Our hearts are heavy for the victims of the November 13 attacks in Paris.
The attacks hit close to home for us, as we were living in France for the month of October, a few hours away from Paris in Marseille and Brittany.
We're now questioning whether we should continue on from Lisbon to our next planned destination, Brussels. There have been arrests made in Brussels as part of the investigations, and Belgium has experienced some other terrorist activity in the past few years. As the de facto capital of the European Union, it may be a logical target in the depraved minds of primitive savages.
Our plan has been to visit American friends of ours in Brussels who have offered to let us stay at their apartment while they vacation back in the U.S. for two weeks. As much as we would like to see them, explore the city, and gorge ourselves on Belgian beer, Brussels is not a must-see for us right now. We could easily cancel our cheap flight out of Lisbon and get ourselves to England to lay low with family friends until our flight from London back to the states in early December.
So, should we go to Brussels?
Traveling awakens fears in us that we don't normally think about in our lives back home.
These range from the mundane - miscommunications, embarrassing ourselves, getting lost - to the costly - losing luggage, missing a flight, getting pickpocketed - to the serious - getting injured, getting separated from family, or even being attacked. Our unfamiliarity with our surroundings, the language, and the people around us puts us on edge, and our appearance as outsiders makes us more vulnerable.
These are not entirely irrational fears, as there are real risks that inspire them. Some cities are notorious for nuisances like pickpockets or even more violent crimes targeting tourists.
In what has been called the most dangerous city in Europe, visitors are warned to stay away from the train station, to steer clear of certain neighborhoods near tourist areas, and not to leave their hotel at night. Stories are easy to find online of tourists who were mugged, carjacked, or assaulted on the streets. News stories about the city report an uprise in violent activity by drug gangs. The consensus travel recommendation on the internet is to skip the city altogether.
Of course, we didn't learn about any of this until after we had booked our trip to Marseille (because we found good deals on the travel arrangements). We hardy knew anything about the city, but expected something like "Paris by the Sea". It is France's second largest city, an expansive port in beautiful Provence, just up the coast from the French Riviera on the Mediterranean Sea, with castles, cathedrals, parks, and plazas. What's not to like?
Erin's parents called her, freaked out by a recent Anthony Bourdain episode about Marseille that mentioned its dangerous reputation (Bourdain liked this aspect of it, and loved the city). I fired up the laptop and started finding all the horror stories noted above. As France's gateway to the Mediterranean, Marseille has been a cultural mixing bowl with a long history of warring gangs, "French Connection" Italian mafiosos, and now North African drug traffickers. Poverty is high, policing is low, and pickpockets are rampant.
We decided to go in spite of all this, but prepared ourselves to be vigilant, inconspicuous, and proactive about our security. We figured that as long as we could get from the train to the taxi to our apartment, we could survive the rest of our two week stay.
But that meant running the gauntlet of pickpockets and muggers in the dreaded Gare de Marseille Saint-Charles train station.
As our train from Nice neared the station, I lugged our suitcases with carseats attached into the doorway, which was getting crowded with other people doing the same thing. Erin was supposed to get out first with the kids so that she could secure the first suitcase on the platform while I raced back onto the train for the second. But the vestibule was too packed, and she was still corralling the kids to make her own challenging exit.
I was on my own. I tried to think of ways to weaponize an umbrella stroller.
"Looks like we both packed too much."
I turned at the sound of the Australian accent to see a man in his 60's struggling with two oversized hardshell suitcases. I found out he lives in the same town as my brother. I was relieved, not because I had made a friend who could help me, but because he looked like much more of a tourist than me and had even bigger suitcases. Surely he would draw the attention of the train platform predators away from me. Like the joke about the guy stopping to tie his sneakers while a bear is chasing him and his friend, I didn't need to outrun the bear, I just needed to outrun this guy.
But I had to get out first. I had placed both suitcases side by side at the door to roll out together, one in each hand. With my heart pounding as the train slowed, I faced forward and bent my knees, poised to pounce out of the train doors like Bruce Lee into the circle of attackers waiting on the other side.
The train stopped. The doors opened. I lunged through, yanking the suitcases behind me over the gap to the platform. Wide-eyed, I looked up to face my adversaries.
The platform was empty. The station was quiet. Bright sunlight filtered down through long skylights in the iron framed roof above. The only people on the length of the platform were two police officers casually strolling alongside the train.
I let go of my suitcases and turned to help the Australian with his, then helped Erin with the kids and other carry-ons.
"This seems fine," Erin said with relief. "Ready to go?"
"Hold on a minute," I said, nodding towards the Australian. "Let's let that guy go ahead of us."
We never felt threatened during our two weeks in Marseille, nor did we see anyone who looked remotely suspicious, and we were looking. The scariest-looking guy came up behind me on an escalator out of a metro. He started coo-cooing at Vera in my back carrier, laughed at her reactions, asked us where we were from, told us to enjoy Marseille, and warned us to watch our belongings. I was way ahead of him, I had one hand on my wallet and phone in my front pocket the whole time.
