USA: Part 1 – East Coast

Previous: USA: Part 0 – Preamble

Day 1 – Flying

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Storms in Sydney on a Friday resulted in delays for us on a Saturday. A tight connection window in LA meant a missed connection through to Boston. Poor planning from Qantas had them re-booking us onto a flight via SF. A very nice lady at the United Airlines desk re-rebooked us via Denver… And some decent automated baggage systems resulted in our bags being pulled off of the SF flight, put on the Denver one, and magically making their way, with us, to Boston! We were only 5 hours late, and flying via Denver gave us aerial previews of the Rockies, and a little glimpse of what we might have to contend with when crossing the midwest. If we were crossing it in 4 months, instead of in winter…  

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Day 2 – Boston

Day 2 was a slow start, as you’d expect from the jetlag. After the obligatory New England breakfast of Lobsters with a side of melted butter (yep), we ventured out into the cold and grey to follow The Freedom Trail, a walk around Boston’s old harbour from the USS Constitution (an old old wooden ship and now home to the US Navy’s most bored active duty personnel), past a bunch of old stuff mostly concerned with the start of the US breaking free of the reign of King George and the British (widely considered to be a bad result for all concerned) and ending at the Statehouse on Boston Common. 

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En route some good architecture was seen, some good drinks were drunk and some even better cannoli were eaten.  

It just so happens that Dec 16 is the anniversary of The Boston Tea Party, wherein some colonists, angry at being forced to pay a 3% tax on tea, dumped the aforementioned into Boston Harbour, setting in motion the events that eventually led to the war of 1812. Every year a group of elderly cosplayers get together to reenact the events, from the town meeting in the Old South Meeting House to the eventual consignment of perfectly good tea to the briny deep. Actually a lot of fun, and very well done. Hats off, elderly cosplayers.

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Day 3 – Salem and Newburyport

Salem is a nice old town which seems to run mostly on tourism related to the witch trials of 1692. It’s mostly closed down on a Monday in winter, but we were able to gain access to the Salem Witch Museum and its 45 minute presentation featuring a series of dioramas accompanied with spooky narration (actually better than it sounds).  

Unfortunately, that was the only thing that was open, so the afternoon had us heading further out on the train line to Newburyport, a twisted version of which was the setting for Lovecraft’s The Shadow Over Innsmouth. Even on the train journey in, the combination of deep woods and bleak marshland showed why Lovecraft picked this area for so many of his stories of the weird. I could also understand how, in these surroundings, shut in against the cold and dark with the mind left to wander (plus a healthy dose of ergot-induced hallucinations), I too might see Goody Proctor with The Devil. Newburyport was an interesting place to visit, because you could see the seeds of Lovecraft’s writing in the well-preserved historic town center, but equally you could see how much Newbury needed to be twisted to turn into Innsmouth. It’s actually quite a nice seaside town, and I assume it does well in the summer.  

 

Day 4 – Boston to New York

We left Boston with a blisteringly cold wind which made it honestly quite hard to leave the station. Our train journey took us down from Boston via the coast and as we travelled I stared out of the window as a beautiful bright sun reflected off of the water, listening to my especially-prepared New York playlist.

Here are some select cuts:  

“It drops deep as it does in my breath. I never sleep, ’cause sleep is the cousin of death” – NaS, NY State of Mind

Heard passing through Kingston, RI looking out at clapboard houses and bare winter trees.  

 

“My noodles was ramen, go Google my diamonds” – A$AP Ferg, East Coast Remix

Crossing the Mystic River at the town of the same name in Connecticut. An open estuary, hazy sun. Big seaside houses, bleached wooden piers and boats covered for the winter.

 

“How can anyone know how they got to be this way? You must have known I’d do it someday” – The National, Daughters of the SoHo Riots

Pulling into New London, CI. Another estuary, more industrialised this time. Cars are boarding the Block Island ferry. Not sure where Block Island is. The shipyard is working on some kind of floating oil platform, complete with helicopter pad. Across the river, the General Dynamics factory is making… whatever General Dynamics makes. What do they make?

 

“Fourteen floors are birthing, fourteen floors are dying… Surrounded by the visions of all who came before them.” – Hurray For The Riff Raff, Living In The City

Branford, CI. Some classic American clichés – a frame bridge over a reedy creek, the sun shining on lichen-covered rocks; a red and white wooden barn, darkened by many years of weathering.

 

“They say the neon lights are bright on Broadway. They say there’s always magic in the air. But when you’re walkin’ down that street and you ain’t had enough to eat The glitter rubs right off and you’re nowhere.” – George Benson, On Broadway

Heading out of Norwalk, CI. The train is travelling more slowly now, and the gaps between built-up areas are getting smaller. Something’s changed with either the prevailing weather or the local building materials because clapboards are being replaced with wooden shingles as the building covering of choice.

