by Claire Smith
Moving to the other side of the world was quite a dramatic change to my comfortable, well-established life on the east coast of England. Change wasn’t just the packing up my life, selling my house, my business, saying goodbye to my family and friends and flying off into the great blue yonder. I nearly didn’t go. And within 5 days of arriving in Australia the world had changed, forever.
September 11th 2001. Sheringham, North Norfolk
5 days before I got on Flight BA138 at London Heathrow I was house sitting for an Irish friend. My house was sold, my camper van, Vera, was sold and Mari’s idyllic flint-cottage overlooking the slipway to the beach was all mine. It was about 2 ish in the afternoon. I had fallen asleep in the bay-window seat of the kitchen after devouring an exceptionally delicious lunch of moules marinière. Glorious September sun dappled through the glass as I dozed. I was startled out of my stupor by the sound of my phone ringing. My dear friend Sara, landlady of the Robin Hood Inn, was on the other end of the line. The pub was one of 11 establishments within a half mile radius of the town centre, and I had often helped out behind the bar. My first thought was “please don’t ask me to come and pull pints.
All she said was four words,
“Put the tv on”.
I said, “what channel?”
“Any, it’s the same on them all”.
That day changed our world forever.
September 16th 2001. Heathrow Airport
However logical and grounded you are, until you face an unprecedented moment in your life you really have no idea how surreal and illogical everything feels. It took two Valium to get me on the first flight and two more to get on the second flight. This was only the third time I had flown overseas, and I had never done it on my own or in the aftermath of a world-changing nightmare. The second flight was with Thai Airways out of Singapore. If you aren’t familiar with Singapore International airport let me describe it for you. It’s big, very big. There’s a huge koi carp pool right at the centre of the terminal and you can also have your feet nibbled by other fish species in a cordoned off area. There’s every type of massage available and millions of orchids for sale. There are exits and travelators, a small train that will take you to another wing of the terminal and of course, thousands of people. This is a total brain overload, especially when a cocktail of Valium, fear and a new unknown are taking the brain and gut on a roller coaster ride that just doesn’t slow down.
Luckily I got on the right flight. The tension was high. The security checks had been as rigorous and time consuming as they’d been in London but they were reassuring, nevertheless. I remember sitting in my seat thinking, how the hell did this happen. And then I realised I was scanning the other passengers and I was looking for possible terrorists. I tried not to, it wasn’t logical but I couldn’t help myself, there was a greater force telling me that everyone that looked slightly “Arabic” was dangerous! I fought against this rising fear, closing my eyes and forbidding myself to look anymore. 5 days of terror and tv, newspapers and constant radio sound bites had turned me in to an accidental racist. In that moment of realisation I was horrified that I’d been brainwashed.
It is important to understand that fear is a necessary response to danger. Fear produces the ancient “fight or flight” reaction in the brain. It sets in motion a series of electrical and chemical changes in the frontal cortex and logic goes out the window. When we are in that survival mode nothing else matters. I’d been in that mode for 5 days, just like everyone else, and even though I eventually rationalised it, the fear continued for many more months to come. It was compounded by my complete isolation from everything familiar in my life. 14,000 miles of separation. And here I was; an English woman on a 100 acre avocado farm, hot as hell, mosquitoes biting every inch of white English skin they could land on and no neighbours for miles. They say what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.
Change comes in many forms and our current global situation has brought about change that none of us have ever experienced.
I refuse to be afraid this time. I am embracing the opportunity we have to develop new ways of working, communicating, sharing and creating global communities.
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