I was spending the weekend staying two blocks from the world’s most powerful man. Apparently that’s not Mark Zuckerberg (well, at least not yet). And as it was an unseasonably balmy evening and I wasn’t overly tired from my trans-Atlantic flight to Washington Dulles, once I checked into my hotel by Farragut Square I ducked around the corner to say hello to the head honcho.
I was able to get a lot closer to the White House than I imagined possible in these 9/11-was-a-decade-ago-and-we’re-still-scared-witless times, and I appreciatively took in the attractively lit front entrance on Pennsylvania Avenue. I’ve heard it said that some people are disappointed at the White House’s modest scale when they first see it in real life, but to me it looked every bit the grand palace and office befitting a global superpower. The fencing and barricades I was initially expecting were more concentrated at the rear of the complex, so it took a slight detour around the Department of Treasury building to get a glimpse of the White House’s South Lawn before continuing on to the famed greenbelt of the National Mall.
In the dark open spaces of the grassy Mall, the windowless cenotaph of the Washington Monument loomed large. Though inspired by Ancient Egyptian obelisks, the tapering shape and flashing red beacons at the top gave it the impression to me of an alien rocket sitting out on a launch pad, silently preparing for lift-off. It was one night before the so-called ‘super full moon’, when the lunar orbit brought the moon closer to Earth than any time in the last twenty years, and there had been no end to the speculation of what weird happenings might transpire the very next night. As it was, tonight the already very full moon loomed large in a clear sky, which led me to think that if something wacko were to occur somewhere on the planet the next day, my money would have been on the Washington Monument rumbling to life and blasting off to a galaxy far, far away.
As I walked within the circle of American flags at the obelisk’s perimeter, the peaceful night was suddenly broken by the whirr of rotors very close by. It wasn’t the Monument of course, but two dark helicopters that had just taken off from the general direction of Ronald Reagan Airport. They stayed quite low and soon split up, with one passing directly above both me and the Washington Monument at low altitude before landing at the White House South Lawn. The second made a more circular route towards the Potomac River and then made for a close escort above the White House precinct. After a few minutes waiting on the ground with the rotors still spinning, the first chopper lifted off again and was joined by the second as they both then headed to the south-east towards, I can only assume, Andrews Air Force Base a few miles away in Maryland.
I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a teensy bit thrilled by my first close encounter with the Marine One fleet of presidential choppers. And though I’d only been in the US capital area for a few short hours, it wasn’t even my first brush with the secretive happenings of Washington diplomacy. On exiting my Lufthansa flight from Frankfurt in the late afternoon we were held up from entering the mobile lounge shuttles (more on those later) to the main terminal by a small team of uniformed police. Soon I noticed five or six burly men in blue suits that mingled through the waiting line of passengers just outside the arrivals gate, with small gold star badges on their lapels and coiled cords trailing from their ear into their suit jackets. After a delay of some ten or fifteen minutes the suits escorted a handful of people speaking Russian past us and directly onto a private shuttle, and with a final sweeping glance around the rest of us with their fingers to their wired ears, the shuttle doors closed behind them and they and their VIPs were off.
My weekend was already memorable and it hadn’t even really begun.
Though I was coming to the Washington area for work and not fun, I was very keen to come over a couple of days early and enjoy the weekend playing tourist in the District of Columbia before spending the working week out in the Virginia suburbs. Due to jetlag I woke up uncharacteristically early on the Saturday morning, and I was pleased to see the daylight did nothing to reduce the immense size of the National Mall.
I was instantly lured by the far-off dome of the Capitol Building, and when I finally made it to the eastern edge of the Mall I was again pleasantly surprised that the grounds of Capitol Hill remained open for people to stroll by, rather than fenced off in the name of national security. Not realising that I could even easily go inside the capital, I headed instead for the Library of Congress across 1st Street.
