As the fall semester came to a close at Boston University, I found myself packing all my belongings into cardboard boxes, tearing down posters from my walls and looking over my shoulder at my empty dorm room. I was coming to terms with the fact that I wasn’t going to return to Commonwealth Avenue for at least the next five months. I had decided it was time. After all, doesn’t absence make the heart grow fonder?
My exotic escape? Washington, D.C. Yes, I’m aware I am not scaling the Alps or the Eiffel Tower. Did I consider being “that kid” and going back to my home city, London, for a semester? Yes, embarrassingly I did. I endured the chuckles when I revealed that I was going proverbially “down the street.” After being required to go home to London to swear my allegiance to the Queen (if only I were exaggerating, and to clarify it was myself in front of her portrait) I was about to delve into the heart of American politics and navigate the jungle that is succeeding in a city full of enlarged egos and backroom deals. I was waiting to feel like the chubby girl in “Mean Girls” who’s told, “You don’t even go here!”
Immediately, I was armed with my Smartrip metro card and my curiosity. Network, they told me you always have to appear engaged and make sure you leave Washington, D.C. with numbers and e-mails for people who know people who know people. That’s how this city works. The most important advice? Never stand on the left side of the metro escalators unless you intend to walk down them. I thought this was an exaggeration, but believe me, it was not. It hadn’t hit me that these avenues, these streets, were going to be home. To add to the fervor, we had arrived at an opportune time: the presidential inauguration was imminent and the city was swarming.
That weekend, we dragged ourselves out of bed and made our way to the D.C. Armory. An imposing complex, the line of people volunteering in honor of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s memory was staggering. Icy winds battered our faces as we waited to walk into the hall. As we entered, we were greeted by assembly lines. I held open bags as other volunteers stocked them with kits to send to troops overseas. As I surveyed the scene, I was astonished at how many people were finishing care packages and returning to the back of the line to do it all once more. I briefly tore myself away from the furor to head to the letter-writing section.
“You know, the troops out there say that they wear these letters in their uniforms,” a woman told me as I settled to write. All of a sudden, I heard murmurs swell from the crowd at the other end of the hall. The flashes of cameras began to hasten, and I caught a glimpse of a forehead and then a face. The Vice President of the United States of America, Joe Biden, had joined the assembly line. I had been in the nation’s capital for less than a week and I was in the same space as Joe Biden. He walked by us as he made his way to the stage to address the crowd, somber-faced Secret Service agents surrounding him. I saw his image replicated a hundred times over in the screens of iPhones held up above my head.
We made it to the yellow section of the inaugural ceremonies on Monday morning. Early. It’s phenomenal what lengths we will go to for a place in the history books. To look back, regardless of affiliation and say, “The 57th Inauguration? Oh yeah I was there.” As my toes and calves gradually numbed in the cold, our group waited. A man dressed in his navy uniform stood in front of me, his hand held to his forehead in salute when Beyoncé eventually belted out the American national anthem to the National Mall. I am not an American citizen. I volunteered with the Obama campaign, but I could not vote. Weirdly enough, in that moment when thousands of people fell silent to listen to the president they elected to office, it didn’t matter.
“Come on, it’s so close!” I laughed to my friend as the Jefferson memorial loomed into view, the sky a spectrum of reds and oranges as the sun was setting. In reality, we were to walk for another half hour before we stood in front of the steps leading to Jefferson’s statue. I walked into the rotunda and turned around. The Washington monument was a pin pricking the sky, like a needle gently pushing skin, turning it pink. It’s reflection rippled in the water separating Jefferson from the chaos that was Washington, D.C. I was told “the district” was a town of scandals, gossip, ideas — a reverence for the past and an apprehensive yet steadfast optimism for the future. Yet, surveying the city from Jefferson’s perch, all was quiet.
Sofiya Mahdi is a junior at Boston University studying in Washington, D.C. this semester, and a former columnist and Opinion Editor at The Daily Free Press. She can be reached at email@example.com