Smithsonian Spring Break: Washington D.C.

Date of trip: March 8, 2019 - March 15, 2019

It was Hamilton that did it. It sparked a newly found curiosity and pride in the history that is us. What started as an idea for an east coast history tour, though, led to a full week of romping around Smithsonians, the Potomac, and magnificent magnolias.

D.C.’s sights and sounds are about what you’d expect–monuments and museums, helicopters and airplanes, joggers and people with ear pieces talking to themselves, brick row houses and garden level apartments, suits and tourists, honking cars and dead, electric scooters, magnolias and front gardens, protests and politics–and of course, the American Flag.

Chris asked how political I would get in writing this blog. The answer was, “We shall see. How political will I feel?” Our only glimpse of the White House was from our peripherals atop an electric scooter. “Hey, I think I see the White House…” (she gives a finger).

If you never went to D.C. in middle school, or if you did go but now you’re an adult and understand our fragile democracy, or if you live for art, food, outer space, nature, architecture, history, any or all of the above, OR if you have really good walking shoes, I highly suggest going to D.C.

Trip Itinerary

  • Day 1: Late flight to D.C.
  • Day 2: Union Station, Belmont-Paul house, Supreme Court, Capital, Library of Congress, Botanical Gardens
  • Day 3: Georgetown
  • Day 4: Alexandria, Freer|Sackler Museum
  • Day 5: Newseum, National Portrait Gallery, Women’s Art Museum, National Archive
  • Day 6: National Gallery of Art, National Air and Space Museum, The Mall, National History Museum
  • Day 7: Botanical Gardens, The Wharf
  • Day 8: Holocaust Museum, National Museum of African American History and Culture

Day 1

Sweet Heather dropped us off at the airport that Friday evening. Despite being prime time for spring break crowds, we were through TSA precheck and sitting in the lounge within five minutes. On the plane we watched Bohemian Rhapsody (which is worth watching if you’re a fan of Rami Malek or, of course, Queen).

We got in to chilly D.C. around midnight and Ubered to a dark street of tall row houses. GHOSTS, I thought. A wavy brick path led us up a wide iron staircase and the ornate door of our Airbnb. A panel of stained glass above the door read 607 in the light of the streetlamp.  Our room, meant for just the living space in an otherwise full house, was the first on the left. A king bed filled the window space. Pushed up against a wooden mantel framed by a silver mirror was a small rectangle table for two. A kitchenette and bathroom finished the rest of the space. We were happy to finally be in DC.

Day 2

On our first morning we walked to a small neighborhood cafe ran by a middle-aged, Asian woman. We ate cheap bagel sandwiches next to butterfly wall decals, listening to classical music. A cop came in, addressing the woman by name and making small talk.

Our first stop was Union Station. We had nowhere to go, but wanted to stand inside and marvel at the space.

We then walked to the Belmont-Paul house, a Women’s Equality National Monument. A quirky elderly man welcomed us, asked us where we were from, and said we were just in time for a free tour.

Our tour guide, an enthusiastic red headed historian with a name tag that read Zach Whitlow showed us a quick video and led us through the famous house that harbored the women’s movement. Among a lot of crazy artifacts, we saw Susan B Anthony’s desk….

We learned that the home was the headquarters for the National Women’s Party, founded by Alice Paul and Lucy Burns. The women had learned from activists in Britain and returned to the states to get to fucking business. They demanded women stop begging, and used tactical, strategic, political planning to enhance their cause.

The party drafted nearly 600 pieces of legislation on behalf of women’s rights – half of which were eventually passed into law. Zach explained that the women’s suffrage parade of 1913 is considered the first organized march in DC. The group was also the first to picket the white house, though this became “unpatriotic” during WWI and women started being sentenced to prison terms.

African American women, though they were historically not included in the movement, smuggled notes of the shit conditions women put up with in the prisons. These notes were published in newspapers and tarnished Wilson’s reputation to the point where he ordered them released and came out to support the suffragists months later. In June 1919, Wisconsin was the first state to ratify the 19th amendment. Though, this wasn’t a complete success; black women would not be able to vote until the 1960’s.

