$18.99Lessons and Confessions of a Professional Traveler
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9781609522049 384 pages
“Vivid, funny, perceptive, intimate, and charged with a love of travel and a deep sense of humanity.” —Rick Steves, from the Foreword
20+ Years as Rick Steves’ Right-Hand Man
A candid account of how the sausage gets made in the travel business—told with affection, warts-and-all honesty, and a sense of humor.
What is it like to write guidebooks, make travel television, and lead bus tours for a living?
Find out with Cameron as he:
- samples spleen sandwiches at a Palermo street market
- hikes alone with cows high in the Swiss Alps
- stews in Budapest’s thermal baths
- hand-rolls pasta at a Tuscanagriturismo
- shivers through Highland games in a soggy Scottish village
- selects the best produce at a Provençal market
- navigates Spain’s confusing tapas scene
- survives driving in Sicily without going insane, and much more
Along the way, Cameron shares many lessons learned from his favorite Europeans. His stories are packed with ideas and insights for your next journey. You’ll also get a reality check for what seems to be a traveler’s dream job—working with Rick Steves and his merry band of travelers. Not just for Rick Steves fans but for anyone who loves Europe, The Temporary European is inspiring, insightful, and fun.
Coffee and C ́ejf
One morning in Mostar, I met my friend Alma for coffee. Not just her customary, exaggerated warmth: “Aaaaah, Cah-meh-ron! So goooood to see you, my old friend!”
I first met Alma years ago, when I was leading a tour in Bosnia and she was our local guide. She has a painful personal history and a huge heart, two things that seem to go together. Alma and her husband were living in Mostar with their toddler on May 9, 1993, when they were rocked awake by artillery shells raining down from the mountaintop. They persevered through the next few years as bombardment, siege, and street-by-street warfare ripped their city apart.
“Alma” means benevolent, soulful, wise. And Alma is all of these things in abundance. Anyone who meets her is struck by both her generosity of spirit and her forthrightness. Alma speaks her mind in the way of someone who knows mortal danger firsthand and no longer worries with niceties. And she has mastered the art of giving visitors insight into Bosnian culture.
“Here in Bosnia, we have unfiltered coffee—what you Americans might call ‘Turkish coffee,’” Alma said as we walked. “But it’s not just a drink. It’s a social ritual. A way of life.”
We made our way through Mostar toward a café. The streets were cobbled with river stones—round as tennis balls and polished like marble—that threatened to turn our ankles with each step. Finally we reached a cozy caravanserai courtyard that felt very close to the Ottoman trading outpost that Mostar once was.
We settled in at a low table, and the coffee arrived: a small copper tray, hand-hammered with traditional Bosnian designs. A little copper pot, lined with shiny metal and filled with slightly frothy coffee. A dish containing exactly two Turkish delight candies, dusted with powdered sugar. And two small ceramic cups, wrapped in yet more decorative copper.
The server deliberately poured coffee into each cup. I reached for mine too eagerly. Alma stopped me. “Careful!” she said. “Bosnian coffee punishes those who hurry, with a mouthful of grounds.”
Patiently, Alma explained the procedure—and the philosophy—of Bosnian coffee. “There’s no correct or incorrect way to drink Bosnian coffee. People spend lifetimes perfecting their own ritual. But one thing we agree on is that coffee isn’t just about the caffeine. It’s about relaxing. Being with people you enjoy.”
Alma paused for effect, then took a deliberate sip. Looking deep into my eyes and smiling a relaxed smile, she continued with a rhythmic, mesmerizing cadence: “Talk to your friends. Listen to what they have to say. Learn about their lives. Then take a sip. If your coffee isn’t strong enough, gently swirl your cup. If it’s too strong, just wait. Let it settle. That gives you more time to talk anyway.”
Looking around the courtyard, sparkling with mellow conversation and gentle laughter, Alma said, “This is a good example of merak. Merak is one of those words that you cannot directly translate into English. It means, basically, enjoyment. This relaxed atmosphere among friends. Nursing a cup of coffee with nowhere in particular to be—savoring the simple act of passing the time of day.”
