Here are some thoughts about how and why one of the most rewarding aspects of my travels is connecting with people — old friends and guides who actually lived through the local history and make it real for me.
On one of my earliest trips to Europe when I was just 14 years old, a family friend in a dusty village on the border of Austria and Hungary introduced me to a sage old man. I remember thinking he was a caricature of a classic old Austrian, with a handlebar moustache, a wardrobe that looked like it was stolen from a museum, and an intricately carved pipe. Spreading lard on rustic bread, he shared his eyewitness account of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914, which sparked the beginning of World War I. I leaned forward with awe as he described the motorcade, the archduke and his wife in an open car, the explosion of gunfire, and the hysteria that followed. That encounter, beside an onion-domed village church and in the shadow of the Iron Curtain, helped spark in me a lifelong interest in history.
Decades later in Prague, I walked with my Czech friend Honza down the path that he walked in 1989 with 100,000 of his countrymen, demanding liberation from their Soviet overlords. Stopping in front of a grand building, Honza said, “Night after night we assembled here, pulled out our key chains, and all jingled them at the President’s window, saying, ‘It’s time to go home now.’ Then one night we gathered...and he was gone. We had won our freedom.” Hearing Honza tell this story as we walked that same route he did all those years ago made me understand — and really feel — the jubilation of a small country winning its hard-fought independence.
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In Northern Ireland, my guide Stephen made his country’s struggles come alive for me when he took me to Belfast’s Felons Club. Stepping through a black metal security cage to reach the door, he whispered, “Membership here is limited to those who have spent at least a year and a day in a British prison for political crimes...but I think I can get you in.” Once inside, I was spellbound, listening to heroic stories of Irish resistance while sharing a Guinness with a celebrity felon. His gift of gab gave me a deeper understanding of their struggles. The next day I walked along the green-trimmed gravesites of his prison-mates. Because of my time at the Felons Club, I better understood what these people sacrificed — why they starved themselves to death for the cause of a united Ireland.
My uncle Thor lived through the Nazi occupation of Norway. He took me into Oslo’s grand City Hall to show me the huge “Mural of the Occupation” and share his story of those dark days with the visual support of powerful art. Walking slowly, with a soft voice, he narrated the story scene by scene in the present tense — as if the mural told his personal experience as it was happening: “The German blitzkrieg overwhelms our country. Men head for the mountains to organize a resistance movement. Women huddle around the neighborhood well, traditionally where news is passed, while traitors listen in. While Germans bomb and occupy Norway, a family gathers in their living room. As a boy clenches his fist and a child holds our Norwegian flag — we love it so much — the Gestapo storms in. Columns lie on the ground, symbolizing how, by closing newspapers and the university, Germans did what they could to shut down our culture. Finally, years later, the war is over, prisoners are freed, and Norway celebrates its happiest day: May 17, 1945.” Thor’s voice cracked as he added, “Our first Constitution Day after five years under Nazi control.” He finished by waving his arm wide and saying, “And today, each December, the Nobel Peace Prize is awarded in this grand hall.”
We can go to places like Austria, the Czech Republic, Northern Ireland, or Norway to do some sightseeing yet learn nothing of their people’s lives or their struggles. Or we can seek out opportunities to connect with people who can share eyewitness stories. The mark of good travel is not how many real people you meet, but if you are there to really hear their stories. Travel can — and should — change our perspectives and broaden our worldviews.
(Rick Steves (www.ricksteves.com) writes European guidebooks, hosts travel shows on public TV and radio, and organizes European tours. This article was adapted from his new book, For the Love of Europe. You can email Rick at email@example.com and follow his blog on Facebook.)