 

“Antenna up and out into New York. Somewhere in all that talk is all the answers. And oh, my giddy aunt, New York can talk. It’s the modern Rome where folk are nice to Yoko.” – Elbow, New York Morning

I fell asleep for a while and awoke to this song which perfectly captured my mood as the train crested the bridge over (I think) the Bronx River and revealed New York in the hazy afternoon sun.

 

After pulling into New York Penn Station, we made our way to the hotel (much better than the one in Boston, thankfully, especially given that it was – perplexingly – cheaper)…

… and headed straight out again to Newark, New Jersey to see our beloved Toronto Maple Leafs take on the NJ Devils.

Needless to say, the Devils got absolutely destroyed by the visiting team. There were a good amount of Leafs fans in and you better believe they made some noise as the Leafs continued knocking them in. Final score: 7 – 2. I am constantly surprised by how a sport can have such passionate fans and yet not provoke the same kind of violence as British football. The Devils fans were universally self-effacing in defeat, and if there was any aggression it was channel into chants of “Fuck the Rangers”, the local NYC team who weren’t even the opponents tonight!

Walking back from the station back on Manhattan, we found our first NYC Christmas light display.

 

Day 5 – Brooklyn

Today was another beautiful, bright and crisp day. We found Leo’s Bagels for brunch – mountains of cream cheese, smoked salmon and cured black cod. Suitably fortified, we walked up by the shores of the East River to walk across the Brooklyn Bridge. It might be TripAdvisor’s #1 pick of touristy things to do in New York (and it is touristy – I wouldn’t use it to actually get anywhere quickly if I lived here), but it was so worth doing. Stunning views of Manhattan and up the East River.

From the bridge we ambled through the Brooklyn Heights neighborhood…

… being nosy down brownstone residential streets, strolling on the Brooklyn Heights Promenade…

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… finally passing Truman Capote’s house. He was not home.

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After warming up in an impossibly hipster cafe on Pineapple St, we took the Q train down to Coney Island. The internet had lied (not for the first time) and the frustration from at Salem’s winter shutdown was compounded when we found Coney Island in the same state. Nice excuse for a walk by the beach, though.

… and one of Nathan’s famous hot dogs.

We tried to get into Green-Wood cemetery to see the graves of Basquiat and Samuel Morse but were again disappointed by the early winter closures. Fortunately the next destination did not disappoint. A walk through Prospect Park took us to the Nitehawk Cinema.

Having booked tickets online, we were not aware that we were arriving on the Grand Opening of this, the second branch of Nitehawk Cinemas. Nitehawk are a pretty damn kooky art house cinema, featuring 70s pre-show ads and a hilarious John Waters asking us not to smoke in the movie.

We saw Free Solo, a documentary showing Alex Honnold planning, training for and eventually completing his ropeless ascent of Freerider on Yosemite’s El Capitan. The gloves in Boston had meant my nails grew a fraction of a millimeter. They’re chewed back to the nub again now. During the movie, I drank what is – and I do not say this lightly – possibly the best cocktail of my life. Peanut washed rye whisky with cacao bitters and Amaro Montenegro. It’s a very grown up version of a Reece’s Cup and it is the shit.

Movie was followed by dinner at Miss Ada. It’s an upmarket-yet-deliberately-casually-pitched small restaurant in Fort Greene and named for the Masada Fort in Israel. If that sounds familiar to you, it’s because that name is also shared by Lana’s school. No escape for Lana, it seems.

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It was the first truly excellent meal we had since arriving in the US, even if we did go heavy on the hummus. Pickled beet humus; lamb schawarma hummus; sweet potato hummus; baba ghanoush (for a change of pace); sirloin skewers with mango habañero dipping sauce; soy glazed short rib. Yum.

 

Day 6 – Midtown

Today was a perfect day, and we didn’t even do any heroin.

We ate brunch at Serendipity (from whence came the movie featuring Kate Beckinsale and John Cusack, I’m sure you remember). Lana may have been sensible, but I went full obesity crisis with a french toast-cream cheese sandwich. Plenty of maple syrup.

We walked through concrete canyons to the Rockefeller Center…

…saw the stunning tree and watched the ice skaters in the sunken plaza. It was the first part of the trip where I felt one of the feelings I’ve been chasing: that of being fully immersed in the culture of NYC (probably because I’ve seen these scenes in movies so many times, says my inner cynic).

Nearby, a very strange man was touting some quite nicely produced ‘Conservative Sueus Parodies’ which he’d apparently written himself. He wasn’t seeing much in the way of sales.

“Head to the Top Of The Rock, skip the Empire State Building” is a piece of advice we’d heard from a few people, and it’s a very good piece of advice. The views are incredible.

