Until a few years back, my only exposure to Washington, D.C. was what I had observed up from watching movies and television. My main impression was that D.C. was where politicians and lobbyists hashed out what the special interest groups deemed the "right" direction for our country's policies.
Basically I saw the district as a place where the powerful of our country influenced policy for their own personal gain while the majority of the population were left with little recourse.
When I was first sent near Washington on business with a coworker, I was talked into driving into town so that he could see the capital. Reluctantly, I agreed, and we jumped in our rental car to experience D.C. traffic first hand. We parked the car and fed all of our loose change into a meter for a 40 minute run around the Mall.
This experience gave me another impression. Seeing all the monuments didn't fill me with pride, but rather of a galvanization of our country's complete lack of modesty. The scale of things was skewed to the absurd and I was embarrassed by it in front of my coworker who was born in China.
Time went by and I was sent to George Town. This time I started to see some of the neighborhoods and meet some of the people that call D.C. home. What really started to turn me around was meeting up with one of my wife's college friends and going to Rockland's BBQ. Being shown around by a local really let me see more than the negative things that have been building in my mind for untold years. In Dupont Circle there's a bookstore/coffee shop/bar; any city that can support that kind of shop can't be that bad.
And so, on a cool fall night, standing in front of a Dixieland style band in Dupont Circle, while the impact hammers of a road construction crew rang in the background, I had a change of heart about Washington D.C.
My wife and I recently visited her college friend before he moved to China on a Fulbright scholarship. We went to visit him and went to see D.C. as I had never done so before, as tourists.
To my surprise, D.C. isn't all business, and there's plenty for tourists to do. There are more museum's than you can shake a stick at and most of them do not charge admission. The only museum that we wanted to visit that we didn't get to go into was the Air and Space museum. We were turned away at the entrance on account of my Swiss Army knife having a screwdriver on it (actually it has three). Apparently, they are worried about people with Swiss Army knives taking home souvenirs.
What they should really be worried about are the little kids damaging priceless works of art over at the National Portrait Gallery.
The National Portrait Gallery is a lot more interesting than it sounds. I was a bit hesitant about visiting it at first, but it was great. They even have a decent bronze collect and an area where you can learn about art restoration.
Once we passed through the hall containing each president in sequence, there was a hall containing presidents depicted in their steady decline to death. It's a little morbid, but I went with it. A little girl stood fixated on a painting of Lincoln on his deathbed, whipped up her camera and took a flash picture. She turned to her mother and said, "I got it right here!" while she rapped Lincoln's face with her knuckle. Her mother sighed and said that she probably didn't need to touch the paintings.
I stood back and waited for a docent to jump out of the woodwork and beat the life out of the child, but there were no repercussions to this heinous act. My expectations may seem a little harsh, but conditioning is a powerful thing, and my conditioning had been completed downstairs about 45 minutes prior to this incident.
Downstairs the gallery shows off their latest acquisitions and we found the now iconic piece of artwork depicting Barack Obama titled HOPE. During the last presidential election this piece was converted into poster form and was widely distributed. While still powerful, what these copies lack is that the original was not done on a solid canvass, but rather on a collage of vintage newspapers and bits of wallpaper.
I had no idea that this piece had such great detail and I touched the velvet rope gently to steady myself while I got a better look at a newspaper clipping. Unknown to myself prior to this point, touching the velvet rope was tantamount to licking the art and I was greeted by a booming voice warning me to, "Step away from the painting". I recoiled slightly and I took a long look at the docent, who could have easily passed for a bouncer at an exclusive nightclub.
Doing the math in my head, I figured that I, who couldn't pass as a bouncer at a bingo parlor, stood no chance against this particular docent so I stepped back. At least our paintings were well guarded I thought. Now you understand my disgust at what happened in the gallery above.
Visiting the touristy parts of D.C. put us in contact with a wide variety of tourists. Many of the visitors to D.C. were actually from other countries, and many different languages could be heard everywhere you went. That the capital can draw in such a diverse crowd from all over the world seemed fitting as the United States is a similar gathering of people from around the world. Coming to this realization felt good.
While I was disappointed to be turned away from the Air and Space Museum, the visit showed me more of the softer side of D.C., one that was good for my outlook on the country that I live in. I'm not saying that D.C. isn't where the powerful form policy in their own interest, but it does have free museums.
Have you had a similar perspective changing experience while traveling? I'd love to hear about it in the comments section below.
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