From the Book - United Against Terrorism: An Anthology for Peace
We were sitting at the bar on a cold Kansas City
evening in December of 2000 ready to order a couple of drinks. I say one cold
twist deserves a couple more. So, we ordered several gin and tonics as a couple
in their late 20's awaiting the unexpected, while counting our certainties over
a laugh. The point of this is that we were planning a trip to Europe together
during the coming year. We were comfortable with this fact as a couple of kids
ready to widen our young union. On that night and for many nights to follow, we
pieced together an itinerary that was long and lasting. The New Year passed, the
spring promised the same itinerary and the summer whittled our plans down to two
countries on the European landscape. The tickets were bought around mid-August
and our thirteen days of adventure were officially on the tote board.
The plan was to arrive in Paris on September 4th and leave from the same city on September 17th. There was one slight hitch in the early planning. My lover's son was going to have a birthday on the 18th, which would shrink our shadow of a doubt down to about nothing. I proceeded to ask her about the night after she purchased our tickets about cutting it too short for her to get home in time. She told me, barring a hijacking or global crisis, that we would get home with time to spare. We laughed about it and continued to whittle down our enormous possibilities for the pending European excursion. We did just that. The plan was to arrive in Paris on the 4th and leave for Cinque Terra on the 7th. Following three days in the poor man's Rivera (located on the northwestern corner of Italy), we were to arrive in Venice, Italy on the 10th and spend three full days there. Following Venice, we were going to head back to Paris on the 14th and spend the remainder of our adventure there until TWA flight 980 brought us back to the United States.
As we flash-forward to the morning of September 4th in the United States, our flight left on time with short lines and horrible in-flight movies as our entertaining hope plodding over the Atlantic. After arriving in DeGaulle Airport, we lit a smoke, looked for our luggage and began hiking into our unfolding Origami. Our time in Paris convinced us that the smell of piss in subways is unforgettable and that bread was the last thing we would eat on the train we were to take down to Venice on September 9th. After arriving in Venice, we looked out over an enormous network of waterways about us and started walking towards it. Our turn in Venice began and we decided to head straight for a hotel to get rid of our luggage and do some venturing through the caverns of this old city. Though, I couldn't get the thought of Thomas Mann's 'Death in Venice' out of my head.
Leading to September 11th, a crazy encounter happened on a bridge looking over the Grand Canal on the night of the 10th. A guy in his mid-20's approached us in a drunken slumber. He started asking us questions in Italian jive. It was hard for me to keep up, so I asked him if he could speak some English. Oh, oh, oh he started his next sentence. "Are you Americans," he continued. We responded with a collective nod. Then, he picked up fluent English without a hitch. He was a cool kid with a good portion of street hustler coursing through his blood. He talked of being a sociology/philosophy major at a French university and that he was in Venice for about a year learning the Italian language. He continued to tell us how America is superior to Europe, why President Bush isn't popular and how he would have voted Gore if he had an American voting card. So, we continued our talk on the bridge as he asked us if we wanted to grab a beer with him in a nearby pub down the street. We agreed and started walking towards the bar. Along the way, he told us that he was Egyptian by origin and knew German, Italian, English, French and Arabic fluently. He kept on apologizing about his English and his lack of range. We kept reassuring him that everything was cool. We were elated to be speaking English at length with a quasi local. Along the way to the pub, this man told us that he's all for the brotherhood of human beings. We agree with him as we laid our feet into the bar. While inside, he starts talking to an older gal behind the bar as she and two other guys start give him the wry eye. My lover immediately picks up on the non-verbal cues going down and immediately smells a rat. I assumed he was a punk after the sour welcome into the pub, but I held onto the rumor that young European folk have a defined charm in showing foreigners a good time.
Moving on, we ordered three tall beers. My lover and I pay for all of them and accidentally give the gal at the cash register 5,000 Lire ($2.50 US) extra. Everyone played dumb at the register when I asked for my change back. The rat was slowly getting exposed. Immediately, our defenses shot through the roof. We drank our drinks quickly and told the Egyptian man that we had to get back to the hotel before they locked it up. He nodded, shook our hands and we headed back to the hotel. It was officially September 11th at this point in the AM. This man had a distinct vibe that the gal and I couldn't shake. This cat was likely going to have us pay for several drinks and plan his roll on us later in the eve.
On the 11th of September at about 5:30 p.m. (10:30 a.m. US CST time), we had a man from Milan try to explain to us what was transpiring in the states. As it happened, we were in the back of a water taxi heading towards an unexplored portion of the island. While sitting in the back of the taxi, a man across from us begins speaking in broken Italian. I tried piecing together bits and pieces of his dialogue as a poor Italian translator. This man knew about as much English as I knew Italian, which made it difficult for us to get our messages across successfully. Though, he kept asking us if we were from New York or if we had access to a television. Also, he kept making the phone motion towards his ear. A blatant hint that we should call back home. Then, he laid down an obvious sign. He began throwing his hands up and down in a parallel motion. I said, "World Trade Centre?" I was thinking he was talking about the bombings in 1993. So, I told him that I would look up some words in my Italian dictionary and get back with him. Well, getting back with him wasn't an option as our taxi pull up next to the floating dock that we were to get off on. We quickly grabbed our bags and said 'arrevederci' to the man from Milan who was our canary in the coalmine. He waved and flashed us a look of doom as we headed past him and further into our journey.