Rockefeller personally funded the building of his eponymous edifice in the middle of The Great Depression, employing hundreds of labourers and artisans in the process. It seems to me like that’s a pretty excellent way to use your money if you’re filthy rich. I’m thankful too that NYC seems to have had so much of its boom around the time that Gothic and Art Deco architecture was in vogue. You don’t build eternal cities with just steel and glass – some stonework is required.

By the time we descended, the rain was coming down harder. We opted to shelter in the Morgan Library, the preserved study and private library of Pierpont Morgan, father of the more well-known JP Morgan. Speaking of rich people who knew how to spend their money, check this out:

The Library also houses a museum, which at the moment features an exhibition on Gothic art, enlightenment science…

… and Frankenstein in the various forms the story has been told:

Dinner at a Basque place called ‘Ortzi’ (standouts: goats cheese, sardines, preserved mussels, porchetta) was followed by a Broadway show. Network, starring Bryan Cranston as Howard Beale in a reworking of the 70s movie of the same name was hard to get tickets for. Not because the tickets weren’t available, or were insanely expensive (looking at you, Hamilton), but because the online shop which has a monopoly on first-party Broadway tickets is the worst. This is why monopolies are bad, folks. The show was great. Cranston is incredible, overshadowing the rest of the cast in PURE ACTING TALENT.  

It featured liberal use of cameras and projections and accompanying tricks, and hit my sweet spot of “question everything, life is meaningless”. Also, Paul McCartney was sat but 10 seats away from us in the audience. It feels very strange to see, in the flesh, a person who represents so much cultural distance travelled. Think of what the world was like when he first started playing with The Beatles, versus how it is now. Madness.

Lana’s review:

Firstly, let’s outline some of the weird theatre habits of New York audiences.

1. The Mandatory Standing Ovation

Simply finishing a play does not warrant a standing ovation. This is something I noticed the last time I was NYC, and I find it truly bizarre. In Sydney, theatres and actors have to work incredibly hard to get a standing ovation – I’ve seen some plays that have truly taken my breath away and the best they’ve gotten is a ovation with my hands raised to head height. In New York, it’s assured that there will be a standing ovation. And let’s be honest, if everyone gets a standing ovation, then no one gets a standing ovation.

2. Clapping the famous actor’s first entrance

Another ovation related gripe. We saw two plays featuring very famous actors. And in both, their first entrance to the show was met with applause. How can you create an environment where the audience suspends their disbelief that Daniel Radcliffe is just a junior fact checker if you also foster an environment that celebrates that celebrity for simply showing up to do their job?!

3) Eating lollies throughout the play

THIS IS NOT A MOVIE. THE ACTORS CAN HEAR THE PLASTIC RUSTLING. THE AUDIENCE CAN HEAR THE PLASTIC RUSTLING. HAVE A BIT OF RESPECT AND PUT THE SUGAR DOWN FOR 85 MINUTES. Jeez.

On to the review…

Network

Originally a film released in 1976 with Peter Finch in the lead role of Howard Beale, it really should have stayed that way. This play offers nothing new to the dialogue created in the original film regarding the power of the screen. Don’t get me wrong, the play is phenomenally produced and directed, and Bryan Cranston as Howard Beale is great. But this story is about the power of film and TV and therefore really should be told in that medium. Not all stories can be told in all media; there are stories that are destined to be novels but would never work as a film, and there are stories that should be told on film and not in the theatre.

The production is very clever: it uses live camera streams to keep the filmic elements of the original story, including one scene which takes place almost entirely outside the theatre. There is nothing in this production which I can specifically fault. I know Sam had issues with some of the acting but I didn’t particularly mind any of it. I think ultimately my issue with the play is that I still don’t know why it was made, what it could give me as a play that I couldn’t get from the film. It did attempt to make itself relevant with some very clear #fakenews parallels made blatantly obvious with a compilation of the inauguration pledges of all the presidents from Reagan to Trump. Look, the play was fine. I think the film is probably better.

Time for Times Square!

 

Day 7 – Midtown: Redux

Today was forecast to be rainy, and rainy it was. After ducking out of cover to run for a quick breakfast (featuring outstanding coffee, served by an Australian, of course), we took the metro back up to Midtown; this time, heading for the Museum of Sex (or MoSEX if you want to fit the MoMA/MoMI/MoT nomenclature). MoSEX is a very nicely curated and produced set of exhibitions, ranging from the tame (Punk Lust: Raw Provocation) through the culturally significant (Night Fever: New York Disco ’77 – ’79), the weird (ObjectXXX: Selected Artifacts From The Archives) to the absolutely filthy (Stag: The Illicit Origins Of Pornographic Film).

