I have recently returned from a vacation in the United States with my wife, and thought I would share some of our experiences.
We chose to visit Boston for 6 days, and Washington D.C. for 5 days.
We opted for a package though Virgin Holidays, who had a good choice of hotels, and also looked after the internal flight bookings and airport transfers.
You could book everything yourself, particularly if you are a frequent traveller; but for those of us who travel no more than once, or occasionally twice, a year, it is possibly more efficient to pay an extra charge for a tour operator and travel agent arrange everything for you, which should come with the bonus of additional legal rights in the event of problems.
April 6 (Sunday) : London Heathrow
Rather than take the risk of a Monday morning rush-hour, we opted to drive down to the airport on the Sunday before our flight, and to stay overnight at the Renaissance Hotel near terminal four, overlooking one of the main runways.
This proved to be a wise strategy, as not only was the hotel of good value and reasonable quality (being used by flight crews as well), it gave us also a stress-free drive down on a Sunday, and an added bonus of being able to leave our car parked in the hotel's large rear car park for the 2 weeks we would be away. You just take a car park ticket in the normal way, and it is validated by the hotel on your return. But note that there is a warning about leaving your car parked within the white lines. There is also a frequent (3 times an hour) National Express hopper service to take you from the hotel to your terminal, for a small extra charge.
The food in the hotel was of a high quality: not fish and chips, but fish and petit pois.
Whilst there, we encountered a passenger in the hotel check-in queue, who was a refugee from the continuing Terminal 5 crisis, and who was certainly frustrated at inconsistencies in information he was getting. I still am not clear how the Terminal 5 problems arose in the first place. I am sure such a vast project was not going to be without difficulties, and that similar projects around the world may have been met with similar problems; but, one did wonder whether the Abeline Principle was at work. Perhaps none of the directors or managers was prepared to stand up and admit that the project was not ready; or, were the arrangements for the grand opening with the Queen, and the changes to departure gates, so fixed and immovable, that they had to gamble on the opening proceeding?
April 7 (Monday) : Flight to Boston
The Virgin Atlantic check-in process was a perplexing affair. The check-in areas were populated by self-check-in machines, designed, we supposed, to make the whole process simpler and quicker, and to mean that bag drop-off would be a much shorter process. This assumption was proved wrong on two counts.
Firstly, the self-check-in machines were a little tricky to operate unless you were a frequent flyer. In particular, they suffered from very counter-intuitive questions. For example : "Are you intending to stay in the US for no more than 8 hours? Yes or No?". If you are staying in the US for a few days (which we assume would apply to most travellers), I would guess that the majority would initially think about wrongly answering "Yes". But the correct answer is "no", because the "no more" in the question means that you need to create a double-negative with your answer, which is not instantly easy. One experiences slight cognitive dissonance when trying to answer this question. As most people are going to be longer term visitors, the more sensible question would have been: "Are you going to stay in the US for more than 8 hours?" and let the programmers deal with the rest. I would speculate that the original question was motivated by a simple US immegration rule, which had been simply copied accross without any thought as to how the average member of the public would react to it.
Seondly, when we came to drop off our bags, we had to go through the whole check-in process again! We were even issued replacement boarding cards for those issued by the self-check-in machines!
The security screening involved two stages: one for body and bag, the other for shoes. One had to pity the poor folk having to operate the shoe scanner all day. Nose pegs would presumably be tax deductable.
The plane was a Virgin 747 (Airborne 2003, so it said). Guess it operated on the roads before then.
The journey and staff were execellent, with reasonable room in economy, even for tall persons, and with an excellent entertainment selection. The chock-ice handed out during the in-flight movies was atroke of genius.
As the flight wore on, a child in the seats behind asked a nicely perceptive innocent equestion: "Mommy, when are we going to go to earth?"
April 7 (Monday) : Boston - Fairmont Copley Plaza
You know you are in America when the airport exit says "Busses and Limos" rather than "Busses and Taxis".
On arrival in Boston, the shuttle service took us quickly to our chosen hotel, the Fairmont Copley Plaza.
This was a fine hotel in the beautiful grand American style: golden doorways opened for you by smartly dressed doormen, leading to large marbled halls and foyers, glittering with huge chandeliers.
A traveller in the airport shuttle commented that the hotel looked snobby. But he perhaps did not understand that Americans like to have grand hotels, and that all sorts stay in them. It is not about something to brag about, but about giving you a good experience as a guest.
Having said that, we were dropped off at a side entrance, because the doorman on the front entrance wanted to reserve the front entrance for events.
The hotel itself was nicely situated in central Boston, on Coley Square, next to a landmark known as Trinity Church, as well as the equally grand Boston Public Library. The hotel also featured on a number of the postcards.
The room was small and inward facing, but it was quiet, smart, tidy and comfortable nevertheless, with some little elegant touches, and toletries from Miller Harris. In any case, if you intend spending most of your time visiting the city, the size of the hotel room is not really a material factor.
