A month ago I traveled to Washington D.C. to do some sight-seeing. Here are a list of 13 things I learned and observed (in the order that they happened, sort of):
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I am not a frequent flyer, so I often forget about routine things like requesting a window seat, etc. Well, I was pleasantly surprised to get one on both flights. Flying always makes me a little queasy, so I like to nap it out, but on the flight out, it was a beautiful sunny day and the clouds were magnificent! On the flight home, we basically chased the sunset the whole way. Such an interesting thing to see.
2. Transportation systems can define a city.
I am not a train specialist, but I can easily compare and contrast Washington D.C.’s Metro to a number of different train lines around the world. The way the train ran on the tracks and the sound of the doors reminded me of NYC. The look of the train, which their squishy plush seats reminded me of St. Louis’ small rail system. The overall feel of the stations reminded me of Rome, in a way, but the tunnels in D.C. have such a unique design. I couldn’t figure out if it was for acoustics or just aesthetics.
3. It is possible to eat healthily and inexpensively in a big city.
I told myself I was only going to spend about $120 on food for 3 and a half days and I stuck pretty close to that. I was staying at the hotel with my aunt and she graciously took me out to eat two times, but other than that, I stuck to a simple breakfast sandwich each morning from the local Panera (best place ever! Such a great way to start the day), super big salads at lunch time, McDonald’s ice cream cones in the afternoon, and either leftovers or my aunt’s treat for dinner.
4. Museum bag checks are the best!
I traveled with just a backpack and a purse. It was great not having to lug around a suitcase, but at most museums they don’t allow backpacks. Thus the bagcheck! After carrying a backpack around a super hot city, it was glorious to drop it off with a smiling stranger and enjoy the museum at ease.
5. Getting lost in a new city isn’t always a bad thing. Sometimes you see the most amazing things.
On the first evening, I took the Orangeline train to the Eastern Market station. I had planned to visit a church for their evening service, but I wasn’t exactly sure where it was. I had a little print-off from Google Maps (no smart phone here!), so I started walking west, but realized it wasn’t the correct street. I was going in the right direction, so I kept going. It was such a happy mistake! I saw some really cool old houses—real neighborhood buildings. (This is what I remember loving about Venice when my family visited Italy in 2003. It was a glimpse at a very touristy city’s real life. I imagine a tourist in Chicago feeling the same way if they happened upon the old houses in Lincoln Park.) As it turns out, the neighborhood is called Barracks Row, with a pretty rich history. You can learn more here: http://www.barracksrow.org/what/history.
6. Visiting a church as a tourist is really eye-opening
The church I visited was called Redemption Hill. It’s a two-year-old church plant that rents space from an old Methodist church. They are a young congregation; I don’t think anyone was over 30-years old. They were planted by Acts 29, and it was very interesting to be there, because that evening they were instating five new elders. Knowing it was a young church, I was surprised by the very strong infrastructure I saw, just as a casual out-of-town visitor. They are already working to raise up pastors to plant other churches all over the world. They realize that it really invigorates the local church to support others churches in prayer and growth. What I did expect (and was looking forward to), was worshiping with brothers and sisters from across the country. It’s what I needed. In a new city, it was the perfect way to feel connected, and not alone. I think it really did affect the rest of my trip.
7. If you think someone is having a stroke, they probably are . . . (my day at the Library of Congress)
Let me back up. Monday was the day for the Library of Congress. This is what I was looking forward to the most in D.C. I arrived at 11am and signed up to take one of their free tours at 11:30am. The tour began with a short video of what is in the Library’s collection. It made me wish I had something to research. From there, our tour guide showed us the two historic Bibles—the Mainz, hand written, and the Guttenberg, the first printed book. He also explained the architecture of the great hall, walked us through the balcony of the great reading room (where we weren’t allowed to take pictures! So sad!), and showed us Jefferson’s library—the (2nd) original collection of the library. At the end of the tour, I asked a question, and he didn’t really respond. He kept starting his sentence and then faltering. I shrugged it off, and we all walked away to look at the library, and the adjoining exhibition about the Civil War. About 20-30 minutes later, as I was leaving the Library, an ambulance showed up to cart someone away. It was our tour guide! I think he had a stroke, which makes sense why he wasn’t able to form a clear sentence when I asked my question. I felt so bad! It was not as though I knew him well, to know that this was unique behavior, or to ask if he was ok. But now I know. Not exactly the way I expected my morning to go.
