Eleven years ago today, I was living in London on a student work visa. I had been away from home since mid-June, when I had set off on my great European adventure with my backpack, a Eurorail pass, and my student work visa. I had gone back packing in Europe alone after my original traveling companions dropped out of the trip for one reason or another, and then sought out gainful employment in London. Looking back, it’s one of the bravest things I’ve ever done. A friend later told me that it had been a stupid thing to do, to go backpacking alone, and maybe it was. But backpacking in Europe was a dream, and I had my chance to go, so I took it. I had promised myself no regrets when I went, and when I finally came home eight months later after half a dozen sinus infections, visits to 6 countries, and a sudden and painful yearning to just be home, I didn’t have a single one.
But not once during those 8 months had I felt so far away from home as I did on 9/11. My co-workers began telling me that a plane had flown into the World Trade Center sometime after lunch, but I blew off the first few comments without much thought. I even made some comment about people always trying to blow those up. I figured we had managed to get up someone’s nose yet again, and that it would be similar to what happened back in the early nineties, when the buildings were bombed at the basement level — lots of smoke, but not a lot of fire. Instead, what I saw when I finally managed to get online was like something out of a movie, pictures of one tower smoking and the other collapsed. I went home and did what I’m sure everyone did that day. I watched the news for hours, stunned. I discussed it with my roommates ad nauseum. I called my mother just to hear her voice.
Even today, writing this 11 years later, I tear up when I think about the people on the planes who knew they were flying to their deaths.The terrorists let them call their families, and I can’t imagine what it was like to be one of those family members answering the phone to hear their loved ones saying goodbye. I can’t imagine what it was like to be trapped in the burning buildings, or likewise, to be one of the emergency crews running into them. I can’t imagine what it was like to be in Manhattan that day when I don’t even know what it was like to be in the country.
I realize this is the ubiquitous 9/11 post, but I think on a day like this, ubiquity isn’t synonymous with trite. We all have our stories of where we were that day, and here’s mine, the one I tell about being 24 in a foreign country and making flippant offhand remarks. This is the one where I say that if I had known that a day and a half later that I would turn to my roommates and say, “Can we turn off the TV? I can’t watch any more of this,” I probably wouldn’t have been so nonchalant at work. This is the one where I say I left one country in mid-June and came back to another in mid-January. But this is also the one where I say that when the customs officer said “Welcome home,” after she checked my passport, I felt a rush of warmth because I felt like she really meant it.
Sometimes it takes going away to know where you belong.