Sunday, May 29, 2011

Notes from Vacation, Part 2

So what exactly did we do on this sightseeing trip? Good question, that. There's so much to see in DC that you are wise to make lists of "what we have to do" vs. "what we'd like to do." Then you still have some whittling in front of you, but you are far less likely to wear yourselves out. That's worth considering - we were lucky with the weather in that it was overcast (even a little drizzly here and there) which kept the heat down. I worked for a year in DC and the heat can be oppressive. It tends to get very humid as well, which can make for unpleasant "hiking around" weather.

While we didn't manage everything even on our "cut down" list, what we did see, we can say with certainty that we saw at our own pace and saw thoroughly as opposed to "hurry, hurry - snap our photos, back on the bus." (Aside - don't do those tours. There are so many "virtual tours" you can take through the technology of the Internet that if you're just taking a trip to say you saw some particular piece of art - be that David in Florence or the Hope Diamond in DC - skip the crowded tour, get yourself a cool drink and call it up on a good-sized computer screen and visit as long as you want to.) Sightseeing is about seeing the sights you didn't expect to see, so allow time for unexpected discoveries. For example, on our way to the Holocaust Museum, I spied a five-foot wooden cutout of Smokey the Bear and decided it would make a cute photo. An amused man outside informed us that the scaffold-covered building was actually the home of the U.S. Forest Service and that we should duck inside and see what was what. He was right - it was a side trip that we never would have made otherwise. And let's just say that the animatronic Smokey in his office was clearly designed to talk to the small fry. His eyes were set at the right height for children, but when talking to me - well, the focus of his gaze seemed a little risque.

We spent a lot of time in both the Natural History and American History museums - the first was always a favorite of mine (but really - re-setting the Hope Diamond? I felt old and curmudgeonly when I wanted it to be the "old" way) and it's been re-done and updated. I liked the old, 1950s diorama feel of it before, but I must say it's cool to have so much out from behind glass cases. (Interestingly, inside a glass case in the middle of the dinosaur bones is a room full of working scientists. Odd, I thought. I didn't try to feed them and I didn't even tap on the glass, tempting as it was.) In the "bug room," I got to hold a live Lubber grasshopper (which is horror movie big) and chat with volunteers (who were of regular size). So much to discuss - just go to the Website here and make plans to spend several hours in this place when you go to DC.

The American History museum was likewise a feast. They had an especially nice exhibit on Abraham Lincoln's presidency. The most shocking part was seeing the difference between the two "life masks" of Lincoln. Made only about five years apart, the aging of Lincoln is obvious; clear evidence of the wear the Civil War had on him. There's also a nice (and soon to be expanded) exhibit of popular culture items in this museum, with items ranging from Dorothy's ruby slippers to Archie Bunker's battered easy chair.

We made a special trip to both the Grant Memorial and the WW2 Memorial, neither of which I'd ever seen. Both are worth the short hike. They are on opposite ends of the Mall, so keep that in mind. We went to one a day. The Grant Memorial is a great place to sit and think. Grant is astride his magnificent warhorse Cincinnati (the pair of them are at the top of the post) and seems to be a calm presence with chaos swirling on both sides in the side sculptures of artillery and cavalry. Go see it.

The plaza-like WW2 Memorial is also a calm place that manages to speak to the sacrifices and cost of war. Most striking to me is the reflecting pool which shimmers with the double image of gold stars, each one representing 100 fallen Americans.

We had gotten tickets to the Holocaust Museum early in our trip planning and I cannot encourage your enough to visit this museum. Without a doubt, it is the most carefully designed museum I've ever been to. Exhibits are thoughtful and horrifying. We lingered so long that we didn't have time to thoroughly explore the museum shop (I know - a gift shop seemed faintly disrespectful, like a hot dog cart at Dachau, but it was done thoughtfully and I wish we'd had more time there). It's not a light, carefree experience, but it's one I'm very glad we made time to have.

That's the quick rundown. Now we're both back and both deeply immersed in our respective summer schools - all the more reason to be glad we had the trip!

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