Thoughts on Living Overseas in Weird Times

I haven’t posted anything to my journal recently, but, like many since September the 11th, I have been writing a lot. It’s all been email communication with friends and family–the sort of digital hand-holding that everyone’s been doing for the last several weeks. I thought: the Internet is flooded with personal commentary, recollections, diatribes you name it. Who needs another voice in the clamor? But then it occurred to me that there is something unusual about my viewpoint. Not many Americans are experiencing the current weird state of the world from overseas.

As a diplomatic family, we are indeed different, and there might be a few out there who are curious about how these events were experienced, and continue to be experienced, by this diplomatic community. So, this journal entry is pulled from some of those emails and expat message board postings that I have written over the past several weeks.

To begin at the beginning, my husband happened to be in Washington, D.C. attending a State Department conference on September 11th. My kids had just come home from school when a neighbor called to tell me that a plane had hit the World Trade Center. I told her that I couldn’t watch CNN or the BBC at the moment because I didn’t want my kids to see the footage. So I went upstairs to sneak a peek at the news online. I saw that a second plane had hit. That couldn’t be an accident. Then, I read that one had hit the Pentagon. Things were getting a little too close for comfort. Still, I remained calm.

Finally, I saw a headline of a “fire and possible explosion at the State Department.” That’s when I started to lose it. For all I knew, my husband was at the State Department at that very moment. I called my neighbor and told her what I had heard, then asked her to take the kids for a while so that I could watch TV and get some more information. At this point my largely expat neighborhood was buzzing with the news: I told my daughter (age 9–too old to fool) that I wanted to make sure that her dad was OK, and promised to let her know right away.

As I sat there alternately surfing the Internet and television channels, the phone started ringing. A neighbor, recently arrived from the U.S., called in hysterics. I had no time for her. I wanted to keep the phone free, because I knew that if my husband was OK he was trying to call me. Throughout the afternoon the phone rang constantly. Some people were calling to find out if I had heard from my husband, others were Czech friends who were simply calling the Americans that they knew to say how sorry they were.

Finally, while checking my email for the hundredth time, and communicating via instant messenger with my mother, I got a short email note from my sister-in-law in New Orleans. My husband had been unable to reach me because no international lines were open, but had his brother’s cell phone number. He called his brother (who had been on a flight that got diverted and had to take a bus home). My brother-in-law then called his wife, who then emailed me. I have never been so happy to receive an email in all my life. I went next door to tell my daughter. She was so relieved she nearly burst into tears.

Later that night I received an email from my husband written from an Internet cafe. He’d had lunch in Rosslyn in a restaurant with a view of the smoldering Pentagon and two equally shell-shocked colleagues, after giving up on getting home or finding a usable international phone line. As he puts it: “we alternated between looking at the Pentagon and scanning the sky for incoming aircraft.” He had actually been at a training center in Virginia when the planes hit. The center was evacuated by security personnel. Some of his colleagues claimed they felt the ground shake as another plane hit the Pentagon, just a couple of miles away.

At some point afterwards I found that the State Department report had been false. The probability that the State Department could be a target, however, was so high in my mind, that I never doubted the false report for an instant. As it turned out, we were targeted with anthrax later.

Eventually, after obtaining seats on four flights that were subsequently cancelled, my husband made it home a week later. He appeared on my doorstep completely unannounced because he didn’t want me to worry about the flight (: It was a long week in many ways: not only I was I concerned about his safety, but I didn’t want to worry the kids too much. Therefore, I kept the TV off, and largely restricted my news intake to the Internet. I sneaked off to read headlines, or listen to the BBC and NPR in streaming audio.

At one point, during some fairly non-sensational television coverage, I let my daughter watch a chronology of the week’s events. As she pointed out, all the kids were talking about it at school, so she might as well know what was going on. We had watched Terry Jones’ history of the Crusades recently, and I explained current events to her by drawing analogies from that program.

The Crusaders, I explained, thought that non-Christians weren’t entirely human, and that God wanted them to be wiped out. That’s how they could do the terrible things that they did to the citizens of many Middle Eastern towns and cities. The hijackers, a thousand year later, also believed that we as Americans, as (mostly) non-Muslims, and as rich people who believe in the equality of women, weren’t not entirely human. They thought God told them to kill us all. Like the Crusaders, they were deluded by ignorance and frustration.

