I've been lucky to spend a good part of 2012 in Italy, researching my guidebooks and filming shows for this fall's new television season. Several times a week, by chance, I'd run into our tour groups and their amazing guides. Their enthusiasm was contagious. Squinting at the energy in their smiles, surrounded by dazzling sunshine, it struck me that the sun in Italy seems to have a special glint to it -- as though it's telling visitors: Life is good; let's embrace it.
Especially in Tuscany (as our guides are experts at revealing), lifelong travel memories are like low-hanging fruit...yours to harvest. At a favorite new trattoria, the chef cut open a cantaloupe-sized rock of aged pecorino cheese, sniffed it like a fine wine, and then passed it to me. The dank, rustic smell took my mind straight to an agriturismo barn I had visited -- where random rays of sun cut between the weathered boards, filtered by floating dust from the hay, and bathed the sheep in a timeless Tuscan light. The next day, I returned...needing again the fragrant ritual splitting of the pecorino.
On that same trip, in Florence -- on the wrong side of the river, in the crusty Oltrarno district -- an artisan drew me into his shop as if inviting me on a journey. Under a single dangling light bulb, he hammered gold leaf into a dingy halo, breathing life back into a faded saint that was originally crafted by a neighbor of his... five centuries ago.
A few days later and an hour's drive away, I was inspired by the simple joy of watching an old man bicycling with his granddaughter atop the wide, fortified wall that once protected proud Lucca from its enemies (and now seems to corral the town's Old World charm). Then, on rented bikes -- with those same energetic smiles, the steady leadership of their guide, and that persistent sun glinting off everything in sight -- another Rick Steves tour group frolicked by...embracing life in Italy.
Without ignoring the plight of people in turmoil or who are struggling, for the vast majority of us, I believe it is important to be mindful of what a relatively wonderful, peaceful, affluent, and stable (if not sustainable) age we life in. I've produced about 140 TV shows in the last 20 years. Shooting each show is a six-day scramble that ends with great relief when we're finally done. For the first forty or so, I signed off with "I'm Rick Steves. Until next time, happy travels." For the last hundred episodes, I've finished the show saying, "I'm Rick Steves. Until next time, keep on travelin'." This summer, on a gondola, surrounded by the watery majesty of Venice, I was moved to change it up a bit. Script covered and show in the can, I looked at the camera and said, "I'm Rick Steves. Life is good. Be thankful. Ciao."