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23rd November
2008
written by Tony
Some nice light on the Captiol dome.

Some nice light on the Capitol dome.

Recently I took my first trip to our nation's capital. Steph was giving a talk at the SFN (Society for Neuroscience) conference on her research and I thought it would not only be a great chance to see her in her element, but also to take some time to explore a city that greatly interested me. The more research that I did the more enthusiastic I became about the prospect of wandering around the city. From what I could gather from my initial research, the metro system around downtown was fairly extensive and would offer more than enough mobility during our stay, which it did admirably. More on that later. Of particular interest were the Smithsonian museums, which to my delight I discovered were all free admittance. I've always been fascinated with the museums, especially the Air and Space Museum and this chance to see it first hand was something I'd been wanting for a long time. Our first day in the city was spent visiting the monuments, which did not disappoint. The weather, however, did. The first day was rainy and slightly cold (though not terrible). The rain did diminish the experience of the outdoor monuments, to be sure, but they were still impressive to behold.

Saturday

So real you could almost touch it.

So real you could almost touch it.

Our first stop after we got off the metro was the White House. While it is cool to see the place where the president puts his pants on every day, it was, admittedly, a little anti-climactic. After wading through all of the barriers and fences we finally got within about 400 feet of the place and had to stick our camera through the fence to get this shot. Apparently tours are next to impossible to secure, unless you know someone (this per a co-worker who got a tour - she does, in fact, know someone). From the White House we moved toward the National Mall. On the way we passed the Federal Reserve bank, the Treasury department Building and the Commerce building. Apparently they do okay, judging by the palatial nature of their institutions. At least our tax money built some pretty buildings, I'd have been disappointed if they looked like your typical government complex. By this point I was beginning to be impressed with the walkability and general cleanliness of downtown DC. The city has had the misfortune of a rather gritty reputation, which at this point I would say is entirely undeserved. I realize that there has been a substantial "our nation's capital should not also be the capital of mugging" campaign and it seems to have paid off. During our whole stay I never found the city to be frightening or unpleasant, and we were out after dark, both downtown and on the metro.
I don't get it. It's just a big phallic symbol. What's so cool about that?

I don't get it. It's just a big phallic symbol. What's soooo cool about that?

Our first stop on the mall was the Washington Monument. While I was impressed - it's really an experience to see something so iconic in American History and media - Steph was admittedly... underwhelmed. Apparently 555 foot tall monuments to National freedom are a dime a dozen in Canada. I think what impressed me the most was the placement and the austerity of the thing. It is the tallest thing in DC (due to the law that no building may be taller than the capital. No, Steph, this does not apply to monuments) and its construction from white marble makes it really very fine to see. Yes, it is simple, but that is the message good old GW wanted to convey. Simple strength. Indefatigability. In any case, I was impressed. Also, as we discovered later, it is quite a bit prettier at night. The lights on the marble really make it a beacon on the DC skyline. Our rainy trek continued on to the Lincoln Memorial. It would have been a beautiful walk down an autumnal lane next to the wonderful lake leading to the monument had it not been for the miserable pissing rain that had been persisting all morning.
Looking out from the Lincoln Memorial. We're adorable.

Looking out from the Lincoln Memorial. We're adorable.

The Lincoln Memorial is nothing if not impressive. The Mall is two miles long, but the sheer size of the monuments all along it belie that distance. When we finally arrived at the memorial our feet were already feeling the punishment, and we were barely into our day. As we climbed the steps we were presented with the enormous marble visage of Abe himself. He cuts (statue pun, sweet!) an imposing figure, to say the least and we found ourselves quite in awe of this testament to his will. So, apparently, did the wedding party having their pictures taken (and their silken finery ruined). A strange choice for wedding photos, but whatever flips your switch, I suppose. As our stay at the monument came to an end so did the rain, blessedly.
Suck on this, Kodak!

Suck on this, Kodak!

As the clouds scudded away to the west, the beginning of a wonderful sunset peeked out from behind the Memorial and shone on the Washington Monument and capital building, creating one of those Moments® every photographer hopes for. However, being the pain in the ass that I am, I have a long standing policy of not bringing my real gear on any vacation. It's been my experience that when I come prepared to take "actual" photographs the rest of my vacation experience is diminished. Finding and setting up good shots takes enough effort to effectively eliminate any actual leisure experiences I might have while on my trip. I take enough pictures for work, that experience can stay at work. From here we made the brief walk to the Viet Nam Memorial, another Washington DC classic I have always wanted to see, but less for me than for my father. He served in Viet Nam and was awarded the Purple Heart and the Bronze Star for distinguished service, and seeing this memorial was more to honor him than anything else. By this time it was starting to get dark, but there was still enough light to appreciate the alabaster splendor of the memorial. Designed to look like a scar in the earth, you descend into the V it forms, flanked on the left by the engraved names of the fallen. While the memorial wasn't as large as I had imagined, the sheer magnitude of the number of names and the tokens left by other visitors was moving in itself, and I think there is a lot of justification in saying this is one of the most powerful memorials I have ever seen.
The grounds around the memorial were also beautiful.

