First Impressions of Washington DC

I’ve been in DC for a little over 24 hours now, and from the brief amount of exploring that I’ve done so far, it’s quite scenic. It’s also quite different but first, a brief disclaimer. I’m mostly comparing DC to Chicago and New York (since those are the only two American cities that I’m reasonably familiar with). More importantly, I’ve only walked through Georgetown and Dupont Circle, so opinions are likely to change. With this in mind, here’s a brief list of the things I noticed.

  • There are hills here, the kind that blocks your view of the horizon if you’re standing too close to them. Although Manhattan means “land of many hills” in the Lenape language, you can power walk for blocks without any sign of an incline. And then there’s also Chicago. All this means that walking five blocks may not be the breezy stroll that you expect it to be.
  • There are also a lot of plants. Along the sidewalks and into the distance, there are saplings, expanses of grass, small patches of forest, flowering shrubs, flowering trees. It makes the tulips on the Mag Mile look like the work of amateur gardeners.
  • On the other hand, there are no skyscrapers, at least not from what I’ve seen so far. You can see the peak of the Washington Monument along the Georgetown Waterfront Park (which is also a dumping point for sewage overflow, according to the many signs posted along the pathway). The absence of skyscrapers makes the city feel residential, especially when some of the tallest buildings are luxury apartment complexes downtown. (Among the many things I miss about Chicago: being dwarfed by all those architectural marvels looming along the coast of Lake Michigan.) All this also makes me think of Paris, which has a similar restrictions on skyscraper construction. But despite this, it still has the feel of an urban center at all times of day.
  • There also aren’t that many crowds, which again, might be because I haven’t been to many places yet. However, I’d imagine that any crowds that I do encounter will consist mainly of tourists, but I’ll provide an update once I wander around the Capitol Hill. In addition to not having crowds, the people seemed very straightforward. What I mean by straightforward is this: I wandered around Dupont Circle during my lunch break and after work to check out the environment. I saw suit-wearing business people looking for food, a few people headed towards the local Trader Joe’s, some joggers, and a few families, and it was easy to figure out what everyone was doing. In contrast, when I had lunch in the parks near the Flatiron District in New York, there were always people that made you wonder. That’s not to say that people in DC are boring, but there’s an everyone-is-going-about-their-ordinary-lives feel to walking through the streets here.
  • The public transportation system so far annoys me rather than impresses me. Like many others cities, the Washington Metro uses an automated card that you can load online. The Smartrip card promises convenience, but everything takes up to three business days to activate or process, from my online account balance to the 7-day bus pass I bought yesterday and still cannot use. Transfers between buses are free, but anything involving the subway requires you to pay over 25 cents, which makes me miss the CTA a little. To be fair, New York has a similar system, but I’ve never really needed to use anything besides the Metro when I’ve been there. Monthly passes in DC are also very expensive, especially in comparison to the CTA and MTA; it requires me to be a little more deliberate about how I get places, and not thinking about those questions was always my favorite thing about buying a transit passes. There’s a kind of freedom in it.
  • Numbered streets run west to east instead of north to south, which I’ve constantly forgotten in spite of devoting part of my evening staring at Google Maps. Lettered streets are the ones that run north to south, but the letters run in descending order. I’ve backtracked several times today, trying to find my way home.
  • There are a lot of cool brick townhouses that are painted in pastel colors, and the sidewalks are sometimes made of brick too, especially in Georgetown. It makes for a picturesque walk through the neighborhood. I wonder if the landlords/homeowners color coordinate.

That’s all I got for now.

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People Watching #5

Hyde Park is a disaster once the end of the quarter rolls around. This is what happens when you have students sleep-deprived and stressed out by their last round of finals, visiting families, and/or graduation. Signs of chaos include:

  • Students wheeling luggage, often upset when the humidity causes their shirts to stick to their skin
  • Students loading their belongings into the trunks of 5-passenger sedan, often upset by size constraints of said vehicles in addition to the humidity
  • Students hauling furniture across town, which is just about the most terrible part of moving that you can ever imagine
  • Son and father at the post office with a giant crate of books that probably weighs more than several small children–the father looks stoic as he tapes the box shut and thinks of the cost of international shipping
  • Local residents peering curiously into the overflowing dumpsters for interesting finds–one man looks on as Hannah and I deposit cardboard boxes into the dumpsters on 53rd and Greenwood and looks disappointed when we drive away without leaving behind anything worthwhile
  • Speaking of overflowing dumpsters, the local garbage collectors must hate us all

The lengths people go to move in and out into their apartments, while quite impressive, is never quite as fascinating at the people I see at the airport. As I’m writing this, my flight has been delayed by one hour due to some eastward bound thunderstorms, and the people around me deserve a brief mention. They include:

  • A pair of sisters with matching red-dyed hair and Duck Dynasty sweatshirts; one sister sports a giant tattoo of New Jersey on her left calf
  • Elderly Russian couple: the wife asks me to accompany her husband because we have the same boarding positions on our Southwest flight and offers to “save me a good seat” and a handful of mini-Oreos in return; husband nods politely and continues reading a translated version of an Isabel Allende novel while also eating mini-Oreos
  • Man and woman conversing next to me: Man is dressed in business suit while the woman, who has a book in her bag, seems ready for a vacation. But based on the number of times they have mentioned HIPPAA, FDA regulations, and physician assistants (apparently PA stands for more than Pennsylvania), they not only know each other, but also must work in something health related. The woman talks about her seventeen-year-old daughter who is dying her hair for the first time, and the plot twist: she has to pay for it herself!
  • Also, they are clearly sitting in the wrong gate. Health professional man and woman are soon replaced with family consisting of mother, father, and young daughter.
  • Daughter is well-behaved and quite happy with a pacifier in her myself and her mother’s tablet in her lap. The stroller carries the mother’s Michael Kors handbag, child-size juice box of apple juice, child-size container of McDonald’s French fries, empty container of milk with hot pink label that matches daughter’s backpack, and the most bizarre thing I’ve seen in a while: purified drinking water bottled in a soda can.
  • Mother on the phone, twice to two separate people: “This is like the worst trip to New York ever.”*
  • Snarky airplane captain comforts cranky passengers on the loudspeaker: “We apologize for the delay folks. Newark has been congested for the past ten years.” Truer words have never been spoken.

*Little did she know that in addition to being delayed for one hour, we would sit on the tarmac for another sixty minutes, and upon our arrival, we would sit in the plane for another forty-five minutes because of course, our gate is occupied.