Living in Provence: Reflections on September 11, 2001
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One aspect of life in France I haven’t adjusted to is the absence of the Sunday New York Times. Sunday isn’t fully Sunday anymore. The closest I get is reading the paper online (a poor substitute) while enjoying a leisurely breakfast in bed. This is my morning routine: breakfast in bed surrounded by six ravenous cats and a starving dog–once the breakfast tray arrives I am suddenly amazingly popular–while I read the newspapers on my cute little indigo-and-white Mac iBook (my house is wi-fi, or wee-fee as the French pronounce it) and answer e-mail. Last Sunday was no different.
After rising at an hour I’d rather not publish, I glanced at the front page of the TIMES and was struck by the date: September 11, 2005. It wasn’t the September 11th that startled me–that I already knew–but the year 2005 caught me up short. My immediate thought was “I can’t believe I’m alive,” followed by “I can’t believe there is a 2005!”
Reflexively, I glanced out the window at the mountains and rocks across the river, my way of reassuring myself when I wake from a nightmare that yes, I’m safe in Provence and no longer in New York. Which isn’t to say I don’t love New York, because I do. New York and I had a long and passionate love affair over several decades and, like so many supercharged, intense relationships, it ended badly. My last few years in New York were desperately unhappy. I realized the two of us could no longer live together, though it was several years before I managed to find a way to move out.
People frequently ask when they learn I was an eyewitness to the horrors of September 11th–I was walking my dog when the planes hit and the towers crumbled, my home being just north of The World Trade Center–if I left New York because of September 11th. Certainly not, but did it contribute? I’d be a liar if I said no.
I return frequently to that day. I have replayed thousands, perhaps millions, of times the scene of me standing in my ticking-striped blue jean overalls and straw hat in the middle of the sidewalk on Hudson Street between West 12th and Jane Streets listening to myself scream as I watch those graceful Titanics of the sky slide and sink; I’ve watched and rewatched Flight #175 circle round the back of Tower One, puzzling over why the plane is flying so close to the other burning tower when suddenly Tower One explodes into a broiling fiery mass, and still, I can’t quite believe what I saw really happened. In my nightmares I have been trapped in so many collapsing buildings, in so many cities burning alive that even in my dreams there’s this little voice that thinks, oy, not this again! But basically, I’ve gone on with my life. I was lucky; I lost no one close to me; everyone I knew who worked in or near the Towers got out. The searing, devouring, breath-stopping pain of the first few weeks and months is long gone, though I still stiffen and flinch at the sound of a low-flying plane, a reaction that, most likely, will always be with me. There was a period of deadness, when nothing mattered, nothing touched me as I stumbled through my days, zombie-like, numb; and late at night, when the NATO stealth jets flew overhead and the smell from the ongoing Ground Zero fires was particularly noxious and strong, blowing deathly white ash into my apartment, I drank far too much wine in a pathetic attempt to obliterate everything. My friends and neighbors were all in a similar state. Then I was angry, all the time, we were all angry and fighting over anything, everything and nothing at all. Nothing mattered, everything mattered, none of it made sense. When I walked to the corner and looked south, the gaping hole in the sky was still there. A few days after New Year’s, I returned to Provence to baby-sit my friend Lydie’s eight cats, as I had done for the preceding four years.
Provence looked different, everything looked different and everything looked the same. People were kind; they knew me and knew where I lived. They had suffered through a terrible war less than 60 years before, here on their own soil. As the owner of the store where I buy my newspapers said, “In war you expect that, but this…. Even here, now we are afraid.”
Then a few days before I was due to return to New York, through an odd chain of circumstances, I found my house when I hadn’t even been looking for it. And that was where September 11th came into play. I remember thinking back on that exquisite Provencal-type morning in early September while I watched both towers burning alive, knowing they were filled with people who’d gone out to work without the least inkling they were all about to die. I remember glancing over the whole of my own life, seeing it flash before me, seeing all the things I’d planned to do, wanted to do and hadn’t yet done. And I remember thinking, what are you waiting for? In the space of a second it could all be over. From the time I was a young child, I had dreamed of living in France, but the reality had always seemed beyond my grasp. Now suddenly through a strange sequence of events, a house had presented itself along with the ability to actually make that dream come true. I thought to myself again, what the hell are you waiting for? All those people who’d thought they were merely going to work on a beautiful Tuesday morning…. I bought the house.