Tag Archive | United States

Washington DC

Capitol Hill

I arrived in DC at 7:40pm on April 16.

I was supposed to meet my parents, my sister and my cousin (who were all doing trips of their own) at 7:00, and I anxiously wondered if they’d still be there as I dragged my suitcase across Greyhound bus station to the exit.

I got outside and realised that I didn’t know what car they’d be driving – not the make, or the model, or even the colour. After a couple of minutes of no one honking or shouting, I went back inside.

I circled the station, but couldn’t see anyone I knew.

But wait! There was another exit!

I walked like the wind out the second exit, and once again didn’t know which car to look for. A minute passed. And a second. After five I started to worry – my phone didn’t work in the States, so I had no way of contacting them. Were they waiting for me to tell them that I’d arrived? Had they been waiting at another bus station since 7:00?

Or, had I arrived on the wrong day?

I didn’t know where we were staying, or even how to get to the city from where I was. Would I need to sleep in the bus station overnight? I looked inside – on this trip I’ve slept in hostels, on couches, on trains, on an airport floor, and have stayed awake on planes – if I had to, this would be my most unsanitary night yet.

After waiting for another five minutes, I went inside to a payphone. My last $3 weren’t going to get me far (especially since the phone only accepted coins), but look – there was a call-collect number!

I dialled the number, then that of my mother.

And got her answering machine.

I dialled the number again, and tried my sister’s phone.

“Hello?” she said as the recorded voice told her that she had a collect call from me.

“Oh, I’ve got a call from Jolie,” she said to my parents.

“Rhiannon, if you can hear me, would you please press ‘one’ to accept the call?” I asked, hoping that she could hear me through the recorded voice.

She didn’t, and the recorded voice asked if I could pay instead.

I called again, but this time it didn’t get through.

I tried my mum’s number, thinking that she might have turned her phone on after what happened with Rhiannon. Nope – answering machine.

Then Rhiannon came through the door next to the payphones – I was saved!

We spent the next few days looking at the sights, shopping and eating too much. So I ended up with new clothes that fit me when I tried them on . . . but probably don’t anymore :p

I was surprised by how quiet DC was. A long belt of parks runs through the south of the city, and as I went through the memorials at one end and the Smithsonian at the other, I felt like I was at the edge of the world. Even back in Washington’s grid of streets, the streets seemed far too wide for the few people who strolled down them. Yes, the White House, Capitol Hill and the National Spy Museum were all very crowded, but these were the exceptions, rather than the rule.

Smithsonian Castle

As dad had planned the first couple of days, we made our way through the city in a much more methodical method than I’m used to. On day 1 we started at the White House (just looking at the outside – apparently you need permission from your consulate to visit, and because so many Aussies go to the US the Australian Consulate has stopped signing the forms in protest), then made our way through all of the war memorials and presidential memorials, and finished with the park of Smithsonian museums.

WWII memorial

The WWII Memorial comprises 56 granite pillars forming two semi-circles around a plaza and pool with two 13 metre arches on opposite sides. Each pillar holds a grey wreath and bears the name of a state, and the two arches each house four angels holding another wreath. At 103 metres by 73 metres, I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a large war memorial.

Korean War Memorial

The Korean War Veterans Memorial is a long triangle of grass intersecting a circle, walled in black granite with over 2,500 photos representing troops sandblasted onto the wall. Standing on the triangle are 19 stainless steel statues of larger-than-life-sized soldiers on patrol. At the end of the triangle is the Pool of Remembrance, a shallow pool of black granite that looks like a giant sundial, and is surrounded by trees and benches. And American flag waves behind the pool, reflected in the water.

Roosevelt Memorial

Roosevelt Memorial

Next were the presidential memorials. Although the Lincoln and Jefferson memorials were impressive, my favourite was the Roosevelt Memorial. It is like a garden of stone – walls with large bricks are marked with quotations from Franklin D Roosevelt and small waterfalls and pockets of trees punctuate the maze.

Roosevelt Memorial

On day 2 we visited Capitol Hill, the Library of Congress and then Chloe and I went for a wander around the city while my parents and sister revisited the Smithsonian museums.

