Washington DC - is having a moment!

The White House behind bars

Washington DC (District of Columbia) always seemed so exotic to me - Is it a State? No. Is it a big city? No. Is it home to a revered leader? <awkward silence>

It IS a removed seat of power ruling over the 50 states, it has its own police force, no senators, and Congress acts as its local government. The location was chosen because it lay between the North and the South. It bears the name 'Columbia' as that was considered a poetic name for the Americas at the time. A couple of weeks before we arrived, DC voted overwhelming to put forth a proposal to declare itself the 51st state of America (btw, that coveted title is also sought by Puerto Rico). Hmm, the flag would have to be updated to add a star, this could mess with people’s 4th of July decorations, I don’t see it happening, time will tell.

Our borrowed abode

With Thanksgiving the following day and my brother Lochlann coming into town (between dialysis sessions) we decided to Airbnb it in an historic townhouse downtown. It was a narrow building with high ceilings and original fireplaces, even the heating system appeared to be antique as we huddled around small grates in the wall catching farts of tepid heat. On the upside I felt like Claire Underwood (from House of Cards) as I wrestled with the large oak front door and skittered down the wrought iron steps to the leafy street below.

If there is one American tradition that will stay with me, it will be Thanksgiving; maybe it is the Californian in me, but taking a beat to eat a nice meal with those close to you, and say what you’re thankful for (yes, I make everyone do that), it’s no bad thing.

I insisted we buy a big ole’ turkey from the local market as I planned the roast in my head. Then, as I sat in the cold kitchen, staring at the dimpled backside of the frozen poultry, working out my defrosting + cooking timings. I leapt in the air and announced Thanksgiving dinner would take place at 9.30pm the following day. A look of horror from Dom sent me back to the shop where I exchanged the unfeathered beast for precooked slices of the bird -cheatin’ feels good when on vacation. Meantime, Róisín got into her pajamas and Dom read her ‘The Night Before Thanksgiving’, our tradition.

Capitol picture!

The next morning Lochlann arrived, and we took in the town. We strolled the famous ‘Mall’, a 2 mile tree lined boulevard that links Capitol Hill at one end with the Lincoln Memorial and Potomac river at the other, the White House lies about halfway between them. The Mall was built as far back as the 1700s but back then it was used mainly for growing vegetables and dumping! There was also a railway line through it that often interrupted Congress and was considered quite lethal, 30 people died each year crossing it, including President Garfield!

Today the mall is positively Parisian, not even a hint of a dangerous vegetable-dumping-ground beneath. Around 1840 the landscape chap Frederick Olmsted was brought in (of Central Park and Biltmore Estate fame - for more of my thoughts on the estate and North Carolina read here). Influenced by European malls the modern day mall came into being with pedestrian friendly walkways and greens, lots of Memorials and Museums, the Washington Monument, a reflecting pool and the Tidal Basin that encapsulates a pond is featured in lots of movies.

Walking along the Mall was like entering a virtual reality game based on political news headlines. We have visited a lot of States and seen a lot of State Capitol Buildings, but ‘Up on Capitol HIll’ we stopped to take in the mother of them all. It was very satisfying to see that its stature trumped all of its offspring. It was a few months before the Trump inauguration (the good ole’ days), the Capitol was encased in bleachers, painted the same off white colour as the incumbent (meow).

Surfing stones

The Washington Monument is gigantic! It’s remarkably impressive, though (not to pick holes) you can clearly see the line about half way up where they ran out of money and had to change the stone to cheaper sandstone (tbh, the cheaper one looks nicer). You can climb inside the Monument but we were busy people in a busy town, we had Memorials, Museums and the Motherlode of all houses yet to see.

1600 Pennsylvania Ave

We rounded Pennsylvania Ave and there it was in all its white glory. I was a smidge surprised at the scale of the White house, TV had clearly added 10 pounds, it wasn't as immense as my imagination had assumed. Neither did it sit on tumbling fields of a grand estate, damn wide angle lenses. More bleachers, construction workers and Secret Service blocked the way. We circled around to the back which is actually the front (!) and took some postcard shots of one of the world’s most famous abodes. It sure is white, God knows what Trump will do to it, gold plate it perhaps?!

Rocket Man, check this out

I was itching to check out a Smithsonian so we manoeuvred our way to the National Air and Space Museum. This is free in yet people were stuffing donations in the boxes on their way out. It would soon become obvious why, the museum was world class, truly outstanding. It seemed to have every original item of aeronautical innovation from the Wright brothers first plane "The Flyer" to the Apollo 11 Command Module. They had a Goddamn space station for crissake, which you could walk into!! Turns out they are a bit pokey inside, got my Feng Shui all tied up in a knot.

Catch me if you can

High on air, we walked down the Mall to the Natural History Museum (via a pit stop at the carousel). We crept around dinosaur skeletons, dodged exploding volcanoes, a quick ooh and ahh over precious rocks, while mounted mammals crashed through their glass cases above our heads, and finally an overview of the history of man (from caveman to Donald Trump, hah!). We did it all.

All the walking had worn our legs down to stumps so we hopped in the car and through a series of detours (due to the Thanksgiving Day Turkey Trot - people dress up as turkeys and run 5k..whatever roasts your ribs) we ended up crossing over the Potomac River into Virginia. I was sure the bridge we crossed had been in endless movies, I felt a strong cinematic espionage charge in the air. I suggested we all adopt code names, I was ignored, hah-hah, double agents obviously, I was on to them all.

