Tuesday, November 8, 2011

"Stop eating seductively at me!" (Fall Break: Washington, DC)

October 2011

This week we were given a very generous two days off class by the wonderful administrative people of UNC. Simply as a reward for reaching halfway in the semester. How nice right? Until you remember that back home I would normally get a measly week after 6 weeks at Manchester. Two days to recuperate from the stresses of the last 8 weeks seriously isn’t enough. No wonder US students are always so overworked and under rested…

Anyways, as we had a few days off I was desperate to get out of Chapel Hill and go and see another part of the US. Much as I love being in Chapel Hill I am definitely a city boy at heart and need to get into a bustling, busy place every so often! So Andrea, Harriet and I booked ourselves into a hostel in DC and planned on spending a few days sightseeing and having a bubble in the nation’s capital. We managed to grab a lift (ride) off Jess (one of the Pritchard girls) and her dad, who were going to DC to get Jess a visa for her study abroad in Spain next semester, which was great as it saved us some money, and meant we could have some good banter on the way up there. We piled into Jess’s car on Wednesday afternoon – bunking off lessons for the day (just sinking back into the English attitude of not going to lectures for a day!) and set off on a mini road trip. Jess’s dad was sound and really chatty asking us loads of questions about our experience of the USA and how it’s so different yet similar to back home (he had spent some time in the UK before), and also cracked out some amazing dad jokes, much to Jess’s embarrassment! Driving up towards DC made me realise two things about America. It really is bloody huge, which I knew anyways, but the size sort of escapes your notice when you haven’t really travelled anywhere in the country, and also how beautiful parts of it are. Driving along the interstate, the trees were amazing colours (OK, its fall so that’s expected), but lots of forest seemed to be left, compared to the UK where you drive along the motorway and it’s all pasture land and neatly hedgerowed fields. The drive itself took around 5 and half hours, with a few stops offs for petrol. And a Taco Bell stop; because none of us had had one since arriving in the States.
Loving the Bell

We arrived in DC in the rain – typical – and after a quick hug goodbye to Jess, handshake and thanks to her dad, we ran into the front of the hostel we were going to stay in for the next few days. I wasn’t sure what to expect of the hostel, as it was the cheapest we could find in DC, with a fair number of both good and bad reviews. However, upon arrival it seemed perfectly adequate for what we needed it for – ie a place to sleep and not much else. It was a converted town house-type place in which about 12 beds were crammed into each room and a small number of showers and toilets for the residents to use – not ideal, especially for the girls. However, it was clean and sociable enough with an eclectic mix of people. I knew that all sorts of people used hostels, from my (limited) experience of staying in some in the UK. However, those hostels were slightly more upmarket to the one we were in, seeing as my parents stayed in the UK ones, and as such I was expecting there to be a slightly younger people vibe. As it was as soon as we walked into the social area of the hostel we were greeted to the sight of two older guys sprawled across the sofa watching ‘24’ and engaging in banter with a much younger girl on the other side of the room. At least, I hope it was banter because otherwise “You’re going to hell” could be deemed to be rather offensive seeing as we were out of the South…

Washington DC as the capital of the USA is quite different to the stereotype of American cities with big towering skyscrapers and tower blocks. Instead, DC has a more modest height to it, which apparently is the consequence of a ban put on the city planners to not build anything above a certain height, in order to preserve the character of the city. The buildings also seem much older and more European in their look - again probably in part due to the restrictions on city planning. An interesting bit of information that, and I think it certainly contributes to the character of DC - as a city I certainly prefer it to Atlanta, GA.

Once we were shown around, with numerous rules explained to us (and I mean a hell of a lot of rules!) we dumped our stuff, sorted out lives out (well, I did at least) and then made off into the rain for some food, stopping briefly to chat to a guy from Richmond, London downstairs. Random how you bump into people how originate not too far from your home! We didn’t really have much of a clue as to where to go, so just began to wander towards the centre of DC, eventually coming across a restaurant/bar which Harriet got very excited about as it shared her name (Harriet that is…). It seemed a pretty chilled sports bar style place, and so I ordered some chicken wings (VERY spicy – have learnt to ask what sauce they get covered in now!), Andrea ordered some ice cream and Harriet couldn’t eat anything on account of her nut allergy. Unfortunately for her.

