I had wanted to explore Europe on bicycle ever since the trip my husband and I took to Tuscany, Italy. Winding by car up the lush green steep hills we would pass cyclists loaded with giant packs pedaling their way up the inclines. It seemed like an exciting way to tour, and indeed it was when, a few years later, we embarked on a 400-mile bike trip through Provence. Our small group of nine set off from Aix-en-Provence, the picturesque town where Paul Cezanne had been born, had lived and had created many of his famous paintings — landscapes filled with staggered rocks resembling buildings with a cubist, post-impressionist bent.
Day one was a mere 40 miles through tiny villages and an evergreen-filled park with mountain-grade uphills. Since I had trained at home before the trip, I was surprised when I struggled to make it to the top until, that is, someone pointed out that I was in the very worst gear for the task. With stops to drink water or take pictures, our ride that day took several hours. We wound down close to our hotel, taking our final break across from the castle where Picasso had once lived. It was a beautiful, sunny, cloudless day in Vauvenargues, France on Sept. 11, 2001.
We were lounging on picnic benches waiting to hear instructions from our leader when he came walking toward us, head down. He lifted his face to reveal a puzzled look and said, “We just heard that a plane flew into one of the Twin Towers in New York City.” Our reactions were equally puzzled. Huh? What do you mean? A little private plane got that close to the building? That doesn’t sound real. Someone must have their information wrong. They GOT IT WRONG.
But we were five miles from our hotel with no phones. Once we had biked back to the hotel, we turned on the only channel available, CNN International, to see images of the first tower aflame and another plane hitting the second tower. We watched in horror and disbelief as the towers disintegrated and collapsed. I went into shock. Being so far away from the city where I lived and worked — well, it didn’t seem real. We went to the front desk to try to call our families in New York. My sister worked in the East Village but had clients all around the city. Where was she? Did my father have any appointments in the city that day? Where was he? The lines were jammed and no calls could go through. Eventually we received a fax from my brother letting us know that everyone was OK.
It was day one of our 400-mile bike trip. We had a nice dinner planned that night. What should we do? What could we do? There were no flights out of France. We didn’t really get what it all meant just then. So we went to the restaurant. The maitre d’ said he was “very sorry about what had happened in our country.” People were dining, but everyone looked stunned — as if they were in a different world. Afterward, we went back to the hotel and continued to watch the news. We just couldn’t believe it.
We stayed and biked through Provence for the next 10 days. Looking back on it now, I realize we had no idea how our world had changed. We really did not know what we would be returning to when we flew home: that we would be greeted by members of the U.S. military armed with machine guns at the virtually empty airport and that they would be staged throughout the city, ultimately becoming permanent fixtures in our lives for several years to come. We had no idea that everywhere we went in the city — Downtown, Midtown, Uptown, East Side, West Side — we would find pictures of loved ones posted on bus stops and signs, in buildings. We had no clue how tangible the burning smell would be many blocks uptown by the United Nations, where I lived at the time. I could not have predicted that I would come back to New York and do volunteer work to try and help the businesses near Ground Zero — that this catastrophic event would create a dusty ghost town accessible by subways few would ride.
My shock melted into despair and grief a day after the tragedy when we visited an art exhibit inside a cave on the side of a gorgeous mountain we had biked up. Glittering interplays of colored lights and calming chimes created contemporary translucent curtains behind which magnificent tall paintings were displayed. In that tranquil, beautiful environment I broke down. My husband took me in his arms. All I could say through my tears and sadness was “All … those … people.”