12th January 2008 – Washington DC
I’m sitting on a transatlantic flight reading American Psycho. Rather worryingly (and coincidentally), the fat American sitting next to me keeps speaking and grunting to himself and giving people aggressive stares. Fortunately, I survive the flight and land in Virginia. It’s my tenth state but the first time I’ve been to the US since 1991 so I’m looking forward expand my photography into a new continent. However, I’m only in Virginia for about an hour as my real destination is another new state for me – the District of Colombia. I’m swiftly processed through immigration, but only once I confirm that I haven’t got any terrorist links and I was not involved with the Nazi concentration camps between 1939 and 1945.
I arrive in Washington DC and the first thing that strikes me is how incredibly empty it is. I exit Foggy Bottom Metro and apart from a few stalls and students, the place looks deserted. It’s also very spacious and modern-looking but (with the USA’s short history) that doesn’t surprise me. It’s like a Disney film set as everything looks too clean and organised; it just looks completely fake. I mean, there are even hundreds of tame squirrels jumping around your feet!
I walk a few blocks (I’ve waited years to say that…) to find my hotel and I’m pleased to see that I’ve got the largest room I could ever dream of having. Although I really can’t think why I might need my own kitchen!
It was an early flight from Heathrow so with the time difference it’s now about 1pm and I’ve got half a day to explore Washington. I immediately head south towards The Mall. I’m overwhelmed by the size of everything and the whole area is littered with monuments and memorials. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial is particularly moving, with 1,421 names across a huge black wall. Apparently the designer, Maya Lin, was 21 when she won a competition for the design. Strangely, she only got a B-grade!
The Korean War Veterans Memorial, with the details of the number of dead, injured or missing fighters, is also shocking. I see a postcard of this memorial when the ground is covered in snow and it looks absolutely amazing. I can only hope that I’m lucky and the snow falls before I leave in eight days.
Next is the Lincoln Memorial; I actually feel nervous as I walk up the famous steps towards the statue. I’ve seen it in so many films and knowing that it means so much to Americans is very emotional. Abraham doesn’t disappoint; the statue is enormous, powerful and looks so pristine that it could have been made yesterday. Despite the hundreds of tourists, it doesn’t feel crowded and I’ve never seen such respect for other photographers as I have in Washington so far. Everyone appears to wait for their turn and avoid walking in front of each other.
Seeing the Washington Monument in the distance is great, especially with the lovely reflection in the water which reminds me of the scenes in Forrest Gump after the Vietnam War. Unfortunately the sun is already low in the sky and I’m losing the possibility of good shots. In any case, there are no more tickets to climb the Monument today, so I’m advised by a very friendly member of staff to come back tomorrow morning. The people who work or volunteer are all so incredibly pleasant that it really makes you feel welcome as a tourist. Saying that, when I ask her whether morning or evening is better for the view from the top, her enthusiastic answer isn’t exactly what I’m looking for: “Any time is great! As long as there’s sun!”
I make my way to the White House and I’m surprised how close the perimeter is to the building. The fence isn’t high and there are very few policemen around. Mind you, every single one of them carries a gun. It makes me wonder whether you could get closer to Buckingham Palace or the White House. I think you’d probably get closer to Mr Bush, but I reckon you’d likely get a bullet for your efforts. I’m tempted to ask one of the guards whether people have tried to climb over, but I don’t want to push my luck. After all, it is my first day…
13th January 2008 – Washington DC
At 8.30 I head straight to the Washington Monument. I thought the city was deserted yesterday but today it’s like a ghost town. The homeless are still wrapped up in their blankets and the only other people are the two policemen outside the White House. I’m in the first group to climb to the 555th foot viewpoint of the monument. Disappointingly, there are windows at the top which are filthy on both sides. Furthermore, the sun is still pretty low in the sky, so although the view is ideal for watching over Washington, it’s pretty hopeless for photos.
I enter the National Air and Space Museum and among the items on display are the Apollo 11 Command Module and the 1903 Wright Flyer. They have been preserved fantastically and it’s unbelievable that this fragile-looking module went to the moon and back.
The rest of the museum is interesting but unspectacular, however, just like the Washington Monument, it’s free so I don’t mind whizzing through. Just before I leave, I spot a flight simulator so I decide to have a go at being an air force pilot (this does cost me a few dollars). For the first few minutes I’m flying around trying to find the enemy plane. The simulator rocks about as you’d expect it to and just as I’ve locked onto the enemy plane, it screams by me. I turn the control to make a 180 turn and suddenly the whole simulator turns upside down! It’s absolutely great fun and I spend the next couple of minutes rocking about trying to find my target. Unfortunately my time runs out and I’ve failed to get a Medal of Honour, but I take some consolation that I survived my first mission…
I exit the museum and the sun makes a short appearance, just long enough to get a few shots of the Capitol building, which unfortunately is closed on Sundays. The Library of Congress is also closed today so I walk on towards the US Supreme Court which has some towering pillars holding up the entrance. I get told off for sitting on the floor (simply taking a photo) and then make my way to the Old Downtown. Pennsylvania Avenue links the White House to the US Capitol and apparently it used to be full of seedy shops, until John F Kennedy said, ‘It’s a disgrace – fix it.’
