Saturday, 16 June 2012

DC & New York: II

Our second day in DC was David’s day for speaking at the conference. I spent an anxious morning worrying about getting into town, as the one thing we’d learned on our first day in DC is that calling for a taxi pickup does not work like it does in the UK. On our first morning we called for a cab and it never arrived. After waiting for over an hour we ended up having to hail one on the side of the highway! So on Friday morning we got up early and ordered one for a specific time. It was still late, but only by 15 minutes, meaning that David got to his conference with enough time to spare for coffee.

My first stop for the day was the Holocaust Memorial Museum. The security to get in is pretty high—they even made me take a drink out of my water bottle once I cleared the xray scanning machines. I also wasn’t allowed to take any pictures inside. I began my tour with a special exhibit on the use of propaganda in Nazi Germany / WWII. It was really interesting to see how different messages were sent out via various forms of media (radio, posters, and film) in order to achieve the different goals of the various political parties and countries involved.

After that, and some serious resting on the benches, I moved to the permanent exhibit. Walking through that exhibit was one of the most mentally horrific experiences that I’ve ever had. I am no stranger to what went on during the holocaust, and I have probably read more about it than your average person, but in the exhibit there is no reprieve from the constant and growing horror that humans can inflict on each other. There are many pieces on display that were salvaged from the concentration camps, and in many places there were such graphic videos playing that I could not bear to watch them—some were films made by the Nazis of their scientific experiments, and others were films made by the Allies when they first stumbled across the camps. Thankfully the particularly graphic films were in TV sets that were encased in huge concrete barriers, meaning that you did not have to see them.

The exhibit is spread over three floors. The part which I found the most moving was near the end. A long corridor leads towards the final parts of the exhibit. The corridor appears relatively plain, but in the heat of the day it is the smell that hits as soon as you step inside. It is the smell of warm leather, and as you look around you notice that it is the scent of thousands of shoes. Both sides of the corridor are lined with heaps of shoes which were taken from the prisoners as soon as they arrived at the camps. You may be able to choose what you look at, but you cannot choose to ignore the scent which gives testimony to so many lives lost. Then, beyond this corridor and through some rooms is another passageway. At one point it is open up to the roof of the building, and the three stories are a huge collage of family photographs. Then there is a glass walkway and the glass is etched with the names of all the villages in Europe that suffered huge losses. As you move towards the end of this walkway there is another smell, this time one that I recognised. It is the warm, heady scent of beeswax. There is utter silence, and you emerge at the door of the shrine. Inside there are hundreds of candles burning, and at the farthest end is an eternal flame on an altar stone lined with the earth from the camps. Were there no shrine at the end, I think that the exhibit would be simply too much. It is only this place of prayer and remembrance that provides the necessary catharsis.

It is certainly not a happy place to visit, but I think that it is a necessary one. As President Clinton said during his speech at the museum’s dedication ceremony: I believe that this museum will touch the life of everyone who enters and leaves everyone forever changed; a place of deep sadness and a sanctuary of bright hope; an ally of education against ignorance, of humility, against arrogance, an investment in a secure future against whatever insanity lurks ahead. If this museum can mobilize morality, then those who have perished will thereby gain a measure of immortality.

When I pulled my itinerary together I had rightly assumed that I would want to do something light and fun in the afternoon. So I decided to go see the Smithsonian Museum of American History. On my way there I passed the Washington Monument:


The Smithsonian Museum was a bitter disappointment. I had been looking forward to going there for years, but aside from a few key pieces (George Washington’s suit, first lady Inaugural Ball gowns) the exhibits were lacking in anything worthwhile. A couple of the pieces I’d really wanted to see, namely Dorothy’s ruby slippers and Julia Child’s kitchen, were not available to the public. The power-crazed security guard at the entrance to the building made me open every single zipped pocket on my backpack, which was no small feat considering it has at least 10, and I mostly spent my time being thankful that it was a free visit! All that said, it is probably the perfect place to take little children, but I’m afraid that as an adult who has been able to enjoy some of the best museums in the world it is really lacking.

By the time I left the Smithsonian I felt that I needed to just sit somewhere and rest. I decided to call an early end to my afternoon and spent the rest of my David-free time enjoying a giant iced tea in the Starbucks attached to David’s conference hotel. It was the only day of his conference where he could get out at a decent time, so we took advantage of the early end of the day to head north-west to Dupont Circle, home of DC’s best pizzeria.

The first thing that David noticed when we exited the metro was a huge used & antiquarian bookstore. So we browsed its shelves for awhile, but generally found that the bookseller was one of those horrible types who overprice everything. Thus no purchases for us, although we did get some entertainment value from watching everyone else wander around with their overpriced purchases while making comments about ‘more money than sense’. Then it was across the street to Pizzeria Paradiso, where we were told it would take at least an hour before we could get a table. Fortunately for us we both decided that the wait would be worthwhile.

All the people on the right are part of the crowd waiting for seats--it's that popular!
The manager of the pizzeria vaguely resembled Nintendo’s Mario, which I think is what sold David on the idea of waiting. When we finally got in, we began one of the best meals we had on our trip. A little dish of olives was brought to the table to take the edge off our appetites as David perused the extensive beer menu (I think he found some imports that cost nearly $16). The pizzas were delicious and the topping combinations were inventive but complimentary, instead of trendy but weird. I stayed fairly safe with a mushroom pizza, but David went towards the odder end of the offerings by ordering one with mussels. I had a bite and it was surprisingly delicious. Each piece had one mussel on it, in a shell, so that they didn’t overpower the whole dish. The pizzas were thin crust, baked in a proper pizza oven, and had base of chunky roasted tomatoes instead of sauce. They used real mozzarella as well. David’s paper had gone really well that morning, so to celebrate we treated ourselves to dessert. Dave got tiramisu, which he assured me was excellent, and also espresso which was served with a slice of lemon—we learned from our waitress that the lemon juice cuts the bitterness of the coffee, so David gave it a shot and pronounced it one of the best espressos he’s had. Meanwhile I indulged with a fantastic dessert of wine-poached pears, topped with a biscuit layer and cream. It was like a pear crumble, only ten million times more delicious. Given the somersaults in my stomach which I experienced all through the meal, I think it’s safe to say that even the baby was enjoying it.

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