O Beautiful For Spacious Skies

Firstly, I wanted to let you know that I have now had a real PIZZA PIE. I had heard of the phrase before (principally in this song) but always assumed it was something of an affectation and just meant a ‘big pizza’. But it turns out you really can get pizzas that look like pies, with a proper crust and everything. And they are DELICIOUS. Husband and I tried one at this particular joint, just a stone’s throw from our flat, washed down with some nice ‘craft beer’, and even though both of us shared a medium sized pizza, were unable to finish it. Thank goodness for the tradition of ‘Can I box that up for you?’ The photo below was taken the next day when I enjoyed an enormous slice for lunch….


When the moon hits your eye like a big...

When the moon hits your eye like a big…


Secondly, staying with new American experiences, we cannot fail to have noticed that 4th July, with all the significance that brings, is rolling our way. As Brits we’re slightly trepidatious (not to say worried that celebrating it might actually constitute treason….) but this morning at church I especially enjoyed the total patriotic music-fest that came our way to mark the season. Firstly, the Battle Hymn of the Republic, complete with fife and drum…


Glory, Glory Hallelujah!

Glory, Glory Hallelujah!


And, to finish the service, a rousing chorus of ‘America the Beautiful’…


America! America!


Is it wrong to enjoy singing these as a Brit? Especially when one of the lines of the latter talks about ‘heroes proved in liberating strife’? I don’t know but it’s certainly a lovely tune! You’ll have to watch this space to see how our 4th of July (sorry, ‘July 4th’) goes… but I am rather pleased to be getting it off work. That’s one aspect of American independence I can get behind.


'O beautiful for heroes proved in liberating strife...'

‘O beautiful for heroes proved in liberating strife…’


Well, speaking of American history, Husband and I enjoyed a couple of delightful trips to local ‘places of interest’ recently. One of these involved us cycling a tandem to Mount Vernon, George Washington’s estate outside the city. It was where he and his wife Martha lived for 40 years and where he is buried. Every year, something like 8 million people visit what is, it must be said, a fairly modest and relatively unexciting two storey farmhouse. It seems to have become quite a place of pilgrimage. I never knew much about George Washington beyond ‘I cannot tell a lie’ and the stuff about the wooden teeth, but it turns out he IS a fascinating character – in particular because of his extraordinarily statesmanlike decision to give up what had been near-absolute power after the American Revolution was over. He resigned his commission and returned to Mount Vernon once the war was won… and was democratically elected as president later, twice. But he decided to retire at the end of his second term, thus setting the precedent for two term presidencies.


After a long 18 mile cycle (yes, we were on a tandem, and yes, I was on the back seat, but I genuinely pedalled all the time. and there were quite a few hills!) along the absolutely wonderful Mount Vernon Trail, which leads all the way from the Washington Monument to his actual dwelling, we made it to the house, which is set in 50 acres of what was a plantation. There was a lovely bike park nestling among the huge carpark, so that was fine, but then we had a bit of a nasty surprise with the admission price –  $17 each! I think we’re still too used to the French system, which allowed journalists in to pretty much everything for free, whether or not they were doing a story on the attraction concerned! I’m not sure what the old whisky-taxer himself would have made of these prices, but we duly paid up… only to discover that our entry to the house itself, thanks to huge queues, would not be until 3.30pm. It was midday. Never mind, we thought. We had bought sandwiches in Alexandria on the way and could at least have a nice picnic in the extensive parkland, looking over the river, while we waited. But THEN it turned out that it was also forbidden to bring your own food and drink on to the site. Making visitors pay through the nose for entry, then wait around for hours in the heat AND forcing them to spend yet more money on fast food… the ‘land of the free’ this most certainly was not, in either sense of the word.


Still, feeling like very rebellious Brits, we sneaked off down a path into the woods and found a conveniently discreet bench on which to consume our naughty lunch. I rather like to think that Washington would have approved. Thus fortified, we were able to spend the remaining three hours or so taking in the rest of the estate at our leisure. Actually, there is quite a lot to see and do. And although it’s a rather Disneyfied experience, with no audio visual or merchandise-flogging opportunity left un-exploited (we especially enjoyed the 18 minute overblown film about Washington’s life, complete with redcoats with cod British accents, called ‘We Fight To Be Free’, and prefaced by a Troy McLure style infomercial about all the money spending opportunities on the estate) one does end up with an excellent appreciation of the life and times of America’s first President and his family. There is a laundry, a working farm, an accurate-to-the-period vegetable and herb garden, and of course Washington’s grave itself, in a secluded grove to one side of the house. If you want, you can go and take part in a wreath laying ceremony every morning there. We had to queue just to look at it, such is the awe the man inspires. It rather reminded me of the Tomb of Saint James at Santiago de Compostella!


One of the things we enjoyed most was an actor dressed up as the man himself, standing on the ‘Bowling Green’ lawn outside the house and recounting his life story – complete with period pronunciations and words (‘independency’ being one I especially liked) and answering questions in character at the end. I loved how several smart-alec kids tried to outwit him with especially niche questions about his life (such as the anecdote about the Spanish mules) – he triumphed every time! He also asked if anyone in the audience had served in the military. A woman put up her hand and said she had, to which he replied, did she mean her husband? Surely she herself had not served! She said yes, she was in the air force. ‘The air force? What, pray tell, is that?’ Superb!


'Pater Patriae'

‘Pater Patriae’


The house itself has been kept fairly authentically as it was at the time, right down to the furniture, but was undergoing some renovations when we went in. Such are the crowds that they keep visitors pretty much constantly on the move while inside, with guides in each room recounting the salient points about it fairly briefly before ushering you to the next. The whole thing took about 20 minutes and wasn’t terribly exciting – except for the Key to the Bastille, which was sent to Washington by the Marquis de Lafayette and hangs in the downstairs hallway. Husband got told off for taking a photo of it…


The Key to the Bastille (forbidden photo...)

The Key to the Bastille (forbidden photo…)


The main thing to take away from a trip to Mount Vernon (apart from all evidence that you brought your own food and drink and didn’t stop in the self service restaurant or on-site Pizza Hut) is how impressive a personality George Washington really was – an inventor, a soldier, a consumate politician and a true statesman. I can see why Americans find him so impressive.  And the visit also brought out something else I love about this country – how fascinated its citizens are by its own history. That’s in evidence not only in the huge queues for places like Mount Vernon but also the genuine interest people take in each aspect, peering into nooks and crannies, shooting up their hands to ask questions, photographing everything over a hundred years old, signing up for extra tours… it’s refreshing to see such a keen attitude. In Europe, we are so steeped in the stuff that it seems we barely know what to do with it, how to swim through the layers (centuries old amphorae stacked in heaps at Pompeii, priceless tapestries casually hanging in attics in English country houses, French chateaux crumbling in the middle of nowhere and being bought up by Chinese businessmen). Here, there’s not enough of it for that – so whatever there is that is in any way historical must not only be preserved but is also worthy of veneration and keen study. Europeans might get sniffy about American excitement at, say, an 150-year-old church, but how much better it is that that church is cherished and well preserved, and locals all know of its significance, rather than left to decay for lack of funds or care.


This attitude was also very much in evidence on our overnight trip to Harpers Ferry, a small town about an hour and a half’s drive from DC. The town itself isn’t really a town, as such, any more – it’s a national park in its own right, and nobody seems actually to live there – it’s more a living museum, with people in period dress in rebuilt shops ‘selling’ cloth, hats, buttons, lamps etc, nineteenth century style. It’s famous for being the location, in 1859, of John Brown’s attempt to start an armed uprising of slaves. Brown chose the town because it was the site of a local arsenal which held 100,000 weapons. He failed, and was captured in the Armoury Engine House (now known as John Brown’s Fort)  by militia from Maryland and the District of Colombia, but he’s still venerated as an early anti-slavery hero and Harpers Ferry is something of a civil rights centre as a result. You can still look at John Brown’s Fort itself (basically a stone barn with very little in it) – at one point it was actually dismantled stone by stone and shown at an Exhibition in Chicago in 1891. That’s how important old buildings are here.


