I’ve changed gears here in Italy, just having finished two tours, one of Sicily and one of Venice, Florence and Rome. My next adventure is in doing a bit of research for the Rick Steves guidebooks. More than 16 years ago, I was a frustrated young architect who was unhappy in her profession. One evening, my mother-in-law asked me what I would do if I could do anything; my answer, “Oh, I don’t know, work for Rick Steves as a guidebook researcher?” I didn’t actually think that was a job, but I sent in a resume on a whim and, many years and many miles later, here I am.
Guidebook research sounds like a dream job, and it can be. Driving through the Umbrian countryside with the wind in my hair, sampling wine and pasta in adorable little villages. Meeting interesting and hilarious people at every turn, all of whom are thrilled to meet the girl from Rick Steves.
But the other part, the non-glamorous part, can be tough. Waking up early and staying up late–there are actually not enough hours in the day for this work. Walking and walking and walking, with no time to stop. Constantly refusing offers for coffee or lunch with a polite “Mi dispiace, io sono in fretta” because it’s true, I’m always in a hurry.
Combing the text a thousand times over to make sure I haven’t missed a single detail. I know the readers are depending on us for accurate information, and that’s a big responsibility. The knowledge that no matter how many hours you put in, you wish you could have done more. Hours of phone calls, emails, proofreading, sore feet, exhaustion. It’s all a part of the job. But even so, for me it’s fantastic. You never know what will happen.
Here’s a little peek into my typical day. Every researcher for the guidebooks goes through these same steps. We’ve all been trained by Rick and have followed his method for years.
Get up as early as is humanly possible, as long as for me that’s not before 7. Have breakfast (cappuccino and yogurt) and get organized for the day. Drink several cappuccinos. Read through the chapters, drawing little boxes next to any detail in the text that needs to be checked. Write a task list, an order for the day, a plan of attack. Drink more coffee. More coffee means speaking Italian better!
Pack bag with snacks, water bottle, iPhone, deconstructed edition of the book with only my chapters, small notebook and mechanical pencil. I’m experimenting this year with using my iPad and marking up files directly in the moment, but the old method is still very effective.
Hit the Road
Mornings are for meeting with the Tourist Information office and calling places that require advanced notice, like wineries and farmhouses. TIs are invaluable to this work. They know all of the details and can usually answer even the weirdest questions. Unfortunately, with the financial situation at the moment in Italy, many of these offices have closed or been privatized. Pay attention when you go into a TI as often, if privatized, they are there only to sell you something.
About 10:30, hotel inspection hours begin. Most places just can’t chat before then as they have clients checking out. After 11, rooms are being cleaned and I can look at all of the rooms that are free. Hotel inspection is an art form. I follow a mental checklist. My biggest priority is cleanliness. I’m fine with faded decor, but I am a stickler for a clean room. I’ve got a very sensitive nose, often the smell of a hotel can reveal a host of sins, more than just a look.
I check the mattresses for firmness, examine windows for drafts and noise, check out bathrooms with an eye for stray hairs and mold. I personally prefer staying in nicely decorated places, but if a small hotel is ugly but friendly, clean, and cheap, that’s a good deal for our readers on a budget.
I enjoy working on our guidebooks because we tell it like it is and we are always updating every year. When a hotel is threadbare but a great value, we will say it. I just recently wrote “cheerful peeling wallpaper and flea market furniture”. Some people want a cheap and cheery experience. If it’s a lovely hotel but run by snooty or indifferent people, we say that too.
After many years of working on guidebooks, the only challenge sometimes can be finding new adjectives to describe hotels. I find that a glass of wine in the evening while writing can help with that issue.
Once I’ve gotten the hotels done, or I need a break from looking at toilets and mattresses, I head out to check the small details. Do we list a laundromat? I’ll go there and make sure it’s still there and that it’s easy to use. Are there local guides or taxi drivers we list? I’ll call and confirm or invite them for a coffee if I need to see them face to face. Every single word of every single paragraph needs to be checked for accuracy.
Late in the afternoon, after a coffee, I go out and play tourist. This is one of the most delightful parts. I’ll start by walking through any walking tours we have of the place I’m researching. Along the way, I’ll follow the maps and make sure they are correct, stopping by any other shops or bars that we list. Then I will do the bigger sights, like museums and cathedrals, paying particular attention to the details of our descriptions. If I see something missing, a detail or anecdote, I’ll add a bit. If there is a new sight, I’ll give it a try and make a decision about whether to add it to the book. I’m totally cool with being a tourism Guinea pig.