About thirty minutes later, we made our way back to our hotel. The agreement was to stop in to unload our luggage and get out for some alone time. It was going to be our first break in seven day of being together non-stop. Making our way into the room, I decided that I should call my pops back in America. It was my first call while on the trip in Europe. I keep a strong belief while on vacation to keep communication with home to a minimum and stay away from reading newspapers or watching television. So, I get through to my pops and he says, "Joe! Joe!" I tell him that it's me with a slight delay in his response. He says, "The second tower of the World Trade Centre just collapsed. I never thought I was going to talk to you again." At this point, I'm thinking that he's full of shit. I've seen the World Trade Centre with my own eyes and there's no way that a 110-story building can just collapse. He continues to tell me in a panic that three hijacked US airliners have hit the Pentagon and both towers of the World Trade Center. Also, there was a fourth plane that they were still trying to track down. Furthermore, the country was on high alert and all air traffic in the country had been grounded. At this point, the hairs on the back of my neck began rising. My lover was asking me what was going on and at that point I could hardly answer. We kept the call brief and my pops warned my to be extra damn careful. I was potentially a marked target as an American in a foreign land.
I told my lover that America was going through a breed of Armageddon that we couldn't imagine. With this in mind, we went on ahead and took a several hours to explore Venice and be on our own for some time. It just so happened that I woke-up that morning feeling healthy after several days of battling a cold bug. So, we took our brief hiatus and came back together for a good meal and several bottles of wine. With the news of our home country under attack, we were walking through the streets with full bottles of wine talking about the possibility of Jim Morrison coming towards us wanting a light of his smoke of slug of our drink. Our reality was heightened to a surreal space that we were trying to put our finger on before the director yelled 'CUT!' As we kept our trip in perspective, we tried to grab some unfolding news on what was going on in our homeland. Going by several radios at souvenir kiosks and listening to sounds from televisions in several windows, we didn't have a good enough grasp of the language to translate the news. So, we spent most of the evening along the Grand Canal in front of our hotel talking into the early hours of the Italian morning. Finally making our way back up to the room, we watched some television to get the story on what was going on back home. Again, we couldn't lasso the language barrier enough to find out what was going on. That evening of dreaming was vivid and agonizing until we could get our hands on the morning paper to harness the real story of what happened in the US.
The morning of the 12th happened to be our last morning in Venice. After checking out of our room, we headed towards a pastry shop around the corner from the hotel. She ordered our café and pastry, while I headed towards the newspaper kiosk to get the English version on America at that moment. Mind you, we woke up to a day of sunshine, laughter in the streets and general Italian joviality as we made our way out of town and back to Cinque Terra to continue our venture. So, I headed towards the kiosk and saw pictures of pluming smoke rising above New York as I purchased the international version of USA Today and the Venezian daily. With papers in hand and heading back to the pastry shop, I walked some paces before looking at the headlines. I stopped in the middle of a bustling street and looked down at the Italian daily and saw a picture of the Statue of Liberty shrouded in a blast of black smoke with the headline shouting loud that 20,000 people were already confirmed dead. Again, the hairs on the back of my neck rose. Reality met the unreal and I quickly lost my appetite for the pastry that was awaiting me. Getting back to the table, I told my lover that she wasn't going to believe it. Our country had been ripped to bits. We huddled over the papers together in silence. We paid our bill and headed towards the train station in disbelief.
We arrived at the train station and bought "The Herald" as our final blow of English language on the events that were unfolding in America. It was chaos and the black and white images of planes going into the World Trade Centre were kicking us around like a dream we couldn't quite put our arms around. We were moving with the world at that point as we climbed onto the train for our final destination of Vernazza, Italy. This would be our home for the next several days before trying to get back to the United States.
After three days in Vernazza, we pieced together the events of an unspeakable war on America through the headlines of a number of papers we bought in Vernazza. Some of the papers were in German, some in Italian, some in English and some from the eyes of the communist party in Italy. Each one painted an uncertain picture of the world after the most powerful country in the world seemingly came under such a powerful attack. So, were in Vernazza. This town, one of the five towns of Cinque Terra, had to be one of the most peaceful spots on earth. This compounded the disbelief that our home country was unraveling at the seams. Over those three days, we floated on our backs in the Ligurian Sea, met some of the coolest cats on earth and kept everything in check. We were on a vacation as a couple of poor folk that saved a year's wages to live well. We did just that. Yet, I couldn't shake the sadness that followed me like a shadow.
