Refugees

In late August of 2001, Billie Suchsland joined Jean and me on at trip from Malta to Sicily and other islands off the coast of Italy and on to the south of France.  This was Billie’s first foreign travel since she lost her husband, Bob, two years previously,

We flew to Malta where we joined a group of about sixty others and after touring that island we boarded the sailing vessel Le Ponant.   We made several stops in Sicily and spent a day in Italy in the mountains around Vesuvius and the Bay of Naples.  One night we anchored by the island of Stromboli and joined in the excitement of watching the colorful volcano eruptions.

We disembarked at the docks of beautiful Nice, France and made several other stops in the South of France.  One of the stops was Aix en Provence,  There we visited our friend, Sophie, who we had met in Denver.  She was visiting her family and participating in the civil wedding ceremony of her brother and his Chinese bride.  She  invited us to the religious ceremony in the French Protestant Church and reception at her parents’ home the next week.  The tour ended in Avignon where we visited the palace of the French Popes.

We took a taxi back to Aix en Provence to attend the wedding and tour the countryside.  The wedding was interesting and very mysterious to us since the language was primarily in French with a splattering of Chinese and English.  The vows were spoken by the bride and groom in their own language so that there would be no misunderstanding as to what they were committing themselves.

For a couple of days we toured picturesque nearby areas.  On September 11, we spent the day shopping and prowling through the downtown area.  We thought we were too tired to walk the one and a half miles to our hotel but not being able to hail a taxi, we slowly trudged onward.  We were truly exhausted but exhilarated to know that tomorrow we would board a plane in Marseille and be in Denver tomorrow night.

We finally crawled into our room and crashed.  I soon regained enough energy to get up and turn on the TV.   BANG!!!.  There on CNN, an airplane was crashing into a tower of the World Trade Center in New York City.  This caused a tremendous blaze and we could see that the other tower was also burning.  It took a while to realize that this was not a frightening horror movie but it was actually destruction going on in our homeland.

Soon, the panicky newsmen announced that there had been four damaging crashes killing an unknown number of people and it had been determined that they were caused by terrorists.  We were spellbound watching people jumping from the buildings and then later seeing the buildings crash to the ground.

It was announced that all planes in the air over the US were ordered to land at the nearest airport and that no planes would be allowed to fly into the United States.  We were spellbound at what was going on and what we were to do.  We decided that we should report to the Marseille Airport the next day for instructions.  Before our taxi arrived, several English-speaking people expressed to us their feelings of grief and sorrow.

At the airport, there was no one at the gate for the flight to Paris.  Soon a few others with reservations showed up and an airline representative arrived and announced that planes were not allowed to fly into the US at that time and that no one could fly to Paris unless they had a confirmed reservation at a hotel.

It was also recommended that we stay in one of the nearby hotels until more information was available.  We took refuge at a Best Western Hotel within eyesight of the airport.  We requested that a reservation be made for us in a Paris hotel and this occurred three days later.

At the dining room that evening we encountered a frightened lady who had not brought any emergency money and apparently had no credit cards.  We advised her to go to a nearby energetic American pilot’s wife who seemed to have plenty of money and perhaps could help her through her husband.   We did not see the lady in distress again so we assume that she got help from someone.

While playing the waiting game, we took a couple of trips around the area.  We hired a driver who took us to a seaside resort, which was pretty and interesting but not dazzling.

The following day we took a bus into the city where we were to catch another bus for a tour of Marseille.  The bus let us out about a mile from the docks area where we were to catch the tour bus.

On that walk, we felt as if we were in Morocco.  The signs were in Arabic and most of the people were in Arabic dress and unsmiling.  As we approached the docks, the surroundings appeared more French and friendly.

After the tour, we walked back through “Little Arabia”.  We spied a welcoming sign of  McDonalds and stopped for a cup of coffee.  We found a table that was at least six feet from any other tables.  We all relaxed.  I placed my large camera bag under my chair.  In about fifteen minutes, we got up to leave and my bag was missing.  We reported the loss to the unconcerned management and went on our way.  It was no great loss since the camera was old and needed to be replaced.

This experience added to my fears and uncertainty about our immediate future.  We didn’t know what was really going on at home and how extensive the terrorism was throughout the world.  I feared that the electronics systems would be disrupted so that the credit cards would be made inactive.

When we arrived back at our hotel, we were advised that we now had reservations in Paris at a Best Western Hotel.  The next morning, we flew to Paris and found our new home just a few blocks from the Arc de Triomphe.  The nondescript hotel was located in a rambling old building in a middle class residential area where everyone lived in apartments and bought their deli type food and wine at nearby food stores.  The bad news was that our reservation was for only one day but could be extended if space was available. Luckily it was extended each day we needed it.

We had been in Paris before so we generally knew our way around much of the downtown area.  The first afternoon we found the Delta Airline office on the Champs- Elysees.  We took a number and joined the crowd of disgruntled Americans.  It was the fourth day after the terrorist attack and airplanes were now allowed to fly into the United States but it would be some time before all of the backed up reservations could be honored.  After a three-hour wait, a clerk took the telephone number of our hotel and we were told that we would be called when space was available for us to fly home.

The waiting crowd was orderly but not joyful.  I heard one lady pleading with a clerk for her mother to be allowed to fly home immediately since she was out of medicine and that her life depended on a particular drug.

When we travel abroad we take extra money as well as extra medicine. At that time I was taking Metamucil to add bulk to my diet.  I could do without it but I decided to see if I could find it in a French pharmacy. The two people working in the pharmacy and I did not share a language so but we went through a lot of motions and demonstrations and I left with what they understood I wanted.  After a couple of doses, I happily threw it away.

We again walked some of the beautiful streets of Paris and visited shops and a few museums.  We did not venture far from the airline office or our hotel in case we might receive news of our departure.  The afternoon of our seventh day of exile, we received a call that we could return the next day if we would first fly to Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam.

From the Paris domestic airport, Orly, we flew to the domestic portion of Schiphol, which was a great distance from the overseas gates.  Jean and I ran ahead of Billie and in about twenty minutes we found our plane.  The crew was holding the flight for us.  Billie soon arrived and we were on our way.  We were a happy trio.

We arrived in Atlanta and left on time for Denver.  Denver International Airport was a little haunting.  It was absent the usually crowds and activity.  The parking lot van was not immediately at hand and very few vehicles were in the pick up area.  I called the parking lot and a van was sent for us.  On our ride home, the traffic appeared normal and many of the vehicles had United States flags hanging from them.

Thank God we were home, but the world would never be the same again.

 

Jim Pershall

October 2011