We’d planned for a day in Washington D.C. similar to our amazing day in Philadelphia. In order to get there early we spent the big bucks on an Amtrak ticket. I’ll admit that we also wanted to take the train because of our love for The Big Bang Theory and Sheldon’s obsession with trains.
The trip was fine, but arriving in D.C. began a stream of bad luck or unforeseen instances.
Washington D.C. is just bigger than what you might handle in one day and since we had the misfortune at our hotel to get a room where the door wouldn’t lock we had to wait quite a long time before we could leave for the centre. Thus, we didn’t get started on our busy itinerary for the day until one o’clock, and wanting to visit two museums alongside the main attractions of the US capital, we were in desperate lack of time.
Already as we arrived at the impressive Capitol building we knew our plans would fall through and that we would need to spend most of the next day sightseeing D.C. as well.
Our decision to return to New York later was made as we entered the Capitol where we had the chance to join the next tour of the building.
E Pluribus Unum
The tour began with a video about the Capitol and the unity of Americans, centred around the phrase e pluribus unum – out of many, one. It was way too sentimental for my taste, but often American movies are.
I couldn’t stop thinking about those last twenty minutes of Peter Jackson’s Return of the King. So full of heavy words and phrases about the greatness of American democracy and the central role of the Capitol.
But apart from that, it was well made and did give a great overview of the history of the Capitol and how it functions.
Following the video, our guide took us on a tour of the crypt, the old judiciary as well as the old senate and house of commons.
We got to listen in to whispers from the other side, just like John Adams, and marvel at the absolute masterpiece that is the cupola.
According to our guide, they had only finished restoring the cupola two weeks earlier, allowing us in to see it as some of the very first.
Library of Congress
He further suggested for us to continue our tour by checking out the Library of Congress in the Jefferson Building across the street – another stunning building, which I am happy to have had a peak at.
Outside we began our long trail down the Mall, enjoying the many Smithsonian Museum buildings on each side. The sun was shining and it was an absolutely gorgeous day to stroll down The National Mall.
The National Mall
One of the museums we’d planned to visit was the National Museum of the American Indian. Unfortunately, a large part of the exterior was undergoing restoration and it was difficult to get an impression of the building which should be very interesting and formed to look like a wind-sculpted rock formation to paraphrase the website.
My wish to see this museum in particular is because I wanted to know more about the original Americans – those who were there before 1492.
The museum offered an interesting exhibition called “Our Universes” on how different Native American tribes understand their place in the universe and how it reflects on their daily lives. It was a beautiful exhibition allowing different tribes to express their understanding of the world and how it integrates with their lives.
It was the second exhibition, however, which really caught my attention.
Nation to Nation: Treaties Between the United States and American Indian Nations
The exhibition put to the spotlight a central part of how the United States came to be, namely the treaties made between the colonists and the natives.
It began with a short video and a showcase of what looked like a belt made of pearls. So simple and yet so full of symbolism.
Guswenta – the Two-Row Wampum Belt
The Two-Row Wampum Belt embodies an insight of the Haudenosaunee (also called the Iroquois of Six Nations) about how neighbouring nations can coexist.
One row symbolises an Indian canoe carrying everything Indians believe to be true. The other row is the Europeans’ ship, carrying everything they believe to be true.
The belt means: “We are travelling on the river of life together, side by side. One side isn’t going to get ahead of the other; people in the ship aren’t going to try to steer the canoe: people in the canoe aren’t going to try to steer the ship.”
The belt is a replica of one of the earliest treaties between natives and European settlers. It origins in 1613, as an agreement between representatives of the Six Nations and representatives of the Dutch government in the later Upstate New York, and is a very beautiful proof that European settlers for a very long time had a functioning relationship with a lot of East-American native tribes, and that for a long time, despite the pressure of settlers, the British and later American government attempted to respect those treaties. Not that this was sufficient to any extend, and all ideas of old or new treaties fell out the window with the great move West throughout the 19th century.
