The embassy sends out bulletins urging Americans abroad to keep a low profile, limit movements, vary travel times and routes, to not leave vehicles unattended.
They have been warning us about bin Laden, "who in the past has not distinguished between military and civilian targets," since long before Sept. 11. I do not fly my flag. I do not dress my children in the clothing that they have with American flags on it. I look askance at people whom I know are not American wearing fashion statements decorated with American flags. I think, "Are they idiots?"
Last Friday, my son asked to take a small American flag to school to show his teacher. He loves the flag. When he sees it on television, he shouts, "Tenho igual!" (I have the same!) He doesn't go to an American school. There are people of several nationalities there. Maybe it's not a good idea for people to know that he is American, I thought.
I let him take the flag. It is a small rebellion against fear.
—Holly Raible Blades
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Disbelief and disconnect. These were the first words that scurried across the brain as the World Trade Center crumbled. Television transmitted terror across continents in only a matter of seconds. It was the mind that took hours to catch up.
Instantly to the Internet trying to figure out who was making what of this horror. Jumbled words in fragmented calls to other expats living here in Berlin to make sure they were watching hell at home.
That evening, a group of Americans gathered to do nothing other than watch CNN and the BBC, the English-language news networks to which we had access. There was little chatting and lots of watching. Most everyone present had someone they loved in either New York or Washington, many in both cities. Frantic attempts to cross the Atlantic with the help of an operator. Checking e-mail over and over again in case someone had been able to reach a computer more rapidly than a phone. A group dinner offering a dash of laughter over a plate of shock. More television. More attempts to reach home.
The strangest moment came upon emerging from our impromptu evening of adhesion to the television: Life on the city's streets rolled on as usual. Certainly the attack was the only topic in Berlin, both in the city's newspapers and on its televisions, but all the day's events remained physically thousands of miles away … no smoke snaked up Berlin's streets, phone lines worked without problems, subways ran and stores were open.
Struggling to grasp what it was that had taken our country's imagination hostage, fighting to feel what it was that Americans at home were enduring, seeking out American papers, watching more television, feeling guilty for not being there to share the mourning and the mornings to come. This was what life abroad became.
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This morning I arrived at the offices of the newspaper where I work in Prague to find a workman blocking my way. He was hunched over a welding tool that was throwing off a shower of sparks.
My first thought was: My God, that man isn't wearing safety glasses. My second thought was: My God, where did that giant steel door come from?
Then I remembered. Last week, our general manager pried the 3-foot Prague Post sign off the front of our building. The steel door being installed in front of the lift that takes people from the street directly to our floor was yet another attempt to make our largely ex-pat staff feel safe.