I know this job sounds really fantastic, and it can be. But there are frustrations on occasion. Today, for example, I spent at least 15 minutes looking for a relic in a church. I never did find it, there was no one in the church to ask and no TI. I hate when I am missing something and I cannot resolve the problem. Even worse is that our schedule is really tight. I had lost precious time that I could have spent elsewhere. It may seem silly to worry about something so small, but consider that thousands of people use this book. If it’s wrong, thousands of people will waste 15 minutes looking for the same thing.
The physical aspect is also a bit of a challenge. I walk all day, up and down thousands of stairs. I’ve been assigned the hilltowns of Italy, which is great, but by the end of the day I find that these hilltowns have the magical ability of being uphill both ways. My feet are ok because I’ve brought good shoes with great insoles, but my legs are achey by bedtime. Nothing a glass of wine and a stretch can’t fix. Self care is an important thing in travel, I’ve learned that the hard way.
Once the museums have closed, the next phase begins- restaurants. I’ll usually take a wee break about 6:30, then head out at 7:30 to check restaurants. If I go any earlier, most places are deserted. Italian dinner doesn’t begin before 7, and most actual Italians don’t arrive before 8:30, often much later. I need to see places when they are really hopping, to smell the food, feel the vibe, get a sense of the service.
I can’t possibly eat at every place in the book. I will usually strategize ahead of time and see which place looks most interesting to me, or which places have had negative feedback from readers. I’ll finish with the place I’d like to eat at, but will occasionally grab a cocktail or antipasto at places along the way. The restaurant owners are really fun. I’ve met some real characters, and they are so proud to be in our book.
That’s a tough part sometimes. Many of the restaurant owners and hotel owners are glad to see us but only see us once a year. When “La Signora di Rick Steves” arrives, many of them want to take the opportunity to talk with me, as the proxy for Rick, and show me their best prosciutto. I enjoy that, the appreciation for our work is very sweet. However, this can be a trap.
A restaurant I went into tonight should have taken me 10 minutes, max. The owner had different plans. He wanted to show me his whole operation, introduce me to his entire extended family. I tried to signal that I didn’t have time for that, but he talked end on end, without pause for more than 15 minutes. I didn’t want to be the “brutta figura” or the one with bad manners, but I did have to resort using “Allora”, which in Italian means that it’s time to change the subject.
I am also deeply suspicious of freebies or people who have “a cousin with a great restaurant” or people who would like to take me out for dinner. I’m a lone wolf, man. I work alone. I don’t have space to be pressured or coerced. I’ve learned the art of saying “vediamo”, or we will see. It’s not exactly no, but it’s unlikely. Will I come to your new restaurant? Vediamo. Can I add your art gallery to the book? Vediamo. You never know, maybe I will, but I need to think about it. People get that and appreciate that they have been heard.
After a long day of talking, driving, inspecting, sampling and trying to write it all down, I head back to the hotel room and set up for inputting into the computer. It’s best to write it all down while it is fresh, as every day brings a new barrage of experiences and thoughts. I try to keep a normal bedtime. I used to, in my 20’s, be able to research 10 hours straight and stay up until the wee hours writing. I’m getting older (crankier) and seriously need my beauty sleep. The consequences are not just an uglier face, but I can’t think straight without sleep. I’m in bed before midnight most days, and I’m more comfortable with leaving loose ends for the next day than I was in the past. A well slept girl is a better worker overall.
What happens next? Wash, rinse, repeat of course. I’ll pack up and move on to the next destination.
I’ve met so many funny and interesting people doing this work. I’ve been hijacked and taken for gelato or wine. I’ve got a million stories, believe me. But the best part of this work is knowing that the fans will have a better trip because of our work. Rick has created a community of friends here in Italy, and if you’re a friend of Rick (which you are) then you have a whole new family waiting for you, a network of people dedicated to our mission of providing a quality experience.
As a lovely nun I met recently said, this work is like a ministry, we preach the gospel of fulfilling travel. That there are people who connect to that message here and back in the US lights up my days at work as a guidebook researcher. I’m a lucky girl.