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Nina In New York: My 9/11 Memory

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9/11/01

A young professional’s take on the trials and tribulations of everyday life in New York City.
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By Nina Pajak

On Sunday, I’ll watch the 9/11 tributes on television. I’ll read the coverage, as I have been all week. I’ll observe the moments of silence, and I’ll probably take a few extra. But I’m not sure I can come to some grand, sweeping conclusion or lofty philosophy on the attacks having taken place ten years ago. I’m not sure this is the time for such thoughts, at least not for me. I think it’s a time to simply pause and remember, and force (or perhaps allow) ourselves to think about an atrocity which, for the most part, we try to put behind us in order to enjoy our daily lives. It’s an experience we all share, albeit in different ways, and its fiber has been woven into the patchwork of our culture. However tragic, it’s an important part of what makes us New Yorkers and Americans. So in that spirit, I’ll share with you my personal memory.

CBSNewYork Extra: 15 N.Y., N.J., Sept. 11 Memorial Events

It doesn’t really take place on September 11th, 2001. Of course, like everyone else, I clearly remember the moment when I saw the first tower fall. It was on television, far away in Boston where I went to college. I was at the gym early that morning, and it took a moment for people to start noticing what was happening on the screens, tucked away in a corner. I bolted home to wake my roommates, and we all spent the morning glued to the couch, desperately trying to reach our family members in New York. There were candlelight vigils on campus and tears shed and stories of classmates who now had missing relatives. My friends and I were all extremely lucky.

Extended Coverage: Remembering 9/11

That November, I came home and took the train downtown to ground zero, where all I could see was wreckage and panhandlers with ratty quilts spread out on the sidewalk covered with 9/11 buttons and mugs and tiny novelty American flags. Everything about it was sad.

But it wasn’t until a year and a half later when I was studying abroad in Paris, that the events of that day began to take on more meaning for me. It was just after George W. Bush had officially begun the invasion of Iraq, and the French were up in arms. You know, boycotting McDonald’s locations around the city and unplugging Coca-Cola machines in their gyms (yes, that’s right). Taxi drivers would lecture me about our awful president, and random strangers would ask me where I was from and what the hell were we thinking as soon as they detected my Anglophone accent.

My friends and I quickly learned to start telling people we were Canadian.

It’s not that I had a desire to defend W. or the war or that I shied away from discussion. But after a few failed interactions, it became very clear that there was just no point. It didn’t matter whether or not I actually liked our president or supported his actions. They didn’t want to have discourse. They just wanted to talk at a real, live American. And you know, I have a soft spot for the French, but come on guys. Who cares what you think? Mind your business. Get your own problems. Merci beaucoup. Vraiment.

So you could say I was feeling a bit of anti-American sentiment. And since all I really wanted to do was practice French, travel, and eat ten times my weight in baked goods and cheese for a semester, I hid a little bit and just tried to ignore it. One evening, my lovely host sister and her friend invited me to go see Michael Moore’s recent documentary, Fahrenheit 9/11, which had been given French subtitles. The crowd was really into all the Bush-bashing, I could tell. Moore was sticking it to him and the War on Terror in his inimitable way, and no Dubya-sympathizer or Corporate Fat Cat was left unscathed. It was very easy to get caught up in the frenzy. Yeah, that’s right! Boo! Hiss! Le boo! Le hiss!

And then the film cut to footage of the towers falling, and I lost it. Suddenly, this wasn’t fun. I felt completely alone in the theater. After the movie ended, my host sister and her friend told me they’d been a little surprised to see me so affected. Did I know anyone who died? No, not directly. Yes, it was a while ago. I tried to explain why it was important to me, and how backwards it felt to watch that footage in a room filled with French kids who think hating George W. Bush = hating America = super-cool (pronounced: sue-pair cooo-oole). But it wasn’t something I could communicate very effectively, much less in another language. We let it pass, and we went home and didn’t discuss it for very much longer.

That moment didn’t stop me from pretending to be from Toronto when talking to a particularly aggressive-seeming Frenchman, and it didn’t make me march up to the gym manager, wag my finger in his face and tell him that a) he had no idea what he was even trying to prove, and b) only a French guy would think Coke is a sports drink. To be honest, I can’t put my finger on exactly how it changed things for me. But I know it did. In that cinema, alone amid a crowd of feisty, politically premature French teenagers, something connected in me. My city, my country had been through something, and I had too. I understood something they didn’t, couldn’t. It made me sad, and a more than a little angry, but mostly proud.

And now when I set aside all the noise about Truthers, and commemorative 9/11 wine and Real Housewife handbags, and who is and isn’t invited to the anniversary memorial, and who can’t pray where and why not, and which politician has done or not done what because of why and how much, that’s still how I feel today, and it’s how I’ll feel on Sunday.

And as my heart and head swirl with a complex mix of emotions and patriotism, I still won’t care about football.

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Dear Readers: While I am rarely at a loss for words, I’m always grateful for column ideas. Please feel free to e-mail me your suggestions.

Nina Pajak is a writer and publishing professional living with her husband on the Upper West Side.

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