The hotel itself is historic and well used, and has a number of conference suites, as well as a fine dining restaurant (which we did not try), and a main oval event room. During our stay, the hotel hosted many events, including a plastic surgeons conference, a postal workers society meeting, a wedding, and numerous other events.
We had arrived late in the afternoon; so, after unpacking, we went straight out into the gathering darkeness, to locate somewhere to eat.
The air was fresh but quite icy; and over the next few days oscillated between hot and cold, so we were switching between coats, gloves and scarfs, jumpers, and tee-shirts most of the time.
The pavements (side-walks) were wide and clean, and felt peaceful and quiet at night.
Walking at random along streets and avenues, we soon happened upon a small cafe called the "Parish Cafe".
It was a vibrant and lively place, full of folk from business, to student, to retired, some chatting, some reading, some on their laptops, with piles of local papers in the doorway. We soon had some cocktails and large quantities of tasty, but quite cheese-laden, food.
Indeed, as a bit of a generalisation, we noticed that quite a number of dishes on Boston menus involved heavy amounts of cheese; possibly to help them get though icy winters. Eventually our strategy was to go for salads and seafood most of the time.
After eating, we wandered again at random, finding our way onto Newberry Street, which is the most popular and upmarket shopping and restaurant street in Boston, where they happened to be filming a movie (Bride Wars) in a first floor hair salon, involving Anne Hathaway and Kate Hudson. We stood for a while watching with a small gathered crowd, but nothing much happened so we wandered off again. It seems that to catch a glimpse, lots of waiting was required.
April 8 (Tuesday) - Boston - Tea Party
The next day we strolled down in the cold to the Boston Park Plaza hotel near to the Boston Common for an alleged welcome meeting by the local Virgin representative company; mainly to see if there were any cape cod visits to sign on to.
No one turned up, not even the local representative, and the conceirge at the Park Plaza said that this was a frequent occurrence and he was going to make a complaint. He was also extremely helpful, and sold us some tickets for the local Boston tourbus with some initial ideas of where to start in Boston.
He also tried to sell us tickets to see the Boston Red Sox, who were back in town for several days of games after a world tour. At $150 dollars a ticket, we declined, even though a local who was passing the desk at the time said that this was a bargain.
The key feature of Boston is the Freedom Trail, which is a red line marked on the streets, running for about 4 miles from the Massacheusets State House, at the top of Boston Common, over the Charles river, to an obelisk at Bunker Hill.
The trail takes you past a number of museums, buildings and places key to American and Boston history.
Boston is noted in particular for its role in the colonial rebellion against British rule, of which the Boston Tea Party was a trigger. The tea party refers to the throwing overboard of cargoes of tea which the British planned to tax. The phrase Taxation Without Representation came to sum up the grievance. We noticed that even today that the phrase "Taxation without Representation", or equivalents, is a popular addition to US numberplates; whether that is a historical marker or some comment on the current political system.
We immediately jumped on the next passing tour buss (you could hop on and off as you liked), driven by Peppermint Patty, and exited at Quincy Market.
Quincy Market is similar to London's Covent Garden. It consists of three long warehouses, and Fanneuil Hall, and historically was a trading function key to Boston's economic revival in the distant past. Now, like Covent Garden, it is a tourist attraction with shops and food. In fact the center of the three warehouses consists of a long corridor with fast food outlets on either side, and half way down is a large eating hall. The food outlets are all of high quality, and we had some excellent clam chowder and lobster bisque.
We then walked along a part of the freedom trail, visiting the old state house which was once the seat of British power in the 1700s.
The museum contained a model eagle which had been given by the Queen when she had visited in the past; quite significant, a Queen standing on the balcony at the location of a fierce revolution by the colonial population. There was a small note next to the eagle which the writer stated that the gift was a bit tacky, albeit well meant.
I noticed as we looked through the meuseum, that the so-called British massacre of the revolutionaries only involved the death of about 5 people. I was perplexed as to why this should be called a massacre, until I noticed that there was a question and answer board for children to leave equestions. The first equestion was: "Was the massacre really a massacre?" The answer was typically American straight talking - "No, only propaganda".
We strolled on from here to the holocaust memorial, which consisted of a line of glass chambers with faint whisps of gas eminating from grills in the ground, each representing a concentration camp.
We then went back to central Boston, and the high-quality shopping malls around the base of the Prudential tower. The malls were on two sides of a road with class tunnels between : which the tourbus guide called "gerbil runs for rich shoppers".
The Prudential tower has an observation deck, with museum, on the 50th floor, which you can get to with no fuss, and you can re-use your ticket as many times as you like on the same day. We took a trip up during the daylight, then descended to eat at a busy Legal Seafoods restaurant in the malls below. Legal Sea Foods is a well regarded chain of fresh sea food restaurants. Following our meal, we ascended the tower once more to view the city at night.
