14 October 2007

USA part 2

National this, American that

Thursday 30 August – Culture vulture

John F Kennedy once said that Washington DC boasted a unique mix of ‘Southern efficiency and Northern hospitality’. As far as a sense of character goes, DC’s spirit is shrouded in imposing imperial edifices. It’s a city of sweeping architectural significance, with mammoth parks strewn with monuments and statues of impressively-dressed Presidents and stern-jowled war heroes, girding rows upon rows of neo-classical edifices containing the National this, the American that. (The Australians loved the impersonal approach too, and built Canberra along similar lines).

DC is not built for people to live in, although plenty do and many enjoy it; it was built as a testament to the kingly reverence with which the Founding Fathers held George Washington. Later on, it was augmented by the application of the vast wealth of what became the world’s richest nation, to show the rest of the world that the US had gravitas and restrained style on the largest possible scale.

My hostel was less than grand, but it was in a good location, and boasted an odd sort of breakfast (far too many things with sugar in them) for a mere dollar. On the downside, my dorm housed a thirty-something quantity surveyor from Nevada with a god-awful window-rattling snore, and the criminally-overpowered air-conditioning rendered the whole floor icily cold, despite the 30-degree night-time heat outside. I must’ve been the only guy in DC who slept with a jersey on that night!

I set out for a day’s exploring, strolling the kilometre to the fence ringing 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, a.k.a. the White House (pic). Unless you’re on a tour, it’s definitely a long-distance view from between the railings, all the time eyed up by numerous law enforcement types. The only sign of movement is a change in shift in the special forces snipers on the White House roof – decked out in tan fatigues, rifle-bags slung over their shoulders, pistols strapped to their hips.

As the day warmed up and the temperature rose and rose, I admired the neoclassical architecture of the various federal agencies nearby, including the clean lines of the stone masks guarding the Environmental Protection Agency, and snapped a photo of a stray butterfly feeding on a wavering flower (pic) beside the busy Constitution Avenue thoroughfare that runs along The Mall from the Capitol to the Lincoln Memorial. Then I took advantage of Washington’s greatest asset – one of its many free attractions, the National Museum of Natural History. I would’ve loved the dinosaur skeleton exhibits when I was 11! Nowadays I preferred other exhibits like the stunning National Geographic animal photography, and the minerals exhibit including the famous Hope and Tiffany Diamonds.

Next I visited the broad halls of the National Gallery of Art, or at least the west wing of it. It holds a world-class collection of European and American art, but it was certainly odd to see people taking flash photography of Rembrandt self-portraits – this is one of the few art galleries I’ve been to that permits the use of a flash. But I couldn’t bring myself to fire a strobe at a masterpiece, no matter what the rules. So instead I soaked up all the centuries of artworks:

• the beautiful chalice of the Abbot Suger of Saint-Denis, a pre-Christian era cup set in a stunning 12th-century silver mounting
• a detailed wood relief of the Holy Kinship from 15th-century Franconia
• an imposing 16th-century bust of a Knight of Santiago
• a regal bronze of Louis XIV from circa 1700, depicting his luscious locks and swirling cape to good effect
• a stately portrait of Madame Moitessier from 1851 by Ingres, which I had seen in a 1999 exhibition at the National Gallery in London

After lunch I paused briefly at the National Archives to pay a visit to the impressive hall with a high domed ceiling, in which the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights are displayed. Off to one side sits a lonely 1297 copy of the Magna Carta. More entertaining are the Archives collections of letters sent to US presidents over the years, like the one seeking Ronald Reagan’s assistance to declare a child’s bedroom a disaster area, or the friendly hand-written missive from a 12-year-old Cuban boy to President Roosevelt introducing himself and requesting a US ten dollar bill in return. The young boy’s name was Fidel Castro.

As the afternoon ebbed into early evening I explored the sculpture gardens, and was most impressed by a bizarre yet seemingly accurate fibreglass model of a typewriter eraser that happened to be five metres high. By then I was feeling peckish, so I detoured up Louisiana Avenue to Union Station for an excellent burger in the long tiled foodcourt.

Friday 31 August – The final frontier

Another sleepless night led me to extract myself from the hostel as soon as possible in the morning. Walking south to the Mall past Ford’s Theatre where President Lincoln was shot in April 1865, I crossed the grassy Mall to wait for the opening of the huge National Air & Space Museum – the most visited museum in the world. While the Natural History Museum was interesting, the Air & Space was definitely my sort of place. I ended up spending four hours poring through the many exhibits and ogling the many multitude of aircraft and spacecraft hanging from the roof of the vast building, including Lindberg’s Spirit of St Louis, the first aircraft to fly the Atlantic non-stop, Amelia Earhart’s bright orange Lockheed Vega, the original Wright Flyer from 1903 with its massive 12hp engine, and the pint-sized but epoch-making Apollo 11 Command Module. And the museum featured a selection of material from the closed-for-refurbishment National Museum of American History, including the original R2D2 and C3PO suits from Star Wars, President Lincoln’s top hat, Kermit the Frog, the ruby slippers from The Wizard of Oz, the Lone Ranger’s mask from the 1950s TV series, and Seinfeld’s ‘puffy shirt’ (pic) from a well-known 1993 TV episode. This section displayed a section of a cafeteria counter and four stools: these were the famous seats in which four black youths staged a sit-in at a “whites only” Woolworth’s café lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina, in 1960, which later sparked similar sit-ins all across the segregated South.