Husband and I were staying in a delightful OLD guesthouse (and it really was old, even by European standards) called the Jackson Rose, built around 1795 and so named because it was the headquarters of General ‘Stonewall’ Jackson in 1861. I would certainly recommend the hospitality – we had a delicious breakfast that included ‘scones’, sort of like what we know as scones, but breadier and not quite as sweet, with home made gooseberry jam. In the evening, we enjoyed sitting on the swinging chair on the porch reading and sipping on some local Virginia wine (we paid a visit to one of the area’s many lovely vineyards, Doukenie, on our way down to Harpers Ferry – but Husband couldn’t sample too much as he was driving! Still, we tasted enough to be confident in buying a couple of bottles, one of which we enjoyed with our dinner at a BYOB restaurant opposite the Jackson Rose that night!)


Harpers Ferry won its place in Civil War History – the town changed hands eight times during the conflict and much of it was destroyed – partly thanks to its amazingly strategic location. It sits exactly at the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers, which means it not only had a lot of water power to drive industrial factories (it was a major centre for firearms manufacture, hence the Arsenal being located there) but is also surrounded on both sides by steep hillsides which make good look-out points and a cunning place to position heavy artillery. Husband decided that on Day Two of our visit we should take one of the trails to the top of the hillside known as Maryland Heights, a 300 foot vertical cliff. In 35 degree heat. I was initially sceptical as to the value of this plan, wondering privately whether it might not be nicer to potter around the tearooms in the town or gently stroll along the nearby C&O Canal, but actually, Husband’s plan (as so often) was wiser. The trail was in the shade of the trees nearly all the way and did genuinely have a lot of interesting history behind it, as it was the very same path used by Federal troops as they hauled ten tonne cannon up the hill. To think that I found it bad enough with only a small rucksack (and Husband was carrying that…) The trail takes you past the remains of the troops’ fortifications, with helpful information boards at various points even including excerpts from letters describing what it was like living up on the mountain in tents in the freezing cold (not much fun, in case you’re wondering).


And then, of course, the view from the very top is WELL worth the aching legs. Thomas Jefferson wrote (about a slightly different view actually, but the point holds) that the sight was ‘worth crossing the Atlantic’ to see. And as the two rivers collide, with the town nestling in between and the densely wooded hills looming down on either side, you really can see and appreciate that ‘purple mountain majesty’ and the ‘spacious skies’ Americans enjoy singing about.


America The Beautiful


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“Y’all not built for the sun…”

As I think I may have mentioned before, it can get extremely hot here in DC. We had a sneak preview back in early April (when I truly thought I might melt)… but then things got back to normal again. However, with the Memorial Day holiday well and truly over (this, apparently, is the start of summer here) the temperatures seem to hover consistently between about 25 and, yes, 35 degrees. Whenever I mention to others here that I’m finding this somewhat hard to cope with, they tend to exclaim darkly ‘Oh, this is nothing! There is MUCH worse to come…’


In fact, I was walking down Pennsylvania Avenue to the bank the other day, in bright glaring sun and 33 degree heat, when I was hailed by a woman outside the shop next door having a cigarette break. “Hey honey!” she boomed. I wasn’t sure if she was indeed talking to me but it was clear she was when she continued “Y’all better keep in the shade, huh! Y’all ain’t built for the sun!” I’m not sure what I’d done to look so particularly vampiric and pale, but do you know, she is absolutely right.


Something happened last weekend which made me realise I’m going to have to adjust to my new, oven-like surroundings gradually. We had been invited to some friends’ house for a barbecue. This in itself is exciting – friends! AND a  barbecue! The latter – not, fortunately, the former – were banned in Paris, even in the privacy of your own garden or courtyard, because of the fire risk. You couldn’t even buy little foil disposable ones in the supermarket. (A group of us did once manage to have an illegal barbecue in a park by the Seine, but kept having to stand up to obscure the smoke from the gendarmes who were cycling on the nearby towpath. And then we had to wolf down our steak as quickly as possible once it was done!)


So we were pleased not only to be invited to a nice social occasion, but also to be going to one that involved outdoor cooking, in temperatures which – unlike most barbecues in Britain, let’s face it – were actually appropriate for the activity. Said friends live in Georgetown, a beautiful and quite expensive part of the city not known for its public transport links. As in, there really aren’t any. We decided that the easiest thing, given the lovely weather, would be to cycle. Husband gamely took the satchel containing the beer and wine we were bringing as our contribution to the festivities and we set off on ‘City Bikes’ (equivalent to Boris Bikes in London or Velibs in Paris – except more expensive.)


At first, all went well. Although it was hot, it was around 7pm and things were cooling down a little after the heat of the day. There was also hardly any traffic on the roads and it was lovely to speed along the big wide boulevards with nary a care in the world (except the surprisingly frequent potholes – some parts of DC’s roads do seem in rather bad repair.) Eventually, though, we reached some quite hilly bits as we got nearer to Georgetown. Not wanting Husband to accuse me of lingering, I made sure I attacked these with gusto (he, after all, was the one carrying several tonnes of booze on his back, not me.) At the top of one quite long hill, Husband paused to consult the map (or rather, the iPhone.) I stopped behind him and was congratulating myself on not being particularly out of breath when I started to feel quite strange… then everything went a little bit fuzzy round the edges and my head felt very tight. I got off the bike and stood on the pavement, thinking it would pass in a second or two. But it kept getting worse. Husband was blissfully unaware that anything was amiss until I propped up the bike and started putting my head between my knees. I asked him if he had any water… but although he had a great quantity of liquid with him, all of it was alcoholic…


I sat down on the pavement but unfortunately was still feeling very odd. Husband’s chivalric gene is clearly not dead, because he disappeared over to a nearby house and knocked on the door to ask for a glass of water. When we later recounted this at the barbecue, some of the people we were with  – Brits and Americans – seemed quite shocked that he would risk doing such a thing… at the time, I didn’t think it was at all unusual, but on reflection, we probably wouldn’t have done that in Paris (partly because there are very few individual houses… most front doors are only to the lobbies of blocks of flats…) Anyway, he came back with a most concerned looking tall man in a white polo shirt and shorts, who was extremely solicitous. Before I knew it, we were both ushered up some steps into the hallway of a palatial looking dwelling, which was extremely empty except for a few Louis XV style chairs and several boxes. I staggered into the living room and sat on a chair, whereupon the man said ‘This is Cathy…’ and pointed to a woman lounging on the sofa and looking both wide eyed and confused. I thought, even in my befuddled state, that this was fair enough given we were total strangers, but she seemed especially disorientated by everything.


The man kindly handed me a glass of water and explained that he had to dash to pick up his kids from somewhere, but ‘Cathy’ would look after us. As he disappeared, Cathy gave us a long, glassy-eyed look and then said, in a slightly high pitched, Blanche Dubois kind of a voice, ‘You’re very pretty….’ I was unsure what to make of this, especially as, hot, sweaty and dizzy, I was NOT feeling at my most attractive. She then placed on my lap the small, rat-like creature that had hitherto been running around the room making scritter scratter noises on the wooden floor with its tiny claws. It turned out to be a tiny dog… As you know, I love all things canine but this one seemed barely worthy of the name, and I could see its skin through its barely-there fur… Was trying to look as though I thought it was sweet, when the woman said ‘Yeah, we’ve had her for years…. but she still does what she wants… she still pees in the house quite often.’  The thing was sitting on my KNEE. I waited a few moments before gingerly putting it on the floor again…


Meanwhile, a cowboy film of some kind was on mute on the TV… Cathy gestured to it and said blearily ‘Yeah… this is the first time I’ve watched TV’. Husband and I didn’t want to be rude and say, ‘What, the first time EVER?’ but that’s what she seemed to be implying… the whole thing was getting decidedly strange when eventually she came to a little bit and asked ‘So where y’all from?’ We said England, and that we were journalists who’d just moved here. This animated her a great deal. ‘Ohhh! Journalists! One of my best girlfriends is a journalist!’ We enquired politely as to what this friend did exactly. ‘Oh…’ said Cathy distractedly. ‘She owns the Washington Post.’


Before we knew it, she was then telling us all about her daughter’s tenth birthday party the next day, which was going to be a ‘golden ten’ – ‘like a sweet sixteen but younger!’ she explained helpfully – and how we really MUST come along. “You can meet ALL sorts of people!” she exclaimed. By now I had finished my water, was feeling a lot better and really wanted to leave, but clearly it would have been impolite just to get up and vamoose. So we listened to the plans for her daughter’s party, and how ‘I grew up poor, but she’s growing up rich rich rich!’ – which left us pretty stumped as to what to say… Generally she was being very kind, but in such a bleary, addled way and saying such odd things that we really didn’t know how to take them. Eventually we managed to take our leave, but not before she’d glassily asked us if we’d like to take a nap – “We have thirteen bedrooms, you know! You picked the RIGHT house to stop at!” She wouldn’t let us leave without promising to come to the birthday party….


