— Jenny Neill

10 Years Ago: I Began Again

Part One

I was a writer of a different sort 10 years ago. I wrote business analysis and functional specifications as a fulltime employee at an “enterprise portal solution” company. Working with our team’s engineers, I recorded technical designs and customized documentation for end users.

By August of 2001, though it hadn’t been announced to us or the public yet, I had deduced my employer was about to be acquired. I jumped at the chance to go when my dad suggested I join him and my stepmother for their trip to Italy to visit my sister, Missy. I knew that in a matter of weeks what little vacation time I had could be meaningless.

I carried a hardbound journal with me the whole trip with the goal of writing every day. I wanted to be able to share my experiences with my husband, Mike, who could not come with me. He had just started a new job.

I confess I’ve struggled to write this post. A lot. The trip most definitely changed me. I’ve decided to let the writer I was then tell the story. What follows are excerpts from that journal.

September 9, 2001

I took US Airways Flight 152 from Seattle to Philadelphia. I traveled alone… on my way to meet up with family to travel with them in Italy. I had a 12-hour layover because I’d purchased my ticket so last minute. After locking my bags in a locker in Terminal A, the only international terminal, I took the R1 SEPTA line into the city.

Flight ticket stub and SEPTA map

A bit before 10am, sitting in Rittenhouse Square, I watch a grandma watching her two blond granddaughters playing in the fountain. It’s cool under the sycamore trees with my back against the concrete wall. I hear the chatter of birds as squirrels slink by. A butterfly flitters by and lands on a cobblestone. The square is teeming with life – locals with strollers or their dogs, maybe out for a Sunday jog or just a stroll through the park. It’s a beautiful day.

September 10, 2001

I deplaned and got through customs easily. The authorities did not stamp my passport.

The day was a blur of activity. My sister met me at Fiumicino. We took the train from the airport into Rome and then the subway to the Spanish Steps. We dropped our bags at our hotel, the Hotel d’Inghilterra, before being whisked off on a private tour my dad and stepmom had arranged for all of us.

September 11, 2001

Where was I when the World Trade Center towers fell? I was in a church in Orvieto, listening to a man tell us about a fresco being restored. Or maybe I was at lunch before going in to that little church.

Ristorante al pozzo Etrusco, where we lunched in Orvieto

Missy’s phone rang as I was signing the guest book for the Church of St. Francis. It was Mike. I prattled on about what a good time we were having. When I finally let him talk, he told me about the attacks. When I realized what he said, I turned around and went back to the church. I had to sit down. Missy followed me. I started to cry.

Door of the church of St. Francis in Orvieto

Dad and Ann, my stepmother, finally realized we weren’t with them. They came looking for us. They were smiling and talking until they saw the looks on our faces. I insisted they sit down before I told them. I once again broke down in tears as I explained.

On our way to find an ATM, a construction worker overheard us talking. He recognized we were Americans. He stopped us to share his condolences and concern. His coworker who hadn’t yet heard the news dropped his tools and ran inside the building to turn up the radio to see if it was true.

We stopped at a café to use the toilets. We noticed that the cashier had a small television behind the counter. The cashier let us look over her shoulder and within minutes my family and a few locals had gathered to watch the news. Our first view of the towers falling was on this tiny black and white screen.

The next few hours were tense. We were on our way to Monterosso al Mare where we were to meet up with Simone, my sister’s new boyfriend. Our only source of news on the way was the car radio. The newscasters were talking so fast that my sister couldn’t translate. By then, we began hearing the names of other cities: San Francisco, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Newark, Boston and Los Angeles. Had San Francisco been hit? Did a plane go down in Pittsburgh?

The drive seemed to take forever. [We later realized we took the long way there.] It was late when we checked in, but it was good to be able to watch CNN on the hotel TVs.

September 12, 2001

Day three in Italy, we hiked from Monterosso to Vernazza. We found a restaurant near the beach. After lunch, we waded in these gorgeous waves – such blue, blue water – and talked and laughed. We walked partway along the path to Corniglia so we could look back on Vernazza with the afternoon sun reflecting off the water and the windows of buildings in town.

Dinner was good. I tried the mussels and a handmade pasta with pesto. Simone tells me that pesto originated near here. [We liked dessert so much my sister asked for the recipe.]

Recipe for Il Budino in my sister's handwriting

Before bed each night my mind returned to trying to understand what was happening at home.

We are headed for troubled times. The spin doctors, trying to give confidence to a stunned nation, are already splashing propaganda all across the airwaves. Life will never be the same again. I only hope that however this ends, that we don’t lose all of our humanity in the process.

The stories of the phone calls from the planes made by the hijacked passengers, the continuing damage, the juxtaposition of this with my travels here – this is a paradox to me.

And now, no real idea of when I can get home to Mike.

September 13, 2001

After a cappuccino and a croissant in Monterosso, we left for Florence. On the way, we had little energy for more than small talk and staring out the window. I’m staying now with Missy in a little loft that’s part of her friend Pasquale’s house.

My sister, Simone and I met two more of their friends for dinner. We had a rather interesting discussion about politics, religion, and the possibility of war. Elena, a Fiorentina, wanted to know why the people in the towers didn’t use parachutes to jump. She got this idea from Italian news reports, I think. She spoke as if she were an authority on the subject about how tall the towers were.