8. Getting a Library of Congress ID card is one of the best nerd things to do in D.C.
My odd Library of Congress experience was redeemed, though, when a friend suggested I go back and get a LOC ID card. When I was there on Monday, I had really wanted to go into the reading room, but was told one needed to have something they wanted to research in order to do so. But my friend mentioned that all you needed was an ID card to get in. So on my way to the airport on Wednesday, I decided to give it a try. The administrative offices are in the Madison building across the street from the iconic Jefferson building. Once I got through the whole security scan thing (which was a lot more effort with a full backpack and purse), I walked down a rather unassuming hallway and registered for a card! I had to get my picture taken, and then I was issued a card. It was beautiful, a great souvenir, and my ticket into the reading room! I had been informed that an actual research request was not necessary, I could just say I wanted to use the reference collection. So after dropping off my backpack at the bagcheck, I carried my own little book and notebook to the reading room to “look at the reference books.” For posterity sake, I did glance at a few titles before making my way to a seat along a curved desk. Knowing one is not allowed to take pictures, I didn’t even try to bring my camera in, but no one asked me to leave my phone before entering the room, so I very surreptitiously snapped a few shots of the glorious dome ceiling. I felt very sneaky, and also victorious! I then hunkered down to enjoy a couple chapters of my own book before it was time to hop on a train towards the airport.
The National Gallery is a very big, beautiful building. When you first walk in, the lobby opens to a grand dome and pillars of dark stone. It felt a lot like the Pantheon in Rome. The big difference was that there were benches along the wall to sit and rest. But the way the gallery rooms were set up reminded me a lot of the National Gallery in London. Each time period and region was distinguished by different colored wallpaper or wooden paneling. It was almost as beautiful as the art itself. As with any museum for me, it feels just like home. Unlike the Smithsonian Art Museum, there was a lot of European paintings and sculptures—some amazing Monets, Degas, and Turners that I had never seen before. Such a wonderful feeling to see a new painting! Also, in every couple galleries instead of wooden benches, there were plush couches. They were totally unexpected, but so enjoyable!
10. Never underestimate the delight of a McDonald’s $1 ice cream cone.
When I left the National Gallery it was spitting rain, but I didn’t open my umbrella. It had cooled off a bit, and the rain lightly covering me felt so good. I was in the mood for some ice cream—specifically a McDonald’s dollar cone. I knew I had seen a McDonalds somewhere along my route, so I backtracked and found it! It was raining a little harder as I left with ice cream in hand, but I decided against the umbrella again. As I was walking slowly (while everyone else around me was racing against the rain), a woman walking next to me commented on my ice cream and said something about it looking very delicious. We chatted as we continued walking in the same direction (mostly her, with me nodding and murmuring in agreement), but then she waved goodbye and sped off.
It was a very interesting look at a person who actually lives in D.C. The city is so full of tourists and political businesspeople that it is hard to imagine anyone actually lives along these streets. But as it got later in the afternoon, the people walking alongside me were rushing home from their normal jobs at places like Walgreens, the bank, and even the McDonalds. I had the impression that the locals were annoyed by all the tourists, but here this woman was, talking to me about ice cream like I was her neighbor, not a visitor from halfway across the country. It was kind of humbling.
11. The Holocaust Museum is one of the most powerful uses of re-created historical space. (Warning: This is long, but the place that needed the most processing after my visit).