Taking another slow sip, Alma noted that the Bosnian language is rife with these non-translatable words. Another example: raja. “Raja is a sense of being one with a community,” Alma said. “But it also means frowning on anyone who thinks they’re a big shot. It’s humility. Everyone knowing their place, and respecting it.”
But my favorite Bosnian word is cejf (pronounced “chayf”). Cejf is that annoying habit you have that drives your loved ones batty. And yet, it gives you pleasure. Not just pleasure; deep satisfaction. In traditional Bosnian culture, cejf is the way someone spins their worry beads, the way he packs and smokes his pipe, or her exacting procedure for preparing and drinking a cup of coffee.
Even if we don’t have a word for it, cejf is universal. Maybe you have a precise coffee order that tastes just right. (“Twelve-ounce oat milk half-caf latte with one Splenda, extra hot.”) Or every weekend, you feel compelled to wash and detail your car, or bake a batch of cookies, or mow your lawn in tidy diagonal lines, or prune your hedges just so. My own cejf is the way I tinker with my fantasy football lineup. (Should I start Marvin Jones or Jarvis Landry this week?) Or the way I chew gum when I’m stressed: Extra Polar Ice flavor, always two sticks . . . never just one.
Americans dismiss this behavior as “fussy” or “O.C.D.” or simply “annoying.” We’re expected to check our cejf at the door. But in Bosnia, they just shake their head and say, “What are you gonna do? That’s his cejf.” You don’t have to like someone’s cejf. But—as long as it’s not hurting anyone—you really ought to accept it. Because everyone has one.
Reaching the bottom of my cup, I noted that the grounds had left no residue at all. “When it’s done properly,” Alma said triumphantly, “you’ll never feel grit between your teeth. If you find a layer of ‘mud’ in the bottom, it means that someone—either you or the person who made the coffee—was in too much of a hurry.”
Setting down her mudless cup, Alma allowed the silence between us to linger for several long moments. She knew I was in a hurry to get back to work. (I am always in a hurry.) But she was determined to slow me down. We waited. And waited. I sat like a dog with a treat on my nose. My mind began to whirr: Is it easier to be soulful, more at peace with idiosyncrasies, when you’ve survived hardship? Or is this ritual offering a glimpse into a Muslim worldview?
And then, as if pushing through turbulence on the way to blue skies, I felt myself calming. My pulse abated. I sensed the merak percolating around me. I tuned in to the details flowing in the background behind Alma’s smiling face. It’s the first time that having coffee has slowed me down rather than revved me up.
Finally, sensing my peace, Alma took a deep breath and spoke: “Good. Shall we move on? What’s next?”
~ ~ ~
Alma is just one of the countless Europeans I’ve gotten to know over two and a half decades of exploring Europe. During and after college, I traveled around Europe on my own. And since 2000, I’ve worked for Rick Steves’ Europe, one of North America’s most respected authorities on travel. For most of that time, I’ve been an editor, researcher, and author of our bestselling guidebook series. And I’ve also guided tours, scouted and produced television shows, and much more.
I spend at least three months each year on the road—typically six weeks in the spring and six weeks in the fall. That’s a grand total of over five years in more than 35 European countries (which—let’s be honest—is more than I once thought Europe even had). And over all those years of spending time with Europeans, I’ve come to feel like a “temporary European” myself.
Being a travel writer sounds exotic. It’s a job that sparks people’s imaginations. I get more than my share of strangers gushing, “You have my dream job!” The reality is far less romantic—but even more interesting—than people suspect.
Like any job, most of it grows mundane: fourteen-hour work days, overwhelming to-do lists, meticulous note-taking, marathon walking, and asking a million people a million questions. And then you get up tomorrow and do it all over again. This book pulls back the curtain on that reality, offering a look at “how the sausage gets made” in the travel business. I tell the story of how I got my start, and I describe what it’s like to research guidebooks, guide tours, make travel TV, and work with a famous travel guru and his merry band of travelers.
