The Last Day and Some Superlatives

Now, to wrap up my DC journey.

Yesterday was it – our last chance to explore this city and ensure that we left with no major regrets.

The first stop yesterday was the Holocaust Museum. This was something I had wanted to do the entire time in DC but I had never heard significant interest from other people and really didn’t want to go alone. But it turns out that there were a few other people in the house who had really wanted to do it as well, so we seized the moment and went.

There’s not really a lot to say about the museum itself. Which isn’t meant to imply at all that it’s not worth seeing or not a good museum – far from it. But, it is exactly what you think it is: moving, heartbreaking, horrifying, fascinating and even at times hopeful. In terms of its quality simply as a museum, I think it was very well done. It unfolded very logically and you leave with a strong idea of how discrimination and scapegoating of Jews and other marginalized peoples warped into mass murder.

One thing I liked about its setup is that as you move between floors, you would always cross on walkways with glass walls that let the natural light pour in. I’m guessing it was a deliberate design. These walkways give you a chance to take a deep breath, collect yourself and prepare to descend once more in the darkness of the exhibits—a darkness that is both literal and figurative.

The Jefferson Memorial, on the side not obscured by construction.

After the museum, we headed to see the Jefferson and FDR memorials. I had heard a lot of great things about the Jefferson Memorial; a lot of people have told me it’s their favorite of the monuments and memorials. It’s located on the Tidal Basin south of the Mall and the walk there is quite pretty, curving along the water and lined with trees.

I have to say though, I was not quite as enamored with the memorial as it seems everyone else is. A lot of it has more to do with the setting than the structure itself. They are currently doing construction on the pavilion in front of the memorial so there were both a lot of loud noises as well as ugly machinery marring the view of the structure in front of the water. Additionally, it’s quite close to the Reagan airport, so there’s a lot of ambient noise from airplanes coming and going. Adding the throngs of tourists into the mix, the memorial becomes anything but a peaceful place. I’m sure it would be lovely at night, and of course would be much better when the construction is over, but for now I’m not so sure what the hype is about. Which is weird to type, since it means I know have enough of a basis of knowledge about to DC to have strong opinions about memorials.

After the Jefferson, we walked around the basin to reach the FDR memorial. I had also heard a lot about this one as an often-overlooked but very pretty memorial. This one definitely lived up to expectations. It’s very different from the other memorials because it’s not just a single structure. It’s a series of water features, statues, stone walls inscribed with quotes and other elements stretching along a long path. You don’t just visit the FDR memorial—you explore it.

If you like water features, you'll love the FDR memorial.

It’s broken into four parts for each of his terms, and the quotes and features of each section are particular to the events of thatterm. So, the section pertaining to the Great Depression and the New Deal has statues of worn and weathered men standing in line waiting for aid, and the section pertaining to World War II has quotes specific to his thoughts on war. It’s all very lush and peaceful (much less heavily trafficked than any other memorial or monument, probably because it requires more walking to get to).

Now that the last of my adventures have been dutifully reported and tied up, I’d like to reflect on the highs and lows of my time in DC. This isn’t meant to be any sort of authoritative list for you to shape your own future visit to DC around; it’s just a way of drawing some final thoughts from this trip,

Favorite Monument/Memorial: I have to say the Lincoln Memorial. I know this isn’t a very novel choice, but it just seems to have the best of everything. It’s a beautiful structure with massive historical significance (so many important speeches and events have happened there). It also has a terrific view of the mall, and, as I experienced myself, is a lovely place from which to watch the sunrise.

Favorite War-Themed Memorial: Definitely the World War II memorial. It’s a very classic style, compared to the Korean and Vietnam War Veterans Memorials, but that gives it a timeless feel: it doesn’t feel dated by the style of any specific era or like it’s making a statement. It’s got huge pillars and fountains and also provides a great view of the Lincoln Memorial. I recommend visiting just after sunrise J

Least Favorite Monument/Memorial: The Washington Monument is cool to look at from the ground, but I don’t think going to the top was really worth it. Granted, you don’t have to pay for tickets, you just have to reserve online or stand in line really early in the morning. But it doesn’t really offer anything special. You go up to the top, you look through little dirty windows at the city, you go back down. I suppose if you like heights it’d be cool, but I’m kind of indifferent to that.

Favorite Smithsonian: American History by far. I’m not a history buff per se, but this museum just had so many fascinating exhibits and neat holdings, like the actual Star-Spangled Banner or Dorothy’s ruby slippers. It’s a museum of American culture as much as it’s a museum of American history.

