I admittedly love DC, first and foremost, because it feels partly mine. I picnicked in its triangular parks as a wee one (our downtown visits allowing my dad an excuse for an office reprieve); I’ve played tourist around its sites on countless field trips with classmates and relatives; I’ve frolicked along its brick sidewalks as a college student for the first time unleashed, unsupervised, in a big urban world. So, yes, it is familiar and yes, some of my favorite people of all time still call this place home. DC is indelibly etched into the story of what makes me me.
But sweep all that personal history to the side, and I can see this magnificent city as if through the eyes of a visitor (in fact, my job insists that I do). I recognize its allure for tourists and locals alike, and I’m grateful to have roots in a city that keeps me coming back for more.
Perhaps, more than anything, I love that a city stroll can take me on a global walkabout. A challenging game of name-that-flag along Embassy Row sends me past an exquisite tiled mosque, distinctive ambassadorial residences and multilingual, wide-eyed diplomats exploring their new ‘hood. In Mount Pleasant, with Mana playing on my iPod, I pass chatting men on overturned crates as impromptu vendors sell tamales nearby, and the sights, sounds and smells temporarily transport me to Latin America. Within a fifteen-minute bubble of my home, I can eat amazing Ethiopian food cooked by Ethiopian chefs, Thai cooked by the Thai, Peruvian cooked by Peruvians. Authenticity rules our culinary scene. And I love that, at certain dinner parties, I might meet new friends who’ve come from or lived in countries like Bulgaria and Brazil, Martinique and Morocco.
I am grateful for the balance of four seasons. I’ve watched in wonder as Japanese blossoms explode on the banks around the Jefferson and Independence Day fireworks erupt above iconic white monuments. Fall foliage creates a seemingly color-enhanced canvas and, when lucky, snow clouds submerge our city into a tranquility only possible when the world’s enveloped in white.
I love that during my quotidian routine, I see things that people traverse five time zones (or many more) to witness. Every morning, my pedestrian commute allows for sight lines down 16th to one of the world’s most recognizable marble “pencils” as well as into the backyard of the First Family. (I like to envision them scurrying around in decaffeinated mode, trying to get out the door just like any young family at that hour.) I cannot help but get a rush when a swooshing presidential motorcade brings the traffic to a halt, even when it causes me to be few minutes late.
DC is vibrant and alive, as a city should be, and never lacking in cultural events ranging from Iranian film festivals and Panamanian dance parties to Turkish street fests. If you’re open-minded and want to learn or experience something new, you will. Free culture is our speciality; take the world-class museums, National Zoo, Eastern Market, annual Smithsonian Folklife Festival, tours of government buildings and summer jazz shows in the Sculpture Garden, to name only a few.
As the nation’s capital, big names regularly grace us with their presence-from politicians, performers and athletes to Queen Elizabeth and the Pope. (Nowadays, we even increasingly make the Hollywood and MTV rosters.) I’ve been fortunate enough to see Andy Roddick rock (and not) at the annual Legg Mason tennis tourney, Annie Leibovitz speak at the Corcoran, Spike Lee at the Silverdocs film fest and the Dalai Lama on a monk-speckled Capitol lawn. People come here to showcase their talents, to reveal their passions, to fight their causes. One cannot help but feel that they have their finger on the pulse of history, whether already made or still in the making.
I will never forget election night when I witnessed a most beautiful, celebratory eruption on U Street. Or the morning I peered out on the Inauguration route from my dad’s office window as history (in the form of a radiant young couple, hands intertwined) walked the Washington asphalt below. The entire world looked on, but those of us in DC were here in its midst.
Yet despite all the constant goings-on, there are so many spaces in which to find stillness. If you pause long enough to shove the swirling city noises into the background, there are countless opportunities to stare up into the infinite blueness, beyond the cement and concrete. In summer, you can find city Zen while floating on a raft in a rooftop pool oasis, posed in savasana among a sea of yoga mats in Meridian Hill Park or laying under the stars at Wolf Trap’s awesome wooded amphitheatre. Any time of year, you can peer down from a lion-guarded bridge and watch Rock Creek meander along its course or stop in Khalil Gibran’s Mass Ave poetry park which projects its melodic, etched words into the woods or for joggers who stop for a soulful stretch.
I’m not saying this city’s perfect. Believe me, there are days I am beyond frustrated by faults like homelessness rates, senseless crime, summer swampiness and the tendency to let “What do you do?” dominate a first chat. Yet, for me, the good far outweighs the bad, and for those of us lucky enough to stand under the sleek white monuments or on the vast green Mall, we feel DC’s pull.
On a January day when the buzz of Inauguration hung palpably in the brisk air, I walked down to the White House as I sometimes do on my lunch break. I stood dwarfed by the recently-constructed grandstand, soaking in the dizzying scene of jumbo-headed Bush caricatures, silent protesters, overwhelmed tourists and copious bunting marked by red, white and blue. A woman stood near me, captivated by the energy, looking equally dazed. For a moment we locked eyes. “This is a wonderful city, isn’t it?” she asked, in a British lilt. “Yes,” I smiled. It certainly is.