April 9 (Wednesday) - Blue Man Group
In the morning we try out Au Bon Pain, a chain of largely self-service stores with emphasis on breakfast: effectively, build your own breakfast. Here you can get a wide range of breakfast related food. It can be a little bewildering when you first go into on, as the choice is so large. In order to stay a little healthy, morning consisted of a yogurt and oat mix, and orange juice.
Before we get there, we pass by the finish line for the Boston marathon, marked by a nearby bronze statue of a hare and a tortoise, accross the square from our hotel.
We then take a walk to Boston's central park and common, which is a very English affair, with a central bandstand, a pond called the frog pond, fringed by a couple of bronze frogs fishing, and an adjacent play area called the Tadpole play area.
At the top of the common we wander into Beacon Hill, a very quiet and gentrified residential area of old houses with well kept window boxes. The area is immaculately kept, and the street which appears on most pictures is the cobbled Acorn Street.
We take a moment to note some old purple window panes; impurities in glass supplied from England turned the glass purple in the sun.
Near to this area is the state house of Massachusets with memorals in its grounds for the Fire and Police Departments. The fire memorial has a bell, and the police memorial is in the shape of s shield with a blue light at the bottom. Both memorials have empty space for inevitable future names.
The state house also was home to a general who, we understand, gave the name to the oldest profession.
From here we go to the Cheers bar, along the side of Boston common, which was the outside shot for the Cheers program. The inside is nothing like the Cheers bar, which was of course a television set. The bar itself is a classic American bar.
From here we walk up Newberry Street, the most elegant street in town, full of well-kept shops for the ladies, and restaurants. It feels quite empty at the time, which we note (more on this later), and everyone seems very calm and unrushed.
At the end of the street we encounter the Trident Bookstore and Cafe. A recommended spot for a mixture of intellectual books, magazines and periodicals, coctails and good quality American cafe food.
The bookshop feels like an intellectual liberal haven, where magazines about why we need god jostle along side magazines about why we don't.
One interesting feature of old American shops that we begin to note, is how far back they go. Shops which seemingly have a narrow street frontage, expand inwards to reveal huge interior spaces. The Trident bookstore was no exception.
A stroll back along Newberry Street brings us once more to Copley Square and our hotel. On the way we pass by a Bostick booth, which sells on-the-day tickets for the latest shows in town. The tickets, we find out later, cost slightly more than normal prices, because they charge a "convenience fee" on top.
We bought tickets for the Blue Man Group; an electric and eclectic mix of rythmic mesmerising music, visual and audio humour, mime, slapstic, and audience participation; with a large splash of wit and paint. Highly recommended if you get the chance. Some echoes of Stomp in the silent humerous interplay between the troup themselves and the audience. The live album on their web site is probably best to listen to, as the occasional audience laughs remind you that the songs involve visual humour as well.
Before we get to the show, we eat at the Jacob Wirth German sausage eaterie near to the theatre, home of some of the Wurst puns in town, and one of the oldest restaurants in Boston.
April 10 (Thursday) - Harvard and MIT
Our day began with another trip to Au Bon Pain, and then taking the Boston Common "T" (underground) to Havard Square. Not really a square, but a bunch of shops and restaurants next to Harvard University.
We began by purchasing a 25c map of the University and started off in the Old Yard. The oldest part of Harvard, which consisted of halls of residence and teaching buildings surrounded by elegant (if slightly trampelled) grassy areas.
The statue of John Harvard seemed to draw most attention, and we were almost drawn in, until the guide book informed us that this was not a likeness of the man himself, and no records existed for this. His left shoe was bright and shiny, which suggested people touched it for luck. A later check on Wikipedia indicated that students also urinated on it.
We strolled past the Emmet Philosopy building with its enigmatic question carved into the stone work : "What is man that thou art mindful of him." (Psalm 8:4). Consider the sentence concerning John Harvard's foot as a starting place for your answer.
We then walked up to the dramatic Harvard Law School library, and sat outside in the sun for a while.
The sun was obscured momentarily by a young student asking if we were "Class of 11"; a new intake. Despite the best efforts of our wrinkles and aged skin, we needed to explain to him that we were pehaps a little old for "Class of 11". We offered to keep him company if he wished.
The guide book recommended a visit to the Aston lecture halls. I wandered in the building and asked a passing student if he would show me round. He showed me an elegant lecture hall. I asked if it had appeared in films. No such luck; all of the Harvard lecture scenes were filmed somewhere in California.
We had lunch at the Border Cafe in Harvard Square; a vibrant Tex-Mex, with a faboulous Blackened Catfish Fajita.