Although Capitol Hill is incredibly impressive from the outside – largely recognisable due to its appearance in countless films and television series – it was crawling with people. As we were unable to get a ticket, we needed to wait for 45 minutes for five to become available. If I’d been alone, I would have turned back as soon as I saw the mass of tourists. As I was with my family, and my father and sister really wanted to see it, I had to wait. Seeing it was interesting, our guide was quite entertaining and the dome is beautiful, but I didn’t think it was worth the wait.

Library of Congress

The Library of Congress, on the other hand, was exquisite. The entrance hall is made of white marble, with two staircases leading up to the first floor, each of them lined with statues of little boys who each represent a different trade. The ceiling is painted in red, gold and black, with circular paintings of . . . And the actual library made me yearn for one of my own –

There were four exhibitions on in the building – one of the discovery of the Americas, one about the creation of the US as well as the Declaration of Independence and its constitution, one on Civil War portraits, and Thomas Jefferson’s Library. The Library of Congress was free, there was no wait and it was fairly quiet – excellent value.

After shopping on day 3 (I finally have new runners – my feet can function normally again!), I had day 4 to myself. I visited the Neuseum.

Neuseum

The Neuseum is a museum dedicated to news, including:

Neuseum - Berlin Wall

  • The history of news (including the creation of the printing press, the introduction of radio, TV and the internet, and significant stories), with examples of newspapers dating back to the 1500s
  • The front pages of the development of Hurricane Katrina as well as individual stories from the event
  • The front pages from September 11, a piece of the satellite antenna from the north tower and video footage from the day
  • Seven pieces of the Berlin wall (each weighing three tonnes, this is the largest portion of the Berlin wall outside of Berlin) as well as one of the guard towers
  • A temporary exhibit about the relationship between the FBI and the media, including famous cases
  • Information about different media, including video interviews
  • News ethics (there was a game on a touch-screen table here – you needed to tap the front-page story and decide what you would do in different ethical dilemmas, like whether you would pay for a story or cover something up, etc.)
  • A 3D film about different historic news stories (3D doesn’t really do much for me, but if you’re into that sort of thing you might like it)

At $21.95 (plus tax), it’s the most expensive museum I’ve visited, but with six floors and a ticket that’s valid for two days (so theoretically you could give it to someone else to use for the second day), I thought it was worth it.

Philly and general reflections

Philadelphia

When I first started planning a trip around the world, I was in my early teens and made a list of destinations with my then best friend, Andy.

She added Philadelphia to the list.

“Why Philadelphia?” I asked.

“Because that’s where the cheese comes from.”

As you can see, we were very well educated.

Then, when I was in Egypt, I told the others I would be going to New York City and Washington DC, at which Richard, another student, said I should check out Philly if I had the time. “Philly’s great.”

The former capital of the US (well, for ten years), despite being a city of 1.5 million, I thought Philadelphia had the charm of a small town.

The people had an old-world friendliness and politeness – they acknowledged me on the street with a nod or hat-tip. Customer service people always asked “how are you today?”, “how can I help you?” and always finished with “you have a good day.” It’s strange – meeting men who behaved like complete gentlemen made me feel more like a lady.

Elfreth's Alley

Independence National Historical Park

I stayed at Apple Hostels (which was awesome – they give you free earplugs and nasal strips. Brilliant! Why don’t all hostels do that?) in the historic district, not far from Society Hill. Society Hill is the wealthy part of town – a collection of beautiful tree-lined streets of red-brick buildings with shiny wooden doors and shutters coloured in black, dove-grey, cream, eggshell, wine and green.

Small square parks surround black statues of American notables, bordered by cherry blossoms and 18th and 19th century buildings.

Sights include the Eastern State Penitentiary, South Street and the Independence National Historical Park.

Eastern State Penitentiary

Following the 1787 establishment of the Philadelphia Society for Alleviating the Miseries of Public Prisons Eastern State Penitentiary was opened in 1829 as part of a movement to change the behaviour of criminals through “confinement in solitude with labor”. With a wheel-and-spokes floor-plan (the central guard-post being the hub and each of the cellblocks forming the spokes), it quickly became one of the most copied buildings in the US, with an estimated 300 buildings worldwide based on its floor-plan. Originally each prisoner had his/her own cell with a private walled exercise yard behind the cell (about eight by ten feet, I think) and a trap-door in the cell for food to come through. The theory was that solitude would make the inmates regretful and penitent (hence ‘Penitentiary’) and the entire design limits the inmates’ contact with the guards and other prisoners. However, soon this became very expensive and the prison started bunking inmates together, and officially abandoned confinement in solitude in 1913.

