ROUND THE WORLD WALKABOUT
Part 3. Washington DC
I am warned to take special care while in the States. It is a dangerous place, especially Washington, and especially when you’re alone. I should watch my bag, beware of pickpockets, and never relax. But there are no problems when I arrive; I am late collecting my luggage, which stands unguarded on an empty floor beside the carousel, a mere fifteen feet from the roadside where taxis, buses and cars pick up passengers. People wander casually in and out of the building.
Washington is a refreshing green paradise compared with Toronto’s concrete motorways. There’s hardly a truck to be seen on the six-lane highway from the airport, which is lined with tall forest trees, enclosed by barriers of stone or wooden walls “to keep out the noise,” Phillipa said. Street names are logical: alphabetical E/W and numeric N/S. Rock Creek Park is full of cyclists exercising on its paved paths which meander along the Potomac River, and the dwellings are mainly large, two or three-storey houses, some semi-detached with short lawns to the street.
Phillipa lives on the ground floor of a large “condo”, and I master the secrets of swipe cards to enter buildings, and get lost in the confusing corridors.
Down town the next day, we drive past the White House, somehow not as imposing as the pictures because of people, traffic and other grand buildings. Washington is a stately city. We stroll along the Potomac riverbank past the public golf course amid hundreds of people also enjoying the hot, humid weather. The South African Embassy in Embassy Row is whopping; I glimpse the Kenyan flag adorning a more modest building set back from the street.
Nick prepares our meal, tomatoes tastefully enveloping mozzarella cheese, then baked salmon, pumpkin and collard seasoned to a T (the nearest vegetable like it is the swahili sukuma wiki). We finish off with chunks of melon, and cheese platter. The plates are set out on top of each other from the start of the meal. You polish off your starter, the dirty plates are collected, and you remove your implements for later use on the main course, which is served onto the next plate down, and so on; a sensible, bother-saving idea.
It takes me some time to figure out how to set the plug in the basin that evening, and I declare that there are almost as many different ways to turn on hot and cold water, as there are taps in this city. And I still can’t figure out which way to look first before crossing a street.
We go to Benediction at St. Paul’s Episcopalian Church – a high church Anglican service, complete with incense, and beautiful chanting by an all-male choir. It reminds me of my convent schooldays when I attended evening chapel, the only difference being that then, it was all in Latin.
I pamper myself at the National Gallery of Art. But first I have to get there … it is easy! Down into the metro, onto the red line, and out at the right station. I even find out what to pay, use a machine to get my ticket and change and get on the escalator, all without asking. Then I manage to walk in the right direction for three blocks. By chance, I am in time for an excellent guided tour of the Gallery. Our guide traces the development of art through the ages, picking out selected old masters, many of whom were familiar favourites of mine when as a child I would pour over picture books of the great painters. The tour lasts an hour, and I stay on for three more, returning to my favourite paintings, and finding exciting new ones.
Body signals compel me to take a break from the air conditioning, so I go to the sculpture gardens for a drink and a sandwich. It is hot outside. I turn homewards, my face dripping with sweat within minutes. Taking refuge in the FBI building, I join a one-hour tour, culminating in a real-live demonstration of shooting with three different guns. We are shown a section of their “library” of over a thousand guns. We pass through the DNA lab, forensic lab, and see a collection of confiscated items including a diamond-studded watch, some valuable pieces of porcelain, and even a life-size stuffed grizzly bear.
I move to a penthouse flat down the street, where my heart lifts as I see my first humming bird, no bigger than a bumble bee, and so very busy. George (my temporary landlord) is a dear man who spends his time sitting in the foyer, or outside on the wall watching the world go by, chatting to people. He was a Jesuit priest, defrocked for opposing the Pope’s stand on birth control. He married, was widowed, and is recently back from six weeks’ travelling alone round Canada and the US in his BMW sports car. He collects hats, and has located the website of my new Chinese solar-powered cap.
The cap is a good conversation piece when I wander into the park, and a great boon as it fans my brow in the sultry heat.
On my last evening in Washington we go again to Hains Point.
“The Awakening” is an amazing metal giant of a man struggling out of the sandy pebbles beside the road. Phillipa is tall and willowy, but diminutive beside the massive figure.
Phillipa comes with me to the check-in desk at the airport. We hop onto an airport shuttle which, ten minutes later, deposits us at a distant bay. We idle away the time with chatter and a cup of coffee, before parting at the ‘plane door. I wonder what would happen if she just walked onto the ‘plane with me. Nobody seems to mind what anybody does.
San Francisco, here I come!