Oh yes, I know this column is called Inside Mexico. But if the archetype of the American writer, Samuel Clemens, wrote and published an account of the adventures of A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, why can I not write about my own humble vicissitudes in the capital city of the United States?
One of the most picturesque and joyful compositions from Aaron Copland is Salón México, a short symphonic poem he wrote after visiting Mexico for a few days in the late thirties. When he got back home, somebody asked him, Why don’t you write a symphony on the subject? (After all, Dvorak did so after he visited America. The result, the New World Symphony, is still praised and frequently played around the world.) Copland, in all modesty, answered that he could not write a whole symphony on Mexico after just a short tourist visit. So he chose to produce a minor piece to reflect his brief impressions on our country.
I traveled recently to Washington, D.C. in order to participate in one of those technological forums so common among our Northern neighbors. I spent but four days in Washington, so my account will be, by necessity, a short, shallow and biased one.
As a tourist, I try to keep focused on three main areas of interest: the people, the food and then the rest of the place -scenery, art, culture, architecture and the like. In that order.
First, the people. I always do my best to talk and exchange impressions with the people from the places I visit. That was my first shock when in Washington: the majority of persons I met there were from other countries. I took no less than fifteen taxi rides in my short stay in Washington. No taxi driver was able to speak English in an acceptable manner. I met people from Pakistan, India, Uganda, Eritrea, El Salvador, Ethiopia, Thailand, Algeria, Ghana, Afghanistan, Iran, The Philippines, Russia, and I don’t know how many more countries. My English was by far the best among the crowd. As the Spanish saying goes, “In the country of blind people, the one-eyed is King.”
That mixture of races and cultures gives the city a very special flavor. Ancient Rome, in the last days of the Empire, must have showed a similar atmosphere. A strange amalgam of people from all over the world, drawn by the attractive magnet of a rich city, the center of power in those days.
One thing I noticed in Washington was the treatment dispensed to the public by policemen, policewomen, guardians and the like. When I had climbed the long stairway up to the main entrance at the Capitol building, a young female guardian asked me for my yellow ticket. I said, “What ticket?”, to be told that I had to produce a ticket to be admitted inside the building. That particular piece of paper was distributed downstairs and on the other side of the huge square, of course. I just stood there, not finding any word to say. But she must have seen the look in my eyes, because she finally said, mouth half closed, “Okay, go ahead.” In another event, I was shouted at by two prepotent men in uniform who were “instructing” me as to the way to place my bag and camera on their inspection table. I said in my coolest tone that I did not like to be shouted at, and that I wanted to speak to their superior officer. My mistake. I got myself the shouting and a lecture from the supervisor.
The food. After a thorough and minutely precise investigation, I found myself forced to conclude that there is not a restaurant in Washington that serves Washingtonian food, if such a thing exists in this world. I enjoyed a very hearty Irish stew, with a rich Amber Ale to help meat, potatoes and vegetables go down, in an Irish pub not far from Union Station. I found Vietnamese cooking to be complex and delicious, and a Pakistani restaurant made my day after a long walk through monuments and memorials. I’m very glad to report that the micro brewery, that much celebrated and happy invention, is alive and well in the city capital.
Like its population, restaurants in Washington are a mosaic of nationalities, cooking schools, exotic flavors and brilliant colors. A nice and very welcome experience for the bold traveler who is willing to discover new worlds of imagination.
Of course, yes, I visited the museums, and the Capitol, and the Lincoln and the Washington and the Jefferson memorials, and all the rest of the monuments in Washington, White House included. But I think there is something that sets this metropolis apart, that puts this city in a significant place, in a very special category, in this world. And that, in my humble opinion, is the Library of Congress.
The Library of Congress. I’ve dreamed about it for years. And finally I got to meet her (yes, I know a library is not a she, but after all this is my dream.) I reached the main entrance, countless words and phrases buzzing in my mind, the so many voices from the past almost shouting in my ears. A gracious Uruguayan woman directed me towards the entry corridor. Her companion, an attractive middle-aged American lady (Yes, amazing! An American in Washington!), instructed me to follow the get-lost-by-yourself guide she put in my hands.
I spent many hours inside the building, all of them to my pleasure. I got myself a reader’s identification card, and armed with that I was able to visit almost every corner of the library, the imppresive Main Reading Room included. The card cost me nothing, something I found to be the norm in all of the public places I visited in Washington. In contrast with that generous attitude, I learned that Tom Jefferson sold his private library to the Library of Congress soon after the institution was created. That checks with a phrase from him I read on a portico in the building that houses the Department of Commerce, “Offer every country peace and commerce.”
Before I left, I thanked the people who had the great vision, when Washington was but a raw town, to set the foundation for this most important redoubt of knowledge. Besides I felt really thankful for the generosity with which this treasure was opened to me, a complete stranger, a foreigner from another country.
Time flew among tech talks, personal relations work, books, monuments and museums. After four days of this I felt exhausted, but happy. This proved to be a brief, but instructive and very interesting experience. A memorable trip, so to say.
After packing and before leaving for the airport, I found time for a tranquil drink at the hotel bar. A Thai barman must have read my thoughts when he said to me, in a terrible English, “This a great city, no?”
Library of Congress Home Page: https://lcweb.loc.gov/