Saturday, December 18, 2010

Washington DC

Washington is a nice looking town. By statute, we were told, no buildings may be taller than the dome on the capitol, so the city is low rise and generously spread.  I didn’t see very much of it, but what I saw was pleasant and mostly neighborly, and the people in the streets were mostly smiling.

The DC subway is an acid trip and a half. The stations, classic 1960s space-age modern designed by architect Harry Weese, are vast and dimly lit. The dark side of the psychedelic TWA terminal at JFK.
The stations are long, dark descending shafts, paneled with lozenge shaped concrete block work panel, ovals cut into ovals. Staircases and elevators rise up on cylindrical pods, vanishing into the gloom 15 feet above the platform. The place needs a throbbing soundtrack ("Down once MORE to the Dungeon of my BLACK DESPAIR!' with a little pipe organ on the side) and vinyl miniskirts and ray guns: Flash Gordon runs from Ming the Merciless through a post apocalyptic city, circa 1984.
I adored it passionately, but I wouldn't want to have to go down there very often.

The last time I was in DC I was 11. Dad had booked a hotel across the street from what must have the town's busiest fire-station and most of my memories are of lying awake in the dark and listening to the sirens – and then of catching up on my sleep in the sun on the Washington mall in the middle of the afternoon.  One could do a lot worse.  It's a pretty place for a nap.

One afternoon on that first visit we drove into the suburbs of Maryland to visit a friend who lived in a deep green world of hummocks and hollows, the houses all built beneath the canopies of tall and twisted trees. Everything was bathed in a deep green underwater light. When I was 11 and reading Narnia and Tolkein, suburban Washington was an enchanted place.  My SIL lives in a neighborhood just like that one, in a highrise apartment building (taller buildings are permitted outside the actual District of Columbia) halfway down a hollow. From her window you can see the tree canopy spreading thick and green and impermeable all around her.

We didn't stay in the forest - Mr and Mrs Tabubil-in-law rented an enormous old Victorian house in the city and filled it up with Dutch family – it was a huge and jolly house-party. Mr Tabubil and I shared a room right at the top of the house filled with big and squashy Edwardian furniture – from up in our room you could hear the shouts and the laughter echoing up through the walls.

The day after we arrived, while the rest of the Dutch contingent went to visit Georgetown, Mr Tabubil took me to the Smithsonian to visit the Air and Space Museum.
THIS place I remembered from my last visit, all right.  Can you imagine - could you ever have imagined that it would be less than 50 years from Kitty Hawk to supersonic flight - and less than 70 years from Kitty Hawk to the moon landing?
It's a museum - a monument - to human ingenuity, and packed full of dreams.  Who DOESN’T imagine climbing into the cockpit of the Bell X-1 and blasting out through the walls of the museum for a gentle tootle around Maryland, West Virginia and New Jersey?

And as a footnote to our visit: to Mr Tabubil’s VERY evident satisfaction, and with the assistance of every single model and diagram of a jet engine in the whole museum, he finally got me to understand how they work.
Amazing things, aren’t they?!

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