Thomas Jefferson’s personal literary collection, sold to the Library for a modest sum to re-establish the Library of Congress after the English burned down the entire library in the original capital building in 1814, is a popular exhibit. Unfortunately the English weren’t the only ones with a penchant for fire, with only a fraction of Jefferson’s catalogue remaining after another serious blaze in 1851. But since then the Library has grown so much it now occupies multiple buildings around the capital.
The public are only allowed a quiet glance through the doors into the Reading Room, which even at this early hour of a Saturday seemed busy with political staffers doing research, perhaps for possible upcoming Congressional debates like ‘That birth certificate’s clearly a fake, where was Barrack Obama really born?’ or ‘Which country haven’t we tried to invade yet?’. The rest of the galleries open to the hoi-polloi were more of a museum, with exhibits on Mayan culture and the revolutionary history of the United States. But it was the sumptuously designed Great Hall that had my attention, looking for all the world like a great European palace, as if to say to the imperialists across the Atlantic “anything you can do, we can do better”.
By the time I figured out I could cross from the Library and enter the Capitol under street level, it was already busy with school groups, scout troops and heaps of other visitors. The level of organisation involved in moving such large numbers around the complex was certainly impressive, though it was a little disappointing the free tour did not take in the only two rooms I really had much interest in, the two current chambers of debate in the House of Representatives and the Senate. And despite some time to admire the view from under the central dome, the tour’s pace was brisk to the point of rushed and, not surprisingly, as a foreigner I had little to no knowledge of the events portrayed in the artworks or of most of the people immortalised in the many statues arrayed about.
And what good is a capital without a bit of civil unrest? On exiting the Capitol Building I didn’t have to go very far to find it. The first protest I encountered was outside the Canadian embassy just as I got onto Pennsylvania Avenue. About a dozen or so women and teenagers were out on the footpath objecting to, from what I could tell, the Canadian government’s sanctioned slaughter of seals.
But down by the White House there was a much larger procession gathering, complete with a police escort. With the United Nations Security Council and NATO just approving international intervention in Libya, a wide selection of groups had banded together with an anti-war message. There were Vietnam veterans angry at another new risk to the lives of American military in yet another incursion of foreign soil, those disillusioned at Barrack Obama’s failures as a man of change to pull back from the tangled invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan that he inherited from his predecessor, and also the cost conscious pointing out they thought America could simply not afford to take on more debt to pay for yet more concurrent military action. There was also support for Julian Assange in the wake of his sensational arrest after the posting of the 250,000 diplomatic cables to WikiLeaks, as well as for Bradley Manning, the American soldier held on suspicion of forwarding the classified material onto Assange in the first place.
Here’s hoping that Washington can be a place for open, truthful, rational and respectful dialogue about all the complex issues represented by the protestors. And not just for the sake of the seals.
While the anti-war procession, by now running into hundreds if not thousands of people, began to head north past my hotel, I continued along the National Mall to the monuments at the western end. There was no chance for contemplation at the Reflection Pool (it was drained and fenced off), and the Abraham Lincoln monument loomed beyond like the ancient temple to a Greek god. After climbing the stairs to Abe inside, I found he looked more benevolent dictator than mythical deity as he gazed down benignly from the seat of his elevated throne.
And at this point, I concede my total ignorance when it comes to American domestic history. I was long used to hearing Abraham Lincoln mentioned in close company with the other luminaries I’d also heard of: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin. And up until now I naturally assumed he had been a contemporary of these Founding Fathers in the struggle for independence from England in the second half of the 1700’s. But it was becoming clear upon reading the two inscriptions on the north and south walls of Abe’s temple that I had been well off the mark.
I had only fairly recently discovered the American Civil War occurred in the 1860’s (it shocked me it was as late as that, I had always supposed it to be earlier in the life of the young United States, say in the 1820’s, or, at the latest the 1830’s), and now I had discovered Lincoln’s central role at this pivotal juncture in American history. I found the words of his second Presidential inauguration speech of 1865 on the north wall quite compelling, particularly the references to both the North and South invoking the name of God against the other, and that “the prayers of both could not be answered – that of neither has been answered fully”.