But even the busiest work trip is more than work. And this book is much more than just film shoots and bus tours gone bad. It’s a chronicle of travel tales about people, places, and experiences from my 25-plus years of exploring Europe. Along the way, you’ll gain some insight into how a travel writer thinks about Europe—what’s going through my mind as I shape the content that shapes your travels.
Of course, Europe is a big place, and this book can only hint at what it has to offer. But having the opportunity to go back again and again feels like slowly, over a lifetime, creating an Impressionist painting of Europe in my mind: Each brushstroke contains its own beauty and nuance; zooming out, a complete, if fuzzy, vision begins to coalesce.
In my first years on the job, I was consumed by my work. But as I grew more efficient, I began to pull my head out of my notes and travel more mindfully. Risa Laib, who apprenticed me, suggested that I find something each day to enjoy just for me. For her, it was pausing to listen to church bells chime. For me, it’s the stories you’ll find in this book. These are usually not the things I go to Europe to write about. But they’re the things that stick with me long after I’ve come home . . . ringing in my ears like church bells. After all those trips, I’ve learned an important lesson: When Europe is telling you to slow down and enjoy . . . slow down and enjoy.
These stories, and my travel philosophy, have been shaped by the many Europeans I meet on the road—people like Alma. And they’ve been shaped by Rick, Risa, and my other well-traveled colleagues. But our spiritual guide on this journey is my wife’s Great-Great-Aunt Mildred.
Well into her 70s, Mildred Scott traveled the world by herself, in an era when such a thing was unheard of. Late in life, she wrote a memoir with a title that has become my travel motto: Jams Are Fun. Mildred understood that the best memories are created when a trip goes sideways, and the most beautiful moments arrive in the space between the stops on a busy itinerary. She reminds me to slow down and savor those church-bell moments. And when things refuse to go according to plan—as invariably happens—she whispers in my ear, “Jams are fun!”
Obviously, my travels are shaped by who I am: a white, straight, affluent, fortysomething American man. In short, I am ridiculously privileged—and now, to top it off, I get paid to travel for a living. I recognize that my perspective and my experiences on the road will differ from yours. But I hope you’ll take these writings as a celebration of the universal joy of traveling in Europe.
When I read Aunt Mildred’s words, I’m struck by how her travels—as an arthritic septuagenarian in the 1960s—resonate with my own. The details are different, but the spirit is the same. Regardless of your life story, I hope you’ll discover a familiarity in these pages.
While we may approach on different paths, we travelers all wind up on the same road, united by the wonder we find far from home. We travel because we love how it feels to be out in the world, and the people we meet there. We can’t explain exactly why we’re so driven. But we know good travel when we see it.
The Temporary European is a collection of travel stories, as far-ranging (both geographically and thematically) as my last 25 years of travels. In a few cases, I’ve simplified events or combined elements of different trips for better storytelling, and I’ve changed a few of the names. But everything described in these pages really happened.
Some of the chapters are light anecdotes, humorous and just for fun. Others share cultural insights. Still others delve into practical topics, such as how to find good gelato, or how to survive the experience of driving in Sicily. And a few ponder bigger questions: What is the impact of tourism on a fragile place and its people? What can we learn from Europe—about immigration, for example—that might illuminate our own challenges? What makes us like a place, or not like a place?
As you read these stories, you may feel like the three blind men pondering an elephant: One touches the trunk and think it’s a snake; another grabs the tail and believes it’s a rope; another feels the leg and decides it’s a tree trunk.
This hodgepodge quality feels just right for a travel book. After all, every trip is a loose collection of impactful moments. Sometimes, in retrospect, they come together in perfect harmony; other times they’re discordant, with the horn section doing something cheerful over here while the strings weep over there. This is even more the case for a professional traveler, whose itinerary is dictated less by their own interests than by the needs of their employer. (My travel agent answers my phone calls by asking, “All right, which crazy combination of cities are you connecting this time?”)
That said, I have organized the stories thematically, juxtaposing ones that, in retrospect, were in conversation all along. You may choose to flip around within these pages, skipping to the places and topics that appeal to you. But if you read cover-to-cover, I hope the shape of a complete elephant emerges.
