I arrived in Washington happy on Wednesday night, despite the unexpectedly rattly 4 hour train ride from Penn Station. The city felt open, clean and generous as soon as I stepped off the train: because of the buildings and spaces at and around the station, and because of the pleasant light and temperature and the beautiful spring blossom on so many trees and bushes. I felt free and welcome. It helped, of course, that I came with a day of complete freedom ahead of me to explore this city, alone, just as the mood took me. I am not a traditional tourist; being able to see the outside or a photograph of a building is often enough for my need to be educated, but the freedom to wander, following my senses (mmmmm, shall I go right or left at this corner?) and whatever pleasure takes me in the moment, makes me a contented visitor. I judge my photographs to be peculiarly unjournalistic, but they do show you what it is that I love to observe in the world. Usually the small, unimportant things.
So, a quick Uber ride to my accommodation and I was ready for my first foray into the unknown city. I walked out in the search for food, following a vague sense of direction after seeing a map of possible eateries hand-drawn by my host, and, feeling the call of a green curry (do you ever have those nights?) chose the Thai restaurant over the pizzeria on the corner, and sat happy (still!) with a bottle of beer and a book in hand. (Nina Stibbe, Paradise House. She writes quirkily, and I often laughed at another of her books, Man at the Helm. However, the style gets a bit same-y after a while, and tonight I skipped a lot of the second half: you know, to get the story without having too much detail). (This is the sort of sentence that she writes, by the way, in case you like/hate it and do/don’t want to have some more storytelling like this. Up to you if this is book recommendation!).
Back to the super quaint Airbnb room in a character house, scruffy and cat-chaotic (toys all over the place), creaky floorboards and a shared clawtub-bath bathroom); I slept like a baby (by which I mean immediately and blissfully, but with 2 hours of wakefulness and needing distraction at 3am; I then missed my alarm and found I had slept past 9).
On recommendation from a friend I had decided to spend the day in Georgetown, which is NW of downtown DC where some of the earliest settlements of the district were established, so has a comfortable, charming feel. Lots of old houses (200 years is very very old by US standards) and cobbled streets; gardens, little side plots with overgrown grass or flowering bushes, and wonderful doors and doorways. The bus system was a bit of a puzzle, but asking for help rather than relying on seemingly incomplete diagrams and tiny tiny timetables on websites is a Good Thing, so I was directed to a free bus, the Circulator, for most of the journey. I got out at the Waterfront there on the Potomac River, all charming and refreshingly green. Ah, how we New York city-dwellers miss out on nature - even on cultivated nature – and how it is balm to my soul to walk between trees alongside a river! I was about to get on with my sightseeing by taking the next possible road towards the commercial street and the University campus, but succumbed instead to the temptation of a large concrete labyrinth on the lawn near the viaduct, and walked that, slowly, deciding that the time spent in gentle contemplative ‘here and now’-ness was a great way to experience Washington, even if it meant one less monument ticked off the list later on.
The canal on the way up the hill away from the river was the next happily unexpected find; there is to me always a hiddenness and therefore a specialness about canals. I suppose this is because they so often appear at the back of nowhere, cutting through behind city buildings on both sides, and their adjacent narrow footpaths are typically scruffy and rough. Nothing pretentious, nothing modernised, no brands or colours or shops; nothing but a nice place to walk, and to be. (American ones, just like British ones: how nice.)
The midday mass was just about to start as I arrived on campus, so that was my way of getting close to university life: Georgetown is a Jesuit university, and the little chapel at the heart of the Healy building complex is warm and welcoming. I do love how you can take the mass liturgy at whatever level of simple or deep suits you; today for me it was just moving to be a part of the gentle stillness and familiar words as we 10 or so people gathered to pray, strangers all of us, but together in this. Take, eat. This … for you.
I then took the cheeky liberty of trying a few doors in the grand Healy Hall, currently apparently empty of students, walking along some corridors, up some staircases … it is a beautiful, solid building that felt loved and loving and not at all upset at the intrusion of a stranger. I examined some handsome portraits of previous university presidents in one grand room, and felt hushed and awed, as is right and proper, in the old cast-iron library complete with stone dragons at the windows. (Some people have university experiences like that in the UK, but Reading, where I was a student, was not that sort of a place: more’s the pity.)
Wandering back down towards the town I spontaneously walked into a hairdresser for a long-needed cut (why not, I ask you?) before taking the bus back to pick up my case and find my train. Some views of Important Monuments here and there, some shared smiling or conversational moments with fellow bus travelers, visitors and locals both. Some awe at the size and complexity of the world, some gratitude at my little private safe place in it.
Platform K26: the train to Charlottesville; 3 hours later a bath and bed.
An unusual day well (and happily) spent.