Eight years on

This is how I felt that day: like something might come swooping down out of the sky at any time, that no place was safe, not the streets I walked along in my new high heels (heading out of the financial district: the streetcars were jammed, traffic at a standstill). When I walked along Bloor St. the sky was blue and sunny and the mood ominous with every store’s door open and every radio tuned to the same station with the same terrible news.

The Economist’s headline later in the week was “The Day the World Changed,” and I thought, as I looked at the peaceful pastel photo of a slow-motion jet careening toward the World Trade Center, that I hadn’t wanted it to.

It was quieter than ever without the jets overhead those few days – I think I was on a flight path, though it hadn’t really occurred to me before – but all the remaining sound seemed a million times louder. And then, for ages, everything seemed more sinister: a plane overhead too loud, a mysterious shutdown of the subway, flickering lights in my old house, sirens. All the everyday sounds of the city, and of an unattacked city at that, now frightening, peace-disturbing.

September 1999

When the buildings were bombed in Moscow it was the reaction I found frightening: the uniformed militia on the street, the guns they carried, their grim faces. The explosions were terrifying enough, to be sure – while you slept, terrorists might come and blow up your nondescript apartment building — and the targets were all in wooded suburban areas, just like mine. But it was the reaction afterward that kept the fear going, the soldiers marching two by two around the blocks, the empty streets, the suspicious looks when you threw even a gum wrapper into a rare garbage can. Everything was touched. I got off the subway to change trains and a soldier halfway up the stairs barked out orders to another who pulled darkish men away to have their papers checked: Him! To the left!

But somehow less terrifying for me to be in Moscow while terrorists worked in September 1999 than to be a thousand miles from New York in September 2001.

The night after the second apartment building in Moscow was bombed – another couple hundred killed in their beds, white faces on people in the metro, talk of a state of emergency, “cherezsluchayniye sitzuatzia” – I was watching the television news, one program after another. ORT for an hour, then RTR, NTV, TV6. I lived in a furnished apartment with another Canadian girl who had been AWOL for the first month and only occasionally home since. The television was a clunker, a 19-or-more-inch that broadcast everything in sepia. And then, that night, as I was halfway through my evening ritual of language improvement (by the third or fourth newscast, I could be sure I was understanding the news of the day with some accuracy), the British owner of the TV set arrived out of the blue to take it back.

After he left I felt slightly scared. Seeing video of reporters in front of already-bombed buildings, uninterrupted by breaking news of other terakti, had been somewhat comforting. Sitting in the kitchen, staring at the fading green-and-brown striped wallpaper while trying to find Ekho Moskvi, the talk radio station, less so.

Some apartments arranged shifts to guard their buildings 24-hours-a-day. It never took off in my building, where for much of the day and early evening there was sure to be someone outside in the lane in front of the building working on a Lada anyway, or the man in heavy black-framed glasses and fatigues doing something with his army transport truck, his mean-looking , sweet-natured German shepherd nearby. I once left the house early in the morning on my way to work and, seeing the dog, backed up pathetically to the building’s entrance again, murmuring, tremulously, “please… I’m scared of dogs… please.” The fatigue(d) man had looked at me in exasperation and assured me the dog was good, gentle, while I cowered nearby. He grabbed the dog by the collar and put it in my path, poor sad lame thing, leg in a cast. That fucking dog made me shake; I couldn’t even imagine how to be scared of random Chechen terrorists.


Later that year the spectre of terrorism touched my life again. I was on my way home with a stopover in Paris, where the major airport, as many in the U.S. would go on to do, had abolished its luggage checkroom after some bombs in the late eighties/early nineties. Not knowing this, and having planned a four-day stopover, and being met by a friend who knew a convenient route into town on the metro, I ended up dragging six months of my life through a street market in a left bank arrondissement to the hotel. In Tokyo, where, in very precise fashion, garbage cans had been eliminated from the actual subway lines where the sarin gas attack of 1996 had taken place, but not from the many connecting and very analogous commuter train lines, I’d ended each day with pockets full of sticky wrappers, an irritating but not back-breaking inconvenience.

