Hope and Change in Hard Times
Obama’s inauguration parties throughout Vienna; at Badeschiff, Marriot Hotel, Tunnel Bar, and the American Embassy
At the Badeschiff
Spirits were high among the guests at the Badeschiff in Vienna, as they gathered to celebrate the inauguration of Barack Obama as the 44th president of the United States of America. Hosted by Democrats Abroad Austria (DAA), this was a joyous affair, packed with loyalists and friends, engulfed in hope, but also grounded in realism. Even after the swearing-in had passed – after all the shouts of joy, the hugs, the laughter and tears had passed, the sobering reality of the global situation was impossible to escape.
Obama’s mention of "gathering clouds and raging storms" reminded many that to carve a new way and create lasting change is a process that takes patience, sacrifice and solidarity.
The Badeschiff, a trendy floating bar and swimming pool on the Danube Canal near Schwedenplatz, was crowded with ExPats of all varieties, alongside a generous smattering of enthusiastic Austrians, all of whom showed up to cheer on the new president and hear a message of hope and change.
Many were still pinching themselves.
"I never thought I’d see this," said Grant McDaniel an actor and dancer from Ohio, -- "not in my lifetime. I never thought he could win. I guess I wasn’t open enough. But I’m so happy, so thrilled that he did."
The cavernous room was packed, with people sitting on the ventilators casings, sitting and standing on benches and tables, and everywhere in between.
Everybody wanted to see, and tensions became frayed when someone blocked the screen for a moment too long. After all, it was Aretha Franklin, decked out in a glorious sweeping outfit of grey wool and silver, an elegant felt hat swept up in a spangled bow over her face, singing "My Country ‘Tis of Thee."
When was the last time we had heard, hummed along on this stirring anthem without feeling silly? Tonight, it was just right -- and the occasional "boo" blurted out when the Christian overtones echoed too loudly.
"Are they really doing this?" one voice asked, when Rev. Rick Warren started the "Our Father" prayer – as if that hadn’t been done before.
Yes, this was a really eclectic group that had gathered for this grand event, and for different, but mostly interesting reasons. But maybe that was the point! That so many people from different backgrounds could gather in one space, to share this historic moment. I hoped in that moment, that that was just what Obama would have wanted!
Equality defined the event. Squeezing past the huddles, you could feel their admiration.
"He’s a one man melting-pot," said American Robert Coachwalter, a 30-year-old graduate student, and long-time resident of Vienna. Obama was of enormous "symbolic importance for minorities," he said, describing his tax-cut initiatives as "breaking class, racial, and gender barriers."
Coachwalter likened these issues to those in Austrian society, and saw tolerance and solidarity as important not only for the U.S., but for ethe future of the world. Even those who attended this historical event in Vienna, American citizens or not, felt the challenges in the dialectic between hope and change.
A refugee named Seif Mwanji, a handsome, mid-twenties Kenyan who had spent the better part of his life in as a refugee, recounted his story of racist experiences in Europe, describing the cold looks an immigrant often experiences, as a slight thing.
"Equality," he said, "is the most important thing that will come from Obama’s election and inauguration tonight." The way people passing him on the street look at him has already changed, he said, since the end of November. "They look at me like a man now," he concluded.
Of the four inaugural events in Vienna, this one particularly caught the attention of local organizations that see Obama’s rise as part of their own struggle for social justice. Among the volunteers and activists was an older woman who had waited patiently to have her say, with an aura of humility and wisdom.
This was Ute Bock, a well-known advocate of refugees and asylum seekers and founder of the Verein Flüchtlingsprojekt in Vienna. She had experienced a lot of negativism from Austrians while she worked to help find housing and employment for her clients.
Like Coachwalter, Bock sees powerful symbolism in Obama’s presidency, finding hope in the destruction of class and racial boundaries.
"We are just trying to improve problems of class and race," she explained, and this against the odds, as recent elections in Austria demonstrated a tendency toward xenophobia and racism, with right-wing populist parties gaining increasing support.
Astrid Rosenwirth, who volunteers for the non-profit NGO Exit, believes that the Obama election win demonstrated the power of grassroots organization that was missing from the Austrian elections this last fall.
She said that the "organizations [at the inauguration] want people to realize that there is something fundamentally new going on in America.
"We would like to see more Austrians get out, become aware, do something productive and make a change," she continued. "Hopefully Obama will help motivate that social change."
Whereas many of the guests wanted to talk about social issues and injustice, others wanted to talk about U.S. foreign policy and the need for cooperation in the international community.
The Iraq war, the war in Afghanistan, and other "problem areas" came up and issues such as global warming, and the "global economic meltdown" were mentioned repeatedly, reminders of the seriousness of the times we live in.
Pete Hämmerle of the International Fellowship of Reconciliation (IFOR), co-sponsoring the party, was "hopeful," but agreed there was "a need for change" in the way the U.S. government operates.
"The administration will likely be watching international law more closely, something that has been missing in the international community for a long time," he said.
"They need to act multilaterally, not unilaterally. In the crisis regions, I think that Obama can be a very good influence, especially if he can get all interested parties to focus on what is needed." He hoped that U.S. foreign policy would begin to lean more toward conflict prevention rather than militarization.
While Hämmerle thought highly of Obama, he was skeptical of how quickly he would be able to address the range of pressing issues abroad.
