Two years ago, I wrote this blog post with some tips for people wanting to visit the White House. Even with Trump in office, the post is mostly still relevant. If you reside in the United States, you can still request a tour from your congressional office (congressman or senator.) Melania Trump has also continued the tradition of opening the grounds of the White House for Garden Tours twice a year (the last one was a few weeks ago on April 14-15, 2018) so that option is still available to at least visit the South lawn. Since writing that post, I have had the opportunity to visit the White House on two new occasions. Last December, I toured the East Wing during one of the holiday tours. That was neat, if only to see the portrait of Hilary in there that you know Trump must just hate. And this just in, on Tuesday April 24th, I *finally* got the chance to attend an arrival ceremony. Oh, and it was a good one!
You may recall (though probably not) back in 2014, the White House social media team had invited me to attend Francois Hollande’s arrival ceremony BUT I had a previously scheduled work trip to New York that I simply couldn’t get out of. I’m no Hollande fan but I was super bummed nonetheless. My friend Kaylé, who was in attendance, wrote a lovely guest post recap for me but I had basically been hoping for another opportunity since then. And yesterday, I got it and it was truly an honour and once-in-a-lifetime experience for me to stand among some of my fellow countrymen/women and expats as we timidly sang La Marseillaise steps away from the American president, the first lady and, of course, my own president and his wife Brigitte. A president I had actually voted for this time around too! The cherry on top of the gâteau was also going to French Embassy that afternoon for a more intimate event celebrating our president being here in D.C. Here’s a not-so-quick recap of my amazing super-French day:
In a nutshell, I spent all day standing in line to go through security, then standing around waiting for Macron, then standing around while Macron spoke. It was a lot of standing around and waiting, but it was absolutely worth it! The arrival ceremony was scheduled to start at 9AM, and since the gates opened as early as 6:30AM I decided to get there at 7AM in case the line at security was long. It wasn’t. Actually, it was kind of a breeze. I was assigned to the Blue Gate, which was a smaller entrance and even though I had to give my name to 5 different interns before getting to the metal detectors, it all went very quickly and very smoothly.
After being given both a French and an American flag, as well as a program, I entered from the same spot as I had back in December except this time I was shown the door to the South Lawn. I had been given a red pin when I checked it and that was meant to notify the staff of which section I was supposed to stand in. With my back to the White House, that section was basically immediately to the right of the podium, which I could see perfectly, if slightly from the back. I also could perfectly see the door from which Donald and Melania would be walking out, and then walking back in with Brigitte and Emmanuel and I was surrounded by Frenchies so I was pretty happy with my situation as I waited an hour for things to start happening.
Officials like Betsy DeVos or Jared Kushner began to trickle in. Their section was on the other side of the podium from me. And then two black mini-buses dropped off the French delegation. Luck would have it, said French delegation’s “assigned viewing spot” happened to be on the other side of the rope from my section. And while it was kinda cool to have Christine Lagarde basically right in front of me, I no longer could see anything.
As we got closer to 9AM, secret service agents also started popping up all over the place and they all tend to be pretty tall . More officials arrived (hello Mike Pence!) and my previously beautiful view of the door and the podium was also a thing of the past.
Slightly behind schedule, the programming finally begun with music and lots of flags — it was beautiful seeing French flags everywhere!
Donald and Melania Trump stepped out of the White House, a black car dropped off Brigitte and Emmanuel Macron, everyone was trying to take pictures and videos with their phones and since I’m barely 1m55 I didn’t catch any of that. Well, occasionally I could spot Melania’s hat. I guess it was pretty useful that way.
They reviewed the troops together, which I also couldn’t see, and before I knew it, they were playing the French national anthem and firing the traditional 21 gun salute. The French are never shy about singing La Marseillaise. Unlike the Star Spangled Banner, it is very easy to belt out even if you are the worse singer in the world but my entire section of Frenchies was pretty timid this time around, whispering the lyrics as if unsure whether it was an appropriate thing to do at the White House. And maybe it isn’t… because I didn’t hear the Americans sign along their anthems either. After the anthems, there were speeches from each of the leaders, starting with Trump in English then Macron in French. Before heading inside the house for their tête-à-tête, the two leaders and their wives spent some time on the balcony waving at us. At least I definitely got to see that!!
Getting out of the White House was a breeze as well. It was pretty early and we wanted to sit down for a bit, grab a bite to eat (and some warm coffee! It was a bit damp and cold, though luckily it didn’t rain!) and charge our phones before heading to the Embassy. I had spotted Eric Kayser, who was part of the official delegation, fan-girling over the event a few people away from me in the Frenchie section and figured his Metro Center restaurant would be our best bet since it was only 10:00AM. Turns out everyone had the same idea and everyone was there, including Eric himself. We still had a lovely lunch and then it was time to get into another line, this time for the embassy event. I don’t know how well you know the French but we are *incapable* of queue-ing up like polite, respectful people. The line was a hot mess and it didn’t help that we had to wait longer because Macron was running behind schedule (the French are also bad about being on time!) Even after we gotten in we still had to wait and wait and wait.
Around 5PM, Brigitte came by to say hi to us, which I thought was pretty amazing since she had a big dinner to get ready for. I got to shake her hand and thank her for coming before she hopped on stage and joked about having to leave to attend to her chignon but ensuring us that her husband was worth the wait.
And he was. There wasn’t much of an announcement that he was coming but all of the sudden we heard his voice on the speakers, awarding the Legion d’Honneur, France’s highest order of merit for military and civil merits, to three World War Two veterans: Robert Ewald who participated in D-Day at Omaha Beach, Stanley Rzucidlo who landed on Gold Beach on June 7, 2044 and William Barr who was in Air Force and dropped some bombs on German forces in Normandy and North of France. Once Macron jumped on stage, they wheeled Mr. Barr over to a corner of the stage so that he could watch the intervention as well. I’m not sure whether he understood everything but I could see him from where I was standing and I had the honor of being able to talk to him afterwards. That was probably one of the most special moment of the whole for me. But back to Macron.
Since he was so behind schedule, he spoke only for only maybe 15 minutes, praising the many French teachers in the room and the representatives of the many Alliances Francaises in the United States who do so much to promote our language here. Of course, we’ve all heard it before from other presidents but the truth is it’s really hard to afford a French education for your children. Bottom line: Rochambeau is not cheap!
Channeling his inner John F. Kennedy, he prompted us to ask ourselves what we can do for our country, because our country needs us before leading us in a much more enthusiastic Marseillaise than the one we had sang that morning. He shook a few hands on his way out and then everyone basically threw themselves on the wine and cheese waiting for us in the next room. And I mean “threw” rather literally 😉
The wine was from Jean-Luc Colombo, who was part of the French delegation that came with Macron on the trip, and most of the catering was done by Kayser with some assistance from the Embassy kitchen. There were trays of mimolette and pâté en croûte and cheese and financiers and macarons and French people who seemed to starving the way they behave at the buffet tables (just like we can’t behave in a queue, we’re also not disciplined enough for buffets….) I always love going to these special events at the embassy because you get to catch up with people you don’t see very often since *everyone* is there. And make new French acquaintances of course. I love our little community here. But just like that, the day was over. I’ve been on such a Macron high since Monday, following all his appearances and speeches either on the news, via his facebook lives or, on Tuesday in particular, in real life… France was first and foremost in the news, and not in a bad or sad way like after a terror attack. There were French flags all over downtown D.C. And now it’s all over like it was just a dream…