That “elephant” is a sort-of-memoir about half a lifetime spent exploring Europe. It’s my meandering answer to a question I’m frequently asked: “What’s it like to be a travel writer for a living?”
Foreword by Rick Steves
Preface | Coffee and C ́ejf
PART ONE: THE TEMPORARY EUROPEAN
Hey! I’m in Europe! | Kraków, Poland
The Permanent Residents of Vacationland | Croatia’s Dalmatian Coast
The Artisanal Life | Montepulciano, Italy
My Travel Origin Story | Europe, 1999
Jams Are Fun: When Travel Plans Go Sideways
I’ve Been in Your Hotel Room: A Day in the
Life of a Guidebook Writer
PART TWO: DECONSTRUCTING CLICHÉS
Velkomin til Íslands! | Reykjavík, Iceland
The Soggy, Sunny Highland Games of Taynuilt | Scottish Highlands
D’oh! A Deer! | Salzburg, Austria
Loving the French (What’s Not to Love?) | France
That Wonderful Language Barrier | Europe
Jams Are Fun: How to Drive in Sicily: Just Go Numb
Like All Things, This Tour Shall Pass: Confessions of a Tour Guide
PART THREE: FOOD IS CULTURE
Come On, Have Some Guts | Palermo, Sicily
These Pierogi Are Perfect | Kraków, Poland
Seven Markets in Seven Days | Provence, France
The Trouble with Tapas | Spain
Where the World’s Food Comes to You | London, England
Jams Are Fun: There’s a (Gastrointestinal) Bomb on the Bus!
PART FOUR: ALL ALONE; NEVER ALONE
An Introvert in the Land of Extroverts | Italy
High in the Mountains with Tina’s Dad | Slovenian Alps
What Lies Beneath | Dartmoor, England
Waiting for Luciano’s Knock | Val d’Orcia, Italy
Acorns and Corncobs: A Semester Abroad | Salamanca, Spain, 1996
Jams Are Fun: It’s Gonna Be a Noisy Night
In Romania, Everything Is (Not) Possible: Making Travel Television
PART FIVE: MEANINGFUL HEDONISM
Pistachio Gelato Never Lies | Florence, Italy
Making Hay While the Sun Shines | Above Gimmelwald, Switzerland
Up to My Earlobes in Hot Water | Budapest, Hungary
Ghosts and Skeptics | Great Britain
Jams Are Fun: A Rough Day on the North Sea
The Merry Band of Travelers: The Cult of Rick Steves
PART SIX: CHANGES AND CHALLENGES
The Sublime and the Ridiculous | Cinque Terre, Italy
One Day I Met Some Refugees | Zagreb, Croatia
Blood, Toil, Tears, Sweat, and Surrendering to Brexit | South England
Hallstatt Never Changes . . . Except When It Does | Hallstatt, Austria
Jams Are Fun: In Rome, You Can Never Get a Taxi When It Rains
After the World Changed, a New Hope for Travel; Or: Shutterbugs Miss the Lion
Favorites (and Least Favorites)
About the Author
The Artisanal Life
On my first visit to the Tuscan countryside, I secretly hoped I wouldn’t like it. Because falling head-over-heels for Tuscany is so . . . predictable. Certainly, someone who’d seen so much of Europe could hold their own against Tuscany’s charms. Certainly, I was mistaken.
Now, a decade of visits later, I’m a convert—another tiresome Tuscany zealot. When I’m in the bucolic heart of Tuscany, I have trouble getting to sleep. My head spins with the sublime experiences of today, and my pulse quickens thinking about tomorrow. I feel like I’m on some sort of globetrotting drug, freebasing the essence of peak travel.
In Tuscany, I have many “dealers.” One of them is Roberto Bechi, a tour guide who lives with his American wife and children in the countryside. From their property, you can see the stone towers of one of Italy’s most inviting small cities, Siena.
Showing me around his farm, Roberto walked out through an olive grove to a deteriorating stone wall, which he supposes dates to the Middle Ages, perhaps with Roman foundations. He described some changes he was considering—new crops over there, maybe an outbuilding here—and I could sense his anxi- ety rising.