Tuesday was my day to see the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. When I arrived I saw an unexpected sight. I thought the museum would be a blanket of solemn silence when I walked in. Instead the main hall was aglow with natural light and filled with the din of families looking for the restrooms, admonishing their children to stay close by, and the tourist scouring their maps for the next attraction. It was not until I entered the permanent exhibit that silence fell.
The main exhibit is the permanent exhibit on the top three floors of the museum. As you wait in line, you are asked to select a small booklet, a ID badge of a child from one of the camps. I had read about these and thought how powerful, to hold a life like this in your hands. I was expecting to see points along the way where you were asked to refer back to the ID badge for this child’s story to make more sense, but that was not the case. A shame, really. In any case, the little girl I choose was one who survived. She made it out of the camps alive. A small victory, before I was to be flooded with so many images of hate and war.
To get to the top floor, you take a big elevator and are dispensed in a dark hall-like room. You are immediately met with images of the camps. Graciously, these first stories are those of liberation; what the Allied troops encountered when they found the first survivors.
The museum time-stamps the entrance tickets to regulate how many people are in the galleries at any given time. But some huge school group must have been mixed up with my 11:45 entry because as I exited the elevator, I was met surrounded by mass of people. It was the most tangible feeling of what the people (Jews and many others) must have felt as they were being crammed into ghettos, cattle cars, and gas chambers. I know that this was not the museum’s intention, but it was almost more powerful of an example than all the photos and artifacts on the walls.
As we shuffled along in one mass, people began to slip away. Some wanted to go slower and read every detail. Others sped ahead. By the time we got to the middle of the first floor, I was able to breathe a little easier. Right after this first section was a glass-walled walk away across the main atrium of the museum. This had been visible from the ground floor but I didn’t know what it was. It was the most beautiful feeling of relief. Sunlight poured in from every direction. I wanted to stay here forever. On the glass walls were etched the names of towns and cities whose Jewish communities were wholly or partially lost as a result of the “final solution.” They were divided into countries based on the 1937 boundaries. And the names were written as they would have been pronounced at that time—with Polish and Russian emphases, where years later they would be altered to their German variations. Under the U.S.S.R., I found Chernevtsy; the city where my ancestors once lived. I wondered how many of their extended family were still there to feel the loss of their lives?
Photography is not allowed in any of the permanent exhibit, so I was made to rely on my memory and my little notes in my journal. The most amazing thing was room of photographs called the “Shtetl Tower.” I found out at the end that it stretched all three floors. They were family portraits and snapshots of real people at the time. Some may have survived. Many of them did not. But image after image surrounds all four walls of this “tower.” I wanted to take a picture of this so badly; to remember its hallowed beauty.
It was an interesting feeling, not being able to take photographs in this place so full of images. The reason the museum is so moving is the faces we see behind the striped prison uniforms and starred arm-bands. The numbers surround us, but the faces tell the story. On one wall there was a quote by Primo Levi that struck me: “Everybody said farewell to life through his neighbor.” I knew that anything I felt was nothing, compared to what they felt. Nothing compared to what He felt at watching His children suffer.
After one more glass-walled walk-way, I made my way to the next section of the exhibit. But nothing prepared me for the pile of shoes against the wall. Nothing. From brilliant day light to grave stillness in one second. I turned the corner, and there they were. One thing I read on the museum’s website mentioned that the smell of the shoes would be distinct. It was a smell of old leather, dust, and dirt, and tears. Such a humbling smell; far more leveling than the smell of decay. From dust we were formed and to dust we will return. . . us and all we have stored up on this fragile earth. And yet, if anything remains, what a full and hollow story it will tell.
Aside from the photos—especially the family photos in the “Shtetl Tower”—the everyday objects (“treasured possessions,” really) that were confiscated from the prisoners are what trembled my heart the most. The scissors, the kitchen utensils, the glasses, the forks. Real daily life, halted.