Fuelled by margueritas,
11 parts fresh sqeezed Lime juice 1 part Cuervo Gold or Especial Tequila 1 part Triple sec or Cointreau Mix in a shaker. Rub the rim of your glass with a lime and then in a plate of salt. Pour mixture into glass.
we rolled down Massachusets Avenue back towards town, pausing to visit the MIT Meuseum, which housed the latest MIT projects (stackable eletric cars for the town of the future, and the use of zebra fish to study cancer growth), and a fine collection of holograms and other curiosities.
MIT was a much busier affair than Harvard, and from here we crossed over the Charles River, on a bridge offering fine views of downtown Boston. Eventually we came to the end of Newberry Street, and the Trident Bookstore again, where we stopped for refreshments.
By this time the weather had hit a sunny 26 Celcius, and Newberry street was transformed from genteel street, to heaving party, with packed bars, cafes and terraces. It was as if everyone cowered inside until the first hint of Spring, and then lept out to the bars as soon as they had the chance. The next day was colder, and sure enough, the crowds had gone.
Back at our hotel we confirmed flights to Washington using the United Automated voice recognition system, and my best American accent.
In the evening we ate outside at Joe's on Newberry Street, and stuck to a salad, to ease the pain of the large lunch.
April 11 (Friday) - Shopping
We start by going to Filene's Basement; a renowned designer discount store. The old Filene's building was an empty shell under development, and the store has moved to a street parallel with Newberry Street.
On the way we visit DSW (the shoe discount warehouse), which is for designer shoes what Filene's is to designer clothes. Im am sure there are still ladies lost in the vast maze of shoe aisles that greets you. Douglas Adams would have seen it as the shoe event horizon.
On the way out of our hotel, we had noted that there was a free organ recital at Trinity church, opposite the hotel (a regular Friday feature). The recital lasted about an hour with an introduction from the organ master (Michael Kleinschmidt, Director of Music and Organist), and then an opportunity to meet him afterwards. The huge numbers of school trips that attended that day promted the organist to say that he felt like Elvis.
Beneath the church there is a bookstore, selling largely religious books, at which I picked up a few sale books on philosophical subjects ( drastically reduced, said the sale stand). The Case For Civility by OS Guinness, and Consider This : Questions That Make You Think by Barbara Ann Kipfer, both described a little further below.
We wandered up Newberry Street again, and had lunch at the Trident Bookstore, where I puchased an edition of The American Scholar periodical, which contained a number of topical articles.
Back along Newberry Street we came back to Copley Square, and took a look at the Boston public library. The old part of the building is given over to a number of exhibition rooms and a large renovated reading room. The building is a marble wonder, with another coffee shop, and an inner courtyard.
The most notable exhibition was one celebrating the public contributions of a range of non-celebrity individuals, to civil life. It certainly showed how the Americans like to celebrate civic duty.
April 12 (Saturday) - The Freedom Trail
We decide to walk the full length of the freedom trail today, from the top end of the Boston Common at the state house, dodging all the runners training for the Boston marathon.
We pass by places we have already visited, and stop to notice some artwork celebrating the donkey symbol of the Democratic Party. If you look at the footprints, there are two elephants in them, the symbols of the Republican Party.
From here we pass by Quincy Market again, and through a vegetable market, selling very colorful vegetables and fish at cheap prices, and into the north end, and the Italian quarter. Road crossings at the market have artwork representing squashed fruit and veg.
From here we pass over the Charles River, and reach the USS Constitution; an old wooden ship hundreds of years old, which had some notable victories. Made from such large amounts of oak, it resisted the cannon balls of a British frigate, and earned the name "Ironsides". To explore the lower decks you need to participate in the free tours operated by serving navy personnel.
Waiting in the queue we overhear an interesting discussion between two navy personnel on the differences in accents between Boston and elsewhere.
After the USS Constitution, we stroll up to the Bunker Hill Monument, which contains an obelisk, modelled on the Washington Monument, to commemorate a battle with the British, which, though not victorious, dealt a heavy blow to both sides in casualties. There are 296 steps to the top, and it gives to a panoramic view of Boston, albeit through smudged perspex windows. Take your time climbing up. At a fair pace, it takes about 5 minutes.
We make our way back to Quincy market for more Clam Chowda and Lobster Bisque, and watch some of the street entertainers that gather in front of Fanneuil Hall. A particularly popular from of entertainment is drumming on pots, pans and the like. In fact, there were a number of these entertainers, with suspiciously similar rythmns, suggesting some schooling somewhere. The effective line at the end is : "If you liked the show let the bucket know." (I.e. put some money in.)
A quick visit to a store Copley Flair selling Vera Bradley bags (the latest trend you know), and then over to Boston Common once more to sit and watch some local baseball matches. In the distance we notice a kite flying very high above the common. As we near it, it leads down to a man in a wheelchair begging for money to keep it flying.
As we near Trinity Church, there are adverts for a blessing of the runners.
The evening sees us back at the Parish Cafe for a final time, with a selection of further cocktails, and sitting next to a couple of gentlemen who will be singing some Bach at the local church.
