Remembering 9/11 – and Ethiopian New Year

It was New Year’s Day according to the Ethiopian calendar – September 11, 2001. John and I lounged in Ethiopian carved wood chairs and enjoyed injera and wat, typical Ethiopian fare consisting of sourdough pancakes and spicy stew. We washed it down with tella, the traditional Ethiopian beer.

As our young twins roamed and scampered around our friend’s house, we adults chatted. We were off to a good start in a new school year at the international school we taught at in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia and we enjoyed time with our Ethiopian friends after being away for the summer holidays.

It was a delightful evening filled with dancing that made our shoulders ache, and our stomach muscles rebelled at all the laughter enjoyed with good friends.

Late in the evening, we made our way back to our house and collapsed into bed. Tomorrow would come all too soon, and we would have bright-eyed students waiting for us.

The following morning, September 12, I groggily made my way to school. As I shuffled through the parking lot on my way to my classroom, my teaching assistant stopped me.

“I’m so sorry, Nancy,” Birknesh said with tears in her eyes. “I’m so sorry about what happened to your country.”

“What?” I replied. “What do you mean? What happened to my country?”

“I don’t really know,” she stammered. Something about airplanes and tall buildings. My brother came home from work last night and said he saw it on TV. I’m so sorry!”

I continued toward my classroom a bit puzzled. In my six years in Ethiopia I had never heard anything like that before.

A student of mine came bounding across the grass. “I’m so sorry, Ms. Nancy!” he blurted. “I’m so sorry about what happened.”

“What happened?” I repeated.

“I’m not sure,” he told me, “but it was bad. Something about airplanes flying into buildings.

By now I was confused. Confused with a capital C. Airplanes flying into buildings? Huh?

A few meters farther, fellow teacher Asit approached me. “I’m so sorry, Nancy!”

And then he proceeded to explain. Airplanes flying into the World Trade Center. Skyscrapers collapsing. Thousands killed.

I dashed off to the teachers’ lounge; the only place on campus where we had a TV. I leapt up the stairs and barged in. The room was packed, everyone crowded around the TV. I pushed my way in so I could see and stood there in horror watching airplanes flying into skycrapers.

The next few weeks passed in a blur. My country. The United States of America. Attacked. And I wasn’t there.

I sat in front of the TV in the teachers’ lounge every chance I got and watched airplanes fly into buildings. I watched skyscrapers crumble and fall to the ground. And I wondered what it would mean for me – an expat. How would this change my life?

The uncertainty of plane travel was the first consequence we found from the terrorist attack – the not knowing how the world would react or what we would find in airports. Flying into and out of the USA became an exercise in vagueness as rules changed daily.

One day we checked in for our flight hours early as recommended. Unfortunately, our little family of four had been tagged for additional security screenings, so we were pulled off to the side and our baggage searched with a fine tooth comb – or so it seemed.

Security guards confiscated John’s bike parts – apparently it would be easy for him to choke a pilot with a bike chain and knock them over the head with a freewheel. Amazingly, they didn’t find the box cutter I inadvertently carried in my carry on.

We continued to live overseas for four years after the 9/11 attacks and watched, first hand, as the reputation of the USA sank. The invasion of Iraq brought that reputation to levels we had never seen in our many years abroad.

In 2005 we moved back to the USA – in part due to the tensions we felt overseas. How much of that was a direct result of 9/11? How much was a response to President Bush’s policies? We’ll never know for sure. What I do know is that the international climate for expats changed dramatically.

Yet still I come back to the very fact that September 11 brings back fond memories for me. Memories of celebrating Ethiopian New Year. Of injera and wat and kolo. Tella. Coffee ceremonies. Shoulder dancing. White dresses with elaborate embroidery. I hope the sadness of the day never outshines those memories in my mind.

Where were you on 9/11? What are your most vivid memories of that day?

books by Nancy Sathre-Vogel

About Nancy Sathre-Vogel

After 21 years as a classroom teacher, Nancy Sathre-Vogel finally woke up and realized that life was too short to spend it all with other people's kids. She and her husband quit their jobs and, together with their twin sons, climbed aboard bicycles to see the world. They enjoyed four years cycling as a family - three of them riding from Alaska to Argentina and one exploring the USA and Mexico. Now they are back in Idaho, putting down roots, enjoying life at home, and living a different type of adventure. It's a fairly sure bet that you'll find her either writing on her computer or creating fantastical pieces with the beads she's collected all over the world.

Connect with us!

We love to get to know new people. Send us a message!

8 Responses to Remembering 9/11 – and Ethiopian New Year

  1. wandering educators September 11, 2011 at 3:08 pm #

    i love this – we had good memories of 9/11, too, right before the planes hit. what an amazing experience you had – i can’t imagine being so far from “home” when home is attacked…

  2. Jim brandano September 12, 2011 at 4:58 am #

    This was one of the most interesting blogs I have read on 9-11. To read what is was like out of the country was fascinating and I found myself reading it twice. I have the same worries you do about our reputation. We need more statesmen ( hell I would settle for one) and less politicians

  3. Nelieta September 12, 2011 at 6:49 am #

    Great post Nancy! It must have been so difficult being far away from home. I love the fact that so many people supported you during such a difficult time.

    My contribution to remembrance:

  4. jan September 12, 2011 at 8:03 am #

    Great post I was fascinated by the experience you had being out of country.

  5. Reena @ Wanderplex September 12, 2011 at 8:27 am #

    Great story! It brought back memories for me as well, because coincidentally we were in Ethiopia when Lehman Brothers collapsed, and watched the economic crisis unfold on TVs in cafes…

  6. Jim September 12, 2011 at 8:00 pm #

    Yeah truly good read. Great to know how it felt like from the perspective of being in Ethiopia. We got sick of eating njeera though! But loved Ethiopia,.

  7. Wendy September 16, 2011 at 10:40 pm #

    I am a Navy Reservist. On 9-11, I was in Rota, Spain, just two days into two weeks of active duty. One of my fellow sailors ran into my office that day (it was afternoon in Europe), saying that a plane had hit the World Trade Center. I went to the television in the break room and, along with half a dozen or so other reservists from my unit (we had traveled to Spain together), saw the second plane hit. It all felt surreal. We were so far from home…

    The base immediately went into “Threat Condition Delta”. Extreme security precautions, all non-essential functions shut down. Everyone holed up in their quarters for a couple of days, until the security loosened a little bit.

    I had already planned to travel to Morocco the following weekend when I was off-duty, and I knew that I didn’t want any terrorists to keep me from doing what I’d wanted to do. So, off I went. A lone female (no one else from my unit would go with me). Once in Morocco, I had person after person come up to me and offer their condolences. I was walking through the Souq, and a Muslim man came up to me and said, “God bless America!” I’m not a religious person, but his sentiment still brought tears to my eyes. I was so touched by everyone’s sadness and concern for my country.

    • Nancy September 16, 2011 at 10:49 pm #

      Wow. I often wonder how different things would be today if, instead of turning into a world bully, the USA had reacted differently to the crisis. People were so concerned about the US for a while there.

Leave a Reply