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Americans in Switzerland welcome Obama

About 300 people attended Obama's inauguration party in Basel


For a group of Americans living near Basel, the inauguration of Barack Obama as the 44th president of the United States on Tuesday marked a new chapter in their history of living abroad.

"In my 57 years this is the best thing that has ever happened to me," said Stefan Lano, an opera conductor from Massachusetts who has lived in northwestern Switzerland for 12 years.

"America was founded on the idea - like Switzerland - that all people should have a voice in government. Obama can restore those ideals."

"I'm overwhelmed and thrilled that we have someone so inspiring and intelligent who is oriented toward what we need," said Patricia Kadvan, who came to Basel in 1977 and now splits her time between here and New York City.

"It's a breath of fresh air."

Lano and Kadvan were two of about 300 people who descended on a small arts centre and nightclub in Basel called Die Kuppel, where the local chapter of Democrats Abroad hosted a champagne toast, live theatrical performances and an overhead projector to watch the inaugural ceremonies streamed with an hour delay from the mall in Washington.

Despite the distances, the Basel crowd clapped and whistled as Obama delievered his first speech as president.

It rose at Obama's pledges to work on renewable energy, cooperate with other nations and restore trust in American government. Some booed when cameras trained on George Bush.

Afterwards, Mariah Silkey, an American who helped organise the Basel event, stood on a stage bathed in red, white and blue light and raised her glass high. The crowd raised theirs in return.

"Here's to change, to better days to come," said Silkey, a Democrat originally from Minnesota who has lived in Switzerland for eight years.

"Obama is going to need all of us, now more so than he did. I hope all of you stay involved."

Something to watch

For other Americans in Switzerland, particularly the outgoing chairman of the country's Republican Abroad division, Obama's official first day in office was one of optimistic caution.

"We are all very proud of the fact that our country has elected an African American and almost all of his cabinet appointments are well qualified," said Bob Gebhardt, who handed the chairmanship reins to Ed Flaherty, a Geneva attorney, earlier on Tuesday.

"We'll be concerned about what excesses take place. The government tends to work better when there is some give and take and now my bigger concern is the Democrat majority in Congress. The prevailing attitude seems to be one of unlimited spending.

"I think another concern here in Switzerland is debt that the Democrats have to labour unions that could lead to protectionism."

While some in Basel talked of "things to come", such as what Obama might do for education, Gebhardt worries that Switzerland's pharmaceutical industry could be negatively affected by moves toward universal health care that could include price caps on prescription drugs.

"It's something to watch," he said. "But it's an exciting day. Obama is charismatic and well liked in the world. We wish him and his administration success."

Time to dance

The Basel crowd, which ranged from young children to an older veteran, was peppered with people who had worked from Switzerland to help rally support for Obama.

Silkey, along with Sharon Alexander, the founder of the Basel chapter of Democrats Abroad, and Anna Dell'Era, a dancer originally from North Carolina, got together and made upwards of 3,000 phone calls over Skype to the US to remind people to vote. Others like Kate Edson, who moved to Basel 18 years ago, set up voter registration tables around Basel.

"My wife would wait in Starbucks for people to start speaking English and she'd go up to them to see if they were registered to vote," said Hannes Giger, a Swiss-American. "You have to find them where you can."

As DJ MoZart turned the room into a dance party with hiphop and reggae, Alexander sliced a huge cake emblazoned with the oath of the office and Obama's picture.

"It's been so wonderful," she said, handing out a slice of Obama's nose to a hungry eight-year-old girl.

"For eight years I haven't travelled on my US passport except to go back to the States," she said. "It's a fantastic feeling to be proud of America again."

swissinfo, Tim Neville in Basel

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