Congress is on recess, and so are we!

August 31, 2009

It’s been quite a long summer, but we’ve survived and Kathleen has returned home from her long sojourn in Detroit. We decided a short break was in order before the fall semester starts, so we booked a last-minute deal to Washington, DC. Kathleen did her master’s degree at Gallaudet in DC, and I’ve worked there a lot, but we’d never been there together, so this trip was a good chance to share stories and favorite places.

We flew AirTran airlines out of Minneapolis-St. Paul Airport, an airline neither of us had flown before. We fortunately had lightly-sold flights, so they were hawking business-class upgrades for a very cheap price. To get our vacation off to a good start we splurged and flew business class. Nice! On arrival in DC, one step outside of the terminal reminded us why Congress recesses for the month of August. We were greeted by the oppressive heat and humidity for which DC is famous, and which we’d have to survive for the next 4 days.

We arrived in DC on Thursday afternoon and took the Metro to our hotel – which turned out to be the same Holiday Inn I’d stayed at when I traveled to DC with the Wisconsin Rural Leadership Program. It was well-located, just a half-dozen blocks from the White House and close to DuPont Circle, the area where Kathleen lived when she was in DC. After a brief rest (our flight left MSP at 6:00 AM!), we headed out to explore the neighborhood around DuPont Circle. After some time in Kramer Books & Afterwords (my first DC bookstore experienced on a trip while in college), we headed to Union Station and across the street to the Dubliner for dinner and some pints while enjoying live Irish music. It was an evening of lots of memories of our times in Irish pubs for trad sessions, so we both ended the night feeling homesick for Ireland.

Friday morning we headed out to the Library of Congress Thomas Jefferson Building. In all my trips to DC, I’d never managed to spend any time in this building. It was a visit that was long overdue – as Kathleen said, “I’ve found my happy place at the Library of Congress.” The building is simply amazing, to say nothing of the wonderful exhibits on display, including a great exhibit on the development of the Constitution. Also on display was Thomas Jefferson’s original library, which formed the basis for the Library of Congress after the original collection was burned in the War of 1812. As a collector and lover of books, I’m always intrigued to see what books other people read. Looking at Jefferson’s library it was clear that he was an amazing man of many diverse interests.

After too-short a time at the Library of Congress (for the record, all our stops on the trip were too short!), we headed to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. We had booked tickets for 1:15, and we not quite ready to leave when they closed the museum at 5:20. The museum’s exhibits are beautifully designed, and provide probably the most densely-packed collection of information either of us had seen in a museum. It’s an incredibly powerful place to visit. A special exhibition on Nazi propaganda left us both feeling like the propaganda on display wasn’t so much distant history as recent – sadly, fear and anger are still useful tools in selling bad ideas.

Next we headed for the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial, a long wander past the Washington Monument, World War II Memorial and Lincoln Memorial on the Mall. While making the trip down the Mall, we saw a number of tours passing by on Segways, which gave us an idea for something else to do. Arriving at the FDR Memorial just a couple of hours before sunset, we nearly had the place to ourselves. The Memorial is covered with sayings from Roosevelt that are so timely even today, as we seem to be fighting many of the same fights he did (health care, social safety net, war).

With a rainbow leading the way, we headed to the Jefferson Memorial, long a favorite of both Kathleen and I. We wandered a bit there, then scurried across the river just ahead of the incoming rain storm. We hailed a cab and headed to the Adams-Morgan neighborhood, a funky area that was a hangout of Kathleen’s in her DC days. We spent a bit of time in the local voodoo store, hit a book store, then went to Meskerem for Ethiopian food. It was my first experience with traditional Ethiopian food, served on a communal plate with bread and no utensils. The food and experience was just amazing.

