One of the first things I did when I got to DC was to Google the “best things to do in DC.” I’d quizzed several people on the same subject, all of whom mentioned the monuments, the Mall, the museums, etc., which are all lovely but extraordinarily tiresome in the summertime, when they are overtaken by floods of khaki-shorted tourists and unrelenting heat waves.
The Internet guides had more inspired suggestions, particularly one that suggested I explore DC “like a local.” It recommended weekend shopping at Eastern Market (the famous DC farmer’s/flea market) and browsing in the row of independent bookstores in Dupont Circle with cute titles (“Politics and Prose,” “Second Story Books,” “Afterwords”).
Because I wanted to take the first week to settle in (not to mention figure out the confusing “quadrant” system – using the Capitol as the “center” of DC, the city is quartered into four parts: northwest, northeast, southwest and southeast, so the intersection of 21st and F could either be really close or really far away, depending on if you’re talking 21st and F NW, or 21st and F SE – everyone has their own pre-quadrant-understanding horror story).
I didn’t do too much venturing, promising myself that I would make up for five banal afternoons of Target and Safeway shopping by getting extra amounts of culture the following week. I also decided to purchase something called SmarTrip, a rechargeable Metro pass which resembles a credit card, after losing a brand-new fare card in the furor that was the Hillary rally, and which has the added benefit of making me seem as though I am, indeed, a local. (It worked, too – I was asked for directions twice after being seen with my SmarTrip. I was able to help neither time.)
Of course, DC’s temperamental weather is a force to be reckoned with, as I rely on my feet and public transportation to get around, and torrents of rain early in the week discouraged me from what were supposed to be educational evenings at the National Museum of (insert minority ethnic group or historical era here).
Finally, on Wednesday, I trekked over to the National Portrait Gallery/American Art Museum and ended up spending over two hours on the first floor alone. I’m a determined caption-reader, so a quick gander at the folk art exhibit turned into a slightly disturbing art history lesson.
I was attracted to this particular exhibit by what looked like an enormous, shiny castle, the size of the supermarket cereal shelf. I walked closer and realized the entire massive structure had been built with, of all things, balled-up pieces of aluminum foil – the remnants of a thousand lunches. The caption beneath explained that the artist had a psychological disorder and killed himself; his friends discovered this gigantic loopy structure in his basement after his death. The mental image of this poor man sitting alone in a dim basement, crafting turrets out of Reynolds Wrap, was cinematically eerie.
Other, less morbid exhibits included the section on cartes de visite – tiny, 1920s-era calling cards bearing photographs of the visitor, which would be left at the host’s door and collected like baseball cards – and a Katharine Hepburn retrospective. I have yet to visit the following two floors, but I definitely intend to go back.
On Friday, the Wilson Center hosted “Social Hour,” in which scholars, staff, and interns mix and mingle and eat hummus. Because the intern room is so hushed and the atmosphere of the Center so studious, this was an excellent opportunity to meet the people with whom I’d worked in silence for two weeks. After Social Hour, a few interns went to Jazz in the Garden, which is exactly what it says it is – live music in the nearby Sculpture Garden (“sculpture” being the loose term for corrugated metal-type structures placed on beds of grass). By the time we arrived, hundreds of people had arranged themselves on picnic blankets and were enjoying the jazz as well as the sunny weather and assortments of crackers and cheese. It was a lovely, lazy way to end a rushed work week.
Saturday marked my first experience with Ethiopian food, which is apparently a DC specialty – my trusty Internet guide mentioned a “Little Ethiopia,” which is much like a Little Italy or Chinatown and located in the very cool, relatively undiscovered U Street area. We went to a place called Etete and feasted on various curries with a strange, spongy, slightly sour bread called injera, eating everything, gloriously, with our hands.
In the course of exploring the neighborhood, we somehow wound up at an incredible live jam session with a soul singer, harpist, bongo drummer, and of all things, didgeridoo player, at a cafe called Mocha House, and then had another unplanned adventure trying to find the nearest Metro stop.
The next day, I met a friend at Eastern Market bright and early, where we sampled various fruits and cheeses, tried on troves of jewelry, and marveled at the vintage dresses all being sold for a song. I became particularly excited about my “find,” a fuchsia shift dress Jackie O might have worn, until I noticed that the label said “Ann Taylor.” Not quite vintage, unfortunately. I also had to be dissuaded from purchasing a $10 tie-dye muumuu – the combination of heat and the anything-goes flea-market atmosphere can do strange things to a person’s sensibilities. I did buy a silk pouch for my camera and a few little pieces of jewelry, but left soon afterward out of shopping-induced hunger.
We went back to my friend’s place to cook (seeing as my little kitchenette currently has one pot and no knives) and spent the next hour crafting a magazine-worthy meal with our farmer’s market vegetables and cheeses: yellow tomato and mozzarella sandwiches, a sweet pepper stir-fry with quinoa, brie with plump red grapes, and the piece de resistance – strawberry shortcakes. Riding the metro to home sweet Foggy Bottom (the area where I live) with the rest of my farmer’s market goods, I almost felt like a local.