Zachary ended the tour without a nice ribbon wrapped neatly around the end of the story, which he admitted annoyed him as a historian. I ended our time at the house by using the same bathroom as famous, bomb ass women, and was very proud to do so.

After the tour we walked just a couple blocks south to the Supreme Court and onwards to the capital.

Months before we left for D.C., as I planned our trip from a travel D.C. book I got from the library, I had wanted badly to take a tour of the capital. But the long winter and blogging of other trips got to my head and I totally spaced. Chris wasn’t very sad, though. He was just as happy to take a picture from the outside and continue on.

It was really fucking cold that day. I should have ignored Chris and brought a jacket.

We spent the afternoon gawking at the interior of the Library of Congress and trying to dodge crowds at the Botanical Gardens.

We were tired and sore by the end of it and after napping, decided to buy a bottle of whiskey and some quick eats at the corner market, and watch Parks and Rec all night. Leslie Knope for president.

Day 3

“It’s supposed to be 50 degrees today,” he said. But as we left Capitol Hill for Georgetown, each on a scooter of our own and zipping past morning rush hour and a sleepy mall, it was barely 40 degrees. For five long miles we stopped a couple times to check to see if circulation would return to our hands. Why didn’t I bring a jacket? “You won’t need it,” he had said. After 30 minutes of a numbing ride across town, we warmed up with tea at an Amazon bookstore and coffee shop in the heart of Georgetown.

The main strip of the historical and quaint town boasts many of the same shops you’ve heard of, like H&M and Nike. But then all of a sudden next to Sephora is the oldest standing house in all of D.C.–the Old Stone House (1766). We peaked around without going inside, I think because someone had to find a place to pee. Oh well.

Many small businesses were closed as it was Sunday but M street soon filled with people and traffic. Before getting off the beaten path, we filled up on cheap pizza from a place connected to a Subway restaurant.

That afternoon we wandered the neighborhood, passing fancy and weathered row houses alike until we reached Georgetown University. Campus was busy. It reminded me of St. Scholastica with a prominent gothic stone building standing front and center. We walked through Healy Hall. I felt like I had been there before as we walked through the dark vestibule, flanked with victorian decorated study rooms.

Through campus we wandered, passing spires on spires and campus housing, wondering when we would again meet a neighborhood street (we soon did, and continued exploring the old neighborhood).

When we were ready for something different, we followed 31st street all the way down to the Potomac. We walked along the water, slowly moving southeast.  The sun tried making an appearance, but it was still chilly.

We walked what felt like forever through construction and past the JFP center, all the while looking for scooters. We found a working one by the time we had reached the Lincoln memorial, and scootered together, a spectacle it seemed, until we were just 10 blocks from our Airbnb in Capitol Hill. Just as we got back, the sun came out in full force.

That night we rested for a short hour before meeting up with friends Caiti and Tracy, who drove the hour from Baltimore to visit us! We ate at Beau Thai then drank fancy mezcal cocktails at Espita Mezcaleria, probably talking too much about the plight of schools but also wedding planning on behalf of the ladies! We capped the night with whiskey and beer at Lost and Found.

The bearded bartender at Lost and Found was wearing a black t-shirt with a design I recognized. “Isn’t that the space thing?” I said stupidly. He looked at his t-shirt, smiled and said, “Yeah, the Voyager” and he flashed us a tricep tattoo of the same images. He and Chris had a nice little moment before Chris googled and bought the same t-shirt for himself.

Day 4

On our third morning, we were still looking for some good weather. The forecast said it would again be 50 something degrees, so we decided a day trip to Alexandria would be well spent.

To get there, we took the metro. The shaking of the car and flashing tunnel lights had me feeling woozy in an instant. I needed food. I closed my eyes and wished the time away. Luckily, it was only a 20 minute ride.

