When a television advertisement cheerfully tells you that their product may, as a minor
side effect, cause you to experience “intense sexual or gambling urges” you just know you’re in the States.
Watching some TV on a week-long sojourn to Washington DC, one can’t help be reminded of how the Americans manage to be so similar and yet so different to us.
Another ad suggested helpfully that, on consuming their product, if one found himself burdened (or indeed blessed in some books) with an erection that lasted longer than nine hours, medical assistance should be sought.
And all this in an ad just after a news report about a “controversial” artists who was stirring up local family values groups because he wanted to photograph 1000 nude people standing together in public.
One of the most wonderful qualities Americans boast is their straightforwardness. In
Dulles airport, US border control was polite, simple, and crammed with helpful notices
explaining people’s rights and responsibilities. Compare that to the two grunting
Templemore types we get to face coming through Dublin. Incidentally, Dulles is a clean,
well-run airport with the most brilliant yet simple idea of putting the shops and cafes
actually beside the departure gates. I mention this in contrast to the Dublin Airport
approach where a valiant effort is being made to put some of the departure gates in a
different timezone if not jurisdiction. I’m pretty sure I’ve seen Gendarmes looking surly
outside Hughes and Hughes.
My traveling partner I shall refer to as M, as she’s very shy, and her husband thought she
was visiting her sister. Actually, I’m pulling your plum. My social life is nowhere near
that interesting. I’m holidaying with ex-girlfriends, with surely deserves a brand new
wing on the Institute of Social Sadness.
We did the whole Washington tourist thing. The White House is smaller than you think,
unless you’ve met someone who has seen it and told you that, after which it’s actually
bigger than you expect. Capitol Hill is imperially magnificent and crawling with young
clean-cut types whom you just know are little fascist bastards. Embassy Row shows
which countries have their priorities right. The Finns have a modest, sensible looking
building. Some of the more dubious African states had grandiose buildings resembling
pre-Castro Cuban brothels. The British Embassy was very big, which surprised me. How
many people can it take to say “How high?”
I’m sorry, I’ll pay my on-the-spot cheap political shot fine immediately, but in my
defence, I’m a Neo-Con. Can I not make jokes about my own kind surely?
I insisted, much to M’s lack of interest, in having a look around the Watergate complex.
And also doing my Nixon impression for photos near the signage, which reminded M
why exactly I was her ex-boyfriend. Interestingly, beneath the Watergate apartment
complex there’s a collection of slightly seedy shops, including a hairdressers, a
pharmacy and a supermarket, populated by elderly women who looked like they just
might have been mistresses of JFK and the Go-Go Girls of Camelot before it all turned
The Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts was sad in a non-sarcastic kind of way.
With decrepit computers, ancient phones and a gift shop that they didn’t even bother to
open. The security staff seemed surprised that we wanted to see it, and the aging staff
manning it, like the Watergate girls, looked like the dream they had been promised was
never delivered. I’m not trying to be flowery here, it really was quite depressing.
I suppose that when it was built in 1971, Jackie gave it panache, and Ted still looked like
he might have a fair crack at the White House. Now, it’s a mausoleum to what could have
You would want to be fairly steely to keep a dry eye at the Vietnam Veterans memorial.
It’s an example of how America personalizes its history with its own people. Volunteer
park rangers walk up and down with a phone directory-style guide to where on the wall
individual soldiers are named, and then hold step ladders for people to allow them get a
pencil rubbing of the name, transforming just a tiny piece of a national symbol into a
Some things strike you. The politeness of beggars, for example. Every roundabout seems
to have a quota of beggars, who all seemed to read the Washington Post, which given the
poor newspaper readership generally in the US, probably puts them in the higher
percentages of well informed Americans. Maybe they are all planning to run a series of
competing al-fresco foreign policy seminars. And the food. We go on about Americans
being fat, but what I had forgotten was how wide some Americans are.
The weather was oppressively 94 degrees hot, the sort of clammy heated cotton wool
surrounding your head hot where you rapidly say “Screw climate change, I want my
A/C” and begin to understand why the idea of sacrifice to reduce global warming terrifies
so many Americans. Washington, although more or less in Virginia, is not that south, and
yet you could not survive here without air conditioning. We’d really better get cracking
on Cold Fusion.
The exchange rate being what can only be described as “stealingly” good, we headed out
to an outlet mall in Virginia, where I indulged to adding to the DVD section of the
national archives that I’m working on, and M bought shoes. Lots of shoes. And childrens
clothes for assorted nephews and nieces and the woman who does her mother’s hair.
I also treated myself to an Ann Coulter (She of “Invade their countries, kill their leaders,
and convert them to Christianity” fame) audio CD, where she shares her both amusing
and terrifying right wing philosophy. For a week after my return from the US, Thanks to
her I could be witnessed anywhere from Blackrock to Naas screaming at the CD player in
my car. I’m surprisingly intolerant of people to the right of me, although I do find the
way she refers to herself as ” a girl” cute. To the terrified mothers and children in
adjacent cars in Naas dual carriageway traffic jams, I apologise.