The last room of the exhibit was about the survivors. I was pretty overwhelmed by this point. I just wanted it to be over. But there was a video rolling of stories told my survivors. I had skimmed over the previous videos—they were all things I knew. But these stories struck me. I stood along the back wall and listened to the first one, and it dragged me in. This was the hope! Despite all the horror, these were the people who made it out alive. One story especially struck my heart. A man was talking to his friend who was saying his prayers. He said, “you’ve said your morning and evening prayers, what more is there to pray?” And the friend replied, “I am saying a special prayer of thanks to God.” “What is there to be thankful for?” “I am thanking God that He did not make us like them.” Such a powerful thought—thanksgiving, even in a place like that.
When I had finally made my way down to the first floor, it was almost 3 o’clock. Each floor had taken about an hour to get through. I felt I had no right (no right whatsoever!), but I was extremely cold and very hungry. I wanted to look at some of the smaller exhibits on the first floor, but I felt I couldn’t stand one more minute in there without some form of heat and sustenance. It was such a weird, very human feeling. I was very grateful that I had thought to buy my lunch beforehand. So I gathered my backpack from the bag check and made my way outside. Such sweet, relief. I was met with a comforting blanket of heat which I immediately regretted desiring. Walking into the Mall, I found a shady spot under a tree and ate my salad. I stayed there quite a long time, as I contemplated what I had seen. A weary comfort.
It was very hot as I walked around the Mall, so I made my way slowly. I was struck by how un-cohesive it was at this point. I had pictured all the monuments leading into one another, but that is not the case. The Washington Monument is covered in scaffolding from the earthquake that shook the east coast in 2011. I didn’t have time (or energy) to walk around the Tidal Basin, so I only looked at the Jefferson Memorial from a distance. I then walked to the World War II Memorial. It was not what I imagined, but still grand and meaningful. I took pictures of myself in front of the Illinois marker, and then walked around a mound of construction to the reflection pool. As I walked along the calm pool, all I wanted to do was jump in and cool off with the ducks and geese splashing about. As I got closer to the Lincoln Memorial, I took a short rest and ate some fruit I had bought that morning. I got my penny ready for the photo I had been waiting to take—a macro shot of a penny’s reverse with the Lincoln Memorial in the background. It turned out well. I don’t know why, but my perception of the Lincoln Memorial was a lot different from the real thing. I thought the statue would be closer to the front—he was so deep inside, with lots of shadows at this time of day. But I still got a lot of great shots of the memorial and the mall looking back towards the capitol. After the Lincoln Memorial, I walked to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. I thought it was a black stone wall parallel to the ground, but no, it was slanted, waning at both ends.
13. The Smithsonian is both overwhelming and underwhelming. My last day in D.C. was devoted to the Smithsonian Museum of American History. I decided I didn’t need to see the iconic Natural History Museum because natural history can be learned anywhere, and not the Air and Space Museum because that isn’t my favorite kind of history. But looking back, I should have made time for them.
The museum of American History felt just like the Milwaukee Public Museum to me. It is not a historic building, kind of bland actually. I imagined that the museum would be filled with amazing artifacts, creatively put on display as only the Smithsonian can, but the only place I felt this was the Star Spangled Banner exhibit. It was a super dark room, with controlled lighting surrounding the original flag. It was so incredibly worn. In a later part of the exhibit, there was a photo from the 1870s, and even back then it appeared thread-bare. It was amazing to see how well it has been preserved.
After being so overwhelmed by the Holocaust Museum, I was underwhelmed by the Museum of American History. While the Holocaust Museum is about an event that had a clear beginning and end—so you basically know what to expect—at the Museum of American History we are still living the “history,” so the ways we seek to interpret are very different, and almost too developed and expounded upon. But it was amazing to see Julia Child's kitchen and the exhibit about the First Ladies and all their dresses.