Friends, Romans, countrymen

20130226-001948.jpgThe Roman Forum is awesome. I’ve heard so much more enthusiasm and excitement about the Colosseum, and although that was impressive and absolutely important, the Forum made a much bigger impression on me.

20130226-002005.jpgWe went to the Forum today. We had to wander around a bit to find the main entrance (which was surprisingly not well marked) and then followed Rick Steves’ self-guided tour (from the Rick Steves’ Italy book). It was chilly and sprinkled on and off, but we were treated to some amazing history. We marveled at the astounding scope of Roman architecture and walked the ground where Caesar stood . . . and where he was killed. We saw the way that space once set aside for Roman gods was taken over by Christianity. We learned how grateful we all are to not be Vestal Virgins (yikes).

20130226-002029.jpgBut of the whole experience, I had two favorite moments. The first was when I learned that nearly the entirety of the ground we were walking on had been excavated in only the 19th century. I had been shocked to find that many of the massive stones that made up the roads were from ancient times (they don’t make for an easy stroller journey), but when I realized they had all been underground — covered and protected by centuries of sediment — it made a lot more sense. It also drove home to me to feeling of being small and finite and very young in the face of these pieces of stone that have been preserved for so long.

20130226-002110.jpgAnd then, when I saw the massive cuts made in the marble columns of a temple, by would-be thieves who gave up because the stone was too tough to destroy, I felt so much admiration for the pride, effort and craftsmanship of all of the work that went in to building these massive and persistent structures.

20130226-002221.jpgIt was an amazing experience. We stood in the Senate building, we walked the streets of ancient Rome, we chased Benjamin around the ruins. We had a day steeped in history, made tangible by being near the massive monuments left behind. It was fantastic.


10 years ago

10 years ago, Tuesday, September 11 started as a regular day at work.  I was in a hurry — I was headed out on my first business trip that afternoon.  A year later, I wrote about my experience, and reading it takes me right back to those moments: .

I’m surprised at how tender the wound still is.  I’m shocked at how hard it hits me if I let myself think about it.  The loss of life, the shock, the fear — the profound damage done to our sense of security and safety.  But mostly, the loss.

I still get chills and cry whenever I think about it.  I remember the people jumping from the World Trade Center buildings.  I remember the recordings of the phone calls from the people who knew they weren’t going to make it, preserved on answering machines and in voice mails for friends, spouses, parents, children that couldn’t be reached.  I remember the effort it took, in the beginning, to do normal things and not be afraid.  Thinking about it affects me differently, now, because I’m a mom — everyone who was lost was someone’s child.

My kids have never known a world where “September 11” hadn’t happened.  It will forever be a part of their landscape, of their nation’s and their family’s history.  But so, too, is the bravery and dedication of those who responded, that day and in the years that followed.

Today, being outside of the US is particularly strange.  What happened on September 11, 2001 is part of the American cultural experience — but not here.  The world shares our grief, on this anniversary, but they weren’t there, and they can’t really understand.  I feel safer being here, but also so distant.  America is my home.  It’s where I would prefer to be today.

Ten years on, life continues.  Babies are born, grow up, and enter the world.  The world that they enter has not forgotten what passed on that Tuesday morning, ten years ago.  We are wiser and more wary.  But we are also humbled by the brotherhood and selflessness possible in humanity.  We know better than to take our precious moments together for granted.

Those who attacked us ten years ago sought to terrify and cripple us.  The wounds they inflicted will never leave us.  But we are more than they thought we were.  We will never forget, but we will move forward.

And one day, maybe I won’t cry when I think about it.  But I wouldn’t bet on it.



The holocaust is the proverbial “elephant in the room” here in Austria.  This is where it happened, not very long ago.  There are people who are here who lived through it.  It isn’t abstract and it isn’t distant.  I’m not an expert, and I don’t claim or pretend to really understand what it must be like for those who were touched more directly by it.  But I am finding myself more affected by it, more aware of it, living here than I ever have been before.

People here don’t talk about it, from what I’ve heard.  I haven’t had a chance to have many deep conversations with Austrians, but as I understand, the subject is pretty much verboten.  It’s even more of a sensitive subject here than in other parts of Europe.  A month or so ago, I was joined at my Starbucks table one weekend by a quintet of Jewish American tourists.  I had open seats at my table, and they joined me and we talked for quite a while about their trip — Austria was the last of a series of countries they visited on what they described as a “holocaust tour”.  All 5 were older, and retired — two were from Bethesda, Maryland (very near where I grew up).  They had been to Germany and Poland (and maybe elsewhere, but I forget) on their trip and said that nowhere had they gotten a worse reaction to their questions about the holocaust than they did in Austria.  Their tour guide flatly refused to talk about it, and got quite angry when they persisted.

Walking around, enjoying Vienna, I admit that the holocaust is not front of mind for me.  This place feels so beautiful and peaceful.  It isn’t the first thing I think about.  It wasn’t in the top ten things I thought about when I decided to move here.  But, it’s here — it’s present.

Shortly after arriving here, we spent a Sunday with a colleague of Dan’s and his family, outside of Vienna.  They came and picked us up and brought us to their home.  We spent the afternoon with them, had lunch, the kids played and even had an Easter Egg hunt.  At one point, we had wandered down to the end of their driveway and Ada, the wife and mother of the family, was showing me the landmarks of their town.  She pointed out a former synagogue across the street — she said people would often come and draw it, or photograph it.  It’s a lovely building.  I asked if she knew why it was a “former” synagogue.  “Well, after the war, no one came back.”

Oh.  OH.  Oh, dear God.

I looked at the building, turned around, looked at my kids, playing in the yard, and found I couldn’t breathe.  This happened HERE.  It was so present in that moment — the enormity, the immediacy, the reality — that I couldn’t absorb it.  My brain locked up for a second and then switched channels, to something less terrifying and reprehensible.

But, it’s still here.

Yesterday, we saw the memorial to the Austrian Jews killed during World War II.  We didn’t make a point to go — we happened upon it on the way home from the movies.  On the ground, at the base of the tomb dedicated to the victims, it says that 65,000 Austrian Jews were killed during the holocaust.  Sixty five thousand PEOPLE.  Killed.  Murdered.  And that’s just from Austria, a country about the size of South Carolina.

I’m not sure there’s a way to truly process this kind of information.  How many people do you think you know?  Have ever met?  65,000?  Unlikely.  So, that’s everyone you’ve ever met, gone.  And not in a force of nature or act of God.  Not from disease.  And not in an instant.  People did this, on purpose, over time, to each other.  Here — it happened here.  Entire families, entire communities, gone.  They didn’t come back.

That building that used to be a synagogue isn’t now.  The moms, the dads, the brothers, the sisters, the grandparents, the friends, the children, the babies.  No one came back.

No wonder they don’t want to talk about it.  I can barely think about it.  My brain keeps trying to change the channel.