Probably the highlight was the discovery of Leonor Fini, a non-conformist, highly liberated (sexually and otherwise) artist who lived and worked, mainly in Paris, from the 1940s to the 1990s. Her art, too, ranges from the tame,

the culturally significant,

the weird,

and the filthy.

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Not to everyone’s taste, but they’re beautifully produced pieces of art, and you have to marvel at how a woman managed to get this stuff shown in actual galleries in the 40s. 

From the gutter to the stars, now. The rain had died off to more of a damp mist as we walked across town, stopping to marvel at some of the giant skyscrapers with their tops translucent in the clouds, at the beautiful concourse of Grand Central Station…

… and at our destination: The New York Public Library.

As you probably know, I love a good book (see here and here) and the best libraries are equal in every way to any house of worship; they are our secular cathedrals. Done right, as this one is, one can only be in awe at the depth and breadth of our collected knowledge and at the places we are capable of building to house it.

Tonight we had something a little special booked: an evening at The Great Jones Spa, a spa built into the shell of an old brick warehouse, featuring baths, steam rooms, saunas and… massage. I received a very firm deep tissue, while Lana was pampered with a tailored pre-natal massage. Over the course of an hour, both of us briefly slipped onto another plane of existence. It was glorious.

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Sweat loses salt, and salt must be replenished: pho time!

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Day 8 – Uptown

Today was wash day (as I type this, I’m waiting for the hotel’s tumble dryer to finish doing its thing) so a Leo’s Bagels breakfast was interleaved with trips to the laundrette. We needed to get on the subway uptown for 2pm, however, to see Daniel Radcliffe and Bobby Cannavale in a matinee performance of The Lifespan Of A Fact

For me, this show was one of the best I’ve seen: timely, thought-provoking and hilarious in its writing; cleverly, seamlessly directed; incredible performances from whole company.

Lana agrees:

Based on a 2012 book of the same name, written by Jim Fingal and John D’Agata (who are also the two main characters of the play), this book deals with similar themes to Network – truth, reporting, the responsibility of media – in a way that is fresh and current and actually offers something really interesting to the conversation.

This was our star-studded Broadway show: the play stars Daniel Radcliffe: Harry Potter himself, Bobby Cannavale and Cherry Jones. Radcliffe plays an intern given the job by his publisher (Jones) of fact-checking an article written by an author (Cannavale). This article could change things for Jones’s magazine, but Radcliffe’s character discovers it to be riddled with inaccuracies. Some of these inaccuracies can be easily ignored: the colours of the bricks at a building site; others, like the nature of a suicide of a teenage girl in Las Vegas, simply cannot. 

Mate, do these actors work well as a threesome. The dialogue is funny, fast-paced; it’s phenomenally acted. Radcliffe is funny, Jones is controlled and Cannavale is wild.

One of the reasons I loved this play is because there is no protagonist or antagonist. You’re on everyone’s side and also on noone’s side. The show ends with a speech from Radcliffe’s character about the nature of truth in the modern world, evoking the feeling of frustration that comes out of things like the #truther movement and the awful ‘trolling’ that the parents of the victims of the Sandy Hook massacre are still living through.

This play is important. This play is also a perfect example of why new plays should be produced – I’m looking at you STC.

After the show we headed to a dream destination for me: The Strand, a new and used bookstore that boasts 18 miles of stacks. In truth, it was overwhelming. Not overwhelming enough to stop me from filling a tote bag to the brim, but definitely a stressful experience.

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Weighed down, we skirted Central Park to reach The Metropolitan Museum (or more simply as popular culture knows it, The Met).

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The Met is a labyrinth, but one filled with rooms of immense variety in volume. This is important to the experience, because one moment you could be in a claustrophobic gallery filled with small artifacts…

… and the next you’d turn a corner to see a cavernous space which can be genuinely breathtaking:

There are objects from Egypt, Greece, Asiatic cultures, the Americas…

… but also a number of rooms from palaces and stately homes around the world, deconstructed and painstakingly moved to New York.

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(needing a stepladder to actually get into it = bed goals, am I right?!)

The were too many others to list, but a recurring feeling I got while walking around was that were so many corners hiding surprises, and spaces which I needed less to examine than to soak up. If I had more time, I’d take a good book and sit in a lot of these rooms and let the culture osmose into me, through my pores or something.

Final stop for today was a the Smoke Jazz Supper Club. Why have Supper Clubs never really made it out of the US? The idea is a great one: dinner and a show, but run concurrently! We saw an excellent quintet performing the music of John Coltrane as part of Smoke’s Christmas Coltrane Festival and it was as transportative and hypnotic as you’d expect. Dr Eddie Henderson, the bandleader, was impressive on the trumpet, but the MVP of the show for me was pianist George Gables. He was playing on 11 for the duration. Incredible musicianship.