Least Favorite Smithsonian: I didn’t enjoy the Air and Space Museum much, but that has more to do with my personal tastes. I don’t really like science and engineering when they get technical, nor do I have much of an appreciation for technology and “how things work.” So all the exhibits on planes and flight were much too dry for me. The space side was better, though.

Favorite Thing That Wasn’t Free: The Newseum. You know why.

Favorite Restaurant: I’m sure DC is a foodie’s heaven…if you have the money. I didn’t, so we didn’t do a lot of eating out. But, there was one place we kept going back to, and that place is Good Stuff Eatery. It’s a burger joint, but more like 5 Guys than McDonalds. The burgers are handcrafted and juicy, the fries are creatively seasoned, and the milkshakes… ah, the milkshakes. It’s possible that more than anything, I’ll miss late night runs to Good Stuff. If you are ever in DC, go there. It’s worth every penny.

DC Moments

The Supreme Court

Thursday’s mini-adventure: the Supreme Court. Like the Capitol, it’s a building I walk past often but one I hadn’t yet visited.  We had a small chunk of time that day, and I wanted to make sure we seized the opportunity. Apparently after August 6, the courtroom will be closed for cleaning—and what’s the point of visiting the Supreme Court and not actually seeing the court?

There aren’t official tours at the court, but they do have a 25 minute lecture on the history of the court which is given within the court room itself, so that’s your opportunity to actually see the room, besides getting to poke your head in for a few seconds.

The lecture was much more interesting than I expected. I learned a lot about how the court itself works, in terms of proceedings and who sits where. During the lecture we sat in the benches on the public gallery, where average people can sit during hearings if they’re lucky enough to snag a seat.

I was amazed at how small the room was. I suppose the name “Supreme Court” just conjures up such images of grandiosity—I expected marble floors and majestic columns, nine seats sitting on an elevated platform… It was a lovely room, to be sure (sorry, no photos allowed) but much more intimate than I would have thought. I would guess the public gallery seats no more than 75. It definitely seemed very reminiscent of the era in which it was built (the 1930s) – a neoclassical style (columns, marble, etc.) with more modern accents, like rich carpeting, deep red drapes and dark wooden furniture.

One thing I thought was interesting about our trip is that while we were there, sitting in the courtroom, Elena Kagan was being confirmed by the Senate. When we got home from the court, I checked the news and saw she had been accepted to the position. It just seemed kind of cool that as that was happening, I was sitting in the very room in which she would soon be deciding cases—a very DC moment.

Army Band on the steps of the Capitol.

Another very DC moment: on Friday evening, I went for a walk with a couple other students, just wanting to get some fresh air. As we were walking around the Capitol, however, we heard the beginning of the national anthem and found the Army Band orchestra at the steps of the Capitol, getting ready to begin a concert. We quickly abandoned our walk and settled in with the dozens of other people (how do they find out about these things??) to listen to the show. The night’s theme was movie scores, so there were plenty of recognizable tunes, including Disney and Sound of Music medleys. I call it a DC moment become that seems to be very typical of this city in the summer – a lot of random events and concerts to stumble upon, taking advantage of the pleasant evening temperatures.

This morning was an adventure of a different kind. A group of us had decided that we would like to go see a sunrise from the Lincoln Memorial so we settled upon this morning to go. One complication of that is the Metro does not start running until 7 a.m., so we would have to walk the whole way (3 miles). But, we were feeling intrepid, and so off we went at 4:30 in the morning. It was really interesting to see such a familiar location (the Mall) at such an odd time. Everything was deserted and quiet, but in a peaceful way, not an eerie one. The World War II memorial was especially lovely at that hour, I thought – it was softly lit, and the only sound was the murmur of the various water features.

We made it to the Lincoln Memorial around 5:30 a.m. (right on schedule!). It was so neat to be there with so few other people. Granted, seeing the sunrise from there is not an entirely novel idea; there were probably 20 or so people there with us. But compared to the hundreds that are crawling over it during the day, it’s kind of special to be able to stand in front of the statue of Lincoln and not have to be disrupted by throngs of tourists.

Lincoln Memorial at an ungodly hour.

That’s the real value in seeing DC at sunrise, I think – you get a chance to enjoy all the popular monuments in a very personal way. The sunrise itself wasn’t anything spectacular, in my opinion.  But sitting there in the quiet of dawn on the steps of one of the city’s most popular and recognizable spots was a special experience, and I’m glad I did it.

