12 Days in DC

October 8-20, 2022

Twelve days in Washington, D.C.! Last fall when we visited, we fell in love with the beauty and vibrancy of this city, and it was a delight to spend more time here this fall. Upon arrival, we scrambled to find dinner on a happenin’ Saturday night at the Wharf and ended up at the bar at Nara-Ya, a very hip sushi restaurant. 

We had Sunday plans! While every Smithsonian Museum required timed entry last year due to Covid-19, this year one could pretty much just show up, excepting one. The National Museum of African American History is still so popular that one needs to watch the website and seize assigned entry a month ahead of visiting as soon as sign-up is available. I nearly missed it. October 9th was the only remaining date that might work, and we crossed our fingers. Four floors of history, from the lowest level and up, cover Slavery and Freedom, Reconstruction and the struggle for Civil Rights, and the continued pursuit of Equality and Justice. There was so much to read and ponder and struggle with, so much sadness, each step forward toward inclusion seemingly followed with another innovation intended to divide. Finally reaching the top floor, our spirits lifted amidst the expansive coverage of African Americans in the arts. The innovations made in popular music go on and on, and it was fun to hear recordings and see so many iconic costumes. Steve, having played the trumpet, reveres the Big Band Era, heralded by Duke Ellington and followed by Dizzy Gillespie and Louis Armstrong. I pondered Jessye Norman’s rich voice and the gown from her performances of “Aida” at the Met, she being the first black female to sing on that stage. From the 50s and on—Etta James, Little Richard, Diana Ross, The Jackson 5, the adult Michael Jackson, and so many others. We spent the entire day and left exhausted and satiated, inspired by the manifest determination and creativity of the human spirit evidenced there.

Through the week we returned to the Portrait Gallery, the Museum of Natural History, the Museum of American History, and one of the American Art Museums. We scoped out Georgetown via the Metro and explored the inspiring estate, Dumbarton Oaks, developed by Mildred Barnes Bliss and her landscape designer, and now bequeathed to the public. (Robert Woods Bliss was a diplomat with family money made through slave trade.) Mildred wrote to a friend: “I know that what Dumbarton Oaks has to give—the work that it can do—can never be done in a big center—it must be small and quiet and unemphatic: a place for meditation and recueillement.” Indeed! Exploring their collection of pre-Colombian and Byzantine art in the house will have to wait until our next visit. We returned to Georgetown another day by bike to visit Tudor Place, an 8-acre estate built by descendants of Martha Washington. Spanning six generations, it had four owners and was a stately albeit rather plain house with a gorgeous hilltop view of the Potomac in its day. We appreciated the history and could imagine what connections did and still do today in the political sphere. 

We enjoyed both fine and simple dining. We prioritized returning to Rasika and had an amazing Indian meal. We scoped out Szechwan fare in Chinatown and Continental cuisine and Neapolitan pizza in Georgetown. Thai and tacos nearby on the Wharf were good enough. 

Needing provisions, on Saturday we rode our bikes to the Eastern Market, located a few blocks south of the Capitol Building. We found a bustling market featuring handcrafted items, vintage clothing, lovely fresh fruits and vegetables, and high quality meat, cheese and seafood. We selected an attractive hand-painted glass tray, and I bought an alpaca poncho before lunch at a small Italian deli. Then we loaded up our panniers with a big chuck roast, a rock fish on ice, and bulky produce and headed back to the Wharf. It took two more trips to SafeWay to finish provisioning, but we were finally ready for company!

With delight, we welcomed Wishart and Mary Bell aboard on Monday. We had scoped out a great deal in city parking—$20 a day just a couple of blocks away! They unpacked into our tiny guest quarters, and we visited, waiting for the drizzle to subside before taking a walk. After that cold, windy walk, we were ready for a hot meal, and the pot roast, prepared in the InstantPot, hit the spot. Tuesday we explored Alexandria, honing in on the National Inventors Hall of Fame. A panel of esteemed scientists and inventors annually selects from a long list of nominees 25 inventors to be showcased in this mostly-digital display. My personal favorites this year were the three women who developed the sports bra, using jock straps as a prototype. The resulting innovation proffered women the confidence to participate in sports after Title IX, giving females equal access to participation in sports in the early 70s, was passed—a moment I well-remember. We enjoyed several hours perusing the displays and being regaled with many stories by enthusiastic staff person, Helena, a petite woman with a heavy Polish accent who was passionate about many of the inventions. So dramatic was Helena that at one point she shared a story which brought her to tears in the telling, leaving us a bit puzzled. 😯 Around the lobby we discovered a few patent models, and across the lobby was the U.S. Patent Office itself, where one actually applies for a patent. We all are familiar with Edison, Tesla, and Alexander Graham Bell and their inventions, but the top 5 holders of patents are not even household names. (Australian Kia Silverbrook, holds the most patents—4747 as of 2021, mostly in the area of digital printing.) Dinner at Virtue Feed and Grain on the water near historic King Street was fun and noisy. 

