Friday, 11 September 2015

Expat memories of September 11th, 2001

Parisian Shoefiti hooked by gravity.

Where were you on September 11, 2001?

Fourteen years ago we were all somewhere. Some were too young to remember, like when I was little and my father awoke me to show me the black and white television when the first astronauts walked on the moon.  They planted a flag.  The American flag, a flag from the planet Earth.

I confuse this man-on-the-moon memory with the night my father awoke me to show the cat had kittens.  She took to the unused space under the kitchen sink.  Childhood memories spark from photographs and can develop through stories parents tell. Or from remembering extraneous events seemingly related.  Fact becomes fiction and vice versa. They become beleifs.

My memories of September 11th 2001 ring crystal in my mind.

I was in my atelier-gallery in Florence Italy with my ex-husband, a wonderful man and great painter.  We had just opened our painting space after years of street vending.  We opened on September 6th  2001.  Those were the days of plenty in the seven most industrialized countries. Italy was one of them. Our atelier was in Florence.

A wonderful couple came into our shop.  I’ll call it a shop but it really was our painting atelier, in Florence’s downtown gallery district.  On via Ghibellina. Frescoes arched across the ceiling, terracotta tiles covered the floor, our paintings lined four walls.  The couple told me they were on a win-win vacation. They loved our paintings, paid for a few and said they would return to pick up the packed canvases with frames.  We didn’t have a radio, we listened to classical music, heads in the clouds.  On the shop window, I’d taped a photo of one of my best clients who posed next to Bill Clinton, plus several photos of myself on NBC, clearly marking our space as American friendly.  This was the touristic district of Florence.  We made and sold paintings for the tourism market.  We painted poppies by the field.  Americans were our best clients after the Berlin wall fell and the Germans counted their marks and after I was interviewed by Matt Laur live from Florence.

We packed the paintings, carefully.  We waited for them to return.

A Florentine woman across the street who held an electrician’s shop came to tell me what was happening.  I didn’t understand what she was talking about.  She had a TV in the back room. It was inconceivable. A movie.  She drug me across the street and pulled me to the back room.


I saw the television. 

It was after the second tower had been hit. It was news. 

I didn’t react, not immediately. But I got on the telephone to speak with my family.  An expat calling home. It took hours of busy signals before I reached home.  My father was stuck in Washington, he could see the smoke off the pentagon, but he was fine.

A crazy bum on the street walked by the shop. He was a Northern European, with letters tattooed on his forehead.  A vocal, insane man, tall and someone I’d cross the street to avoid but someone I saw almost everyday.  He ranted more than usual, like there was something in the air. He moved on. Then a American lady came in the shop.

She’d just arrived in Florence, rented an apartment and was trying to stay awake to knock jet lag. She’d turned on the television and thought she was watching a movie.  Internet wasn’t available. WIFI wasn’t conceived. She didn’t have cable. After the movie went no where, she realized she was watching an Italian news channel.  She left her apartment and happened into our shop.  I didn’t react. It was all just too weird.

During that afternoon it was like traffic stopped in Florence.  Traffic was insane in Florence. Our shop was up the street from the place were certain guys prayed.  I don’t know what they called the place. It was a shop like ours. Terracotta floors, four walls but barren. Hundreds of these guys walked the street, against traffic, the wrong way. Chins in the air. 

I removed the photos in the window and closed the door. It had an automatic lock, you had to be buzzed in. The wonderful couple returned. Their smiles gone, bewilderment and worry filled their eyes. Their win-win vacation over.

That night a friend of mine told me she went to dinner at her boyfriend’s restaurant.  Many Florentine shop owners, not Italians but nationality is unimportant, dined there, people who sold leather jackets and bags to tourists. My friend told me these people uncorked champagne and told the whole restaurant they would send their children to death as kamikazes. It was appalling. Remembering is appalling.  Others told me the American’s deserved it.  I wonder what they think now? After the Charlie Hebdo attacks, after a little girl carried a bomb into a Nigerian market, while Syria is still happening. Were these people not living it up in the win-win laic land of plenty? Spitting in the hand that fed them.

A news stand window the day after the Charlie Hebdo attacks. The front page of every paper from around the world was displayed.
I reacted a week later after seeing my fellow compatriots walk in single file behind their tour guides.  Shoulders hunched. Like dogs with tails between their legs. Dollars locked in their pockets. Worried for their family back home and probably unable to conceive that they were away, partying and incapable to return home. They were stranded in a foreign place because all flights States-bound were cancelled.

I'm reacting now, fourteen years later.

I can’t celebrate this day, September 11th. But I do stand up for my right as a laic woman who can speak freely and dress the way she desires.

I cannot fathom the hate for fellow humans on the planet earth. In a solar system. In a universe surrounded by stars. 

I cannot fathom gravity. How shoes hang from a wire. Fathom why all human beings, plants, animals remain with their paws stuck to a ball made of minerals and gasses. And not fall off into space.  I cannot fathom how fish remain swimming in water and not float off into the air.  I cannot fathom killing for a belief that another human being invented.

Today I am in Paris. I walk the streets and see signs of past wars. Bullet scars on buildings. Plaques on schools remembering deported children. A plaque in the metro station where a bomb ripped open a metro car in 1995.

September 11th 2001, I will never forget. 


  1. Beautifully said, Angie. I'm glad you didn't delete this.

    1. Hi Lynn, thanks. Sometimes it's hard to be an expat. You know.