In Irene Nemirovsky's novel, Suite Française, Paris awakens to the German Army's advance of June, 1940. Some characters are complacent; others want to pack their best bedding on their cars; and the realists get away on foot. My favorite scene is of a small boy walking into the country with his family. He has been entrusted with an iron frying pan, which they'll need once they find a home.
Much of the book consists of various characters rationalizing that they'll soon be back in Paris. This is horrifying to the reader, who knows what the individuals do not: their flight is more perilous than they imagine. And of course, to compound the dread, we know that the author herself was exterminated in Auschwitz. The manuscript was discovered 55 years after her death.
Following a political upheaval in the US, many people are indulging in idle talk about leaving the country- at least for the moment. Off to Canada? Really? Most will be lulled back to their normal existence, whether from the familiarity of our political culture or the need to, say, get the kids' teeth fixed. Today's drama will eventually fade.
Others will be like the comedian Dave Chappelle, who brought the issue to not-quite prime time in his recent Saturday Night Live monolog. His terrified friends are "getting out." And his comic response was pretty much: "Nah, I'm sticking around for a tax cut."
Words from Africa hands
The question is important to me. I've heard many first hand accounts of people fleeing their home.
See, in 1980 I was on assignment in Abidjan, the cosmopolitan capital of the Ivory Coast that was a kind of regional refuge. As a matter of fact, Abidjan was so elegant that electricity was pretty reliable and drinks were sometimes served iced. This was not true in neighboring countries. In particular, it wasn't true of Liberia, which was then experiencing a military coup.
I made acquaintances of a number of expatriates: Belgians, French, Rhodesians, and even some Americans, many of whom were in Abidjan to wait out the events in Monrovia, the capital of Liberia.
The conversations often turned to political instability in Africa. The Belgians had fled the Congo; the Rhodesians had left Zimbabwe, the French had experienced upheaval in Chad and Algeria.
Three Gold Rings
Here are their lessons.
- People always wait too long. The great thing about being an expatriate is that you can dispassionately judge the politics of the host country. If you think there is going to be upheaval, you can say so without upsetting the family or worrying about your business. The local people rationalize troubling events and wait too long. Note: in the US, 'Local' means 'American.'
- Keep it Light. People try to take too much stuff. If you are planning a move to another country w-a-a-a-y in advance of political trouble, by all means call the international moving company. But if someone is approaching with pitchforks and torches--to repeat a phrase recently used by a prominent Trump supporter--just grab your passport and a change of underwear.
- Rings. In Africa, survival depended on the Three Gold Ring Theory. That is, if you suspect trouble ahead, get three gold rings and keep them on your person at all times. If the situation becomes unstable, use one gold ring to buy a Land Rover. Use the second to buy fuel for said Land Rover. And use the third to bribe your way across the closest border.
Not that we'll ever need that advice...