I also saw one of the mixing desks I helped produce back when I was working for Allen & Heath in Cornwall, in the wild!

 

Day 9 – Downtown

We started today with a stop that we knew would be a heavy one, the memorial to 9/11 at the World Trade Center. We took photos of the two beautiful memorial pools, one built into the original footprint of each tower, all crystalline water coursing over black marble and disappearing into an abyss at the center of the pool. Stunning architecturally, and an effective communication.

We descended below ground, directly underneath the pools, to where the original foundations of the towers have been excavated and to view the memorial museum. It’s a brilliantly curated and very powerful experience, especially in how it commemorates the firefighters, police officers and other first responders who died when the towers came down. I did have a thought in the back of my mind that it’s unfair that there’s no similar memorial to the innumerable Afghan, Iraqi and other nationals who died as a result of 9/11, but that thought should do nothing to diminish the memory of those remembered here.

Ooft. Heavy stuff. We needed a refuel, and Lana had the timely realisation just as we were passing a pizza shop that we had yet to have a gen-yew-eyne New York slice!

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From there, we ascended to The High Line, a 2.5km section of el-train track in NYC’s old Meatpacking District, scheduled for demolition after years of disuse and decay, finally saved and turned into a park in the sky by local residents. The High Line is a beautiful way to get from A to B, to spend an afternoon and to get a vantage point on the city that it’s impossible to get any other way. There’s some awe-inspiring architecture and some nicely weird street art to be seen along the way, but the true highlights are the sight lines you get down the cross-town avenues: ruler-straight lines of perspective, disappearing to the vanishing point where the earth curves away.

We had a little time before our next destination, so before a ramen dinner we popped into MoMA for a quick nose around.

I’d give it a solid B-. As a building it’s nowhere close to the inspiration one feels walking around The Met, and as a series of objects it’s solidly ‘meh’. Having said that, I’m not easy to please when in comes to Modern Art and tend to see a lot of it as talentless drivel that gains fans only in the same way that the Emperor was a fan of his New Clothes. I mean check out this series by American artist Agnes Wright, and pick me the odd one out:

If you couldn’t see it, it was image #3, which was a picture I took of some blank wall. Get fucked Agnes. You are not an artist and you do not deserve an entire room dedicated to whatever it is you’re trying to say. I know that Art is anything that makes one feel anything, but all that this makes me feel is Angry.

I needed to cool off after this provocation, so I went down a floor to check out an exhibition on the cheery subject of post-war Yugoslavian Brutalist architecture. Man, I love Brutalism though. A lot of these buildings have aged really well…

… and even the ones for which time hasn’t been so kind still have a certain grandeur to them.

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Next destination: Sleep No More, a play (Is it a play? Piece of performance art? Site-specific modern dance? Haunted-house carnival ride?) set over multiple sprawling levels of an old hotel in the lower west side. Impeccably produced, stunningly realised in set design and atmosphere, unnerving. Lana explains more:

This review of Sleep No More will be unlike any other review you read of it, because my experience of it was unlike anyone else’s experience of it. This is the utter magic of this production. The best way to describe the play is as a choose-your-own-adventure-style telling of Macbeth set over the space of an entire hotel. Literally an entire hotel. Multiple floors. Multiple rooms. Characters moving throughout the space. This was as much a cardio work out as a performance. Sam and I were taken into the space at different times, and therefore had entirely different experiences.

To set the scene, each audience member is given a mask, to be worn at all times. And then, in groups of about 10 at a time, you are taken up an elevator to one of the performance floors – it is here you make the decision that will change the rest of your night, do you turn left out of the elevator doors, or right? I found out later that Sam went right. I went left.

Because I went left I ended up very quickly finding Lord and Lady Macbeth’s bedroom. I know the source play very well, and being able to quickly figure out who I was watching made this a very exciting experience for me. As I followed Macbeth around the hotel, literally running after him at times, being physically pushed aside by other patrons, I realised that this was unlike any other performance piece I had seen. Firstly, there is no dialogue. No one speaks, not the actors nor the audience. And those actors? Actually dancers. They communicate everything they need to through their bodies. And it is breathtaking.

The experience lasts in total around two hours. And while it does not stick directly with the plot of Macbeth, it does hit the important notes – the murder of Duncan, the “out damn spot” washing away of blood, the banquet scene, Macbeth and the witches. I feel I was very lucky finding Macbeth early, because it lead me to interact with pretty much every character, and see most key scenes. The amazing thing that I noticed is that about an hour in the play repeats itself. Which meant that I could choose a different character (this time Duncan) to follow and have a whole new experience of the show. Sam, interestingly, did not see a single thing repeat. When I told him the whole show repeated he was surprised. As I said, we had entirely different experiences.

