In honour of American Independence Day (hello to all my readers across the pond! I hope your 4th of July is filled with sparklers, sunshine, good company and merriment), I thought I’d share some photos from my trip to Washington last August. My love for this place knows no bounds; I spent a ridiculously happy few months there working on Capitol Hill in the winter of 2002-3.
The 4th of July is to me, like America’s own fight for independence, a celebration of freedom, of the power of human will, of the importance of choosing our own path and fighting to achieve that which we set out to accomplish. Going to Washington was my personal Independence Day; I fought hard for the opportunity and worked incredibly hard when I was there, but it was also my first independent ‘grown-up’ adventure, something that was all mine, and the very first moment I had clarity and realised what I wanted to do with my career. More than that, it was incredible to be living on ‘the inside’ of a place that was both so embedded in incredible history (oh, the things that have happened in Washington!), but which is also the epicentre of power today – a privilege which was never lost on me. Though several years have passed since then, I will always treasure how significant Washington was to me.
So here are a few of my favourite Washingtonian things:
- Walking the corridors of the US Capitol building – a place of such monumental historical significance that I would get goosebumps exploring the out-of-bounds ancient staircases between the chambers on my lunch breaks, marvelling at the people who walked there before me;
- Pondering freedom and civil rights at the moving Lincoln Memorial;
- The postcard-perfect view from the Lincoln Memorial, across the reflecting pool – the sight of many a great moments in 20th Century American history – to the looming Washington Monument and then up the Mall to the Capitol Building;
- The lofty neoclassical architecture influences which, significantly, dominate the city’s great landmarks and government buildings (the Founding Fathers looked towards the ancient Greek and Roman liberal democracies for inspiration, evidenced in the Capitol’s architecture);
- Walks past the White House (a pretty hard view to beat – and a symbol of the pinnacle an individual can reach if they dare to dream Pennsylvania Avenue-big);
- The worlds best red velvet cupcakes (I sampled a lot!) and the lipstick red sight of Ben’s Chili Bowl (a Washington institution);
- Strolling the beautiful tree-lined streets of Georgetown – rummaging for treasure in tiny boutiques, book shops and antique stores and imagining the society parties that go on behind those closed doors;
- The fact that Washington is probably the only place in the world where politics is so cool, it’s obligatory even at Starbucks (political geeks like me rejoice!);
- The incredible Smithsonian institutions along the Mall – seeing the original Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights, documents I’d studied endlessly at university, in the National Archives gave me goosebumps!
(not pictured) day trips to the picture-perfect Old Town Alexandria; the city’s fantastic jazz and wine bars, the Capitol Hill flea market on weekends (filled with delicious food, vintage jewels, and antique maps to rummage through); the pandas at the National Zoo; people watching and eavesdropping (one never knows which diplomat or world leader they might find themselves at an adjacent table to in this city) at old wood-panelled bistros and bars.
Do you have a place that you hold special for marking a significant turning point in your own life? I’d love to hear about it!
Love, Miss B xx
Like I said in my previous post on the subject, Berlin is a strange and wonderful city which seems to present two dichotomous sides to itself. The first is one of a classic European capital, steeped in the history of wars and Empire, and boasting pioneers in the arts and sciences, while the second is that of the counter-cultures which have sprung up in the wake of the fall of the Berlin Wall. You’ll find this side in the areas characterised by original old buildings* that are faded versions of their former selves, almost derelict to look at. Mostly, these days such buildings have become oversized magnets to splashes of uranium green paint, graffiti (some arty, but most mere tags scrawled upon the walls) and layer upon layer of posters of one kind or another. It’s around here – on the back streets of Mitte, Prenzlauer Berg and Friedrichshain (amongst others) – that you’ll find the tiny second-hand bookstores, quiet coffee shops and underground bars teeming with hipsters and arty types.
In the very same way it takes a wonderful local to point out the symbolic markers of the city’s history (an old friend of mine gave us the most incredible walking tour, pointing out sites I never would have found on my own), it takes local knowledge to really uncover the secrets of the second side of Berlin. My number one tip is to befriend the coolest local you can and take their suggestions and turn this into your treasure map of the city. In my case, I had the recommendations of my wonderful Twitter followers, and followed each of their suggestions down tiny alleyways, into hidden courtyards and through unmarked doorways to all the best little places I visited (and which no amount of leisurely wandering down backstreets would have led me to on my own). Provided you go prepared for the hunt, this ‘hunt’ is the city’s irressistible charm.
For like one of my lovely readers pointed out in response to my last post, Berlin – more than any other place in the world I’ve visited – is not a city that gives itself up easily.
Have you ever been to a city almost coy in its refusal to give itself up easily? I’d love to hear about its secrets.
Love, Miss B xx
* Much of the city consists of ugly Communist-era concrete apartment blocks, quickly erected in place of buildings torn down or destroyed by the wars
I do realise speedy reportage is not, demonstrably, my strong point – it has been, after all, 2 whole weeks since I returned from my trip to Berlin with the Clever Boyfriend. Yet Berlin proved to be one of those strange and mysterious cities that needed to simmer at the back of my mind for a time before I could quite make up my mind as to how I felt about it.
Well, truth be told, I feel much the same way about Berlin as I do after seeing the movie version of a favourite book. Expectations are so high, preconceptions so solidified that while enjoyable, the poor film (or city) has little chance of truly satisfying such expectations. I had heard nothing but praise for how ridiculously hip Berlin was, so as soon as I arrived I kept wondering where all these marvellous streets lined with teeny tiny cafes and boutiques were – all I could seem to find were vast expanses of construction site! But in a way, I suppose this is half the city’s charm. For these streets do exist, they’re just a LOT more incognito than they might be in other cities – though I still can’t quite decide whether I found this frustrating or charming.
What you can’t miss, however, is the grandiose architecture in the centre of the city. I loved these buildings for the history and tales they symbolised – from the grand (the majestic pink Armoury building, below, and the classical Museum Island…) to the grim (buildings still pockmarked with war-era bullet holes, Hitler’s Air Ministry building, the story of a beautiful palace demolished by Communists…). But whether stern or romantic, they stand tall as the last vestiges of a mighty empire from eras passed.
Top – bottom: Berlin Cathedral, Museum Island, the beautiful pink Armoury, Schlossbrücke (Palace Bridge) crossing the River Spree, architecture in Prenzlauer Berg, the Brandenburg Gate, Outside the German History Museum on Unter den Linden.
Have you ever been to Berlin? I’d love to know what you thought if so!
Love, Miss B xx