Home is the place where, when you have to go there

January 31st, 2011

I have a friend who works in Alexandria, Egypt. She used to live in Switzerland but moved several years ago. She actually left Switzerland when I was pregnant with the Small Boy, so it’s been quite some time. We have seen each other a few times since then, when she has been in Switzerland on a vacation or taking care of some business that she still has here; we email a few times a year but we are both poor correspondents and time and distance have weakened our friendship.

I sent her an email last week, not knowing what if any internet access she might have, simply saying I hope things were calm by her and that she stays safe. I haven’t heard anything back. Her employer maintains a Facebook page, which they updated on January 24th to say that they would be closed the following day. It hasn’t been updated since. I can well imagine that she only had internet access through work in the first place. It would meet her needs – she is a fairly unplugged person – and she moves often enough that I can imagine she wouldn’t bother with the hassle of finding a service provider as long as she knew she could use computers at work on her private time. So if she’s not going in to work, she is probably unplugged. I am not overly concerned about her physical safety, it’s not as if I fear for her actual life, but I am worried about how she is doing and if her neighborhood is calm or not.

I sent out a request for information on Twitter – does anybody have any information about the foreign staff of this employer? Through the miracle of re-tweeting, somebody actually associated with the place, albeit in a loose way, sent me a message that US staff are being sent home. Which brings me after a long introduction to the point: this friend of mine is a US citizen but hasn’t lived in the US for fifteen years. If she shows up at the airport or Embassy wishing to be evacuated, she’s got her passport and they’ll take care of her (and it’s scenarios like this that make R say, “Sometimes a US passport is a handy thing to have”), but where will she go? She lives in Egypt. Prior to that she lived in Asia and South-East Asia, and prior to that she lived in Switzerland. Prior to that, she lived in the Netherlands. To my knowledge, the last time she was in the US was simply to attend a job fair that landed her the Alexandria job.

There are expats like me, who either through marriage or long-term employment form a bond with the new country. If I had to get evacuated from an emergency zone I’d wave my US passport for all it was worth, and then make my way, with the boys, back to Switzerland. We’d try to get passportless R to be allowed to come with, on the basis of being the father of two minor US citizens, but we’ve already agreed that if push comes to shove I’d cut him and his Swiss passport lose to get the boys to safety and he’d follow when he could. (The US is simply better equipped to evacuate its citizens than Switzerland, and even R with all his pride in his Swiss military admits it.) But then there are expats like my friend who move a lot, following jobs or adventure or change or whatever it is that calls a person to move countries every few years. She’s got the passport, and if she wants to leave – which is an open question, actually – she’ll be taken care of, but then what? I sometimes envy her expat adventures and the amazing vacations she has taken all over South-East Asia, the freedom to change jobs and countries when she feels like it, but then what? After all the exploring and the traveling, now, when she might get evacuated – to where? To whom?

How rooted are you? (This might apply especially to my expat readers, but not exclusively). A line from Robert Frost’s “The Death of the Hired Man” comes to mind:

“Home is the place where, when you have to go there
They have to take you in.”

I’m wondering what my friend will do, where she will go, who will take her in. And remembering that the ties that sometimes feel like they are holding me back are also the ties that root me, that link me to the world, that give me a safe place from which to venture forth and a port to which I can return.