That certainly struck a chord with me in these current times. I can’t speak for those who, as the ‘enemies’ in this decade long “War on Terror”, may or may not be invoking the name of Allah in jihad against the west. But as a Christian citizen of one of the governments that sent military in support of the American led invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, I am disappointed and disheartened when American patriotism extends to the automatic belief that their military are fighting with the full support of, or worse, combating evil on behalf of, the Almighty. Deep down all of us are too driven by our own self-interest in this world to be so sure of that, and there but the grace of God go I.
But enough of the God bothering and back to the Civil War. Lincoln is regarded as a hero for both keeping the nation together and enforcing the national abolition of slavery – though becoming the first American president to be assassinated probably didn’t hurt his profile either. And yet, as honourable as eradicating slavery no doubt was, from what I’ve begun to learn I’m not quite sure if the cause of the conflict can be that completely altruistic. The story goes that the rich South felt it needed continued slave labour for their cotton plantations, which the industrialising North disagreed with. Upon the election of the northerner Abraham Lincoln as President in late 1860, the South sought to legally secede from the Union of States and form their own Government. My question is why didn’t the North allow them, and then pursue the abolition of slavery through diplomatic channels? My only conclusion so far is that the North, dependent on the South’s raw materials for the generation of their own wealth in the factories, could simply not afford for the South to become an independent nation, and so both were almost brought to their knees by a crippling internal conflict instead.
But like I said, I’m trying to understand more about the US. And I didn’t get very far beyond the Lincoln Memorial before I was learning yet more. Unlike most foreigners to America I’m not confused by the concept that the District of Columbia is not a state. I have a slight advantage in hailing from Australia that I’m used to a country made up of states and territories where the national capital is also not ensconced in one of the states. But what I do find surprising is how small the District of Columbia is, and how the metropolitan area has long since spread beyond the current 61 square miles of the District and into the states of Maryland and Virginia.
For example, from books and movies I could have long told you the Central Intelligence Agency headquarters was in Langley, Virginia and the Pentagon sat in Arlington, Virginia. But the very fact the state names are always appended after the locality made me imagine they were great distances, perhaps hundreds of kilometres, from Washington. I always thought it odd that they weren’t close to Washington in the way that the important Australian federal government buildings, while spread around the metropolitan area of Canberra, are all encapsulated well within the confines of the Australian Capital Territory.
But as I just found out, the CIA and the Pentagon are proximate to the legislative nerve centre of Washington. Langley is less than 10 miles from the Capitol Building and, as for Arlington, I’d only just left the Lincoln Memorial and walked over the Potomac River across the Arlington Memorial Bridge and I was already there, firmly within the state of Virginia (though, just to get even more confusing, it should be noted this side of the Potomac was in fact part of the District for almost fifty years, from 1791 until 1847).
Between me and the Pentagon was the sprawling Arlington National Cemetery, which looked worthy of a visit. I was horrified at first by the admission price, possibly because everything else I entered in Washington was free. But when I realised that what most visitors were shelling out for was to be bussed around the hilly site, and that I could get around on shanks’ pony for nothing, I quite happily began my exploration of the cemetery.
By way of the resting places of some of the de facto American royal family, the Kennedys, I made my way uphill to the structure that had first caught my eye from the other side of the river, and that was Arlington House. While undergoing significant internal renovations, I was able to learn about this estate and former homestead’s role in the American Civil War (and now correctly remembered which decade!) before it was purchased by the government for use as a military graveyard. Though family members of those who have served in the armed forces also appear to be buried here, as well as some notable civilians who didn’t appear to have any listed connection with the military at all. I guess your final resting place in death all depends on your connections, just as in the rest of life.
