Whatever one’s feelings about the rightness or otherwise of it, war is never a comfortable time. This one in particular is cause for nervousness among Americans overseas. I’ve just received email from the US Embassy in Rome advising “American citizens in Italy to take prudent steps to ensure their personal safety in the coming days. Remain aware of surroundings, avoid crowds and demonstrations, keep a low profile, vary times and routes, and ensure travel documents are current.”
Strangely enough, all this is very familiar to me. In 1984, I made a long visit to my dad in Jakarta, Indonesia, and ended up working in the commercial section of the US Embassy. One of the perks of the job was an Embassy carpool which took us to work and home again every day.
Then the Islamic Jihad issued death threats against US and European citizens in Indonesia (I don’t remember why, if there was any reason other than “We hate you”). The French and British embassies promptly evacuated all diplomats’ families. The US Embassy didn’t send anyone home, but instituted security measures, like varying the times and routes of our daily carpool rides to the office. “Varying times” meant that the car could show up anytime between 6:00 and 9:00 am, and “varying routes” meant that the trip could take even longer than usual. In the event, nothing happened, and after a while life returned to normal, though a year or two later a rocket was fired into the Embassy grounds.
So I am eerily accustomed to this feeling of being under seige, of having to think about where I should and shouldn’t go (no more movies in English at the cinema, maybe no cinema at all). No big change in lifestyle is needed; I rarely find myself among crowds of Americans anyway. A “worldwide caution” also just issued by the Embassy warns of “potential for retaliatory actions to be taken against US citizens and interests throughout the world.” Okay, so I won’t eat at McDonald’s or Burger King — no great loss! (Later: A McDonald’s window was smashed in Milan during peace protests on Saturday, March 22.)
I had much the same feeling of “they’re out to get me” for some time after 9/11, with one big difference: this time, a lot of Italians have it in for me, too. In Italy, as elsewhere in the world, there have been huge peace demonstrations, which the US embassy advised American citizens to avoid: not all the demonstrators would have distinguished between George Bush and Americans in general. There are also a lot of Arabic-speaking and/or Muslim immigrants and businesses in our neighborhood. I’m not sure what to think of them or what they would think of me, especially since Milan was found last year to harbor Al Qaeda’s European headquarters (NOT in our neighborhood).
It’s depressing, this feeling that some people hate me enough to kill me simply because of my citizenship, and wouldn’t bother to find out first what I actually think about things.
And, as is inevitable for Woodstockers, I know people directly endangered by the war: an Indian schoolmate living in Baghdad with her Iraqi husband. Her mother taught me Hindi for several years and was our class homeroom teacher; I worry about her, worrying about her daughter (ironically, her son lives in the US).