Friday, April 30, 2010

On the Road: Washington, D.C.

Our Girl and I took the Vermonter down to Washington this week to visit my parents. My folks live in the city now. When I first left home for college and people would ask me where I was from, I'd say the DC area, figuring that was an easier reference point for people than telling them I grew up in Maryland. But when my parents moved, that all changed. Part of it may have been a sense of loyalty to our old house but it's more a matter of realizing that the world where they live now is completely different from the world where I grew up. Since their move, I've always referred to myself as a Marylander.

My daughter loves DC. She's a huge fan of the Capitol Building, in particular, and also enjoys the Smithsonian and the National Zoo. But increasingly for her, DC time is all about time with Grandma. They've grown quite close over the past couple years and often seem to have little projects going when we're all together: making jewelry, learning about Japanese characters or just running errands around the neighborhood. This trip, in particular, confirmed this new reality in regards to our DC visits. Our Girl didn't do any sightseeing this trip. We never even made it south of Dupont Circle except to go to the train station.

Day One

The new exciting thing in my mother's life is the recently opened Wilson Aquatic Center, adjacent to Wilson High School in Tenleytown. She goes several times a week and has even joined a swim team. She was very eager to bring Our Girl along as they have a very nice kids' pool. Historically, Our Girl has been nervous around water but, as ever, was delighted to tag along with Grandma.

It was my intention to join them the first day but my mother had advised that I leave my wallet behind at the apartment as she did not have a lock for me to use. As it turns out, non-DC residents must have a photo ID to use the pool so I was out of luck. My mother initially offered to drive back to the apartment for it but as I was losing patience with the situation and sliding into a worsening mood, I suggested that they go without me. I would find other entertainment in the neighborhood. Feeling guilty, she gave me $20 to amuse myself in the interval. So, the ladies went swimming and I went for a walk.

In theory, Washington is the city I know best in the world. But without a map in a neighborhood unfamiliar to me, I decided to stay on Wisconsin Avenue and not stray too far down the side streets. I headed northwest towards Friendship Heights, a part of town I know far better from my teenage years.

DC is not the most accommodating city for pedestrians but it's good to explore it on foot from time to time. You miss things in a car: hole-in-the-wall shops and restaurants easily overlooked at high speeds. Who knew there was a traditional Arab dance studio?

Unfortunately, the walk I took is one from a reasonably colorful part of town to a ritzier but far more boring part. Back in the '80s and '90s, Friendship Heights was already well on its way to becoming the upscale shopping district in DC and there are plenty of new Gucci-esque stores in the area now. I made it all the way to the Maryland/DC line before heading back. I had half a mind to see if I could make it all the way to my old high school in downtown Bethesda and probably could have if I'd started at a faster clip from the beginning.

One wonderful change since my childhood: people wearing baseball caps for a Washington team. The Nationals aren't the greatest but they're here.

Meanwhile, Our Girl had a blast at the pool. Grandma reported that she grew increasingly brave the longer they stayed, particular when other kids were around to play with her. Our Girl said she wanted to come back to the pool everyday. I was also in a far better mood after my constitutional.

Back at the ranch, Our Girl settled in for a snack and some quiet play time so I headed out for some bookstore exploration. My parents live in Kalorama, allowing easy access to both the Adams Morgan and Dupont Circle neighborhoods so there's no shortage of independent shops around. I had two goals: a used copy of Prince Caspian, since we had nearly finished The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe on the train ride down, and a book on teaching kids how to play checkers. I hit Idle Time Books, Kramerbooks and Second Story Books. I never did find a checkers book (does anyone have one to recommend?) but I did find a decent copy of Caspian.

Day Two

My father found a couple of extra padlocks so we all went to the pool the second day. It really is a very nice facility and extremely kid friendly with family changing rooms and, indeed, a very cool kids' pool. It's a bit like the ocean, starting at puddle depth and very gradually descending to 3 feet, allowing someone like my daughter to test deeper waters as her confidence grows. There is also an NCAA-regulation lap pool and a hot tub for adults. Plus, it's all free for DC residents.

Our Girl was a joy to watch in the water. She and I took a swim class a couple of years ago together and her greatest accomplishment was not screaming on the last day of class. She's like a different kid now, even brave enough to put her face under the water. We're planning to do a Red Cross level 1 class for her this summer and this seemed to bode well.