Another upside of the sunrise trip is that we were able to get in line for tickets to go up the Washington Monument. They release same-day tickets on a first-come, first-served basis at 8:30 a.m., so people usually line up in advance. We got there around 7:15 and there were already maybe 30 people in front of us. But the line quickly ballooned behind us to probably 100 people, so I’m definitely glad we got in line when we did. I’m not sure what to expect from the tour, but hopefully it’ll be fun and the view will be nice—we specifically timed it to happen around sunset. And thus our day will come full circle.

Some more pictures:

World War II Memorial

Shortly before sunrise

Sunrise

The memorial as the sunlight hits it.

If you've been here, you can appreciate that the lack of people in this shot is pretty impressive.

The line for Washington Monument tickets. Someone should have gotten up a little earlier!

Misc. Photos

I’ve been keeping up with posting pics to facebook, but I realize not all my legions of fans are following me there (hi mom and dad!) so I just wanted to offer some miscellaneous photos that don’t quite fit in with other posts.

Headquarters of the Chamber of Commerce (where I work - although I don't actually work at HQ)

The White House! Which is right across from headquarters

I like to take sunset pictures.

Hey, it's a sunset.

Golly, it's another sunset.

President Garfield never looked so good.

Contrasting Memorials

Today’s class was held at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial since we are using the Vietnam War as our first case study in the roles Congress has played in shaping foreign policy. I always love ways of making discussions especially relevant, so I was excited about it, even if it meant sitting outside in that glorious DC heat for two hours.

The background behind the memorial is fascinating, in my opinion. You can get more information on (where else) its Wikipedia page, but here are my favorite details:

Vietnam Veterans Memorial

  • The memorial was designed by Maya Lin, who won a design competition for the memorial at age 21
  • The design was highly controversial, both for its unorthodox, minimalist design and for Lin’s Chinese heritage
  • The American flag and more traditional statue of soldiers nearby were added as a compromise for those who thought the design was inappropriate

It just seems incredible to me that this memorial was so contentious when it was first conceived, but it is now recognized as perhaps the most moving memorial in the entire country. On the memorial itself, the names are listed in chronological order from their death; Lin wanted to show which individuals died together.

My goal when I visit places like this is to never become a cultural voyeur – that is, to never simply visit, take pictures and leave without somehow internalizing the meaning of the place. I think it would be very hard to visit the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and not take something away, however. Between the sheer number of names on the wall and the various individuals who are clearly there not as tourists but to pay their respects, its not hard to get an appreciation for how meaningful this monument is to so many people.

Looking out from the Lincoln Memorial

After visiting the memorial, we went to the nearby Lincoln Memorial. Holy smokes is it ever big! Confession: I’m a bit of a simpleton when it comes to buildings. I’ve always been fascinated by feats of architecture because it just blows my mind how such massive structures can be constructed. It certainly seems like a fitting structure for a president so revered. It really is a beautiful spot, between the massive white columns and the reflecting pool stretching toward the Washington Monument. My new goal is to see a sunrise from the monument – stay tuned for updates.

We also went to the Korean War Veterans Memorial. I didn’t know anything about this one, so I wasn’t sure what to expect. It certainly takes a different approach than the Vietnam memorial. The Korean one is centered around several large figures of soldiers in full military regalia, looking as though they’re trudging through a dense forest. Perhaps the differences in style make sense, however. The Vietnam War was so well-known and so controversial, a memorial that takes the focus and places it wholly and simply on the soldiers themselves makes sense – no need to delve into the complex political issues surrounding it.

The Korean War, at least in my experience as a young person, is somewhat misunderstood–or, quite frankly, little known. To be honest, I don’t know much about it nor have I ever learned much about it. So it seems to make sense to me that this memorial tries to really give a face to the soldiers. It also lists the numbers of dead, wounded, captured and missing, as well as the countries who were involved in war efforts in one way or another. Essentially, this memorial seemed to make a more concerted effort to make people aware of the war itself as well as the veterans. I am not sure if this was intentional, or if I am misreading the intent of the memorial, but that’s my take.

Korean War Veterans Memorial

Finding Meaning in Arlington

Today’s journey was to Arlington National Cemetery. I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect out of this trip because I wasn’t sure what the right frame of mind to be going was. Am I supposed to be going out of some perceived patriotic duty to pay my respects to our fallen soldiers? Is it wrong to take pictures of such a solemn place? How can I explore without feeling like I’m taking advantage of the space – treating a landscape dotted with the dead like it’s just another monument?