 

We were desperate for quick, cheap food so we ate an early lunch at Subway. We followed the main drag to the water’s edge at King Street Park where we found the Torpedo Factory, a repurposed art studio collective. It was funkier than the brick warehouses of NE Mpls arts district. Though many studios were closed for the day, we stumbled upon one with a man set back in his studio, casually crossed legged behind a small desk and drawing on an unglazed mug.

He broke the silence by asking us if we were from out of town. One thing led to another and he was giving up his life story, divulging that strippers had hacked his website because of his controversial S&M pottery (but also sharing useful, less S&M things, like where to eat in Alexandria and what to see in D.C.). Marcel, the horny potter, child of Thailand but long-term resident of Milan and now Alexandria, suggested we find the quiet courtyard within the Freer|Sackler (Asian arts) museum in noisy D.C.

After leaving the art center, we wandered a bit aimless. We found our footing with a neighborhood guide and a pit stop at an Irish pub, mapping out a plan of which places to find before leaving town. On our walk we found George Washington’s “apartment” for when the weather was too treacherous for the return home, and sailors alley.

The sun joined us on our stroll, making it more pleasurable despite struggling to take good photos–I’ll blame the parked cars. We ate a late lunch at Chadwicks, an old European place near the water–one of the places the horny potter had suggested.

After lunch we strolled slowly past more of the old town towards the metro and in no time, found the quiet courtyard at the Freer|Sackler museum. The courtyard was not made of my dreams but the museum itself was beautifully simplistic and elegant. Asian art is my favorite–literary scrolls from Japan, a pyramid head from Egypt, jade from China, and swords made out of meteorites. Chris liked that one.

The sun was out with force that evening and we needed it. We sat on the mall watching weirdos and more weirdos coming and going. We sought out a couple scooters for the ride back but never found any. And thankfully, so. The sun had started setting, casting a blue light on the front of the capital.

That night we sipped a short whiskey at home before finding ourselves at the bar top of a restaurant named Barrell, eating fried children and catfish risotto. We watched the TV’s above the bar as Trump was quoted saying, “Tim Apple.” Not the most nefarious mistake but lots of confusion, nonetheless.

We walked home, me peeking from afar to catch glimpses of life within the glowing insides of the row houses. We ended the night like it was any other day, with an episode or two of The Office.

Day 5

It was time for serious, fucking business. That morning, we were the first people to the Newseum. We covered every bit of ground we could.

From top to bottom, we saw newspaper covers dating back to the 1700’s when the printing press was invented, to everything including the Boston Tea Party, the French Revolution, Vietnam, and the death of everyone famous including Michael Jackson and Princess Diana. Massive TV screens in the main level flipped through free speech ideology. One exhibit displayed the faces of hundreds of murdered journalists and their insane stories, including a white pickup truck battered with bullet holes.

There was a level at the very top of the museum displaying that morning’s cover page of all fifty states’ main newspaper. The museum even housed a piece of the Berlin Wall.

I casually lost it a bit as we immersed ourselves in the 9/11 exhibit, and then later on as we spent nearly an hour viewing hundreds of Pulitzer Prize photos. Nothing compares to the power of a photo. You can’t unsee it or explain it away in debate.

We left the exhibit and the museum in silence, processing with ourselves our feelings, our confusion for just witnessing so much sadness. It wasn’t until later on I think that we were ready to move on and feel gratitude.

We went on to tour parts of the National Portrait Gallery and the Women’s Art Museum, both a bit off the beaten track but not far from the mall. We had eaten a really affordable, filling plate of food from the Newseum but were thirsty for some liquid energy at this point. While Chris found us a nearby bar, I met Jimmy, a man who sat on the sidewalk eating a cheeseburger. He told me if I added a bit of money to his lucky cup I could “win big.” Jimmy was sweet, as it seemed, but Chris soon found us another bar and I said goodbye to Jimmy.

Our feet were happy to rest as we watched soccer, drank gin, and snacked on barr snacks (goldfish!)  It was late afternoon at this point and we still needed to see the National Archive, which had a massive line every other time we had tried to enter. A local woman Ubered us through traffic where we stood in line for just a bit before getting to see the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights, and Hamilton’s signature on the Constitution. I took out my phone to take notes about the experience and got yelled at as there was a strict photography rule. I put my phone down, cradling it still in my hand and was told, “In your pocket, Ma’am.” Jezum Crow!