The grounds around the memorial were also beautiful.

From there we began our long trek back along the mall in the rapidly thinning twilight. We reached the Washington Monument by nightfall and were newly impressed with its nighttime visage. This viewing prompted Steph to actually express some appreciation for the monument. By now our feet were ready to give out so we decided to call it a night and head back to our friend's house for the evening.

Sunday

The next morning was an early one, due to Steph's 8 a.m. talk session. Also, though the rain had stopped, the temperature had decided it had enough of this moderate fall/winter nonsense and switched over to just plain winter. It was cold, and I found myself, though prepared, not quite prepared enough. After Steph's talk we resolved to go see some museums, but due to a horrible shoe malfunction, we ended up cutting our visit to the actually rather unimpressive Natural History Museum short, taking a nap in the Smithsonian National Art Institute's lobby (ah, the homeless life), buying new shoes for Steph and a scarf for me. After the new shoes we decided to go to the National Archives and do the Art Institute the next day. Sadly, the archives were closed due to a Veterans for Peace rally, members of which had climbed the scaffolding surrounding the building and were busy being harassed by DC's finest. So, we walked to the capital, which was a cold walk but pleasant visually. The light was nice when we arrived providing a wonderful vista in which we were able to bask in the glow of bureaucracy (see photo one). We also noticed that the scaffolding for the inauguration was being built, which was kind of an exciting sight. From here we traveled (via metro) to a dinner with Steph's lab mates, the details of which I will spare our gentle reader (you missed nothing, I assure you, other than a confused circular stroll around the entire block in Chinatown at 10:00 on a Sunday looking for an open bar. Seriously?) and instead I will talk about the DC metro.

The DC Metro

All the stations had coiffierd ceilings and were very clean.

All the stations had cofferd ceilings and were very clean.

I was impressed with the metro for several reasons. First, the cleanliness and relatively modern feel. The metro was constructed recently, and built well. Even the smallest stations were not claustrophobic and all had little LED boards that let riders know when the next trains were arriving and what line they were (for transfer stations). Second, the coverage of the downtown area was excellent, and a bus ride was never required to get to pretty much any destination we wanted. Third, the speed at which the trains traveled. The metro moves very fast, making cross town journeys quite expedient. Contrasted with the last subway I rode on, the Chicago underground, this was a nice experience. When we rode on Chicago's dilapidated system, not only were the stations small, dirty and a little frightening, there were often "slow zones" where the train had to reduce its speed, lest we all die. Not very inspiring, that. So this was a nice change. Well done DC. Well done indeed.

Monday

Some of the impressive architecture of the Smithsonian buildings

Some of the impressive architecture of the Smithsonian buildings

On Monday we went to the museums, not nearly all of them, but we did hit the highlights. We went to the National Archives, and actually got in this time. It was very, very cool to see the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights and the Constitution up front and in person, though I will say time has wrought its damage on them, as they are mostly faded into oblivion. From there we went to the National Gallery of Art and saw the west wing, which contains works from the 13th through the 18th century. Though the collection was not as big as some, the quality, I feel, surpassed any museum I have been to so far. We were particularly impressed with the Flemish painters, including Jan Lievens, Rembrandt Van Rijn, et al. The collection of Rembrandts was exquisite and by far one of the best galleries I have ever seen. There is no way to really appreciate a painting like that other than in person. I also got to see several of my other favorites, including some nice El Greco pieces.

Tuesday

Tuesday was the Air and Space Museum. After a late start we made our way over to experience the magic of the history of flight. Perhaps that is hyperbole, but it was still a very nice experience. All the famous airplanes/spacecraft that I remember from my childhood were spaced out through the enormous facility, and we managed to see all of it in about four hours. While it wasn't the most awesome thing ever, it was pretty cool, and seeing as I am, like most men, fascinated with all things mechanical, it was a pretty neat experience. One caveat is that a majority of the displays are fairly outdated in their design. While this doesn't exactly interfere with the viewing of the exhibits, it does make you think back to the eighties and kind of wonder "what the hell?" Steph proclaimed to like it for the most part, though she fixated more on the videos than anything else. Our particular favorite was a piece in which a cartoon moon essentially admits that he may be a hermaphrodite, but he'll "never say for sure." Charming. The fact that his face appears to be quite fleshy and that, rather than closing his mouth he purses his lips, does not help our (or his) dilemma.

Wednesday / Summary

Wednesday was our travel day, and besides a lengthy sleep-in session there is little to report, other than the fact that Ollie's Trolley on 12th and Pennsylvania makes an excellent burger. Also, the people at Fogo de Chão are liars. If you really want to know, you can ask. All in all, I loved the city. With a wonderfully effective mass-transit system, plenty to do (and a lot of it free) and a clean, lively downtown, I declare DC to be a lovely, very livable city and I look forward to returning, soon hopefully.
This is where America happens. According to Steph.

This is where America happens. According to Steph.

1 Comment

  1. Paul Kuehn
    01/21/2009

    Thanks for the tribute, you’re a damn good son, Pop

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