I am not much of a swimmer myself. I can get from point A to point B but the two strokes I use - crawl and breaststroke - are, I am certain, highly flawed. Plus, I'm horribly out of shape. In my more adventurous mid-20s, I took a scuba course in the Philippines and part of the certification was to swim unaided for, I think, 200 meters. It was a pathetic struggle but I did it. I vowed to get in better swimming shape after that but that was - gasp! - 12 years ago. One of my goals for this summer is to work exercise into my daily routine. Perhaps swimming can be a part of it. I did four lengths in the 20 yard pool at Wilson.

In the afternoon, Our Girl and Grandma went to run some errands so I headed out for another walk, this time taking the Embassy Row walking tour outlined in the Lonely Planet guide. It had been a while since I've explored that part of town and it has actually changed a bit in the past few years. A lot of the embassies have raised stakes and moved off of Massachusetts Ave. to a new compound near Tenley Circle, including the Pakistani Embassy as listed in the guidebook. There is another error in the 3rd edition: no Spanish Steps at 23rd and Decatur.

Embassy Row is really quite a lovely neighborhood as many of the embassies are housed in beautiful turn-of-the-20th-century mansions. A couple of my favorite buildings in Washington are on the route: the Islamic Center and the French Ambassador's residence. The Islamic Center is unique in Washington and is probably best viewed from Rock Creek Park as one sees the minarets rising above the trees. The mosque is there to serve the diplomatic community though it is evidently a bit snobby, as embassy service staff is generally turned away. The ambassador's residence may be the most impressive looking house in town, White House included. The one embassy that has personal meaning for me is the Japanese at 2516 Mass Ave. It is where my own Japan adventure began.

The diplomatic community is a strange one in Washington: in the city but not exactly of the city. I am reminded in wandering around, however, that it's not too far removed from the life my own family lived until I was 3. If my father had made different choices in his career, I could have lived more of my childhood in such isolated neighborhoods in foreign capitals. Rome would have been his next assignment. He turned it down in favor of a career in the domestic service branch of his agency. As such, I got to spend 15 years of my childhood in one house. For that, I am grateful.

Day Three

Back to the pool. I got a bit braver myself, swimming a single length of the 50 meter pool. I will admit to getting a bit freaked out in the deep end with 13 feet of water under me. I started to worry about my wedding ring, which has flown off in class a couple of times in my more exuberant teaching moments. What a pain that would have been to retrieve! Note to self: leave it in the locker room next time. If I were to get more serious about swimming, I'd want to take a lesson or two to clean up my strokes.

In the evening, I made the highly disappointing discovery that my parents don't get the sports channels in their TV package. Not even ESPN! There is, of course, no reason why they should as I'm the only person in the family who would ever watch but it was very frustrating in my effort to catch a glimpse of Game 7 of the Capitals/Canadiens series. In the end, I had to settle for the live box score on

Even without television, it's a very different experience to follow a team when you're in the hometown. For starters, no publication is as brutal towards a team as is the local newspaper. Some of the best sports writing I've ever read was in Washington Post columns about the Capitals' disastrously poor history in the playoffs. The Post staff was in rare form this week as yet another season unraveled before our eyes.

I can't believe the Caps blew it yet again. All of the criticism being leveled at the team, the coach and even Captain Ovechkin is richly deserved. It has become clear. Of the Big Four, Ovechkin and Backstrom are the keepers while Semin and Green just don't have the guts to be leaders in the playoffs. In the off-season, a trade for a top-notch goaltender is a must and digging up a few battle-tested defensemen would be good, too. The blue liners don't need to be superstars. They just need to be willing to do the little things it takes to beat the league's best when it matters most. Mike Green, for all of his talent, just isn't that guy. There's simply no excuse for playing so well in the regular season only to implode in Round 1 of the playoffs. It's embarrassing. Just wait until next year? I'll believe it when I see it.

But back to our trip...

I think it's wonderful that Our Girl has bonded so completely with her grandmother. In truth, people are far more important than places and I'm glad she has found this meaningful relationship in her life. For me, however, I still feel as if I've barely scratched the surface in DC. There are parts of the city which I don't know at all and it would be a shame not to explore them, if only on my own. But perhaps I should take a hint from my daughter and invest in relationships at the same time. I'm sure I could convince my father to come along for some of my explorations. A new Lonely Planet guide has just come out, perhaps a good occasion to begin a new relationship with the city.

1 comment:

  1. What a great recap....$20 from Mom is always a treat...exercise in your summer routine made me laugh...and I want to see you so excited in class sometime that your wedding ring flies off...