…but needless to say, we didn’t quite make it. If we had, I don’t think she’d have remembered who we were.
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Well, it’s been a little while hasn’t it? I’m sorry. I did worry that this would happen – that once life got a bit busier, I’d still have the inclination, but far less time, to keep you updated on my Washingtonian wanderings. Part of my excuse lies with the fact that I had to go back to the UK for a while to sort out a new visa… and as such wasn’t around to Make Observations quite so much. It was a surreal homecoming to DC after that, since I had only been in the city for a few weeks before I left – a time which, while I was back in England, began to feel rather like a lovely holiday.

But I was extremely happy to return to our lovely new flat (sorry, apartment!) – which is now filled with all our worldly goods and feels a lot more homely. I was especially pleased that I was able to bring quite a lot of books back from the UK – the British Airways check-in man gave me quite a stern look and said ‘You are EXTREMELY overweight’ after my luggage, meant to be 23kg, tipped the scales at 55… But before I could even start blushing and saying ‘How rude!’, he turned quite twinkly and said ‘I’ll let you off this time…’. Maybe he was simply impressed at my packing prowess. Either way, we now have a nice full bookshelf full of tomes just waiting to be read.


I won’t bore you with all my peregrinations over the last few weeks – suffice it to say that coming back to DC this time felt a lot less disorientating, and its big wide streets and stately buildings certainly seemed calmer and less frenetic than London, if, perhaps, a bit less exciting. In fact, more generally, things here in the US are starting to feel a bit less strange and a bit more natural than they did. Perhaps it’s partly because I have Got A Job – another reason why this blog has lain dormant for so long.


One thing here, though, that I don’t think I’ll get used to is the greetings card industry. It sounds like a small thing, but buying a birthday card for Husband’s sister posed something of a challenge.

Firstly, I looked in the ‘sister birthday’ section of CVS (sort of a cross between a Boots, a Superdrug and a WH Smith). ‘Sister, you are my guardian angel, my best friend, my confidante’, they all bleated. ‘Sister, there is nobody like you. You are a shining star.’ I love Husband’s sister dearly, but didn’t feel that such sentiments, or those like the ones below, would make either Husband, his sister or me feel very comfortable.


Not my first choice....


I thought that perhaps I’d be on safer ground with something a little less personalised. A generic ‘Happy Birthday’ card oughtn’t to be too difficult, right? Wrong!


The Birthday section was  just as bad…. mostly along these lines…



In the end, I left with the one blank card the shop seemed to sell, with a rather gloomy picture of flowers on it – probably meant to go with a funeral flower arrangement or some such dreary offering. But it was impossible to find anything expressing a tasteful and moderately affectionate sentiment. All the cards seemed to take the attitude ‘Well, if they’re forking out 4 dollars to express themselves, they’re gonna want a big bold statement!’


Similarly, the big bold statement that is the entire American greetings card industry appears to have gone out of its way to drum up OTHER expressions of affection/gratitude/joy – in the form of made-up occasions. I knew, as many British children with even vaguely traditional parents will know, that Father’s Day is ‘only made up by Americans to sell cards’ and is entirely pointless (this didn’t stop my mother using it as an occasion to force us to buy my shopping-hating, accountant father the new shirts/socks/jumpers he consistently refused to buy for himself all year round).
Here, in fact, are some dad-based US offerings that would, I fear, make my own father squirm with embarrassment were he ever to receive them:




dad taught me to fly


that's my dad


But it seems that they’ve gone to whole new levels here since whenever Father’s Day was dreamed up. Sometime around the day I visited CVS turned out to be ‘Administrative Professionals’ Day’. Oh yes. If you have a secretary and you didn’t get him or her a card to show your gratitude for the fact that they, erm, do the job they’re paid to do – well, turns out you’re heartless. Look what you could have won:




Who knew that orange and yellow is the colour apparently favoured by ‘administrative professionals’ everywhere? Must be all those post-it notes they get through! Likewise, I was also meant to be celebrating the nurses in my life, with Nurses’ Day… It’s almost too much to keep track of!



My trip to Britain, on the other hand, made me realise that there appears to be a difference in what Brits want from their cards. It seems, from the evidence in the shops, that OUR way of showing true affection for someone is not to shower them with gushing, badly rhymed poetry made up by someone else – but to make them laugh, often with rude words or by taking the mickey out of them. Most British people I know would feel far too uncomfortable being laden with praises about their wisdom and beauty and rock-like qualities as a friend. They’d rather have something along these lines:



Or even, from a deeply true and loving friend, this:



They’d also, in true British style, rather nobody made too much of a fuss:



It’s that ‘bit of cake’ at the end that sums it up for me. ‘Let’s not go all out lads…just a birthday after all. Happens every year. Slice of Victoria Sponge and a couple of pints down the Dog and Trumpet will do me fine. None of this Hallmark nonsense.’


Getting carried away with American-style sentiments is, after all, dangerous – as this card warns:



I think this – rather crude – row of cards pretty much sums up these very British birthday themes – piss taking, drinking and general down-playing of the affection or celebration the occasion might warrant:



Interestingly, I got chatting to the lovely people behind the counter in Scribbler Covent Garden (where I found all these gems), telling them how refreshing all their stock was, and they said they’ve had a few ex-pat Brits in buying several cards in one go. Of course, this entirely un-scientific study could probably be disproved by visiting a different British card shop or a different American one.


But I think the point does hold. The thing to take away from this is that neither group of cards is entirely sincere. No American card-giver (surely?!) REALLY thinks their sister is a star sent from heaven to guide the way, or whatever cobblers Hallmark might have come up with. Neither do most Brits give their friends cards telling them they’re a penis and really mean it. Not entirely anyway. It’s just that here in the US, an optimistic, friendly society, people prefer to tune their true feelings UP a notch when committing them to paper – whereas back in dear old Blighty, we dial it down a bit. And add some un-necessary swear words. Then maybe have a beer or two. Bit of cake.
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Sad news from Boston… and a little trip to the Big Apple

Well, just a few hours ago, Husband set off for the airport to cover the sad events in Boston… It all happened about 3pm today and the first I heard of it was him ringing me around 3.30 when I was on my way to the supermarket (! – my life is one big round of thrills and spills), to say he would be coming home briefly to get a few clothes before heading off to Boston straightaway. It is a real tragedy and as I’ve been glued to the internet this evening, there have been some shocking pictures coming out. On a personal note, it’s a relief that several Boston friends are all okay and not affected, and also very strange to watch a big event like this without being in a newsroom to cover it! Here’s hoping I’ll be back in one before too long…

But Husband’s absence does give me time to update you on my doings over the past few days. Firstly, thank you for all your lovely comments and advice so far. It is rather gratifying to think there are people out there reading all of my witterings! It turns out that the 32 degree heat was a bit of a freakish occurence, even for D.C – it doesn’t normally get that hot in April, and in fact last Wednesday was the hottest it has been on any 10th April since 1922. So I’m safe for a little while yet… call it a warm-up (literally) for the summer…

Not in a bid to escape the heat, but rather to see my uncle and cousins who were there for a few days, last Thursday I made the trip to the Big Apple for the first time since arriving here. I have been twice before, once in August 2001 (during which visit I went up the World Trade Centre towers) and another time in December 2008, but both times made me feel rather at sea. Even for someone coming from London, New York feels huge, incomprehensible and unfriendly. I’m sure that’s not at all the case really, but I didn’t really like the place either time I went there.

This trip was a bit different, though. Firstly I think that’s partly because both of the previous times, I was having to get my head around not only NYC, but the US in general. Everything felt different and new. This time, I’ve already ‘acclimatised’. Secondly, I arrived on the train – which felt entirely civilised. I got the Amtrak from Union Station at 7.25am (and it felt more like flying than going by rail – everyone had lots of suitcases, and you go to a ‘gate’ rather than a platform, and then wait until your platform is called to go through a certain set of doors, having your ticket checked individually by an inspector as you go through) and was at Penn Station by 10.44am, perfectly on time. The train itself wasn’t the most modern-looking, but the seats were huge and comfortable, it was very clean and it had excellent wifi. It’s just a shame it cost $82 one-way! I certainly got the impression that the train is perhaps a rarer form of transport than it is in Europe – at one point, as we were going past a view of the Manhattan skyline, a conductor came on the intercom to point out some of the sights (which was lovely!) but also to ‘welcome on board the Fredericksburg Children’s Choir… because it’s their first time to the Big City and their first time on a train!’ Wow.