On Wednesday we set out on foot for a U.S. Capitol tour. We had discovered late that the public is once again welcomed into those hallowed halls, and fortunately our extended visit gave us lead time to secure tickets. Entry into the Visitors Center made an airport TSA look like child’s play, and we solemnly noted the guard with the AK47 at the door. Enforcement of the No-food-or-drink policy required trashing our lovely bag of specially mixed nuts from home. (As difficult as provisioning is without a car, this was no small loss.) But the tour was so worth it! The Crypt, in which the symmetrical radii of the city all converge, felt small. We heard the story of the vision that the Crypt would be the final resting place for George Washington’s remains—and why that never came to pass. Upstairs the awe-inspiring Rotunda, fashioned after the Roman Pantheon, was designed to literally be a “temple to democracy,” the dome’s remarkable “stone work,” actually iron. We saw the original, out-grown Senate and House chambers. Interestingly, the beautiful senate desks in these spaces are replicas, with the originals in use in the current Senate chambers, autographed and etched by those who have served in the past 13 Senates. We were reminded of the irony that many who labored to build this magnificent building never lived to experience the freedoms that it enshrined. The tour concluded in front of the monument to Flight 93 and the brave souls who deterred that plane from slamming into this building where the nation’s leaders were convening that tragic day on September 11, 2001. We took a moment to imagine a sudden loss of the entire legislative body of government. In closing, our effervescent guide became sober as he described the fragile moment in which we live today, encouraging us to do all we can to uphold the democratic freedoms that have been achieved. Dinner at Szechwan Pavilion was warming on another blustery day. 

Our time in DC had come to a close, and we shared coffee and leftover baked oatmeal with the Bells before heading out. They saw us off, waving from shore, before continuing by roadways to visit Mount Vernon and family in Virginia. It feels good to be sought out by dear friends on this journey. And it feels like such a privilege to spend time in this iconic city, to understand better its history and its founders’ reverence for knowledge, understanding, and compromise. This is as close to “patriotism” as I come, and I feel enormous gratitude this morning. 

Brrrr. Starting the day in foul-weather bibs, the forecast high today is the 40s.

Seagulls fished in the wake of Red Pearl for over an hour on the Potomac.
Our view from Red Pearl at Capital Yacht Club on the Wharf.
We arrived at the Wharf on a Saturday without a reservation, making a nice dinner hard to snag. We finally found amazing sushi at the hip bar at Nara-Ya.
Returning to the National Portrait Gallery was a priority. The special exhibit on Maya Lin, the architect of the Vietnam memorial at the age of 24, was stimulating. But this regal photo of Leontyne Price is absolutely captivating. It is part of the special exhibit, a collection of photos by Pulitzer Prize recipient Brian Lanker, entitled “I Dream a World: Remarkable Black Women.” And while I am inspired by so many of those women—among them, Maya Angelou, Coretta Scott King, Alice Walker, Wilma Rudolph—this image creates a lump in my throat. That “endless” strand of pearls reflects in her eyes an endless depth and sadness, an endless strength and poise and determination. I could barely tear myself away.
The National Portrait Gallery shares space with the American Museum of Art. There is much to ponder and admire in this gorgeous painting of Yosemite.
The aim of the landscape design of Dumbarton Oaks was to enhance the natural features of the land, which it did exquisitely. Below, a mosaic from various colors of similarly-sized and shaped river rock—stunning!
The mosaic up close shows that the rocks are held in position simply with packed soil. Visitors are not discouraged from walking on it—and it was solid—but it felt reckless to do so.
An art installation on the Dumbarton estate entitled “Briar Patch” by Hugh Hayden features 100 elementary-style school desks from which branches chaotically erupt. A grid of desks is evocative of both the danger and the protection, the refuge and the adversity of the briar patch, not unlike the American school system for Native American and African American students.
On a welcome lighter note!…Georgetown loves Autumn!
Julia Child donated the kitchen from her Connecticut home to the Museum of American History. She designed it so that everything was ready and within reach. Two wall ovens and a 6-hob gas range are on the other side, as well as a modest refrigerator and a large book shelf.
Function over beauty.
Provisioning at Eastern Market and Safeway—no small endeavor!
These are patent models of a sewing machine (center), a washing machine (right) and a vacuum (left), displayed outside the American Patent Office in Alexandria, VA. Congress passed the Patent Act of 1790 to help stimulate the development of new technologies, requiring that inventors submit both written specification and a three-dimensional physical model with their patent application. To save space, models were not to exceed a foot in any dimension; they were not required to work, although they often did. After two devastating fires and unremitting space limitations, the requirements to provide a physical model was removed in 1880. The Smithsonian acquired 10,000 models and displays them in rotating exhibits, primarily at the Museum of American History.
Vote!

One thought on “12 Days in DC”

  1. I always feel enriched when I read your blog. And this time is no exception. Thanks so much for writing. We thought of you this evening as we prepared a delicious kale salad, the recipe for which you gave us. Our salad, topped with pear, a roll and a glass of wine was just what we needed after a day of driving to Chicago through gusty high winds and sudden torrents of rain to pick up a family member of the Guatemalan family we are helping. You inspire me! Any plans to return for the holidays? Bev

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