Roberto paused and confessed that he feels tremendous generational pressure around creating a beautiful life. He owes it to his ancestors to carry on their legacy—to write a fitting new chapter in the story of Tuscany. Anytime he plants a tree or renovates a house, he asks himself whether it’s good enough, Tuscan enough. This is a place where everyone is an uncompromising artisan, and life itself is their art.
You find this perfectionism in the Renaissance greats like Michelangelo, da Vinci, Donatello. And you find it on the streets of every town in Tuscany, including my favorite hill town, Montepulciano. From the main piazza, a wide pedestrian lane snakes steeply down through town. Strolling just a few hundred yards, you can drop in on four different artists—each with a fierce passion for doing just one thing at the highest possible level.
My first stop, on the downhill slope of the square, is a wine cellar called Cantina Contucci. I’m greeted with fanfare by Adamo, an elderly gentleman who’s worked here most of his life. I ask Adamo what’s new. He answers with the polished timing of a Catskills comic: “Last year, I finally retired . . . but they still let me come to work every day.”
This town is famous for its robust red wine, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano. The grapes are grown in the surrounding hillsides, but it’s here, in a warren of cellars beneath the town center, that they become Vino Nobile. Tidy rows of gigantic wine casks age beneath Gothic vaults.
As we walk among the truck-sized barrels, Adamo’s animated chatter crescendos and echoes. My Italian is rusty, but Adamo’s exuberance is a universal language. For emphasis, from time to time he reaches out and excitedly grips my arm. Fixing me with an intense gaze, Adamo explains that a good wine has three essential qualities. He points to his eyes, his nose, and his mouth: color, bouquet, and taste.
Finally, Adamo pops a cork and pours a sample in my glass. He won’t let me leave until he’s certain that I fully appreciate his life’s work.
I step from Adamo’s dank cellars into the bright sun. Wandering a few steps downhill, I’m drawn to the clang of metal against metal, like the ringing of an out-of-tune bell. Peeking into a cluttered time-warp of a workshop, I see a coppersmith named Cesare, clad in a heavy leather apron and hunched over an anvil—an actual anvil, like in the Roadrunner cartoons.
Cesare, even older than Adamo, still crafts his copper vessels the way he was taught as a boy. He invites me in to see his finely detailed, hammered-copper pots. Like Adamo, Cesare needs no English to convey his devotion to his craft. Proud as a new papa pulling snapshots out of his wallet, Cesare shows me a photograph of the weathervane he created for Siena’s cathedral.
Flattered by my interest, Cesare declares that he will make me a gift. He pulls out a set of tools that he inherited from his father, who inherited them from his father, and so on, dating back to 1857. He lays a copper circle on his anvil and arranges his antique stencils. Dotingly, he dents the disc with floral patterns, my wife’s initials, and our wedding date. He refuses payment. Instead, he shows me a scrapbook of photos and postcards from past visitors. At his age, sharing his love for his craft, and connecting with curious people from around the world, is all that matters.
A few doors farther down the same street is a lively restaurant. The lunch rush is on, but I squeeze behind a tiny table in the corner and scan the menu, scrawled in blue pen on a heavy sheet of burnt-yellow paper.
Giulio, the owner, is a tall, balding, lanky artist with a pencil sticking out of his gray ponytail. He’s more “aging hippie” than “Italian grandpa,” but just like his neighbors, he’s fully devoted to his craft: grilling the perfect steak.
First things first: steaming plates of handmade pasta perfectly coated in rich sauce. (While considered primi—“starters”—one of these could easily be an entire meal.) Then a rustic salad, with a few top-quality ingredients tossed together in olive oil and balsamico.
Giulio makes his rounds through the crowded restaurant. The place is loose and casual, but he enacts a practiced ritual that’s mostly for show: At each table, he pulls up a chair and talks his customers into ordering a giant steak. To seal the deal, he pulls the pencil from his ponytail and scratches the price on the paper tablecloth.