As we stroll back to the hotel for the last time, we notice a red light on one of the buildings, which apparently signifies that the Red Sox are playing. Such is the passion for the game, we noted in the press that a worker on a the New York Yankees stadium tried to hide a Red Sox shirt in the concrete to "curse" the stadium.
Back at the hotel they are preparing for a large wedding, with a band, and a separate table just for the bride and groom.
April 13 (Sunday) - To Washington
The day starts with adventure as our shuttle ride to the airport demands payment, as they had not been paid by the local Virgin representative for weeks. Getting to the airport is more important than getting involved, so we cough for the money. The driver himself is pretty relaxed about the whole thing.
United Airlines offers an "easy" self check-in just like Virgin; but unfortunately, as foreign travellers, none of the 10 different identification options works, so we end up again back to regular check-in.
The flight on an Embraer RJ145 itself is swift and efficient, to Washington Dulles, and their interesting travelling living rooms, that take you from the gate to the main terminal. They are strange in that they feel like a carpeted moving room, that looks vaguely like an Eagle from Space 1999.
The Super Shuttle minibus into Washington D.C. is equally efficient, and we soon find ourselves at the multi-coloured Helix Hotel on Rhode Island Drive.
It is a "boutique" hotel, which means that it has plenty of experimental decor. Overall we enjoyed the hotel, and found it reasonably well kept with interesting and quite spacious rooms (we were on floor 9). It has a bar downstairs which is regularly used by hotel guests and locals to the block. It was about 10 minutes walk from the Whitehouse, and there were some lively local places to eat as well.
We went over to \\P\\ street at night and ate at Logan's Tavern, which was a very popular place, serving good quality meals.
April 14 (Monday) - The National Mall
The National Mall is the central feature of Washington, comprising a 2 mile long park, with Capitol Hill (seat of the representatives and senate) at one end, the Lincoln Memorial at the other, the Washington Monument in the middle, and the White House up from the middle, forming a 'T' shape.
Walking down 16th towards the back of the White House, we pass the Society for Chemical Engineers, with an interesting periodic-table-elephant outside. Another building has the Democrat and Republican symbols.
Just outside the back of the White House is a "Ban The Bomb" protest site which has been allowed to remain there since 1981, and is manned 24 hours a day. The most memorable sign reads "Have a Nice Doomsday". It is tolerated presumably as a constant reminder to the president.
The oval room itself is not visible, and is heavily shrouded with trees.
The mall itself is a huge expanse fringed with monumental columned buildings, from the US treasury, the various national museums, the Capitol, the Library of Congress, and the Supreme Court. It has been referred to as a modern day Athens, with some justification.
We wander past the White House and down to the Washington Monment. There is a lift rising through its centre, but, to use this on the day, you need to queue from 7.30 in the morning. Clearly, as populations have increased, and travel has increased, the number of Washington Monuments has not; and, I assume that if you calculated the number of visiters its lift could carry up every day, there will be a finite limit, so that there will presumably be some people in the US (let alone the rest of the world) who will never be able to ascend it.
From here we walk towards the capitol, passing by a column of trainee officers running and chanting the famous Duckworth Cadance chant.
SOUND OFF (By individual) 1 - 2 (By troops) SOUND OFF (By individual) 3 - 4 (By troops) CADENCE COUNT (By individual) 1 - 2 - 3 - 4, 1 - 2 --- 3 - 4 (By troops)
The Capitol is a much more approachable building than the White House, and at the front you are allowed on to its steps.
From the Capitol we go south along Pennsylvania Avenue for a short while aiming for an eastern market. Before we get there we eat a vast salad lunch at a cafe called Bread and Chocolate.
The eastern market itself is closed, because the building has been condemned.
We wander back through the pleasant leafy streets behind the capitol, until we reach the Library of Congress. We notice one of the houses has a large card board stalk in the garden outside, indicating a recent birth.
The reading room itself is closed, but the marbelled entrance and side exhibits are worth the visit in themselves. In particular there is a reconstruction of the Jefferson library, and the basement had a huge Bob Hope exibition covering in detail all of his history and work, including movies, pictures, exhibits, and scripts.
From the libarary a short walk brings you to the blinding white steps leading to the Supreme Court. You can go in, but there is not much to see unless you join a tour into the actual court room itself.
A short walk again brings you to Union Station, which sets the standard for railway stations and rivals Grand Central in New York. It is also a huge shopping mall, and food hall, as well as station, and is clearly a destination in its own right. Again, as with all public areas we have experienced so far, it is clean and well looked after.
We wander on, passing the news museum, which sports the day's front pages from some 30 papers, and up past the FBI building.
and up to the International Spy Museum. This consists of a vast warren-like series of linked exhibitions covering the methods, equipment and history of spying throughout the world. Again, as with all the museums and exhibitions we have seen so far, each area was stuffed with exhibits, equipment, interactive items, movies, and so on.