This show has been running since 2012. If you’re in New York you have to see it. We will make it a mission to see it every time we are here, because it will never be the same twice.

 

Day 10 (Christmas Eve) – New York to Washington

It’s a four-hour train ride from New York down to Washington, taking you through New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland and finally the District Of Columbia. The route heads out inland from New York and hence is not as picturesque as the one from in from Boston. It passed uneventfully for us, and the sun was low in the sky when we finally drew into DC. We had tickets booked for the cinema, but since we’re staying near to the heart of the city, and our route to the cinema would take us past the Capitol Building, we decided to rug up and walk it. Glad we did:

One of the things I noticed on the walk was how much the architects of Washington through the years love a colonnaded façade on their buildings. Holy moley you guys, calm it down a bit, perhaps? I’m thinking of starting an Instagram to document the sheer variety on offer in DC. Here’s just a small sneak peek:

The movie we saw, Vice, was a great mood-setter for our visit to The Nation’s Capital. Christian Bale does an excellent job portraying scheming, grasping power-not-behind-but-beside-and-in-some-cases-literally-overriding-the-throne Dick Cheney through his early years in congress to his later power-sharing arrangement as Dubya’s running mate. A brilliantly entertaining film and revealing in what it shows of how DC works.

 

Day 11 (Christmas Day) – Monuments 

Happy Christmas! We rose late. My god, this bed is a comfortable one. Lucky we didn’t have brunch booked until 11:30.

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What you’re looking at there is southern-fried chicken, two types of dipping sauce, hot buttered cornbread, mac n’ cheese, side of beans (health conscious) and a maple-glazed donut serving as a garnish. I know what you’re thinking, but actually we shared that between us. We’re not animals. Besides, we needed a hearty breakfast to fuel our main activity of the day, a self-guided walking tour around Washington’s dizzying array of monuments and memorials:

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First stop, The White House, where poor Donnie is spending Christmas all on his lonesome…

… Hi, Donnie! Hope the visit from the Ghost of Christmas Future didn’t scare you too much! (If it did, maybe you could kill yourself you absolute disgrace – I can lend you my claw hammer)

We paid a visit to the National Christmas Tree, thankfully accessible and powered again (even though the government shutdown continues) thanks to funding from a local nonprofit. Also saw an eagle! Or maybe a large hawk? My bird identification skills are lacking.

The Washington Monument: tall and sleek, a pointy phallus piercing the skyline for kilometers around, reminding Washington’s residents of just how large an effect the life of their city’s namesake had on a young nation:

The comparatively recent WWII memorial, only built in 2004:

Behind it, the famous reflecting pool and, just visible at the end, the Lincoln Memorial:

But before that, the simple and powerful Vietnam Memorial. Polished slabs of black granite, set into a gash in the earth, carved with the name of every casualty of the war. The effect of seeing your reflection in the rock, overlaid with the names of the fallen is strong.

And yes, the Lincoln Memorial! It’s almost as iconic as the man himself. This is another of those sights which I’ve seen countless times in movies and the like, so it felt surreal to see it with my own eyes.

Looking back from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, you see where the reflecting pool gets its name:

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Next to The Korea Memorial. Very different to the Vietnam Memorial, on the other side of the National Mall, but no less powerful:

MLK, the man, the legend. Hewn from a monolith of white granite and towering over the tourists:

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My favourite of the walk, and (probably not coincidentally) my favourite president immortalised here: FDR. Franklin Delano Roosevelt was the US’s longest-serving president, being elected no less that four times! With quotes like these, you can see why. I’ll let the man’s own words speak for him:

Walking along the side of a lake, you reach the final stop: the Thomas Jefferson Memorial. We reached it after nearly five hours of walking, just as the sun was going down.

Today was a physical journey and an emotional one. Especially for Lana, who is still struggling to eat in large portions, and whose internal parasite is being especially demanding. By the end of the day, she was most definitely over it. Thankfully, we found a hotel lounge open on Christmas day where a hot chocolate turned things around very swiftly.

 

Day 12 (Boxing Day) – Tours and Museums

Thanks to some last-minute shenanigans, the US Capitol building was not closed as expected due to the government shutdown, which meant that we could take the tour we’d booked. The first thing to note about the building is that it’s big. That central dome is colossal…

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… which makes it slightly worrying (albeit impressive) when you’re ushered to the start of the tour in the subterranean ‘crypt’ rooms and informed that the entire weight of limestone, marble and steel above is resting on just a few sandstone support columns:

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The tour guide informed us that the newly minted USA was going for ‘impressive’ when they built this second iteration of the Capitol. I think they hit the mark.

