Thursday, October 20, 2011

Washington DC - 14th-20th August

Sunday, 14th August 2011

I arrived into DC (into an airport that quite resembled its namesake, Ronald Reagan: conservatively constructed in all respects, and tarted up significantly in its old age), bed-bug-bitten, but not defeated, on the Sunday afternoon where I was greeted by my host for the next three nights: Tom Field. Tom, a fellow lawyer (though of the tax variety), found his career as a Federal tax lawyer (in addition to rising to the rank of Colonel in the army) and now teaches tax law at George Washington University. No sooner had he collected me from the airport, packed my bags into the car, and offered me some nuts to keep me going until supper, and we were off for a quick tour of some of the sights of DC before heading back to his nearby home over the Potomac in Arlington, VA.

We parked at Tom's Law School building, conveniently located within walking distance of Union Station and Capitol Hill. A quick tour of the Law School checked off our list, we walked up past Union Station - taking some time to admire in late 18th Century facade typical of the DC architectural style.

Tunnel of Columns - Union Station

Columbus Statue 

From Union Station we took the short walk up through the Lower Senate Park towards the State Capitol - a must-see on any tourist's itinerary. Being close to supper time, we were just about the only people there.

Capitol Building, DC

Looping back around along 1st St. NE back towards Union Station and the car we passed the Jefferson Building, which houses Thomas Jefferson's library collection - I was pleasantly reminded of my dinner with his great, great, great grand-daughter all those weeks ago in the first week of my Pathfinders trip up at Coolidge Point.

 The Jefferson Building

With supper-time looming, there was time for just one last stop on Tom's whirlwind tour of central DC: the Lincoln Memorial.

The sun was beginning to set, providing a splendid backdrop of golden, early-evening light for the national monument.

Lincoln Memorial

The top of the steps provided a wonderful vantage-point from which to view the Washington Monument, towering 169m above the National Mall.

From Memorial to Monument

Tom waited outside the Lincoln Memorial, basking in the remaining evening sunlight, giving me time to wander around the structure and take in the inscriptions of Lincoln's second inaugural address to in the North Chamber and his Gettysburg address in the South.

I must have spent a good five minutes standing in front of the gargantuan statue of Lincoln that sits between the north and south chambers - it's vast size and sternness is vividly contrasted with the feeling of peacefulness it conveys. Above the great man's head, the epitaph is carved:

In this temple
As in the hearts of the people
For whom he saved the Union
The memory of Abraham Lincoln 
Is enshrined forever

I reconvened with Tom and we took a final walk around the perimeter of the memorial. The surrounding columns are themselves symbolic - the total number, 36, represents the number of states in the Union at the time of Lincoln's death. They also provided some fantastic framing for some wonderful views.

Washington Monument

Sunset through Lincoln Memorial

With a few of the major sights ticked off the to-do list, Tom and I returned to Arlington where I met his wife, Marcia. The lovely home-cooked food (some of which was grown on Tom and Marcia's farm out in West Virginia) was like gold-dust after four days of pretty much nothing but Po' Boys, gator sausages, and jambalaya in New Orleans. I did my bit for the household by finishing off some beer in the fridge to provide much needed space for other essentials and soon after our late supper headed for an early night. Tomorrow Tom and I were to go and visit his and Marcia's country place out in West Virginia, stopping off at some local landmarks and (hopefully) abandoned buildings along the way.

Monday, 15th August 2011
The majority of Monday was spent travelling west to West Virginia to visit Tom's farm and house out in the country and doing some abandoned-building hunting. A separate post with some photographs will follow.

We returned in the evening, weary from our journey, to be nourished by another fantastic meal prepared by Marcia - with a little help from a neighbour-friend who in return for some of the produce from Tom and Marcia's country-house garden drops off some dishes for them to sample.

Tuesday, 16th August 2011
Most of Tuesday was spent seeing some more of DC's sights. First on the agenda was the Jefferson Memorial in the West Potomac Park. Whilst not quite as popular a tourist attraction as the Lincoln Memorial, I thought it fitting that I should pay a visit to Jefferson's memorial given the links between him and the Pathfinder Scheme through the original founder, Bill Coolidge.

Though smaller in size to Lincoln's shrine, the Jefferson Memorial is just as impressive with its imposing white-marble exterior.

 Jefferson Memorial, exterior

Inside, Rudulph Evans' 4,500kg bronze statue of Jefferson towers over those who enter.

From the Jefferson Memorial Tom and I snaked down the banks of the Potomac to where the car was parked. Our next stop was a place, being a lawyer, I simply had to visit - the US Supreme Court.

Facade from 1st Street, SE 

A good hour or so was spent perusing the various exhibits, my favourite of which had to be the odd shrine-come-exhibit to Sandra Day O'Connor.

"Look at me, I'm Sandra Dee [O'Connor]..."

Spiral Staircase, US Supreme Court

After some lunch in the Supreme Court dining room Tom and I did some more exploring of downtown DC before heading back to the house. As a celebration of my last night in the Field household, Tom, Marcia and I went out for dinner to a nearby Afghani restaurant which served us up some wonderful, traditional Afghan food.

Wednesday, 17th August 2011
After a leisurely breakfast Tom took me into DC where I was to be left to my own devices for most of the day. I spent much of the morning, and the latter part of the afternoon, visiting the various museums and galleries spending quite a bit of time at the Smithsonian Art Museum where there was a brilliant exhibition on my favourite artistic movements: impressionism. I briefly ventured into the museum of natural science and the museum of american history, but I didn't find much to keep me there - especially the number of loud and energetic children roaming through its rooms.

