04.11.2014 - 08.11.2014 18 °C
In among the various things I saw in Washington, several were standouts. I had originally planned to work in the rather splendid public library because it was, well, rather splendid and not far from where I was staying. On about my second day, however, I checked out the Georgetown University library, which was nothing special, to be honest, but it involved a walk through Georgetown - I enjoyed the walk so much I did it every day. Things always seemed to be a bit misty by the time I got to the uni.
The main thoroughfare was pretty interesting, with cool, boutique shops, cafes, bars - kind of like Ponsonby Road but with a lot more going on. There is even a canal, not just a canal but a monumental one - the Chesapeake and Erie Canal National Monument is just off the main street in Georgetown, and looks rather like a canal. Georgetown itself was built here because of the canal. There is a park office, but it is closed indefinitely and the canal boat they used to run tours is laid up, also indefinitely. In its heyday, this canal would have 150 vessels a day, taking stuff from the hinterland out to the Hudson River, so its present state is a bit sad.
Off the main thoroughfare, things became even better: Georgetown has been here longer than Washington, and indeed there are apparently some in Georgetown who refuse to acknowledge it is part of Washington. So walking through the streets, some of which are cobbled, means seeing lots of good looking old houses, with the occasional cafe or shop sprinkled in to keep up one's energy.
One evening, I was working so late that I just couldn't be bothered walking home (it was something like 3 miles) so caught a random bus I found loitering outside the library, hoping it was going where I was: it took me along P Street (couldn't name a street in New Zealand P Street, could we) and eventually things started looking so good that I had to get off (luckily, this was at Logan Circle, which was about 4 blocks from my hostel). Apart from the Whole Foods store (where I spent $25 just to acquire some of their pre-cooked food for dinner), there was a great ice-cream cum coffee shop which was tremendously busy the whole time I was there, a nice Thai place and a bit of an altie vibe which I enjoyed.
On my last day, I took a walking tour run by the hostel which went via Union Station and Congress to the Supreme Court of the United States. This was on the Friday, the one day of the week the Court does not sit, so I couldn't see them in action. I couldn't even get into the Courtroom - even though we were on a tour, we had to standby while an official tour went in. Like many of the buildings in Washington, the Supreme Court was built to demonstrate the status of the US as the pre-eminent nation and an enduring one - with very classical lines. It is made entirely of marble, so is going to be available for the dispensing of justice for a while (let's not get drawn on the quality of that justice). Inside, there are a couple of elliptical spiral staircases which run for (I think) three stories and are entirely self supporting - that would take some fine craftsmanship and a crafty design.
One of the key Smithsonian Museums I wanted to see was the Museum of American History, which was a bit of a strange one, as it picks out particular themes to display, so it can be a bit disjointed and certainly doesn't even try to create a narrative of American history. I struck it lucky, because two of the three themes really worked for me. The entire top floor was devoted to Presidents and First Ladies, which did little for me (although I was amused at the props used - dinner sets and dresses for the First Ladies, armament and uniforms for the Presidents). But the other two themes were transport and food - couldn't be better. Both took a social perspective - the various forms of transport illustrated the ideas of freedom (so there's a caravan and a cabin) and connection (so there are trains and buses). There is also the first car to ever cross the USA - in 1903 - despite a marked lack of roads! The team was H Nelson Jackson, Sewell Cracker and their dog, Bud.
The food one was pretty much the opposite, it was focused on fast food and how it led to the breakdown of people eating at the table together. And when it comes to finding a table (and kitchen) to demonstrate the value of eating together, they had Julia Child's entire kitchen, set up just the way she left it.
Saving the best for last (and it was almost the last thing I did in Washington (apart from another late night visit to Logan Circle) - the Library of Congress.
I was most annoyed to find out (a) I couldn't go in to the reading room without a card and (b) I could have been working there all week if I'd asked for a card when I arrived. The reading room is guarded by Minerva (Roman goddess of wisdom).
I took another tour, this was run by a rather unusual woman who worked for the library - I actually quite liked her, and she was very enthusiastic about her "Italianate Palace", but she'd pop in odd personal details: somehow she had to talk about something mathematics-related, and she reverted to her schooldays, and told us she was good at math, that she'd help others with their math (OK so far) but then drop in the discoforting detail that she did maths on a Saturday night because no-one ever asked her out. She sounded like a right geek, so I probably would have, had I been there. The library is just beautiful.
Oddly enough, the security was tighter to get into the library than the Supreme Court - all belts, shoes, watches, glasses etc off. They did have a few things of value inside, I suppose - what's left of Jefferson's library (there have been a few fires in the library history, some accidental, some set by the British - Jefferson donated his library after one such fire, and then half of that was burnt in yet another fire). The library also had a special visitor - one of the four extant versions of the Magna Carta - this is the one from the Lincoln Cathedral.
All in all, despite some dubious weather, I had a great time in Washington - helped along by my hostel, where breakfasts were a bit special. John worked for the hostel, and he'd not release any breakfast to us until we'd said good morning to him in some language other than our own. He then went around working the room, making strangers sitting opposite each other introduce themselves and working very hard to make people feel at home. That early in the morning, I could only handle it once, and so would escape to find a coffee shop.