I sat for a while near the Tomb of the Unknowns, watching the disciplined sentry on duty march ceremonially with his rifle along a carpeted section in front of the crypt. It was quite a warm day and wearing full uniform must have been a sweaty exercise, though it was interesting that such formal military decorum allowed the guard the small luxury of wearing sunglasses on duty. Perhaps it’s difficult to look appropriately composed and sombre when you’re squinting.
Finally, I spent more time wandering the ridges of the cemetery looking for a decent vantage point over to the adjacent Pentagon building. I didn’t really find one, but was able to see enough of the world’s largest office building to come to the conclusion that its perfect symmetry and reinforced concrete exterior makes America’s Department of Defence look as sinister and threatening as any comparable headquarters that could ever have been dreamt up by the then contemporary Cold War foes. I guess that was the point.
With the National Cemetery closing up for the day I had to hurry out, and I crossed back over the Potomac the same way I had come, before veering away from the Lincoln Memorial towards the Tidal Basin. After crossing some grassy playing fields I found myself entering the presidential memorial to Franklin D Roosevelt. FDR was the big man in charge during a very turbulent period in the 1930’s and 1940’s, spanning the Great Depression until his death just before the end of World War II. Unveiled by Bill Clinton in 1997, the memorial listed out some of his major accomplishments while in public office, including the New Deal, a serious of government measures that successfully led the US out of the economic doldrums.
That a man who advocated social values, government spending programs and increased corporate regulation could ever be revered in current America beggars belief. With the present presidential incumbent Barrack Obama attacked bitterly, even by members of his own party, for his ‘anti-free market’ attempts to introduce a more comprehensive public health system, I can only imagine if FDR was around today he’d be stoned to death for his almost Socialist leanings. I’m shocked that vocal Republicans, aspiring Tea Party members or vitriolic Fox News broadcasters like Bill O’Reilly or Glenn Beck haven’t demanded for FDR’s memorial to be blown up for its nostalgic take on Roosevelt’s radical pro-government economic intervention.
It seems Franklin Roosevelt was a man who faced some challenging physical circumstances in his adult life, becoming paralysed from the waist down a decade before becoming president, and remaining wheelchair bound for the last twenty-odd years of his life. As such, his memorial has been deliberately planned with easy access in mind for those visitors with some physical disability, who can more easily navigate the flat ground and open spaces here than the stairs at some of the older presidential memorials. FDR was also known to enjoy some enthusiastic horizontal folk dancing with his wife’s personal secretary, Lucy Mercer, in an affair that may have lasted for decades. Though there is no celebration of this side of the man at the memorial, it may go some way to explaining Bill Clinton’s eagerness to be the one to open it – is FDR a presidential hero to Clinton in more ways than one?
From there it was onto the Tidal Basin’s more established presidential memorial dedicated to Thomas Jefferson (which co-incidentally was established during the tenure of Franklin Roosevelt, who was a great admirer). Jefferson’s circular temple was undergoing a fair bit of renovation at the water’s edge, but it was not enough to hide the more than passing resemblance to one of Jefferson’s own designs I had seen on my last trip Stateside, the historic rotunda set in the grounds of the University of Virginia in Charlottesville.
But perhaps the biggest crowd pleaser around the Tidal basin, especially now in the springtime, are the cherry blossoms planted around the shore. The original plantings were a gift from the mayor of Tokyo in 1912 as a sign of eternal friendship between Japan and the United States – unfortunately the World War II Memorial just across Independence Avenue reflects how long that phase of the friendship lasted. I was a couple of weeks too early to see the budding flowers at their peak, but I was still very impressed by the blossoms beginning to bloom here – and it’s impossible to forget all the others along the National Mall, within the Capitol grounds, the White House gardens and even in Arlington Cemetery. Washington is indeed a beautifully landscaped city, and I didn’t even quite see it at its best.
Jetlag had prompted a very early night for me, and so on waking up in the morning I was keen to see what havoc the super full moon had wreaked while I slept. It didn’t take long to see that, despite my initial suspicions, the Washington Monument hadn’t blasted off into outer space. Though there was a mysterious new addition to the landscape just behind the White House.
