In September 2001 I was sixteen years old and living in northern France. I was a high school exchange student, living in a family that wasn’t working out as well as I’d imagined they would. On September 11, my older host siblings told me there was something I needed to see on TV, and I watched the Twin Towers collapse live.
In November 2015 I’m thirty years old, living in Seattle and working a corporate gig to pay my student loans and living expenses while devoting every weekend to editing my epic Fantasy novel and finally working on the memoir about living in France in 2001. On November 13, my coworkers told me there was something I needed to know about Paris, and I opened Twitter for the first time in forever to get real-time updates.
Two attacks, fourteen years apart, both on countries I love but wasn’t living in at the time. Both times, I was lucky enough to know for a fact that none of my family or close friends were anywhere near the attacks. Both times, the first thing to pierce the veil of shock was a strange feeling of missing out.
9/11 happened barely three weeks into my high school year abroad, and it significantly colored not only that year, but also my relationship with France. By September 12, it was clear that my friends and family back home near Seattle were having experiences that I would never be able to understand. This went beyond normal growing-up-and-growing-apart; I watched the national psyche of my country change from over 3,000 miles away.
When I came home in August 2012 I had severe reverse culture shock. I decided that I should have been born French, not American. This feeling of displacement is prominent in my novel. Every time I talk about the story of what it was like to come back a year after 9/11, my listeners tell me that I need to write it, and yet it’s taken fourteen years to actually get the distance I need to start it. As far as the question of nationality, when I moved to France for a year right after college in 2007, my parents never expected me to move back. It took eight years, a dozen trips back to France, a complete falling-out with my host family from high school, and moving to the “big city” of Seattle before I finally stopped feeling like I was born in the wrong country.
My first thought upon hearing about the Paris attacks was that I needed to get on a plane to Paris, immediately. I’m terrified that the country that helped defined who I am will no longer be recognizable the next time I go back. I want to be there to share in the experience that every Parisian is currently living, to be changed in the same way that the French people as a whole are changing. I’m encouraged by the things I’m reading about France’s reaction, about their indomitable spirit and French stubbornness, but you can’t get a full story from an ocean and a continent away.
Of course, it’s not easy to drop everything in your life on a moment’s notice—or to get in or out of a country that just went through a terrorist attack. But I’ve thought more about France and the years I lived there in the past ten days than I have in the past ten months. Paris, je t’aime.