Heads of state and their spouses are often not the people to consult for travel tips. Itineraries are meticulously crafted, and even entire environments are altered to give the right impression. I enjoy travel, but I usually (and maybe due to my own financial limitations) experience place on the same terms as a working resident would. I eat where the locals eat. I use public transportation and not tourist buses or motorcades. I may have business or some project on my plate, but my schedule is moderately fluid to leave myself open for those a-ha moments. I’ve even bused my own dishes. There’s a certain freedom in being nobody on a budget.
Since relocating to DC from NYC (after the Washington Post closed their offices), fashion and culture journalist Robin Givhan has been assigned to first lady Michelle Obama’s press pool. She’s covering her 40 hour visit to Mexico.
Obama has embarked on an international agenda that views the world — and its significant problems — through the eyes of children. Before arriving in Mexico City, she made a five-hour stopover in Haiti — something she has wanted to do since January.
“The minute the disaster struck, you’re thinking, ‘I need to go down there,’ ” she said during an interview with reporters. “Then you think, ‘I’m the first lady. I’ll just shut the whole country down.’
This trip, three months in the making, allowed her to survey the earthquake damage, thank aid workers for their dedication to the country’s rebuilding and draw attention to Haiti’s continuing need for help. And Obama, once again, struck her familiar refrain: What about the children?
The details of the more unofficial trip to Haiti appear to follow the official itinerary.
Covering the first lady may seem like a fun job, but writing about it in the context of the first lady’s agenda and itinerary seems to take all the fun out of traveling with Michelle. Can she just sit in a coffee shop and people watch for 2 hours? What/who catches her eye? Any time to go to the markets? At the end of the day, do her feet hurt? What about Michelle?
The point of a first lady’s solo flight abroad is symbolism. She’s the human and kinder face of diplomacy. No real power to make decisions, but definitely power to influence or better yet inspire humanitarian action.
The May issue of Conde Nast’s Traveler magazine has the cover story, “Mrs. Obama’s Washington.” I suppose the point of this feature is what makes this first lady’s Washington different from other first ladies’. Certainly we won’t see her in the throngs of t-shirt, short, and sneaker attired tourists on the Mall. But we see signs of life in Michelle Obama’s Washington, even a little bit of DC.
Since the Obamas took up residence, the White House has been a consistent destination for school field trips for DC public and charter school students. The Obamas, themselves have been to Ward 8 (that’s South East for those who aren’t familiar): to visit the Frederick Douglass house; and most recently to attend Easter service at Allen AME Church. One thing people won’t read about Ward 8 is that it has some of the cleanest air maybe in the entire city. You get that at the Frederick Douglass House and from the hill top of the Anacostia Community Museum.
Barack and I come from a community-organizing background,” Mrs. Obama told us during a recent visit. “The notion has always been that you have to commit to the community you’re in, wherever that is. You really have to connect. So it was important for me to do that here, given the fact that in many cities there is a disconnect between the central part of the city and the neighborhoods that surround it.
The Obamas have eaten the local food where working folks eat. Michelle has shopped in a local market to push her healthy eating agenda (that market also sold very good cookies – I had two). And, many have read that the Obamas attend parent/teacher meetings and school activities for their children. Sources tell me, their daughters enjoy the company of friends at school just as other kids would, but everyone’s sworn to secrecy on the details.
In DC, we tend to do minimal primping when the first family comes to the neighborhood, except in extreme circumstances. I’ll never forget how a room in my high school was totally transformed when the President came to visit. Security is the main priority.
But even Mrs. Obama’s Washington is carefully orchestrated to compliment her and her family’s own personal characteristics and values. More symobolism? Yes. The test will be if the Obamas will return to DC after the White House years. Will they be just another politician or administration official blaming Washington for the misery in their lives having never touched or encountered the real city.
If there is any personal travel goal for an Obama on the road it may be to find a special place to be nobody.