Seven years ago today I was a college junior spending a semester abroad on the sunny French Riviera. The day had started like most days that fall: breakfast in the cafeteria followed by three hours of language class and a trip into downtown Cannes for some light afternoon shopping. It ended like none other: learning that my country had been attacked. Everyone has their own September 11, 2001 story; a story about where they were and what they were doing when they got the news. For me, the day has an international twist. Far from home, I had the chance to experience the outpouring of sympathy, support and friendship that came from all corners of the globe.
There was my British friend who so gently broke the news when I returned to campus one of the last to know. My Norwegian roommate who cried with me in our dorm room, both of us asking the question, "why?" There were the Europeans, South Americans, Canadians and Asians who stood with us in silence to remember the victims in the small, crowded campus chapel. That weekend, a few of us kept our plans for a trip to Italy, where we saw the flag on top of the Leaning Tower of Pisa flying at half-staff. On the train ride there, an older French couple asked me if we were Americans. Madame patted my hand and said "we're with you." A few years later, some Americans would disparage the French for not supporting the war in Iraq, but I knew that those two kind hearts on that Italy-bound train were worth more than any amount of bombs, guns or tanks.
I didn't return to the US until late December of that year, so I never witnessed the widespread flying of American flags, or felt the effects of the grounding of airplanes or saw the non-stop news coverage that would follow the attacks. But I'm thankful that I got a unique view of that September's events. I saw how it affected not only my fellow citizens, but the citizens of the world as well, and I will never forget the men and women who shared my sadness. It was at once the most tragic and touching travel experience of my life.