My uncle and cousins met me at Penn Station, and we set off for Ground Zero – somewhere I have never been except in its former life as the twin towers. Back in 2008, it was still rather a hole in the ground, and it felt a little bit like ‘disaster tourism’ to go and peer through some railings at the site of so much destruction and heartbreak for others. Since then, though, I’ve been involved in covering the tenth anniversary, and the building of the new memorial, and felt that was somehow more appropriate to visit, as a monument in its own right. Although it was a grey day – hoorah! thought I, after the searing heat of D.C-  we could see the ‘Freedom Tower’ that’s being built to replace them stretching up to the heavens as we queued to get in, through an extremely tight security procedure. Once we were inside, you realise that it really is a beautifully thought through space.

The 'Freedom Tower' (on a very grey day...)

The ‘Freedom Tower’ (on a very grey day…)

Names on the edge of one of the Reflecting Pools

Names on the edge of one of the Reflecting Pools

One of the two Pools

One of the two Pools

The two large reflecting pools, on the site of each of the towers, have waterfalls cascading into them, and that water then falls into a smaller, deeper pool into the centre. The names carved around each of the pools are arranged according to which plane or tower they were in, or whether they were an emergency responder. What I really liked was the arrangement of the names within these groups though – not alphabetically, but by ‘affiliation’, so employees of the same company or airline are displayed together. And within that, there are ‘requested adjacencies’ – people whose relatives thought they would want to be next to one another, or who were relatives, or even who were known to have tried to help each other as events unfolded.I thought that was a very sensitive touch. The other object of interest is the ‘Survivors’ Tree’ – the one tree on the site that seemed to have come through the attacks. It was nursed back to health in a New York park, nearly died of frost several years later, but lives on and is now covered in blossom. Something of a symbol! Eventually, there’ll be a museum on the site as well, but for now there’s merely a ‘visitor centre’ where you can buy ‘9/11 memorial’ T-shirts, mugs etc. I thought that was a rather tacky add-on to what was otherwise a sensitively arranged space.

After a quick trip to Battery Park to catch a glimpse of Lady Liberty (still closed after Hurricane Sandy) across the water, and an excellent catch-up over lunch in a nearby diner – during which the waitress looked scandalous when I ordered a beer (‘Are you sure? Really? They’re big!’ – they weren’t…) – we decided to walk across the Brooklyn Bridge to get a view of Manhattan. Again, this wasn’t something I’ve ever done before but it really is worth it… the bridge itself is very impressive, and the pedestrian bit is in the middle, shielded from all the traffic on either side, so you are free to admire its majesty without worrying about being run over by a yellow taxi. There are some great views across to Ellis Island, Staten Island and the Statue of Liberty from the bridge itself… but even better is the view from Brooklyn Heights on the other side – as you can see.

The Brooklyn Bridge  - named after David Beckham's son... :)

The Brooklyn Bridge – named after David Beckham’s son… 🙂

Manhattan through the grey skies (and slightly smudged camera lens!)
Manhattan through the grey skies (and slightly smudged camera lens!)

We ended our day with a wander through Greenwich Village, since we felt that – despite one of my poor cousins being under 21, and therefore allowed to buy a rifle or a shotgun but not to have a glass of wine –  the sun was well past the yard arm and it was time for some alcoholic refreshment. We walked up a particular street there for a good 15 minutes, past chemists, burger joints, clothes shops, banks, dry cleaners… but nary a bar in sight. Most odd, especially since we were right near NYU. We eventually found a ‘chocolate restaurant’ which also served cocktails, and I had something delicious involving peach juice and vodka, before deciding to look for somewhere to eat back the way we’d come. We decided to walk back down a different block and lo! all the bars in the New York were there. Ooops. We found a lovely little Italian place near Washington Square Park for dinner before my uncle and cousins gamely waited with me on a quiet, dark street for my – $17! – bus back to D.C. The ‘Bolt‘ bus got very good write-ups from the Washington Post for its DC-NYC services, and apart from the total lack of marking at their 6th Avenue stop (I eventually had to approach another stranger lurking with bags to check if that was indeed the correct location), it was definitely very good value. It took around the same time as the train, also had perfectly serviceable wifi, smelled clean (not always a given, apparently) and was full of sane, quiet people. Hoorah! All in all, a very successful trip to the Big City.

This past weekend was our first wedding anniversary – yes, this time 12 months ago we were on honeymoon in the Maldives! Little did we imagine that a year later we’d be living in Washington, D.C… Since we’re newcomers to town, though, we weren’t quite sure what would be the best way to celebrate this milestone. Fortunately, Husband had an excellent idea… cocktails in the roof bar on the top of the W Hotel, right next to the White House. There is a stunning view of the Washington Monument from there and you can even sneak a glimpse into the White House gardens too.

Point of View from the top of the W Hotel
Point of View from the top of the W Hotel

What I liked about the rooftop bar (appropriately called the ‘Point Of View’ lounge) was how formally everyone was dressed – even if my skirt and blouse did feel a little too casual in comparison! There were lots of chaps in DJs and ladies in long, colourful eveningwear, and everyone looked as though they were out to have a good time. In Paris, as is the stereotype, everyone dresses wonderfully elegantly… even to go to the shops, you feel you must don full makeup. But although they do chic very well, I’m not sure it ever had the same air of formality as some ‘Anglo Saxon’ outfits. Even to a fairly big event, it would be all right to turn up in a blouse, jeans and heels, perhaps with a jacket – so long as the outfit was beautifully put together and the clothes well tailored, it didn’t matter if the effect itself wasn’t terribly formal. Perhaps it’s a legacy of university, but I love formal dress, and I liked the effort everyone had gone to here. It’s also a marked contrast with some of the more casual dressing I’ve seen on American streets – white ankle socks, trainers and shorts seem to be quite the thing among men of a certain age!

After the W, we headed for an Italian restaurant near Eastern Market, recommended to us by some new friends. Acqua al Due felt beautifully romantic, with secluded corners and candlelit tables… We enjoyed a bottle of chianti, and I had chicken with white wine and mushrooms while Husband enjoyed a steak – though the experience left him resolved never to order ‘medium’ in the US, because it comes well done! The food was delicious, and although it was a little on the pricey side, we’d still recommend it as a good place for a celebration!

And to round off our anniversary celebrations, on Sunday night we thought we’d show our support for something of a British institution – Monty Python. The musical ‘Spamalot’ has been around since at least 2005 I think, but neither of us has managed to see it, in London, Paris or anywhere else! It was closing in Washington this weekend, so we thought we’d give it a go…even if the tickets were $58 dollars each for the cheapest seats (ouch! We’re too used to under thirties and journalists’ discounts… neither of which seem to exist here!) The National Theatre, which was hosting the show, felt rather sad and neglected compared to its successful London namesake – this was borne out when the manager came on stage before the start of the performance and said that sadly, the place had been ‘dark for far too long recently’ – but added that they’re proud to announce a ‘full Broadway season’ coming soon. I do hope its fortunes are on the up, I can’t bear it when things like libraries and theatres close down. That certainly made me feel a bit better about paying $58 for my place right up in the gods!

Anyway, the show was marvellous – with lots and lots of silliness, outrageous costumes, innuendo and campery. I don’t think either Husband or I had appreciated quite how much we miss the British absurdity and sense of the ridiculous until we saw this … but I think it perhaps explains why we are sometimes so silly with each other, to make up for it! At any rate, the US audience clearly adored it too- though I think there was added amusement value for us, as some of the ‘British’ accents went rather, shall we say, astray. They seemed to travel from Australia, via South Africa, to a Dick van Dyke-style cockney London, before ending up somewhere in New England. But it made it all the funnier really! And the cast were obviously having a whale of a time – it turned out that this was their last night performing together, and they gave it their all. The ‘Holy Grail’ was eventually found under a little boy’s seat in the stalls, and as he went up on the stage to be congratulated and sung to by the Knights of the Round Table (clearly while the stage was being prepared for the finale – which included a gay wedding and the line ‘To think in a thousand years this will still be controversial!’) I felt as though I were back in the Birmingham Hippodrome for a pantomime. We even all sang along at the end to ‘Always Look on the Bright Side of Life’ – and you know, despite today’s very gloomy news, evenings like that rather make you want to follow that advice.

