September 11th in Italy

Originally published in Maine Crime Writers, September 12, 2011

My husband and I spent September 11, 2001 in Villalago, the tiny village in the Apennines his grandfather had emigrated from eighty years before.

We were on the second leg of a much-dreamed about family vacation, a twenty-fifth anniversary celebration. On September 8, after ten days touring Florence and Venice, we’d seen our son, Robert, 20 and daughter, Kate, 17 off at the Venice airport so Kate could return home to start her senior year in high school. Always a nervous flier, Kate walked backward down the ramp through security, eyes wide, staying close to her brother, until we were out of her sight. Bill and I continued on to Rome.

On September 11, we took a train through the deep mountain passes to the city of Sulmona where we met Bill’s mother’s cousins, Louisa and Elda. The day was as crisp and clear in central Italy as it was in New York and Washington.


Louisa drove us up the narrow, twisting mountain road to Villalago. We parked below, because the village’s single street is a set of stairs. We visited the home where Bill’s grandfather grew up, two single rooms, one over the other, with a place for animals underneath.

From Villalago, we drove on to Scanno, a ski resort, and had a wonderful lunch. We returned to the car and switched on the radio just as reports starting coming in that a plane had hit the World Trade Center. Louisa had worked for CNN in its earliest days and her news instincts kicked in. We flew down the mountain and arrived in Sulmona as the plane hit the Pentagon. We watched the story unfold on television, the cousins translating rapidly.

That night in Rome, a letter was slipped under our hotel room door. It was delivered to every person traveling on a U. S. passport at every hotel in the city.

Ten years later this simple form letter still brings me to tears.

Hotel Mamorata, Ravello

We continued on down to the Amalfi coast, feeling like we should be home, but knowing there was nothing we could do and with no way to return in any case. We skipped a planned visit to Pompeii. Bill said he couldn’t face a city in ruins.

The Europeans we met were universally sympathetic and supportive. They worried deeply about the reaction of President Bush, who was just eight months in office and not well known to them. They expressed the hope that Colin Powell would have a moderating influence. How naïve and optimistic that idea seems now.

The first time I met Bill’s grandfather was at his 50th wedding anniversary party. The gift from his children was a trip to Italy. “Why would I want to go there?” he asked in his Italian accent, looking out at the crowd of family and friends. “Everything good that ever happened to me, happened here. In this great country.”

This September 11, our family and friends gathered at a good-bye party for our daughter Kate. In the years since 9/11 she’s graduated from high school and college, and worked for O, the Oprah Magazine in New York, living less than a mile from Ground Zero. Still a nervous flier, she’s never let that stop her, traveling to France, Australia, New Zealand and Fiji, and to California and Las Vegas too many times to count. She leaves Wednesday to study for her masters degree in creative writing in London.

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