I was fully prepared for trumpets and a swelling soundtrack when the plane hit the tarmac in Washington, D.C. After all, this was the capital city of America. This was where Congress met, where the President lived, where the biggest fireworks for the Fourth of July were let off. No city could be more American than this one.
That being said, I wasn’t exactly looking forward to my four days in D.C. Not the way I’d been looking forward to other parts of my trip at least. I felt that D.C. was somewhere I ought to go, seeing as how I was spending three months in the country, and I ought to at least be able to say I’d been there. I knew it had some good museums, and I was kind of looking forward to seeing the White House, but other than that I wasn’t all that excited.
D.C. surprised me.
My Lonely Planet described D.C. as the grandfather of America, with all the museums serving as a sort of attic, where all the keepsakes and treasures from years past have been kept. But I think that’s doing it an injustice. When you look down the national mall for the first time, which reaches from the Jefferson memorial to the Capitol building, it is difficult to feel anything but awe. One long stretch of green lined with enormous, grand, white buildings, ruled over the Washington monument, which somehow achieves an elegance you wouldn’t expect from what is essentially a whopping great oblong with a point at the top. And when I say “long stretch” I mean long. It is deceptively long, and the blisters I got on my feet from walking up and down it for four days will vouch for it. And that’s not even accounting for all the walking around the museums.
The D in D.C apparently ought to stand for “deceptive” because it tries to trick you with it’s museums, too. They call all the museums “The Smithsonian” as if it’s just one museum. It’s not. It’s nineteen. Nineteen enormous museums and galleries, seventeen of which are in D.C, lining the national mall. And they’re all free, which to a backpacker on a budget, is excellent news. Out of the seventeen, I visited three: the National Museum of American History (where they have Dorothy’s slippers and Kermit the Frog), the National Museum of Natural History (which was my favourite, and I loved it more than the Museum of Natural History in New York), and the National Air and Space Museum. I also visited the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, the National Archives (where they have a copy of the Magna Carta, the Declaration of Independence, and the Constitution), the Library of Congress (America really knows how to do libraries well), and the Folger Shakespeare Library (which has the largest collection of Shakespeare materials in the world, but unfortunately not many of these are on display…)
It took me the whole four days, and that doesn’t even include the tourist photos in front of the White House, or all the visiting of all the war memorials. Of the latter, the most moving was the Vietnam War Memorial, which was built like a gash in the earth, and as one of the most recent wars, was being visited still by mourners.
I think that one of the reasons D.C. stood out to me was that it worked as a place of reflection and grief (the permanent exhibition at the Holocaust museum had me fighting back tears at several points, but the two that stand out were a section where you sit down, put on headphones, and listen to survivors telling their stories about daily life in the concentration camps; and a narrow hall with two enormous piles of shoes on either side, that were taken off people before they were sent into the gas chambers), but it was also a place of reverence and celebration of all that America has been able to achieve. I learnt so much in those few days, and I felt as if I was being let in on some huge secret.
America, at the beginning of September, is full of talk about the upcoming elections. Discssions over policies and party platforms seem to be happening everywhere, and there is a strong sense of disenchantment with politics in general. But if America has at it’s heart this great city with vast collections of knowledge that are free to anyone willing to walk through the doors, then I have a great deal of hope.