Wednesday, September 13, 2006

The morning of September 11, 2001...

...I woke up deep in the Black Forest. Well, actually on the floor of Matt Friesen's dorm room – but it was in the Black Forest – in Freiburg, Germany, to be precise. I’d been visiting Matt for a while and we’d arranged months previously… while walking around in the West End of Vancouver to see the Icelandic singer Bjork in Stuttgart, Germany. So Matt bought the tickets – quite pricey as I recall and we made arrangements to go to the show. I’d moved back to Manchester, had just submitted an MA dissertation entitled The Apocalypse of Sacred Space: Christian Conceptions in the Book of Revelation. But I was about to learn something about apocalyptic apocalyptic. I was about to witness an apocalypse (or two).

Matt and I arrived at the Hoptbahnhof (sp?) and made our way through Karlsruhe to Stuttgart. On the train we talked – no joke – about the end of the Pax Americana: Bush’s sabre rattling with China, etc. We were early and had several hours before the show. The city seemed to be built in an awkward postmodern guise: decimated as I assumed it had been by the ravages of Allied bombing in the WWII. We strolled around. There were street performers in various places, but we were unimpressed with Stuttgart’s apparent bleakness. We went and found the hall where the Bjork show was going to be. Matt bought an alarm clock at a department store in the centre of the city (first reports of an aviation incident in New York were on TVs), we browsed in a feminist bookstore (all in German) tried to use the washrooms in one building that looked public and were shooed out. We finally went and got something to eat at a Turkish kebab shop. On the way, walking through a tunnel, past some skate-punks with graffiti, I had the ominous premonition. I said to Friesen, “I think the world might end today.” It was there, as the proprietor made our kebabs, that we saw the footage. Al-Jazeerah was playing, and the first thing we saw was Palestinians rejoicing, cheering. What is this? Then the planes, again and again.

A crack in the universe.

“Are you Americans?” he asked, in English. Strange, since Matt had ordered in German.


“Ah, well, Canada’s next you know! Thirty cities have been hit so far!” he said.

I thought immediately of my friends in London. And Calgary’s an oil town. No doubt they’d be one of those. My head swam. We stumbled outside and I gazed at the sky, fully expected fighter planes to swoop overhead to bring on the end. My thoughts, selfishly, went to my dissertation. "Good Lord! Was I wrong?! – were those nut-jobs right?” Forgive the expression, but I was thinking of The Rev. Jack Van Impe and the like. (Comedic sidebar: In 2001, Jack Van Impe Ministries won the Ig Nobel Prize for astrophysics for their assertion that "black holes fulfill all the technical requirements to be the location of Hell.") This sounds like their kind of thing. What is this? My head reeled. I wanted to search out a priest, to confess all of my sins. I felt like falling to the ground right there. But the heavens did not open up like a scroll. Instead, I looked at Friesen. He looked at me. We looked at the price on our Bjork tickets. It was something like one hundred and fifty three German marks (yes, they still had marks then). “Do you think the show is still on?”

We walked around the corner to the concert hall. A gaggle of Bjork fans were standing about. The ambient noise group Matmos was opening for Bjork. It was like any other day – any other group of people milling around. This was about 5:30pm German time – maybe 9 or 10am in New York. They probably hadn’t heard yet! Matt and I walked in an adjoining cemetery for a while. A moment of quiet. We waited around a couple of hours, processing, thinking, praying, uncertain of what was to come. And then, the doors of the hall opened. It was a gorgeous theatre. We found our seats. Friesen smuggled in a small recording device and captured the whole show. Matmos was good. And then, Bjork, with a full orchestra, a choir of female singers from Greenland. It was captivating. Her ethereal voice rang out, “It’s not up to you… it never really was.” And then, in English, she spoke of hearing the news of the disaster. She said she had written “a prayer that day for the people of the island of Manhattan.” She sang it in Icelandic – a prayer she called “Gotham Lullaby.” The whole show was full of such astonishing beauty that I was given hope that the world would survive. We walked through the streets buoyed by the goodness of the people around us, talking about the show in excited German. Hearing some French in the crowd. And then, we found ourselves in this new place, this square we had not found before. And in the middle of the square was a tall column, with an archangel poised atop – illuminated. It had been raised over a hundred years before, to commemorate victory in a war. This messenger of God appeared to be standing in the “fear not” pose. And to us it was a revelation – an unveiling of a kind of mercy, an apocalypse of hope on that darkest of nights.

We walked through the park and Matt played some portions of show back. We slept on the cold station platform in Karlsruhe, and the next day awoke to a changed world.



Blogger Eric said...


Nice telling. I remember you telling me about the next day or so, when you were stranded in Paris with no money and no food.

We were at NUC that day. The news broke slowly and confusedly through a class, and then they set up tv's in the library. The americans were all crying.

Strangely, Michael Wilkinson went through a sociology of religion class without mentioning a word of it.

Downtown was deserted and silent.

I'll never forget the day. And I can tell from your post, the neither will you.

10:33 PM  
Blogger Krista said...

I know you've told this story to me before, but it was quite powerful as well to read it. Thanks for sharing it Matthew :)

11:29 PM  
Blogger The Ochlophobist said...

Lovely prose. This is by far the best recollection of the "where I was on 9/11" variety that I have encountered. Thank you.

3:31 PM  
Blogger Matthew Francis said...

Well, sir, I am rightly chuffed at such a commendation. Thanks.

9:56 PM  
Blogger kimberley said...

i was in living in wells gray park.
it was a low tech summer. no tv, no email, no phone. my sensitivities were all the more heightened.

while running an errand to the tourist info centre in clearwater, i caught sight of the news on the small black and white tv. i thought to myself that it was some terrible movie trailer or something. it took a more than a minute to fathom.

it was definately a different kind of day.

i feel like some bjork right now.

3:20 PM  

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