Eastern State Penitentiary was abandoned in 1971 and is now a museum with an audio-guide voiced by Steve Buscemi (I love that there are celebrity voices in the museums here – Meryl Streep narrated a video on vertebrates at the Natural History Museum). It’s really something to see – long-arched cellblocks with peeling paint are lit in white, with door after door leading to the individual cells. You can almost feel the ghosts there.

South Street is a street that lines the south of the city with vintage shops and the Magic Garden (more on that next entry). Several of the buildings are decorated in mosaics, including mirror fragments, and the entire street has a relaxed, bohemian atmosphere.

Independence National Historical Park, in the historic district, is where you’ll see most of Philadelphia’s sights associated with the American Revolution, and comprises Independence Hall, the Liberty Bell, the National Constitution Center, the Mint, Franklin Court and several other historic buildings.

Independence Hall

National Constitution Center

Independence Hall is where the Declaration of Independence was signed, and is also where the Liberty Bell originally hung. It was a lot of fun – after getting a free ticket from the visitors’ centre you get a free 45-minute tour about the history of the building and the Declaration. Our tour guide broke the ice by asking, “who here is from the original thirteen states?”

No one raised their hand.

“Okay, where are you from?” he pointed to a young boy.

“New South Wales?” the kid said uncertainly.

“Okay, you’re not one of us yet.” The guide looked for someone else. “What about you?”

“France.”

“You?”

“Germany.”

“Okay, you,” he pointed to another boy who was wriggling around in his chair, trying to get his hand higher in the air.

“California!”

“Okay,” the guide shook his head, “not one of the original thirteen, but let’s say you’re from New Jersey . . .”

Afterwards we got to see the rooms where the Declaration and the Constitution were drafted and signed.

The entire area is a celebration of American history. The last thing I visited was the National Constitution Center, which is a museum with information about the US Constitution. They have a 17-minute multimedia and theatre presentation called Freedom Rising, in which the actress/presenter discusses the Constitution and talks about the definition of “We the People”, its first three words. As the presentation drew to a close, the music swelled and the actress’s voice rose in pride, and my eyes started to water.

I can’t think of anything like this in Oz (admittedly, I haven’t done these sorts of touristy things there), and I felt sorry about it. I’m incredibly proud of my country, yet there don’t seem to be these displays of patriotism there. I couldn’t imagine the average Aussie family with their hands over their hearts watching the flag rise on Australia Day (why would they do that? The sausages might burn!). There aren’t an abundance of Australian flags in suburbia, most people don’t know the second verse of the Australian anthem, and images of Paul Hogan and Akubras with dangling corks are more likely to cause cringing than flushes of nationalism.

Maybe it’s because the United States had to fight so hard to gain their independence. Maybe it’s because they had to fight so hard to define and defend it once it was won. Whatever the reason, the nation and its government are celebrated in museums, music, art, television and film.

Because of this, most Australians can name more American Presidents than Australian Prime Ministers. There are no popular dramas (that I know of) about Australian politics. There are some songs that instil pride in their listeners, We Are Australian and I Still Call Australia Home, but the celebration of Australia and her history is a fraction of that of the US.

I think many Aussies are proud of where they come from, so maybe we’re too laid-back (read: lazy) to go in for all those theatrics.

Yes we’re a young country, but not that much younger than the US. However, unlike the US we haven’t had a revolution or a civil war. We are a constitutional monarchy, so never claimed our independence and broke free from Great Britain. When we formed a federation in 1901 it was done peacefully.

This raises another question – isn’t creating a united nation through peaceful means something worth celebrating? Or is our nation’s value less because nothing worth having should come easily?

New York, New York

I expected New York to be large and loud, busy and buzzing with energy.

New York was always one of the places where I wanted to live, and I thought that I would be swept up in its pace. What pace? When I left my hostel and walked south on Broadway in peak hour, it was quiet – there were few people and even the cars weren’t honking their horns. I continued south of Central Park, where the buildings grew shinier and the areas became more business focussed than residential, but it was the same.

