The View From Overseas

While the events of Sept. 11 unfolded, thousands of Americans living abroad were sharing the nation's collective horror, shock and grief. Here, some "expats" describe — in their own words, and in their own way — what it was like to be time zones away when the World Trade Center and Pentagon were attacked.




On Sept. 11, my sister in Atlanta had called me in Portugal to complain that she had stomach flu and was home from work. We had a long, hilarious, homey conversation. We hung up. She called back immediately. "FYI," she said, "a plane just hit the World Trade Center."

I ran to turn on the news. Within seconds my Portuguese husband called from his office to tell me.

I watched the news for half an hour before deciding to take my 3-year-old son back to his nursery school. It was only his second day. I had not intended for him to go all day immediately, but I didn't want him to see the terrible images on the television, and I had to see them.

I drove him back to the little school on auto-pilot, left him there screaming and reaching for me, and returned home in time to watch the towers fall. I cried as if I had been wounded. My Portuguese baby sitter ran from the kitchen to see what had happened to me, but I couldn't answer her, could only gesture at the screen. She sat and cried with me. My baby daughter slept.

One of my closest friends is an Army officer, in Washington, D.C. I left a panicked message on his wife's cell phone. I sent a mass e-mail to other friends in NYC and in the D.C. area who may have been affected. "Check in, please," it said. Please, please, check in.

For the whole first week I don't think that I ever turned off the news. I was never so grateful for cable and e-mail.

The first shock faded. I began to get the e-mails about how this was a result of American foreign policy.

I sent them on to my siblings and to my Army friend, asking what they thought. They returned furious phone calls, referring to me as "Osama bin Holly." I played devil's advocate. I needed help in formulating responses.

I was not living in America, surrounded by flags and a great rush of warmth and solidarity. I was in Europe, with people who thought that what happened was a terrible thing but who did not feel so personally affected by it, and who in fact, maybe did feel a little bit that it couldn't have happened to a nicer guy.

America isn't the most popular kid on the block.

What has happened since? My husband's family, who are intensely politically aware, have been grudgingly won over by Mr. Bush and Mr. Powell. The feeling that I have from them and others around me who would not hesitate to roundly criticize the U.S. has generally been one of surprised approval.

I wonder when my husband and I will feel safe about taking the kids on an airplane to the U.S. again. I wonder how long it will be before I see my family. For the first time in many years, I am homesick.

My husband chastises me for striking up conversations with random strangers, since it inevitably comes up that I am American. Never mind that they are usually other mothers in the park with kids. You never know, he says.

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