“Deux Americains in Paris”

On September 11, 2001, Vicky & I were apartment hunting in Paris at the exact moment the tragedy at The World Trade Towers in New York City was unfolding. I remember we were near the Jardins du Luxembourg and, since then, every time I came upon that little square near the Senate building, the memories come back. The news was so surreal to us as we got bits & pieces in French over the car radio. The next several days in Paris were so strange – being away from home – and contemplating world events and the idea of being American. We found out we were not alone.

This is an email I sent to friends and family on Friday, September 14th – a day before we were able to fly out of Paris.

I’m down to my last pairs of socks and underwear. Yesterday I went to le Bon Marché, one of the large Parisien department stores to stock up on what I guessed would hold me over. “Ou est les boxers?” (‘box-AIRS’ I prounounced as I asked the sales lady with a smile) Hey! she understood what I asked her – I had no idea what the word for boxers – or underwear was…
We were supposed to fly out of Paris back to Evansville, Indiana on Wednesday, September 12th but didn’t even bother going to the airport as CNN had already informed us of our bad news. But a canceled flight is really so minute a problem considering all of the rest of the bad news.

Vicky and I really feel disconnected. Like Dorothy, I just want to click my shoes together and be home again. The Wicked Witch of the East has turned our homeland upside down. But this disconnection has made me feel even more American and I have had a lot of time to reflect upon this.

We heard of the disaster while we were looking at apartments with our immobilier (Realtor). She had stopped to make a phone call and came running back to the car and said to us in her somewhat broken English:

“Something terrible has happened in your country!” There was a very serious and concerned look on her face. ” The World Trade Tower has fallen to pieces! We must turn on the radio right away to hear the news,” she said. I thought surely that her translation into English lost something. There is no way those buildings could collapse! I imagined it was another incident like the one that happened in 1993. Maybe a bomb, maybe a few fatalities, quite a few injuries, lots of smoke, lots of confusion, a lost workday…

Vicky and I could pick up bits and pieces while Claire translated what we didn’t understand. My goodness, she was right! We couldn’t believe it!

Then we heard it had been – not a bomb – but an airplane! I immediately figured it was a terrorist – no pilot would ever crash into a skyscaper in Manhattan!

It was all a real shock. And it was very disconnecting – we were receiving all of this horrible news in a foreign language and from a woman’s translation whose English was not so reliable. No CNN – at least not until we got back to the hotel room…

Then we heard about the third crash. I heard something about “Washington” and “Pentagon” – the French pronounced it with an accent that made it hard to recognize. Surely it was NOT the Pentagon! It was like a nightmare. Like an epic Hollywood disaster film! Maybe these are just horrible rumors?

But they weren’t – we soon learned. Vicky and I were almost sick to our stomachs. And the feeling of total helplessness was overwhelming.

That night we stayed glued to CNN in the hotel room. We left the TV on all night and periodically woke up to learn of more breaking news.

Apartment hunting had worn us out. Now this.

The next day we had an appointment to meet our potential landlord. I say ‘potential’ because we are still yet to be ‘approved’. Securing an apartment in Paris is certainly nothing like finding one in Evansville, Indiana. We asked one immobilier why the process was so difficult. She told us that many owners did not trust Americans. Maybe this was because of the high turnover in corporate America…But we had heard that “our” owner liked Americans and liked leases that were held by American corporations…

We met Monsieur Seuret in his elegant apartment (across the hall from “ours”.) “This could be good or it could be bad, ” Monsieur Seuret later told us in English with a warm smile – “just depending on your point of view…”

He led us upstairs to his office and offerred us a seat across from his desk. He was in his eighties’ and his eyes sparkled as he spoke to you. I liked this man immediately. A very nice gentleman and he seemed to really like Americans.

As we sat, the first thing he asked was: “And what did you think of this speech last night that Jacques Chirac gave about the terrible disaster that happened in your country?” Rather than respond, we let him go on to say: “You know, I really like what Le Monde has said in their headlines – ‘Nous sommes tous Americains’ (We Are All Americans). This sort of broke the ice and we were quick to warm up with him – something that all of the cultural do’s-and-don’ts guides tell you about the French: They are somewhat reserved in their initial acquaintances and like relationships to develop slowly – in other words, they’re not chummy like many of us Americans can be.

He told us that he had lived in New York during the Forties’ and said that many Americans were very hospitable towards him. “I have very fond memories of my American friends,” he told us.

Although he was very friendly he was very business-like. He was very upfront in his demands as an owner yet encouraged us to ask questions or present him with any of our demands. He obviously invests heavily in the American stock market because he was very up on the DOW and NASDAQ and was interested in hearing all he could about Vicky’s company.