Following Vernazza, we decided to head back to Paris and the airport a day early to find out what our fate was for getting back home. Leading up to our trip back to Paris, we found out that our flight back home didn't exist anymore, there was an enormous back log of travel waiting to get off the ground and that it was virtually impossible to get anywhere with a TWA representative on the phone. So, we arrived in Paris on the 17th and headed straight for DeGaulle to speak face-to-face with a rep. Arriving in Paris at the crack of morning, we took the subway straight to DeGaulle. Going through a crowed and chaotic airport complete with armed French Foreign Legion soldiers, we went to the TWA counter. A patient woman confirmed that flight 980 from Paris to St. Louis didn't exist anymore. Our choices were to stay in Paris for another seven days or recoup our losses and take a train to London for a flight out of Gatwick International Airport three days from then (it would have been the 19th). The only hitch with the London flight was that Americans doing the same thing were swallowing up all the hotels. So, we got on an Internet terminal in the airport and reserved a hotel room and bought two EuroStar tickets to London. Mind you, our money was gone and all of this was going on the credit card. Though, if you're going to be stuck in an International crisis, it mind as well be in Europe. So, our broke asses bought several tickets and headed towards London.
Over the days leading to our flight home, we kept in regular contact with our folks and some friend's back home. Everything seemed to have changed in America. Not only by the tone in the voices we were conversing with, but with the headlines that were glaring from various papers along the way. There were Parisian papers, London papers, English papers and Irish papers. All proclaimed the same thing. A war was declared and the man stamping my passport with the "English Channel" tattoo told me that the United States had officially declared war. This made us doubt further if we would get back to the United States in the near future. Our pendulums were swinging high and hard. From my lover missing her son's birthday to contemplating the time we would arrive home, the eye of the hurricane getting wetter and wetter. Our first night in London fortunately matched us up with a divine taxi driver that told us that the British were side-by-side with us in our pending fight. In fact, the overall International response was incredible. We were ushered through a packed line in a Parisian train station to catch our train to London, the Italians set us up in a fat, cheap room in Vernazza and the English were remarkable. In fact, I remember asking the cabby in London what the response to the attack on America in England like. Instead of responding in words, he looked in his rear view and told us that we had to visit the American Embassy during our two-day exodus in London. We did just that.
Towards the end of our first full day, we boarded several packed subways towards Grosvner Square to see how England was reacting. After some whacked directions to the Embassy, we found ourselves heading towards a white tent at the entrance of a large lawn in front of the Embassy building. The day was beginning to darken and the rain was at a steady spit. Though, once we approached, the rain started getting heavier. In fact, it was at a steady downpour once we entered the tent and went through the most stringent security check during the entire trip. Following the check, we entered a gallery of the most gut wrenching display of support I have ever witnessed in my life. Between two flag draped statues of George Washington and FDR, was 150 feet of flowers, candles, cards and notes placed for the United States to read. With a steady rain and the fragrant smell of flowers in the air, I walked in amazement of human outpouring. We left with few words said and grabbed some wine to cap the evening off with a drink and some BBC headlines on unfurghling events.
Several cold, gray London days passed as we awaited our trip back to the United States. On my previous trip to Europe, I didn't want to come back home. This time, I wanted to do everything possible to get back to America with my passport burning my pocket like a pile of lint set on fire. So, the morning before we were to leave Europe and get back home, I went down to the front desk to confirm our flight home. Figuring there would be a gamut of complications in the process, my dread to make the phone call to Gatwick went up and up. Standing over the phone, I asked for the TWA counter at Gatwick. They connected me quickly and just as quickly our flight and place on the flight was confirmed. I was floored by how easily it went. We spent our last day in London like a couple of expatriates at a carnival holding back any thought of being stranded any longer. My lover wanted to see her son and I wanted to see everything in America again.
We fast-forward again to our seats on the flight home. The journey was almost complete and we both knew that we would never live anything like it again. On the flight, there was a brief mention by a stewardess of the stress over the last week and that they were going to make the flight as comfortable as possible. Personally, I had no worries. If there was every a safer time to fly, it was then. No one slept on the flight. There was an unspeakable restlessness and we were ready to pounce if an errant shoe was dropped loud enough. My lover and I talked about the dream we had and were waiting for the next one to begin as the tires touched down on the runway. Then, from the back of the plane we heard the beginnings applause that made its way in a wave to the front of the plane. Everyone was clapping on board the flight as we taxied into our anticipated American stop. Shit, it never felt so good to be back in America.
To this day, my lover and I have not seen the planes crash into the World Trade Centre on an American television. We have only heard the stories from Americans that were here to see it over and over during the days that followed. You know, I gained a whole new respect for newspapers. That was our number one source of information the entire journey. Whether it was looking at the morning headlines a Brit had held in his hands on a subway or it was copy we purchased, the papers served as our floppy television set. On another note, we were flat surprised to see so many flags waving in windows and storefronts after we got back home. I don't want to see the day when Americans decide to take their flags down out of their windows or flag holders. I'm hoping my lover and I can plan another adventure on a barstool before any flag comes down.
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