Raised in Memphis, Robert moved to Seattle in the early '90s, where he almost eliminated his strong southern accent. He worked as a toxicologist, completed a master's degree in International Studies, and later ditched everything to move to Spain for a year. That turned out to be one of the best decisions he ever made. Since then, he's lived in Argentina, married a Spaniard, and become a guide for our Spain tours, including our 10-day Best of Andalucía tour.
What brought you to Spain and Rick Steves' Europe?
My love affair with Spain began completely by chance. I had an educational background in biochemistry/toxicology, then made an abrupt change and got a master's in international studies — but something still seemed to be missing from my life. So the next year, I packed up and moved to Cádiz. Most of my friends and family thought I was insane, since I had never traveled outside of North America and knew only Spanish 101. It was a rocky road, but several trips throughout the country made Spain get under my skin.
After that year abroad, I moved back to Seattle, where I heard Rick Steves give an evening talk at the University of Washington. During intermission, I chatted with the people in the hallway selling his guidebooks and I mentioned my experience in Europe. They said, "You need to call [former head of Guide Services] Steve Smith! We need Spain guides!" I laughed and brushed it off, but a few months later I went in for an interview and Steve hired me right then and there. That was over 20 years ago!
I also lived in Argentina for 14 years, all while working for Rick. But I fell in love with a Spaniard in 2015, and we were married the following year (Spain was the third country in the world to legalize same-sex marriage). He's from Sevilla, so that's where I call home now.
What is the most intriguing thing to you about being a sevillano?
How our lives truly revolve around festivals. Good weather for most of the year means everyone wants to be outside to enjoy it, and sevillanos have it down to an art. Spring begins with Semana Santa (Holy Week) followed by Feria (April Fair) filled with horses and flamenco. The Christmas season lasts about one month (typically from December 8, Day of the Immaculate Conception, to January 6, Epiphany). Mixed in are regional holidays, the occasional religious procession, a wedding or two, a communion, etc. No sooner is Christmas over than people get anxious for Holy Week so they can start the whole cycle again!
You'll be leading our new Best of Andalucía tour in 2020. What do you love about this region, and how is it unique compared to other areas of Spain?
Of course I love Andalucía because it's my home, but its regional character makes it so endearing. In Spain there's a running joke that people in Andalucía are lazy and don't like to work, perhaps because of all the big festivals. When people think of Andalucía, flamenco, sun, and fun come to mind first. What many people fail to realize is that andaluces work as hard as anyone else in the country — if not harder — but know that life needs to be enjoyed as well. They also use a healthy dose of sarcasm and a quick wit that appeals to me...probably because we do the same in the southern US.
What's been a "wow" moment that's occurred for you on a Rick Steves tour?
In 2019, I led the first Rick Steves Spain tour to coincide with Holy Week. Logistics and timing were insane — streets closed off for processions, dealing with rainy weather — but all that work paid off in the town of Arcos de la Frontera. The entire group was already down for breakfast. Suddenly, the weather cleared and a previously cancelled procession began... going right by the hotel accompanied by the rising sun. After running out to confirm the route, I got everyone's attention and said, "Drop your fork, grab your camera, and let's go!" We were practically the only ones watching the tiny floats navigating those narrow streets. Absolutely magical.
What keeps you going when guiding?
Besides wine? First, seeing tour members enjoy experiences that they may have been skeptical about (like truly understanding art in the Prado in Madrid or being brave enough to practice their Spanish with the residents of a small town). Second, seeing local guides, hoteliers, and restauranteurs that I've developed relationships with over the past 20 years. It's always fun to catch up and I consider them extended family. Many tour members have commented that they enjoy seeing our interactions together and feel immediately at ease.
How has living abroad changed your perspective on the US?
After living on four continents in the past 22 years, my husband and I love to take trips through lesser-known spots in the US. There's a lot to see that I never paid much attention to as a child, along with so many connections to the rest of the world. A small-scale replica of Sevilla cathedral's bell tower sits in Kansas City. Winston Churchill, at the invitation of Harry Truman, spoke at a small university in Missouri. The mother mosque for the US (first ever) is in Cedar Rapids, IA, of all places. Living abroad lets me see the US in a new light.
Can you share with us something that no one would ever guess about you?
Like most kids growing up in the late 1970s, I was a huge fan of Star Wars, and over the years my toy collection grew like crazy. To fund my year living in Cádiz, I sold almost everything by consignment. Thanks to Star Wars, I was able to live in Spain and travel throughout Europe and North Africa that year on a minimal income.
Here's what Robert won't tell you…but his tour members will:
"From the first moment we met him until we said goodbye on our last evening together, it was abundantly clear to me that Robert is the ideal tour guide! Robert's genuine passion and enthusiasm for everything about Spain were equally balanced by his incredibly deep knowledge of cultural history, his professionalism, and his clearly demonstrated organizational and leadership skills. I would highly recommend that future tour participants seek this man out!!"
— Gregory in Glen Allen, VA