Christopher and I were in Turkey on September 11th but that wasn’t my choice. I wanted a holiday in Sicily. I wanted to sit under those lemon trees drinking grappa like Michael Corleone! But Christopher wanted Istanbul and he wasn’t budging. So we did what anyone would do. We flipped a coin.
That coin was STILL in the air (I kid you not) when the BBC interrupted our program with a news brief:
Mount Etna had just erupted. And it was serious.
Just a little refresher for the geographically challenged:
So lava was bubbling all over my vacation plans. Poo. Mr. Never-Got-His-Way got his way before the coin even landed. Heads. I would’ve lost anyway.
We flew to Turkey on September 10, 2001 on the most rickety-ass airplane you ever saw. When we finally landed I was trembling like a chihuahua.
“Are we allowed to drink here?” I asked Christopher en route to our hotel. Turkey was a Muslim nation and Muslims don’t drink. I also needed a cigarrette. Bad.
“You drink whatever you like,” our driver said through the rearview mirror.
I hate eavesdroppers.
We arrived at our hotel where two men worked the front desk. One of them was greasy in that silk shirt kinda way.
“You English girl?” he smiled, oozing you know you want me. He had olive skin and green eyes. But his teeth were nicotine yellow.
“Texan,” I corrected, grabbing a brochure on a Turkish Bath. This guy was a slimeball.
“Ah Texas bang bang!”
He made a gun with his fingers and stared at my boobs while Christopher filled out paperwork. “George Boosh?” he smiled, immensely proud of his English.
“No… Jennifer,” I kicked Christopher’s leg. I was ready to go. We grabbed the keys and walked upstairs away from Mr. Creepy and his stupid fake Gucci sunglasses.
But the day got better. We spent it eating and drinking. The locals were warm and sincere and their food was amazing. All the bars and restaurants looked a lot like this:
I remember sitting in an open air bar enjoying the first of several cold beers. I’d just paid several million Lira for a pack of cigarettes….it was like 1.65 million Lira to 1 U.S. dollar but we were converting British pounds so I was thoroughly confused. Jet lag+ fatigue+ liberal arts brain= just don’t worry about it and have a good time.
We left the windows open that night and fell asleep under a giant crescent moon. 24 hours later the entire world would be upside down.
September 11, 2001
Turkey is 7 hours ahead of New York.
We were getting ready for our evening out. Christopher said he’d wait for me downstairs because I was taking too long. He’d only been gone 10 minutes when a lady started screaming in the hallway. I dropped my lipgloss and rushed outside where three people watched this lady freaking out. One of them was holding her shoulders. She was crying incoherently. “Bombs… New York….Plane…. and terrorists… no one knows….another one… London’s next…. my son Oh my God Oh my God!”
Or something like that.
“Is she okay?” I asked. They didn’t know what she was saying either.
“Are you American?” the lady cried at me. Her face was bright red.
“They’ve bombed your World Trade Centers,” she gulped then turned to the others, “And London’s probably next. Oh my God my son….It’s all over the telly!” she got hysterical again. And I bolted for the stairs.
Ten or so people were standing around the lobby television; I saw their legs as I ran downstairs. They stood there quiet, some of them with their hands on their mouths. Christopher saw me and held out his arm.
I watched a plane crash into the tower. Was this a Harrison Ford movie? That’s where my brain went. No one was moving. Fire. Police. Screams. America. Planes. Dead. I heard the reporters but I didn’t register their words. A strange energy filled that lobby. It was fear.
The tower collapsed.
Not on television, in the lobby.
Smoke billowed on the screen and dusty New Yorkers ran for their lives. Wait, I looked at Christopher, This is real?!?!
Terrorist attacks. World Trade Center. Two Planes. Many trapped. Many dead.
The BBC reported and my tears came. They were hot. My body was reacting to things my brain didn’t grasp. I stood there dumb. Shaking. I wanted to say something but shock had my words.
A few people mumbled their “Oh dear God” equivalents. Christopher and I were the only English speakers but I was the only American. I turned to the front desk where Mr. Slimy was polishing a glass. And it wasn’t my imagination. He smirked.
I ran to the counter.
“I need to use the phone,” I cried.
He said he needed a credit card.
Bastard made me run upstairs to get one before I could dial. But it was pointless. All lines were busy. I hadn’t been home in over a year. My fingers punched numbers, fumbling with international dialing codes. I just needed to hear someone’s voice. An American voice. But I couldn’t. I slammed the phone down. Phone lines were jammed the world over.
“Let’s go, Jenny,” Chris pulled on my arm, “Let’s get out of here. We’ll try again later.”
We walked outside, hand in hand, both of us silent. Traffic had stopped. The open air bars and restaurants all had their tvs on and that’s all we could hear. People stood in quiet clumps around the screens, shaking their heads.
We walked around numbly. We were supposed to be doing something but we couldn’t remember what. We wandered into a Chinese restaurant because it didn’t have a television. Not that it mattered. People ate their meals in silence. What happened in New York took everybody’s words, not just mine.
Yesterday locals enjoyed asking where we were from and I proudly answered “Texas” but now an unfamiliar sensation crept over me. Something I’d never felt before. Vulnerability.
“Where you from?” the waiter tried. Bless him, he still had to work.
“London,” I lied, looking at my plate.
My lying shame made me decide right then and there that fear was not going to ruin my trip. Though I did answer “America” rather than “Texas” after that. People associated George Bush with Texas and I wanted to distance myself from whatever that meant to them. When the locals found out I was American they bent over backwards to show kindness. They couldn’t express empathy in words but free coffees, teas, desserts and warm human gestures ensued. I didn’t understand why the news kept showing that same clip of those radical Muslims celebrating. Where I was the Muslims were horrified.
And the rest of the trip was a blur. Days later the phone lines unclogged and I managed a 2 minute call to my grandmother. That slime ball at the front desk delighted in charging me for $50 for that call and we were stuck in Turkey until air travel resumed and two weeks later. I wonder sometimes what the Sicilian perspective might have been but it doesn’t really matter.
Ten years later it still feels like yesterday. I know everyone has their own stories, their unique perspectives… so thank you for reading mine.
God Bless our incredible nation.