I grew up in the 1970s raised on iconic PBS kids’ shows like Sesame Street (which premiered in 1970) and Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood (arriving the year before, in 1969). It was, in no hyperbolic terms, the golden age of children’s television. Mr. Rogers, in particular, guided my young self through those tumultuous times, addressing the camera directly—and therefore me directly—while not shying from topics otherwise difficult for a kid to grasp. And he didn’t use animation, gimmicks, or special effects: in fact, his only special effects were the wooden, expressionless puppets he voiced. Tuning in to his show each evening was like a visit, a one-on-one get-together. Him and I. The show’s guests were the other neighborhood characters, and Mr. Rogers even had a song he sang about them: “Who are the people in your neighborhood? The people that you meet, when you’re walking down the street, the people that you meet each day.”
It was, in essence, the thesis of his show. We were all different, all individuals, and Mr. Rogers liked us “just by being you.” Every one of us worthy. To a young boy sitting on the floor in front of a wooden-console TV, there was no more powerful message than that.
Of course, Fred Rogers, over time, slipped into the background of my life as years passed. He died in 2003 at the age of 75, and in the years since, there have been a number of retrospectives on his life as we collectively realize only now what we’ve lost. I watched a terrific documentary currently airing on Amazon Prime called Mr. Rogers & Me, and there is another one in theaters right now called Won’t You Be My Neighbor. It’s as if, in these uncertain times, adults who’d grown up with Mr. Rogers need him again. Maybe more than ever.
But Mr. Rogers Neighborhood was a children’s show, great as it was. Today, another PBS show provides evening company with a similar vibe, feel, and even message: Who are the people in your neighborhood? I find something a little familiar, and therefore comforting, about Rick Steves and his show Rick Steves’ Europe. It could be something about his mannerisms, his soft-spoken positivity, his indifference to fashion and what’s trendy, his way of speaking directly to the camera, to you, like a casual conversation. Or perhaps it’s his message, one that is so familiar to me, about getting out and meeting the people in your neighborhood and appreciating them for who they are, their differences as well as similarities. What’s changed is the neighborhood: this time around, the neighborhood isn’t the tiny model the camera scans at the opening credits of Mr. Rogers, it’s all of Europe.
There’s a positivity that runs through these two shows. In fact, it’s the fuel that drives them. Both hosts emit a deep and true curiosity about the people they encounter: a flower vendor in the streets of a small town in the Cinque Terre, Italy, or the bicycle shop owner a short walk from Mr. Rogers’ house. They each want to know who these people are, what makes them tick, where their passions lie, and why each loves his neighborhood so much.
Rick Steves said, “When you travel, you become a better citizen of the planet. It’s about how we are going to handle this together, get the most out of our lives…and put ourselves in the mindset of where we’re more likely to build bridges and less likely to build walls. He also tells us, “If you don’t like a place, maybe you don’t know enough about it…Give a culture the benefit of your open mind, and “Fear is for people who don’t get out very much.” The message almost seems to echo Fred Rogers, his words reverberating from the past: “As human beings, our job in life is to help people realize how rare and valuable each one of us really is, that each of us has something that no one else has—or ever will have—something inside that is unique to all time. It’s our job to encourage each other to discover that uniqueness.” Rick Steves lives this mantra. He travels Europe, and the globe, seeking it out and, ultimately, sharing it with us, his viewers and readers.
Which one said this? “If you could only sense how important you are to the lives of those you meet; how important you can be to the people you may never even dream of. There is something of yourself that you leave at every meeting with another person.” It sounds like it could have come from either of them, though this one is from Mr. Rogers. Rick Steves, though, mirrors the sentiment: “Globetrotting destroys ethnocentricity, helping us understand and appreciate other cultures. Rather than fear the diversity on this planet, celebrate it. Among your most prized souvenirs will be the strands of different cultures you choose to knit into your own character.” To fuse those two ideas: when we travel, when we meet new people from other parts of the world and experience new cultures, we leave something of us there, and, in turn, we take something with us.
I love that.
Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood. Rick Steves’ Europe. Even the titles’ cadences sound similar.
I’ll forever appreciate those thirty-minute blocks I got to spend with Mr. Rogers on PBS when I was a kid, Mr. Rogers talking directly to me, sharing his thoughts, his hopes, introducing me to his neighborhood, encouraging me to go out and explore my neighborhood and get to know the fascinating people in it.
And I have a new guide now. A new neighborhood. A bigger neighborhood, but maybe not really so big.
My wife and I visit Europe almost every summer, our well-read and well-worn Rick Steves guidebooks squeezed into a back pocket, bent and folded and always just a reach away. My wife loves when I read aloud the self-guided tours, Rick leading us through these neighborhoods, inviting us to visit so-and-so at his store, or so-and-so’s coffee shop or schnapps bar. So, we go in, look around, order something, smile and say hello, introduce ourselves, and—hopefully—make a friend, even if for a short while.