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September 11, 2011

When this post goes live, I’ll be on a plane flying Portland-Minneapolis-Raleigh. It didn’t occur to me until after I’d booked our early morning flight home that we we’d be flying on the 10th anniversary of 9/11.

Where were you on September 11, 2001?

I was in Germany, interning for the Academic Year in Freiburg program. I’d been there for a couple weeks; the 50 US students participating in the program had just arrived. My two fellow interns and I had begun teaching an intensive German language and culture orientation course and were off to a cafe to grade papers when we found out what had happened.

My reaction and feelings were no doubt similar to many others: utter disbelief, confusion, some fear. After watching news coverage in a dorm common room with a group of stunned US Americans, Germans, and students from various other countries, I ran back to my room to call my husband and parents. They lived in Oregon and Michigan and weren’t scheduled to fly anywhere, so I knew they were safe. But it still freaked me out that calls to their numbers just wouldn’t go through.

Once the initial shock wore off a bit, we remembered the 50 students in our charge. After a quick meeting with the Resident Director, we contacted each student to make sure they knew what was going on, and that they were ok.

Later that night I was able to place calls to my husband and parents. We talked for hours, trying to make sense of something that just didn’t make sense.

The next day, we had a program meeting where we discussed the previous day’s events and had a moment of silence. Before going to our classrooms, I shared a few tears with students in the woman’s bathroom. In our much-shortened class that day my students and I just talked. Maybe I should have gotten right back into the swing of things and proceeded with my lesson plan, but it just seemed right to talk.

After class, I wandered around downtown Freiburg. I’d already spent 3 years in Germany, and it felt like home. Germany was where I experienced the 1991 Gulf War. Celebrated Christmas without my family. Overcame severe homesickness when I was 17. Taught my first class after college. Germany was like that relative you knew existed but didn’t know very well until you finally met and became best friends.

I wandered past the Amerika Haus and stopped to look at the flowers and notes left on the steps. I continued walking until I came to the Muenster, the cathedral that sits in the center of town. More people than usual were filing in and out, so I went in to see what was going on.

Inside it was silent except for the sound of shuffling feet. I realized that people were going into the cathedral to light candles, so I fished a couple coins out of my bag and slipped them into the wooden box next to the white tea candles. I lit my candle, stepped back a few feet, and just stared at the flickering flames.

I was standing in a cathedral full of Germans the day after tragedy had struck my home country. Next to Germans who were old enough to clearly remember fighting against us. Germans who were often critical of the US, but on that day exuded such comfort, support, and hope. Never before and never since have I ever felt so close to Germany as I did at that moment. And it is that hope I felt in the midst of horror that fuels my intercultural work.