And that was that. I still believe that this was the best approach–unlike other children who watched hours of unfiltered coverage, mine have suffered no nightmares or other signs of extreme stress, despite the fact that their father was gone at the time, and they had to worry about his safe return for a week. In the case of my five-year-old, especially, I see no reason why he should know anything more than the bare essentials. Some planes flown by bad men hit two big buildings in America. A lot of people died. We are now trying to “get” the bad guys and make sure it doesn’t happen again. Daddy is working late a lot lately to help make sure we get the job done.

On September 14th, the officially declared international day of mourning, I happened to be running an errand in downtown Prague, near Wenceslas Square, the “soul” of the city, when a moment of silence commenced. Ancient church bells rang everywhere, and a modern air-raid siren kicked in, like a prolonged cry of grief. The downtown area was packed with tourists from every country on the planet. Nearly everyone stood still and silent, paying their respects. Many Czech businesses displayed American flags, many at half-staff. The American Embassy had a big pile of flowers and notes of condolence 50 yards long and several feet wide in front of it.

Later the same day, I heard coverage of the international day of mourning on BBC radio. The last sound bite was the “Star-Spangled Banner” sung, I believe, in St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. I don’t mind saying that is the first time that song has ever brought me to tears.

How has life changed for us here? Well, most of us are used to the idea that at least one member of the family works in a big, fat target with an American flag on it. (Believe it or not, this feels normal after a while). I am, of course, more concerned about my husband’s safety than I was before September 11th, but within reason. My philosophy is that the terrorists were already there, we just either didn’t know about them, chose to ignore them, or were in denial. Reality has not changed all that much, only our perception of it has. The fact that these maniacs are more agitated than usual is probably balanced out by the fact that Embassy security is now incredibly tight.

The most difficult aspect of this time for us has been that, unlike Americans at home who are waving their flags and showing their colors in a display of solidarity, we are unable to fly the flag because it would make us targets. We can’t wear the patriotic t-shirts, hats, and pins that sold out in the U.S. I even wondered momentarily about the wisdom of decorating the house for Halloween, an American holiday. I couldn’t help thinking that, even though if I were home in Washington I would be living ten miles from the Pentagon,”ground zero,” at least I would be unconcerned to show my colors. We are unable to channel our grief and anxiety into displays of patriotism the way those at home can.

And we do stand out. Most American children here attend one school, which is now guarded by beefy, black-clad armed guards. Most American families live in two or three clearly expat-dominated areas. Hardly any of us speak Czech, and it is practically impossible to “speak it like a native.” While most Americans here are Caucasian and the same color as the locals, we dress differently, smile readily, talk louder, laugh more, and drive different cars. Even if one doesn’t work for the Embassy, American and British companies are clearly visible.

And home is so far, far away. I wasn’t crazy about flying to begin with, and of course I am no fonder of it now. But the fact is, to get home, I have to get on that plane with my family. If I lived in the U.S. I could at least put off flying indefinitely until I felt better about it. But that is not an option for us. I know that many of my friends here feel the same way. Jokes about booking an Atlantic cruise instead are common.

Working life has changed as well–nearly all Embassy business is dominated by the war. My husband, a public affairs specialist, was moved out of the American Center and into the Embassy on short notice. Embassy community events have been cancelled, or are being held very discreetly. The street in front of the Embassy is now blocked to traffic, and Czech armored personnel carriers guard the entrance. We have had no mail for a month, since anthrax was discovered in a State Department mail room. Recently, the letters and packages that had been in the Embassy mail room at the time of the closure were released–after being soaked in bleach and laid out to dry on the Empress Maria Theresa’s garden steps.

Yes, life has become weird in the U.S. But I think it has probably become even weirder for Americans overseas.

Late addition: The Marine Ball, an annual event marking the birthday of the U.S. Marine Corps, was held under locked-down conditions at the Ambassador’s residence over the past weekend. Yet it was the best I have ever attended. When the ceremony concluded, and four of our Marines stood at attention representing their regiment, the camera captured four sets of features on the men bearing the U.S. and Marine Corps flags: black, white, Latino, and Korean. If that doesn’t just sum it up right there, I don’t know what does. Makes me proud to be an American.


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