Ah, summer vacation. The sacred three-month period of underpaid jobs, midday naps and in all honesty, too much TV. Although some may find this assessment pessimistic, it’s an accurate summary of my past two summers (minus being able to secure a job — sorry Mom).
Last summer, constrained from most productive activities by the pandemic and low personal funds, I opted to embrace the latter pursuit of TV-watching. My program of choice, you may ask? The one and only “Rick Steves’ Europe.”
This wasn’t my first time watching the PBS travel show. In fact, its jovial theme song has been ingrained in my head for what seemed like eons. Over the last few years, my grandmother came over to my house almost daily so my mom could care for her. She suffered a decade-long battle with Alzheimer’s and it was practically impossible to pass the time with things she still enjoyed. Bingo and puzzles, the usual fare for elderly pastimes, were a no-go. Although my grandmother used to paint beautiful Monet-inspired landscapes, she couldn’t quite operate the paintbrush anymore. Even going on walks around the neighborhood was out of the question. The only activity that seemed feasible was watching TV.
So each afternoon, like clockwork, I parked myself on the couch, and we alternated between the Turner Classic Movies channel and “Rick Steves’ Europe.” After watching copious amounts of the former, I learned that old movies could really be hit or miss. As a kid, I thought that any movie made before 1960 had to automatically be good, but after a while, the plot-lines get flimsy, the acting gets over-the-top and the Mid-Atlantic accents become grating. Hey, we can’t all be “Citizen Kane,” right?
But watching “Rick Steves’ Europe” was different. It was a breath of fresh air, an opportunity for me to live vicariously through host Rick Steves as he ambled across the Swiss Alps or the Cinque Terre. I may have been sitting in the Long Island suburbs, trapped in the grips of mid-summer lethargy, but watching “Rick Steves’ Europe” felt like an almost educational experience. I now held a surplus knowledge of European travel, and most importantly, my grandmother seemed to be somewhat satiated.
We breezed through at least five episodes a day, touring the Tuscan countryside and Norwegian fjords. I was amazed at the ease with which Rick struck up a conversation anywhere he went, discussing street food recipes and the country’s political climate with locals like they were old friends. Rick, mild-mannered and sincere, never missed an opportunity to provide some thoughtful social and historical commentary as he restaurant-hopped or took in spectacular views. The show doesn’t veer toward gimmicks or generalizations, and you get the sense that Rick really loves what he does.
On days when the toll of my grandmother’s illness was particularly dispiriting, “Rick Steves’ Europe” felt like something to escape into, even if it was just for an hour or two. Some of these days proved more difficult than others. I watched as it became harder for her to walk, eat and speak like she used to. Despite seeing her almost every day, I hadn’t really had a conversation with my grandmother for over two years. This didn’t stop me from asking her which medieval castle from the past episode she liked best or whether she’d been to that city with my grandfather before. Because even though things were different, even though I knew she didn’t understand every word I said, I still saw that flicker of love and humor and spunk behind her eyes. My grandparents had loved to travel, and watching “Rick Steves’ Europe” felt like a way to remind my grandmother of that happiness.
Dusty photo albums are hidden away in cabinets and boxes chronicle my grandparents’ travels through Europe. I have memories of them bringing back Eiffel Tower keychains from Paris and small enamel jewelry boxes from Lisbon to give my siblings and me when we were kids. I always knew that they loved Europe, from the Carmen opera records we danced to in their basement to the French cuisine my grandfather cooked. As the children of immigrants who grew up in Depression-era Queens, their ability to travel later in life always felt meaningful.
She passed away two months ago, and I never really got to say a proper goodbye. I wasn’t living at home when it happened, so I mourned away from the rest of my family and away from the place that I had shared so many hours with her. It was a strange feeling, not having any clear last words or images to remember her by, but then again, our relationship had never really been about the words.
On a random night a few weeks after it happened, I was struck with the sudden impulse to turn on an episode of “Rick Steves’ Europe.” Despite watching over 10 seasons of the show, I realized that I’d never actually watched it alone; it was always an activity shared between my mom, grandmother and me on hazy summer afternoons. I scrolled through Prime Video and settled on an episode from Season 2 called “The Best of West Ireland.” I had seen it millions of times and would probably have heavily protested watching it only a month prior, but it felt right in that moment.
My grandmother’s mother had grown up in the same emerald hills Rick traversed on screen, and I realized that watching him again helped me mourn. He had become so synonymous with that time spent with my grandmother that I found immense comfort in just the cheery swell of the show’s theme song. We had probably watched “Rick Steves’ Europe” on our last day together, and although it seemed unnatural to do so alone now, it was strangely cathartic for my grieving process.
“Rick Steves’ Europe” is a safe haven for me. My grandmother and I spent most of our time in the confines of my living room, but watching the show never once felt like a chore. I’m forever thankful for the quirky, khaki-donning travel guide who helped create a connection of love between my grandmother and me, even when we didn’t have the words to do so.
Daily Arts Writer Nora Lewis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.