Saturday morning we headed to Georgetown, an area I’d only visited once before. We wandered some of the shops, explored Georgetown University’s campus, and had a light breakfast overlooking the C & O Canal. We caught the shuttle back to DuPont Circle and spent some time exploring the area between DuPont and the White House (including a stop at the famous Mayflower Hotel for a soda). We made it back to our hotel early enough for a quick rest before heading out for a long evening. We met my old friend Naveed and went out for El Salvadoran food at another of Kathleen’s old haunts, El Tamarindo. The evening began with a pitcher of margaritas, and away we went! After a great dinner we wandered up the street further into Adams-Morgan until we found a bar with an empty outdoor table where we had some more refreshments while catching up with Naveed.

Sunday morning, like the good church-goers we are, we got up and headed to Washington National Cathedral just in time to catch a service. This was one spot in DC that neither Kathleen nor I had visited. It’s truly a beautiful building, and I was surprised to learn that the Cathedral had only been completed in 1990. We stayed for most of the service, which was full of all the pomp that you’d expect in an Episcopal Cathedral. We took some time to wander the Cathedral grounds and gardens before catching a cab to our next destination, the Politics & Prose bookstore.

We had seen Politics & Prose mentioned in one of the local free papers. It caught my eye because they had author readings nearly every day, and most of them were authors I’d be interested in meeting. It’s easily one of the best bookstores we’ve ever visited. In fact, on walking out of there with several signed books, I told Kathleen we probably couldn’t afford to live in the same town as this bookstore.

Late afternoon on Sunday we headed to the Capital Segway store for our very own Segway tour of DC. Though the Sunday tours were slightly more expensive than the Monday tours, I had opted to book for Sunday evening thinking that the streets would be less crowded and it would be a little easier to maneuver. That decision really paid off when we got to the store and learned that we were the only two people booked on our tour. So, after a few minutes tutorial in the store, our guide Aaron took us across the street to the park where we could practice for a few minutes before setting off on our tour. The Segway really is an amazing piece of hardware. After only a very few minutes’ practice it really does become quite easy to drive. You simply lean forward or backward to go forward or backward, and tilt the handlebars to turn. Once you get used to it, it really seems that if you think about moving forward, you do. I’ve included a couple of videos of us here, but be sure to check out Capital Segway’s YouTube account to get the full effect.

Den Practicing on the Segway

Kathleen Practicing on the Segway

Kathleen Buzzing the Capitol on the Segway

So, feeling like veteran riders already, we headed out on our 2-hour tour which would run a big loop around the White House, Washington Monument, most of the Smithsonian, the U.S. Capitol building, Supreme Court and Library of Congress. We had of course already covered a lot of that ground, but it was a whole lot easier on a Segway! I know there was a lot of hype when the Segway came out that they would change our cities. Having now ridden one, I think if they can get the price down on them they truly will revolutionize our cities. They’re a perfect way to move around a crowded city like DC, and a whole lot of fun! We’ll definitely take future opportunities to ride.

Monday was our last day in the city, but we had a late flight, so we had some time to cram a bit more into the trip. We headed for the National Museum of the American Indian. This was another new stop for both Kathleen and I, as the museum hasn’t been around DC all that long. It’s a really beautiful sandstone building surrounded by flora native to the DC area prior to white settlement. The interior of the building is equally beautiful. We had time to only dip our toes into the museum’s exhibits, but were very impressed with the graphic and instructional design of the entire museum. We’ll definitely be back for another visit. We topped off our visit with lunch in the museum’s Mitsitam Cafe, which serves indigenous foods from 5 different regions of the Americas.

Finally, for our last running stop on this trip, we hit the World Bank’s InfoShop bookstore, the perfect capstone to what was really a truly geeky getaway. Once again we found ourselves coveting far more books than we were able to buy (even though we’d found a 30% off coupon in one of the local papers!). At this point though we were having to consider the weight of our checked luggage for our return flight. We finally had to leave for the airport, but with a renewed sense of possibilities for future work in the third world.

We had a truly great trip to DC. It was a nice break from everyday life, which has been kind of overwhelming this summer. But more than that, it was a chance to get a peek at lives we’d lived separately in this city in the past, and a chance to get a peek at possible future lives. Not too bad for a last-minute getaway.

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