D.C. on my mind

Suzanne Lopez fondly remembers Washington D.C.

35_1The Capitol Building, an imposing landmark in a city of great monuments

It’s difficult to put your finger on it, but there is something about Washington, D.C. that holds you by the scruff of your neck and makes you take notice of it. And then, if you are not careful, you could easily become enthralled by a city that refuses to take no for an answer. I know what I am talking about; it happened to me.

Four years ago when I moved there, I was petrified of everything: using the metro, the people who walked briskly and purposefully to their respective jobs, driving through the city, eating raw fish, and coming face to face with people I had only read about in the news. The story is quite different now.

Less than a year later, I would get up at the crack of dawn in my serene, suburban Virginia home where there were trees in every front yard, manicured lawns and streets quiet enough for children to play down the middle, and head into action-packed Washington, D.C. for some excitement. That’s how I regarded my job as a journalist in D.C. – as an opportunity to feel and taste the city.

You never know what a day might hand you. You could just bump into Monica Lewinsky having tea at the Mayflower Hotel, or be seated at the table right next to Marion Barry at Georgia Brown’s at lunchtime, or find yourself mere inches away from the President as he discusses a new health bill at a White House press conference. Or, you could be alone at the Wall Street Deli downtown, hunched over your Washington Post, gobbling a hot pastrami sandwich among a sea of lobbyists, attorneys, or journalists waiting for the next event to break.

Me? I like the D.C. happy hours. They are perfect after a long day of sightseeing at the many museums, or after several hours at the Smithsonian. They are ideal after eight hours of trying to reach a source who calls from a cell phone while flying over Denver, to say he’s changed his mind about the interview. Frozen margaritas at half price are made for days like these.

A typical day could be spent on Capitol Hill where the seat of Congress (called simply The Capitol) is situated. The Capitol’s grandeur might be intimidating for the first few minutes, but there is something about it that draws the visitor inside to discover its nooks and crannies, or to see a meeting of the House or Senate in progress. For me, it was a wonder to be in the belly of a building where decisions that can affect the entire world are made daily.

Boredom is in short supply in this city that offers a multitude of museums, monuments and restaurants, all within walking or metro distance of one another. I enjoyed heading into Du Pont circle (the hippest part of the city) to sit and sip coffee at Starbucks and look out on the streets at people who make you wonder why you ever thought D.C. could not match wits with New York City. (The differences are clear: there are no skyscrapers here, just majestic buildings; the metro is clean, crime-free and easy to use; stores selling cheap, trashy clothes are not situated on every corner; fine dining is more the norm than fast dining (though there are healthy crowds at some downtown McDonalds); and, if you are a pedestrian, you do not spend your time wondering whether the next yellow cab coming around the corner is going to make you regret not having made a will.)

Now I have left D.C. to live in Taiwan, then Beijing (my husband is a US diplomat and I must accompany him to far and remote places), and I wish I could say I have no regrets about having left D.C. But I’d be lying. I regret not having the opportunity to visit Arlington Cemetery one more time, or to go to a lazy Sunday brunch in Georgetown yet again, or just to window-shop or walk around the city in the middle of the day soaking up the ambience. One day, one day, I say.

For the time being, I’ll be here sipping Oolong tea (instead of Starbucks coffee) in a mountainside teahouse (instead of a noisy, streetside coffee bar), reading the China Post (instead of the Washington Post), secretly pining for another helping of that Washington, D.C. excitement.

DON’T MISS IN D.C.

It would be ideal to spend at least a week in Washington, D.C. to really enjoy all the major monuments, museums, theatres, shops and restaurants. But if time is limited you can use my personal checklist (below) of the 10 best places to visit while in the District.

1 The Capitol, the seat of Congress, is a must-see. Try and get in to view a session of the House or Senate. You’ll see many faces you recognise from the news. Besides, the place is an architectural wonder. Congress is likely to be in session from January to some time in the fall.
2 Arlington National Cemetery. It is a hot tourist spot because it is the final resting place of many famous government and political figures and US soldiers. Most visitors go there to experience the beauty and tranquillity of the place, to view the changing guards and to visit John F. Kennedy’s grave.
3 If you have time to see only two monuments let them be the Abraham Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument. Both are impressive.
4 The Smithsonian. Adults and children alike love this enormous institute of art galleries and museums. If pressed for time, take a few minutes to view an introductory video which can help you determine exactly what you wish to see. If you are not selective, it can be at least a week before you see everything.
5 Du Pont Circle. Non-stop shopping at fine little specialty shops, international cuisine galore, bookshops and coffee shops with huge windows where you can sit for hours and read or people-watch.
6 Restaurants: Georgla Brown’s for southern cuisine, The Dancing Crab for huge platters of sweet crab in the shell, Galileo for authentic Italian cuisine, The Old Ebbit Grill for good old American fare, Bonsai Grill for the best sushi in town and Duagrats for spicy Thai food.
7 Chinatown is also a must. It is tiny compared to New York’s huge and bustling Chinatown. but it is crammed with little restaurants offering great food at good prices. You can also have fun window-shopping at the Chinese trinket shops.
8 Shopping downtown is really touch and go. There are few shops and some sidewalk vendors selling T-shirts and trinkets. The best bet for shopping close to the city is Pentagon City Mall. It is accessible by metro and has a wide variety of clothing, music, books and specialty shops.
9 Venture out of the District a little and see one of the most beautiful spots in Virginia, Shenandoah National Park. It is a couple of hours’ drive out of the city, but it’s worth the time. Stop along the way at flea markets or antique shops . Buy freshly picked fruit from roadside stands (or go pick your own fruit on a farm, if time permits). On your way back to the city, stop in for a bite at my favourite place out there, The Appetite Repair Shop. The name is goofy, but the food, especially the berry pie, is delicious.
10 Old Town Alexandria is a quaint little town overlooking the Potomac River. It is a great place to shop for presents to take home (not your run-of-the-mill souvenirs) and it is chock-full of good seafood restaurants. While there, visit the torpedo factory, an imposing, grey building on the outside, converted inside into several artists’ studios and little pottery shops. You can watch the artists at works, see their finished work on display and buy them, and some shops invite you to add a touch of your own creativity to the pottery pieces. Very colourful and a lot of fun. There is a lovely view of the harbour from this building.

BWIA flies most days between Washington D. C. (Dulles) and the Caribbean