Once we were suitably fed and watered (or alcohol-ed in Harriet and mines case!) we wandered in another direction, coming across China Town. Which was very brightly lit and bustling for a Wednesday. We trawled a few places (that would let us in with Andrea being under 21), some nice, some horrendously expensive (don’t ever go to Green Turtle - $8 a beer!). Calling it a night, the girls had major issues working out which way to get back to the hostel, and so with me laughing at their uselessness – I mean it’s not hard to navigate a block system is it?! – I led the poor souls the right way.  
It's raining men! (or just water...)

Stumbling across China Town

The next morning, after a fairly slow start, we mosied out of the hostel and down 11th street towards the centre of DC. It was a beautiful day after the rain of the previous one, and a crisp morning. Now having spent 2 months in the South, and being used to brisk mornings turning into pleasant days, even in October, we were totally un-prepared for the cold that DC had to offer. Especially the girls who had come out in skirts. Oops! This meant that the days plan had to be revised to ensure stops were made within buildings to warm us up at regular intervals! To begin with, we had a wonder around, with Harriet and Andrea taking so many photos that they could have been mistaken for Japanese tourists, and I put my camera away with the intention of just stealing their photos off Facebook. The first stop was the International Spy Museum, for which Andrea being a savvy person (or skint student) managed to get in a little cheaper due to Harriet and I completely forgetting to use the money off coupons we had found.

Honestly tried, but didn't manage to get arrested on a terrorism charge

To get into the tour guide part of this blog entry, the museum was good. It had lots of information relating to the spy industry and both governmental and industrial espionage. There was also a vast array of equipment on display that real spies used (apparently), and some elements of interactivity, although this usually involved putting on some headphones to hear the display in front of you being read out. However, the sheer size of the museum meant we were in there for a good few hours, and after the obligatory trawl through the gift shop (it always amazes me how much crap is on offer in these places!) and the discovery of the most humorous book displaying some phenomenal chat up lines (which were then subsequently repeated on loop to each other the rest of the weekend). Once we had left the black hole, innocently labelled as a ‘gift shop’ (pah!) the rest of the morning was spent walking down The National Mall taking lots of pictures. As you do. The National Mall stretches from the US Capitol down to The Washington Monument and beyond to the WWII memorial and Jefferson Memorial, with the White House off to one side. This bit of DC is usually the most identifiable, and it has most of the big museums lined up adjacent to it. It was actually quite a pretty place, if it hadn’t been for the huge maintenance works going on in the middle of the grass…

The National Mall

The early afternoon was spent in the Holocaust museum, which I would seriously recommend going to if you ever find yourself in DC. Despite the very sobering nature of the museum, I felt it was excellently put together and dealt with the issues sensitivity and a good mix of objectivity and intimacy at the same time. Needless to say, we spent a good few hours in there being taken round the museum which looked at the holocaust in the most minute detail at moments. Once we had emerged with a few tears in the eyes, I managed to break the moment in the most inappropriate way-that only I can-by stating I was starving. The evil looks I got from the people around didn’t make me feel very welcome at that point, so we took our leave sharp-ish into the cafĂ©. Which you had to go through security scanners for. Yeah, explain that to me – in case someone holds up the place for some doughnuts?!

There go the girls
Looking towards the Capitol

We then went up towards the White House, got lost trying to negotiate the bomb bollards in front of the gate, which was in front of the 200m garden strewn with cameras, laser pointers and probably Mutant Ninja Turtles hiding in the bushes or something… Anyways, the whole posing touristy thing of taking pictures through the fence complete, we began to wander back towards China Town for a Hooters dinner that Andrea craved (well she said she craved a Hooters dinner. I’m not so sure she was referring to the food…). We also passed the only Nandos restaurant in the USA. Yup. The only one. Can you imagine the carnage that would entail if it was the case in the UK?!
The White House itself

That evening was spent trawling a few bars again, mainly in the China Town area. We also hooked up with Elston, another international from UCL who have got to know fairly well, and the guys he was with in DC. On the way back into the Hostel we came across a Duke fan lounging on the sofa in front of the TV. Well, we didn’t know he was a Duke fan at first, until we got chatting to him. I think he was a little overwhelmed and alarmed by the number of UNC students within the building when he found out as he left the room pretty sharp-ish afterwards!

