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Boswell's View From Europe

Boswell and his wife were on a trip to Russia and were flying back to the United States when the events of September 11th occurred. He ended up unable to leave Europe for six days. We asked him to share his experiences, and he’s obliged:

First, I write this merely to offer a perspective of what it was like to be overseas during the past week. In no way is this an attempt to invoke sympathy. We were merely inconvenienced, and any inconvenience that we experienced is utterly trivial compared to the horrors of what occurred in the United States and to so many innocent families.

Second, if you want to see what the reaction was like overseas, please go to this Web site and send it to your friends. It’s a collection of photographs that offers that reaction far more eloquently than I could ever write in a hundred years.

Anyhow, here’s my story:

My wife and I flew to St. Petersburg, Russia on Thursday, September 6th and were scheduled to fly back into JFK on Monday, September 10th, spend the evening in Manhattan, and then I would meet some people at the World Financial Center Tuesday morning, after which we’d fly back to RDU. We missed our connection to St. Petersburg in Paris, though, so we extended our trip by one day to fly to New York City on Tuesday, September 11.

When we were flying from St. Petersburg to Paris, the horrific events in NYC, Washington, and Pennsylvania were occurring. When we disembarked in Paris to switch planes, we had no inkling of what had happened. We took a shuttle bus to a different terminal and went to our gate. We were met by an Air France agent who said that our flight had been cancelled due to a crash. Thinking that perhaps our plane had crashed on its way to Paris, we asked if Air France had another flight out. She said, “No, there are no other flights.” I then asked if we another airline was flying to New York. Again, she said, “There are no flights this evening.” So I asked if we could fly to another city in the United States. She said, “There is nothing going to the United States.”

That sounded really odd, and I thought that perhaps something was lost in translation, so we went to the information desk of Air France, where there were about two dozen people in line. We looked at the monitors and they read, “Due to Recent Events in USA, All Flights are Disrupted.” The man behind me said, “You know, sometimes the French have an attitude when things go wrong, but this time those agents look panicky.” Everyone was confused, but our worry became very real, when an Air France official said, “We are sorry, but we have no information for you. You will need to contact your embassy.”

Immediately, all kinds of thoughts went through our minds – a freak nuclear attack or accident? Was the President shot? Widespread terrorism? Some international crisis? Finally, we got to the front and in very broken French, I asked the agent if he could please tell me exactly what happened. He looked at either side of him, and hesitantly said in a low voice that planes had crashed into the World Trade Center and the buildings had collapsed.

From there, we went through the passport control (of which there was none at all) and were met by several Air France personnel who were wonderful. They helped us get our baggage, offered to make hotel reservation, and gave us their phones to make whatever calls we wanted. We passed on Air France’s offer of a one-night stay at a hotel by the airport, because I figured, from the description of what was going on, that this would be a multi-day layover and opted instead to stay in the center of Paris.

While getting our baggage, we talked to one couple who had been flying over the Atlantic when their plane made a 180-degree turn (the path of which was joltingly apparent on the air route monitors inside the cabin) and began dumping jet fuel, which they could see from their windows. The pilot finally said that nothing was wrong with the plane, but that they could not land in the United States and needed to return to Paris. No other explanation was given.

In Paris, everyone was exceptionally sympathetic to and supportive of the Americans. The Parisians could not believe the horrible loss of life and the insanity of the acts. French television broadcasted constantly about the events. The overwhelming view was that the United States had every right to take whatever action it wanted.

(Of course, there was also the sickening fringe element. London’s Daily Telegraph quoted one participant at a pro-bin Laden mini-rally as saying, “Did you see those yuppies flying through the air? It was so funny!”)

On Thursday, I walked down to the American Embassy near the Place de la Concorde. Across the street was a huge field of flowers and flickering candles. There was an “I Love New York” t-shirt. French schoolchildren made countless posters of American flags and Statutes of Liberty. I’m not ashamed to say that I cried as I saw it.

The next day, we were walking down the Champs Elysees around noon. Suddenly, pedestrians began coming to a standstill. What is one of the busiest streets in the world became motionless. Despite the lack of church bells or sirens or other signals, people just knew it was time to observe a few minutes of silence. It was an amazing experience.

We were finally able to leave on Monday to return to the “home of the brave” – a phrase that has been profoundly re-energized for new generations of Americans.

Ironically, I had been reading Thomas Wolfe’s You Can’t Go Home Again when I was in Russia. One section early in the book seemed so applicable to the tragedies of September 11th for me in a very personal way:

”The human mind is a fearful instrument of adaptation, and in nothing is this more clearly shown than in its mysterious powers of resilience, self-protection, and self-healing. Unless an event completely shatters the order of one’s life, the mind, if it has youth and health and time enough, accepts the inevitable and gets itself ready for the next happening like a grimly dutiful American tourist who, on arriving at a new town, looks around him, takes his bearings, and says, ‘Well, where do I go from here?’”