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Feeling hot, hot, hot… and other Things I’m Getting Used To.

Well, apparently it’s going to hit 32 degrees celcius outside today (which is probably some impossibly high number in Fahrenheit – it makes me quite faint even to think about it.) This, I’m told, is a but a curtain raiser for the searingly hot and sticky, humid summers this place endures. As a fair strawberry blonde, I have managed to get sunburned in Iceland. So this will present something of a challenge – not only for my skin but also for my personal comfort and general mood…

So I suppose that’s my number one ‘thing I’m getting used to’ here…

1. Weather.

Actually, when we first arrived, the weather gods obviously decided to ease us in gently. Our first Saturday here was beautifully sunny but not too hot, with plenty of breezes and blue sky – perfect for a sightseeing stroll to the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial. Then on the Sunday, it was grey and wet, just like London is all the time! I wouldn’t say I enjoy that kind of weather, but it presents no hazards to my health and wellbeing and I’m very used to it. However, after a week or so of fairly grey, nothingy days, spring, along with the cherry blossom, has arrived with a vengeance in D.C. Well, it’s what they call spring here. It’s already as hot as a good English summer to me, and altogether brighter, fiercer and more full-on than anything I would call spring – yesterday, I had to put on sun cream! I’m rather dreading the true heat of the summer… but there is one good side to it. In the UK and to some extent France, a bit of sun such as we’re experiencing today would have everyone dashing to the beach and the terrace, desperately sunbathing in parks and holding barbecues. I am the only one limply moaning about perhaps finding some shade… Here, certainly in the summer if not the spring, Americans try to avoid the heat as much as possible, air conditioning Everything, Everywhere, and dashing from one cool interior to another without hanging about in the glare. For once, I will not be alone in craving shade! 


Spring daffodils on Capitol Hill behind the Supreme Court

Spring daffodils on Capitol Hill behind the Supreme Court

2. Turning up the Volume 

Just as the weather seems turned up to the max here, so perhaps are people’s voices. Now, I should start by saying that I’m quite loud myself. My school friends used to say they would hold the phone away from their ear and still be able to hear me talking. My job involves communication. I don’t shy away from raising my voice and enunciating clearly. But in the U.S, everyone seems to talk loudly! Walking through a crowd of people or sitting in a restaurant is like having a special superpower where you can hear everyone’s thoughts, except it’s not their thoughts, it’s just their conversations. I used to think, when living in Paris, that the reason I always seemed to be able to overhear Americans talking to one another was because they were speaking in English, and my brain automatically tuned into that. But now I realise they were just louder than everyone else. I don’t know why it is, and I even rather like it – it certainly livens up what might otherwise be dull walks through town. Here are some things I’ve overheard (and once had to stop Husband joining in with… I’ll leave you to guess which):


Woman into mobile phone: ‘Tell him no! Tell him no! I JUST. WON’T. DO. IT!’


Woman to group of friends standing outside restaurant: “And, like, HE was nice…but the SEX was godawful…”


Man to woman, walking along the Mall: “How’s your BUTT doing?”


Woman to friend: “Yeah…MY Dad was EXACTLY the same…always in his MAN CAVE…”


And, my personal favourite – Girl to her friend after I’d walked past: “Hey! She looked just like Reese Witherspoon!” (I hasten to add that I’m not sure how they drew this conclusion, because I doubt Reese Witherspoon often allows herself to be seen, as I was at the time, struggling, red-faced, down the street attempting to carry a 30 litre metal kitchen bin she’s just bought from Bed, Bath and Beyond.)

3. Sadverts

The French are a nation of hypochondriacs. They love pills, creams and potions, have the most over-prescribing GPs in Europe and never allow themselves to be more than 100 metres away from any pharmacy (don’t believe me? Go to Paris, there is one on every street corner.) I thought I’d left that behind, but either people in the US are just as bad, or PR companies think they must be. Because the number of TV adverts we saw, while staying at the hotel, for various kinds of remedies was amazing! (I should clarify that we don’t yet have a television in our flat, so I haven’t been able to study this at greater length yet.) But in general, the quantity and the content of the ‘commercials’ was fascinating. Firstly, they seemed to come on every 3 or 4 minutes. A news channel might play one report and/or have one guest, then go to a break. And secondly, even on something like CNN, at prime time, the adverts seemed to be for all kinds of really quite awkward and embarrassing conditions. Erectile disfunction? Fungal growths? Snoring? All covered. Thirdly, some of them sounded downright UNhealthy…my personal favourite being for heartburn tablets that, and I’m not making this up, ‘allow you to KEEP EATING THROUGH THE PAIN!’ Others had disclaimers that went on longer than the actual commercial and included caveats such as (totally genuine) ‘May cause disturbing dreams and suicidal thoughts’. WHAT?! Fourthly, and this is just something about the US I’m going to have to wrap my head around at some point but can’t yet, they have adverts for HOSPITALS. Including ‘cancer hospitals’. Mind boggling.


4. Signs and wonders

 I mentioned this in a previous posts, but it seems D.C sure does love its sign-age. Pavements and roads are covered in them, for pedestrians and motorists alike. It’s actually very helpful, if a bit cluttered sometimes. More generally, though, there are a couple of non-traffic-related signs I’ve seen here that you just wouldn’t find in Europe. The first seems to be in the loos of every restaurant or café. ‘Employees Must Wash Hands Before Returning To Work’. I really can’t work out if it’s genuinely there for the benefit of the staff, to REMIND them to wash their hands after going to the loo (if they need that little aide memoire, though, they really ought not to be working there anyway, surely?) or for the customers, to reassure them that employees will indeed have thoroughly abluted before serving their cappuccino. Again, though, I rather hoped I could take that for granted. The other sign that amused me was at Ikea, which was in every other way exactly like a European Ikea. This one, in Maryland, had a sign outside with a picture of a gun crossed through, saying ‘Ikea Is a Weapon Free Environment’. I’m not sure that’s a reminder the shop’s Swedish founders ever originally imagined they’d need in one of their branches…


So reassuring...

So reassuring…


5. Divided by a common language

Well, you knew I had to get to it eventually. American English. In actual fact, this hasn’t been as much of a shock to the system as I thought. It’s only occasionally that it hits me that I am very much a British speaker as opposed to an American speaker; I think it’s partly cultural. For example, the week we first arrived, people were talking about ‘March Madness’ and how their ‘bracket’ was doing, which was utter gobbledeegook to us. Restaurants had signs saying ‘reserve your seat for March Madness!’ and we wondered if it was some kind of all-you-can-eat extravaganza It turns out, in fact, to be a college basketball tournament, and your ‘bracket’ is the collection or slate of teams you’re supporting. The other day, meanwhile, I was walking past a big building on Capitol Hill that proclaimed itself to be the International Brotherhood of Teamsters. An international brotherhood of anything sounds quite nice but I genuinely had no idea what a teamster is. (Now I do – just in time to hear them referenced in an episode of ‘House of Cards’, so that was convenient.)


Then there are just some aspects of American use of language that I find quite fun. There are abbrevations everywhere: ‘E-Z’ for easy (which I have to keep reminding myself is ‘ee-zee’ not ‘ee-zed’, which makes no sense), ‘LA-Z’ for lazy (same) and – my personal favourite, seen on a police car, ‘K-9’, which means the dog unit. The fact that ‘K-9’ takes up exactly the same amount of space as ‘DOG’ didn’t deter them from using this abbreviation, and I think that’s super.


Some words used regularly here I’m pretty sure were originally formulated to make the speaker/writer sound more important or formal, such as ‘transportation’ (I cannot think of a single instance of this where ‘transport’ wouldn’t do just as well) or ‘utilize’ (ditto with ‘use’.) An example of this is a sign I saw on the metro last night which warned users to ‘expect high ridership Wednesday’. Ridership?! It sounds like a Jilly Cooper novel set in space. What’s wrong with ‘heavy usage’ or ‘high volume of passengers’? But it’s also quite innovative!


And finally, one thing I am TRYING to get used to but keep forgetting is the phenomenon of ‘y’all’. I always assumed, in as much as I thought about this at all, that ‘y’all’, short for ‘you all’, was used to reference a group of people. Three, at the very least. But after a couple of weeks of Americans looking at Husband and me and saying ‘y’all’, and turning round to work out who else they are talking to, I now realise it can be used for two people or even for one. ‘Y’all’ just means ‘you’, and y’all better just get used to that.