The next day was the marathon day. We managed to get out of the hostel at a decent time, and made our way straight down to the National Mall to hit the museums before they got busy. After a little detour into the Smithsonian Art Gallery, we headed into the Air & Space Museum. I should mention here in another tourist guide way that the Smithsonian museums within DC are free to the public, which is great. However, they don’t tell you that once you’re inside you have to pay for the interesting stuff. Anyways, the Air & Space museum was pretty impressive with various planes and things hanging from the ceiling and lots of different exhibitions about various bits and bobs. All rather interesting stuff! As we were walking out about 2 hours later we saw the queue to get in. And were promptly thankful for leaving early! Other museums visited were the Natural History Museum by Harriet and Andrea, and the American History Museum by myself. I didn’t stay long as I thought the constitution was in there. It wasn’t, so I left. And went to the national archives where it actually was located. Oops! When I did get into the National Archives, it was quite cool to see the constitution, displayed alongside the Bill of Rights and Declaration of Independence (or “the receipt” as I jokingly referred to it as to an American standing next to me. He didn’t take it well…). A little piece of (rather recent) history to be seen there!

Luckily we got in before the little terrors!

Suddenly being camera shy...

Afterwards we all started on our huge walk around Tidal Basin and up towards the Lincoln Memorial, zig-zaging a bit to see the MLK memorial and a few others. This was a quite nice walk, with the sun out and not too cold at this point. Just the bloody distance! The memorials were amazing though – the American’s sure know how to construct a memorial that’s for sure! From there we walked (more bloody walking) into Foggy Bottom (yup, that’s the name – quality!) and sat in Starbucks letting the blood get back into our feet, and decide where to eat. We were directed towards a part of foggy bottom which had a number of restaurants around a central square, and decided on the Italian place. It was pretty average, except the olive oil was very splashy and I got it all over me, but I'll move on. 

Congress Building

Looking down the National Mall

Statues of various celebrities...

Yeah, iconic image with no water. How inconsiderate of the builders...

Not wanting to head back to the hostel only to head out again, we moved into the bar just next door to the Italian place, and thank god we did. It was the nearest to a proper British pub I have been in since I arrived in the USA, and coupled with an incredibly friendly and chatty landlord meant we had a very pleasant evening sat at the bar drinking away. Well, Harriet and I did. Andrea not being 21 meant she had to stick to soft drinks unfortunately. Anyway, slightly inebriated (I did my usual thing here of trying any beer I’ve not heard of!) we headed back to the hostel and into bed. 

The next day Harriet was heading back to Chapel Hill as her sister was coming to stay for the week, so me and Andrea had the day together. Aww, bless! The day was kicked off at the Smithsonian Zoo, which Andrea was VERY excited about and promptly went for the Japanese look again, taking pictures of everything! The zoo itself was awesome – spread over a mile or so and home to many different animals, including elephants, tigers, komodo dragons and pandas. And it was free – how amazing is that?! I would definitely recommend going if you ever fancy seeing something else in DC apart from memorials and museums. The afternoon was taken up in Georgetown, which is quite a tendy, not-your-typical-American type of area of DC, and has a large student population (or at least I assume it did from all the student types floating around in Georgetown hoodies). After a poke around the place, we decided to strike out across the river to the south of the main street, and pleasantly surprised, found ourselves back in Virginia. Simple minds I know but it did amuse us for a bit having simply walked to Virginia! From there we decided to walk down to Roosevelt Island, which was a good call because it was beautiful. And the memorial in the middle was pretty impressive too, but then I had come to expect that from DC by now! The evening was spent in a rather swish Cuban bar/restaurant, with good food and music – perfect round up to an awesome weekend!

The next day was an earlier start, with a lengthy walk to the Megabus stop roughly 2 miles from the hostel. Thankfully we managed to get there with no real hiccups (I may have taken the wrong fork in one road…) and with plenty of time left to get on the bus. The journey was long and uneventful, and we arrived back in the South at Durham bus station in the sweltering heat. Typical. The next few hours were to get even more typical, as with it being a Sunday no busses were running to Chapel Hill (at times I do think the USA can be quite backwards), and so Sods Law came crashing down upon us both, with the realisation of the only way of getting back to Chapel Hill without paying an extortionate amount of money on a taxi was to hike up to Duke and hope the shuttle was running. Hike to Duke. Gulp. Having heard a lot about this place from people I wasn’t sure I wanted to go into Dukes campus and openly ask someone how to get back to UNC. They might throw the keys to their Mercedes or something at me… Anyways, I will definitely go on record as to say that the Duke campus is beautiful, with a gothic look to it, and with Andrea doing her womanly thing some Dookie helped us onto the right bus to get to the other side of the campus and onto the UNC shuttle. And no key were thrown. Thank god! Needless to say, by the time we got back onto UNC campus we were more than ready to be back and crash in our rooms!

Yup, in a bar as usual!

1 comment:

  1. I would love to go to that place and stay at the nicest accommodation in town.

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