Washington was a
stuffed shirt. An expensive grey suit with a silk burgundy
tie and a boring briefcase; in short possibly the dullest
capital city I'd ever visited. It was all so different
to how I'd imagined it. I'd had high hopes for Washington.
An incurable addiction to The West Wing TV series had
left me craving a tour around the corridors of power;
I figured an entire history of Presidents would choose
a 'happening place' to hang out and the antics of Monica
Lewinsky had given it a sin city, cigar smoking glamour
in my overactive imagination. Added to this one of my
lifelong friends lived there, and as her husband worked
in the White House, I was looking forward to viewing the
red room in all it's glory.
"If you have a sleep
now, we can go in Washington tonight," I told the kids,
drawing the curtains of our room in the Downtown Holiday
Inn. I joined them for a sleep while Stuart went in search
of food. He returned two hours later with a box of crackers,
and a packet of cheddar. "There's nothing out there,"
he said, as he collapsed into his chair exhausted.
"Apart from the White House, Capitol Hill and the most
powerful government in the world?"
"Hmm. I passed the White House. It looked like a stately
home. Cheese and crackers?" The children didn't wake up
for their evening tour of Washington and we decided not
to disturb them.
If that's not the White House
then why is it white Dad?
My friend Sarah suggested
we should meet in the wine bar of a hotel next to the
International Spy museum. She had been in New York for
business that day, but would fly back in with enough time
to take a cab downtown to meet me. In the afternoon, Stuart
and I took the kids to the museum, and they ran around
it pretending to be spies.
"Do you want to be a spy when you grow up boys?" Stuart
"Nope, I still want to be a luge man," said Matthew firmly.
"And I want to go to playgroup everyday," said Cameron.
Fair enough. When we came out of the museum it was raining
and Stuart rushed the boys back to our hotel. I walked
the few hundred yards to the meeting place with Sarah,
and got soaked on the way. My hair, bleached from the
sun, stripped by the sea, and now soggy from the rain,
hung about my shoulders. I was wearing one of my three
remaining sets of clothes, a Samoan lavalava held up by
two safety pins I'd pinched from our first aid kit, a
fraying T shirt with a coffee stain, and my obligatory
travellers sandals. I looked like a reject from University
Challenge. It was a posh hotel and the wine bar resembled
the type I used to drink in when I worked in London and
was part of a trendier crowd. But this time I was on my
own. As I walked into the bar, only the waitress glanced
in my direction. Everyone else was quaffing wine and martinis
and eating ridiculously small portions of pesto bread
and canapés, dressed in business clothes or evening wear.
I ordered a drink at the bar and took it out into the
hotel foyer, sitting myself on a leather sofa that just
about swallowed me up. I pulled out a tour guide of Washington
and immersed myself in it, learning some of the history
of American politics. Two hours later it became apparent
that Sarah wasn't going to show, so I decided to go and
see the White House for myself.
Cameron chills out in this
global centre of power
It was a long walk
for a pregnant woman in a lavalava. I hobbled down fourteenth
street and waited impatiently for the lights to change.
No jaywalking allowed. When I got to my destination I
was as underwhelmed as Stuart had been. There was no presidential
cavalcade leaving the building, no film crews, no visiting
presidents lining up for a photocall, not even a single
coach of Japanese tourists. Just a few overweight Americans
talking into their cell phones, "Hey there, you'll never
guess what, I'm talking to you from outside the White
House." So what. The leaves blew off the trees and down
the pedestrian walkway. A cyclist flew by, the wind at
her back, and a few policemen stood around chatting. The
White House was…well a big white house.
Back at the hotel,
Sarah had left a message apologising for her no-show.
Bad weather had grounded her flight from New York and
she would have to stay there for the night. I threw myself
on the bed and reached for the TV remote; a double episode
of The West Wing was about to start. Changing into some
track suit bottoms, I wolfed down the remaining cheese
and crackers, and watched TV into the early hours of the
morning, absorbing American History in the making, fascinated
by the complicated goings on in the corridors of global
power. This action packed, fast talking, virtual Washington
was far more exciting than the real thing.