Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Here again

Sixteen winters ago I was doing my dissertation research at the Archives nationales in Paris. My apartment--calling it an apartment is being generous--had no television, and the Internet was still not much more than a twinkle in Al Gore's eye. I did not think that I would be able to see Bill Clinton's first inauguration. C, at home in California, had been planning to record it on our VCR for me to watch later. But the morning of January 20, he called me to say that our VCR had been stolen, along with his car and, oddly, several pairs of shoes. I remember being as distressed about the loss of the VCR, and thus of the planned tape, as I was about the break-in.

Off I went to the archives, then, and to my 200 year old trial records. Midway through the morning, one of the other American graduate students stopped by my desk to ask if I were going to watch the inauguration. I explained.

Come to my place, she said. Her apartment had more than one room (a real luxury for graduate student housing in central Paris), and she had a television with cable.

We all left the archives early that afternoon--the noontime Washington ceremony happens here, of course, at six. I remember it being a large group, but can't remember who was in it. I can't even remember the name of the person whose apartment it was, or where the apartment was. All I remember are two things. I remember toasting the departure of the outgoing president--I still know where I was sitting in the room when the screen showed the helicopter taking off from the east side of the Capitol. We were all young and, in the innocence of youth, thought that George Bush's invasion of Iraq had been imperialism of the worst sort, and that he was hopelessly, impossibly unhip and inarticulate.

The other thing I remember happened on the way to the apartment. Our pack of budding historians had left the archives and we were strolling down one of the main streets in the Marais. The plan was to pick up one more fellow-traveler on our way to the metro station. She was the companion of an older student, and an Ivy League professor whose books I had read as an undergraduate. I was intimidated at the prospect of meeting her. I had gone directly from my undergraduate college to graduate school, and I was still in awe of faculty.

The professor was sitting outside with a drink at a café, reading a newspaper. When she saw us coming down the sidewalk towards her, she jumped to her feet and came towards us dancing--dancing, on the Paris sidewalk, a short, middle-aged American woman, wearing drapey dark clothes and an exotic patterned scarf--and singing, in full voice, Happy Days Are Here Again.

Which is what I thought about last night when, during President Obama's speech, a friend sent me this link. The four of us were sitting together around the fireplace, watching the inauguration on BBC World, drinking champagne and eating chili and cornbread. A few minutes later, the phone rang. Family and friends were together watching and wanted to touch base. When I answered, the voice that came down the line said: Happy day.

Happy day, I responded. Here's to many more.

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