It’s hard to be away at a time like this

By Susanna Ray

Herald Writer

DUSSELDORF, Germany — Sympathy from strangers helps, but it’s no substitute for a real American hug in this time of national crisis.

Still, Germans here are suffering with me as we anxiously watch the news for any developments from Tuesday’s terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, D.C. The outpouring of "Mitleid" from a people not known for being warm and fuzzy amazes me.

Wednesday morning, as I arrived in the office and sat down at my desk, an older man walked over to me, took my hands, looked directly in my eyes and said in deliberate English, "I am so very sorry for the loss of your people."

I burst into tears.

And then I wasted the entire day wandering from the television to e-mail to news meetings to the Internet to the telephone. There were plenty of stories to be written for the newspaper that’s hosting me on this two-month journalism fellowship, but there were also plenty of German reporters to write them — didn’t I deserve to just let myself wallow in the feelings of this awful day after?

I am the American here, after all. It’s my homeland that was affected. Germany really has nothing to do with it.

And yet, ever since I heard the initial reports when the first plane crashed into one of the World Trade Center towers, I have felt oddly as though I should be the one giving comfort.

I’m still waiting to hear from one friend, but I don’t think I know any of the people who were killed in Tuesday’s tragedy. And I don’t even have much of a geographical connection. I’ve only been to New York once, and I didn’t visit the World Trade Center on that trip.

In contrast, I think 75 percent of my co-workers here have taken extensive trips to the Big Apple — you know those famously long European vacations — and many of them have friends or relatives in the city, some still missing.

As I huddled around a TV set with a few colleagues Tuesday, it was an odd feeling to have the "foreigners" pointing out to the American — all "auf Deutsch," of course — which businesses were housed in which buildings in the view of downtown New York, what direction the fleeing people were running, which obstacles they’d face if they went that way, all the little details that only come from an intimate knowledge of the city.

So who should be the grieving one in this situation?

We all should, as every single German I’ve spoken with so far has told me emphatically. Their condolences go out to the American people, but Tuesday’s events have affected us all, they say.

But I do feel particularly affected here, despite my lack of personal connection to the attacks.

I was hard at work Tuesday afternoon when a colleague told me she’d just gotten a call from someone in New York that a plane had crashed into a building. I immediately looked for news on the Internet, and as soon as I saw the first terrifying photo, I felt the need to talk to someone at home. Even though it was just barely 6 a.m. in Seattle, I called my father and told him to turn his TV on. When the second plane crashed into the second tower while we were on the phone, I knew I had been warranted in waking him up so early.

And when the terrorist attacks spread to Washington, D.C., I felt the chills of fear.

My father called back and told me to make sure I only spoke German if I went out anywhere — no English. What are you talking about? I retorted. You’re the ones who are being attacked. I’m safer abroad than at home right now.

That feeling stayed with me today, even as the U.S. Embassy here closed off the streets around it and American firms took extra security measures.

But with the feeling of safety is a feeling of isolation.

My family and friends back home have each other to panic with, speculate with, share tidbits of news with, and simply share their stories with. Sure, I can get some of that from phone calls and from my German colleagues.

But nothing can replace the one thing missing over here: a real American hug.

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