Having taken my fill of wonderful aircraft, I then partook of more lofty entertainment by visiting the east wing of the Museum of Art, which was designed by I.M. Pei, the chap who would later erect the stylish glass pyramid in the central court of the Louvre. I particularly enjoyed the Museum’s modern art displays of some of the world’s most celebrated artists: Mark Rothko’s bright swathes of colour (pic), Jackson Pollock’s wild outburst of chaotic splatters, Jasper Johns’ stylised American flags, Piet Mondrian’s angular abstracts, Roy Liechtenstein, Picasso, and more. I also went a bit mad photographing the sweeping steel walls of the museum underpass, which took my fancy.

Taking a spell in the powerful afternoon sunshine, I wandered behind the Capitol Building to see the imposing Supreme Court Building, and explored the ornate interior of the old Library of Congress Building (pic). Then I took the Metro westwards to Foggy Bottom and walked down to see the Lincoln Memorial and admire the view along the length of the Reflecting Pool, past the Washington Monument to the Capitol Building, about 3.6 kilometres away. I walked back eastwards the length of the Mall, taking in the solemn black marble Vietnam Memorial (pic) carved with all the names of the US dead, the circular WW2 Memorial with its jetting fountains, and the towering spectacle of the Washington Monument, the 169 metre marble obelisk that dominates the city skyline.

At the conclusion of the day’s epic trek I staggered back up to the hostel, footsore and weary, to write my postcards and plan my next excursions.

Saturday 1 September – Rockin’ the Galaxy

I was able to get a decent night’s sleep because the snoring guy must’ve fled back to his evil lair, so it was a slightly later start. I booked a place for the Capitol tour in the early afternoon, then went to the nearby Postal Museum to pass an hour or so before lunch. It would be stretching the truth to describe the museum as exciting, but at least there was only a relatively small section devoted to stamps. Most of the collection was designed to tell the story of the US Postal Service, which is actually kind of interesting given the history and the scale of the operation. I particularly enjoyed the sections of the museum that showed how the postal service helped knit together the young country, and the story of the Pony Express, which lasted less than two years but still left an indelible mark on the American psyche. The museum also displays the keys from the Titanic’s mailbags.

The Capitol tour was led by a keen young chap called Trip (or was it Chip? or Biff?), who rattled through the potted history of the grand rotunda, the old Senate chamber (now littered with umpteen statues of politicians donated by the states – including the Vermont war hero Ethan Allen, and the Louisiana payola hero Huey Long), the old Supreme Court room in which the first ever telegram was sent by Samuel Morse in 1844, and the crypt designed to hold the tomb of George Washington. Unfortunately the spot is empty because Washington died in Virginia and the state refused to allow his remains to leave the state!

The afternoon sunshine was even more punishing than usual – even the sliver of shade afforded by a slender lamppost at a pedestrian crossing was worthwhile. I slunk into the cool domain of the National Portrait Gallery, which has more than its fair share of paintings of wealthy middle-aged white men from the 19th century. More interesting were the photographs of the wedding of Tom Thumb to a similarly minuscule lady during the Civil War in 1863 (apparently it set off a media frenzy at the time).

In the early evening I met up with Ruth and Phil and Ruth’s sister Adair, with the plan of seeing their friends’ bands play later that night. We went for a nice glass of wine in trendy Adams-Morgan, and followed it up with an Ethiopian dinner in a nearby eatery. Then we took our places in the indie-scene local music venue the Galaxy Hut, where the star attractions of the evening were Ruth & Phil’s friends in Victor/Victoria, supported by band-within-a-band Cobra In A Cash Register (which is a Simpsons reference). The support act consisted of two spunky Tegan and Sara fans on keys and lead guitar, sporting big chords and sweet singing, and gracing the performance with their signature tune, (Do You Like) Burritos? Then the Cobra girls were joined by a funky drummer, an Amazonian girl bassist, an elegant cellist and the star of the show, Victor herself. The band wore tuxedo t-shirts, and the lead singer… well, it’s not every day you see a drag act dressed as Amy Winehouse. Quite convincing it was too, although the faux-English accent might’ve been a little fishy. The 80s covers that Victor/Victoria jammed on were top notch, attaining a peak of authentic excitement in their cover of Sisters of Mercy’s 'More', in which the relentless cello refrain instilled a frantic sense of immediacy and drama. Victor’s lead vocals impressed too, reminding me of Brian Molko from Placebo.

After the gig finished and a bit of chatting in the bar, we retired to Ruth & Phil’s friends’ place in nearby Clarendon, and I managed to get to bed by 1.45am, ears still buzzing from the lively gig.
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