Friday, February 10, 2012

Obamarama


….which is what an Ottawa newscaster called the new President’s six hour visit to the Nation’s capital, one month after his inauguration.  

February 2009 is a long way from the summer of ’76;  but, having been struck by Mark Twain’s non-sequential approach to his own personal stories (“Discursiveness does not hurt an autobiography…”, he once advised his brother), it seemed only right to skip ahead to this event.  Montreal, where I grew up, had its parties.  Ottawa, where I settled, had them too, but for different reasons. I want to relate this memory while it, and this particular President, are both still around. 

When President Obama came to town, so did bus-loads of people; along with corresponding bus-loads of policemen.  I have been known to purposefully join the festive crowds that occasionally inundate Ottawa over significant foreign visitors (which is why I’ve seen the Queen twice more since 1967); but this February day was not to be one of those times.  I had other reasons to be downtown, as my oldest daughter and I set out to obtain a visa for her from the South African High Commission; something that was proving to be difficult and required a couple of stops.  So, armed with the “Obama Visit Survival Guide”, which I had printed off the CBC website, we launched ourselves into the heart, but not the purpose, of the event.

Downtown was crawling with fluorescent-green-vested policemen.  I chose my route carefully.  Nevertheless, wherever I went, I got the feeling that streets were closing up behind me like shadows in a nightmarish Dr. Who intergalactic library.  I finally ended up travelling along one side of the Rideau Canal.  The other side was the rumoured route of the President’s motorcade; rumoured because no one was officially saying… but Ottawans knew anyway.  Our suspicions were confirmed by the presence, all along that side of the canal, of the green vests.  As I drove, I saw people waiting; standing on the canal ice or in snow banks, which is how Canadians do celebrity-viewing in February.  I was sorely tempted to park the car and join them, but we had a schedule to keep.

At the end of the canal road, my hoped-for way to the highway was blocked by the ever-present green vests.  Along with every other driver that had been squeezed into that portion of downtown, I manoeuvred through back streets to get to a different on-ramp; one that had me crossing the canal on the highway bridge.  Traffic crawled up the on-ramp, further slowed by a policeman at the top waving traffic away from the lane next to the edge of the bridge.  But, on our way up, our sluggish pace allowed us a brief glimpse over the concrete wall toward the canal… and there was the President’s motorcade!

As I inched past the stern policeman, I took a second to take my hands off the wheel and clap in glee. 

It was a very good day:  I caught a glimpse of the presidential entourage, my daughter secured her visa, and the President thrilled everyone by departing from the text of his visit and buying himself a beavertail in the Byward Market.  He then walked over to a nearby bakery to get maple-leaf-shaped cookies for his daughters. 

When the people, the police and the President all left town, it was life-as-usual for everyone in Ottawa; everyone except the Byward Market bakery.  In the days after Obama’s visit, its sales of maple-leaf-shaped cookies went from 200 a week to 2000 a day; and it was swamped with orders for the cookies from as far away as Europe.  In the summer of 2011 they still had a big sign up identifying them as the place where Barak Obama bought cookies. The long-term after-effects of an Ottawa party can sometimes be a good thing.