Is it safe to travel to Europe?

I remember one morning back in September of 2001, getting a series of last minute cancellations by phone at our hostel, The Beehive.  Each caller had a different excuse as to why they couldn’t make it, with strange stories about their flights being cancelled that sounded like the equivalent of “the dog ate my homework”.  What did they mean a plane flew into the World Trade Center?  It was crazy.

Then we jumped online to CNN’s webpage and found a static image of the twin towers burning.  For the next 24 hours phones were jammed and news spread slowly.  The internet, which wasn’t particularly fast at the time anyway, was totally blocked.  From then on, life changed for just about everyone.

Since then, working in travel, we’ve experienced many other disasters – some natural and others man made. Even though our experience might not have always been first-hand, the world is all connected and the impact ended up on our doorstep one way or another.  The volcano in Iceland that grounded all flights for a week; the beginning of the Iraq invasion; countless airport and transport strikes throughout Italy and France; and now the attacks in Paris, Istanbul, and Brussels to name a few.  Each time our hearts break, our faith in humanity slumps, and as we brace ourselves for cancellations and losses, we wonder if this will be the straw that breaks the camel’s back.  Even without terrorist attacks people ask us regularly if it’s safe to travel to Europe, so every disaster seems like it could be the beginning of the end of what we do.

Our first, and perhaps knee-jerk reaction to that question is that yes, Europe is safe.  Certainly safer than any major city I’ve visited in the US.  If you really want to get technical, when it comes to malicious, senseless, violent crime, even Paris, Brussels and Istanbul are safer than these places:

That’s some powerful perspective, but despite living on a continent that has very little violent crime, and virtually no mass shootings, we found ourselves this last month on the other end of the debate.

Our family has been planning a trip to Tel Aviv and Istanbul this summer, and after the bombing in Istanbul, our kids were clearly freaked out.  One tried to be the voice of reason, saying “but it’s not like we would be near where that happened, right?”

But no, it was on Istiklal street – a bustling, amazing part of the city.  One of the areas I was most excited about us hanging out at together.  Our young adventurers, who are always eager to travel, were thinking twice.

The reasons for their fear are clear and justifiable – I’m not denying that.  In fact, it’s pretty tough to argue against it.  Fear just doesn’t respond to reason.  You might be able to intellectualize it, but that doesn’t make it go away.

But let’s intellectualize anyway: on the one hand, I ask myself how can I willingly and wilfully put myself and my family at risk by going somewhere where things like this can happen? But where would I draw the line with that kind of thinking? Is traveling risky behavior?  Riskier than driving on the highway, or flying in a big metal bird high in the sky across the world? We can’t put our lives on hold and lock ourselves away from potential danger, especially when the world has so much to offer us that are worth all these risks.

Philosophically, why does it feel different to brave the highways each day, knowing that statistically my chances of dying in a car accident are higher than getting caught in the crossfire of a terrorist act? How many risks do I face each day and where does terrorism, or any kind of unexpected disaster, fit into them?

My answer is that there’s a difference between accepting risks as a cost of life’s necessities, and adding risks onto voluntary and seemingly unnecessary luxuries of life. In other words, we can accept that driving in our cars imposes serious risks, because we feel we have few alternatives – we have to go to work. We have to go get groceries. We have things to do, and getting there is a necessity, so that’s an acceptable level of risk.

But I don’t have to go to Istanbul.  I don’t have to go skydiving.

Travel is optional.  It’s a luxury. And there are many destinations, some that are safer than others.  So choosing one that seems at a higher risk, even if that risk is marginal, is precarious, right?

Perhaps if my only goal was to go on a vacation – unplug from the stresses of life and recharge my batteries, then yes, it might make more sense to choose a beach holiday (although past terrorist attacks in Bali and Tunisia would be a good rebuttal for that option).

But for me, travel is more than vacationing and getting away for a break. European travel especially isn’t so much about getting away from your life, it’s about understanding your life better.  It’s about putting the entire modern, Western world in context.  It’s about experiencing an alternate world – one with different value systems and politics that need to be experienced. It helps us understand ourselves and understand others. It helps us be more tolerant and accepting. It helps in combatting what terrorism is all about.

This might be optional, but it shouldn’t be. What is more dangerous is viewing the world as “us versus them”, dividing people and cultures and always seeing the world from the center of your own value system. People who don’t have their mind opened by travel are more of a hazard to the world in general because closed mindedness is what fuels the kind of hatred behind terrorism and makes the world unsafe.

When I weigh the pros and cons, the pros far outweigh the risks. I think the result of never traveling, or delaying until the world is “safe” enough, is risky.