On my arrival on Friday night there been a large, empty fenced-off area at the top of the Ellipse, with a placard indicating that the National Christmas Tree that had traditionally stood on the site for over thirty years had toppled over in a fierce storm the previous month. Not surprisingly, given all I had learnt about the US over this weekend, this had been the first time I had ever heard of such a thing. And on my walk past this morning, the temporary fences were gone and a new, undoubtedly much younger tree had swiftly been brought in as a replacement. A good ol’ American Christmas is safe for another year.
With the 19th century American take on the Egyptian obelisk that is the Washington Monument still firmly attached to terra firma, I was able to obtain a free ticket to go inside and take a lift to the top to peer out the two small windows on each of the four sides of the cap of the District’s tallest structure. The view of the city of Washington from the monument was unparalleled – and so to was the praise from within directed at the man Washington. That the capital city, a state, over 30 state counties, universities, a bridge, countless schools, and the list goes on, are named for the revolutionary leader and first president is some measure of the great esteem in which he is held. Inside his monument were over 190 large plaques given in appreciation of him by each state as well as cities and other civil and foreign organisations (some of which can be seen briefly from the lift on the way back down), and I can’t forget the gushing praise about the man from the National Park ranger who escorted me and the others in my nominated time slot up and down from the observation deck.
But it was the words on the information boards inside the very top of the obelisk, originally attributed to Washington’s Revolutionary War contemporary Henry Lee, that really laid the praise on thick, going so far as to elevate Washington’s piety and “purity of his private character”. His military achievements in rebellion against British colonial rule and successful transition to civil life in leading the young United States nation are to be admired for sure, and that his will decreed that on his widow’s death all their slaves were to be freed was a radical choice for a wealthy, white landowner of the time. But surely the man must have had some faults. Not liking broccoli, being a touch grouchy in the mornings or perhaps upsetting his revered wife Martha by farting in bed. The world’s most fanatical democracy has done a pretty sensational job making a god out of a mortal man. If I ever visit North Korea I’d expect to hear no more effusive devotion to the man-cult of Kim Il-Sung than I did about George Washington in his capital.
With only half a day of my weekend left, there was still so much along the National Mall I wanted to see. Earlier on in the day, after having lined up for my Washington Monument ticket but while waiting for my timeslot to enter the obelisk, my appetite for the Smithsonian Museums had been whetted by wandering through the mock castle. Once inside the original and, dare I say, still most fetching of the Smithsonian buildings that line both sides of the Mall, I was immediately taken by the small permanent exhibition America’s Treasure Chest, that displayed some small items from each of the museums. What was so intriguing was the randomness of it all: A taxidermied Spectacled Bear looking down at a Pittsburgh Steelers football helmet, a piece of the Hindenburg Airship from 1937 not far from a Chinese vase from 1700’s, and the 1956 Women’s Singles Wimbledon trophy across from some Nigerian figurines. It was a refreshing change to the neat and orderly catalogues of traditional galleries, or the cacophony of noisy multimedia presentations that battle from all directions and heights to get my distracted attention in newer museums. It was like stumbling into a forgotten back room of a manor house belonging to some rich, eccentric old man – which given the exhibition was housed in a stained glass windowed gallery of a mock castle, probably was just the effect that was intended.
With 19 different Smithsonian museums to choose from, ten of which are situated on the Mall, at best I could only make a dent in one of them in the afternoon I had left. I settled on the National Air and Space Museum, but even then I still didn’t manage to see all the galleries there before closing time. Not to mention there is also a second site near Dulles Airport displaying the larger exhibits that can not fit into the NASM building on the Mall.
