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Harry’s Bar

Like many of you, I was appalled at the chaos unleashed at the U.S. Capitol the other day. It was especially sad to see that beautiful building, a place many of us have been to, invaded by swarms of ugly, hateful rioters.

My one and only visit there was in June 2019, when my husband and I took off for a whirlwind trip to New York City and Washington. Our good friends joined us for the NYC part of the trip, but we visited Washington on our own.

To be honest, I wasn’t all that excited about the idea of going to Washington. For one thing, the occupier of the White House did not impress me much. But my husband had always been interested in visiting the city, so I tagged along.

We took the train from New York through Philadelphia, along the Delaware River past Wilmington, Baltimore and finally into Washington D.C. It was a great way to see a little bit of the eastern coast of the U.S.

We booked an older hotel, not far from the National Mall and within walking distance of many of Washington’s landmarks and museums. On our first afternoon and evening, we took a bus tour to get our bearings and to see the sights at night.

I have to say that I was pleasantly surprised by the city. The architecture was impressive, especially the Capitol building. The history represented in places like the Lincoln and Thomas Jefferson Memorials, was inspiring. And there were so many museums. We could easily have spent weeks there exploring it all. I was especially moved by the Korean Veteran’s War Memorial, where we witnessed two vets, both in wheelchairs, introduce themselves to each other, sharing their memories of that time.

We did manage to drop by the Whitehouse. I was a little hesitant to go at first, but we found out that the Orange One was off golfing somewhere at the time, so that made the visit somewhat easier to stomach. And what gave me a little sense of hope were the other members of the public who were there, out on the street in front of the White House, protesting his presidency. A man stood on a riser with a megaphone and spoke out against many Trump transgressions. Another fellow seemed to be a permanent fixture, living in a tiny trailer across the street plastered with protest signs.

But we also noticed the numerous souvenir vendors along the way, selling pro-Trump paraphernalia. Bobble heads and MAGA hats, t-shirts and buttons. People were gleefully buying all this stuff.

At one point, we saw a busload of what appeared to be high school students, disembarking for a tour of the Capitol building. A number of them were wearing those unmistakable red caps, which was particularly disappointing. So young, and likely completely unaware of what that hat actually meant.

All of these things were like ugly scars on an otherwise beautiful city. This historic and distinguished community had been crashed by a nasty clown.

I’ve mentioned our hotel, which seemed to be a good deal when I booked it. It was an older building and the room we stayed in was pretty much stuck in the 70s, but it had everything we needed. Downstairs there was a restaurant and bar that we tried out a couple of times. And, of course, there was a souvenir shop with MAGA hats. Groan.

Harry’s Bar was a little bit dark, but certainly colourful, with stained glass light fixtures and red soda fountain chairs from some other decade. There appeared to be a regular crowd that hung out there. People who knew the place.

So it was a surprise to us when the name of that hotel popped up in the news the other day. With all of the Trump supporters expected to crash Washington to attend his rally, the hotel was promoting the fact that it would temporarily shut down.

Why? Because the Hotel Harrington, the place we stayed, is apparently a favourite hangout of the Proud Boys. And Harry’s is their bar of choice.

In 2019, I’m not sure if the term “Proud Boys” had entered into my consciousness yet. I wouldn’t have recognized the people in Harry’s as being anything other than maybe a bunch of bikers or something like that.

I remember standing in front of the White House back then and reminding myself of something important: that presidents whom I have admired had also occupied that famous residence. Presidents who understood and respected the office they held. I looked at it again, with that in mind, and it felt much better.

In a couple of weeks, the White House will once again be occupied by someone I have great respect for. Someone who understands that the presidency isn’t just about the President.

January 20, 2021 can’t come soon enough.

Obama-mania

I was driving on Highway 17 in Ladner, B.C. with the radio on when I heard Obama being sworn in as the first African-American US president. I was a little worried that I would miss some of it because I was pretty close to the Massey Tunnel, and the radio signal goes dead for a minute or two as you drive through it. But an unusually heavy morning rush hour slowed everything down, so I heard the actual swearing in just fine, only missing one part of the middle of his speech when I finally hit the tunnel.

I sat there in a sea of cars and trucks and unexpectedly teared up as I heard him take the oath. I imagine there are a lot of people everywhere in the world, but especially in the US, who will remember exactly where they were when this momentous event occurred this past week.

