The plane touched down just 30 minutes late, which pleased us as November fog in London had resulted in plane cancellations and we had left London an hour behind schedule. However, I was not prepared for the length of the immigration queue (or line as they say in the US), nor that of customs. Eventually we got our bags and checked in for our booked shared shuttle- you wait around for enough people to make a trip worthwhile, then the bus drops you exactly where you want to go. I had forgotten how ‘in your face’ America is, with noise, brashness and aggression. Outside the airport there were men standing in the road blowing whistles and beckoning the traffic; a gesture and noise that seemed completely superfluous.
The shuttle driver was impatient but civil. The road from the airport was a multi-lane highway with roadworks flanked by bleak concrete buildings. It took 20 minutes before we saw trees and smaller roads, and then the older part of the city began to unfold. The capital is a low-rise city and we were staying in a home exchange in a house built in 1902. By the time we reached the house it was 10.30pm UK time 5.30pm there, and I was ready for bed. But first we had to be briefed by the friend of the owners who had let us in, and there was no food. The house belonged to a semi-retired lawyer and his wife a retired anthropologist and is a second home especially used for exchanges. It was a shrine to his former working life and also to the many years they spent living in Japan. Parts of it were like a museum. Two rooms were furnished completely in Japanese style and the rest of the house was peppered with Japanese furniture and crockery, fixtures and fittings. His work desk was smack in the middle of the lounge and his certificates and retirement gifts proudly adorned the walls. In the UK we learn not to display our lives in this way; our work certificates and achievements are tucked away in corners and in drawers. Culture difference?
The second difference came with shopping and the prices of everything. We had expected things to be cheap in the US – maybe a dollar to the pound as the pound is quite strong. However, the shock came trying to buy just a few items for the next day’s food. Though huge choice in the supermarket, we could only find two brands of muesli without added sugar. They were both 50% more than we would pay at home. Coffee bought out is often a good guide to cost: a cappuccino also cost half as much again, and then tax is added on top of everything. If you buy in a café or restaurant, tipping at between 10 and 20% is expected, rather than a reward for good service. We found out that some hospitality workers earn as little as $2 and a bit an hour, and their tips are expected to make up their wage to the minimum of around $9 an hour, so they deserve the tips. However, the result is that we ate out infrequently, because of cost and also because of the third culture shock – quality of food.
We had honestly expected the capital city of the US to be a foodie paradise, and maybe it is for people who have twice as much disposable cash as we do. After travelling in Sweden and Eastern Europe during the summer, we had come to expect fresh whole food, vegetarian and vegan options and ample choice both in supermarkets and in restaurants at reasonable prices. We found here that cheap dining out food did exist but in diner chains such as Wendy’s, Taco Bell and MacDonald’s, where we prefer not to eat due to high levels of processed food. We found less vegetarian choice than expected, for example in cafes there could be no meat-free sandwiches. We could not find wholemeal uncut crusty bread anywhere but we did see a few artisan bakeries that sold bread we liked but at inflated prices. We ate out twice in our first week. Once at a local pub where we shared a dish of rice, kale, vegan patties, salad and potato chips. This was nourishing food but pricey and also looked like home cooking rather than professionally prepared. The second at a local restaurant specialising in Japanese food where we had steamed buns with tofu and a vegetable ramen noodle dish. These were both tasty and good value but hardly gourmet. We were astonished to see wine selling at $50 and $100 a bottle, and young people buying them. The mark up on alcohol was enormous. Later I found a quarter bottle of gin selling for US$3.29 in a liquor store, costing less than a cup of coffee. Over the three weeks we found a few places to eat out; the museum cafes and restaurants were good, especially the Native American museum and the Holocaust museum, and we had a good healthy meal in the famous Kramer books café. We also found other supermarkets and were able to shop for bargains.