On entering the building there is a little memory game you can play (optional), which involves your being asked to memorise an identity, which is then tested by computers every so often as you pass through the museum. I used the imaged based memory technique and even now (some 15 days later) can remember:-
John Campbell (Cambells Soup) 34 (Golf Fore) Resident in the US (Empire State Building) Born Mandeville, Jamaica (Stoke Mandeville childrens hospital) Going to Budapest, Hungry (An annoying monk, Food) Clothing Salesman (Jacket) Going to : International Textile Trade Forum (Exhibition Centre) Meeting the Assistant Manager (Organisational Chart) Want information about exhibiting next year (Leaflet)
One of the questions asked at the end was "Will you be coming back to Hungary again?". This is a consistency test. Answer: "Yes of course, I am planning to exhibit next year".
One of the most difficult exhibits tested yout ability to spot someone in a crowd after their disguise had been removed.
Back near the White House we notice some flags being put up. On asking a policeman he informs us that the Pope is visiting tomorrow. He would not tell us when, but on getting back to the hotel the Pope's entire itinery is in the papers. It turns out the Pope had requested the visit. Back by "pope-ular" demand you could say.
We eat at Grill Fish (a sister restaurant to Logan Tavern), a very popular town restaurant.
Passers-by direct us home. Back at home I read an odd headline in the New York Times:-
It is clear what it is trying to say. But equally it could be read as meaning that only criminals and the mentally ill should have access to guns! More worring is the "most legislation"; does that mean that some legislation actively encourages gun access to criminals and the mentally ill?
April 15 (Tuesday) - Space Museum
Today we walk over to the Space and Air Meauseum. A vast chamber full of original aircraft, jet engines, rockets, space modules and a test lunar lander. Again, there are huge numbers of side exhibits giving you large amounts of information about astronomy, space flight, aeronautics, jet engines, aviation, aircraft carriers, etc. There are also space simulators and a 3D eye max cinema. Truely an amazing place; particularly for children.
After an hour and a half we have absorbed more information than we can cope with and are feeling, lets say it : spaced out.
From here we go on a long walk past the Lincoln memorial, over the Potomac and to Arlington Cemetary; passing by demonstrators saying that one should not "worship" death or the dead. I think they were confusing "honour" (remembering their actions) with "worship" (placing them personally in a superior position to oneself).
We visit the eternal flame and the Kennedy grave, where there is a monument with his speach etched on it and a view back over to the national mall. Sadly a burial was taking place at the time we visited, and the mournful sounds of Taps played by a bugler stood back among the trees, signalled this sad event.
Taking the T metro (a dark, mysterious place) back into Washington, we emerge by chance to coincide with the arrival of the Pope's cavalcade into the White House. We also, by further chance, bump into two Amercian tourists we happened to assist with a ticket machine at Arlington Cemetary. Not only had we surfaced at the same station, but walked to the same area.
We walk round the back of the White House to head back to the hotel, stopping briefly to notice armed guards with binoculars on the roof of the White House.
We had our evening meal at Rice; a Thai restaurant, but with a menu structured like other American restaurants: Soups, Appetizers and Entrees.
April 16 - Power to the Papal
Unbeknown to us (he doesn't consult with us you know), the current pope had planned a visit to the United States; and particularly rarely, a visit to the White House.
We stroll down to the White House to see what is going on. At the back it seems relatively quiet. As the crowds build, the pope brings out all sorts. We see an atheist demonstration. We see a sex abuse demonstration, shouting that the "Pope is a criminal" and getting very animated when passed by priests. We also see a potential future president. We see non-catholic demonstrators. And we see worshiping crowds.
You may notice a cake on the atheist stand. This was a birthday cake for the Pope, who happened also to be celebrating his birthday during the visit.
To be fair to the Pope, he made a number of speaches of regret. For two hours the protests continue and we decide to wander off up Pennsylvania Avenue to Georgetown.
Of course, we had in fact missed the full welcome, speaches, six gun salutes etc on the White House lawn on the other side; although the crowds were kept at a substantial distance. Later in the evening the press was taking great delight in a recording they had captured of the president allegedly saying : "Thanks your holiness, awesome speach". This caused amusement among the press, who felt that George Bush was beginning to parody himeself.
Pennsylvania Avenue from the White House to Georgetown is thronging with people waiting for the Pope's motorcade, and the empty road is fringed with stern-looking police. We keep going towards Georgetown, passing circles of singing acolytes, who all seem to adopt a similar approach. A few guitars, bongos, tambourines, a circle, and a very similar Hallelujah chant. This pattern repeats itself all along until we near Georgetown when it all thins out, except for the police. We hang around here, and 20 minutes later the Pope passes and waives in our general direcion, and as we are the only persons at that point. He is going at speed now, as this part is towards the end; and in a white flash, the motorcade as moved on (and if you are expecting a picture of the Pope, I fluffed it).