It did the job as it’s a wide, clean road that sums up the power that stands at each of its ends. I take 6th Street up towards the MCI Center and suddenly it feels like I’ve walked out of a theme park and into a real city. Finally there’s rubbish on the floor, cars everywhere and people buzzing around every street corner. It turns out there’s a big game about to start and I decide it’s worth a visit. I’m not sure whether to go for a $50 or $65 seat, so I ask the vendor which is best for someone who has never watched basketball before. She looks at me strangely and with a slight hint of humour she replies, ‘This is ice hockey, sir.’
I walk around the block into Chinatown, which is very small and then noticing the time I settle for the Green Turtle sports bar. My enthusiastic waiter asks me about 100 questions about which type of burger and which brand of beer I’d like. Looking around, everyone wears their team colours and they almost look ridiculous in their American Football shirts without any padding. However, despite the real sense of sporting pride, there’s a much calmer atmosphere than you’d find in any sports bar in London.
My meal is huge (although not as big as the half kilo burger you can order!) and I do enjoy watching the ice hockey, even if the random fights are entirely daft. Perhaps I’ll see a game next week.
The US Navy memorial is picturesque (although difficult to capture in a photo) and the FBI building is massively disappointing. It’s very ugly and I can’t imagine Mulder & Scully getting excited about going there every day…
On the other hand, the Old Post Office is a delight. The 12 storey building was nearly torn down in 1934, but has since been redesigned with shops and restaurants inside. The observation deck gives a fantastic view and the lack of glass means I can finally take some shots across the capital. I meet Chuck, an American who lives south of the river who is only too happy to tell me about how Washington has changed and the difference before and after 9/11. He also confirms my thought that you really can’t visit the White House any more unless you have a congressional or embassy invite. Crap.
It’s time to return to my hotel and head north-west to Virginia again, to officially begin my business trip. I’ll return to the capital on Friday and with a bit of luck, I’ll find it covered with a thick layer of snow…
18-19th January 2008 – Washington DC
This morning was tough. Three hours sleep and far too much to drink last night in Georgetown means I struggle to return to tourist mode. A big Thursday night with work colleagues doesn’t help matters either.
Friday evening was a little intense, mixing all kinds of drinks and food (apple crumble with melted cheese?!?) and things got silly when we tried to convince our waitress that there was a drink called a Purple Helmet! Undefeated, she returned to our table with a new American cocktail, which coagulated nicely in my stomach…
This morning, I show Chris and Dan around the main monuments before finding our way to the Spy Museum. The interactive museum even allows you to have your own secret identity as you wander around “completing tasks” but it’s lost on me as I can barely keep my eyes open. Mr Bond, I am not.
Hoping some calories will perk me up, I try a McDonalds (supersize of course!) It’s absolutely enormous – ridiculous in fact – and now I feel knackered and bloated. Last night our waitress told us about the reality of their salaries and how much they depend on tips. It has helped me avoid being the typical “10% British guy”, but Dan takes it to hilarious levels. He’s also so knackered that he can’t be arsed calculating the percentage and in one place he unknowingly tips 60%. The challenge begins to be the first to tip 100%…
My colleagues get themselves on a flight back to the UK, so I try a power nap to get me out of this daze. It does the trick and by sunset I’m out doing some evening photography. Strangely, the Reflecting Pool is practically empty and the only reason I can think why (other than to clean it) is that perhaps they don’t want it to ice over in case morons like me decide to slide across it…
It has become extremely cold since last week (the snow came and went unfortunately) and the freezing conditions totally wake me up. In fact, I’m so awake that I can’t resist another session in Georgetown with my newly found DC friends. Glug glug.
20th January 2008 – Washington DC
Washington has impressed me with its efficient city: Cleanliness, friendly locals, straightforward road layouts, maps everywhere, signs to help every tourist. It appears to be the epitome of efficiency.
However, I decide to find the Marine Corps War Memorial by foot and to say that was a bad idea would be the biggest understatement of the year… It appears to be the only area of Washington that doesn’t cater for pedestrians and I end up performing some of America’s best ever jaywalking. I’m skipping across four-lane speedways before I attempt to cross the Theodore Roosevelt Bridge (which has no proper pavement) struggling against a biting wind so strong that I would have been more comfortable in a wind tunnel. I cannot begin to describe how cold it is.
However, I don’t actually feel so bad, so I guess the two mile walk is possible the best hangover cure I could ever imagine. It’s worth the struggle across the bridge as the clear blue skies allow for some great shots of this Iwo Jima monument. Having recently seen Flags of our Fathers, it’s a touching monument that I’m pleased I’ve seen. Nearby, is the shocking Arlington Cemetery, which is worth a visit just in itself. The row upon row of headstones is a shocking reminder of recent history and further strengthens my confusion why there are no monuments in the UK such as those found in Washington DC.
Further south, is the disappointing Pentagon building. Photography is totally banned but it wouldn’t be worth it anyway. I catch the (nice and warm!) metro back to the Old Downtown and with a soup and pizza, I finally feel like I’m back to normal body temperature.
However, the lack of sleep finally hits home and I’m suddenly absolutely exhausted. In the Gordon Bierch bar, a Red Bull does nothing for me. And then a Red Bull with vodka doesn’t do me any favours. So I soak in the atmosphere and watch the American Football. I’ve been utterly impressed with Washington and cannot wait to return, so it’s with a little sadness that my trip is already over and I have to catch the red-eye home.