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Take me home

Sarah Mervosh | Wednesday, February 9, 2011

ISTANBUL — Lines. Ugh.

I regularly scout out the shortest line at the grocery store, even if that means walking all the way down the aisle and backtracking.

The other day, I was going to buy socks for what is the equivalent of 75 U.S. cents, but when the cashier rang up the preceding woman’s items one by one by one, slow as could be, I threw the socks back in the pile and walked out.

You could say I’m extremely impatient, easily bored, obsessed with efficiency or all of the above. Any way you cut it, I hate lines.

But I spent last Monday standing in the longest line of my life in order to evacuate Egypt and felt only a small fraction of my usual annoyance.

We awoke Monday morning and were told buses would be available to take us to the Cairo International Airport, where we met a line thousands of people long.

It wrapped around a large warehouse-like building that was separate from the main airport and was made longer by each person’s baggage.

Once in a while, the line would move surprisingly quickly. During these sacred, short periods, the Muslim family in front of us, which had at least 10 young children, had trouble moving their large collection of bags in a timely manner.

Normally, this would have made me boil in annoyance. I’ll admit, it did annoy me a little at first.

But then I realized I was stuck with these people for an unknown amount of time. We buckled down and worked together to heave everyone’s overstuffed luggage to the next spot in line.

Once in a while, my hand and the hand of a teenage Muslim boy from the family in front of us reached for the same piece of luggage. We’d catch each other’s eye and do the dance where each person jumps to the same side simultaneously.

We didn’t speak the other’s language well enough to communicate, so we’d just smile sheepishly and get back to work.

Other times, the line stood at a dead stop for hours. During those long periods of stagnation, we mostly sat, talked and absorbed the heat from the afternoon Cairo sun, which was high in the sky and beating down steadily.

The line was an all-day affair, but since we were waiting outdoors, we could not buy food or drink. The U.S. Embassy employees passed out water bottles once in awhile, which was much appreciated, and anyone in our group who had brought food generously offered to share.

“Granola bars, anyone?” one student offered. “Feel free to take one. I have plenty.”

And so it was granola bars all around.

As a weight limit was announced for our already over-packed bags, students began discarding unnecessary items from their suitcases.



Old pairs of shoes.

One student discarded a classic, plaid blazer from his bag to make room and offered it to the group for the taking.

“Really, I won’t wear it,” he said. “You can have it.”

As I reflect upon this, I realize one of the reasons I did not feel annoyed standing in such a tremendously long line was because it was one of those unusual circumstances that brings out the best in people.

I guess a part of me always thought that life nowadays was just a more sophisticated form of Darwin’s survival of the fittest. But standing in line for 10 hours outside the Cairo airport makes me think that maybe communal sharing and generosity have merits, too.

In its own simple way, even sharing Cheetos was inspiring.

But there was another reason I was only mildly frustrated by the enormous line. At first it was hard for me to describe, but I finally pinpointed it.


Those of us fleeing Egypt had experienced riots.

Those of us fleeing Egypt had felt tear gas burn our eyes until they streamed steadily, giving the chemical a literal meaning.

Those of us fleeing Egypt had been there to fulfill a dream, and had watched it fade away.

Whether it was the couple who had spent their life savings on a vacation to Egypt or the 12 of us from Notre Dame who had spent 10 months anticipating our semester abroad, everyone in line had had a dream. And whether that dream was big or small, it’s demoralizing to watch it slip from your grasp.

So after all that, standing 10 hours in a line to board a plane with an unknown destination (either Istanbul, Athens or Cyprus) was not enough to stir up a strong reaction in us.

We waited patiently.

We waited obediently.

We waited passively.

We were like Disney princesses and the plane ride out of Egypt was our knight in shining armor. We were just waiting to be saved.

At 10 p.m. that night, we finally boarded our flight and took off to Istanbul. Several students began clapping and to the rest of the passengers’ annoyance, began singing John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads.”

For some reason or other, it has become a sort-of theme song of our trip. We heard it playing in several restaurants in Egypt and so when we were locked up in our dorm after curfew, we held some impromptu karaoke sessions starring John Denver to entertain ourselves.

What a random singer to have made his way to Egypt, but the lyrics seemed to fit:

Take me home, country roads, to the place I belong.

Now, after spending three days exploring Istanbul, I am sitting on a flight to London, where I will be spending the rest of the semester.

London lacks the culture and language barrier I had hoped for from a study abroad program. I’ll miss that.

But more than anything, I crave stability. I crave a home.

My last days in Egypt were spent not knowing if, or when, I’d have to pack up and leave on the spot. The past few days were spent living out of a hotel room in Istanbul, out of a suitcase filled with dirty clothes.

London is not Cairo.

London is not the United States.

But London could be a home for four months.

And whether it’s via country roads or airplanes, I’m ready for a hom