“America’s under attack”
Unbeknownst to me at the time, that was the message that Andy, my Contiki tour bus driver, received shortly after the first plane hit the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001.
We were on our way from Florence to Rome, just a week into a three and a half week whirlwind tour of Europe. This was my post-bar exam trip, my gift to myself before starting my big law firm job in October. It was my first time overseas.
I was hung over from the previous night – a late night at a club that involved karaoke, dancing, vodka shots and then passing out back in the hotel room fully clothed. Before leaving Florence, I searched far and wide for a McDonald’s that was serving breakfast but only managed to find some greasy pizza. When the bus pulled over just an hour outside of Florence at one of Italy’s expansive rest stops, I was thinking only of getting a Diet Coke and some food.
But when we went inside, Andy headed straight for a television set perched high up in a corner. He started flipping the channels and then stopped as the screen showed the World Trade Center in a cloud of smoke and a second plane hitting the tower. Shelby from Georgia was standing to my left and Nick and Brad from New Jersey were standing to my right. We all froze.
I don’t know how long we stood there.
Back on the bus, we struggled to understand what we just saw, images of the Twin Towers crumbling without any explanation from the soundless television set at the rest stop. Arriving in Rome a short while later, the Americans in the group (there were 10 of us out of 40) rushed to our hotel rooms to turn on the TVs and to place calls home.
No one was able to get through.
Television didn’t provide much more information as the stations were all in Italian with just one news station that had English subtitles.
And not long after we arrived in Rome, it was time to head out on a walking tour of the city with the entire group. We all went because what else would we do? Information was scarce and the full scope of what happened had not sunk in yet. We were in Rome for just 2 nights so we should make the most of it, right?
Not surprisingly, I don’t recall much from that walking tour. All of my thoughts centered on getting back to the hotel and speaking with my family to figure out what was going on.
When I eventually got my mom on the phone, the tears started flowing as I stammered,
“Mom, what’s going on?”
Then I talked to my dad and to my best friend’s roommate, Shefali. Everyone provided slightly different information and, as I compared notes with others in the group who also reached their families, it was clear that there were a lot of mixed messages and unconfirmed stories floating around.
The response we received in Rome was tremendous. The mayor of the city sent a letter to all American guests staying in Roman hotels offering condolences and establishing a hotline by which we could make calls to the United States. As we stopped into shops and cafes, the faces behind the counters expressed their compassion when they realized our nationality.
A few days later, we stumbled onto some sort of military service near the Hofburg Palace in Vienna that, while it was entirely in German, seemed to mention the World Trade Center attacks several times. We didn’t know what they were saying, but we were moved nonetheless. And then we were stunned when we visited the concentration camp at Dachau to see fresh graffiti with seemingly ant-Israeli and anti-American messages. We couldn’t help but wonder if it was in some way related to the attacks.
But really, the rest of the trip was a blur.
We stopped in amazing cities like Venice, Munich and Amsterdam but all I could think about each morning was finding a newspaper stand or internet café to read the latest updates about the aftermath of the attack on the World Trade Center. While most people at home were likely oversaturated with information, we struggled to find it.
I struggled to enjoy those last two weeks. The sites we were visiting seemed unimportant in the overall scheme of things. This trip was supposed to be the journey of a lifetime for me and I was more concerned about going home again.
When I finally boarded an airplane at London’s Heathrow airport on September 26, I had an entire row to myself. Hardly anyone was flying again then. Hours later, I landed at O’Hare and saw the American flag flying over the terminal building and tears slowly rolled down my cheek. As I emerged from the Red Line station at Chicago and State and walked the two short blocks to my apartment building, I noticed American flags posted in every store window.
I felt like I was arriving in Chicago for the first time, arriving in a country that was much different from the one I left just a month earlier.
Entering my apartment, I found my dining room table piled high with newspapers – three and a half weeks’ worth of Chicago Tribunes. Before I even unpacked, I sat down on my living room floor and started paging through them, one by one, in order starting with September 12.
As I read, I started to cry.
And I cried.
And I cried some more.
I cried until my eyes were puffy, my face was blotchy and my nose was running like a faucet.
I cried because the enormity of what happened on September 11 didn’t hit me while I was in Europe. I wasn’t able to grieve and mourn when I was so far away. It wasn’t until I was back in Chicago, back in this country that suddenly felt so strangely different to me, that I was able to fully take it all in.
It somehow seems fitting that I am overseas once again on the tenth anniversary of 9/11. As was the case ten years ago, I won’t be oversaturated with information. I won’t be inundated with memorials and remembrances and analysis. I won’t be watching television specials and reading newspaper features. Instead, I’ll be running a marathon in Tallinn, Estonia.
But that doesn’t mean I won’t be thinking about that day and about everyone back home.
And it doesn’t mean I won’t shed a few more tears.
Where were you on 9/11? How do you remember it?