The next culture shock was the segregation. We found Washington to be black/white segregated in a way not found in the UK. Of course we have areas where specific minority ethnic groups have settled and feel comfortable living, and some where racism has kept them out, enforcing a ‘white only’ estate or area. We wondered what was behind it here. Then we read about the demographics and history of Washington DC, and of the part it played in the civil war and slavery and black freedom. We visited some historic political sites. Near to where we stayed was the first black- led church in DC, and the first offices of the Black Panther movement. We visited the Martin Luther King Memorial and saw several exhibitions on slavery and emancipation and the Civil Rights struggles. We learned that DC had a 50% African-American population until 2011 when it dropped just below. The segregation we experienced looked to be built on poverty and inequality. Why should half the population of a city live in the worst housing and have poorer life chances than the other half? In particular, Washington has well-established African-American universities so many people are well-qualified. There are no religious or language barriers so institutionalised racism is the only viable explanation. African Americans run the service industries – museums, hotels, shops, fast-food restaurants and some ‘higher-end’ eateries, but were not evident in the better paid jobs. We visited Baltimore for the day and saw even more inequality there. The sea front heaved with young, mostly white students and other young people on organised pub crawls, while black people were visible as down and outs and a few streets back from the waterfront, on run-down estates. We read that in April this year there had been uprisings and that the police in the city were known for their racialized policing. We pondered the contradictions of a country with its first African-American president, a city with its roots in black emancipation, yet with so much continuing gross inequality. Are we missing something? We were glad that in the UK we have anti-discrimination laws and no right to carry firearms.
We had fabulous weather in Washington, with warm sunny days and no rain until the day before we left. All that is written about the ‘American Fall’ is true, with beautiful colours especially the red of the oak trees. In the city, the leaf blowers buzzed continuously, together with the emergency rescue sirens. We walked 180 kilometres in those three weeks and it was for the most part pleasurable walking. Using maps and GPS allowed us to find traffic-free routes. In a country where the car reigns supreme, inner city Washington is relatively traffic calmed and pedestrians survive and don’t fear for their lives. It is even a cycle-friendly city and we watched a monthly group cycle ride around the city streets with hundreds of people one Wednesday night. When we drove south for a few days to visit the historic towns of Annapolis, Jamestown, Yorktown, Williamsburg and Fredericksburg it was a different story. Apart from in the heritage preserved centres which were stunning, pedestrians were scarce, urban sprawl and shopping malls were everywhere and many roads could only be crossed easily if you were in a car rather than on foot.
We visited as many of the museums as we could and only scratched the surface in the time we had. The Jewish Holocaust Museum had a level of detail we had not encountered before, and I feel I would never have enough time to absorb it all. The inclusion of accounts of other genocides was welcome and was appropriate to bear in mind when visiting the National Museum of the American Indian where we again learned so much. We also ate one of our best meals of the stay, based on traditional native American foods. In the Museum of American History we enjoyed the exhibition on American inventions, and I spent a long time in the section on Julia Child’s kitchen – the exact kitchen where the cookery writer and TV star worked. We saw small parts of an exhibition on African American history which would move to the new Museum of African American History opening in 2016.
The vastness and opulence of the buildings in the central district was awesome. Even knowing the colonial root stock and origins didn’t prepare us for just how imperial the originators chose to be. Think of many Buckingham Palaces, Reichstadts, UK Houses of Parliaments, Australian Parliament Houses. The money spent on putting on a show. The insides of the Library of Congress made entirely of marble, the ceiling paintings, the stained glass. Union Station was restored to its early glory and had a thought-provoking exhibition on the genocide of Ukrainians under Stalin’s rule in Russia, all the more appropriate given the recent treatment of Ukrainians by Russia.
Whilst we were there the terrorist killings in Paris happened, and we were horrified. Then horrified again by the shameful reaction in the US (and elsewhere), placing blame on Syrian refugees and Muslims in general for terrorism. The irrational, ignorant and knee jerk responses by politicians were infuriating. We saw very few visibly Muslim people (the third largest faith in America) on our travels and just one mosque with people of African backgrounds at worship. We were therefore interested to visit a private museum with a section dedicated to Islamic art in Baltimore, but saw no other acknowledgment or celebration of Islamic life.
Victorian and Edwardian Washington DC has been very well preserved, with beautiful houses both large and small. It was lovely to walk around areas like Adams Morgan near the Zoo, and Georgetown with its university and village-like cobbled streets. Yet it brought home once again how divided the city was along poverty and skin colour lines and we were uneasy.
Home exchanging had once again given us a unique opportunity to live rent-free for three weeks within walking distance of the Pentagon, White House and all that central DC had to offer. We have mixed feelings as to whether we would go again. Definitely yes to finish seeing and learning about histories and herstories, but the inequalities are unforgiveable and Barack Obama faces such an uphill struggle in the face of right wing opposition to liberal and liberation policies, we fear for the country and its well-being.
Story and photographs by Ronny Flynn. Featured image is the Dome Inside The Capitol, DC