Thursday, September 2, 2010

The American Capital

This was the last stop for this trip before moving into my new home. It was the only one where I wasn't visiting relatives.

I've been to Washington DC twice before, once when I was ten, sightseeing with my parents, and once when I was seventeen, looking at colleges.

The place feels like a stage. I spent most of my time exploring the National Mall. The whole thing is open to the skies. It's a combination of the height limit on the buildings (nothing can be taller than the Capitol), the wide, right angled streets, and the low-flying airplanes following the Potomac River to National Airport, as per security regulations.

After having seen a lot of other national capitals around the world, it's a strange feeling seeing and comparing your own to everyone else's. I'd have these funny moments from other places. Flags flying that I remember flying in their own countries. A tour guide saying vaguely that the capitol's dome was designed after one on a cathedral in Russia, he didn't know which. Then me realizing that I did know which, and that I had taken several pictures of it in St. Petersburg. Flashbacks like these.

Above all, DC feels American. That's weirdly not something I could have said before, the last couple times I was here. Having been away for a long time and looking back through a lot of lenses, I now have a much clearer idea of what we Americans have in common and what makes us different from other people.

Politicians throw a lot of rhetoric around about "freedom" and "democracy," but those aren't unique to us, and anyway, they're pretty nebulous concepts when you think about them, especially how they're used today. But there's one thing you take for granted growing up here, and that is a fierce sense of individualism. An American believes that s/he is in control of his/her destiny. If an American succeeds, it's due almost solely to their hard work. If an American fails, it's their fault. And encroaching on any American's ability to do something they want to do is a serious offense, usually accompanied with heated statements about "rights."

We're cheerful. Sometimes a bit absurdly so. "Good" is the default answer for "how are you?" I don't just mean that to say we've got good lives, I mean that even when we're not so happy, we tell people we are, almost out of habit. We smile when we meet new people. And by the way, our customer service is legendary (though people are appalled at the tips we expect).

We have some pretty strange ideas about guns. We eat huge portions of food. None of us admits to liking small talk, but we're a lot more comfortable being chatty than silent. And more than most nations, we, as a country, like to put on a show. Love or hate us, nobody ignores us. Contrary to popular belief, we're not dumber on average than any other nationality. It's just that dumb Americans know how to attract a lot more attention than dumb people just about anywhere else. We make TV shows so the rest of us can laugh at the stupidest among us, and then export the shows to other countries, where they watch it and say "gosh, so that's what Americans are like." It's not true, it's just our flair for the dramatic-- if we're gonna be dumb, you can bet we'll be entertaining while being dumb.

All this is reflected in the green center of this city, our capital. The place we send representatives from every corner of our country to argue over what we should be doing, just so that we can deride them for how little they're doing and how much of what they do annoys us. But they do it dramatically on big stages of marble, broadcast to the world. For most everyone here, it's all business in this town.

Except when it isn't. Like when a couple of my friends from college led me to an unmarked apartment building, nodded to a guy standing outside, and were led into hidden bar serving some amazing cocktails. Or when we all competed in a pub trivia contest under the team name "The Last Time I Pulled Out Of Iraq, I Hit Herzegovina." Then again, that might tell you more about my friends here than the city.

So, another fast visit down. I write while this sitting on a bus to New York City. By the time you read this I will have arrived, and I'll have something of an announcement to make. Stay tuned.

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