In the past six months, terrorist attacks have besieged the European cities of Paris, Istanbul, and, just last week, Brussels. In the aftermath of this most recent tragedy, the U.S. State Department issued an alert advising American citizens of the possible risks associated with travel to and throughout Europe. This isn’t the first time the State Department has furnished such a statement—a global alert was announced following the November attacks in Paris and remained in effect through late February. Despite the fact that this new alert is set to expire on June 20, with summer travel on the horizon the question of whether or not it’s safe to travel to Europe is on the minds of many—including my own.
Before our three daughters were born, there was a stretch of time during which my husband and I traveled to Italy several years in a row. We both have family there, mine in the south outside of Naples, his in the north between Milan and Genoa. These frequent visits allowed us lose ourselves in a country and culture we love and with which we identify deeply.
With the arrival of our girls came a moratorium on our overseas travels. Flying a family of five to Europe wouldn’t be inexpensive and we wanted to hold off until they’d grown their travel legs and were old enough to be interested in more than just the gelato shops. When we did start feeling ready to make the trip, other travel plans, home improvement projects, and general scheduling issues were additional obstacles blocking our path back to Italy. This past October, though, we pulled the trigger, nabbing five round trip tickets to Rome using a marriage’s worth of frequent flyer miles. The wheels were finally in motion. July would be spent introducing our daughters to Italy. My father would come, too.
Shortly after the Paris attacks my dad called me.
“Should we bag the trip?” he asked.
“No way,” I said. “Definitely not. There’s more of a chance of getting killed driving to Whole Foods than by a bomb in Italy this summer. We’re going.”
I’ve always been somewhat prone to anxiety, even more so after I became a mother. My uncle, who is a toxicologist and likes decimals and percentages, has always encouraged me to consider the concept of risk assessment whenever I fret over all the things that could potentially harm my kids. Risk assessment comes into play when thinking about our upcoming trip to Italy, too. As ridiculous as it may sound, a person is far more likely to drown in a bathtub, get eaten by a shark, or be crushed to death by a piece of furniture than to be killed in a terrorist attack. Frankly it would suck if any of those things happened, but chances are extremely slim that any of them will.
The other night I had a dinner event at a hotel in Times Square. I live just outside of Manhattan and am in and out of the city all the time, riding the subway and navigating the throngs. Earlier in the day a friend posted on Facebook that the bomb squad had evacuated Times Square due to a suspicious package. A few hours later I was standing right in the middle of 42nd Street and Broadway surrounded by thousands of people—dirtbags dressed in creepy Mickey Mouse suits, smiling teenagers taking selfies, a group of tourists following a guide wielding a yellow flag, guys pressing flyers for a comedy club into the hands of passersby. Was I nervous? Not particularly. I just wanted to make my way through the masses, get to where I was going, and have a glass of wine. But at the same time I couldn’t think of a much better target for an act of terrorism than the spot on which I was standing at that moment. Should I have stayed home? Absolutely not.
So what does it mean, this travel alert issued by the U.S. State Department? Should people cancel upcoming travel to Europe? The language on the government’s website is as follows:
Terrorist groups continue to plan near-term attacks throughout Europe, targeting sporting events, tourist sites, restaurants, and transportation. This Travel Alert expires on June 20, 2016.
U.S. citizens should exercise vigilance when in public places or using mass transportation. Be aware of immediate surroundings and avoid crowded places. Exercise particular caution during religious holidays and at large festivals or events.
One thing to keep in mind is that there is a difference between an alert and a warning. An alert encourages people to be aware during their travels while a warning encourages people to reconsider their travels. The State Department is not saying people shouldn’t travel to Europe, just to be aware that there is a situation going on right now that requires extra attention.
I don’t know how we’ll go to Italy and avoid tourist sites this summer. Does this mean we should forgo the Vatican, the Colosseum, and the Uffizi? Does it mean that we shouldn’t linger with our gelato in St. Mark’s Square or avoid drinking in the splendor of Ghiberti’s Baptistry doors?
If the people dining at Café Le Carillon or enjoying the Bataclan theater in Paris had “exercised vigilance,” would the outcome that night have been different?
And if we stop traveling, doesn’t that mean we’ve succumbed to our fears and given the terrorists exactly what they want?
Determining whether or not to travel to Europe in the wake of these tragedies is an extremely personal decision. For me, choosing to travel is both an act of defiance and a way to keep things in perspective. This summer I will once again immerse myself in the beauty and joy of a country I love while my daughters experience that beauty and joy for the very first time. I will visit family I haven’t seen in more than a decade and drink their homemade wine. Drive the harrowing path that hugs the Amalfi Coast breathing in the lemon-scented, salty air. Wind my way through the hill towns of Chianti and eat paparadelle with wild boar. And I will not let terrorism taint those experiences.