The exhibition explores eight of the approximately 374 treaties that were ratified between the United States and Native Nations. The further along you get, the more gruesome the consequences are for the natives and the less the Americans respect ratified treaties old as new. Most of the time the negotiators came with the intention to do right by the Native Nations, but others in the military and governmental system didn’t care about such small talk and disregarded the treaty or the treaties were forgotten by later generations of colonists. Replacement and death were the most common outcomes for the Native Nation people.
At the very end, it says that outside the thirteen colonies almost all US citizens live on treaty land. That really puts it into perspective.
The exhibition ends with the quote:
Great Nations, like great men, should keep their word.
U.S. Supreme Court Justice
Hugo Black, 1960
I found the National Museum of the American Indian to be a very thoughtful place and full of interesting and terrifying information. I could not agree with the two middle-aged white women in front of me at the elevator, who complained that this was a boring museum. Yet, I understood why they’d say that because as we would discover the next day American museums are rarely boring.
The White House back and front
After our visit we left the Mall to find something to eat. I was dying from hunger and ready to collapse from fatigue. We ended up at a diner called Harry’s Bar, which served the standard greasy diner-food. None of which was every appealing. But what stressed me out the most was the waitress.
I really am not very comfortable with the American tipping system and the attention of the waiters when serving. It seems so inherently fake to me, and makes me feel slightly stressed out. But I endure it, because we are in the US and have to abide by American customs. However this waitress was grading my nerves. She was like a hawk looking over our shoulder. She hadn’t really done much in service beyond what was required and asking us if we wanted anything else and how it tasted and all these irrelevant questions. But she highlighted the service-part of the check and nearly looked over our shoulders when it came to paying. Before we even reached the door she was counting the tips at our table. I am sorry to say, but she must have been disappointed.
With a slight irritation but less of a hunger we walked towards The White House, reaching it from the back. It was getting late in the afternoon and the sky was turning a slight pink. It was a pretty sight, but the house was much smaller than it seemed on television.
The view helped a bit as we crossed towards the front end, but again the place seemed so small. I’d always imagined an open area in front of The White House, but instead it lay at the end of a boulevard, making it seem much less grandiose.
A demonstration was taking place in front of the White House and a lot of Ethiopian flags were waving.
A little further down a middle-aged woman was monotonously speaking into a microphone about God and the bible with a sign which indicated that she was a write-in candidate for the presidential election. If I was American, I might just have chosen to write her name.
The last light of the day was quickly dwindling away as we moved towards a metro station taking us north to Georgetown.
Now I have a secret fancy for all places with the ending of town or ville. There is something adventurous about such places and in my mind they conjure up ideas about settlers and the discovery of new lands. The Mayflower, Pocahontas, Thanksgiving, Roanoke.
Georgetown is a neighbourhood to the north-west of Washington centre. Though the day had turned to evening and the street lights were turned on as the sun had set, it was not difficult to see what pleasant neighbourhood Georgetown really is.
We arrived on foot by Pennsylvania Avenue crossing Potomac River before entering M street – one of the main thoroughfares of Georgetown. The street is full of beautiful row houses and is what might be termed adoring.
At 3051 M Street stands the oldest home and property in Washington DC. Dating back to 1765 The Old Stone House is an absolutely romantic cottage and you can easily imagine a pilgrim stepping outside to clean the dust in front of the door.
We crossed up a few residential streets to see the beautiful homes and tree lined streets. Unfortunately, it was quickly becoming too dark and we soon turned on to Wisconsin Avenue – the other of Georgetown’s main thoroughfares. Here we came across the cosy looking Martin’s Tavern and after the fiasco at lunch we hoped for a great home cooked meal.
Martin’s Tavern seems to be an institution to Washington and according to the backside of the menu the tavern has served every president from Harry Truman to George W Bush. Whether that is senior or junior, the menu didn’t specify, but someone heard on the grapevine that it was at this friendly establishment that John F. Kennedy met Jackie.
The food was average, but the atmosphere was great and it was amazing to finally rest my feet in such a historic place.
Day two: Memorials and the Mall
We began by a visit to the National Museum of National History, which was anything but boring. This Smithsonian flagship was an explosion of activities and exhibitions with kids of all ages running around.
