September 11 Stories and the Kindness of European Strangers

New York September Tribute

There are millions of September 11 stories. Ask most people, and they can remember where they were when they heard the news, what they were wearing, and the weather. (In New York, a glorious early fall day with azure skies.)

Today we reflect on a day that seems like yesterday, although now more than a decade ago. Rising from the tragedy, there seemed to be so much promise and collective good: people from around the world coming together in solidarity, rallying against the forces of hate.

Americans who traveled overseas soon after the attacks, naturally wondered what the reaction would be from foreigners. Our Culture Shock Contest brought entries that highlight how cultural differences are really only on the surface. Deep down, we’re all just…people.

Frances McKee of Florida went to Germany, met a man in the bathroom and got a hug.

In January of 2002, just a few months after the attack on the World Trade Center, my family and I were traveling in Germany. We had rented a van and stopped at a truck stop/gas station to fill up with gas and use the restroom. There was a MALE attendant in the LADIES restroom to collect a fee for using the toilet and towels. The Deutsche Mark had just been replaced with the Euro, so I was not yet familiar with the new currency. So, I just held out my hand like a first grader for him to take whatever he needed! He could not speak English but I knew enough German that I understood when he asked me if I was an American. I told him that I was and he gave me a big HUG! I told my family when I got back in the car that a man had just hugged me in the ladies room! I think the attendant wanted me to know that he felt bad about what happened on 9/11 and to give us his support. P.S. We found out on the rest of our trip that it is not uncommon for a male attendant to be in the ladies restroom and for a female attendant to be in the man’s restroom.

Madrid, Spain © David Gordillo

Ryan Trinchera of Massachusetts had the misfortune of being sick in a foreign country. The events of 9/11 prevented him from getting home, but the people of Spain made him feel so much better.

My experience was a very unique one. In September of 2001 I had traveled to Madrid, Spain where I was going to spend a year through an exchange program through my university. Three days into my trip I became seriously ill and went to a hospital in Madrid, but got no concrete results as to what was wrong with me. Still feeling ill and very anxious being so far away from home, after just being in Madrid, I decided to get a flight home. I was so disappointed to have to cut my trip early, but hopeful I could return. At the same time I was just anxious to get back to the United States and home and go to a hospital in my own country.

The day of my flight from Madrid to Newark, New Jersey happened to be on September 11th. The flight from Madrid to Newark was approximately 6 hours and 30 minutes. Halfway into our flight the captain made an announcement saying only that they were getting reports from BBC that there has been terrorist activity in the United States and the FAA has closed all airports and rather than divert to Canada we would return to Madrid. My anxiety shot up as soon as I heard this, and couldn’t believe we were returning to Madrid because I just wanted to get home being so sick and anxious.

Once we landed in Madrid and arrived at the gate, the captain made one last announcement saying 2 planes had crashed into the twin trade towers in New York and one hit the Pentagon. Obviously others and myself were in shock. I was beyond a state of panic, I couldn’t believe what had happened and that I was going to be stuck in Madrid, not knowing when I would be able to go home being so ill. Me and the other international passengers on that flight were put up in a hotel. I did not nor could not sleep at all watching CNN all night and horrible images. It was surreal.

The actual cultural shock I experienced happened over the next few days while still in Madrid, and it was a positive cultural shock. I had to take cabs to several places and every cab I got into and spoke English, the first thing the cab driver said to me was, “I’m so sorry what happened in your country. ” The cab drivers were so sincere and genuine about it and two of the three different cab drives I had the rest of time my in Madrid until I could fly home did not charge me for my ride as a gesture of sympathy and condolence. I was taken back by the kindness, empathy and sympathy of the Spanish during the horrible time. And it made me feel a little better too.

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