Unfortunately, even a pre booked tour does not take one into either the House or Senate chambers, so instead we saw the National Statuary Hall. Worth seeing, but it’s no State Of The Union.

A subterranean passage takes you between the Capitol and the Library of Congress. You can never see too many libraries, and this is another impressive one.

I particularly liked the inscriptions placed below each of the windows on either side of the great hall:

We walked down from Capitol Hill onto the National Mall, the long stretch of public parkland that runs from the Capitol to the Washington monument and beyond to the Lincoln Memorial. It’s probably worth taking a second to look at a map of this center of American government:

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Washington was just rural farmland and forest when it was decided that the banks of the Potomac would be the site of the new capital and the plans were drawn up for the placement of these buildings. The results are impressive, with some beautiful sightlines. Stand near the Washington Monument and clockwise from due north you’ll see:

  1. The White House (colonnaded façade),
  2. the African-American (modernist),
  3. the Smithsonian American History (brutalist),
  4. the Smithsonian Natural History (colonnaded façade, nice dome on top),
  5. the National Gallery of Art (colonnaded façade, nice dome on top),
  6. the Supreme Court (just visible, colonnaded façade),
  7. the Capitol (colonnaded façade, bloody big dome),
  8. the Library of Congress (you guessed it: colonnaded façade, dome),
  9. the Smithsonian African Art (dome),
  10. the Smithsonian Castle (it’s an actual castle),
  11. the Dept of Agriculture (huge colonnaded façade),
  12. and finally the Washington Monument (giant marble obelisk). 

… phew. 

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It’s stunning, but it feels odd. The sheer concentration of impressive buildings in white marble made me feel like I was walking through a giant model village. From a distance, the classical architecture starts to feel like a movie set, standing in for Ancient Greece or Rome. Wonderful as the amount of greenery and public parkland is, it feels like it needs a Starbucks or a Maccas to make it feel real. Sacrilege? I’m not sure.

Part of the reason for us walking down the National Mall was to get to the US Holocaust Memorial Museum. It’s an impressively curated exhibition with a mixture of big-picture history, human level stories and a collection of heart-pausing artifacts: a spare copy of the Arbeit Macht Frei sign from the entrance to Auschwitz; a sign informing you that for the last few metres you’ve been walking on cobbles excavated from the Warsaw Ghetto; a cattle car mounted on rails taken from the approach to Treblinka; hundreds of pairs of shoes belonging to concentration camp victims. It’s paced so that the cold shivers down your spine haven’t fully dissipated before you see the next exhibit, which gets them going again. By the time I reached the shoes, my eyes were prickling and I felt nauseous. Powerful, surprising and (predictably) very upsetting.

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Tonight, we’ll get some pizza and chill at our AirBnB, I reckon.

 

Day 13 – Space

This is one I’d been looking forward to, the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. It’s one of many huge areas of land to either side of the National Mall given over to house the various branches of the Smithsonian museums, and it does not disappoint! Tap on these images to view the captions for more info…

Let’s start at the beginning with two artifacts from the Friendship 7 flight which made John Glenn the first American to fully orbit the Earth (Alan Shepherd beat him to space, but didn’t actually complete an orbit).

Next on the timeline, the Apollo missions. Unfortunately the full Apollo exhibit was closed for refurb, but plenty of things were either relocated to elsewhere in the museum or just visible if you leaned over the barriers. This is starting to hit the spot for me where it feels almost too incredible to be seeing these objects in real life. Objects like the Magna Carta or the Gutenberg Bibles have connection to history and are wonderful to see for that reason, but nothing could come close to seeing tangible remnants of what is probably humankind’s greatest engineering endeavour.

Jumping forward in time to the space shuttle.

One of the most poignant objects in the whole museum was this:

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…It’s a CD, recovered from the debris of the Columbia shuttle disaster (that’s the one where a damaged heat-shield tile caused the shuttle to break up on re-entry). It’s been warped and burned, showing you just how much heat was involved. But it’s recognizable as a CD, and it belonged to one of those astronauts.

This visit was an incredible experience for me, and I think Lana enjoyed it as well? This came from her Instagram stories:

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From museum to dinner: Peruvian/Chinese/Japanese fusion. An odd combo, but I’d say it mostly works. There were definitely some flavours which were brand-new to me, something which it always a welcome surprise. 

Dinner was swift, and only a precursor to the evening’s entertainment: Hockey game #2, Washington Capitals vs Carolina Hurricanes.

Maybe it was just that we were rooting for neither Caps nor Hurricanes; maybe it was the entirely red crowd, with no white-shirted Hurricanes fans to add to the atmosphere; maybe it was the sloppy, low-energy play from both teams. Whatever the reason, this match was a bit of a dud in comparison to the one back in Newark. Play was pretty tedious all the way through the first two periods, finally starting to pick up and get some dynamism in the final section but ultimately ending in a pedestrain 2-0 win for the Caps. 