High ridership...

High ridership…

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On dogs, road crossings and sliders… 

Apologies for the delay since my last post… It’s not that my encounter with Barack Obama made me decide to hang up my blogging hat in despair that anything as interesting could ever happen to me again. It’s more that we’ve been rather busy settling in… it turns out the business of settling in IS quite time consuming. As well as putting together Ikea furniture (and I wish I had some comical stories about our ineptitude in this regard, but Husband did pretty much all of it competently, quickly and without complaining. I just watched and screwed together one lamp. Division of labour according to talent. Adam Smith would be proud), Husband has started his new job, which seems to be going splendidly, and I’ve been doing Wadmin – Washington Admin – including sorting out electricity contracts, moving expenses receipts, mobile phones etc.

But all of this activity, as well as some lovely meetings with friends old and new, have enabled me to get a better idea of what it’s actually like LIVING in Washington. There are some things I have already decided I like very much, and others I am still getting used to (or ‘to which I am still getting used’, as I ought properly to say)…

So I’ll start with things I like and in a later post I’ll give you the lowdown on things that I still find strange! Both lists will, I’m sure, be updated as time goes on!

1. The Cherry Blossom Festival – or more specifically, the Kite Festival that was part of it. 

This, as I very briefly mentioned, took place last Saturday, one of those gloriously sunny days that makes you realise spring really is here (sorry, English folks, your time will come eventually…) We have three lovely big windows in our flat and the sun was streaming through them on to us, attempting to put together an Ikea coffee table. We eventually decided that this was ridiculous as, like the poor, the coffee table will always be with us – but not so the sun. We headed down on to the National Mall, which is but a few hundred metres from our front door. And we were met with a beautiful sight… hundreds and hundreds of colourful kites, against the beautiful backdrop of the Capitol (if you looked one way) or the Washington Monument (if you looked the other). There were families with children, young couples, serious adults… all involved in the kite flying fun, the entire length of the Mall. What was especially nice was that there genuinely seemed to be a real mixture of backgrounds there – so many things in D.C do feel segregated. Not deliberately, but it seems to be the way things are. But with this, everyone was getting involved. It was a really lovely way to start spring and celebrate the Easter weekend – as we walked all the way down to the Monument (where they had professional kite flying demonstrations) I rather wished we had a kite too! The Cherry Blossom festival seems to be a big deal here – it runs for four weeks and there are all kinds of events, including a fireworks display tonight on the Tidal Basin. Slightly awkwardly this year, there still hasn’t been much blossom appearing yet. But today is gorgeously sunny so hopefully it will soon!

Let's go fly a kite...

Let’s go fly a kite…


More kite fun

More kite fun


Washington monument... with kites

Washington monument… with kites


2. Wholefoods

After my anguished cheese-related outpourings, many people got in touch to tell me to head to Wholefoods Market, which seems to be the Waitrose of America. (Their website actually reveals they have shops in London too, and you can tell what kind of shop it is from the areas of London it’s in – South Ken, Clapham Junction, Stoke Newington and Piccadilly…) We made a pilgrimage to their shop on P Street last Saturday (right after enjoying the kites!) and were very excited. Lots of fresh local produce, incredible salad/deli sections – all full to the brim, which made me wonder what they did with all the mounds of leftovers every night – , exotic items like couscous that we hadn’t found elsewhere… but sadly, prices to match. I have to say though, despite what is written about America’s obesity problem, it is VERY easy to eat healthily here if you want to. At least, it is in D.C. Everything has a ‘light’, ‘no mayo’, ‘skinny’ option, lots of places tell you exactly how many calories are in their products, and there are some beautiful fresh fruit and veg and salad options if you know where to look. The problem is that it’s all too easy to be incredibly unhealthy too – when things are bad for you here, they are REALLY bad – loaded with sugar, covered in sauce, drizzled in bacon bits or cheese… You just have to avoid such options! Anyway, Wholefoods was great, and LOOKED beautiful, I must say, with mounds of Eastery blooms being sold outside, alongside a charity barbecue. I don’t think it’ll be our everyday grocery but I’m pretty sure I’ll be back. A lot.


The amazing Wholefoods deli section

The amazing Wholefoods deli section

3. Dogs

One of the things that made me sad in Paris was the lack of Proper Dogs. I grew up with a huge black labrador, now sadly deceased (Husband says my family talk more about said canine than some living relatives) and this left me with a taste for a good sized hound. Parisians, perhaps down to their bijou living spaces, do not seem to share my appreciation. Most dogs there, just as the stereotype would have it, are handbag sized. The sort that look like overgrown rodents. (I still remember my alarm on the metro when a man’s backpack started moving across the floor of the carriage of its own accord… it turned out to have a tiny chihuahua inside it, sneezing.) It was a rare and lovely event in Paris to see anything bigger than a Westie or a Jack Russell. But here, they have Proper Dogs. And they are everywhere! I have seen so many gorgeous labs, golden retrievers, alsations, setters, staffies…even, at the kite festival, an Irish Wolfhound. Not only that, but unlike in Paris, their owners seem perfectly happy to clean up after their pets. Parisian dogs may have been small, but they certainly still, er, made their mark. And there their mark would stay, eventually covered by fallen leaves, until you came along in your nice new heels and stepped in it. Not so here. Gleaming pavements… and it’s not because council staff come along and pick it up. I have spotted many dog owners conscientiously removing the evidence. Hoorah!

4. Crossing roads

This is not to say that crossing roads as an activity is a particular favourite of mine. I don’t really have any feelings about it one way or the other. BUT in Paris I often felt like I was taking my life in my hands trying to do it. There WERE white striped markings on the road that resembled zebra crossings, but no motorists seemed to treat them as such. Even if drivers were stopping for lights, they would often start zooming off on orange, and have no qualms about driving straight towards you when you clearly had a lot of road still to cross. The necessary tactic seemed to be fixing oncoming motorists with a thousand yard stare and stepping out very deliberately. This wasn’t the case everywhere, but we lived near the Place de la Concorde which seemed to have no discernible rules for pedestrian/motorist behaviour. It was every man for himself. Here, it couldn’t be more different. Firstly, everyone drives a lot slower. When we rented the car to go to Ikea, the speed limit on a really big A road was 55 miles an hour! Nobody was keeping exactly to that, but they weren’t far off. In downtown D.C, the traffic is even slower. AND so much more generally respectful. As with much of American life, rather than starting with the aggressively chippy Parisian (and to some extent London) assumption that everyone else in the world is out to make your life difficult, they seem to begin with a measured, reasonable approach to others that involves starting any interaction in a friendly way. So drivers begin with the premise that pedestrians need to cross the road and they will have to stop at pedestrian crossings to allow this crucial activity to take place. In addition, road crossings have a very handy countdown telling you just how long you have left to cross. So if it’s a particularly wide road (and lots are) and there’s only 5 seconds left on the countdown, it’s best not to attempt it. (Although I have a feeling that if you did, the nice patient American drivers would simply wait for you to finish crossing anyway.)

5. ‘Sliders’ and other substantial snacks

We have spent the past week meeting up with friends, friends of friends and useful contacts, and this often involves meeting for drinks. The trouble is, being European, we tend to schedule these for 7/7.30pm, which is when Husband finishes work and is the usual ‘just drinks, not eating’ time in Paris. But here it is very much dinner time and everywhere is packed. Another Washingtonian custom – at least in many of the restaurants/wine bars we’ve visited – seems to be that you can’t sit down at a table unless you are eating. If you just want a drink, you have to stand at the bar, which isn’t ideal if you want a proper chat. But a way to get round this is to get a table and then order what are labelled here as appetisers/tapas, but are often substantial enough for a whole meal. I still don’t know why mini burgers with interesting fillings are called ‘sliders’, but they seem to be a growing phenomenon. We have had several evenings now where ‘dinner’ ended up being a selection of delicious bar snacks – as well as the lovely ‘sliders’, we have enjoyed crab-stuffed mushrooms, crab cake burgers, parmesan and truffle sweet potato fries, chicken liver pâté and toasted bread, among other things.

So there we have it! Watch this space for the things I’m still adjusting to….

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Easter Sunday with POTUS and FLOTUS

Well, there were all kinds of things I was planning on updating you about today… our exciting trip to U.S Ikea on Friday, Saturday’s beautiful walk down the National Mall during the Cherry Blossom Kite Festival, and an eye opening visit to Wholefoods Market near Dupont Circle. But they’re all going to have to wait, because nothing tops this morning for an all-American, heart-thumping, tell-the-grandchildren Experience.

