One evening in Amsterdam, about three years ago, a pan-European group of friends and acquaintances asked me the question that every New Yorker who’s gone abroad in the last decade half-expects, half-dreads to hear: Where were you on September 11, 2001?
I was lying in bed, I told them, when I heard on NPR there’d been an explosion at the towers. I sat up and looked out the window of my Lower East Side apartment-the radio was right, I could see smoke rising in the distance. I got dressed, picked up my camera and big zoom lens, and shot two rolls of film from my rooftop. Then I walked to work in midtown Manhattan, pausing on Fifth Avenue to watch the towers collapse into dust. Clearly, something awful was going on, but I was safe, as was my girlfriend (now my wife). The terrorist attack had started and ended, and that was that.
My story paled in comparison to the dramatic and affecting narrative of the other New Yorker in our group, Nina. A journalist too, she’d spent the days and weeks after the attacks covering the story for the New York Times, and the experience had deeply affected her: the deaths, the tragedy, the uncertainty, the all-consuming emotionality of the aftermath. Every New Yorker, she said, was terrified by what had happened, and unsettled about what was to come: the anthrax scares, the wars. We were traumatized, all 8 million of us.
Perhaps insensitively, I quibbled. I’d never been scared, I said. The attacks hadn’t affected me directly, or even affected anyone I knew. In the days after, I’d had to show police my driver’s license to get through barricades and to my below–Houston Street apartment-not much of an inconvenience. I went to work, I came home, I watched the news and wrote e-mails and cooked dinner and wondered about what might happen next. Life was not all that different, I insisted.
Nina stared at me as if I were Osama bin Laden himself.I backed off. This was not a fight I wanted to have-especially since hers was the better story. And, obviously, I didn’t want to deny the horror of that day or minimize its repercussions. For millions of people, in New York and around the world, 9/11 changed everything miserably and irrevocably. But not for me. The towers had stood barely a mile from my house, but the terrorized world felt light years away. I was the guy for whom nothing changed.
Well, maybe not precisely nothing. Because in the months and years after September 11, I began to travel more and more. That December, I went snowboarding in Switzerland. A few months later, Vietnam. The next May, Mexico-and the May after that, too. At the end of 2004, I quit my job to spend several months in Southeast Asia, where I got lucky: I sold some stories to the New York Times travel section. Suddenly, it seemed like maybe travel could become a full-time way of life for me. By the summer of 2005, it was.
Was this all because of 9/11? Indirectly, maybe. If 9/11 hadn’t happened, maybe Bush wouldn’t have been reelected, and maybe I wouldn’t have had that feeling, in November of 2004, that maybe I should get out of the country for a bit. Or it all could have unfolded in exactly the same way.
What seems strange as I look back at this is that my travel life intensified over a decade in which travel itself became infinitely more complicated, difficult, and potentially dangerous. Ten years ago, there was no Transportation Security Administration-no shoe removal, no eBay auctions of confiscated pocket knives, no wrangling over bottled breast milk. In 2001, the airlines had not yet embarked on their attempts to squeeze passengers, both literally and figuratively. Gas cost well under $2 a gallon.
And, perhaps most important, no one was yet worried about being an American overseas. At worst, back then, you could appear to be a clueless American, out of touch with European culture, ignorant of Middle Eastern dining customs, primed for pickpocketing. But quite quickly after the attacks, travelers were asking themselves: Is it safe for us there? Will we be kidnapped? Or relentlessly criticized?
In other words, if you were going to pick a time in the last century to become a serious traveler, you probably would not choose the years 2001–2011. But while I watched fellow travelers and the media fret and complain about worsening post-9/11 conditions, I never quite experienced them myself: no canceled flights, no strip searches at JFK, no violence narrowly averted on the streets of Tangier, no awkward dinner-party conversations in Paris (at least, the awkwardness had nothing to do with 9/11). Just as on September 11, I felt like I was living in a different world from everyone else, one where I could see and understand the difficulties but through which I was gliding, untouched, like a Boeing 767 through a cloudless blue September sky.
Most likely, it helps to be me: a short, thin, unassuming, generally clean-cut white man with a Germanic (if Jewish) surname, an American passport, functioning credit cards, and enough money in the bank for a tank of gas (if not always two tanks of gas). This is not a profile that attracts unwanted attention.
But at the same time, the world I have experienced in the past ten years-while surely riven by the conflicts and geopolitical shifts unspooling from 9/11-is not hugely different from the one I saw in the years prior, from 1996 (when I moved to Vietnam for a year) to 2001 (when, having been laid off, I took my first cross-country road trip). Okay, there’s less legroom, but where I stow my feet is my least concern when I’m traveling.
No, what’s always been more important to me is the people I’ve met along the way. Almost wherever I’ve gone, I’ve encountered folks who’ve opened up to me, shown me incredible generosity, and never once made me feel like a representative of a politically suspect nation. Then as now, people would rather talk about what to eat for dinner, show off photos of kids and grandkids, and walk around their villages, towns, and cities to see what’s going on.
And they like to tell stories. In Greece recently, I met an old man named Little Jim who sketched for me his life-born on the island of Samos, he worked most of his life in Australia-and nearly cried as he talked about how his mother, nearing the age of 100, had returned to her native village to die. His tale reminded me somehow of that of Miss Luc, a woman I knew in Ho Chi Minh City who wound up homeless and near-crazy at the end of the Vietnam War, forced to sell lottery tickets in the streets with her infant daughter strapped to her back.
Miss Luc’s and Little Jim’s stories had elements of sadness, but they weren’t depressing or tragic-nothing so neat. They were lives, and for a brief moment I was a part of them. I had no illusions, though; this was temporary, I was not special, and when I moved on from Saigon and Samos I would leave no mark. All I was was an observer, a sympathetic interlocutor passing through town-gliding once again.
But if that’s what I’m to be, a watcher unaffected by events, then it’s my goal to be the best witness I can be, to listen and remember and follow the tales as they’re told and retold, whether they take place in far-off lands or just across town. And in the same way, we travelers have a responsibility to, when asked, tell our own stories, whether upbeat or calamitous. It’s through such encounters that human beings form a picture of the world, and come to understand, if imperfectly, the events that change it.
So next time I’m asked (probably any second now), I’ll tell without hesitation my weird, emotionless tale of 9/11, and it will filter into the brain of some Frenchman, Kenyan, or Palestinian and, alongside stories like Nina’s, become part of a grander, more complete, and, I hope, more comforting narrative, one in which the terrorist attacks of a decade ago are no longer seen as a chasm between Then and Now but as a Rashomonic link from the past to, well, wherever we happen to be today.