We talked about a lot of things and I could tell that his agent, Monsieur Gilbert (I secretly referred to him as Goober), who was also present, was all business and not much of a conversationalist.

We left not knowing whether or not we would get the apartment, but we had a good feeling about the outcome of the meeting. Monsieur Seuret had charmed us and (hopefully) we had charmed him.

I am quite surprised at how sympathetic the French are. My good friend, Michel Bourgeois, who is also a Parisian, told me he was not having a good day when I called him that afternoon. “Why?”, I asked him. “Well, you know, it’s just with all of these terrible things that have happened – I just feel awful…”

Vicky and I stopped earlier for lunch at the Samaritaine department store to get a fantastic view of Paris. We were on the rooftop observation deck when we ran into three other American couples – all independent of each other. We talked about the events that had happened and shared individual stories. It felt really good to talk with them. It was almost like family.

After lunch, Vicky and I bought flowers at a flower stand. The flowerstand owner asked if we were American. He told us he was sorry of what had happened. I selected red, white and blue flowers and we took them to the American embassy. I wrote the following on a sheet of paper taped to the flowers:


We only wish we could be with you to share in your grief.

Two sad but proud
Americans in Paris,

Vicky & Robert Leedy”

There was a crowd across the street from the embassy. French police barricaded the front. People had placed a lot of flowers along one of the barricades.

A young Frenchman held a sign that said [in French]:

“Democracy in Mourning. Against Hate and Barbarism.”

[and on the other side in English:]

“America Stay Cool. You Are As Strong As Peace.”

There were many tearful faces – both American and non-American. It was a very emotional visit for us.

On Wednesday night after receiving the news that our rescheduled flight was not going to happen, we received a letter from the hotel manager. It said:

“Dear Guests,

We are all horrified concerning the catastrophe that happened yesterday in the United States.

We would like to assure you of our sincere support in these terrible circumstances.

The French people has been very hurt by this disaster and we all sympathize with your pain.

The whole team of La Villa Beaumarchais stays at your disposal for any help you would need.

Marc Sabatin
General Manager”

Thursday, as I went on my mission to buy clean underwear (well, isn’t ALL new underwear clean?) I noticed that there were many people recognizing me as American (yes, it’s hard to hide) and I could see them trying to read my face for my own personal reaction to the tragedy.

Earlier, I stopped at a cyber cafe to check my email. It was in an Arab neighborhood and there were many people queuing to get online. I was one of the few Westerners in there. There was quite a bit of mortar fire in Kabul the night before and perhaps they were Afghans worried about their families, I don’t know…but there was a weird, heavy air in there and I didn’t feel like waiting, so I left. Outside, a rowdy group of young Arabs was making loud remarks. Whether they were directed at me or not, I do not know, but I did sort of detect the word. “Christian.” A young Frenchman across the street silently glared at them as they wandered down the street.

The French people in general seem to be very sympathetic. A poll was taken and suupposedly 96 percent of all French people are in support of the Americans.

Michel and I had dinner on Wednesday night. I was very surprised to hear him say, “America should level the bastards that did this. I only hope that they are absolutely sure who did this if and when they do.”

Of course, the French had a lot of their brethren involved in the tragedy. Many of the businesses in the World Trade Towers were French.

Back in the department store – in the sock department – I ran into an older American couple. He was buying socks as well. I joked about finding the right size. We picked up a conversation and it was as if we were old friends. They were from Chicago and were on their way back from Provence. We wished each other well, a safe trip and went our separate ways.

As I am writing this in a cyber cafe – across from the Jardin de Luxembourg in the 6th Arrondisement (hopefully, our new neighborhood) – I am hearing a range of emotions from Americans on the other computers. One man let out a deep sigh and turned to tell his wife that a neighbor, who worked on the 87th floor, was killed. A young American woman who is apparently in college here shrieked with joy when she heard that her good friend was alive and well. A woman next to me is quietly sobbing in between bursts of rapid typing.

Earlier that morning as I was leaving the hotel, there was a Hasidic Jew at the reception desk. He was concerned about the timing of the openings at Newark, La Guardia and Kennedy aiports. Like us, he wanted to go home. He told me that he imagined that everyone in New York most likely knew someone who was killed. “I live two blocks from the Towers and my young children watched it from our windows,” he told me. I can’t imagine the horror those little ones must have felt…

We hope that our flight tomorrow will go as planned. We have reservations on Air France scheduled to leave for Atlanta at 3:30 pm, Paris time, tomorrow.

There’s no place like home.

Je Suis Americain!

Robert Leedy

About this entry