To say I was enthralled was an understatement. Though arranged more logically than the surprises of the introductory gallery in the castle, it is totally mind blowing to look at the vestiges of American, Soviet and others’ flying history stored in this one building and reflect on how much innovation and progress was made between the Wright brothers’ first bumpy flirtations with leaving the ground in 1903 to Armstrong and Aldrin bouncing around on the surface of the moon less than seventy years later. Sure, two world wars and a Cold War helped give the world’s superpowers extra motivation to become more technically advanced than each other, and the uncountable mountains of taxpayers’ money spent could have been handy to use elsewhere, but it’s still a remarkable achievement nonetheless. At that rate of advancement it must be of some considerable disappointment to the dreamers of my parents’ generation who watched the 1969 moon landings on TV that over forty years later there are no colonies on Mars or spacecraft capable of travelling at the speed of light. Instead, our latest advances related to aviation are full body security scanners and ‘junk’ touching enhanced pat-downs. Uranus receives the once over without you even getting to leave Earth.
The Space Age is not yet completely dead in Washington though. My initial fascination still lingered when I thought of some working examples of space age transport that I seen on arrival in the city two days before, at the wonderfully retro Washington Dulles Airport. Of all the different airports in the world I’ve passed through in my lifetime so far (and by my count, Dulles is number seventy – yes, I really am so anal that I keep track of these things), I’ve been transported between terminals or to planes at outlying parking stands on all kinds of buses, trains and monorails. Complemented by Dulles’ 1960’s architecture and styling (which still hark back to the days when flying was ‘groovy, baby’), nowhere else have I seen the so-called mobile lounges or plane mates that are still in operation. Also nicknamed by some as “moon buggies”, these white, rectangular box carriages are set on a truck chassis high above big sturdy wheels, contain driver compartments at each end and come complete with a couple of large, nifty aircraft style fins on the roof. Best of all, they have doors and canopies at the front and back that can dock directly with a terminal, or, in days past before the advent of aerobridges, even a plane in the same way semi-trailers back right up to garage bays at large warehouses. With scores of mobile lounges still busily pootling around the taxiways of Dulles shuttling passengers between docking stations at different terminals, it wasn’t hard to imagine vehicles like these being planned by NASA back in the 1960’s for use on a future moon base. In my relatively frequent air travels in the last decade it’s been a long time since I’ve been dazzled by anything at an airport like I always was as a child, but Dulles’ moon buggies sure did it for me.
With the National Air and Space Museum closed but a couple of hours of daylight still lingering, I decided to finish my weekend in a town established in a historical time period well before aeronautical aviation – and even before the establishment of the District of Columbia itself. To do that I jumped on the Metro, travelled beyond the Pentagon and Ronald Reagan Airport and got off at King Street in Alexandria.
As a town Alexandria dates from the middle of the 18th century, and was a thriving port for tobacco and slaves just down the road from George Washington’s plantation estate at Mount Vernon by the time the District of Columbia came to be surveyed in 1790. And here, just perhaps, is a glimpse into a not so pious or pure human side of the god George Washington. With Maryland ceding land for the new permanent national capital on the north-east side of the Potomac, the first president was given the task to select the precise site for the centre of the capital. After doing this, in early 1791 he suggested to the National Congress to enlarge the territory of the District across the river into Virginia to make a perfect diamond of the maximum allowed 100 square miles. Though this decision was not completely autocratic – Congress had to give their assent to the proposal, and they stipulated that government buildings could only be constructed on the Maryland side of the territory – the District of Columbia thus grew to include the town of Alexandria and nearby Virginia land. With substantial personal land holdings now in, or at least very close to, this new and special legal entity of the District of Columbia, I can’t help but wonder if this was a slightly devious ploy by George Washington to make trading from his plantation to the new capital more profitable for him, and hoping to make his estate more valuable.
But this is purely my own personal conjecture, and perhaps I’m way off the mark for daring to smear America’s number one great leader. And anyway, within fifty years of Washington’s death it seems as if the land component south-west of the Potomac didn’t really benefit from the inclusion into the capital territory. For a number of economic reasons, including the rumours that slavery was to be abolished in the District of Columbia, the residents of Alexandria were successful in their bid for all former Virginian land to rejoin that state in 1847.