We make it to Georgetown, and eat at Sequoia, a relatively upmarket restaurant, with excellent food, but at a good price, overlooking the Potomac river, John F Kennedy Center and the Watergate Center(site of the famous burglary authorised by Nixon).
The Georgetown shops are high class, and Georgetown is a very pleasant leafy area of town. The shops and restaurants reflect the wealth of the residents.
My wife purchases me a book containing quotes from Einstein. One is particularly topical for the Pope's visit: "Let every man be respected as an individual, and no man be idolized."
Leaving Georgetown we follow the blossom fringed Rock Creek park, and cross over to P street.
As we near our hotel, police throng every corner. Soon, the streets in front of our hotel are closed off, and the Pope's cavalcade rockets past on to another event in town at the Basilica of the National Shrine.
We complete our visit to the Logan's Tavern chain by a visit to Mercado, a tex mex.
April 17 - Wedding Anniversary
At last we do not need coats, as a very warm front has pushed up from the south.
We stroll up to the Lincoln Memorial, and take a look inside. This is a symbolic place for all Americans given that one of the factors in the American Civil War was the banning of slavery, something which Lincoln fought for. There are a couple of his most notable speeches etched on the interior, including a typographical correction. Stone masons don't have tippex.
On either side of the memorial are the Korean and Vietnam war memorials. Both moving experiences, but the Korean in fact more so when looks at the statistics of loss on all sides. The telephone directory of the dead for the Vietnam memorial is also quite shocking.
From here we walk up the Potomac, past the JFK Center and the Watergate complex, and back into Georgeotown, for an excellent meal at Clydes. Well presented food at very reasonable prices.
We then walk back down to Foggy Bottom, and take the metro to the Pentagon, but there really wasn't much to see, as security is very tight after the tragic 9-11 attacks, so we continued on to the Pentagon City shopping mall, which is a huge shopping area, albeit having mostly the same shops as we had already seen in the centre of town and Georgetown.
We have a final wedding anniversary meal at the Logan Tavern.
April 18 (Back to the UK)
Our final day consists of a brief trip to the Arts Museum on the national mall, whose domed roof is modelled on the Pantheon in Rome, followed by a salad meal at a Whole Foodssupermarket on P street. These are very high quality supermarkets, with a hugh salad bar and hot food area, and with seating past the checkouts and outside to eat.
The departure gates as Washington Dulless are extremely clean and spacious, and the journey back with Virgin passes pleasantly.
The Virgin travel arrangements were good, and only fell down at one point, when the shuttle transfer back from our hotel to the airport (sub-contracted by Virgin's contracted representative in Boston) said that they would charge us because the local representative (not Virgin) had not been paying their bills! The actual driver was remarkably relaxed and friendly about the matter.
Impression of America
Overall, our impressions of the America we saw, were of a very clean, smart, ordered, service driven society, proud of its political, scientific, intellectual and social achievements.
A slimple look at its bookstores and public institutions demonstrates what a large amount of political, social, business, reglious and scientific debate goes on.
Boston is a place full of universities; Harvard, MIT, Suffolk, etc.; it feels like an intellectual capital.
The city has a bright, sharp feel to it.
You rarely have to take any public transport, as most parts of the city are within walking distance.
Washington is the institutional captial. As well as the institutions of government and law, there are also the head offices of many societies and organisations, such as the Society for Chemical Engineers.
Washington is also packed with museums, almost all of which were free at the time of writing.
The restaurants and food in Washington were excellent, and were equal to those we tried in Boston.
Again, you rarely have to take any public transport, as most parts of the city are within walking distance.
The American people were encountered were proud, assured, sincere, interested, communicative, and not afraid to be intellecual. Everyone we encountered, without exception, from hotel staff to passers-by, was extremely polite and helpful.
I noticed in the Trident bookstore (Boston) a copy of Lynn Truss's book Talk To The Hand which considers the loss of modern manners. It seemed out of place in America, where, publically at least, manners could not be faulted.
Typical phrases one expect to hear often are:-
Used both sincerely and ironically.
When nothing more needs to be done.
- "Is there anything more I can get for you?"
Feel free to say yes or no, it is a genuine question.
- "Can I help you with anything on the menu."
Not asking for help is more embarrasing for you, and them.
- "How are you doing? - We're great."
We don't need anything more.
- "Are you all set."
Ready to go? I'll get your bill.
- "Have a great day."
"Have a nice day" is simply not enough any more.
- "Can I get you any change."
Polite way of saying, "is that my tip?"
No one is surly. In fact there is a slight culture shock when one returns to the UK, as we can sometimes come accross, publically at least, as slightly more distant and self-absorbed. That is not to say that either way is the right one; but you do notice the difference.
Moreover, this bright attitude is is done with a high level of sincerety, such that Americans can be very confused by the slightly more cynical and suspicious British manner.