With much of the day already passed I made my way to the Kurdistan Regional Government building, a 20 minute walk from the centre of DC, where I had an afternoon meeting with the Kurdish Representative to the US Qubad Talabani. After I was finished, and awoken by strong Iraqi coffee, I was met by Tom who took me to where I was to meet my host for the night. I was supposed to be staying with Balliol host Giles Howson for the next three nights, but due to last minute business he had had to fly out to New Orleans for a few days and wasn't returning until the Thursday. He had, however, kindly set me up with his friend Flavius who had given me the use of his sofa for the night.

No sooner had I met Flavius, and returned to his flat, and I was directed to freshen up and put on my glad-rags to go to a DC party Flavius was attending that night. The event in question was a 1-year anniversary celebration of an online magazine Flavius had helped to set up: Fair Observer - The Economist's soon-to-be rival, according to its founder, Atul Singh with whom I had many interesting discussions. It was my first 'proper' DC party and it conformed to most of the stereotypes I had imagined it would be: business cards, hot off the press, with impressive titles attached, were being handed out here there and everywhere to anyone who gave the distributor more than two minutes of their time; macho-posturing on important topics of discussion galore; and incessant networking between the obvious key players in attendance and those minglers who stood nearby, prepped with a firm handshake and one of those notorious business cards to boot. I was also constantly aware of the fact I was the youngest person in the room.

Stereotypical it may have been, I greatly enjoyed the evening, nonetheless. I struck up a conversation with a nice chap called Ryan who through gritted teeth and a glass of Scotch told me about how much he hated the DC 'scene': "people wearing pin-stripe suits and a business card with 'advisor to the Senator' on it when all they really do is sit and answer goddamn phones". In part, I agreed. I also spent a good deal of time talking to a lovely woman who had admired my country-famous red loafers and who also turned out to be the first 'proper' Republican I'd met.

The night ended with some Pad Thai on the terrace of a small restaurant on the way back to Flavius' apartment - and a glass of well-deserved wine.

Thursday, 18 August 2011
Most of Thursday was spent lounging around Flavius' apartment until lunchtime and then a brief jaunt downtown before returning to be collected by Giles, who I was to stay with for the next two nights. We got back to Giles' house just before supper and were greeted by his two lovely, and energetic, boys Will and Topper. Giles' wife, Jill, was away for the night, so we had a men's supper of omelette-à-la-Giles (ingredients remain a mystery) and some good beer and red wine.

After supper we took a stroll, wine-glasses in hand, through the winding suburban streets to a neighbour's house where Will had a play date. The neighbours in question were Dee Dee Myers and Todd Purdum: the husband and wife who are the inspiration of the couple CJ Cregg and Danny Concannon in The West Wing.

With the boys to bed Giles and I finished off some beer in the sitting room, discussing the military (Giles is ex-UK forces), and our over-lapping passions of skiing and sailing.

Friday, 19 August 2011
Friday, and I got a lift into the heart of idyllic Georgetown with Giles on his way into his office in the morning. I snaked my way through the colonial-looking, mansion-lined streets towards The Phillips Collection - DC's answer to the Frick. After a few hours of perusing the rooms and soaking in the vast array of great paintings adorning their walls I moved on for some luncheon and made my way back to the heart of downtown DC. Both Tom & Marcia and Giles had recommended I visit Washington's Holocaust Memorial Museum as a must-visit on my stay in DC. The place, and the experience, is quite difficult to describe, and to do not only would take too many words, but also wouldn't nearly do the place justice. Suffice it to say, despite the sobriety and solemnness of the whole thing, I'd recommend it to anyone who ever passes through DC.

Afterwards I took a walk over to a world monument I had, hitherto, managed to avoid during my stay in DC: The White House. To be honest, there really wasn't that much to see, and you can't really even get that close, so really all you see is - well - a white house.

White House, front

White House, back 

With enough fun and games had for the day I walked back to Georgetown where I'd arranged to meet Giles on his way home. On the way I passed a friendly squirrel:

When we got back Jill, Gile's wife, had just landed home and I had returned just in time for the boys to commandeer my iPhone and to give me some much-needed lessons in 'Angry Birds' strategy and 'Ninjump' technique. For supper Giles fired up the grill on the patio and we stood, like true Brits, in shorts and deck shoes, drinking beer, and talking about barbecuing in the summer and how cold it gets in the winter.

Post-supper we returned to our previous night's spot in the sitting room, more wine in hand, and supplemented our previous night's conversation of skiing and sailing with the riots in the UK, the school private school system, and the Royal Family. This latter topic of talking gave me a chance to bring up something I'd noticed in the house on the first day I arrived:

The bonnie Prince

Turns out it was a photograph that used to sit in Giles' parents house as Prince Charles had been the head of Giles' father's regiment and had only recently been re-discovered. Giles thought it was a nice bit of fun to resurrect the tradition of HRH looking over proceedings in the sitting room. I was relieved there wasn't a weirder explanation.

Saturday, 20 August 2011
After a long(ish) lie, I was awoken by the sound of boisterous boys playing gun fights or something similar. After a lunch of 'cheese sandwiches' (or toasties, to you and me) I packed my bags and got ready to say goodbye to Washington DC, and Giles and Jill's lovely house. However, before I left Jill just had time to tell me two terrifying stories about two friends who lived in my next destination of choice who had been variously, and separately, been held at gunpoint and forced to lie face on the ground whilst their attackers debated whether or not to shoot them, and had their bedroom broken into whilst in the shower to find the culprit menacingly scaling the walls of the room on their return: "oh God, don't tell Giles I told you those stories", she said with a smile as I left with the aforesaid to be taken to the Greyhound station where I was to catch my bus to Baltimore.

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