Domestic issues would have to come first, he suspected, rather than "changing the world." Still, he thought that the new U.S. president would work quickly to improve U.S. standing around the world. With that alone, he said, many already felt relieved.
As this extraordinary evening blended into night, certain phrases from the inaugural address would re-surface:
"Because we have tasted the bitter swill of civil war and segregation… and emerged more united, we cannot help but believe that the old hatreds shall someday pass…"
But would they? Could they? There was Barack Obama suggesting that it was possible. His very presence there on the Capitol steps said it was possible.
As the crowd at the Badeschiff watched the giant screens, they were riveted by the sight of such a dignified, intelligent and compassionate man – with his black skin and his Harvard education, his command of the issues and of himself – standing before that crowd of two million, addressing a nation of Americans that was feeling proud of itself for the first time in a very long time.
"I don’t expect miracles," said Hämmerle, echoing the sentiments of many, "but at least he’s doing something." Coupled with a desire for true change in the world, working toward solutions can break the cloud-cover and shelter humanity from the storms.
At the Tunnel Bar
One wouldn’t expect to see families with kids at a jazz club inauguration party. The Tunnel Jazz Club usually feels dark, filled with smoke and chilled people quietly listening to endlessly improvised, strange sounding tunes.
But the night of January 20 was different. The Tunnel was brightly lit, smoke free and filled with young families enjoying their dinners, while toddlers played boisterously in the middle of the club in both English and German.
It was all very relaxed, but still one thing was certain about the mood floating above every single seat in the house: All were lifted up by the spirit of history in the making, as they waited to see the inauguration of Barack Obama.
We turned to a neighbor, a middle-aged man in glasses and a sweater. Was he American? The answer was interesting: "No, I’m Austrian; but I am not anti-American." This was surely a change.
As the projected web-stream jittered along, the audience was moved to see Aretha Franklin sing her heart out in hopes of at least eight better years ahead. People started dancing, jumping up from their chairs and clapping along. Her music made blood pump in the invisible roots between people and for the first time this evening – but not the last – the entire room felt united.
When the inauguration speaker asked those in Washington to stand, the guests at Tunnel gladly joined in, ready for the oath. Resolute to support the new president, the Tunnel Jazz Club chuckled at how nervous the pre-speech Obama was.
"The time has come to set aside childish things," Obama announced to the audience. You could feel the eyebrows in the room raise silently to a new voice in his vibrant soul.
There was a new urgency his voice, as time limit became realistic for his many promises. For a man with so much on his plate, we found it astounding that he would find the time and energy to attend twice as many parties that evening as we did.
As Senator Joe Biden was sworn in, our white Austrian neighbor remarked that there was only scattered applause for the white guy. Yes, there was, but most probably because the audience decided that Obama was meant to be the only star of this evening.
The president elect explained that it was time to reaffirm the spirit of the god-given promise that "all are equal, all are free, and all deserve a chance to pursue their full measure of happiness."
As Obama finished his speech, the crowd exploded in applause, an affirmation of all that had been forgotten in the past eight years. An in a mass of bodies, some of the throng, particularly those with children, began to disperse.
The live music began around 8 p.m and continued on into the evening, running right up until midnight. Along with Joey Green’s Mean Streets, there were fine perfomances from James Cottrial, Marjorie Etukudo, Kim Cooper, Susan Stanzl, Moritz Haugk, Jürgen Haver, James Heresy and Andy Schwarz.
At the Marriot Hotel
The posh-est event was at the Marriott, where the American Embassy and American Chamber of Commerce hosted the inauguration party for the business crowd and the diplomats. Here, the atmosphere there was distinctly different.
The U.S. Ambassador, lawyer David Girard-diCarlo, whom we passed in the hall, looked serious, setting the tone. Former campaign manager for John McCain in Pennsylvania and appointed just last August, he couldn’t have been happy. His would be nearly the shortest tenure on record.
Girard-diCarlo was surrounded by three intimidating bodyguards wearing black suits. Indeed, black suits generally dominated the party. People were engaged in relaxed conversations, and you could see on their faces - although professionally neutral – that they were very happy about what they had just witnessed.
A woman from the International Atomic Agency was ecstatic about the inauguration. Having lived in Vienna for 12 years, she had been contemplating her return to the U.S. for past few years.
"Now I can really go back," she exclaimed, nearly jumping with joy. Full of hope in the new president, she now had one more reason to return to her home country.
As we mingled with the business crowd, we stumbled into an interesting discussion with partygoers Caroline and Christian, who otherwise wished to remain anonymous. After witnessing Obama’s inauguration, Christian said he was proud of America, and proud of humanity.
"Human values are being redefined and developed, and this is so important to us." Caroline also chimed in. "He’s a role model for us, too!"
Patricia Helletzgruber, the Executive Director of the American Chamber of Commerce in Austria, was able to offer some depth to the present moment of "change."
"Today, there is a real change to a positive outlook. The way people will regard the United States will change." The American Chamber of Commerce is looking forward to better relations with Austrian businesses and the presence of American companies in Austria.
For many the change seemed momentout.
"The lines of tribe shall soon dissolve," Obama had said, and indeed as his very presence says every time we think of him.
"As the world grows smaller, our common humanity shall reveal itself; and America must play its role in ushering in a new era of peace."