While my friends and family started their day with the news of the attack, I didn’t learn about it until evening. For Americans in the U.S., it was a day filled with unfolding horror. For me, it was a day filled with sightseeing in Hannover with my cousin David, followed by a pleasant evening with David and Anna’s music group. They lent me a recorder, and so we played lively music and chatted over wine, cheese, and sausage. I loved being able to participate in their everyday lives rather than just being a tourist.
It wasn’t until we got home to a voicemail message from another German cousin that I knew something was wrong. “David, is Carolyn with you? Is she alright?” Armin’s anxious voice came from the recorder. We looked at each other puzzled, then rushed to the TV.
While my friends and family learned the story bit by bit as it was discovered, I struggled to catch up and grasp what had happened all at once. The remote town in the German mountains didn’t get English-language CNN, and my conversational German wasn’t up to news reports with unfamiliar words like terrorist and hijacking.
I’ll never forget reading the words on the Internet, “The borders to the U.S. are closed.” There’s nothing more chilling than being outside the borders of your native land when it looks like there could be a war. I remember looking at David and Anna, probably with my lip quivering, and saying, “If I can’t get home, can I stay with you?”
Outside the Borders
Although I feel like I missed something important by not being part of this national moment of grief and solidarity alongside fellow Americans, I feel privileged to have experienced 9/11 outside of U.S. borders.
It’s true that I didn’t share some of the common, uniting moments that other Americans experienced. For the longest time, I couldn’t figure out why everyone kept saying, “Let’s roll!” as I’d never been able to understand the details on German TV of the passenger takeover of one of the planes. I never experienced the eerie silence my friends talk about when all air traffic was shut down for several days, interrupted by the even eerier sound of a lone military plane patrolling overhead.
But I did experience an outpouring of compassion from Europeans that most Americans probably don’t even realize existed, because I don’t think the international human reaction made it on TV stations competing to show the latest on the tragedy. I’d expected the European attitude would be, “That’s a tragic situation, but Americans, c’mon! How naïve are you, to think you would be immune from terrorism?”
Instead, I saw the flower memorials on the steps of just about every church I encountered.
Instead, I participated in a five-minute time of silence that Germany declared a couple of days before an international time of silence was announced later in the week.
Instead, I heard the German official (president? prime minister? I can’t remember) tell the U.S. ambassador in Berlin that “Today, we are all Americans,” in a speech reminiscent of John F. Kennedy’s “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech.
Instead, I saw tears in a Ukrainian man’s eyes as he talked about the evil of the attack; a man living with three generations of his family in one room, in a house without running water; a man you would think would have enough cares of his own not to be concerned about people living so far away in such privileged circumstances.
Instead, I saw the genuine compassion in the eyes of every European I met when they heard I was an American. Although I’ve rarely experienced anything but friendliness from Europeans I’ve known, the news that I’m American is most often greeted with the shallow enthusiasm of someone who thinks America is mostly about Hollywood or the rolling-eyes skepticism about our politics or military intentions or pervasiveness of our fast food chains. But in the weeks following 9/11, I felt a rush of warmth and concern and solidarity from everyone I met in my travels in Germany and Ukraine.
I honor those who lost their lives in this attack, and the firefighters who lost their lives trying to save others. We should never forget the evil that cost these people their lives.
But what I will never forget about 9/11 is the compassionate and caring people I met in Germany and Ukraine who had no part in the tragedy, who were not American, and who could easily have shrugged it off with “Very sad, but it’s happening far away and I’m already late for work.” Instead, they took time from their lives and hearts to grieve the loss of lives—no political boundaries, no borders.
That day, the borders I experienced were wide open.