It was an interesting place to explore and fascinating to gaze at the Hope Diamond, which is cut from Le Bleu de France owned by King Louis XIV, or as he is better known The Sun King.
Another natural wonder which the museum had on display was a massive Tyrannosaurus Rex skeleton on display. Too sad it was only a cast. The real T. Rex will not be on display until 2019.
We continued down the Mall seeing the part we cut off the day before. It was an absolutely gorgeous day with sunshine and blue sky. When we reached the World War II memorial we happened upon what seemed like a ceremony of sorts.
The place was crammed with people in bright green shirts and loads of elderly in wheel chairs. Looking on at the proceedings, I got chatting with one of the people wearing green. It seemed she was a volunteer for the Honor Flight Chicago section.
In 2004 when the World War II Memorial in Washington DC was finished a physician assistant and retired Air Force captain Earl Morse asked those of his patients that were World War II veterans, if they planned to visit it. Many of them dreamt of visiting the memorial, but Morse soon realised that none of them ever actually went.
So, he organised for two veterans to go with him to D.C. It was as they broke down in tears in front of the memorial that he began the non-profit organisation Honor Flight, which flies veterans from all over the US to the capital in order for them to visit their respective memorials.
At present they focus on World War II veterans, but as there are fewer and fewer of these the organisation slowly shifts to Korean War vets, but also offer place for vets with terminal disease. Later on it is going to be Vietnam and then they’ll start on the post-Cold War wars.
We had stumbled upon the ceremony in honour of 100 Chicago vets – 25 from World War II and 75 from the Korean War.
It was very moving to watch these old men and women being honoured in a military ceremony with someone singing the national hymn. For the rest of the day we collided with several green t-shirts and wheelchairs as we moved on to the different memorials.
Jefferson and Lincoln
At Independence Avenue a bit off the Mall, I got a glimpse of the beautiful Thomas Jefferson memorial across the Tidal Basin. I’ve always been fascinated with his writings and would love to one day see his home Monticello down in Charlottesville – another ville. But for now I’ll enjoy the beauty of his memorial and the fact that I got a bubble head of him in Philadelphia.
We ended where everyone walking the Mall ends up at the Reflecting Pool and the Lincoln Memorial. If ever there is a Washington monument which has been present in films and television, it is the massive statue of a sitting Abraham Lincoln. To see it in real life was surprisingly enough a very big moment.
I had not beforehand had any expectations, but there is something about the classical room centred on the majestic marble statue of Lincoln. On the walls are two of his most famous speeches The Gettysburg Address and his Second Inaugural Address.
Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.
Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.
But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate—we can not consecrate—we can not hallow—this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.
Abraham Lincoln, Gettysburg, 1863
Vietnam Veteran Memorial
After enjoying the peacefulness of the Lincoln Memorial, we moved on to the close by Vietnam Veterans Memorial. I had been looking forward to this in particular, because I’d seen a documentary about its design several years ago, and I’d been touched by the fact that a young woman of Chinese descent won the contest. The simple beauty of the piece is haunting and cuts through the landscape.
According to the documentary many conservative forces had been against the design and had pushed for a more traditional memorial leading to the in my view boring three servicemen memorial. The sculpture of this small statue of three soldiers received the double in commission to Maya Lin, the designer of the main memorial.
Maya Lin was ahead of her time and today I can’t imagine many complaining about The Vietnam Veteran Memorial. In fact, the 9/11 memorial in New York seems to draw on her idea of cutting into the landscape – in New York by adding pools of water where the towers stood – and of listing the names of everyone who lost their life during the event in a very simple and touching manner.
The fact that Maya Lin was on the selection jury in 2003 when the design was chosen can either be seen as a reason for the commonalities or a proof that her thoughts on design has won influence in society since 1981.
Leaving the Vietnam Veteran Memorial, we walked up to the White House where the presidential write-in candidate still stood speaking monotonously about God and the bible. Saying good-bye to the White House we headed towards the metro to get to the bus station and back to New York.