Coping With European Unrest


My mom is used to me trotting around the world. But the relentless news about European unrest has gotten her worried, and she’s not alone: I’ve heard a lot of fretting in recent months from would-be travelers put off by riots in Madrid, cars set on fire in Athens, anti-Semitic speeches in Budapest, and British university protests.

From the morning paper to the nightly news, it seems you can’t avoid images of fed-up mobs converging on public squares. Add in far-right political parties gaining ground in austerity-ravaged Europe — from Hungarian neo-Nazis to Greek ultranationalists — and the time has come for an honest look at travel safety.

Over the last two years, I’ve watched conditions visibly deteriorate across much of the Continent. In Spain, it is now common to see young men pawing through dumpsters in broad daylight. Many of the beggars outside supermarkets in Madrid and Lisbon look clean, able-bodied and neatly dressed — in other words, they are people who until recently were self-sufficient.

In Greece, you’re about as likely to find protesters in a square as you are to find olives in your salad. A recent headline told the awful tale of a man who hung himself in his foreclosed house the day the bank was due to reclaim it.

But while my mom gets nervous, I’ve never felt personally unsafe or directly threatened in the context of this unrest. Mass protests occur with the regularity of the mail in Spanish cities these days, but they are generally peaceful, non-violent, and confined to central public spaces. The rest of Barcelona goes on with its business as outraged Catalans rally for independence and health workers strike in front of the hospital.

In the worst cases — during so-called “general strikes,” when workers across all sectors shut a city down — I have seen trash bins and cars set on fire. Shop windows are smashed; ATMs and bank buildings are particular targets for vandalism, as protesters direct their anger at the financial entities getting the bailouts.

But even this level of mayhem rarely spreads beyond a few downtown streets, and violence is directed against objects, not people.

So what are the practical implications for American travelers? Arguably the most irksome impact is a rise in transit interruptions across Southern Europe: bus and train strikes and roads closed for protests mean travel can take longer than expected. (But that’s true of France and Italy even without the austerity protests. And I personally feel that Roman drivers in perfectly good moods pose far more threat of bodily harm than disgruntled Catalans.)

A more tangible danger for many comparatively affluent American travelers in poor regions is theft. Petty crimes — wallet-snatching, purse-slitting — are noticeably on the rise where economic desperation has taken hold. In cities like Barcelona, where pick pocketing has long been rampant, it’s not uncommon to see a purse or wallet discarded by the side of the road; the thief steals the cash and abandons the cards (which can generally only be used with photo ID and PIN).

The owners of those wallets have already been feeling the pinch. Paradoxically, at a time when European small-business owners should logically be slashing prices to attract tourists, prices can be higher than ever for visiting Americans.

That’s because austerity budgets have forced governments across the euro zone to substantially raise the value-added tax, hiking prices on everything from sweaters to lunches to cab fare. And the cost of public transit — on which most travelers rely — has shot up alarmingly in many cities, often 50 percent or more from just a year ago.

While alarming, the threat from the new crop of far-right politicians is still abstract to tourists. The tendency to scapegoat minority groups is an ugly perennial during lean times; Jews, as well as non-European immigrants, Roma and Muslims, are all targets of neo-Nazi and ultranationalist parties like Greece’s Golden Dawn and Hungary’s Jobbik.

But on the street, Europeans more than ever profess a sense of solidarity in time of crisis; there’s a sense that we’re all in this mess together. The extremist political parties, while worrisome, seem, so far, to be the most successful at making headlines (we all had a good laugh when Jobbik’s outspokenly anti-Jewish spokesman was uncovered as an ethnic Jew).

Nonetheless, synagogues and Jewish institutions are taking the political climate seriously: be ready to make reservations in advance for a visit or service, and don’t be surprised if asked for a passport, photo or other documentation.

Above all, be sensitive to what is going on around you. Learn all you can about local concerns; see your European trip as an opportunity to witness a moment of historical significance. Be alert, be aware. But don’t be afraid.