I have lived in two three national capital cities: Paris, Jerusalem (for some this is the capital of Israel, for others it is Tel Aviv) and now Panama City. I have yet to see a motorcade in Panama, but I loved what I saw in Paris. I am referring here not to parades, but to the task of getting a high-ranking official from one place to another. These motorcades usually include flashing lights, motorcycles, sirens, limousines with flags, etc. For me, the pedestrian, motorcades were an exciting distraction in an otherwise no-thrills promenade. For drivers though, I am sure it was a headache.
In Paris, home of hundreds of embassies and myriads of high-level international meetings, I walked daily to school, crossing the Esplanade des Invalides, the large plaza facing the resplendent Alexander III bridge. When any certain foreign heads of state were in town, Paris recognized their presence by raising an elegant row of the visiting country’s flag along the esplanade. I saw this everyday when I walked to school and I enjoyed the visual quiz…whose flag is this? If there weren’t any flags on display on any given day, I’d walk under the esplanade, which was a parking area.
Motorcades are not always used for visiting diplomats of course. Sometimes, a simple car was able to move someone from one place to another without fuss or muss. One day, years ago, I looked down from my bus window just as Prime Minister Isaac Rabin was being chauffeured to work. I saw him in his car and I remember thinking about his daily schedule, being shuttled from one place to the next. He looked relaxed and ready to start the day. Me, not so much relaxed in a cramped bus, but at least to start the day.
As I mentioned, the types of motorcades that are of interest to me were not the slow, dignified parade type of procession, but the fast, utilitarian ones. These are fast-moving and here one moment and gone the next. Their speed made it all the more difficult to get a good view of the national flag atop the hood. Whirling by, the motorcade with flags flapping, I enjoyed the challenge of identifying the country flag. It was a simple enjoyment that perked up an otherwise routine walk.
Several years ago, I was in Rome with a nephew. We were staying near the Vatican and one late afternoon, the major street leading into Vatican City was completely quiet. Surely, something was going to happen and sure enough, a papal motorcade went by. The pope was returning from ‘a day out’ and without any commotion (and with a lot of pre-planning) the Roman police had secured the entire boulevard for the procession. This was, at least to date, the most elegant motorcade I had ever witnessed.
Here in Panama, there are something like 63 embassies and the motorcade philosophy used here is “less in better.” Ambassadors must slide through town quite unnoticed and that is good for a city in which honking is the constant music of the street, at least when a motorist has to wait more than a second. But there is a way to know which country is either prominently visiting or is celebrating a national day. A nearby bank illuminates its entire west façade with national colors and symbols. Yesterday, China was apparently being honored so flashes of red and yellow stars bedecked the dark night…until 10 PM.
Light shows are not as fantastic as motorcades, but it’s nice to know that the world is out there. Because of international trade routes through the Panama Canal, Panama City receives its fair share of international attention. Here though, the attention is low-key and lacks the flare of Parisian motorcades. It may be that diplomats in Paris want the attention even while they tie up traffic. As a pedestrian though I get the best of two worlds: the brash and rapid passage of a motorcade and then the detangling of regular city traffic, which often comes with its own symphony of blaring horns.