In Hungarian 9/11 ceremony, a borderless truth


Two Hungarian firefighters participate in the Budapest ceremony commemorating the tenth anniversary of the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. (Alex Weisler)

What is it about anniversaries, anyway?

I haven’t thought about 9/11 in a deep way for years, but in the last few days I’ve been gripped by an intense need to process and reflect. I’ve been wracked by the kind of grieving I haven’t done since I was 12 — if I’ve ever really let myself do it at all.

And I’m not in my beloved New York. I’m half a world away, on the fifth floor of a yellow apartment building on the wrong side of Budapest.

When you’re a New Yorker, you wear your city like a badge of honor. And after 9/11, it can sometimes feel like a brand — something seared indelibly, something that tells you where you belong and who you belong to.

It’s been jarring to go through my decade-delayed catharsis in Hungary, not the United States. I’ve been staying up until 5 a.m. reading New York Times coverage, and I’ve found it difficult to concentrate on almost anything else.

And when it started to seem like Budapest wasn’t holding a 9/11 commemoration, I panicked.

I don’t know where the sudden need to grieve and remember came from. The new Facebook feature that tells you your status on a given day in previous years didn’t offer any clues: Evidently, I was charmed by an inside joke in 2009 and asking for High Holidays forgiveness this time last year.
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I sent out tweets, pleaded on Couchsurfing and expat message boards — begging for someone to tell me how Budapest was marking the day.

No response.

When a kind soul finally clued me in to a memorial ceremony taking place in the city center’s Freedom Square, I jumped at the chance. I don’t know what I was expecting to find there, but I knew anything was better than another day of being reduced to sobs by a Wikipedia account of a brave flight attendant.

The Budapest memorial blew me away.

The commemoration wasn’t perfect. I found an early instance in which several fire trucks blared their sirens unannounced as breaking news footage played on a big screen unnerving, crass and distasteful. I almost left.

And the memorial had its fair share of maudlin missteps, like you’d expect from any similar event in the States.

But those are minor quibbles. The commemoration was a powerful burst of community on a day when I was feeling very alone.

It was the little things.

It was the four heavily accented performers belting out "New York, New York," singing about their desire to "wake up in the city that doesn’t sleeps."

It was the man who explained how Hungarians have always looked to the United States as a beacon of freedom, how they’ve always been "strengthened by the knowledge that America was on our side."

And it was anyone who ended their remarks with that simplest of American prayers, "God bless America."

No one asked Budapest to do this. Hungary is not one of the more than 50 countries that lost citizens in the terror attacks.

But more than 1,000 Hungarians — yes, there were American and British voices today, but the lion’s share of attendees were Magyars — stood for almost three hours in the broiling late-summer sun and listened to an endless parade of speeches and songs.

They sang along to Sinatra’s ode to the Big Apple and they wiped their eyes during "Amazing Grace." And they clapped long and hard when an event organizer ended the memorial ceremony by saying, "Today we are all New Yorkers. Long live New York and America."

America’s star may have dimmed in recent years, but we have friends abroad. I’ve traveled to ten countries and met people from dozens more in the last two months — and without fail, they light up when I tell them I’m from New York. There’s a genuine affection out there for my city and my country.

I started this week resenting that I was overseas for such an important anniversary, but I end it lucky that I got the chance to be reminded of the world’s capacity to shrink when you need it to.

Coming from New York, it’s easy to get a bit myopic when it comes to 9/11.

That wasn’t an issue today in Budapest.

Standing in Freedom Square, it was clear that this didn’t happen to us. It happened to the world.

Out of the ashes of a uniquely American tragedy can come a borderless truth — the realization of how much easier this all can be when we share our joy, our sorrow and our hopes.

It shouldn’t take a ten-year anniversary to remind the world that we’re all in this together.

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