Alexandria’s old town from those early days remains, though it’s not immediately apparent on exiting the Metro station at King Street. While most of the modern development here had sought to be sympathetic architecturally, the chain hotels, Dunkin’ Donuts and Starbucks were all very suburban and I at first wondered if Alexandria’s charms had been overstated somewhat.
I wandered down King Street and the closer I got to the Potomac the more established the town looked, with old brick townhouses home to independent restaurants of various ethnicities and an array of antique shops. It was nice enough, and there were plenty of tourists unhurriedly ambling around, but it did feel a little twee. It wasn’t till I got off King Street and explored some of the surrounding residential streets where I found patches of the original Alexandria. Tiny shuttered cottages of brick and weatherboard lined streets with majestic overhanging trees – though it was nice to see the devotion to ordered and perfect preservation had let up a little and allowed the tree roots to buckle the narrow brick footpaths, which was probably a miscalculation by the local authorities but still a nice taste of the rough and ready that Alexandria must have been present in the sea trading days. Here and there new townhouses and condominiums intruded into the scene, but there were at least some reasonable attempts at colonial styling, while some nearby tower blocks were regular reminders that this now prosperous DC commuter zone hasn’t always been so gentrified even in the last few generations.
I was glad to have made it down to Alexandria, if only to say I hadn’t spent the entire weekend in close proximity to the National Mall. With darkness fast approaching it was about time I ventured further into Virginia suburbia where I’d spend the upcoming working week and with a combination of Metro and taxi I made it to Reston Town Centre, not all that far from Dulles Airport.
Many of America’s sports fans were in the midst by March Madness, the annual NCAA college basketball tournament currently playing out, however my own sporting loyalties were very much tied to the once-in-four-years Cricket World Cup also going on at the time in India, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh. The sub-continental driver of the cab I took from East Falls Church to Reston didn’t say a word to me during the 30 minute journey, until I spied an English language newspaper on the front passenger seat called the India Times and surmised he might know the latest. At the mention of the World Cup the cab driver’s eyes lit up, he animatedly mentioned he was going home to watch the latest fixture as soon as his shift was over and asked me where I was from. On hearing my reply of Australia, the driver took great delight in telling me my previously all-conquering home country, chasing a third World Cup title in a row but doing so with a rapidly weakening squad, had ended its 34 World Cup match unbeaten streak after faltering against Pakistan in its last group game, meaning they would face the host nation (and eventual champions) India in a quarter final later in the week. I never expected to have a knowledgeable conversation about cricket in the United States, but I even got to watch the end of that quarter final at lunchtime during the week when I saw an Indian guy glued to a live video feed on his laptop. That I could indulge in my own March Madness because of the Washington area’s ethnic diversity made me love this part of America even more.
Reston was a relatively new (and somewhat sterile) area with some contrived ‘Yay, go America!’ style street names like Freedom Drive and Democracy Drive. But at least some considerable effort had been made to make it pedestrian friendly at the expense of cars, with traditional street shopping preferred over indoor shopping centres and strip malls, and outside dining and the occasional water feature to try and give the precinct a hint of heart and soul.
Amongst the omnipresent faux Italian and Mexican grill chains there were quite a few higher-end restaurants, including a steakhouse I ate in one night. I could tell it was going to be upmarket well before I saw the prices on the menu. I think it was all the dark wood panelling in the large dining room, and I also immediately noticed I was the youngest and, wearing a shirt without a collar and jeans, the most casually dressed person in the room full of diners. Even all the wait staff, wearing black tuxedos, appeared to be well older than me. Now I’ve mentioned before on a previous trip to the States how, even ignoring the topic of tipping, coming from Australia and living in Europe I prefer a minimal level of interaction with the waiting staff. I think I’d even take an apathetic waiter or waitress before an over-effusive one. But as this was easily the most posh restaurant I’d yet entered in America, and the local clientele were probably expecting (and happily paying for) a level of service above and beyond even what I regard as over the top, I was interested enough to find out exactly what that was. And, besides, I was dining alone, so I was bound to be less annoyed than I otherwise am at the frequent interruptions to conversation if I’d been with friends.