New York seemed flat and grey. I missed the intimacy of Europe, the tiny alleys and renaissance buildings, the shouting market vendors and bakeries whose aromas pulled me in from the street. In contrast, New York was closed to me, completely anonymous. I walked down 53rd Street and 5th Avenue, feeling like I was just on a supersized version of William Street in Melbourne.

I continued walking, searching for the click that would make everything fall into place. It was as though there was a secret passageway to get into the life of the city, and I hadn’t found it.

By midday I was soaked in the ongoing rain. Then, as I was walking north from Chinatown, past Union Square, someone screaming snatched my attention.

“40 DAYS AND 40 NIGHTS!” a black man with elbow-length dreads in a clear poncho shouted.

Buy an umbrella people!” I jumped back as he bellowed, “it’s cheaper than a doctor’s bill!

“I think he’s scaring people off,” a guy said next to me, and I looked at him in surprise. Was someone actually talking to me?

“Well would you want to buy an umbrella from him?” he asked.

“Of course,” I grinned, “he’s passionate!”

I was in.

Suddenly I was talking to people . . . and (more importantly) seeing food!

Grand Central Station was a warm haven in the rain, and I started to dry off as I wandered through the market centre, looking at the fish, vegetables, fruits, chocolate and baked goods. When I headed back to my hostel that night, I was shocked by how many shops had names that included the words organic, natural, farm-fresh, healthy and gourmet, all of them with fruits and veggies arranged outside.

I prowled through shop after shop, wanting to buy everything. It was only after I’d chosen some salads and yoghurt that I realised I didn’t have any cutlery.

I stayed in the shop where I’d just bought the yoghurt, looking for spoons. There were beautiful sets of five stainless-steel teaspoons for $12, or fifty plastic spoons for $5. $12 was a bit steep for me, but I really didn’t want to buy 50 spoons . . .

I took the escalator to the basement, where two staff members leaned on the plastic cutlery display and chatted. I looked around them.

“Can I help you?” the girl asked.

“I’m just seeing what cutlery you have,” I said as my eyes scanned the numbers on the packets. The lowest seemed to be 25. “I just need one spoon.”

“Oh, go to the deli, Ricardo can give you a spoon,” the guy said.

“Really? Thank you!” I smiled and followed his gestures to the deli.

“Yo, Ricardo!” he shouted across the store. “Boss, would you get this young lady a spoon please, boss?”

Ricardo lifted his head from behind the deli as I arrived, looking suspiciously like he’d been having a nap under the counter. “What?” he looked at me groggily.

“I said would you mind getting this young lady a spoon, if it so pleases you boss sir!”

“Here you go, darling,” Ricardo handed me a spoon with a smile.

After this, New York started growing on me.

I loved ‘suggested price’ ticketing. At the Natural History museum, the ticket kiosk said $16.95 for general admission, and then said if I’d like to pay less I could go to the ticket counters.

So I went to the ticket counter and asked, “so, how does the suggested admission work?”

“You can pay whatever you want,” the girl said.

“Oh, okay. So I could pay, like, $5?” I asked tentatively, not sure if I’d get away with it.

“Sure, $5 please,” she handed me a ticket!

Times Square

I visited Times Square, which was an explosion of neon lights and activity – advertising everywhere, hawkers trying to sell tickets to comedy shows, yellow taxis, tourists, and M&Ms world – exactly what I’d imagined New York would be.

Chelsea

But my favourite place was Chelsea. I went there to see the Chelsea Market – a warehouse of stores connected by exposed brick tunnels, selling food, coffee and wine, with a busker playing an electric cello next to a fountain/waterfall walled in brick and lit in neon purple. Afterwards I wandered around the area, and there I was enchanted by how quiet it was rather than disturbed. Rows of specialty stores lined small streets, along with ethnic restaurants and delis. Apparently art dealers migrated here from Soho in the 1990s, transforming the industrial warehouses into galleries, and now Chelsea is home to 300 galleries, mostly along 10th and 11th avenues. I liked how the factory grit met the boutique glamour – ground floor shops elegant fronts with large windows of goodies on display, while the buildings themselves were stained with smoke and had rusty fire-escapes zigzagging from the ground to the sky.

It’s strange when you consider that I was looking for the busy, glamorous city from The Devil Wears Prada and Sex and the City, that the part I really fell for was nothing like it.