Husband is a former professional choral singer (a tenor, since you ask) and when it came to deciding on a church to go to for Easter Sunday morning, he was keen that we pick one with a good choir. Having already been to the National Cathedral for Palm Sunday last week, where the choir is excellent, we knew that today’s main service there was going to be ticketed, and decided we didn’t stand much chance of getting in. So last night, I googled ‘church with good choir in Washington D.C’. The one that came up was called St John’s, Lafayette Square, opposite the White House. Its website looked good, and we noted that it was quite old – it said every president since James Madison in 1816 had worshipped there. How nice, we thought. What a lovely bit of history.


So we set off for the 11am service at 10.30, and upon nearing the church, discovered the street it was on was cordoned off with yellow tape. There were men with walkie talkies and earpieces, squad cars and blacked out Hummers… we thought it was rather strange for a Sunday morning and asked one of the officers why. “I can’t tell you that ma’am,” was the stony faced reply… the implication being, “because then I’d have to kill you.” We thought perhaps there’d been a big crime or a senior foreign dignitary had arrived, but fortunately managed to get around to the church via another street.


Outside it was an absolute mass of people, all dressed extremely smartly (in that very American way- blue blazers and chinos for the men, tailored twin sets and bouffant hair for the ladies) and waiting very patiently while men in black with earpieces walked around looking serious. One lady turned to us as we walked up and said, ‘Has He Arrived?’ You would have thought she was talking about Jesus (considering it was Easter Day, we should have said, ‘Yes, He is Risen Indeed…’) but instead, we were JUST beginning to realise what was going on. Barack Obama was going to turn up.


We certainly didn’t think we’d be able to get into the church, given the crowd outside and the fact that the building itself looked rather small. (It’s a fairly ordinary looking steepled, gabled, American style church.) But we thought it would be nice to hang around and see if we could catch a glimpse of the leader of the free world as he arrived. So we stayed in line while one of the deacons came out to say hello to the waiting crowds. ‘The good news is… Jesus is alive!’ was her line. The bad news was that we’d have to stay outside for a bit longer. Eventually the secret service men at the door started letting people in, searching their bags and sweeping everyone individually with a metal detector. The queue started snaking forwards, and we were still in it… so we just kept moving, and before we knew it, we were inside! We headed straight for the upstairs gallery, where there still seemed to be room, and kept moving forwards til we got a front row seat.


The church was in darkness as we got to the front, and they were just starting the procession of the Easter candle while a cantor sung the introit. All through this we were obviously scanning the crowd below, but I couldn’t see any sign of the President. I wondered if he’d make an entrance later. He certainly wasn’t on the front row. Then, just before a brass quintet played an introduction to ‘Jesus Christ is Risen Today’ and the lights began slowly to come up, I saw a woman who looked just like Michelle Obama in a pew about halfway back. And then I realised it WAS Michelle Obama, sitting with Sasha and Malia and the man himself. I wish I could be soignée about this but a) I hadn’t realised the whole family would be there, and b) they were RIGHT IN FRONT OF US. I’d never realised how childlike these kind of situations render you… you want to point and stare, because they do look JUST as you see them on the television. And have I mentioned that they were RIGHT THERE?


So somehow, we had ended up with almost the best seats in the house in terms of getting a view of the ‘First Family’, despite only having decided to turn up the night before, and having no idea they would be there. The service itself was excellent, with very good music, but of course we spent most of it sneaking glances at the Presidential Pew, which had a line of three secret service men with earpieces sitting behind it. (They didn’t sing any of the hymns or take part in the service at all, I noticed… I suppose it’s a distraction from the job…) Barack and Michelle are just as good looking and toned in real life – and he spent most of the service with his arm cosily around her. She was wearing a silvery grey silky looking dress with a black flower print, while Malia was in purple and Sasha in red. They were both, as you’d expect, scrupulously behaved, taking part, not fidgeting and singing all the words. They’ve clearly all learned to keep poker faces too – the vicar’s sermon was very on-message for the present administration, mentioning the ‘captains of the religious right’ trying to take the country backwards on issues including immigration and gay marriage. It was clearly designed to please. But no heads were nodded, no eyelashes were batted. They just looked very relaxed.


During Communion, we went downstairs and as a result, were able to walk Right Past their pew on our way back. So yes, when I was a couple of feet away, yes, I made eye contact and smiled, and yes, he smiled right back. And yes, I’m aware how much of a teenage groupie I sound. But there is something exhilarating about being in the same room as somebody quite that well known and powerful – made all the more so for us because it was so unexpected. The family were all very gracious too, I noticed, shaking hands with people who came up and talked to them during the peace, even (Michelle) hugging a couple of them. And it turns out they walked to the church from the White House too, which is nice and ‘normal’ (the church is about as close as you can get to the WH, but still, they eschewed that Beast of a limo for once!)


The service ended with a congregational rendition of the ‘Hallelujah Chorus’ from the ‘Messiah’, complete with brass quintet, which was absolutely stunning… followed by a hymn, during which the First Family quietly slipped out of their pew and out of a side door. You could sort of feel the atmosphere deflate a bit once they’d gone. But it had been a truly unforgettable service, and after the final ‘go in peace’, we were completely buzzing (a buzz that continued when we got home to discover that Oxford won the Boat Race…) I suppose in our entire time in D.C, however long or short it turns out to be, we’ll never get as close to any President as that ever again. It seems quite a high on which to begin!


The crowd that greeted us outside St John's church

The crowd that greeted us outside St John’s church


The First Family... third row in (I know it's bad to take photos in church, but journalists in us couldn't resist.)

The First Family… third row in from the left (I know it’s bad to take photos in church, but the journalists in us couldn’t resist.)


You can definitely tell it's them, right?!

You can definitely tell it’s them, right?!


Greeting people during the Peace

Greeting people during the Peace


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America hits back…

Well that’s me told! I think Someone, Somewhere must have been reading this. Maybe Barack Obama. Because after yesterday’s posting about the sad state of America’s cheese selection, what should I be faced with this afternoon but a real life farmers’ market literally on our front door step? Oh yes, apparently it takes place in that exact spot every Thursday – win! Not only that, but as well as local eggs, sausages, greens and ice cream (we bought some salted caramel) they also had, yes, you guessed it, several kinds of lovely, normal-coloured Maryland CHEESE. We bought a blue variety, having sampled it, and it was delicious.


In addition, many of you Americans/expats living or having lived here have got in touch to tell me about various lovely establishments where I can find more palatable and less terrifying glow-in-the-dark cheese. Trader Joes and Wholefoods Market are now on our list. In general, we are much comforted. Thank you.


Husband is now in the middle of preparing a curry, so no cheese for us tonight, but maybe some of that ice cream for dessert… We’re off to Ikea tomorrow. I wonder if the American version will compare favourably with my Nightmare In Neasden a few years ago. Watch this space!


Beautiful farmers' market on 8th Street

Beautiful farmers’ market on 8th Street

Bread! (Always good with cheese, I find.)

Bread! (Always good with cheese, I find.)

Every Thursday!

Every Thursday!

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Supermarket – How Much Those Pans? 

Today saw our first trip to a real, American supermarket. I went to one once before on holiday in Connecticut (I believe the name of the establishment in question was ‘Stu Leonard’s’, in fact) but it rather passed me by in a haze of amazement at the concept of ‘half and half’ and horror at the sweetness of American KitKats. I don’t think I took much else away from the experience, except that everyone really did take their purchases home in brown paper bags like in the films.


Up until recently, we’ve been ensconced in a hotel in D.C, on a place called ‘Thomas Circle’ (one of the city’s few actual ’roundabouts’, or ‘rotaries’ as they’re apparently called here) – but have now moved into our very own flat, which is at the moment completely empty as all our things are being shipped from the U.K, and we don’t actually own any furniture to begin with. This will be rectified in due course – it’ll have to be, as we’re sleeping on rollmats on the floor – but one of the first priorities was to buy real food we could cook with, rather than warm up in the microwave and eat from a plastic tray.