I remember where I was, as many do, when President Kennedy was shot in November 1963; I was in the living room at home and my mother had the TV on as she was housecleaning when the news first broke. I think that’s the first time I felt a real awareness of a significant historical event; the tone in the voices of the reporters that day was ominous, shocked and almost spooky.

The opposite emotion rang through in so many voices I heard last Tuesday morning at Obama’s swearing in. Excitement, awe, tears, unabashed joy.

My first introduction to the “American persona” happened, oddly enough, in Europe during the summer I turned 16, when my father and I made our big trip to Denmark. For many Europeans at that time, the only Americans they came in direct contact with were well-to-do tourists who had created a pretty bad reputation for themselves over the years.

The point was made to us before we left that we should wear Canadian flags prominently somewhere so that we wouldn’t be mistaken for Americans. I had a Canadian flag t-shirt that I wore a lot and my Dad wore a lapel pin. I thought it was kind of laughable, until I actually came into contact with some American tourists myself…loud and aggressive, you could see and hear them coming for miles. The fact of the matter is that I probably came into contact with others that were not behaving this way, but I wouldn’t have known that, would I?

I remember one day strolling through a square in Copenhagen with my Dad, wearing my new clogs. They were killing me because I hadn’t really worn them in yet, and I was kind of trailing my Dad as I tried to get used to them, so I appeared to be walking by myself. An American couple came across my path, and the woman turned to her husband loudly squealing “Look Harry! A typical Danish girl!” Okay, I don’t think his name was Harry, but the rest of it is true.

I smiled to myself and kept walking. I was convinced all Americans were idiots.

When we turned on the TV at night, we saw the live broadcast of the US Senate investigation of Watergate. The whole world was fascinated with the Nixon scandal and it ran live in most countries in Europe as the Senate proceedings began to unravel his presidency. Another fascinating and dark time in history.

In the last couple of years there have been a lot of comparisons between John Kennedy and Barack Obama, mostly centred around the fact that they both created such a stir in the hearts of people of all ages, especially the younger generation. For older generations it’s certainly heartening to see kids actually interested in the whole political process for the first time. Kennedy became the first Catholic president, Obama the first black, and both of them moved into the White House with young families and a sense of youth and real change.

For those of us outside of the US, Obama’s inauguration feels like the beginning of what may be a long journey towards an American redemption. There are many people in the world who love to hate the US, but that emotion has been even more prominent in the last eight years.

Here in Canada we certainly have a love/hate thing going with the US. We love a lot of things about them…their television, movies and music, we love their money and their high-profile personalities, their gossip and political drama. We go to Disneyland and Las Vegas, New York and Hawaii, and near where I live, we like the cross-border shopping when the dollar is in our favour.

We know a lot about the US that they don’t about us. Other than the tired “eh?” references, I mean, and that a lot of funny people and great musicians come from here. Our advantage is that we have had American media piped into our homes practically since television was invented, and so much of what we are culturally is tied to that country. It’s easy to find fault with somebody you know too much about! 

We sit back sometimes and scoff at their politics and patriotic flag-waving. Here in Canada we have our own style of patriotism…it’s the opposite of boisterous, almost polite and somewhat awkward. There are often questions, even jokes about “Canadian identity”. The fact is that most of us don’t really know what that is or how to describe it and it’s hard to live up to the boundless patriotic enthusiasm of our southern neighbours. With or without the “u”.

I can promise you one thing, though. In spite of our aloofness and occasional holier-than-thou demeanor, many Canadians are thrilled about Obama’s rise to the Presidency; we have been watching with great expectation over the last few months, almost afraid to hope that it could actually happen, and so relieved when it actually did. He has a huge burden to bear over the next four years, and most of us in the world realize even more so lately that what happens there happens to all of us, so we all want him to succeed.

It is rumoured that Obama’s first foreign trip will be to Canada, as is tradition when a new president is sworn in. George W. Bush didn’t follow that tradition, however, and appeared to have little or no interest in Canada. I’m thinking Obama is going to be a little more inclusive than his predecessor.

Maybe, as usual, we are just swept up in the uproarious enthusiasm that Americans have for their new president, like rooting for the good guy at the end of a Hollywood movie. Or maybe we are just wishing we could have the same excitement, and someone as appealing and historic running for prime minister up here.

Whatever the case may be, good luck Mr. President. We’re rootin‘ for ya.

IJ