The Cultural Climate in Europe: Should Americans Travel?
I feel a post is due, in light of recent events in Paris - and a raid in Belgium this evening that caught two more radicals... Europe is no stranger to terrorism. As an American kid going to school here, we had bomb threats at our school - though to this day I don't know if it was from a kid wanting to skip out on finals or something legitimate. But let me be crystal clear. Europe is not indifferent to terrorism. The population density here is significant. The perception that Europe is overrun by terrorists is further hyped up by various American media outlets - who now inflate the situation in Europe, just after driving up the fear and discord in America over Ferguson. They are the same talking heads which spend so much of their air time discussing the shootings and violent muggings that occur across the United States. But now, because of one attack on a provocative news publication, people like some of my own family members are worried about me being in Europe. What makes America safer?! Perhaps people feel safer knowing that it's from "their own." I have logged a year of time spent in Europe over the past year and a half. I have been in France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Czech Republic, Austria, and Germany. Contrary to what people might think, I too crave peace, harmony, and calm. It explains why I spend a great deal of my time in the mountains of Bavaria - a region that is far more similar to Sheriff Andy's "Mayberry" than just about any place you could ever find in the United States. I have walked home many nights, 45 minutes minimum each time, with many sections with little or no street lights. I have not had the SLIGHTEST fear of my comings and goings. Order is well in place - and there is not the slightest fear of that which causes the worst kind of harm: guns. It is true that Europe has some cities which have large segments of its population coming from Arab countries. These number in the hundreds of thousands... and yet there is not some giant uprising or any shred of evidence to believe that these people support terrorism. They have jobs. They live in and are part of their local community. They are no different than the warm-hearted, hospitable Arabs who run a couple of the gas stations in my mother's sleepy little hometown in Central Louisiana. They are HUMANS, happy to get along with others. This post is not a treatise on the merits of Islam, suffice to say that it engenders no more violence than does Christianity. The key difference is the awakening of radical doctrines - which have emerged with the "Arab Spring," further settlement encroachment into Arab lands by the nation of Israel, and yes, American involvement in the Middle East. We took the lid off of a very controlled - an otherwise and now obviously volatile - situation in Iraq. This continues to play out and has spilled over into neighboring countries. But back to traveling abroad, is it safe? The answer is overwhelmingly YES. Europeans take their freedoms seriously. They don't play around. Their way of life is cherished and runs far deeper and longer than our American way. Trains, public spaces, businesses, and the free flow of people, information, and commerce is vital. When I ran my France tour last summer, a wing of the airport was vacated, and a squad of machine gun wielding French soldiers combed through it for security measures. Nothing happened. Well-armed police are also visible in other cities - in major rail centers, holiday squares, etc. Yes, my friends. The Europeans value life and liberty every bit as much as the best American does. One could argue that they value it even more, for they would never imagine letting handguns freely enter the public market. *** I grew up in Belgium. We had a large immigrant Arab population even then. And yes, there are elements who feel marginalized and resort to acts of violence and thievery. But this is no different than in many major American cities - except that guns are not the norm. And I have the sense to know which places to avoid. More than anything else, when I'm running a tour of Europe, the focus is on these nations' past - as history is a vital part of the experience. And the authentic experience lies not in the popular, populated places which all share the same culture of tourism. The true delight is being in more provincial cities and smaller towns, frequenting the restaurants filled with locals - their way, their style, their vibe. I pride myself on taking my groups to places where we are the only "tourists" there - which is why our company slogan is "For Travelers - not Tourists." And there are still those great sights to see in the big cities, and we take those in as well, but I much prefer going to the cities that are a bit more off the grid... which are not the high profile, hustle and bustle, heavy tourist, and potentially risky locations. *** Europe has a melting pot - and it's a much healthier stew than the American one - which is growing cold and separating so much more. A few recollections from recent travel experiences will echo that point: When I was in Prague for our Christmas market tour, I was browsing through the television channels at my hotel, waiting for my clients to arrive the next morning. There was a block of religious Arabic channels on cable. SMACK in the middle of these channels was a sex channel, advertising call girls, clubs, and escort services. I cracked up! Yet there hasn't been a peep of terrorism in the Czech Republic... And over New Year's, I was in Vienna, hanging out with two German friends. Next to us was a line-up of guys that would have had every Fox News viewer running for their lives... Arabs and blacks, all in their mid 20s. And what were they doing for New Year's? Scheming and plotting a robbery or a mugging? No, they were dancing together and laughing. The song, hysterically enough, was Cyndi Lauper's "Girls Just Wanna Have Fun." I laughed at my inner American too... *** I don't advocate travel as some sort of death wish. I don't view dangerous situations as some idiotic form of "Running with the Bulls" - only with insurgents or radicals roaming the streets. The truth is that we aren't completely safe anywhere. The most dangerous place an American can be today, statistically speaking? Overwhelmingly, it is while sitting behind the wheel of their car, driving home from the grocery store or running errands in town. That is a fact. I hope you don't give up on your travel plans. Europe has so very much to offer, and it truly is, for most every American, the cultural and historical equivalent of going to visit your grandparents. And it isn't a living history museum either. They have learned much from us and done much to mend fences and live in greater harmony and unity than in any previous point since the reign of Charlemagne. Remain watchful. Stay informed. Be smart in what you do and where you go, whether it be at home or abroad. But remember one thing about your news sources... American news is now almost completely driven by sensationalism. Fear sells stories and hooks viewers. Here, the news is far more matter of fact and information based. And people still move around freely and happily. Today, I took a 10 hour train trip from the southern edge of Germany up through several major cities and into the Netherlands. I am now in Rotterdam, a bustling port city, which has a much more mixed population than the countless villages, towns, and even cities in the more remote regions of France and Germany. But I am not the least bit afraid. If anything, I feel safer here - safer even than when I'm back home visiting my parents. READ your news. AVOID the television-based stuff, which is too easily driven by video clips meant to captivate you through fear and prejudice. There is still much good in the world. Leave your home and come see for yourself... :)