When they agree, Guilio hops up and takes two giant strides up the seven steps at the back of the restaurant, where a monstrous slab of Chianina beef rests on a butcher block. First, Giulio gently saws his way through the soft flesh. Then he hacks the sinews with a cleaver. He slaps the five-pound T-bone on a sheet of paper, descends the stairs, and shows it to the customer for their final approval.
There’s no asking how you’d like it done. Giulio knows how it’s done: Back up the stairs, he places the steak on a grill and pushes it into a wood-fired oven. Five minutes on one side, five minutes on the other, then sprinkled with coarse sea salt. That’s how it’s done.
When Giulio delivers the still-bleeding steak to his customers, the response is always the same: Eyes wide at the giant slab of meat, and protests that they simply can’t eat so much—especially after that pasta! And yet, somehow, they manage.
After this feast, I waddle down the steep, twisty main drag. Near the bottom of town, and the gateway to the real world, stands Montepulciano’s best gelateria, owned by Nicola. I deem this a rare occasion when I won’t give in to the temptation.
But as I walk past the door, I hear a familiar voice shout, “Buona sera! Hello!” Nicola has spotted me—and even though we’ve met only once, a year or two earlier, he recognizes me. Sheepishly, I backtrack into Nicola’s shop, where I’m handed a half-dozen plastic spoons of free samples.
Nicola is younger than his uptown neighbors—perhaps around 30—but every bit as consumed by a love for what he does. He explains that, after apprenticing at a renowned London restaurant, he returned to Tuscany and opened a laboratorio—determined to make his mark on the culinary world.
In those early days, his first product was jam made from fruit and berries foraged on the grounds of posh villas. Nicola had only a bicycle, which he’d ride through the Tuscan countryside to assemble a network of producers: truffle hunter, vintner, olive oil presser, and so on. (While intended as a sad-sack tale of humble beginnings, this experience sounds nothing short of amazing.)
Slowly Nicola transformed his preserves business into a gelateria. And he is the very best kind of gelato snob: He makes his gelato from scratch each morning, so it’s not available until around noon. On busy days, it sells out in a few hours.
Initially, Nicola made only two flavors each day. Locals came in and asked for flavors they’d seen elsewhere. Unapologetically, he’d steer them to the ones on hand, re-training them to go for what’s fresh. On this visit, his creamy basil tastes like an herb garden. On other trips, I’ve enjoyed carrot-ginger, kiwi-spinach, custard with raspberry jam, and orange-ginger.
From collecting his plums from a local orchard, to shipping in top-quality pistachios from Sicily, hazelnuts from Piedmont, or lemons from Puglia, Nicola obsesses over quality. And the base of his gelato—the milk—is delivered fresh three times each week from a local dairy farm. Not only does this taste better; Nicola explains that, in good Italian fashion, it also digests better than processed gelato.
Whether it’s gelato, steak, copper, or wine, there’s something profoundly inspiring about someone who’s completely devoted to their life’s work. In Montepulciano, you meet people who can’t stop working just because they’ve retired. People for whom appreciation is better payment than money. People who find their niche in life and fill it proudly.
Tuscany may be the place where this is most keenly expressed, but a similar sensibility pervades much of Europe: The French boulangère who devotes her life to baking the perfect baguette rustique. The Croatian fisherman who ties his knots just so. The Portuguese artist who hand-paints delicate patterns on tiles. Back home, “artisanal” is trendy, pretentious, and priced at a premium. In Europe, it’s simply how things are done, when things are done correctly.
Cameron Hewitt was born in Denver, grew up in Central Ohio, and moved to Seattle in 2000 to help Rick Steves research and write America’s bestselling guidebooks. Since then, Cameron has spent about 100 days in Europe each year. He has traveled to and written about more than 35 European countries and has co-authored guidebooks on Croatia, Budapest, Iceland, Scotland, Greece, Berlin, and more. Cameron also guides Rick Steves tours in Europe; contributes to Rick’s television series and radio pro- gram; presents travel talks; and blogs about his travels at www. cameronhewitt.com. Cameron married his high school sweetheart and favorite travel partner, Shawna; they live in the Phinney Ridge neighborhood of Seattle, Washington.