Washington is monumental (see what I did there?!) Terrible puns aside, if you were going to design a physical place that would represent democracy across the entire free world – this would be it. Wide tree-lined streets, grand Romanesque architecture, a multitude of museums celebrating the pinnacles of human discovery, craftsmanship and culture across centuries; monuments to great men and war heroes; the senate building standing tall. There is so much grandeur in such a small geographical area it is a like a living museum itself. It’s clean, it’s leafy, it doesn’t smell, there are flower gardens, buildings are very well-kept, there are a lot of people employed in security – I could go on. Central Washington D.C. is not like most American cities. But then you knew that already.
A run-in with Homeland Security
“MAM, DO NOT APPROACH THIS BARRIER. GET BACK ON THE SIDEWALK NOW!”
Oh my God, I was being yelled at by one of Obama’s security team.
“OH yeah no. Sorry… I just… wanted to ask a small, really quick question?!” I said, trying to make myself look as unthreatening as humanly possible.
To get some perspective…I was about 2km from the White House. Pretty far away, given my running speed is that of a giant African land snail. I was near one of the road barriers leading into the public park where people usually go to get a closer look. The barriers, about 10 strides back from the pavement, were down and behind them, by another 20 strides, where the security officers. About 10 minutes earlier, we had been nearing the gates to see the world-famous residency when the whole park went on lock-down and hundreds, maybe thousands of tourists were escorted out by heavily armed and brusk homeland security. And they don’t mess around.
“STEP AWAY NOW!”
The guard was carrying the biggest gun I had ever seen so I wasn’t going to argue.
“Ok. I just wanted to know when the park would re-open so we could get a good view of…”
“That is classified information.”
“Oh. Right. Yes. Sure. (long pause) But…like are we talking hours…or minutes…or sometime tomorrow?!”
A few other security guards had come over to watch this spectacle. They were stifling smiles. My British accent was working like a charm! AT LAST! I thought it was worth a cheeky ask…
“Does all this mean Obama is at home?!”
I got a stern look back and took that as my answer. THAT is most definitely classified.
I wandered off with the others to get a sandwich and try our luck later. It would be hours before the park would open up again. Maybe it was James Cordon taking Michelle for some carpool karaoke…?!
National Museum of American History and a run in with a PROUD American
Whilst we were waiting, we decided to take a look at the National Museum of American History. It is always somewhat enlightening as an outsider, to see how a country represents its own history; does it just show the good bits, some bad bits, or all of it?
After negotiating airport style security and disposing of my water bottle…(grrr) we approached the information desk for some advice on where to start.
“Hello! I’ve never visited before. We don’t have too much time, so any help would be great!” (I was doing my most positive and eager Kimmy Schmidt impression).
“Where are you from?”
“Oh well, England! Yep – The UK…Great Britain!” (I swear to God I answer that question differently every time I get asked).
“Well. In that case, you won’t like the War of Independence room! HA! Cause we beat you yunno.”
“Err ok, well it was a long time ago, no hard feelings and all that. Hehe…”
“Yeah, we really beat you English good. That’s why we are Proud Americans.”
“Right…so like I said, I don’t really mind seeing that…”
“If that offends you, you should go to the room with Dorothy’s red slippers.”
“Yeah, thanks so much for all the help! Bye now…”
This conversation came as quite the surprise to me – the assumption that I harbour ill feelings for having lost America as a colony in 1783. Or feel so saddened / angered / ashamed that I can’t learn about it from an American perspective. When actually, I have no feelings about it. Not one! We don’t get taught about it in school, I’ve never had a conversation about it with friends or family members, and much like Britain’s 100-year war with France, it means nothing to me and doesn’t influence how I see the world now.
Unbelievably, it wasn’t the first time I had had this history lesson either. Admittedly the other time was with a 10-year-old girl at a Memphis baseball game, who, when to her question of where I was from and I said Britain, could note two things about my country; 1) it was far away, and 2) “We beat you”. Well, I couldn’t argue, though I had hoped we would be known for a little more…a ‘special relationship’ perhaps!
But I guess I had my answer – it is hugely important to the American national identity that they won the Revolutionary War. Whereas for us, well, it’s pretty meaningless now. So it turns out you can be enlightened on your own historical knowledge too, (of lack of) from visiting museums in other countries…
After seeing all of America’s history in record time, we headed back to get ready for a night of Maryland specialities; crabs.
A Maryland delicacy
The crabs are boiled, covered in salt and a spice mix, brought along on a tray to the table, tipped out in front of you and with a serrated knife and a small hammer, you get to work, once they are cool enough to handle. And it is quite a lot of work; opening the body, disposing of the lungs and other organs, scooping out any eggs and putting it into a waste bucket, breaking off the legs and cracking them open. It isn’t for the squeamish, fainthearted or non-seafood lover, but the meat, when you get to it, is juicy, light and tasty and so worth the surgical procedure to get to it. Washed down with some craft brew, it was the perfect way to see in our Washington stay.
Washington free walking tour – pay what you can, it is a two-hour historical romp up the mall, finishing at the Lincoln Memorial. I learnt loads, much of which you would never get self-guided, really worth the time.
Martin Luther King Memorial – walking around this beautiful memorial I was struck by his quotes inscribed on a huge wall – what a brilliant speech writer and speaker he was, everything he says and stood for was so powerful then and still resonates today.