Upon arriving, we debated between taking a tour tram or just walking. We decided to walk and I’m glad we did. Arlington, to me, is a place to be explored by foot. It’s nice to stop occasionally and reflect on what you’re seeing and to think about what this place means to so many different people. Arlington is steeped in history, glory and tragedy. To see it with the blare of a tour guide through the loud speakers and amongst dozens of chatty tourists doesn’t seem like the right way to see it.

The Memorial Amphitheater

We headed straight for the Tomb of the Unknowns. We definitely wanted to see the changing of the guards, which happens every half hour in the summer. The scope of the cemetery was somewhat overwhelming – looking out over the grounds and seeing the headstones disappear into the distance was an impressive sight. The temptation of Arlington is to simply observe the perfect lines of white headstones without remembering that those are more than headstones – they are also markers of graves, where countless families have grieved the loss of a loved one.

We got to the Tomb of the Unknowns while a changing of the guard was already occurring, so rather than come in on the middle of one we took some time to explore the surrounding area, including the Memorial Amphitheater, made of beautiful white marble.

After doing some poking around, we went over to the Tomb to ensure we had a good line of sight. I liked getting there early because it gave me a chance to watch the single sentinel (as they are called, according to Arlington’s web site) performing his solo duties. There was an odd beauty in the rigidity and orderliness of his movements, walking from one end of the tomb to the other, pausing to look out, swinging his leg out to strike one shoe against the other. It might seem comical to some, but to me it was moving. The stiffness of the routine is meant to honor the unknowns and all those who have died in service to the country – anything less than perfection would dishonor those servicemen and women.

The changing of the guard ceremony was similarly impressive in its perfect choreography and absolute precision. I also liked being among a crowd of people and not a person making a sound. The air reverberated with the chirp of birds, the click of the sentinels’ shoes and the occasional order barked by the head guard. It was a solemn and powerful experience.

I thought a lot about what this ceremony might mean to different people. Certainly for those who consider themselves ardent patriots or who have themselves fought in wars for the United States the ceremony is extremely poignant. But I don’t consider myself an ardent patriot. It seems hard to blindly ascribe honor and dignity to any military proceedings when the military itself has been involved in so many acts full of dubious honor. What would someone who considers themselves anti-war get out of this ceremony? And yet, it’s all too beautiful and too full of meaning to be easily dismissed.

Part of the changing of the guard

Appreciating the changing of the guard is sort of like appreciating another religion’s practices, I decided. Someone who considers themselves a devout Christian may not understand or agree with everything that is said in done during a typical Buddhist service. And yet, many people can still respect and appreciate traditions that are clearly sacred and meaningful. I think the changing of the guards is a bit like that – even if you don’t support the military or struggle with viewing it as an honorable institution, you ought at least to be able to recognize the intense honor and respect present at the Tomb of the Unknowns.

After the changing of the guards, we went to JFK’s gravesite. I was interested to see this because (besides the obvious interest of the site) we had recently watched the movie the Fog of War for an upcoming class. The film is a documentary that has former Secretary of Defense Robert MacNamara offering his perspective on the events that defined his term as secretary. When talking about the death of Kennedy, he mentions that he went to Kennedy’s current gravesite with Jackie Kennedy and that the two agreed it was the most beautiful spot in Arlington.

It was a lovely spot, offering a vista of the mall and the distant Washington Monument and right below the Arlington House. We didn’t stay long there (the damned heat!) but I am glad I got to see it. We left the cemetery after that, which was unfortunate I thought because I would have liked to explore more. But the group was losing steam and we at least saw what was probably most important. I am glad I went. In fact, I’m a little surprised at how much I enjoyed the trip. I think Arlington is worth visiting no matter how interested you are in it. It is a place of incredible meaning for so many different people, and that, in my opinion, makes it worthwhile.

Land of the Free… Museums

Phew! So much to catch up on!

The bowling on Friday was good and bad. Good in that I had a chance to meet more people, especially interns (one of whom it turns out also received a DAAD Scholarship, interestingly). It was bad in that I shamed myself thoroughly because oh my God I suck at bowling. I made sure to warn the people on my team, and they, of course, were nice and shrugged it off because hey, it’s about team building, right? But by the end of the game I think many of them were a bit flabbergasted how someone can be so poorly coordinated. Unsurprisingly, I slipped away after the first game and found new people to talk to.

After bowling I had a bit of time to spare before other people got back from their internships and I didn’t want to just hang out in the apartment alone, so I decided to go see the Library of Congress.

Did you know: "Hall o' Madison" is not the proper name for this room.

