Political turmoil is part of life these days, and security in Europe has never been tighter. Countries from Britain to Italy continue to deal with internal discord, from separatists to religious extremists. An awareness of current social and political problems is as important to smart travel as a listing of top sights. As some popular destinations are entertaining tourists with "sound and light" shows in the old town, they're quelling angry demonstrations in the new.
Travel broadens our perspective, enabling us to rise above the
24-hour advertiser-driven entertainment we call news — and see things
as citizens of our world. By plugging directly into the present and
getting the European take on things, a traveler gets beyond traditional
sightseeing and learns "today's history."
There are many peoples fighting the same thrilling battles for
political rights we Americans won more than 200 years ago. Racial,
religious, and linguistic groups rarely color within the lines, so don't just assume that an area is safe.
Understand a country's linguistic divisions. It's next to
impossible to keep everyone happy in a multilingual country.
Switzerland has four languages, but everyone speaks some German.
In Belgium, there's tension between the Dutch- and French-speaking
halves. And Hungarians living in Slovakia had to rely on European
Court intervention to get road signs in their native language. Europe's linguistic underdogs will tell you
their language receives equal treatment only on cornflakes boxes, and
many are working toward change.
Look beyond the pretty pictures in your tourist brochures for
background on how your destination's demographic makeup may be causing
problems today or tomorrow. Start following newspaper articles and
surfing the Web a few months in advance to gather political news on
With this foundation and awareness, you can get the most out
of the nearly unavoidable opportunities to talk with involved locals
about complex current situations. At any pub on the Emerald Isle, you'll
get an earful of someone's passionate feelings about "the Troubles."
In Russia and Eastern Europe, whenever you want some political or
economic gossip, sit alone in a cafe. After a few minutes and some eye
contact, you'll have company and a fascinating chat. Young,
well-dressed people are most likely to speak (and want to practice)
In the wake of the global economic crisis, European
governments and businesses are struggling to continue providing the
generous cradle-to-grave benefits that their citizens expect. As these
items are trimmed from the budget, new waves of protests sweep across
the already strike-happy Continent. While American tourists are at
virtually zero risk from these demonstrations, it's smart to be aware of
them so that you can avoid being in the wrong place at the wrong
time...and to better understand one more facet of the European
Wherever you travel, be prepared for a challenge when the topic
shifts to American foreign policy. Among deaf people, the international
sign-language symbol for "American" is the "fat cat" — holding your
arms around an imaginary big belly. Like it or not, people around the
world look at America as the kingpin of a global and ruthless game of
Monopoly. As a person who loves his country, I see travel as a
patriotic exercise in promoting people-to-people diplomacy and global