Travel is optional, and the risks may seem unnecessary, but when we have that feeling of the world as a dangerous place, and our faith in humanity is at its lowest, travel is the best, if not only, cure.

For more interesting reading on this topic, check out this article on Isis’ strategy, and in particular why France is important to them.

This article with some tips from the NY Times

This inspiring post by our friend Jodi of Legal Nomads

And Wendy Perrin’s views on why not to cancel a trip to Europe


Time, Italian Style

The numbers we use to understand time might be universal, but as a concept it’s culturally malleable.  For example, in Germany, a place where things are precise, an appointment for 2pm means you are expected there at 2pm.

In the US, a culture of eagerness and over-achievement, for that same appointment, one would expect someone to show up between 1:45 pm and 2 pm if they were serious about it. Maybe 2:05 pm if they weren’t.

In Italy, an appointment for 2pm really means anywhere from, say, 2:30pm to…  never.  

Being late in Italy doesn’t warrant an apology, nor does it have to actually be acknowledged.  One can even exercise their right to not show up at all and offer no explanation.

The concept of time is flexible and changes based on where you go, and in Italy it’s incredibly flexible.  There’s a whole vocabulary in Italian of vague terms that refer to how long things will take:  un’ oretta (a small hour), una decina di giorni (10-ish days), and there’s the different ways to interpret time too, such as “90 days” which could mean literally, 90 days from today, or it could mean 90 “working days” which can take 7 months or more.

It’s basically all meaningless unless, of course, we’re talking about food, in which case time is not so flexible.  

In many countries, we eat when we feel like it.  Breakfast for dinner, 24 hour restaurants, etc.  But in Italy, one doesn’t eat lunch at 11:30.  Ever.  Dinner at 5:00pm?  An Italian would think, “what the hell is that?”.  It makes no sense here to eat dinner that early.

Time in Italy revolves around food.  Think of the clock like this:

Generally speaking, the morning lasts until 12pm, when lunch time (pranzo) begins, lasting until 3pm.  Morning is also the only time one would have breakfast, which in itself is optional – although lunch is not!

Between those times you can have a merenda (a snack) or getting closer to dinner you can go for an aperitivo.  Coffee you can have anytime, but milky coffee drinks only in the morning – while a cappuccino is frowned upon in the afternoon, a caffè latte is tolerated.  And a milky coffee drink is not an apertivo or dessert.

Aperitivo time (what we call wine-o’clock) can be 6:00, maybe 6:30pm, and goes on either until dinner, or can even substitute for dinner depending where you have your aperitivo.

Dinner (cena) begins around 7, 7:30pm when restaurants re-open.  But if an Italian invites you to dinner at their home, they probably expect you there between 8 and 9pm.

All those other numbers that mark the non-food related times of the day?  When in Italy, don’t worry about them.
The moral here is twofold: when traveling in Italy, don’t stress too much about being late.  Go with the flow. Unless it comes to meal times, in which case plan exactly where you’ll be and when so you don’t get caught in that dead zone between 3pm and 7pm.

And remember, l’ora di pranzo è sacra (the lunch hour is sacred).

What will the future hold for Italy’s artisans?

by Steven Brenner

One of the things I love about Italy, and especially living in a small town in Italy, is interacting with small, traditional  businesses on a daily basis.  Maybe it’s part of my own family legacy – I grew up in a small town and I can remember riding my bicycle at 8 years old to my parent’s grocery store, which had been my grandfathers.  I remember learning math by counting back the customers’ change (this was before the cash register did the work for you and you had to actually use math!) and I remember playing downstairs in the spooky stock room on the conveyor belts.  I also remember when the big supermarkets came to town and my parents struggled, eventually having to sell out altogether.

A few years ago I asked my mother what that was like – to witness that change.  I wanted to know if they’d seen it coming, and what they’d done to hold it at bay.  At that time my wife and I had been in business for a while and it had been almost 30 years since the family store had been sold.

My mother answered that the hardest part wasn’t selling the store, nor was it the worries about money.  It was the lifestyle change.  It was knowing that their whole way of living was coming to an end.  My father had been the butcher in the store.  My mother worked at the cash register.  They had employees that were like family and an apartment above the store where sometimes these employees lived.  They knew their customers well and their customers knew them.  It was hard to accept that people preferred shopping at a big, impersonal store just to save a few bucks, but now, 3 decades later, it’s pretty clear that this way of life is not only here to stay, but it leaves no room for anything else.

