January 19, 2020

European travel: Should I stay or should I go?

Three days before I was to depart for Europe on a river cruise traversing the waterways of the Netherlands and Belgium, I woke up to the news that terrorists had detonated explosives at Brussels’ airport and one of the city’s metro stations, killing more than 30 victims and wounding more than 300 others. 

Ten minutes later, I received a call from my (predictably) worried mom in Chicago, telling me to check to see if anything was canceled. A representative from the cruise line, the Calabasas-based AmaWaterways, answered my email within minutes, informing me the trip was still on, though the itinerary was changed due to the March 22 attacks: Our time in Belgium would be confined to a day and a half and we would be having more stops in Dutch towns instead.

My travel companion was on the phone with me 20 minutes later, arguing that we should move ahead as planned with the cruise, even with less time in Belgium. Otherwise, he said, “The terrorists would win.”

We were not the only ones with these concerns. Jon and Robyn Cohen, a Reform couple from West Hollywood, ultimately decided to set sail, too, but not without careful consideration. We discussed the subject en route to a half-day excursion in Ghent in northern Belgium, where we experienced an unsettling moment crossing through an underpass defaced with neo-Nazi graffiti.

Jon, a comedy writer and ad operations manager at Midroll, a Hollywood podcast company, said the package he and his wife selected was based on what was and what wasn’t on the itinerary.

“I did not want to go to France, especially given the attacks in Paris and how Jews were affected by them,” he said. “[As I followed] the news, I found few anti-Semitic [events] happening in Belgium and Holland.” 

That didn’t stop his father from issuing the familiar warning, “Don’t tell anybody you are Jewish.” And Robyn, a travel agent with Pleasant Holidays, was cautioned by her mother against wearing religious jewelry.

Informed by a career in tourism that included time at the Chicago Convention and Tourism Bureau, Robyn took a pragmatic view of the situation.

“[Terrorism] can happen anywhere, including L.A.,” she said. “I left the final decisions to AmaWaterways regarding whether or not the cruise would be canceled or how they would modify the schedule.

“One thing that puts this kind of situation into perspective is that I work with Pleasant’s Caribbean products, and we’ve been doing battle with the Zika virus and the perceptions generated in the news. While I can’t travel there, as I am pregnant, for everybody else traveling there, I advise taking common sense precautions.”

Although Jon insisted Robyn make calls to the cruise line to get updates, she assured him that Amsterdam — the start and end point for the cruise — was far enough away from Brussels, and security precautions had been taken. Our conversation shifted again to our one full-day Belgian adventure in Antwerp, which went without a hitch. 

“However, the concerns would be different in many places if I were Orthodox,” Jon said. 

The increased security presence around Antwerp combined with the business-as-usual spirit made us truly appreciate the frites, architecture and bike tour of the Jewish quarter all the more. Religiously observant men with beards and tallitot went about their day, breezing past us on their bikes as the guide explained that the city has one of the highest concentrations of Orthodox Jews in the world outside Israel and Brooklyn.

Several travel agents specializing in Jewish travel advised customers to proceed with their plans these days, as long as they keep both their minds and eyes open to stay safe. 

Florida-based Sophia Kulich, who operates Jewish Travel Agency and Sophia’s Travel, suggested that her clients take U.S. government travel advisories seriously and register with its Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (