Friday, February 25, 2005

Yes, I Did Go See President Bush

You probably know how I feel about W, so fast forward over the rant. I was curious, however, as I have never seen a US president in any form. I thought Baboo might find it interesting. I wanted to see how the Slovaks would receive him. I wanted to see how the whole operation would work out. That said, I'm glad I went. It was hard work, but I have to say I am glad we did it.

We had tickets from numerous sources. All were free, but there were different levels. An acquaintance from the Commerce Dept. offered us VIP tickets, so I thought if I have to stand around in the cold, at least maybe there would be some advantage to standing around in the VIP section.

I dropped The Spouse off for work around 8:00 and crossed the Danube to take Skittles to school. Dropped her off. I was planning to park at a shopping mall just across the river from the Old Town and walk in. By the time I got to the bridge which I needed to get on (but not cross) in order to get to the mall, the police had shut it to traffic. I was afraid they had shut it to pedestrians as well, so we drove home the L O N G way round town and parked in our own garage.

I thought maybe we could take the trolley bus into town. It runs right by our house, and I actually had tickets (you can't buy them on the bus and not all stops have machines). So we stand there and I consult my watch as the normally very punctual trolley fails to show. I consider the fact that I haven't seen any heading the other direction and that the circular route runs by both the castle where the summit will be and the parliament building . . . there ain't gonna be any trolleys today. It is now about 9:00 a.m.

So we walk down the hill into town (it's just under 2 miles). Half way down the hill a regular, bus, unfettered by lines attaching it to overhead wires, blows past us. Oh well.

It was incredible just how much of the central part of town had been shut off to any vehicular traffic. Even pedestrians were being routed certain ways. We knew we had to enter the square where the speech would be from a particular end, but I was still surprised at the level of security. All week it has been growing. Lines at the border were reported to be over three hours for those without diplomatic plates. The night before we saw cops in pairs all over town. Now they were every 100 feet.

But they were helpful. One answered my routing question in English. Once we got into the pedestrian zone of the Old Town (the historic district), we were pretty much free to go anywhere we normally would. So we went to The Spouse's office. Now it is about 10:00.

The "gates" were scheduled to open at 8:30 and the event was to begin at 9:30 with the speech at 11:30. The Spouse heard the whole event was being delayed 2 hours. So I asked him about his source. Sylvia in his office. So we summon Sylvia. "Did you hear this on the news?" I ask. No, she heard it from Evka. Argh, says The Spouse. Evka is always wrong about everything. He phones Evka who confirms that it is the speech that has been delayed. . . 15 minutes. Argh! We say. Now I figure we ought to go over since who knows what security is going to be like.

It's snowing a really wet snow . . . practically rain, except the snowflakes are still snowflakes when they land on you. We get ushered into the Green Ticket line, which is more of a mosh pit of people waiting to go through those airport metal detectors one at a time. As we get closer (there's no line, just a crush), I can see confiscated items under a table in front of one metal detector. There is a small bottle of some sort of hootch. But lots and lots of fruit. I read later that apples and oranges were not permitted, but bananas were allowed in. I guess they make unlikely projectiles.

We were with all press people, so there were folks with lots of bulky camera equipment. Some cranky American man was being really nasty to a man with a TV camera who was being jostled into him by the crowd. The cranky man was saying, loudly, "If he bumps into me with that camera one more time I'm going to shove it up his ASS!" I almost went off on him about being nicer to his hosts, but thought better of it. Maybe the camera man was Ukrainian or something.

We finally got shuttles into an open corral in front of the stage. There were seats behind the podium, but they were apparently reserved for EU representatives. Not sure if that meant diplomats. But whoever they were, I heard that they boycotted. So there were all these empty seats and desperate Embassy folks trying to fill them with Slovaks. I heard the US Military attaché going by saying "Can you find anyone with a baby . . ." Like anyone would be standing around outside in this dreadful weather with a baby! There were kids about Baboo's age, but nothing younger than that.

Our area was not filled either, and soon they opened a gate and ushered in the commoners . . . so we ended up cheek and jowl with regular folks. Which was fine. I was between a 30ish Canadian guy who was very entertaining. He really liked Slovakia, but he was staging a one-man effort to see the populace more diverse. "It's all white people!" he kept saying. "I'm trying to get more of my Asian friends to come." We discussed Slovak beauty in women, Canadian actors and comedians (I scored points for knowing of The Kids in the Hall), and how Asians can't hold their liquor.

