Two years ago, I spent three months meandering through Europe. Crashing in hostels of all sizes and cleanliness, I drifted from city to city, savoring local delicacies and treasuring every conversation. At times, language or cultural references could be an impediment, but as my friend Phillip says, there are three topics everyone can discuss when traveling: American politics, fútbol and "The Simpsons."
Since it was 2007 and civilian deaths in Iraq were elevated, everyone wanted to know if I voted for Bush and how I felt about the war. Subsequently, I often found myself emphatically using the word “No” and explaining that the decisions of a few were not representative of the nation as a whole. But the question that was asked most often was this: Why are Americans so fearful of everybody else?
Last week, driving back to Columbia from Springfield, I passed the time by indulging in my guiltiest of pleasures - conservative talk radio. It's the same phenomenon as when I pass by a tragic car accident; I'm an auditory rubbernecker. As I listened to Glenn Beck discuss Amanda Knox, the American exchange student who is currently on trial in Perugia, Italy, for allegedly killing her British roommate, I couldn’t help but get frustrated. As disturbing as this case has been, Beck and his sidekick cited this and the movie "Taken" as why traveling overseas is such a scary notion these days. Although I had not seen "Taken," their comments irked me because I know how many people tune into the show for legitimate opinions, and there he was stoking the fear.
This past weekend I finally watched "Taken." For those who haven't seen it, the film basically entails a former American spy decimating anyone in his way as he attempts to locate his kidnapped 17-year-old daughter in Paris, France. After watching the movie, I can understand why a father would be disturbed, but I still cannot believe a fictional film and an atypical murder case would prevent anyone from yearning to lounge along the Seine or savor some pizza in Naples - one of the most dangerous cities in Italy and one of my favorite memories.
The American fear of the outside world is unhealthy at best and detrimental at worst. The images of Natalie Holloway and Amanda Knox and the scenes from movies such as "Hostel" and "Taken" have been pushed to the forefront of our thoughts and warped our perceptions. This is especially disturbing because the ability for the above to skew a person's viewpoint compared with the probability of the events actually happening is highly disproportionate.
As a father, I would be apprehensive about my child traveling alone or with a friend anywhere if they were under the age of 18. And I guess that is my point: Traveling, especially to big cities, can be dangerous no matter what continent you are on. Although some cities are more dangerous than others –Naples, for example - I have also found that ineptitude often causes more problems than the environment. The wrong alley in New York can be just as dangerous as the wrong alley in Amsterdam. The daughter and her friend in the movie made several dumb decisions, and the funny thing about dumb decisions is that they are just as dumb in English as they are in French.
On my travels, I got lucky quite a bit, but I also got swindled by cashiers and had several close calls with my wallet and passport. But these events were overshadowed by so many more memorable moments. Headlines aren't written about the old German man who helped me pay for my laundry and then showed up an hour later to help me with the dryer. Movies aren't made about the man in Naples who personally escorted Phillip and me to our hostel because we were lost at night in the slums and needed "to get off the streets.” The kindness of strangers doesn't sell papers or movie tickets, but it is the real story.
When I first arrived in Madrid, Spain, I had my bag, some directions to my hostel and that was about it. Was I scared? A little. But more than scared, I was overwhelmed by the sheer potential of my journey. By the end of my trek, I was a different person. When you travel you must face a lot of demons. You not only learn a lot about the world, but a lot about yourself. And, more often than not, you realize just how deeply unjustified all of your fears had been.
Andrew Del-Colle is a former Missourian reporter and a graduate student at the Missouri School of Journalism.