Tuesday, September 10, 2013

9/11/01: Gaming, Austria

On September 11th, I was newly married, attending graduate school in Austria.  (Say it three times quickly: "The International Theological Institute for Studies on Marriage and the Family.")  Across an ocean, in a different time zone, surrounded by people who were not from the United States.

For us, 9/11 didn't happen till three in the afternoon.

And then the news spread by word of mouth, from weeping Americans and confused Estonians who were eating at the "Johannes Stuberl," the restaurant where the grad students had their meals.  We heard what had happened while walking back from the "Spar," the only grocery store in the village, where we bought the small cartons of milk and tried to find spaghetti sauce without diced carrots in it.
I remember someone saying in halting English, "But Bin Laden... he looked like a holy man..."

Embarrassing as it is to admit, I had to ask my husband what the World Trade Center was again?  Not that I hadn't actually been there.  I just remembered them as "the Twin Towers," the easy way for me to identify Manhattan.  Dan had taken me to NYC a couple of times, and I remembered standing at the foot of the North Tower, a massive structure that shot into the sky.  He promised to take me up there one day to see the awesome restaurant on the top: the Windows on the World.

It was a strange mix of reactions.  Those from the US were dumbstruck, and gathered around the one TV in the monastery we could access at the smoky little restaurant.  Distractedly, I sipped frittatten suppe, beef broth with sliced crepes in it; I couldn't handle the fried pork at the time.  We watched the planes slam into the towers on TV, over and over again, while the German we didn't have a grasp on yet rattled on in the background.  One of the native students was translating as best and as fast he could, but news was coming so slowly... mostly, the reporters were repeating themselves.

We had no newspapers, no cell phones, no nearby or reliable internet: you had to walk several blocks to wait in line for computer access.  Just one crackly television in a foreign tongue.  Not being familiar with the beauty of the German language, it all sounded vaguely Nazi-ish, making reality even more surreal.

I was concerned for my cousin, who was flying to her honeymoon.  But we didn't know anyone who would be at the WTC.   My father-in-law used to work at the Pentagon, and now worked two miles away... later we found out he walked home when he heard what he thought was a bombing.  While we all worried, we had reason to believe our families were safe; and when our calls finally went through, we were proven right.

But we knew our country was under some sort of attack.  Here we were, safe in the mountains of Gaming, in a monastery whose laundry room had actually been converted into a bunker.  We weren't due to be in a plane for months.

Despite our safety, a strong part of us wanted to be "home," going through it with "our people."  To this day, I'm sorry not to have witnessed what people tell me of the country pulling together, the random acts of kindness, mobs of people returning to church, and American flags flying from the antenna of every car.

I went to bed that night, convinced hundreds must simply be trapped.  There was no way thousands could have died like that.  Praying they would be rescued quickly, I retired to the nightmares we all probably had, that night.

But the reality was worse.  As the news dripped to us, painfully slowly, we heard the extent of the carnage, not just in the Towers, but at the Pentagon, and in the planes.  That only a handful of people were rescued from the massive rubble.

In a melting pot of cultures, the reactions to the news were varied.  Some professors canceled classes on the 12th, while others conducted business as usual.  Prayers were said, Masses were offered, services were held.  While most everyone had sympathy, there were a couple who thought that--while what happened to innocent life was wrong--America deserved some comeuppance for always meddling in world affairs.

That was odd to hear at such a time.

We quickly found out who the Americans were among us; we had only been on campus for a couple of weeks, after all.  Mostly they were recognizable from the vague stares and copious tissues near their desks.

Within the week, hubby and I were sought out by the village newspaper reporters.  They interviewed us through an interpreter.

"Ah so...  Sympathies to you.  How do you feel on this?"

Not having had a personal loss, we felt odd speaking on behalf of the country to this little Austrian county.  But my tears were real.  Naturally, we expressed our dismay at the loss of life, our fears for our country, our prayers for the bereaved.

12 years later, our sentiments remain.  Honoring the memory of those lost, praying for those left behind: for our nation, and those nations--like Syria--experiencing their own traumas now.

"He will proclaim peace to the nations." Zechariah 9:10


  1. It must have been so unsettling being far from home as the events of 9/11 unfolded. Thanks for sharing such a different perspective. Lincoln's words were as apropos in 2001 as they were when he gave the Gettysburg Address.

  2. It must have felt surreal to be so far away when it happened.

  3. Oh my goodness, I never even thought about the day's events through the eyes of those Americans out of the country and out of reach of constant media coverage. Thanks for sharing, because it really was an eye opener and a great post.

  4. Wow. What an incredible account from where you were. I am so glad you shared this- and I can only imagine how awful and strange it must have been to be so far away.

  5. My knowledge of the World Trade Center prior to 9/11 was even less than yours. I'm ashamed to say I had an inkling of an idea that it was in New York. But I didn't know there were two towers or its significance to the skyline. I remember the bombing of its garage in 1993, but that's it. Thank you for linking up and sharing this extraordinary point of view.

  6. Wow! Thank you for sharing this. That had to be really tough to have to watch this from so far away. And with access to news information being so limited, makes it even more difficult.