A month in Europe
At the beginning of September 2001, I flew from Montreal to Amsterdam, where I met up with a friend for a month-long backpacking trip through Europe. Over the course of about ten days, we explored Amsterdam, then proceeded east through Germany to Berlin, then down to Prague and through the Czech Republic. We took an overnight train from Brno through Slovakia to Hungary. I remember the Slovakian border guards were excited to talk to us in their extremely limited English about the Sedin twins when they found out we were originally from Vancouver and that we were fellow hockey fans, despite it being the middle of the night.
On a clear day in Budapest, I was walking around the western side of the city. My friend and I had split up for a bit, and it was quite hot. I walked into a small shop to buy a bottle of water, and inside I noticed a small group of customers staring up at a small TV perched in a corner.
The TV seemed to be playing some kind of American disaster movie, though it was hard to know which one since all of the dialogue was dubbed in Hungarian. It didn’t take me too long to notice that in the movie a plane had crashed into one of the World Trade Center towers in New York. And that it wasn’t a movie at all. I stood there, unable to process what I was seeing, and watched as one and then the other tower collapsed.
After gawping for an hour, I left the store in a daze and wandered the streets of Budapest, slowly heading back to the hostel where I expected to see my friend. I remember trying to find any words at all to explain what had happened and what I thought I had seen. We eventually found an internet cafe, to check the news and email people back home, and then we spent the evening wandering around. Someone was giving away a free commuter newspaper that had already been printed with the day’s events, but of course it was in Hungarian so it was pretty hard to get much detail. The photo was hard to process.
Neither of us had a cell phone in 2001, and it wasn’t that easy to find internet access in Eastern Europe so it was easy during the rest of the trip to remain fairly ignorant of what had happened and what was happening except in the moments where we passed by a TV. In a small town in Romania, our hostel had a TV and when we turned it on the network seemed to be playing videos of the moments the planes struck on repeat and in slow motion. It was horrifying and we turned it off.
After that we mostly finished our trip as if little had changed. We went to Greece and Cyprus, and then we split up and I spent time in Italy, Switzerland, France, and Belgium. And at least for those 3 weeks, for us and in the cities and countries we explored, little had changed.
My flight home was at the end of September, also from Amsterdam, but with a stopover in Philadelphia. Departure from the airport was the first time I realized everything had in fact changed. Every passenger was interviewed one by one by security agents. The agent seemed to find my visit to Cyprus very unusual and suspicious. There was a 20-minute interrogation where I was asked where I had been, where I had stayed, who I had seen, and what I had done, as if a young Canadian backpacker might be the key to it all. Eventually I was allowed to board the plane.
When I returned to Montreal and went back to work, I remember feeling very aware of how everyone who’d been there the whole time was in a very different state of mind than when I’d left. There was all this talk of war and all this fear. I’d completely missed out on a pivotal month in which North American society and culture changed, and it was surreal to come back and find my entire existence rearranged, as if all the furniture of life had been moved in my absence. All my friends and co-workers had spent the weeks since the attack reading and watching news, listening to speeches, and having constant discussions, while I had galivanted around Europe eating food and walking streets and admiring buildings and people.
I imagine it’s not really possible now to have an experience like I had then. Today I would have a cell phone and there would be internet everywhere, and a much stronger sense of collective experience. Sometimes this seems good. Sometimes I think about those moments in Europe and feel a strange guilt that I enjoyed my trip in the shadow of horror. Sometimes I think we could all use moments of disconnection and isolation more often.