I first went into the Madison Building (there are three buildings if you didn’t know – I didn’t) which isn’t very pretty from the outside (picture) and does little to redeem itself inside. I just wandered around the halls, which looked uncomfortably like a high school’s (wide, linoleum, fluorescent lighting, off-white walls) but I suppose it’s possible behind some of the doors lies untold splendors. They do have a hall o’ Madison which was kinda nice. It’s a room with a statue of James Madison and some of his quotes (well, I assumed they were his quotes).

After briefly exploring the Madison building I migrated to the main Library of Congress. It made up nicely for the spartan Madison building.

Actually, that doesn’t quite do it justice. The Library of Congress is BEAUTIFUL. I had no idea what it was like inside, but it was essentially my heaven. Standing in the Great Hall, there is so much to look at – columns and arches and walls full of paintings of figures whom you wish you could think of their name because you would feel smarter. They also had some awesome exhibits on topics like the early Americas (meaning, Mayan culture and things of that nature), colonial times, and the role political satire has played in American history. I was impressed at the quality of the exhibits – they were as good as you would find in a Smithsonian museum.

My favorite display was Thomas Jefferson’s library. Essentially they have recreated his entire collection of books (which he sold to the Library of Congress to start its collection) using the original books that he owned or identical copies from other sources that the library has acquired to reconstruct the collection. It was such a fascinating insight into the mind of one of the founding fathers and the kind of literature that was prized then. I would have given anything to have been able to pull books off the shelves and peruse them for hours. Curse you, bullet-proof plexiglass.

The Great Hall: Not just for wizards

Friday night we got phenomenal milk shakes from a nearby eatery called Good Stuff (that’s what all college kids do on a Friday night, right? Drink milkshakes?). We went on a walk around the Capitol (how passé) and unexpectedly found a five-minute fireworks show. Ah, D.C. in the summer.

Saturday we went to the American History Museum. We thought, rather foolishly, that we might hit up the Natural History Museum as well, but it turns out the American History Museum is really quite large and we ended up spending almost five hours there! I really, really enjoyed it though. Most of the exhibits were fascinating. My favorites were one on the history of America’s wars (I think memorabilia from the Revolutionary War is so neat. It’s so old! Do you see now why I think Antiques Roadshow is the best 50 minutes on television?) and the Star Spangled Banner exhibit. That particular one featured the actual flag that inspired Francis Scott Key to pen our national anthem during the War of 1812. I was a little surprised by how much I enjoyed this exhibit. But the history was really interesting and quite frankly, the flag itself was really flipping cool. It was big (huge!) and old and worn and just saturated with history. What more can you ask for?

When we were finally done at the museum, it was too late to go to another museum, but it was still sunny and we were near the Washington Monument so we decided to mosey over there. It was nice to see it up close (so tall!). I guess you can get tickets to go up to the top of it, but they release the day’s tickets at 8 a.m. every morning and apparently people often line up beforehand. So I doubt we will do this while we are here, since why in God’s name would we wake up even earlier than we already do? Madness!

Sunday was zoo day! As in, yet another awesome thing that is totally free. The zoo was very nice, although the animals weren’t particularly active (if they were visible at all) because it was so hot. We’re the ones sweating it out schlepping all over the park to see these guys, the least they could do is come out of their nook. Sheesh. But we saw pandas and elephants and anteaters (my favorite!) and all in all it’s a great zoo at a price that really can’t be beat (unless there’s a zoo out there that pays you to attend. hmm…)

This week I’ve really been able to get a much better idea of what I’ll actually be doing at my internship. I’ve been given a couple projects and even got to sit in on a panel on Brazilian patent law, featuring the president of Brazil’s patent and trademark office. I was surprised how interesting that actually ended up – it was kind of neat to enter a meeting with zero knowledge of the subject matter and leave feeling almost knowledgeable.

I also got a chance on Wednesday to walk around the White House a little bit, since the Chamber is very close. I’d like to go back since I’ve only seen the back of it, but it certainly is a sight to behold. There was a group of protesters there, I think demanding that the president of Sudan be tried for crimes against humanity, but they didn’t bother me. Actually, in a way, I thought it was kind of appropriate for them to be there. The right to assemble and protest has been so crucial to the American identity and experience that it only seems fitting for it to be exercised in the shadow of America’s highest elected official, as a reminder that his power is never absolute (or ought not ever be so).

Finally, just got back from another museum! We went to the Natural History Museum today. It was, shockingly enough, another awesome museum. I think my favorite part of it was the collection of minerals and gemstones – there were so many beautiful things to look at! And of course, you can’t forget the dinosaur skeletons. There was also a fascinating exhibit on human origins that I think is pretty new.

Sorry for the exceedingly long post. I’ll try not to let that happen again.