 

Day 14 – Washington to Charlottesville VA

An early start today to get out to the airport to pick up our rental car, and something of a watershed for the trip, as we transition from longer stays and city tourism to more changing where we sleep more regularly, and trading cities for smaller towns. We’re driving a Ford Escape SUV, which turns out to be an appropriate vehicle for the USA: it’s obnoxiously loud, and consumes fuel at a prodigious rate.

Our route for today took us out of Washington via the Arlington National Cemetery, with a quick stop in the rain to say hi to JFK and Jackie O…

… another one a Bob and Edith’s Diner, to say hi to a plate of corned beef hash with grits, and this ridiculous chocolate milkshake (mostly ice-cream)…

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…a swing by the Pentagon, and then out of DC due west toward the Shenandoah National Park.

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You gain a reasonable amount of height as you ascend into the Blue Ridge mountains, and on a rainy day like today, we were eventually driving through clouds. It felt a bit ominous…

… but then we turned a corner and were presented with the Shenandoah Valley laid out before us.

It was a very special sight, and I can only imagine how spectacular these hills are when their trees are bearing red and yellow autumn leaves. The trade-off, I suppose, is that we had the road largely to ourselves. Plenty of pulling to the side of the road and cool mountain silence.

I say largely to ourselves; there were some other cars, but the main owners of the Skyline Drive are the deer:

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From the Blue Ridge Mountains down into Charlottesville, Virginia. A historic university town, but sadly more recently famous for the Neo-Nazi Tiki-Torch Parade and a later alt-right rally where counter-protestors were mown down by a white supremacist in a car, causing the death of Heather Heyer.

Charlottesville is not the sort of town where you would expect anything like this to happen. It’s quiet, small, with an artsy feel to it. The town has clearly taken the events to heart and is vehemently rejecting alt-right ideology, in large gestures like the chalk message-covered memorial wall for Heather, or small ones like the pro-diversity signs tacked to many ship windows.

We found dinner in the town center, as well as a gorgeously restored old beaux-arts theatre which happened to be screening the original Die Hard that evening. Can’t walk past that! Yippie-kiy-ay motherflippers.

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Day 15 – Charlottesville VA to Southport NC

The first really long drive of the trip, 530km due south to the North Carolina coast. 

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Today was a beautiful day, starting crisp, bright and cold. But as we wound our way down from the Virginia hills, the temperature gauge on the car started to creep higher, peaking at a balmy 17°C which lasted until we reached Southport long after dark. I think Lana’s wish of warmer climes for New Year might be granted early!

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We were deliberately taking byways over the highways, which is a far better way to actually see the landscape you’re travelling through, but it does limit your speed somewhat. We crossed the North Carolina state line early in the afternoon and were sorely in need of some sustenance. Enter Smithfield Chicken & Bar-B-Q, which serves fried chicken the traditional Easterly-North-Carolinan way: with spicy vinegar dressing. The other thing I learned is that two Australio-British tourists are not capable of eating ‘The  Tailgate Special’ and I probably should not have allowed the cashier to talk me into it. To give you an idea, the drink is a full gallon of sweet tea. That’s nearly 4 litres between two people. Insane.

Lana’s Instagram once again:

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We continued south through forest and gently rolling farmland, oundtracked with the audiobook of Michelle Obama’s autobiography and native Carolinians* Jason Isbell and The 400 Unit.

*Jason Isbell is actually from Alabama, but the guitarist in his band is from NC, so it counts.

It’s beautiful countryside, but the human element is kind of strange. The houses in this area are mostly very separated and fitt into three main categories: well cared for clapboards with verandahs and Christmas decorations; McMansions with ridiculous turrets, colonnaded porticos and grand front doors; or derelict wrecks which used to belong to the first category, but have clearly been abandoned for some time. The odd part of this is that it’s an even 3-way split. Often we’d pass an obviously brand new McMansion sitting right next to a derelict house sinking back into the ground, like some kind of real estate yin-yang.

Second image courtesy of the Kate Wagner (a North Carolinan) at mcmansionhell.com

Final stop before Southport: Jones Lake, a meteor crater now filled with mirror-flat water (and mosquitos).

So here we are in Southport, after dinner at the Fishy Fishy Cafe (including my first genuine shrimp n’ grits). The car is performing admirably but continuing to guzzle gas. In fiddling with the dashboard I’ve also managed to turn on a parent-lock mode which limits our top speed (to 80mph, not exactly a problem) and our stereo volume (to 14, this may become a problem).

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Continued: USA: Part 2 – The South

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