I’ve seen this change almost everywhere in the world I’ve visited.  Everything seems to be falling into the hands of very few big businesses.  Italy has resisted somewhat, thanks to having such a strong tradition of small business, and perhaps from having such a bloated bureaucracy, making it hard for any business to strive here.  But slowly, slowly each and every town in Italy has been infiltrated by a large grocery store chain (Despar, Sidis, Coop, etc.) and the Eatalys will sadly shoulder out the same shops that created the romance of local products.  Eventually I’m sure even Starbucks will conquer the Bel Paese as well.

A few years ago I wrote about a tour I’d been on in Florence that focused on the artisans of the Oltrarno and how their trades were dying out.  It’s a subject that fascinates and saddens me in equal measures, a subject I wish I could do more to expose.  Maybe I’m just romanticizing the quaintness of daily Italian life, but those who visit Italy, and love it, certainly share the love for the old-fashioned.

I can’t be the only one who mourns the loss of Main Street.

Here in Orvieto, we buy our vegetables from Franco, the farmer who comes to town twice a week and sells his produce in the Piazza along with the cheese guys and the honey guy.  When a locket we’d bought our daughter didn’t close correctly, we stopped at the jewelry shop below our apartment and Massimo graciously fixed it – refusing any money.  And when I’ve needed belts adjusted or shoes fixed, I’ve gone to see Federico, the cobbler, who also insists that it’s such a small thing to do, that there’s no reason to pay.

Federico is a unique case.  He’s young – 26 years old, and not from Orvieto.  He didn’t grow up the son of a cobbler.  Instead, he got interested in shoe making and working with leather, and looked on-line for a school where he could learn the trade.  Having struck out, he went door to door around Rome, asking each artisan if they’d take him on as an apprentice.  They all refused, from a combination of not having the volume to justify the expense, but perhaps also because they felt their work was a secret that shouldn’t be shared with just anyone.

In the end, he found someone who was open to sharing his craft and Federico worked for free for a few years, learning how to work the leather, a bit like Daniel in The Karate Kid – with small, repetitive jobs.  Now he owns his own “bottega” in Orvieto where his American wife and his mother both work.  He handcrafts beautiful shoes, bags, belts, wallets, and whatever else sparks his creativity.

The fact that this young guy is reviving an old trade that’s literally at risk of extinction in the next few decades, is already worth supporting.  That he’s also been successful at it – in a town where other artisans are sadly closing shop only to be replaced by chain lingerie stores – is indeed the cherry on top.

I consider Federico a friend – the same way I consider many of the shopkeepers friends.  They’re the people who make up the backdrop of my life, and we’re connected, of course by commerce, but also by something more than that.  If you’re in Orvieto, you should swing by Federico’s shop on Via Garibaldi.  He’d be happy to show you what he does, whether you’re buying or not.  To him, it’s an art, and his customers are friends.

Wake Up and Smell the Coffee

by Steven Brenner

Thanks to the invasion of Starbucks, the worldwide thirst for coffee is higher than it’s ever been, despite the fact that their coffee sucks and is totally overpriced.  Coffee consumption and cafe culture has been around Europe for centuries, around North America for decades, and is now spreading into Asia.  It’s an enormous industry, over 2 billion cups of the stuff consumed PER DAY worldwide,  yet the division of these billions of dollars is completely screwed, with huge wealth being created at the sale and immense poverty forced on those at the origin.

I’m not an expert on economics or world history or agriculture, but what I’ve seen with my own eyes makes me question why these growers, who control this powerful commodity, are so poor?  And when you start to really examine the politics behind it, and just how artificial the whole thing seems, I have to wonder why poverty exists at all and how is it all connected.

I know, heavy stuff, but that’s the way we roll in the MB house!  We travel, we try to see things and form opinions about them from direct experience.  We take tours with people who are passionate and informative about their life’s work, and try to make the world a classroom for us and for our kids.

We were in Boquete, Panama, the mountainous interior part of the country, home to some of the world’s most valuable and prestigious coffee – the Geisha.  When grown at the right elevation, a few growers get such high rankings for this coffee that it is only sold at auction to the highest bidder.  We’d signed up for a tour at the Finca Dos Jefes coffee plantation, an organic coffee farm owned and run by an American expat named Richard Lipner and were amazed at what we saw and heard – eye opening, heart breaking injustices – hard not to think about every morning when you sit down, open your computer, and take a sip of a cappuccino.

Some basics:  coffee is an ancient drink with almost magical properties.  It’s made from little cherries that only grow between the Tropic of Cancer and the Tropic of Capricorn, in 70 countries.   There’s an organization that was set up in the last century to protect the prices, probably helping to stabilize some countries by putting a floor on what other, more desperate countries can charge.  That was when there was a possibility of a coffee abundance.  Now, if anything, there’s a shortage.  And yet, despite the high demand, the farmers are barely able to stay afloat.