It turns out our nearest proper supermarket is Safeway. This took me back to my childhood, when there were Safeways in England and we often went to one. The logo is even the same! Our first feeling in Safeway was one of relief. There were rows upon rows of delicious looking fresh fruit and vegetables. None of the small shops in the city centre, which purported to sell food, had anything that might be termed an ‘ingredient’ or might go off after a few days or hours. Everything was packaged and processed and frozen. Nothing wrong with that. But you can’t live off it. Not if you still want to fit into all your French clothes. So the lovely lettuces and peppers and cucumbers and tomatoes and apples and melons were a sight to see, all beautifully arranged.


Unfortunately, our joy was not to last because next we encountered the cheese section. Not even the cheese aisle, but the few shelves in the dairy area where the cheese lives. I hate to sound European and snobbish about this (oh, who am I kidding, sometimes I like to sound this way) – but I’m not sure the word ‘cheese’ should really be used in this particular context. Everything was a lurid colour, swathed in layers of tightly wrapped plastic – not even that special ‘non sweaty’ plastic they sometimes use in British supermarkets, but just normal polythene – and looked like you could use it to tarmac a road or mend your car tyres. The varieties available appeared to be ‘cheddar’ (very, very orange), ‘Monterey’, whatever that is (white) or mozzarella (off-white and very, very hard.) Then there were just things like cheese strings, cheese triangles and, oh dear, Kraft singles. We left feeling very strange. I didn’t realise I’d become so French. We bought a small packet of something bright orange called ‘sharp cheddar’, hoping that ‘sharp’ meant it had some flavour. I will report back on how that tasting session goes…


Fortunately, though, we chanced upon the small British food section and our weary souls rejoiced. Here’s where I sound like a total hypocrite, because the British foods we were so chuffed to see were all canned and processed and packaged within an inch of their tiny lives. But at least they’re meant to be that way, unlike cheese. There was Marmite (at SEVEN DOLLARS for a tiny pot!) Rich Tea Biscuits! Cadbury’s fingers! H.P Sauce! Heinz beans! (I know Heinz is American, but clearly beans are British). We suddenly felt at home in a foreign land, and bought two tins of beans.


The only problem, once we’d got all this food, was how to cook it. We have nary a pot to piss in. Literally. (Well, obviously we have a loo. But we don’t have any saucepans.) Weirdly, Safeway sold TWO kinds of frying pan – or skillet, as we must remember to call it – but no actual saucepans of the kind in which you or I might like to boil pasta or make a sauce. Do Americans just fry everything? Or is Safeway a bad stockist? We went next door to the ‘Ace’ hardware shop, and it appears frying IS de rigeur here… they had a vast selection of sizes and colours of frying pan, but just one saucepan. In the end, since we wanted two vessels, we decided to go for a set which gave us one frying pan, one DEEP frying pan, and one saucepan. Are saucepans some strange, European notion or were we just unlucky with our shopping choices?


Clearly, though, our purchase was of some interest because as we struggled home laden with bags and a very obvious ‘skillet set’, I was accosted by an old black lady at a bus stop. Without saying hello, she yelled at me “HOW MUCH THOSE PANS?” I stopped in astonishment to check she was talking to me, and she shouted it again. It turned out it was a genuine question, but she didn’t want to buy them off me, as I first thought. “I gotta new ‘partment, I need new pans, how much those?” I explained that the set was 40 dollars for three pans – and lids! “UH HUH! Where you get them?” I said I was sorry but we’d just got the last one from ‘Ace’ round the corner, but I was sure they’d re-stock soon. She seemed pleased enough with this – but it made me wonder if any Brit, or indeed any French person, would stop a random person in the street and ask them how much one of their possessions or purchases had cost. “How much those shoes?” “How much that bag?” “How much that sun dried tomato pasta sauce?” I think Americans are just more direct… But I’m glad to know our saucepan choice is approved by another D.C inhabitant.


Tonight, we used ‘those pans’ to make ourselves that old student staple, pasta and sauce, on our fancy new American cooker – and I’m happy to report that despite the lack of frying involved, it was excellent.


A sad sight... plastic, plastic everywhere, and n'er a hint of Camembert.

A sad sight… plastic, plastic everywhere, and n’er a hint of Camembert.


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Getting to Know Washington 


What makes a city feel like a city? Being in Washington for a few days has started to make me think about how big metropolitan areas are set out – and challenged my European ideas a little bit!


Firstly, it’s a cliché about the US that it’s big… but I don’t think I’d appreciated how different this would make cities feel. Buildings tower above you, vast edifices of glass and steel and concrete. The word ‘block’ really is apposite – these feel like vast lumps of matter, most of them around the same size and shape and colour, that have been arranged on a giant chessboard by a huge designer in the sky… Meanwhile, you make your way between these huge monoliths, feeling rather dwarfed by them.


And they’re all so new! At least in downtown D.C, where we have now found and moved into a new apartment, it feels as though nothing has been here longer than a few decades. This means every shopfront, every restaurant, every apartment entrance looks pretty similar to every other one. It probably makes me sound like a terrible snob, but in Paris and even London to some extent, a strikingly new, colourful, regular-shaped shopfront or restaurant quite often implies an uninspiring chain (be it a bank, a restaurant, a bar, a supermarket)… and if you’re someone who knows the city well, you can probably skip it in favour of somewhere more interesting. In Paris at least, I’m used to tiny wooden shopfronts up winding little alleys, quaint wrought iron tables on a quiet cobbled square, half timbered ceilings and poky staircases. Not everywhere of course, but in lots of places, and often. Here, ‘downtown’ at least, most places are new and colourful and at the bottom of a huge ‘block’ of a building. That doesn’t necessarily mean they’re no good. It just means I have to adjust my eye a bit…


Of course I’m aware that not everywhere in D.C is like the centre. Up behind the Capitol in Eastern Market, which I’ve already visited once, or in Georgetown (which I’ve seen from a bus!) things get a lot more European. There are beautifully painted colourful houses, of a normal, two or three storey, human kind of a size. There are little pavement cafés and wine bars and places where you can sit and read a newspaper. I think there may even be roads that don’t go in an entirely straight line. But the interesting thing about D.C is because it’s so big, all of these different areas and neighbourhoods feel so far apart. Perhaps it comes of cities growing in an era when everyone drives and space to expand outwards is relatively unlimited. Why put a new building or complex crammed right next to other ones, when someone could just drive a couple of miles extra to find it in a whole new area of town? As a result of this, it feels – albeit to a total newcomer, who’s only been here a few days – that Washington is divided into lots of different areas, with distinct characters, a little like Paris and its arrondissements, BUT unlike Paris, where these different quartiers are all on top of one another and overlapping in a snail shaped pattern, here they’re very spaced out.


And it’s what’s in between these areas that struck me. There seem to be lots of roads and spaces in Washington that are a bit…well, nothingy. They’re just on the way to somewhere else. There might be a couple of apartment blocks here, a takeaway pizza shop there, but there’s no agglomeration of life, nothing to give the area shape or character. There’s shape and character just up the road, or down the road, but right there, it’s no man’s land.


Several of the apartment blocks we looked seemed to be in these kinds of districts. They felt weirdly empty, like ghost towns. I’m sure that’s partly just because of the time of day we were there (generally, in the middle of the afternoon) but overall, it didn’t strike me that there was much going on. That’s why the flat we’ve chosen in the end is right in ‘downtown’. It has lovely facilities, to be sure, but so did some of the others we looked at. But it was the only one we found, in our very limited timeframe, that didn’t feel as though it was stuck on the route halfway through someone’s daily commute, in no man’s land.


And no man’s land seems to be where some people in Washington inhabit as well. As a newcomer, I can’t begin to comment on America’s social structure – what I know about its ‘safety net’, or lack of one, comes from horrified European media, and I’ll be interested to make my own observations as a semi-permanent resident. But one thing’s for certain – there are certainly a lot of poor black people on the streets here. People with obvious mental health problems, people with clear drug addictions, people who obviously don’t have a dime or a cent to their name – these I saw every day on the streets of Paris and to some extent in London. But I don’t think I’ve ever seen these problems so clearly restricted to one socio-economic group. Perhaps this is just a Washington thing? In France, there are a lot of Roma (gypsy) beggars (so much so that President Sarkozy tried to have them all shipped back off to Romania, with limited success.) But they weren’t the only people asking for your euros, trying to steal your phone or shouting alcohol or drug-fuelled obscenities at you. In this city, that dubious distinction seems to belong, so far in my experience, almost only to black people. (This is not to say I’ll be thrilled if a white or Asian man nicks my Blackberry.)


The view from our new apartment on 8th and E.

The view from our new apartment on 8th and E.


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