We were some of the last people there, and were kindly shuffled out as they declared they were closing. As we had the day before, we chilled on a bench on the mall, processing and resting. I had learned something very important that day; LL Cool J stood for Ladies Love Cool James.

Day 6

I stuffed my leftover Chipotle dinner in my mouth as we set off on scooters for another day of museums – less history, more art. We got to the National Gallery of Art right when it opened. We made perhaps a rushed walk through of the museum, stopping when it felt right and moving through when we thought of all that was to come that day. Forgive us.

We stopped for a quick bite of food at the museum cafe before moving through the sparkling tunnel to the cooler, modern sister museum in the east building.

We took our time in this space, spinning in circles as we took in the space, a work of art in itself. After so-much-art, we needed a chocolate muffin. We sat on a bench in the mall, savoring the velvety treat, wishing we had each gotten our own.

Afterwards, we moved on to the National Air and Space Museum where I learned new things, but Chris did not. I disengaged a bit as Chris looked for fun trinkets to take home to nephew, Henrik. I learned Charles Lindbergh grew up in Little Falls, MN. “Did you know that, Chris?” “Yes, Ali. That’s why it’s called the “Lindbergh” terminal.” Ooohhhhhh. What the fuck ever. It’s still cool.

We then made Chris’ dreams by watching not one, but TWO IMAX theater movies about space–one was even narrated by the super dense genius that is Chris’ hero, Neil deGrasse Tyson, an astrophysicist.

As I sat in the dark theater trying to follow, I kept wondering how on earth any of it made sense to anyone. It felt like a completely different language. This is what I did catch: The universe is potentially infinite. There are billions of galaxies in the observable universe. We are made of stardust. Stars explode. The sun will eventually explode and turn into a white dwarf in a really long time from now. Dark matter is really important for some reason and is basically the glue that’s holding our universe together. There is no center to the universe–sorry, it’s not you, or me. Stars are everything, supernovas are exploded stars and nebulas are gorgeous but I still don’t know what they are. I guess I learned more than I thought.

Midday we scootered to the far end of the mall to finally see the monuments. It was crowded as usual, but very cool still.

Afterwards, we spent the last 30 minutes of museum time at the Natural History Museum. We sat and watched an ocean exhibit explaining how most of the sun’s energy/heat gets absorbed by our oceans, and without our oceans, we would burn by day, and freeze by night. The ocean is basically our buffer. And we’re destroying it with the energy sources we use. So that was depressing and scary.

The day’s museum craze left us depleted and grounded at the Airbnb. We did as many others do in D.C., and ordered in. We found D.C.’s version of Brasa, called Chicken Rico. We ate rotisserie chicken, plantains, coleslaw, and rice. We listened to T Swift on repeat and then watched CNN and an episode of Mysteries at the Museum where they were talking about the universe. We felt very relevant.

Day 7

Our plan was to spend a leisurely morning waking slowly and getting breakfast. The place we’d hoped to dine at required cash, which we didn’t have, so we bailed and ate an over-priced breakfast at Pret A Manger. At least it felt nostalgic (shameless London plug).

The day was busy with protesters. A group of young black women stood in front of cameras, talking into microphones with the capital building over their shoulder. Big blacked out SUVs and cops took off from in front of the capital.

The previous day left us looking for something mellow and a bit organic. We spent the morning at the Botanical Gardens, happy for a less crowded visit. I was angsty, unhappy with every picture I took. Though, I enjoy them now!

Chris made an executive decision to head towards the river that afternoon, but not before stumbling upon a gun violence protest. Hundreds of D.C. high schoolers had converged on the lawn of the capital, cheering for a stage of speakers, from Senator Blumthal to a mother of a murdered teenager, to a survivor of domestic violence.

