Monday 2 November 2009

Four days in DC: final reflections

I've just been re-reading my posts about last week's trip to Washington, and I was disappointed to find them overly descriptive and stripped of my usual reflective asides about politics, history, culture, etc. Partly, I think this is because I was (and to some extent still am) jet-lagged and exhausted after a rather draining week.

But it's also because I was wary of making broad generalisations based on a few days' experience of a strange city in another country. However, I can't end my account of our stay without sharing a few of the thoughts that occurred to me while we there. So here goes.

Once again, I was impressed during our time in DC by the easygoing patriotism of Americans. Whether it was the habit of raising impressive monuments to their elected representatives, or the mingling of the Stars and Stripes with flags supporting the troops at the Marine Corps Marathon, this sense of an unforced, shared pride in the nation offered a jarring contrast with the apologetic and guilty nationalism of the British - and made me, for one, rather jealous.

Going along with this, Americans' continuing and largely unabashed faith in the democratic process, and general lack of cynicism about politics, was also much in evidence - whether in the reverential tones of tour guides at the Capitol, or the intense and mostly serious debates about health care reform and Afghanistan on TV (no, we didn't watch Fox while we were there). Americans themselves may not agree with this assessment - but they should come over here and spend a week imbibing the tired and cynical treatment of political issues in most of the British media.

As always, we found America and Americans extremely welcoming - from the guards at immigration through hotel reception staff to waiters, shop assistants and people we met as we moved about the city. On one ride on the DC Circulator Bus, an elderly black man looked up from his Sudoku puzzle to see us struggling with our map, and spent the rest of the journey explaining to us the best way to approach the Capitol, and what we could expect to see en route.

Which brings me to my final comment. It's only when you leave the mostly white enclave of Georgetown (but see this article), and especially when you ride the bus routes, that you realise how much of an African-American city Washington is. You only have to linger a while in the cafe at the downtown branch of Borders on a Sunday afternoon, watching a young black mother helping her son with his homework, or older black men poring over volumes on history and politics, to realise who makes up the true majority of this city's population, once all the interns and lobbyists have gone home to the suburbs. Maybe on our next visit, with the monuments and memorials now under our belts, we'll explore the black and civil rights heritage of the District.

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