus on taking in the countryside — literally experiencing a country — climbing up the hills, smelling the crops, and passing through countless small villages. For the right person, bicycle touring is a stunning way to see a country, especially if you can remind yourself that you are experiencing a place much as our ancestors would have seen it — not from a speeding vehicle!

Touring with a bus removes you from the visceral experiences of the hills, the wind and all that. But "bus time" allows a guide to share a lot more cultural and historical information with the group. It's also pretty satisfying to cover so much ground each day (and the views from those big windows are still gorgeous). To use this time to the max also requires a guide to do more research, more studying, and less relaxing. Fortunately, this is the work I love, so there is no downside!

You're young and Canadian. Any advantages to either?

I've had a few comments from tour members at the end of a tour saying they'd been shocked when they first met me (I'm under 30 and might look even younger). I'm often within a few years of the ages of people's children, and I think that gives me a connection with a generation that they are inherently interested in. I feel I have a lot to learn from my tour members as well, and I really enjoy that part of the group dynamic.

As far as being Canadian, it gives me a certain carte blanche to discuss things like politics, religion, and taxes without getting stuck in the mire of my own beliefs and their repercussions in the US. Being from a different culture often sets a helpful tone of "seeing things as different, but not as better or worse." It's part of the Rick Steves mantra, and I think being a guide from a different country is just another helpful perspective to add in to the mix.

On a more practical level, my tour members often have to do their own calculations when I say things like "we'll be walking for about half a kilometer" or "it's going to be 30 degrees out!"

What do you do in the off-season when you're not guiding tours?

I'm a brewer. I'm not sure if it's the most interesting off-season occupation, but it's definitely up there as far as tastiness goes! A few years ago I took a course in commercial brewing, and then I started working as an assistant brewer about two years ago.

I moved to London to pursue this because there are a lot of small breweries opening up, and it was relatively easy to find work. It's a very technical job that takes a lot of experience to do well, so I'm still learning my way around.

As I've found in other countries, the world of craft beer tends to be friendly, and full of interesting people who care a lot about good beer, as well as good things in general: good food, good wine, etc. It's been helpful and fun to pay more attention to what I taste, and what I eat, and even where and how I shop. I'm more aware of those things than ever, and its pulling me into some great new places when I travel. Eating and drinking is arguably one of the best parts about travelling — literally tasting a culture — and brewing has helped me understand that.


Here's what Graeme won't tell you… but his tour members will:

"The best part of the tour was our guide, Graeme! He did an amazing job of educating us. His ability to describe the history of the time period was outstanding. He made the sights come to life. Graeme also did an outstanding job of connecting with every individual on the tour, making them feel welcome, comfortable, and safe. His interaction with the group was quite humorous and fun, yet very professional!"

— Mary in Hillsboro, OR