The Displaced Nation

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And the Alices go to … these 3 expat writers for their Hurricane Sandy posts

 © Iamezan | Dreamstime.com Used under license

© Iamezan | Dreamstime.com
Used under license

My husband and I have a habit of going on holiday just before some major world crisis occurs — after which we have no choice but to spend several days holed up in our hotel room watching the events unfold on CNN. Twice it was a crisis involving water: the deadly Hurricane Katrina and the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami.

But for Hurricane Sandy, we were very much on the scene — ensconced in our apartment in NYC’s East Village, and with no television to watch, not even a radio to listen to! As those who read my post of earlier this month are aware, we were deprived not only of power but also water, communications and public transportation for several days, and displaced from our home for one night — an inconvenience that, while somewhat traumatic, turned out to be minor compared to what others had suffered in harder-hit areas.

As I mentioned then, the experience gave me a chance to test this blog’s basic premise: that forcible displacement at some level compares with the kind of displacement one has when living in a country that is not your home. And if so, can a former expat like me draw on the strengths gained from living overseas to keep calm and carry on?

While pondering these fundamental questions, I came across three posts by expats on Hurricane Sandy that gave me some fresh insights — not only on Sandy but on the down-the-rabbit hole nature of international travel and the expat life.

Thus I’d like to hand out three “Alices” today to (in reverse chronological order):

1) PETE LAWLER

Awarded for: Clouds from the Past: My Reflections on Sandy, Gloria and the Jersey Shore, in his personal blog: The American Londoner
Posted on: 3 November 2012
Moving passage:

But here and now, when things are raw, when my cousins have been without power for a week and my parents are cooking with a propane tank and a Coleman portable grill even high up in the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania, I mourn. My heart goes out to those suffering and I mourn for that place of childhood sunshine and wish it a good and steady recovery in the coming months.
All the best, Jersey. I am thinking of you.

Citation: Pete, before Sandy, you probably weren’t thinking that much about “that place of childhood sunshine,” the Jersey shore — because, after eight years in London, you try not to think too much about sunshine any more. But then Sandy plunged you into mourning for all the good times you had as an all-American kid — the “long sunny days spent lazily frolicking through waves, collecting shells, and cautiously avoiding jellyfish.” It even made you think with some nostalgia of Hurricane Gloria, which you rather enjoyed as a seven-year-old. Absence, plus tragedy, can indeed make the heart grow fonder… What’s more, I sense how bad you must have felt about being powerless, from a distance, to help your parents and your cousin in their time of need — a guilt that’s at the hard core of the expat life. Just ask Linda Janssen — I’m thinking of her aptly titled “Down the Rabbit Hole” post of last summer, about her father’s illness.

2) MADELINE GRESSEL

Awarded for: Hurricane Sandy and the unspoken attraction of disaster, in Matador Abroad
Posted on: 1 November 2012
Thought-provoking passage:

Now, as New York City is sloshed by a record-breaking 13ft wall of water, it is I sitting comfortably in a café in Hong Kong watching the light October rain outside. … My friends post photos on Facebook of candlelit dinners, submerged cars, and the powerless, darkened skyline.

And I wish I were there with them. Not because I’m afraid for their safety (I’m not), but because I’m missing a moment of New York history. I’ll never be able to say, “Remember the flood of 2012? That was insane.” I feel jealous at the pictures, like I’ve seen a photo of an ex-lover with his new flame.

Citation: Maddie, I wonder why it is, as we also learned on this blog this month, so few American expats feel the need to connect with their homeland during a presidential election — which, too, provides a chance to be “part of history,” especially if the race is closely contested? I think the answer may lie in your rather astute observation: people love a disaster. Come to think of it, a friend of mine has confessed that during Sandy, she had the overwhelming urge to go outside — in the storm! (Even though it was expressly forbidden by Mayor Bloomberg.) In addition, your post reminded me of another old expat adage: out of sight, (afraid of being) out of mind…

3) RUTH MARGOLIS

Awarded for: “I wasn’t afraid of Superstorm Sandy — until the lights went out,” in Telegraph Expat
Posted on: 31 October 2012
Moving passage:

Forty-eight hours ago, I was relishing my role as stoic, cynical Brit, refusing to bow down to an impending crisis. I bashed out jokey emails to friends and family noting that it was “a bit blustery”…

…my husband and I — plus my visiting younger sister — spent much of Sunday and Monday quite enjoying the commotion. Like kids playing an imaginary game, we stocked up on all the (un)necessaries: crisps mainly, and garish American junk foods…

Then, something strange happened: the lights went out in Manhattan. … “Ah,” we thought, followed by a shaky: “Hmm”. … Eventually, we went to bed, with the radio on. No one got much sleep.

When the next storm hits, I expect I’ll ditch the cockiness sooner.

Citation: Ruth, there I was, trying to conjure up the “keep calm and carry on” ethos that I’d learned (rather begrudgingly) from nearly a decade of living in Britain, when, had I known you were down in Brooklyn, I could have asked for a refresher course (ah, yes, the junk foods and the jokey emails!). Still and all, I’m glad to know that even for a native-born Brit, there are limits, one of which is seeing the lights go out in lower Manhattan… (From now on, I won’t be too hard on myself!) I can also relate to what you said about these disasters having a cumulative effect (made worse by the fact that you’re living far away from your homeland and already feeling somewhat displaced). As you point out in your post, Sandy was the second time since emigrating that you’ve “had to assume the brace position,” the first being Irene. I can recall feeling something similar when living in Tokyo — first there was the Aum Shinrikyo attack on the subway and then the massive earthquake in Kobe, after which I decided that the stoicism required for this situation hadn’t yet been invented! (Bloomin’ heck, why was it I’d told everyone at “home” that Japan was so much safer?)

* * *

So, readers, do you have a favorite from the above, any comments on these bloggers’ ruminations, or any further posts to suggest? I’d love to hear your suggestions!

STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s post, some comforting advice and (hopefully) words of wisdom from The Displaced Nation’s resident agony aunt, Mary-Sue Wallace.

If you enjoyed this post, we invite you to register for The Displaced Dispatch, a round up of weekly posts from The Displaced Nation, with seasonal recipes, book giveaways and other extras. Register for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

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Images: All from Morguefiles.

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A veteran of the expat life, I thought I knew displacement…but then along came Hurricane Sandy!

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.

“Bailing” out

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.

* * *

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…

If you enjoyed this post, we invite you to register for The Displaced Dispatch, a round up of weekly posts from The Displaced Nation, with seasonal recipes, book giveaways and other extras. Register for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

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