It turns out that much of the bad press was from before 2013, when the city underwent a massive revitalization as a European Capital of Culture and improved security measures and policing. You can't look in any direction in the train station and many tourist areas without seeing a cop. The gang violence is almost exclusively in the poorer outer suburbs miles from the city center, and may not be worse than some U.S. cities.
Our paranoia about Marseille, thankfully unsubstantiated, was nevertheless a reality check for our ongoing travel planning. Before kids, we might have been willing to take on more risk when traveling to certain destinations, confident that we could anticipate threats and avoid confrontations. Now we need to think about the safety of our family first. We can't travel as nimbly as we could in the past, we have less hands free, and we have to pay attention to our kids rather than our surroundings, while talking to them in English, usually loudly.
We need to be prudent about the destinations we choose and have a plan for keeping ourselves and our belongings secure.
But what does that mean?
We're two days away from our planned flight to Brussels, where some of the conspirators of the Paris attacks just three days ago may have originated from and possibly returned to. We've been questioning whether we should change these plans to keep our family out of harm's way.
As we evaluate our travel plans, what should our criteria be for deciding if a destination is safe or not? Should we avoid cities altogether during times like this of heightened threats? Or should we cut our losses and just get out of Europe?
Surely, anyone should avoid Paris, right? It was just attacked, and had experienced a previous attack in January. For whatever reason, it has been chosen as a target, and who knows what else could be planned.
Brussels is less than 200 miles from Paris. Some of the attackers are suspected to have come from there, and the one surviving suspect was questioned by police while driving from Paris towards the Belgian border. It has earned some notoriety in recent years as a breeding ground for terrorists in Europe. Does this make it any more likely than anywhere else for some retaliatory or copycat event to take place?
How can anyone feel safe in either of these cities in the immediate wake of these attacks?
We have a close friend who ran her first marathon a few years ago. As she closed to within 50 yards of the finish line, an explosion ripped across the street in front of her. She started to turn to run back away from it. A second explosion rocked the street behind her. She ran to the side of the road, climbed over barricades, and kept moving away from the racecourse with the rest of the crowd.
Cell phone networks were completely jammed, but she managed to borrow a cell phone and get a call back to her family to say she was not harmed. Her family was at a friend's apartment three miles back and had just cheered her on less than thirty minutes earlier. Public transportation was halted. After running 26.2 miles, she walked another three miles back to her friend's apartment, exhausted and in shock from the surreal trauma she had witnessed instead of what should have been her own euphoria.
Erin was at that apartment with her parents and Oliver, then 16 months old.
This happened in Boston, our city. Our home.
The tension continued over the next few days as the two attackers were identified but still at large. The news showed a picture of the house where they lived. It was on the next street over from Erin's office, though several blocks away, next to an apartment building we had looked at when we were house-hunting. We could have been their neighbors.
Later that week I walked up to the bus stop at the top of our street to go to work. The bus tracker on my phone didn't show the bus coming, but it didn't show any buses, so I figured the app was broken. The street was eerily quiet, but it was earlier than I normally leave. Eventually a car pulled up to drop someone off, and they told me in broken English that there was no bus today. I thought this odd but turned back home, searching for news on my phone.
The Marathon attackers had led police on a bizarre and violent car chase around the city the night before. One of them was killed in a standoff, but the other escaped and was still on the loose in the morning. Public transportation had been shut down and residents were advised to "shelter-in-place" while police went door to door sweeping the town where the standoff happened in search of the suspect.
Erin and I stayed home, trying to work but glued to the news. In the time that had passed since the police had lost him, he could have conceivably gotten himself to any of the neighboring towns, including ours. He could be anywhere, and he was capable of violence in desperation. He was a spectre hovering over the whole city, holding us all in the grip of fear, until a homeowner directed police to a boat in his backyard, where he was finally found.
Is this what we could be walking into in Brussels? A city gripped by fear of harboring conspirators of the Paris attacks? A city under lockdown as the manhunt intensifies?
Horrific as they are, attacks like those in Paris and Boston are fortunately infrequent events.
Exceedingly infrequent. Our daily activities like eating food and driving cars are statistically much more dangerous than any threat from deranged vigilantes targeting innocents.
What are the odds that another attack would happen again so soon after the Paris attacks? If it did, what are the odds that it would be anywhere near us in Brussels? If it were, what are the odds that we would be affected in such a large city? We can quickly conclude that the chances of anything bad happening to us are vanishingly small.
If only we could be so easily convinced by cold statistics. It is hard to escape the emotion of fear, and it's easy to conjure up any number of scenarios that could put us in danger, however unlikely. Would these ruminations haunt us at every tourist site, subway stop, and public square in Brussels? If so, what would be the point of being there?
The point would be to be there.
Our friend was at the center of the Boston Marathon bombings. If anyone had ever earned the right to be afraid, it was her. But the next year she ran the Marathon again. This time nothing could stop her from crossing the finish line.
We did not evacuate Boston after the bombings. It wasn't a place we could just leave. We had lives to live there. We couldn't let the phantom fear of some imagined horror change the way we live our lives.
The only meaningful retaliation against those who wish us to fear death is to live life.
We will go to Brussels. We will visit our friends, explore the city, and gorge ourselves on Belgian beer. We will remain cautious but trust that through living the life we want to live our fear can subside and our will can remain strong.