On my right was a nice couple from Dallas who were somehow involved in a Christian school in Budapest. They had been in Eastern Slovakia for a conference and someone told them about the event. We discussed home schooling for a while, and they thought I was ok until the Canadian and I discussed my hangover (I had been to a wine tasting of Austrian wines the night before . . . I felt like Arlo Guthrie does in the scene where he goes down to the Draft Board in Alice's restaurant . . .I actually felt it was the appropriate state to be in, although I was starting to regret that decision). Christian Couple blanched visibly.

Then discovered nice Young Man from Munich behind Canadian guy. He was starting to panic because he had a "meeting" he was obviously going to miss. Canadian Guy and I pushed him for more information. Turns out it was lunch with his girlfriend. "Call and cancel!" we harassed him. "You're not getting out of here now!"

Baboo was not fairing well at this point. She couldn't see anything and was starting to melt down and get weepy. "I wanna go home . . ." she's whining. I had invested a certain amount of time and effort into this project now. It's 11:15 and by Jove we are going to stay and hear the man speak!

Canadian Guy takes pity on her and puts her up on his shoulders. "See the snipers on the roof of the Carlton Hotel?" we are asking to distract her. "See the Secret Service guys talking into their sleeves?" Eventually his strength fails and he has to put her down.

So I agree she can sit on me. Canadian Guy and Christian Lady help me get her up in my shoulders. My WORD! the child is solid. Later I realize she weighs 55 pounds. But she was happier up there, and could see things. I could see the monitors well enough.

So Mr. President comes out. He is introduced by the Slovak Prime Minister. What I thought was Dick Cheney was not the Slovak president's wife as Young Man from Munich suggested, but the Slovak president (, the official White House web site, had a photo of Bush greeting the Czech president and the caption says it is the Slovak prez . . . the Czechs and Slovaks are howling about that as well as the USA Today map that identifies Slovakia as Slovenia . . . but what do you expect from USA Today?)

The speech was gracious. He played well to the crowd who were really rather warm. Except for the Heckler sitting up in the Diplomatic Seat. A young woman keeps standing and shouting "GO HOME!!!" I see the Commerce Dept. Guy who got us the tickets fly over there. Saw him today on the street and asked him about it. He said that he pleaded with her, "Please sit down!" "My seat is wet," she replied. So he took his scarf and dried off her seat for her. She said "Thank you," and sat until the next opportunity to yell. He asked her if she was protesting the war in Iraq. "No, I'm an environmentalist," she says. I believe his response to that was "HA!" I interpreted that as meaning we had some common ground, but you never can tell with the diplomatic crowd.

He says eventually the Slovak secret service folks spirited her away. The Spouse and I discussed how 20 years ago she would have been shot in that very square for that sort of protesting . . . and the irony that there is some legacy associated with the office of the US president that led to her ability to stand up and heckle now . . . sort of your basic ACLU conundrum. The Spouse ended up attending the speech, too, although he was farther back in the cheap seats . . . he says there was a group of organized protesters near him who made some ruckus, but the police encircled them quickly. They were allowed to continue, but the cops stayed around them for the duration of the speech. Don't know if anything happened to them afterwards.

Other interesting note: on our way out of the area afterwards, I noticed banks of Port-A-Potties with big signs on them in English that said "BATHROOMS." The Spouse pointed out later that those certainly had to be made by an American. A European would have labeled them "TOILETS."

Baboo had received two small flags by an event organizer . . . one American and one Slovak. When Bush spoke, he would read about a paragraph and then pause for the translator. It was well-done. She said, "I was nervous about that." I asked her to explain. "I didn't know how to use my flags," she said. "So I waved the American one after Bush spoke and the Slovak one after the translator spoke. But I never did see the translator." Cracked me up.

Putin met with Bush later in the afternoon. Bush then left. Putin leaves sometime today . . . maybe he is already gone. He was not planning any public appearances, but it is incredible how much the level of security has dropped although he is still in town. That said, certainly no one wants to be responsible for any mishaps on their watch.

So we have a weekend to relax and get back to normal.


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