Two members of The Displaced Nation team, ML Awanohara and Kate Allison, were living in the United States at the time of 9/11 — Kate as an expatriate from the UK, and ML as a recent repatriate. In commemoration of Sunday’s 10th anniversary, they recount where they were on that day, as well as the impact it’s had on their lives for the past 10 years.
I moved to New York City about a year before the 9/11 attacks occurred. Though an American, I’d spent a big chunk of my life abroad, in England and Japan.
But on that fateful day, just as the planes crashed into the towers, I was sitting at an outdoor table at a hotel on the island of Santorini, sipping retsina and savoring the sweetness of the tomatoes in my salad while admiring the hotel’s cliff-perched views of the sea.
The man who would become my second husband and I had gone to Crete for vacation. We’d traveled to this extraordinary cycladic island by ferry for the day.
After lunch, we made our way through the winding streets of Fira to the cable car station — we had to take the cable car back down to the beach to catch the ferry back home to Crete. We decided we needed more film and went into a little souvenir shop near the cable car entrance. The man behind the counter said something excitedly in Greek and gestured at the little TV on his wall.
The screen contained a surreal image of a plane crashing into the twin towers and billows of smoke.
I then had to do one of the hardest things I’ve ever done: get on a ferry for six hours, without any way of finding out what was going on. By the time we reached Crete, I had worked myself up into a state of panic over my sister and her young family, who were living in Battery Park City, right next to the twin towers. (Fortunately, my sister and her two-week-old baby were evacuated.)
We spent the rest of our holiday glued to CNN. On the occasions when we ventured out, many Cretans would offer words of sympathy. I remember in particular talking to the proprietor of one of the many open-fronted shops on Souliou Street, in the old quarter of Rethymno. She confessed to me how frightened 9/11 had made her feel. “If they can do that to America, then how can any of us be safe?” she said, gesturing at her wares, mostly hand-made sweaters.
Dogs, buses and other neuroses
In the aftermath of 9/11, I got my very first dog — a black-and-tan cocker spaniel, whom I named Cadbury for his sweetness (that was before I knew he had moods).
There’s nothing more comforting than a pet when undergoing trauma, and like everyone else in New York, I felt traumatized by the knowledge that there were people out there who hated our country enough to target civilians.
I also started riding the bus home from work. In the months following 9/11, there were constant rumors of threats against the subway. I’d lived through the sarin gas attacks on the Tokyo subway, and didn’t fancy another round of underground terror.
I liked the bus culture and have been taking buses ever since.
The attacks also deepened my interest in politics and foreign affairs. I understood for the first time how vulnerable cities are in general, and New York in particular. Shouldn’t the opinion of New Yorkers, who are on the front lines, count for more than those of people who live in states that aren’t vulnerable to terrorism? Especially when it comes to choosing our nation’s leaders…
That said, city politics are no better. How many city officials does it take to construct a 9/11 memorial? In fact, fewer (or none at all!) would have been more effective.
But I think what I found most disturbing was the role of religion in international affairs. What was all this talk of “holy wars” and crusades? Were we back in the Middle Ages? No doubt I was influenced by all my years of living in the polytheistic Far East, but I just kept thinking: this monotheism embraced by the West and the Middle East has a lot to answer for. (Give me Buddhism any day!)
A noisy anniversary
We’ve made it 10 years, and that’s a relief. At least, I assume that’s why so many people, along with the mainstream media, are making such a loud noise over this. (Are all ten-year anniversaries commemorated this vociferously?)
What I crave right now, to be honest, is some quiet time, away from all these celebratory undercurrents.
When I first came to NYC in 2000, I lived in Greenwich Village. Whenever I looked down 6th Avenue, the twin towers loomed in the distance, helping to orient me in the right direction.
I now live in the East Village, but perhaps I’ll head toward 6th Avenue this Sunday with my two dogs (Cadbury now has a younger companion) and reflect on my lost landmark.
