On the day the jets flew into the Twin Towers, my husband Bill Pfleging was shopping in a graphic novel (a.k.a. comic book) store. It was afternoon for us because we were on vacation in Paris that day.
"Do you hear what's on the radio?" the store owner asked. "I hear, but I don't understand," Bill said. Business at the store ground to a halt as the owner carefully translated the news he was hearing, with assistance from other shoppers standing by.
It was the first of many such kindnesses. There was the hot dog vendor who wouldn't take Bill's money and the upscale perfume and bath products store that filled our shopping bag with free samples. In a city where people rarely talk to strangers, it seemed all Parisians wanted us to know they felt our pain.
And they did. Then as now, Paris was in the cross hairs of terrorism of its own. The 9/11 attacks were the deadliest and most spectacular terrorist act in modern history, but there have been so many others, most of them outside our borders. The experience makes us one with the people of France, England, Ireland, Russia, Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Israel, Indonesia, and many more than I can name.
Two days after the attacks, Bill sent an email to a list of our friends and relatives back home, letting them know we were OK and what was going on. It went viral, which in those pre-social media days meant it got forwarded all over the place over and over, sometimes back to him by people who didn't realize he'd written it. After we got home, we even learned it had been printed by a Florida newspaper where his uncle had sent it. The headline: "Paris Wept With America."
Rereading his message takes me right back there. Here it is:
Friday, September 13, Paris, France
We've been glued to CNN and BBC throughout this madness. Unbelievable to say the least. People here are very sympathetic, and many, even strangers, are telling us that all of Europe feels American in this bad time. One told us today that, "We are all New Yorkers with you."
Yesterday, Thursday, we went to the US Embassy just to see if anything was happening there. The French are on high alert, and there were many French police outside, but across the street there was a corner where literally thousands of people had left bouquets of flowers, notes with prayers, candles, and even an "I (heart) NY" t-shirt draping on a rail. People just kept coming in droves with their flowers and offerings. I cried there too.
Today was declared a national day of mourning by all the countries in the European Union, and we went to Notre Dame this morning, along with thousands of people. At 11:45, the huge bell of Notre Dame began to bong (they almost never ring it, it's so ancient), and all the other churches of Paris at once chimed in. For 15 minutes every bell in Paris rang continuously. Deafening, and sobering.
At noon, they all stopped, and all of Paris (and I understand all of France and indeed Europe) was still for three minutes of silence. The entire huge plaza in front of Notre Dame was packed with people, and not a word. A few people were holding up little American flags. I just cried. Many were crying all around.
Then, from the square about a block away, we heard a marching band strike up, first playing La Marseillaise (the French national anthem), then the US national anthem, and then one lone trumpet playing Taps. Standing in a foreign country, thousands of miles from home, I never felt more American.
While I do wish we were home and we seem to be stuck for at least a few days more, I'm very glad we were here to experience this. I wish more Americans could have seen and felt the outpouring of compassion coming from our European friends. Makes me feel at least less alone in our grief.
Planes are still not going, and looks like our flight may be pushed back to at least Tuesday. But at least we are safe, have a comfortable place to stay, and know we will eventually get home safely. Of course, "safe" now has a different meaning than it had a week ago. Our hearts are with all who have lost someone.
We hope to see you soon. Stay well, and good luck to all of us.