Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Washington DC

On Thursday night, November 20, we arrived in the DC area where we planned to spend a few days hanging out with friends and seeing the sights.

Friday morning, we took the bus and then the Metro into DC. Along the way, we read in a newspaper that the National Museum of American History was reopening that day after being closed for two years of renovations. We’d decided the night before that that was one of the places we wanted to see, not realizing that it had been closed. We hoped the crowds wouldn’t be too bad.

When we got out of the Metro station, we realized it was absolutely freezing outside. A biting wind was howling across the Mall. We wanted to go up the Washington Monument, but just as we got in line to get tickets a guard came over and announced that they were shutting the monument down because the elevator was broken again. We had to settle for the view looking up at the monument instead of getting the view looking down from the top.

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We quickly took a few more photos, first looking back at the Capitol Building…

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…and then looking the other direction to the Lincoln Memorial.

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In this photo, you can see the World War II memorial in the foreground.

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We’d planned to spend more time walking around the mall and checking out the monuments, but the wind was so bad that it was hard to stand up straight and it was unpleasantly cold so we decided we’d seen enough for now. Our next stop was the National Archives.

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This is one of the statues adorning the building.

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Happy to be warmly inside, our first stop in the National Archives was to see the Magna Carta.

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This particular document was the 1297 version of the Magna Carta. After an assembly of barons in England demanded that the king recognize their rights, the Magna Carta was originally written in 1215, and then it was revised over time. This version is one of only four original copies remaining and represents the foundation of English law.

Next we stopped in the large rotunda that houses the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights, as well as a series of displays on the history of the US fight for independence that explain the impact of these documents. As preservation of these precious national documents is taken very seriously, the only document that was lit enough to get a photo was the Constitution.

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We learned that the originally proposed Bill of Rights had 12 amendments, not 10. The first two amendments were not originally ratified. The first concerned the number of constituents per congressional representative. The other amendment that didn’t make the cut related to congressional pay. This amendment was finally ratified in 1992 as the 27th amendment.

The documents were the highlight of the National Archives, but we also spent some time wandering around their other exhibit galleries, the Public Vaults. These displays housed a wide variety of items, from video footage of the presidents to a letter from a seven-year old asking the president to declare his room a national disaster area and send funds for its cleanup, to a series of maps showing how the US expanded. There were also displays on family history research and patent applications. The dizzying array of documents represents only a very tiny fraction of all of the material housed at the archives.

By this point, it was past lunchtime and we were quite hungry. We asked at the gift shop and discovered there was a café in the basement of the National Archives. The café was small and appeared to be geared more towards people working there than towards tourists. They had run out of a bunch of things because it was past lunchtime, but the food was cheap and we didn’t have to go wandering around looking for a place to eat. The sitting area displayed a number of historic posters that provided an interesting glimpse into national nutritional policy over the years. Given how prevalent corn and corn products are in the national diet today, the goal of this poster was certainly achieved.

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Appallingly, this poster suggests that butter is one of the food groups that should be eaten at lunch and dinner.

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Refueled, we walked back down the street to the National Museum of American History. This huge and eclectic collection of items is often referred to as the nation’s attic. Our first stop was at Julia Child’s kitchen.

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When Julia died, the museum actually moved her entire kitchen and its contents from her house in New England. The kitchen was designed by her husband to fit her tall stature (she was 6’2”). Pots, pans, and utensils were neatly arranged on pegboard covering the walls, with the outline of objects sketched in their place so they would always be returned to the correct place on the wall. The kitchen contained a variety of everyday kitchen items as well as some for the professional chef (such as the magnetic knife board on the wall and the professional range and oven). The kitchen also included Julia’s collection of cookbooks.

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Moving along to the third floor, we browsed through the pop culture galleries. Dumbo came from a ride at Disneyland.

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The most famous article in the National Museum of American History is probably Dorothy’s ruby slippers from the Wizard of Oz. The slippers were originally silver but were changed to red during filming because the red showed up better on the Technicolor film.

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Kermit the Frog and Oscar the Grouch also found homes in the gallery.

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We learned that Oscar the Grouch wasn’t always green. In early episodes of Sesame Street, he was yellow and then orange.

Looking down from the center of the third floor, we could see the long line waiting to see the newly restored Star Spangled Banner.

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This was the original flag that inspired the national anthem during the War of 1812. Today the flag is in pretty bad shape and is displayed under low light conditions. The displays surrounding the flag told the story of the national anthem as well as the early history of the flag. The flag was owned privately for many years and at times sections of it were cut out and given away as souvenirs. How American, yet how unfortunate…

Outside the exhibit were a number of people dressed in period garb in honor of the reopening of the museum.

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The museum was too large to take the whole thing in during a single afternoon, but we spent awhile longer wandering through the exhibits, particularly those about presidential life. The hat the Lincoln was wearing when he was shot was among the historical artifacts on display.

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At this point, we’d had a pretty full day of sightseeing. We hopped on the train to Bethesda where we planned to meet our friends Avinash and Marketa for dinner. We were there a little early so we spent some time browsing in a Barnes and Noble before Avinash picked us up. Dinner was at a yummy Spanish tapas restaurant.

Saturday morning, Sarah got up and drove into DC to meet her friend Jen for brunch. Having never driven in DC before and not having a navigator, Sarah was quite proud of herself to make it to the restaurant without much hassle (only one wrong turn from a roundabout that was fairly easily corrected). The mostly grid arrangement of roads in DC is a big help when navigating in an unfamiliar area. Sarah and Jen had fun catching up and reminiscing about their days in France.

That afternoon, we went with Avinash and Marketa to a Czech movie called The Country Teacher. After the movie, we ate at a Lebanese restaurant.

Sunday, we drove out to Harpers Ferry. Sarah wanted to go to West Virginia, since it was one of the few states in the US that she hadn’t been to previously. As it happens, Harpers Ferry was about the closest point in West Virginia from where we were staying, and it is the site of a really interesting National Historical Park.

We parked at the visitors center and took the bus down to the historic townsite. The strategic location at the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers made the area important through much of the early history of the US.

Looking up from the bus stop, we saw a well preserved church.

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Much of the town is now owned and preserved by the National Park Service, but there are still some private buildings and businesses. This is one of the main streets in the area owned by the park system. Some of these buildings have been turned into museums.

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It was a peaceful afternoon with only a few other people wandering around as we strolled through town taking in the sights.

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We crossed the Potomac on a walking bridge beside the railroad tracks.

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From there, we climbed a couple of miles on a pleasant hike through the woods, enjoying the fresh air and exercise. At the top, we were rewarded with views looking down on Harpers Ferry and the rivers.

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After our hike, we continued exploring the old buildings and streets. Here’s a glimpse inside the local tavern.

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Numerous old structures were beautifully preserved.

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We finally dragged ourselves away around late afternoon and started the drive back to Virginia. Even the drive was pretty.

The next morning, we took a picture with Avinash and Marketa before continuing on our way up to Boston.

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