I may also reflect on the snippet of Zen wisdom that appeared in The Displaced Nation’s Monday post, on road trips:
The place to improve the world is first in one’s own heart and head and hands, and then work outward from there.
Summer 2001 marked our five year anniversary of living in the USA. Nine months before the attacks, we moved from New England to Leesburg, Virginia – a busy, rapidly expanding town about forty minutes west of Washington DC. I loved our new location. There were fields, and cows, and rolling hills; narrow streets and brick houses in the town. It was, dare I say it, very English.
September 11 started as a normal, beautiful, sunny day. I put my eight-year-old on the school bus, and went back home with my preschooler.
A little before 10 a.m., a friend phoned me. We chatted for a moment, then she asked where my husband was; since he worked with her husband, and they both traveled abroad in their jobs, this question wasn’t unusual. It’s what expat wives with traveling spouses talk about.
“At the Virginia office this week,” I said. “Yours?”
“India. He left yesterday from Dulles…thank goodness.”
Here, I should explain that I’m not a big TV watcher, especially when it comes to daytime programming, so the TV wasn’t on. If it had been, most likely it would have been tuned to Teletubbies.
“Why ’thank goodness’?” I asked.
Silence at the end of the phone, then “Haven’t you heard? Turn your TV on. It’s unbelievable.”
So I turned the TV on. I stared at the picture of the Twin Towers, not quite comprehending. I heard the announcement that a plane had crashed into the Pentagon, just forty miles away. The plane was believed to have taken off from Dulles – the airport my husband, his colleagues, and our friends flew from every week. There but for the grace of God.
“World War Three’s just started,” said my friend.
My memories of the rest of that day are disjointed. I tried several times to phone family in England to let them know that we were safe, that no one was traveling this week, and eventually, after many busy signals, I got through. My husband came home from work and I breathed more easily. I didn’t want to be alone with just a four-year-old for company while this was going on.
Reports were vague, rumors rife. There were eleven hijacked planes in the air, there were six hijacked planes in the air. The USAF had shot some down; another two hijacked planes were on the way to Washington. Thirty thousand had died in the towers.
What was clear, however, was that airspace was gradually being cleared, and all planes had to land.
The silence from the skies as this happened was deafening. You don’t realize how much noise comes from overhead aircraft – particularly near a busy airport like Dulles – until the noise isn’t there.
In the early afternoon, rumors were still circulating about a rogue flight on its way to the White House or the Capitol. I went outside into our garden for a moment, and was panicked to hear aircraft engines overhead, because by this time all planes in US airspace had been grounded.
Only later did I discover I had heard Air Force One and its accompanying fighter jets, bringing the President back to Washington.
Our daughter returned from school and wanted to know what was going on. Something was going on, she said; she knew it was, because her teacher was being much nicer than usual and had let the kids draw pictures all day.
How do you explain something like this to a child? For the first time, I wondered at the wisdom of bringing children into this world at all.
Two weeks later, still pondering this question, I discovered we were expecting our third baby. Perhaps it was the answer I needed.
No one we personally knew died that day, but because of where we had lived in the US, close to both attacks, many people we knew lost friends or relatives. Their grief makes me uneasy when I see movies being made about 9/11. It’s too soon, too raw. I’m not sure when it will ever be anything else.
Something I was asked a lot in the aftermath – Will you be coming back to live in England after this?
The answer was always No. I grew up in Britain during the 70s and 80s, when IRA bombings on the mainland occurred all too often. These things can happen anywhere.
This attitude was somewhat justified four years later, on July 7, 2005. I was in London that day, having arrived at Heathrow the night before. Had I not been jet lagged and so overslept, my children and I could have been on one of those trains that were torn apart by suicide bombers – we had planned some sightseeing that day.
Like I said before – there but for the grace of God…whatever you conceive Him to be.
STAY TUNED for Monday’s post, when we return to the theme of road trips.
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img: Remember — a September 11th memorial image (the New York skyline is reflected in the eye from a silhouette placed on a window), by David Hepworth.