Saturday, 8 January 2011

#43 Our Nation's Show Home

I hate feeling like a tourist in America. Obviously, given my perfect vowel formation and undropped aitches (ZING!) I stand out as English, and I've make a point of correcting people. "Actually, I live in New York," I say. In case you were finding it difficult to imagine what my corrections were like.

Why? I suppose it's because I'm terribly afraid of seeming ignorant - even when I am. Because I have winced time and again at the obnoxious and erroneous foreign tourist, and I want to maintain the moral high ground by not being lumped with the tourist riff-raff.

As an aside I have two annoying tourist anecdotes. The first comes from a teahouse in Nepal, where a couldn't-help-overhearing-four-tables-away loud American addressed his fellow diners:

"Do you know what the difference between a spice and an 'erb is?"


"An 'erb is a leaf. And spice is a seed." which my group of Cambridge scientists mouthed the word 'cinnamon' and snickered into our port glasses.

The second occurred only a few days ago, as I toured the Mediaeval art of the Metropolitan Museum's Cloisters. A mother, looking at an illustrated family tree of Jesus Christ, gripped her about-six-year-old's hand tightly:

"But we don't need proof because we believe, don't we?"

Their nation's capital

So I finally made it to Washington DC - a last-minute trip that denied me my normal reading and preparation time. Given the aforementioned reticence to appear stupid, my friend and I (she is similarly shy) followed various people around in the vague hope they were heading towards sights. (Obviously, we chose likely targets - men holding SLR cameras, and anyone Asian.) So the first day was a rather esoteric tour of Capitol Hill.

In the evening we picked up a cornucopia of tourist bumf - I've never written that word down and always wondered how to spell it; thank you Google - and educated ourselves.

It turns out there's quite a lot to see in DC. The Smithsonian Museum network is the biggest (perhaps 'most monumental') monument to public erudition in the world. If the British Library, the British Museum and the Natural History museum all moved to the same block, it still wouldn't compare because things like Dorothy ruby red slippers (which were originally supposed to be silver), the original Kermit the Frog and the biggest ballistic missile ever built wouldn't be on display. The National Mall is the Mecca of museuming, except you don't have to be American to be let in. And it's free.

I was impressed, at almost every turn. I was impressed by a photograph of Elvis with Richard Nixon. I was impressed by a whole exhibition on Abraham Lincoln. I was impressed by a life-size crochet coral reef. I was impressed by the blistered and blackened heatproof tiles on the front of the Apollo re-entry ship. I was unimpressed by the Hope Diamond, to be honest, but I seemed to be in the minority.

Most of all I was imbued with a huge respect for the tangibility of American history. Of course recency is a factor, but it's more than that. The air hums with an implicit understanding of what America is all about, and everything her sons have achieved. It's all in the geography of DC. I think they should redub it: not 'Our Nation's Capital', but 'Our Nation's Show Home':

"...and on your left, you will see the likenesses of the handful of people who created our government - the only stable revolutionary government in the world. On your right, notice the unrivalled contribution of America to the 20th century's popular culture. Along the corridor you'll see the world's biggest library, containing 22 million books covering the whole of recorded human history. Stop by our collection of moon landing craft on your way out!"

In 1779, the nascent American government decided not to turn to an established city (New York or Philadelphia being the likely candidates) for their new capital. Instead, they holed up in Philly for ten years whilst building one from scratch. As such, the place is laid out in pleasing Germanic order: on Capitol Hill the legislature and judicial branches face each other in resplendent Neo-Classical glory, and just down Pennsylvania Avenue the Executive - or Barack, to his mates - is within easy reach. The Washington Monument, a mesmerising obelisk (and the tallest freestanding stone building in the world, apparently, though I find it hard to believe) completes an elegant right-angled triangle. Philadelphia and New York are hardly disordered, as I have noted previously, but DC would make an obsessive-compulsive cluster-orgasm.

If you shook America over a bit white rug, the contents of Washington DC is what would fall out. I sort of suspect that's how they did it. Travellers, including me, search vainly for the 'real country', the 'real city'. Well, America had the foresight to summarise everywhere and everything else in DC as they went along. In DC, America is your oyster, and the half-shell is clutch of free-to-access civic buildings. That analogy didn't really work, did it?

Just go, please.

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