The cherries are grown, picked when ripe, usually by hand, then they are either dried outside on mesh beds, or a load of water is wasted and contaminated to remove the sticky “mucilage” around the bean.  There’s a fermentation process and a roasting process – which can be an art form itself, and a variety of ways to brew it (in my opinion, the moka is the best).

If you want to learn all about how coffee is grown and roasted, you can take a tour with Rich in Boquete.  But I don’t want to dwell on the details of coffee itself.  I want to dwell on poverty – because coffee and poverty, at least in Panama, seem to go together.

Around Boquete, cherry pickers make about 5-7 USD a day when it’s cherry picking season.  This is the lowest of lowly work, and almost entirely delegated to the indigenous people who were displaced in the early 1900′s when the French came to build the canal. Eventually, after having their land taken and getting pushed up almost into Costa Rica, they were then given a batch of wild land as an Indian reservation where they currently live.  They have no infrastructure, and thus, no way to get an education (unless you walk 10-20 miles to school in the rain) and lift themselves out of poverty.  Between the poor Panamanian (which by North American standards is quite poor already), and this lower caste of Indian who picks coffee cherries, you go so far down the ladder of “wealth” that there’s about zero chance of any of these people making it on to the ladder, let along climbing up it.

Here’s an example of living quarters for a family of 10.

Note the absence of windows and no ventilation.

Cooking on a concrete slab and dealing with the smoke.   These people actually aren’t the worse off.

Here’s a make-shift home where about 30 people live.  When it rains (which is often) their home is continually destroyed.

Like I said, I’m no expert and I don’t claim to know why the world is the way it is, but I do have to try to string some basics together, to understand what I’m seeing, and to respond to my kids who ask innocently why these people can’t build a bigger house; why they can’t get better jobs; why they can’t just leave.

As I travel more, and especially as I travel with my kids, I find that the more I learn about the world and our interconnectedness, the more I can’t untangle it all.

I don’t know if capitalism can work without cheap labor, or whether an alternative to capitalism could be an improvement.  I don’t know why rich countries can’t coordinate with impoverished ones more fairly, nor am I naive enough to think that simply paying people more will truly solve their problems – it can help, at times, but money, after all, isn’t the same as wealth.  The problem is political, economical, and the power play between them.

What I do know is that it’s 3:45 pm and I’ve just had an espresso, a fair-trade coffee from Nicaragua.  I know that, like it or not, I’m connected to those farmers, even as I leave to go get my youngest daughter from school.


When bad stuff happens

by Steven Brenner

We lived in Indonesia for 2 years from 2009 to 2011.  The first year we had no insurance (everyone thought we were crazy).  The second year, having felt like we’d pushed our luck far enough, we finally broke down and bought some. We were worried that one of our girls would get Dengue fever, break some bones, get bit by a rabid dog, or suffer from any number of things that were commonplace in the tropics.  Instead, I was the one who ended up breaking my hand in two places from a “martini accident” and needed surgery.  I flew to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia twice for two surgeries over 6 months and didn’t have to pay 1 cent of what probably added up to over $10,000 worth of medical and travel expenses.

The 5 very expensive screws that held my hand together for 6 months

Insurance may not be sexy or cool, but I can’t imagine how screwed (no pun intended) I would have been without it.

If I think back over the years, and tally up the misfortunes of others that I’ve witnessed, as well as our own, it’s a shocking amount of loss:  from my own mother getting robbed by street thieves in Rome, to my wife having her purse snatched from around her feet in a local restaurant to a good friend arriving all the way from Bali, Indonesia and having her wallet stolen between Termini and our hotel, The Beehive.  These are just the cases of people close to me.  If I add in our hotel guests, and the many fellow Americans I’ve seen at the Consulate getting stolen passports replaced, the amount of misfortune skyrockets.

Even though the odds are still in your favor that nothing will happen, if your number does come up, you’re going to lose big.

My point should be pretty obvious – bad stuff happens and when it does, there’s not much you can do to fix it.  There’s a wide range of things that can go wrong – whether you’re adventurous, unlucky or just temporarily stupid (yes, it happens to the best of us).

Get insured – it doesn’t cost that much and you’ll be covered for health, your personal things both on you and left back in your accommodations, and for any costs (flights, hotel, etc.) associated with cancellations.

We’ve partnered up with World Nomads to offer quick, inexpensive insurance to our guests.  You can get a quote by following this link.

To read about stuff you should worry about, and CAN avoid, in Rome, read Linda’s recent blog post about safety in Rome here.