My waiter must have been in his forties, with slicked back dark hair and a carefully trimmed moustache. After getting me some bread he next wheeled a trolley around full of raw steaks to show me all the different cuts of beef I could choose from. A new thing for me, but so far, so good. But then things made a turn for the bizarre.
Before handing me a menu he said he was going to tell me what was on it. His eyes immediately moved away from me to look somewhere in the middle distance before glazing over. And what had been an earnest conversational voice became a monotone murmur as he quickly recited every single thing on the menu. Starters, side dishes and desserts all flew at me in a rapid succession of words. While I could retain a thing or two that sounded appealing here or there, the stream of words was so overwhelming he may as well have been reeling off the name of every car he’d ever driven or every girl he’d ever had a crush on. It couldn’t have taken him any more than a minute to get through his carefully memorised spiel, but as I sat there dumbly listening to the tumble of words it felt like an eternity. When the last of the desserts had finally left his lips, his eyes focussed on me again and he smiled slightly as his conversational voice returned, reassuring me I didn’t need to decide just yet, as I could now look at the menu.
So now I know what you get for a 15-20% gratuity on top of a costly but excellent, tender and thick as a university textbook chunk of steak: A lengthy monologue. Or maybe he’s doing the stereotypical thing of waiting tables until he’s spotted and makes it big on Broadway. I can’t comment on his delivery and stage presence, but on the basis of this performance at least he’d learn his lines.
While Reston was a nice enough business centre to be based for a week, fortunately I wasn’t completely restricted to it outside of work hours. Dinner on another night was spent with Natasha, a friend of my sister’s from primary and high school back home in Australia who now lived in DC’s Virginia suburbs with her husband (and who helped to satisfy my cravings for Vietnamese Pho and later enlightened me to the latest American consumer conglomerate that is Costco).
Meanwhile, my little dalliance with the District of Columbia had not completely finished over the previous weekend. On this Thursday evening, the night before I flew back to Switzerland, I ventured back into the centre of Washington for the fortuitously timed 30th birthday party for Chris, a friend of my mine who had lived in Geneva a few years back but was now resident in DC.
I was able to make it back into the city centre a bit earlier than I expected, and so had a little bit of time to explore before the shindig kicked off. I really enjoyed a meandering early evening walk, which gave me another interesting insight into some very different facets of the city. From Dupont Circle and the start of ‘Embassy Row’ on Massachusetts Avenue, I turned up to some very well-to-do houses in some gorgeous streets in Kalorama Heights. After that came the slightly rough and tumble inner-city commercial thoroughfares of Adams Morgan before getting up to the recently rejuvenated Columbia Heights, which was the most obviously multi-racial neighbourhood I saw and had a very cool vibe on the streets.
But what better way to sign off on my time in Washington DC than to meet some of the locals? Though it must be said that in this city it seems like ‘local’ can be a fairly loose term. My friend Chris is from Northern Ireland, and while almost everyone else I met at his party were Americans, they did seem to have moved here from all over the country. They were a knowledgeable and well travelled bunch, working in the federal public sector, for non-government organisations working against prejudice or serious musicians trying to make it big. It was the kind of varied crowd I had very quickly got used to being around in Geneva, and I instantly felt comfortable and accepted for who I was. That’s not always something I have felt in more regional parts of the US, where as an Australian living in Switzerland I’m regarded as such an alien I may as well say I’ve come from the planet Zorg (for next time I can add I’m just visiting temporarily till my Egyptian obelisk rocket ship on the National Mall can get me home on the next super full moon). The night was a wonderful way to confirm that the national capital goes right up there with New York in contention for my favourite American city. Thanks for making that possible, great leader George Washington.