Modena Remembers 9/11
As I shrank from the sting of yet another freezing shower, I heard voices. Not the ones in my head, which every morning tell me to call my landlord and complain about the lack of hot water, but deep Italian ones, from outside.
I peeped out the glass door to the balcony; the piazza in front of our apartment building was full of people and flags and uniforms.
The piazza is ringed by a chaotic traffic circle, but in the center of the circle is a grassy area with an odd bit of sculpture: two chunks of metal enclosed in circular bands of steel. I passed it many times and assumed it was a war memorial, until I read the plaque: It's a memorial to 9/11.
My family spent a year in Modena, Italy. This ancient city holds many surprises, it’s Pavarotti's birthplace, and Il Maestro is buried here. But Modena also holds a piece of New York: two sections of steel girders from the World Trade Center, enclosed in open steel spheres, stand on twin concrete towers.
I've never seen a monument to the World Trade Center in my home town of Denver or other places I’ve traveled in the States. Yet this small Italian town not only built a WTC memorial, on the eighth anniversary of 9/11 they held a service, in remembrance.
I threw on shorts and a shirt, tried to smooth my wet hair, and slipped to the back of the crowd. The piazza bristled with uniforms: there were generals, policemen, and dignitaries in fabulous Italians suits. But there were also people from the town, casually dressed in jeans and sandals.
More than fifty Italians attended the ceremony. They came to stand with America and remember its tragedy. I felt my wild hair curl and unfurl in the light breeze. There was a bank of flags: Tall stately banners, representing the City of Modena, the Lion's Club, and Leo, the Italian Lion's Club.
The girders were surrounded by rich flags in jewel tones, held proudly aloft by caring people half a world and eight years from the day the Towers fell. There were two huge laurel wreaths, regal with gold ornaments and gilded velvet ribbons.
Several dignitaries spoke: of the fallen, of our unity, and of our global need for peace. I heard the words Stati Uniti and was deeply honored: this town has suffered Nazis, Fascists, and the bubonic plague, yet these people chose to share America's sorrow.
And America doesn't even know they are here.
At the close of the speeches, a fire engine siren wailed briefly, like the wild grief of a bagpipe. Standing at attention next to the truck were vigili del fuoco, firefighters. They are the Italian brothers of the heroes of 9/11, and in this town, just as in New York and in Denver, these are the people who walk into hell for us.
I often wondered who built the monument, and at the memorial I met the man who spent three years ensuring that Modena would remember. His name is Paolo, and he looks like a New York skyscraper: he’s tall and steely in a gray suit with steady gray eyes. Paolo was born in Modena but moved to New York and was there when the towers fell.
Paolo told me that he visited Ground Zero and stared, at the jagged edge of the building that stood long after the rest had gone to earth. His eyes lowered with the memory, Paolo said the city smelled like smoke and burning plastic for three months. He told me it took nine months to comb through the rubble; the wreckage went to Staten Island. Pieces of the buildings, even fire trucks, were buried in a mound.
When the City was about to seal over the pile, Paolo asked whether he could take some pieces of the World Trade Center to Italy. Working with the Lion's Club, the Leo Club, and the City of Modena, Paolo and his friends raised money for the project. It took three years to bring the girders to Modena, build the statue, and dedicate the monument. Paolo thought that that the Modena memorial contained the only pieces of the WTC to leave the United States.
Paolo now lives in New York, and missed the dedication in 2004, but he arranged to be in Modena for the eighth anniversary. Looking at the monument, Paolo said it was hard not to cry, because he remembers.
Paolo has applied for US citizenship, and will be an American citizen within a year. Welcome to America, Paolo, and thank you. Thank you, Lion's Club. Grazie, Leo Club, Grazie, Modena.
We will remember you, too.
Andrea Gelfuso Goetz