It’s only been three days since I arrived. It feels like no time at all and forever.

September 14, 2001

We went to the travel agency so my sister could try to rearrange her ticket to California. [She was scheduled to leave in two days to go to a friend’s wedding in California.] They told her to fly out on Wednesday as scheduled.

While I waited, I began to read the paper. And to weep again. Outside, a storm was brewing.

We stopped by The Actor’s Bistro for lunch. Mohamed, one of my sister’s friends, makes the pizzas there. A big bear of a man with an endearing smile; he is a Muslim from Egypt. He told me that for 10 years Egyptian Muslim extremists bombed other Egyptians. He described how poor Arabs from other countries would come to Egypt and get conned into bombing Egyptians. $1000 to deliver this package and then “Boom!”

He told us that for five years there had been peace. That Egypt was not like Americans imagined it to be anymore.

September 16, 2001

We got up and saw Dad and Ann off to the train station to begin their bike tour of Tuscany. Then, we went back to the loft to make calls to check in on our respective flights again. Al Italia would not guarantee their planes were going to the U.S. and told Missy to be at the airport for her flight anyway. We decided we’d better get to Rome that night.

Simone met up with us at the apartment. When Pasquale found out we were leaving soon, he insisted we stay and eat one more meal together. We discussed the world, philosophy, cooking, and gardening. It was a peaceful way to spend my last few hours in Florence before taking the train to Rome. [An epiphany I had during this lunch was a major catalyst for my life changing. I’ll tell that story in another blog post someday.]

In Rome, we got lucky and found a double room in a 2-star hotel with a new shower for $75. After dinner, Missy wrote down some basic Italian phrases for me in case I ended up having to stay here a few days on my own.

Part 1 of my beginner's guide to Italian in my sister's handwriting
Part 2 of my beginner's guide to Italian in my sister's handwriting

September 17, 2001

We got Missy checked in and tried to see if I could get on her flights. Nope, no chance. We grabbed coffee, juice, and a “pasta.” It was sad to say goodbye. I was a little scared to be on my own.

At 7am, I got in the queue at the US Airways ticket counter. I met many other Americans in line, each with a tale of woe about this airline or that. I managed to get a seat and reach Mike before boarding the plane. I am in the air now and I expect to reach Philadelphia safely.

The entire plane erupted in applause and cheering when we landed.

Part Two

Upon returning home, more news about my company being bought was beginning to break. The acquiring company had lost a C-level executive on September 11. He had been traveling to meet with our senior managers and was on one of the hijacked planes.

Six months later, working as an employee of the acquiring firm, I traveled to New York City on business. I continued to write in my travel journal.

March 11, 2002

Today is the six month “anniversary” of 9/11. Tonight I sleep four blocks away from Ground Zero where today the Tribute of Light began. Two huge beams of light shine to remind us all of the towers that stood on the World Trade Center.

Copyright Barry Yanowitz

Reused with permission. © Barry Yanowitz.

Two moments of silence were observed here today. One this morning at about the time the second plane hit; one this evening as we drove past the site. The messages attached to the fences, the photos, the memories, the flowers, the sheer volume of the remembrances were awe-inducing.

March 14, 2002

Last night we went to Ground Zero. For a great deal of the walk, we were silent. What can you say?

There were a few breaks in the fencing where we could see in – a big area of dust and rubble with construction vehicles and other clearing equipment visible. No I-beams sticking up. No foundation. Just a big, dirty debris field.

The four of us paused at one point along the northern perimeter. Buildings on the other side reflected the golden sun. One of my colleagues, an engineer from India, turned to me to say, “Amazing. How one person can be so destructive and the other, constructive.”

That’s the moment it became real for me. That we, as humans, are capable of such amazing feats and such deplorable horror. That the people who made that place vibrant were murdered.

April 4, 2002

I’ve filled the travel journal I started September 9, 2001. I had no idea when I started it how my travels, the timing and the places, would intersect with the affairs of the world.

We isolate. We reach out. Are we what our founding fathers would have wanted us to be? Have we strived to live up to the principles they recorded? How many of them really did themselves?

On April 9, 2002, Mike and I left for a two-week vacation to visit my sister. This time, we made a scrapbook of photos and mementoes.

Mike Russell, Missy Neill, and me in Italy in 2002

I returned to work after that trip to the modern equivalent of a pink slip, the email to meet with an HR rep. I was being laid off.

May 15, 2002

Yes, laid off again. A melancholy morning. Here I am, weeping again, to the end of a sappy movie on TV.

What a conundrum I’m in. There are so many things I want to do. I want to try freelancing. Maybe even push myself into uncharted creative territory just to see if I can do it.

Work, if you’re lucky, happens on a schedule. Life happens as it will.

That movie that I mentioned? It ended with the line “We get to write our own endings.” I say we get to write the next beginning and the next middle too.

Ten years later, I find myself reading these journals with tears again streaming down my face. I’ve managed to have more endings since then. But it’s the middle parts I look back on most fondly now.

I spent the summer of 2002 starting my freelance business and studying Italian so I could hold my own while discussing philosophy with Pasquale. The next two years I took a deep dive into understanding wine. The friends I’ve made, and am still making, on that journey I know will be in my life a long time.

Most of all, these past ten years, I’ve discovered again and again that hope is never far away as long as I search for the next beginning.