17 August, 2012

Washington DC in words

We spent a long weekend a month or so ago in DC. We were very lucky to find a lovely vacation rental for our short break, six blocks from the Capitol building and very close to Eastern Market, and it had wonderful air conditioning. Tom didn't want to leave.

We took the train. First proper train journey in the US. Cost a ton as I didn't book far enough ahead. No reservations though. You have to hunt for a seat. And what a hassle getting onto the platform. They don't let you down until the train is there. Which leads to a couple of hundred or more people trying to fit through a small gap onto an escalator onto the dungeon like platform/track. Think Birmingham New Street - not my favourite station... Apart from that it was fine. Except when we discovered that the reason our chairs were facing each other in a four was because one set wouldn't turn around. The guard accused us of turning them around, which elicited protests of cluelessness and innocence. How on earth was I supposed to know you could swivel the chairs round to face the opposite direction? Also how can you design such a system but can't manage to issue seat reservations.

So DC.

There is something so tidy about this place. Planned. Utterly unlike the kind of messy capitals that Europe has taken a couple of millenia to produce. It has a slightly unreal feeling. All those suits walking around engaged in the business of government or law or lobbying. It is also quite lovely. We were staying in Capitol Hill close to the last remaining covered market (a legacy of sensible 19th century planners) which is undergoing a renaissance with new interest in organics and fresh food and so on. We walked as much as we could bear - it was in the 90s and sweaty. We also hung out in museums.

We visited the Lincoln Memorial and stood where MLK stood to make the "I have a dream" speech.

We walked through the Vietnam Memorial, through to the WWII memorial, the Washington Monument, past a glimpse of the White House and on to the American History Museum. The transport section was excellent, as was the Jefferson exhibit on his slaves. And the Greensboro counter performance was spell-binding. Really. I don't normally go for this kind of "acting" but she had everyone in the audience engaged and recreating the experience of the sit in. Chills down my spine. We also saw Kermit and Dorothy's slippers and Harry Potter's outfit and Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven clothes (that man is tall!).

Day Two involved a visit to the Library of Congress - great for this bookwormish family, and a tour of the Capitol. This was quickish, well organised and distinctly apolitical. All the clips of the Congress cut off any speeches made by modern day representatives before they said anything too difficult. The statues donated by the States were fun. Lots of people you have never heard of. And lots and lots of Native Americans - ironic really.

Day Three was spent at the National Museum of the American Indian which was wonderful. It is formed around a superb collection covering the entire two continents and centred on the collection of George Heye. Sections cover particular themes - spiritual life, modern day, history - and are curated by the tribes themselves, which gives them a viewpoint, depth and currency that marks them out from more traditional museums. We've seen some stunning Native American collections in museums across the US but this was probably the best.

We then walked next door to the Air and Space Museum. Unfortunately this was fuller than Heathrow on the first day of the summer holidays during a baggage handlers strike. And actually its layout is a touch old fashioned as everything is divided up into rooms which increases the feeling of being surrounded by people. So actually I had a better time at the Museum of Flight in Seattle. But the exhibits are wonderful - Lindbergh's plane, the Wright brothers, loads of cool NASA exhibits. I'd say try to go on a day out of season.

And on our last day, Emilia requested we visit Ford's Theatre. That is, the site of Lincoln's assassination. This is also a National Park. The museum is a touch cramped - the theatre is still a working theatre and the museum is underneath - but filled with fascinating information and artifacts. And then we went up to the theatre auditorium itself to hear a monologue by a park ranger on the last day and the assassination. It was superbly done. No props, just the location and one man talking us through what happened. He did it excellently.

After that Millie and Lottie wanted to go to the International Spy Museum. This isn't part of the Smithsonian so not free and was actually pretty darned expensive. At first I thought, oh lord what a rip off. I think it was the whole "you're a spy on a secret mission, here's your identity, blah blah blah bit". But in fact once you got into the exhibitions proper it was very interesting with a full history of spying, from the ancient world onwards. We got as far as the Cold War and then had to get our train.

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