The topic of today’s post is Hurricane Sandy. We’ll get to that soon. But first I want to tell you how I’m feeling today, one week after this monster storm struck.
I’m feeling like Joy in the Flannery O’Connor short story, “Good Country People.”
Joy — in fact, she calls herself “Hulga” in an act of rebellion against her simple-minded mother. With a Ph.D. in philosophy, Joy fancies herself the intellectual superior of her mother and the rest of the country bumpkins around them. (Although 32, she still lives at home because of being handicapped — a childhood hunting accident cost her one of her legs.)
But Joy’s advanced degree doesn’t help one iota when, out of the blue, a Bible salesman pays them a visit. In fact he’s a con man and cons Joy into giving him her prosthetic leg. For all her smarts, Joy is left stranded in the barn loft, immobilized.
I’ll tell you something — you ain’t so smart!
As one of the founders of the Displaced Nation — and as a long-time expat who has now repatriated to my native U.S. — I thought I knew displacement. I even considered myself something of an expert on the feelings one has when living in someone else’s place instead of your own.
But did this background in displacement help me at all when, like Joy/Hulga, I met my nemesis, Hurricane Sandy? Sandy left me, along with my husband and our two dogs, stranded without power, water or communications for four whole days.
Instead of sophisticated urbanites, my husband and I were no better than cave dwellers, Neanderthals. Our daily routine entailed going up dark stairwells, through dark halls and into a dark apartment, where we would gather around the fire (our gas stove still worked) and make tea and cobble together some dinner from the food that would otherwise spoil (but without opening the fridge door too much).
No longer seeing the light
I will never forget the moment the lights went off, and we were plunged into this unreal netherworld. We were eating chicken pot pie and Greek salad when it happened. I’d made us a proper dinner thinking that even though Frankenstorm’s monster was on its way, we may as well “keep calm and carry on” — a lesson I’d mastered from living on two other small islands before Manhattan: England and Japan.
We kept calm enough and carried on for the rest of that evening. After finishing the meal, we headed down one floor with our trusty flashlights to the apartment of another couple, with whom I’d communicated just before the blackout. Another couple from a higher floor joined us.
The six of us sat around a flashlight — that was the closest we could get to simulating a camp fire — and kept each other entertained while waiting out the storm.
The next day, however, the excitement of camping out in the city wore off rather quickly, especially as we no longer had any water. I’d followed the advice of the Weather Channel and filled the bathtub — but it’s no fun stumbling about in the dark to get a pan full of water when you need to flush the toilet.
It is also no fun going up and down 12 flights of stairs with two dogs in a pitch-dark stairwell, made only slightly brighter by your average flashlight. Note to self: Get one of the those miners-style flashlight headbands for the next time. Dorky they may be, but it’s so much easier to have two hands available.
After three days, like most East Villagers, we bailed — something I’m not very proud of, but my office (at Columbia University) had opened again and I was having a dickens of a time getting there and back using buses — there were no subways running.
A kind colleague with a spare room made an offer we couldn’t refuse. She doesn’t mind dogs (has one herself).
What have I learned from being — literally — displaced?
So, is “displacement” a good metaphor for international travel and the expat life? Does it hold water, so to speak?
Here are three quick lessons I’ve derived from the experience:
1) You know all those expat sites that talk about developing resilience? Well, that’s not such a crackpot notion after all, when it comes to real displacement. Now, I was never someone who admired the Brits for their stiff upper lip, or the Japanese for their gaman. But I ended up imbibing these traits by osmosis, as explained in a previous post — and I’m so glad I did.
New Yorkers like to brag about how great they are at weathering crises, but in this particular instance, they seemed like a bunch of wimps! (They were far more stoical in the wake of 9/11.)
Take for instance the downtown fashion set — including Anna Wintour, Carine Roitfeld, Pat McGrath and Marc Jacobs — and celebs like Naomi Watts and Liev Schrieber. As the Wall Street Journal reported, they immediately sought refuge in the Mark Hotel on E. 77th St., to await the return of power and water and normalcy.
The younger crowd, led by Emma Watson, were at the Carlyle.
C’mon, guys, I got through three nights!
Another prime example were the bus drivers who refused to take any of us cave dwellers south of 26th St. because it was “too dark.”
As a result of their intransigence, I found myself walking down nearly 20 blocks of darkened streets in the company of another East Villager — a young woman from New Orleans who’d already had the misfortune of having been evacuated during Hurricane Katrina. Two flashlights are better than one under these circumstances, and together we dodged rogue vehicles that were taking advantage of the no-traffic-lights chaos. All for the pleasure of, in my case, climbing up 12 flights of stairs to my little cave. Gaman shita.
2) My priorities are in the wrong place. As it turns out, I’d be better off doing fewer blog posts on developing a “core” of self while living abroad and more Pilates, developing an actual core. This is of course assuming I continue to live a dozen flights up in a high-rise apartment building.
Likewise, I’ve been placing too great a priority on hyper-communications. Even though I’m the first to feel offended when someone texts while I’m talking to them, I can’t describe how elated I felt when I at last managed to exchange texts with outside world.
When I was an expat, I could be happy in my own company for days on end. What happened?
3) I’m not sure it matters if you’re at home or abroad when you become forcibly displaced. I used to think differently, as I pointed out in my post about what happens when reality bites for expats.
But as it turns out, displacement is a God-awful experience no matter where you happen to be — and in some ways, being able to understand the language and the culture makes it worse.
You’re planning to hold the New York City marathon, Mayor Bloomberg, really? I can’t tell you how agitated I became upon hearing that announcement. Yes, I knew it meant a colossal loss of income to the city. But at a time when many of us were leading disrupted lives, did we need yet another reminder that life goes on uptown, where no one really suffered?
And did any of us really want an influx of entitled outsiders into the city at a time when our own people are in need?
Thank goodness he saw sense in the end and called the thing off.
And don’t get me started on the debates we ought to be having — but won’t — on climate change as well as the need to re-engineer New York’s waterfront to withstand storms of this nature. I feel incensed — not so much because of what I’ve personally endured, but on behalf of the some 40,000 New Yorkers who are still displaced.
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Readers, do you have any Sandy experiences, impressions, or insights to share? Do tell! People who are truly displaced love community! And please hurry! They’re forecasting a northeaster on Wednesday. When it rains, it pours…
STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s post, a poll about, of all things, expat voting…
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