Among the crowd, some students held up signs for HR8, which establishes new background checks by licensed dealers for guns that are transferred from private citizen to private citizen. The bill was passed by the House in February and sits to this day in the fucking Senate. Don’t. get. me. started.

As promised, Chris brought us to the water via scooter. The Wharf is a fairly new remodel to D.C.’s southwest waterfront, though it has the oldest open-air fish market in the country.

We ate lunch in the shade of a restaurant (Brighton – we don’t recommend eating there) then found dessert at NYC’s famous Milk Bar, where I got a chocolate malt shake, and then the famous confetti cookie (still pissed I skipped out on the milk bar pie). We sat along the water. Chris fell asleep as I wrote about our trip. Chris woke up, still dreaming though about beaches and less concrete. To appease the senses, we got summer-y (albeit expensive) drinks at a rooftop bar looking out over the wharf and strolled up and down the pier.

When the sun sank lower, we scootered off through Navy Yard. The trip was long on a scooter, but allowed us to see things along the way, like old US Navy establishments. We neared a beer garden that looked just right and hopped off our scooters, walking past a group of African American teenagers running a baton race up and down the sidewalk. I love D.C.

We ate dinner at CHIKO where Chris ate a beautiful display of orange chicken and I, a big rice bowl of blackened catfish. FIVE THUMBS UP for CHIKO.

Day 8

For our last day in D.C., we had saved two massive museums–the United States Holocaust Memorial museum and the National Museum of African American History and Culture. This wasn’t the best plan, but we made it work. Barely.

Based on our research, we headed first to the Holocaust Museum. About half way there, as we stood basically in the shadow of the Washington Monument (which Chris refers to as an obelisk), multiple helicopters started circling us. Within seconds, the traffic stopped, cops blocked off the crosswalks, and a caravan of flashing lights zoomed past. “Someone’s important,” Chris said.

When we showed up to the Holocaust museum, we dicked around looking at the free exhibits, not knowing we needed to reserve a time slot for ourselves to see the main events. By the time we figured it out, we couldn’t enter until hours later. So, we decided to book it to the African American museum, and stand in line for 30 minutes or so because we ALSO did not have a ticket. The line moved quickly though, and we were in pretty quickly.

We went straight to the desk and were directed to start at the top, and that’s what we did. At the top, we learned first about the culture and celebrations of African American’s and worked our way down towards the basement, where we were forced to rush through the literal and figurative darkness of slavery. DON’T DO THIS. Give yourself a half-day or more to explore this place.

I read about the afro as a symbol of self-acceptance but also resistance; expression of dance through the ages, and language and gestures as distinct, rhythmic and storytelling. We read about men and women who fought wars near and far–the ones who went to fight for our nation but came home to slavery and race riots.

We read about music, like the birth of hip hop in the Bronx in the 1970’s; historical and current imprisonment, especially as it relates to the Angola Louisiana State Penitentiary, the largest prison in the United States made up of mainly black men that started as a slave plantation; and the migration north to cities like Chicago, due in large part to an outlawed newspaper called the Defender, promising a better life for African American’s in the north (despite faults in this narrative).

We begrudgingly left and made it right in time to tour more, albeit different, horrors of the Holocaust. Chris had been there once on a school trip, but it was my first time. The museum makes it easy to follow the historical trajectory that flung the world into WWII. My heart grew heavy with each turn of the corner.

I couldn’t help but see the parallels between Donald Trump and early Hitler–the disillusionment, complete disregard for factual information, and the fear-laced rhetoric and blame flung deliberately at certain walks of life. The good news? There were less parallels to Trump and Hilter then there were to the ultra evil–thankfully fictional–villain that is Lord Voldemort.  Terrifying yet were the young teenage boys wearing the MAGA hats. (Yes, the reason’s people wear MAGA hats are varied and not necessarily hate-based, but isn’t it ill-suited and insensitive timing to wear a popular symbol of bigotry to places that celebrate and memorialize people who have been killed by such ideologies?! The irony.)

We ended our spring break in D.C. by eating pizza and catching an epic sunset behind the capital, the only way to end a trip.

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