“No one sleeps in the front bedrooms tonight.” I’ll never forget my father’s directive. It was September 1, 1971. A military coup had swept into power in Tripoli, Libya. My family lived in a villa adjoining our Jordanian landlord’s villa. Outside, it was getting dark and we were all alarmed, if silently so. More like, scared out of our wits. Tanks rolled down the street right past our home. In the dark, we huddled barely breathing as the sounds of men shouting rose above the grinding metallic sound of tank treads churning desert sand. Thick limestone block walls and windows zipped shut held us inside in a protective, heavy darkness.
Ordinarily, watching Tarzan in French on TV was comic entertainment. With a coup happening, no telephones and no local television broadcasting in English was more than a little nerve-wracking.. News came through American offices- my Dad’s work. Same as the mail delivery. There wasn’t any mail delivery system and you had no assurance that anything sent through the main post office would actually be received. Ever. We relied on shortwave radio to hear stations and programs such as Voice of America and international news over the British Broadcasting Corporation. We learned that the coup was “bloodless”: the royal family of King Idris fled, never to return.
Libya had a younger, new leader. A colonel in the army, relatively unknown. Educated at Oxford. Changes and upheaval started showing up almost immediately. Women walking downtown in miniskirts to go to their offices to work were stopped. Military or police painted their legs. Paint! Imagine! Not artistically, but like a giant scarlet letter. Wine and pork were suddenly banned from being imported. The French and Italian corporations negotiated an allowance. One case of wine per month per employee. Local merchants lost no time in suddenly offering all the equipment to set up an in-home still. Then came the outrage of unearthing and shipping to Italy all the war veterans buried in Libya. Other serious cultural affronts gave serious concern to the expat and, especially, the Italian community.
The biggest blow came when Col. Gaddafi exercised his power to not renew the land lease with the United States that had been in place for decades at the site of Wheelus Airforce Base. The base included Wheelus High School – the largest expat high school in the world. Students were allowed to complete the school year. Seniors not only had the prospect of graduation, but also the historic distinction of graduating in the school’s final class.
All of a sudden, seventh and eighth grade students and families were forced to split their family, and grapple with the question of what school to attend. My mother wanted to send me home to attend Hockaday, an exclusive girls’ school in Dallas, Texas.
Travel was not only calling me, it was imperative. Such an unexpected development became a great opportunity. I researched a bit, and fairly quickly came to my decision. It seemed a place of mystery and majesty. A place without compare.
Walking with a friend through the sand back home one afternoon, ice cold colas and snacks in hand, it was a hot topic to share. “A lot of people are choosing to go to boarding schools in Switzerland,” I began with feigned casualness. Not detecting a response from my Italian friend, I continued. “I’m not that keen about snow. I’m from Texas – I’m just not a cold weather kind of gal.” Tossing little puffs of sand in the air behind our sandals, we loped on.
“So, where do you want to go?” She asked, taking another sip.
“Rome.” I pronounced it with finality.
Her gaze focused about our shadows’ length ahead, she told me, “That’s where I would go – if my father would let me.”
My head whipped around, my brain confounded. I searched her face for meaning.
“What…?” was all I could manage to utter.
Rolling her eyes, she said resignedly, “My father says Rome is ‘Fun City’ and there are too many ways for me to get into trouble.”
That clinched it for me: I was Romeward bound.