Japan figured into my second terrorist-prompted inconvenience in France, when at the airport the Air France agent checking passports as we boarded the plane flipped through my half-empty Canadian passport looking for something of interest after my unexciting answers to her questions.
“Ahhh… Narita,” she said pointedly. “What were you doing in Narita?”
“I was working in Tokyo. As a teacher.”
“Na-REE-ta,” she said again, turning the passport sideways and upside down. “Narita.”
I might be there still, listening to her hypnotise herself with the magic Japanese name again and again, if I hadn’t grabbed the passport from her hands and proceeded to give my boarding pass to the agent behind her. I was steaming with indignation, halfway through writing a complaint on the tear-out card in the Air France magazine when the Scottish Airbus engineer who was my seatmate arrived.
“Bad flight?” he asked, nodding toward the complaint card. I began to reply but left it as an indignant yelp. After a gin and tonic I’d relaxed and we engaged a game to see just how long the attendant call button could be lit without an Air France flight attendant stopping by. We had to call it quits after an hour and forty-five minutes because I was laughing too hard.

The Special Forces

But what comes to my mind next is another funny story that isn’t really funny. A few years earlier, in Russia, sometime in the autumn, which ends early in St. Petersburg, so let’s say September. I was taking an intensive Russian program at the university and living in a huge dormitory, the obshezhitzye, on a road whose name I couldn’t pronounce on the Gulf of Finland. A thousand students maybe, or hundreds at least, not all students, most Russian, but lots of foreigners in town for different courses. There was security at the obshezhitzye, a turnstile with a plexiglassed kiosk next to it, just like in the metro. The kiosk was staffed by a woman in a flowered pinafore and her husband, who always appeared to be drunk. At night sometimes grandpa came on the shift, while during the day sometimes three or four family members crowded in the kiosk, at no point appearing to pay the slightest attention to anyone going in or out.

Not that it mattered, because all the rooms – miniature suites, really, of two or more bedrooms, a kitchen and a bathroom – had large steel doors, just like a prison. Apart from the heroin addicts who showed up from time to time to take their stash hidden in the fire extinguisher cabinet at the end of the hall – and the tall black-leather jacketed men who had showed up and kicked the door to the apartment opposite the cabinet, which seemed to have some connection to the heroin (never was I more glad that my name was not Sasha) – the obshezhityze was a calm and secure place. There were two telephones in the entire building and the French female students tried to establish order over the phone chaos by putting up neat schedules for expected calls, which everyone else ignored.

But one day, while I was at class, terrorism struck the obshezhitzye. Actually, not terrorism, although there was some momentary terror involved, all at the hands of the finest special troops, the OMON. Unexpectedly, at some point in the mid-afternoon, a bus rolled up and troops in fatigues (different ones from those described above, more colourful ones, OMON ones) poured out. They ran in some kind of formation, machine guns at the ready, taking positions in order to storm the building. The few residents coming in and out scattered, hiding behind garbage bins and parked Chaikas nearby. No word on what steps the kiosk family took, their authority could not have been difficult to overrun. The poor students who were at home hid themselves under beds, unsure as to what was happening – was there a dangerous criminal on the loose? (Perhaps an even angrier drug dealer.) Or were the OMON hunting down the residents themselves?

Eventually, exercise completed, the special forces troops packed up and left. There was not a trace of their reign of terror by the time I returned from my classes.

The day the world changed

And what is the point to all this reminiscence? In part to point out that at one time terrorism was a foreign novelty, something slightly disturbing that could be left behind by sitting on a plane for eight hours, something to add colour to dinner-party stories about travelling.

And perhaps the point I’m making is that it all seems abstract and overblown when it’s not you that’s the target. Ask any Canadian.

I laugh about it. We all do, especially now, after eight years of packing toiletries in clear plastic bags and shuffling through the airport in holey socks. But there is always a tremor of tension somewhere in my body, one that wasn’t there the day before the day my world changed.