If lakes could speak, the (spy) stories they'd tell

My suspicions were confirmed when Dom suggested we take a spin around the Tidal Basin. Everybody knows any spy of any worth always meets on a park bench by the Basin. When Lochlann asked Dom to slow down so he could take a photo, by God, they had played their hand. Cars, Basins, Benches, Photos, oh I see, I wasn’t born yesterday, there’s a connection there, I’m on to them, Goddamnit <pound fist on imaginary table>.

Lincoln left, right and center

As the sun was setting, we walked to the Lincoln Memorial. This was thrilling for me, it was on this very spot in 1963 that Martin Luther King gave his famous "I have a Dream" speech. I vividly remember coming across that speech in my school textbook and being riveted to it, reading it over and over. I even learned segments of it off by heart. In my lifetime I have not come across a person in history or modern times who had the speech writing talent and powerful emotive delivery as MLK. Stick your TED talks and your Empowerment Retreats up your jersey, sometimes people are just born leaders.

A Golden Moment

Looking out over the Reflecting Pool, Honest Abe staring out over us all, the Washington Monument turning gold in the sun, you could tell great people had graced this town (and scandals disgraced it).

We were all getting weary so it was time to chill out in our historic home as I created a Thanksgiving feast. As I prepared to prepare I realised the pots and pans had seen better days and were not to be touched, also no tea towel or oven mitt in sight. I improvised using an oven mitt made from cardboard, breakfast bowls became pots and pans, the microwave bleeped as the oven stuttered to life. Food was produced, it wasn’t going to win awards but it did hit the spot. We chatted about politics and history over apple tart and ice cream. When in Rome!

Russian Roulette

The next day we went to the Newseum, a museum devoted to News. During the 2016 election I became a skidrow news junkie, I was injecting myself daily with every source of political news I could get my hands on, my phone would feed me headlines throughout the day to keep me buzzing, I could feel my pulse racing and my pupils dilating the minute we walked into the Newseum, it was all consuming. We could have spent the day there.

On a tip we started at the top of the museum and worked our way down. The top floor is lined with 50 of today's front newspages from the States and the around the world. The newspapers chosen change daily. It's like the tweetasphere exploded in your face. Remarkable.

The next floor featured 300 historic newspaper “front pages”. It was so interesting to see the slant different papers (countries) put on the same story. The London Times reporting on the American rebellion in 1776 described it as "Trouble in the Colonies", while the Philadelphia Daily went with "Independence Declared". Other noteworthy ones were the Today newspaper 1969 headliner "Man on the Moon", the Examiner in 2001 after 9/11 went with "The Bastards!".

I know printed papers are going out of fashion but scrolling through a digital story on a small screen with your index finger will never have the impact of unfurling your newspaper (which was the size of a small table) and taking in the bold large font of the news headline. Before that moment you literally (no pun intended) had no idea what was happening in the world. Nowadays people know 15 things about their neighbor before the neighbor has even gotten out of bed and scratched their face.

The Lady and The Trump

I nearly turned apoplectic when we rounded the corner and came across a mockup of an interactive CNN election night newsroom with touchscreens painting the US red and blue. Jumbotrons of Hillary and Trump flashed down upon us as we took turns pretending to be a CNN election news anchor. Wolf Blitzer can rest easy his job is safe, I made a bags of it, my gentle touch on the 20 foot screen blew the States up then shrank it to a pixelated thumbnail.

Pulitzer prize winning photographs slap you in the face as you leave, shredding your heart strings like a junkie rockstar on a smashed guitar. You walk through a gallery of screens showing a montage of breaking news stories over the last 50 years. It was like reliving history in 30 second snippets, despite knowing the facts and outcomes of each breaking headline story I still genuinely gasped with shock, clapped with delight and fought back tears in all the right places. A lot can be packed in to 50 years, it was astonishing.

Emotionally spent it was time to leave DC, with only the tip of the museum iceberg touched.

On our way out of town we sailed passed the Pentagon (the US Department of Defence), for reasons I can’t explain (probably cinematic desire) I told Dom to get as close as he possibly could. We ended up lost in the world’s biggest government carpark, an official looking man came to ask us our business so we promptly high tailed it out of there. However, I can confirm it did indeed have 5 sides.

With politics left, right and center, I wanted to go see the estate of the man who started it all, the first President and Founding Father, George Washington’s house Mount Vernon. It’s just a short trip outside of the city. Roisin had fallen into a deep sleep by the time we arrived. So instead of going into George’s gaf Dom kept the motor running while I took a long hard stare at the Texas Gate and off we went (the gate had been restored by the Freemasons in 1988, George was famously a Freemason).

JFK quote - "If not us, who? If not now, when?"

Our last stop was Arlington Cemetery, the burial place of the assassinated President John F Kennedy. On the way we passed through the beautifully quaint and exceedingly posh town of Alexandria, I would have liked more time there. As expected the cemetery was sombre and autumnal. The assassination of JFK had a huge impact on the Irish (and the world). I remember learning about it during a history lesson in school, it was taught like we had lost one of our own (and we had). I know he had his faults (as did MLK) but standing at the graveside seeing the Eternal flame from my school textbook come to life, walking around the circle reading the stirring quotes from a man of such potential greatness, promise and most importantly, change. I found it all deeply moving.

Back on the road, next stop one of the oldest cities in the US… Charleston South Carolina.

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