Friday, September 11, 2009

A Memory

It had been one year exactly since the attacks. I got a text from an expat friend who used to work for the Peace Corps but had become so entranced with Slovakia that he stayed on past his PC stint to work for a central European nonprofit. Like me, he enjoyed the pace of life, the beautiful people, the beer and general quirkiness of the place too much to leave. We weren't the absolute best of friends but we ran in the same circles, so when he sent me the text, asking if I wanted to meet up at some point on September 11, 2002, I said okay. He said he just felt like being with another American that day. I agreed.

One year before, I had just gotten settled in to the new school year and was getting ready to leave work for the day when I got an email on the school system's intranet from my best friend from work, the quirkiest computer-teacher who ever walked the halls of any public high school in Central Europe. We pretty regularly left work together, meandering downtown with no real destination in mind, usually ending up sitting in a cafe, outside if the weather was nice, with a beer or ice cream or something crispy and fried. So when I got an email from him, I assumed it was one suggesting we take one of our walks. Instead, I read something about the twin towers, if I'd heard.

I was confused. He, J, is a jokester, so I just assumed he was making some joke. So I went to his office, where I found him and a couple of his colleagues sitting in front of the computer, transfixed by the news. I still thought it was a joke. I stayed on guard around my buddy since I hated when he "got" me with some joke. It took a solid five minutes for him to convince me that this time, he wasn't joking.

That's when I had to sit down. It was a little after 4pm. Dumbfounded, J offered to walk me to the apartment I was staying at so I could watch CNN. When we got there, my landlady/friend who lived right below me insisted I come to her apartment to watch there, so that she could feed me and provide me with as much becherovka as I needed. I continued to sit there on her family's expensive white leather couch, stunned, eyes glued to CNN, as she insisted I down that shot of becherovka, which I didn't really want.

Eventually, J left and I made my way back to my apartment, where I slept on the couch all night, with CNN on the whole time. The next day, the word got out that all airports were completely shut down, no one could come in our out of the country indefinitely. This was the part that, for me, was most bewildering. I, for the first time in my life, felt like a person without a country. If something happened to my family, if I needed to get back home, I couldn't. I wouldn't be allowed. No flights were going in anyway.

I went to work that day where I encountered such compassion, both among the staff and my students. The students only wanted to discuss what was going on, which we did. Everything, even in a high school in Slovakia, was at a standstill. In my final class of the day, one student asked me how I was. That's when I cried for the first time that day.

So on the one-year anniversary, during a long break I had in the middle of the morning from work, I walked down the ancient brick pedestrian walkway to the center of town to meet my expat friend. We hadn't planned it this way, but we were both wearing black. This friend, A, was also a huge joker with such an irreverent sense of humor. We just sat together at the high table and stools of the Slovak-style deli, with our open-faced sandwiches and coffee, and talked about our country, the day, the compassion of all our Slovak friends. He didn't make a single joke.

When we stood outside to go back to work, we hugged and agreed that it was good to be together. It really was.

2 comments:

Mark and Heidi said...

I just got chills imagining how it must have felt to be so far away and not able to get home if you needed to. Wasn't it amazing how it brought people together, though? Thanks for sharing this. I need to write about it myself some day but not ready yet...maybe next year...

Jo Hertel said...

You know, you really ought to publish what you write. This made me feel like I was there with you - awesome.