Travel in the Time of Hysteria...
Never have I seen such a fascination with and fear of Europe as I have noticed in the past few years. With the Charlie Hebdo attack and this past weekend's hideous display of terrorism in Paris, it is at an all-time high.
This is troubling and yet it is truly the most opportune time to address the subject of overseas travel and human coexistence.
We live in an unparalleled age of information - but sadly much of that information is of the negative, sensationalist sort. To my well-meaning American friends, I can only say this as they focus their attention on terrorism. It is not brand-new for Europe.
Growing up attending an international school seasoned many of us to the peculiarities of living in an international city with a high profile. We did get bomb threats... airliners were hijacked... there were terrorist attacks. ***
And while the stakes may have seemingly risen in recent months, there is something which I feel compelled to make abundantly clear:
I still feel safer in Europe than I do in the USA.
Much of this still stems from perceived "comfort zones." And while terrorism is hardly the norm in Europe, a European has a statistically stronger case for being afraid to travel in the United States, due to our own cultural and political love affair with firearms.
And yet I am certain that you do not walk out of your door each day, living under the sinister shadow of drive-by shootings and police shootings.
Yet this type of stuff will dominate the media, as long as humans prefer the shocking, the scandalous, and the sensational over informational news.
This isn't said to trivialize danger from violent people, but only to put it in perspective. Nonetheless, it seems like as good a time as any to discuss safety in travel - tips and observations from years spent roaming the cities and villages of Europe.
An important thing that we do at the GBC is focus on areas of Europe that have economic, social, and political stability. The reason is obvious. And you can ask any American who lives in a major city, and they adopt this same approach to neighborhoods they frequent. Natives know where to go - and where not to go.
Whether it be immigration issues or political unrest, we don't flirt with hotspots, the second they pop on our radar. This minimizes the chance for issues - whether it be a border crossing, a strike that throws a wrench in travel plans, or neighborhood that is dealing with cultural conflicts and restless inhabitants.
Common sense to some, but this still leaves a massive portion of Europe in the clear for safe, enjoyable travel.
This is something we strive to have on our tours, regardless of any percieved threat. This serves a two-fold purpose:
A low-profile traveler is one who is making less noise and taking in the stimulation and enjoyment they have come abroad to experience.
Where the tourist is loud, casting judgment on things they don't understand or appreciate, and operating within their all-American bubble, a true traveler knows that they are a guest in a host country. The real beauty in travel is listening to what they have to say, seeing how they dress, eat, celebrate, worship, and interact. This is also why we only go to places where we know there is no language barrier - either from our mastery of their languages or in knowing that their country is well-versed in English. This is true for the Scandinavian countries, as well as the Netherlands and many major regions of northwestern Europe.
On a personal level, volume is something that makes Americans and Chinese stand out from most. Americans tend to be much louder. Chinese, on the other hand, have created the reputation as being oblivious to those around them - shoving and pushing and stepping in front of shots or even cutting lines. There's a cultural reason behind all of this.
The American comes from a land that has at its cornerstone the concept of freedom and independence. Americans do not come from a culture of ever having been subjects, where people tend to pay much closer attention to those around them. This dynamic is even more pronounced in former Soviet-bloc countries. I have learned first-hand not to ever be terribly intrusive with questions when in the Czech Republic, for example. Personal questions, a favorite of Americans, are still culturally linked to oppression. It's a far cry from Ireland, where people are as open, upbeat, and eager to share everything they know, where to go, and what they think. Pick your poison.
But watch your noise levels. If you travel abroad, you can almost ALWAYS spot the Americans. How? Just listen...
Never be the loudest group - on a train, in a bar, or anywhere in between. It also shows respect for your host country, and yes, it does take the "target" off of your back.
This comes in handy with the bags you carry as well, as American travelers are expected to be wealthy.
In addition to noise, there is this:
Get away from the high profile places...
Sure, it is completely natural to go to Buckingham Palace, the Eiffel Tower, the Vatican. These places also have significant police/military presence these days. It is precisely because they are high profile targets as well.
But if your purpose is to experience a country and a culture, it is also far more meaningful to get out and away from the heavily touristed areas and experience more of the areas that locals frequent.
With the right research and guide, you'll find that Europe is full of charming, hospitable places that pose zero risk to one's person or belongings. And you'll find that they are quite flattered and welcoming to people who have clearly done their homework and know how to pay respect to a place.
Some high profile locations even have menus, rigged with higher prices, just for the loud Americans.
You can travel smarter - and more cheaply.
My hometown is New Orleans, Louisiana. And in New Orleans, it is a cardinal rule that you N E V E R leave items visible in your car. When you park in the city, whether it be downtown or in the nicest neighborhood Uptown, you know to remove everything from sight.
Take what is most valuable with you - laptop, camera, etc. in a backpack - and put the rest in the trunk. Don't make yourself a target. Don't tempt a thief.
The ONLY time I've ever been hit was while running a tour with a bunch of former Marines and some FBI guys. We were loud and proud, not having a shred of concern for our personal safety. I was even so confident in our physical firepower that I had some magnetic decals made for the sides of our vans. This was a noble gesture, given the military theme of our voyage, but it was foolhardy. "Hey thieves! Over here are vehicules full of gear of wealthy Americans!"
We got hit at a truck stop - a very professional job, and I lost my laptop and very expensive camera.
Yes, I let my guard down and didn't follow my rule of keeping my valuables on my person, too...
Shame on me.
This one is a no-brainer. Aside from the INCREDIBLY random possibility of being in the middle of a terrorist attack (your odds of being shot in America are vastly higher), you do have the consolation of traveling in countries where dangerous weapons are not readily available.
There are still certain obvious safeguards.
Travel in groups. Keep flashy, high dollar items hidden. Stay on well-traveled paths.
If you're going to venture out, bother to know the neighborhoods - their day AND night culture/environment.
Best insurance on this plan of attack is to have some good local contacts. A proper guide always does... and if you are going to great local restaurants or quality hotels, you'll have knowledgable bartenders and concierges who can give you current, helpful tips on where to go - and what you might possibly need to avoid.
This is the golden rule of travel. Pay attention to others. Reduce your footprint, and instead marvel at theirs. This is why you are traveling, is it not?
By honoring local customs, noticing what is around you, tipping your hat to each location's population, you'll be blown away at how much help they'll be eager to offer you - and they will be your second set of eyes and ears.
Whether you accidentally leave a bag or seem headed in the wrong direction, when you treat people with dignity and show thanks and appreciation to your hosts, I can assure you that they will look out for you.
For all of the doomsday chatter that some people are prone to having, remember this: these are great times to be alive and traveling. World War II is a major reason for European travel. If that doesn't remind you that there were tremendously more dangerous times to be in Europe, nothing will.
While we may have more information at our fingertips regarding dangerous elements in our global village, you can also use these same resources to research where and when to travel.
And you can be certain that seasoned police forces and military intelligence units are also using this information, in addition to cameras, scanners, and weaponry to keep such elements contained and on the run.
The worn-out slogan about not letting the terrorists win can be a cheap one, taken at face value. But the guts of it are true... There is much to learn and enjoy from travel. I have never found myself missing my flat-screen television or wardrobe while traveling through a new place, marveling at incredible places of history, dining on amazing new foods, and laughing with locals while embracing their way of life.
You can do it intelligently and confidently.
Just pay attention.