September 11, 2021

9/11 An American in France


Twenty years ago today, September 11, 2001, I was staying in Coudoux, a French village outside Aix-en-Provence where I was on a sabbatical from a community college in New Jersey. I had spent the day doing errands in French and not always succeeding.  I had had trouble making myself understood at the cheese monger’s.  At the Internet café, I had struggled with a French keyboard.  Afterwards, I took a bus to Aix and made my way to the Archives Nationales d’Outre Mer, which holds the records of French colonies.  I was researching my family who had emigrated from Aix to Martinique in the late 1600s.  Using the archives isn’t for the faint hearted.  The protocol is complicated and outdated.  By the time, I had ordered the material I needed, the archives were closing, forcing me to put my documents on hold for the following day.

I walked to the Gare Routière and caught a bus back to Coudoux.  Exhausted, from speaking French all day, I grabbed a glass of wine and turned on the television, hoping to catch an American show.  I thought I had found a movie- some version of Godzilla with buildings crumbling, fire and smoke shooting from the windows.  But something was off.  The narrator sounded like a newscaster not an actor and the buildings were the twin towers at the World Trade Center in Manhattan, not the setting of a Japanese monster film.  It was 5:30 P.M. in the south of France, 11:30 A.M. in New York.  The towers had collapsed just 45 minutes earlier.  At that moment, I wasn’t sure what I was seeing.  Was it a joke? Then the TV screen moved to the Pentagon.

At that moment, Christiane, my landlady, opened my front door talking to me in rapid almost hysterical French.  Nevertheless, I understood that the film I had been watching was real. Terrorists had attacked the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and somewhere in Pennsylvania.  I was paralyzed with fear and shock.  My daughter has just moved to Manhattan.  My son lived in Philadelphia.  My husband, was he at home in Princeton New Jersey just miles from the disaster?  Had he gone to teach at the community college where we were both professors?  

Christiane grabbed my arm and pulled me into her house and to her phone.  I tried over and over but could not get through.  I called everyone I knew, every family member, every friend, every neighbor, but nothing.  Hours later, Christiane’s cousin managed to contact my daughter who assured him that she, her brother, and my husband were safe.

I don’t remember the rest of the evening.  I woke up in the middle of the night wondering if I would ever get home.  All American airports were closed.  For how long?  Would it be safe to travel by plane?

Over the next few days, French citizens reached out to me in sympathy, je suis désolé.  At the local bank, the teller told me, “We are all in this together; we are friends.  The U.S. helped us in WWII, and now it is our turn to help you.” These acts of kindness comforted and fortified me, for a moment, for an hour.

At noon on September 15th, France observed three minutes of silence for those lost in the attacks.  At twelve o’clock, I walked across the street to the village church.  It was empty.  I lit a candle and sat alone while the church bells rang.  I felt no solace, only isolation.  I still hadn’t spoken to my family and the images of people jumping out of windows replayed over and over whenever I closed my eyes. 

This was my second time living in France while my country burned.  During the summer of 1965, I sold Herald Tribunes on the Champs Elysée.  On August 14th, I picked up my papers at the office on Rue de Berri.  Images of a burning Watts filled the front page.  Shocked and frightened, I wonder what I would find when I returned home. 

Thirty-six years later, flying into Newark International airport, I looked out the airplane window and saw a familiar landscape changed forever.  Where there had been two narrow skyscrapers, there was emptiness. 

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