“Is anyone here American?” The winery owner burst into the room, breathless and in a panic.
I raised my hand, the lone American. Two days earlier I had run the Bordeaux Marathon, and as a post-race treat, was taking a workshop at one of the wineries in the area.
“Planes are falling out of the sky in New York City,” he said. “My daughter and son-in-law live there and I can’t reach them.”
Did we hear him correctly? Planes falling out of the sky? Perhaps he’d had too much wine? Or perhaps there was something lost in translation? Confused and not really sure what to make of the interruption, we stayed for the final hour of class.
When we arrived back at the hotel, the manager was standing in the doorway. “Are either of you American?” This was becoming strangely familiar. “I’m American,” I replied.
“I am so sorry,” he said. “You need to go upstairs, sit down and turn on the television.” Confusion turned to fear and concern.
The scenes on TV were surreal. It just didn’t make sense. The sky was so blue. And the sun was shining so brightly. It looked like it had started out as such a happy, serene morning….
We sat for ages, glued to the screen. And as we watched the events unfold – it was 5:30 p.m. in France and 9:30 a.m. in New York City – the magnitude of what was happening started to sink in.
Only months before we had celebrated my birthday at Windows on the World, the restaurant on the 107th floor of the North Tower. What had seemed spectacular for it’s views high above NYC, now seemed incredibly frightening. And it was gone.
Seeing the horrible images, I remember feeling as though I had a knot in my stomach and a heavy weight on my chest. And in all my years of living abroad, I had never felt so far from home.
Eventually, we forced ourselves to leave the hotel room and go find a late dinner. All of the restaurants we walked by had their TVs on, and the staff and diners were sitting together, silently watching. We said hardly anything to each other during our meal, and we ate even less than we spoke.
And then a strange and lovely thing happened – at our hotel, in restaurants, in taxis – everywhere we went over the next few days: Everyone, I mean everyone, offered condolences on the tragedy and loss in the United States.
“I hope that your family and friends are safe,” said the man at the hotel desk as we were leaving. Then at the airline counter in Bordeaux as I presented my passport for check-in, “Oh, you are an American,” the woman said, “I am so very sorry…I hope that your family and friends are alright.”
Tears welled up in my eyes. “Yes,” I said. “Thank you. My family and friends are good.” I silently thanked her for her kindness and compassion.
When I checked in at Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris, deja vu. “Oh, you’re American. I am so sorry. Are your family and friends…are they o.k?” “They are fine,” I said. “None of them were there. Thank you though…” and my voice trailed off as I fought back tears.
This happened over and over again throughout the next week when I was back home in Dublin, Ireland. I had been living there long enough that I had acquired more of an Irish accent and dialect than an American or Californian one. But any time I opened my mouth and my American-ness was detected, I was immediately offered consolation and was asked about the well-being of my family and friends.
Around the corner from our house, the American Embassy started a book of condolences to send to The White House. There was a line early in the morning on my way to work. There was a line at 2am, when I passed by on the way home from the pub (yes, that was my life back then.) In the middle of the afternoon, more lines. This went on for several weeks. People living in Ireland and visitors from other countries waited for hours to sign the book and share their thoughts, their hearts, with those in the United States. Every time I walked by, my eyes welled up with tears. Sometimes I even cried.
Never before in my life – and rarely since then – have complete strangers offered up so much love and genuine kindness. To this day, I am still so touched by the outpouring of compassion, empathy and support. It was beautiful. And it was global.
This post is part of a collective tribute for September 11th. Click here for more Care2 stories on 9/11.