Feb 2009

I’d Just Like to Say…


Curled up on Maya the armchair, I squinted at the computer screen as I jumped, virtually, between the three open windows. One site was a streaming live video, another was a rapidly changing map of the USA and the third was my email, which was buzzing with activity from my brothers and sisters. Three am, November 5, election night, Mareno di Piave, six hours ahead of Washington, DC.

I had to witness this moment, even participate as best I could, thousands of miles away. Four years before I had gone to bed early, miserable and mortified. This year I could feel a change, a buzz over the ocean.

Emails flew:

“In Indiana, with only 2% of precincts reporting, Obama leads McCain by 1800 votes...it is going to be very, very close... “

“This is very exciting!”

“What is the call for Virginia?”

“Too close to call.”

And then in this delicious moment as I sat in the middle of the night in Mareno di Piave, I wrote this message:

On Nov 4, 2008, at 12:24 AM, Serena W Richardson wrote:
“Ohio goes to Obama!”

To which my brother in Seattle responded:

“Holy Smokes! Ohio! That is a huge win! I'm still on the bus....Thanks for keeping me updated”.

What a world. I could report election results from my armchair in Italy to my brother who was at that moment sitting on a bus in a city on a distant coast, a million miles away. I went to bed at four, falling asleep in my euphoria. I was absolutely saturated with pride for my country and its ability to look beyond race and fear of the unfamiliar and take a huge step into the 21st century. The American people elected an intelligent, young, articulate, unflappable, galvanizing man who happens to be black. Amazing.

Wednesday was like Christmas morning. In town everything was brighter, lighter. I received texts from Italian friends congratulating me and America.
Grande America! Good job, America!

I felt as though I should prepare a statement.

During class I talked a bit with my students who were in awe at the process of this election. One of them asked,
Serena, why do Americans cry?


Yes, in many photos of the reactions after the election I saw many people so filled with emotion that they were crying, men and women.

Another student turned to her,
That is because the Americans actually believe in their politicians and their government.

Later we read bits of the concession speech of John McCain. My students, somewhat knowledgeable in the American behavior in the face of defeat, did not seem too surprised to read his graceful words of thanks and appreciation. But at the point at which he uttered these words~

“I wish Godspeed to the man who was my former opponent and will be my president,” and “…I pledge to him tonight to do all in my power to help him lead us through the many challenges we face.”

~the room collectively sucked air in through their teeth, and then sat in shocked silence. All eyes turned to me in wonder, and again, I felt proud of my country. For this would never happen in Italy, where former opponent would immediately and very publically begin to sabotage any efforts of the new leader. Backstabbers abound in Rome.


Last Tuesday, January 20th, I took the night off from work and rushed home from Treviso. I had another important job for my computer: to include me in the celebration in Washington. The swearing-in of a new American president who somehow had come to, somewhat unrealistically, represent everything good in humankind was scheduled to begin at a civilized 6 pm for Italy and I was able (on my little 3 x 6 inch screen) to watch it live.

Sometime on Wednesday morning I stuck a small American flag in the dashboard of my car,
Topo. It is the first time I have actually drawn attention to the fact that I was American. I cannot explain why I did it. It seemed the thing to do…

My students were again flabbergasted at the contrast to how this kind of event plays out in Italy. Here the prime minister takes the oath behind closed doors and his former political opponents instantly begin plotting the new leader's downfall, if not his death. Participants are checked for weapons at the door. In the United States the
entire world watched as a man promised to do the right thing and then escorted his predecessor to the helicopter, gave him a hug and thanked him for his service to the country.

I was moved beyond words when an 87 year old minister, a man who had stood on the bridge at Selma and watched police beating peaceful protesters with Billy clubs, ended his Benediction with:
“That all those who do justice and love mercy say Amen!” (With this, the crowd in the front shouted,
“Say Amen!” (The answer grew,

“Say Amen!"

Two million people, in a colorful undulating crowd that stretched to the Lincoln Memorial seemingly miles away, cold, tired, in search of a porta-pottie, shouted in one voice:

I can't stand it...how can one not be moved?

What a big messy, overwhelmingly emotional day it was. Sure there were some discussions of the wisdom of spending so much in time of war and economic woes. There is always something. Yet, the presidential inauguration, which has been in existence since George Washington's in 1789 has continued through war, Depression, disasters and scandal, never missing a beat. It is as an important constant as say, baseball and the Fourth of July fireworks. As one of my students said, “Wow, it was like a wedding!” And it was, right down to the justice bungling the lines. Can anyone begrudge wanting to invite everyone to the dance floor to celebrate?

It was the best demonstration of the fabulous, riotous, wildly improbable optimism that is America. I hope that every child in America watched. Years from now, he or she can say to his or her children, “Yeah, I saw it. It was nuts, but is this country great or what?”

Last night I stopped on the way home to pick up a pizza at our favorite take out, Tony’s. The owners, who are originally from Naples and have no one in the family named Tony, love to talk to me, usually of politics. I am not sure why, nor if it is truly what she is talking about because her
Napoletano accent. Last night however, it was pretty clear. The couple thought it was all incredible, but they were worried about the new president’s safety. At that moment a black woman with a big grin entered the shop asking, “Who is the Obama here?” She has seen the flag in my dash.

“Io!” I said.

“Obama!” she cried, waving her arms. We laughed, exchanged a few little comments then I got my pizzas and said good night. As I got into the car I heard the owner say something and the customer squeal, “No! Really? She is actually American?”

She had thought I was just another enthusiastic foreigner. I looked back as she waved at me, giddy to have just met a real American, picking up a pizza in Mareno di Paive.

I feel like a rock star.

yes we snack