This is quite obvious when one sees televised debates between US policians, or indeed panels of pundits; rarely do you see them talking over each other, raising their voices, or adopting any threatening or bullying behaviour. It can seem a little too calm compared to the roudy House of Commmons.
We overheard some discussions on the return plane in which an American student pointed out that, in her experience, she had to speak to middle aged people with families, to get directions or conversation, and that she was often on the receiving end of jokes from younger persons.
This made me recall an edition of Celebrity Big Brother in a previous year which featured two Americans. The British "house mates" complained that the American lady would wake in the moring and be overflowing with cheer and happiness. This the British "house mates" interpreted as falsness. For the American lady this interpretation was confusing, because she genuinely mean't it.
The lession is: for British dealing with Americans, be very positive, don't get moody or angry, and avoid personal criticism if you can; and for Americans dealing with British, your bright and positive outlook can be misinterpreted by us as falseness or showing-off, and expect us to get angry more easily, so don't be surprised if you get negative reactions.
Ultimately these may be just surface things, which do not substantially change what we actually do. I.e. I may serve you with a smile or without, but you still get served.
Cities and Public Spaces
US cities are grids, with underground parking.
Street level is an equal balance between pedestrians and cars, and you get used to stopping for crossings every block.
Cars are often instructed by road signs to "Yield to Peds".
We noticed that the streets of both Boston and Washington, including outlying suburbs, and the edges of the freeways, were always clean and clear of litter. You get an overriding impression of orderlyness and cleaniness in Amercian cities, road and motorways, which I am sad to say is a standard we fall a little short of in the UK. Not far short, I would say; but compared to US cities, we have room for improvement.
American cities are in a grid system, which may be numbered or named. When crossing at intersections, look to your left, as cars can turn right over your crossing even if your crossing is saying walk; but they must give way to you if you have already started crossing.
The east coast air feels fresh and icy, and we enjoyed clear blue skies almost every day. Cloudy weather came and went quickly, and you did need to prepare for hot and cold snaps.
Perhaps April and May are the best times to visit, being neither too cold nor too hot. I understand winters can be very bitter and snow-bound, and summers very hot and swampy.
Eating and Drinking
American bars offer all manner of drinks. There is usually a range of locally brewed beer, and there is always a range of cocktails. Cocktails seem more popular in bars and cafes than in the UK.
The American bar is almost always sat at, whereas the English bar almost always stood at.
The American cafe is in effect a bar and small restaurant, and inevitably serves a wide range of well made food. The English cafe can cover a much wider type of establishments.
Individuals alone, sitting and reading, or on their laptops, are not unusual. We tend to prefer groups.
Instead of "Use by", expect to see "Enjoy by".
Most of the menus we saw followed the same design and pattern, almost uniformly throughout the two cities:-
Soups/Appetizers Entrees - Salads - Meat and Fish Dishes - Grills Deserts
One particular oddity was that the Americans call their main courses "entrees", from the French word "entrée". I don't quite follow this, as the french word in fact translates as "appetizer":-
entrée Noun, feminine (a) (act of entering: of person) entry, entrance; (of vehicle) entry; ... (d) (of a meal) starter, entrée (frm), appetizer (esp US [WRONG!!!]), appetiser (UK)
A shrimp is a prawn.
The American table setting is fork and spoon for appetiser/starter, and fork and knife for main course/entree.
In most food-courts or self-service eating areas, large garbage receptacles are provided, and you are expected to tidy up your own mess, which people do without exception. In the UK we often expect our mess to be tidied by others.
Increasingly, minibars now have keys which you are offered from reception to avoid arguments. If you chose to take one, I would advise photographing the contents when you first arive, for the purpose of identifying what was NOT THERE, to avoid being charged for it later.
Speak to your hotel conceirge for initial ideas about places to visit, local cafes and restaurants, and trips.
The following is a selection of things read whilst we were away:-
New York Times
This is in effect a national paper, with different editions for different cities/regions. It is a quality read, with science and art supplements during the week. A good way to get into the current American affairs.
Affluenza (Olver James)
This is a book which is suggesting that the desire for money, and objects of status, at any cost, is now afflicting many more people than it did historically, particularly as a result of our particularly effective mass production, building, travel and communication technologies.
I am not quite sure that was necessarily that any different at any time in history, it is just our modern levels of technology and populations are now amplifying it to proportions hitherto unknown.
The American Scholar is a quarterly periodical, with 150 pages packed with an eclectic mix of articles. The edition I purchased, covered subjects as diverse as the rise of large forest fires throughout the globe and a study of the racy work of Marcus Martialis, a satirist of Roman times.
To quote the latter:-
How can this slippery son of a bitch, With all his vices, not be rich?
You are never far from a free newspaper, in which you can find a lot of local news.
In physics, it is said, anything that can happen, eventually will; so, in shopping, anything that can be bought, eventually will be sold.