September 22nd, 2010

Greg and Georgie go to Washington, Day 3:

Greg and Georgie go to Washington, Day 3: No White House, No National Portrait Gallery; No Smithsonian Store. National Botanical Garden, Capitol.

Friday dawned clear and beautiful, but the morning was one of disappointments. Our appointed time for the White House tour was 11:00 AM, so we took our time getting started in the morning and presented ourselves promptly at the recommended hour of 10:30, only to be told that all tours had been canceled for the day as about 10:00AM. As it appeared from a reporter who wandered into the visitor’s entrance while we were there, a Presidential press conference was imminent, and, apparently, when such events are on, tours are canceled so that security isn’t overloaded trying to keep track of both visitors and press. We left, wondering what sort of crisis was in progress, and were quite a bit disappointed to later find that this was a “routine” press conference (although the first one since May). We decided to walk the eight blocks over to the National Portrait Gallery, which was on our list of things to see, and got there by 10:45. However, unlike every other Smithsonian museum, this one doesn’t open until 11:30AM instead of 10:00AM!  We didn’t feel like hanging around in the street for forty-five minutes, and so hopped the Metro back to our hotel to pick up cameras (not permitted in the White House) and start the day over.  

We still weren’t quite done with disappointments, however. The local guide had listed a Smithsonian Store at 6th Street south of the Mall, but it is evidently no longer there (oh, well—the various individual gift shops were dangerous enough--). We had an appointment for our Capitol tour at 2:40PM and so had time to kill and did so pleasantly at the National Botanical Garden and Conservatory, which was on our way to the Capitol building.  The Conservatory is an old-style glass pavilion, subdivided into a main “jungle” room, and a number of smaller indoor and outdoor habitats. There was an indoor orchid room which was quite beautiful and interesting. The large outdoor garden featured native plants of the southeastern USA, plus a nice rose garden, much of which was still in bloom.  

Getting up to the Capitol visitor’s entrance was rather a walk, since it is on the far side and uphill from the Mall, so, if you are coming from that direction (as I expect many are) you have to walk all the way around the sprawling building to find the entrance to the underground visitor’s center.

Once you go through the very thorough security check, you are admitted into an area with restrooms, gift shops, check-in, and staging area ornamented with statutes.  You are advised to have left an hour just to get into the building under normal circumstances, but we had a bit of luck in that this was a very slow day for tourists, so we just walked right in. The volunteer recommended that, since there was no waiting, we could go through earlier than our tickets indicated, which was confirmed by the entrance staff—another example of everyone we met being helpful and friendly.

 The tour starts off with a short movie about the history of the building and the country, which was quite nice. Then, you get marshaled into groups and assigned a docent. The docents have transmitter microphones and the visitors are offered headsets so you can hear them in the rather echoey spaces without either them having to yell or several groups interfering with one another. We generally hate headsets, and would rather murmur to one another about what we see, so passed on the headsets, and didn’t miss much from what we did hear. The tour covered the very impressive and beautiful Rotonda, the Hall of Statues, the original Supreme Court chambers *, and a space called “Washington’s crypt” which is a sort of undercroft of the Rotonda, and not the first President’s burial place. The regular tour does not include the House or Senate galleries, which you now need special permission for, so we didn’t see those. (* The old Supreme Court chambers are a dark and windowless space in the bowels of the building, so it’s no wonder they eventually got their own building--.)  

By this time, we were feeling rather footsore, so we skipped the other historical exhibits off the visitor’s center, checked the gift shop (very uninspired compared with the Smithsonian shops) and went out to make note of the location of the Library of Congress, which was on our list for the following day. Again, we hopped on the nearby Metro stop to go back to the hotel and then out to dinner.

This evening, we went to the Meiwan Chinese restaurant, just down the street and next door to Grillfish. Food was very tasty and good, although it seemed to take a bit longer to get served than most Chinese places we have been. We had an appetizer of very nice “pot stickers” followed by twice-cooked duck for me and an unbuttered sesame chicken for Georgie. Both dishes were very good, although the duck was surprisingly spicy.

After that, we went back to the hotel and put our feet up with our books.  We toyed with the notion of going out for a movie, but checked local listings and found nothing playing we cared about, so made an early night of it.


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Greg and Georgie go to Washington: Day 4:

Greg and Georgie go to Washington: Day 4: Library of Congress, National Art Gallery, Washington National Opera.

We got to the Library of Congress and got on to the first tour of the day, again thanks to helpful volunteers and staff. The Library was a must since, as Georgie put it, it’s one of her Holy places. The main, or Jefferson, building, is astonishing. Not only is it an architecturally handsome Beaux Arts structure, the public spaces are intensely decorated with mosaics and paintings. Exhibits include a Gutenberg Bible, Thomas Jefferson’s library collection, and a current exhibit of early maps of America. We had a very enthusiastic and knowledgeable docent, who was a former member of the Library staff, and made her love for the place evident. The Library has an interesting shop, which included both books (imagine that--) and chocolate, so we bought some of each.

The National Art Gallery is a huge, multi-building complex on the Mall, which took up our Saturday afternoon. We got a light lunch in their Concourse cafeteria, and then started at the annex building, which involved taking an underground slidewalk which is wrapped around by what must be the world’s largest “blinky,” an installation of chrome and white lights which coruscate and chase in ever-changing patterns and gives a very science-fictional effect. In the annex space, we looked at an exhibit of prints by Eduard Munch (he of “The Scream” fame) and found them very interesting, not least for his variations on each print. We were interested to see signs for a show of Archimboldo, the vegetable portrait artist, but that exhibit was not yet open. Instead, we went back to the main building and toured galleries of 18th Century and earlier French, Spanish, and English painters, then getting into Americans as well. While not as crammed as some European galleries, such as the Kunstmuseum in Vienna, the National Gallery collection is truly impressive and second to none. In a few hours, we saw works by Goya, Fragonard, , Boucher, Vernet, David, Ingres, Turner, Constable, Gainesboro, Reynolds, Winslow Homer, Whistler, Sargent, Wyeth, Hopper, Tiepolo, Caneletto, Durer, Holblein, Velasquez, and Van Dyck.

There was much more, but that’s what we got through before running out of energy and time, since we had tickets for the Washington National Opera that evening.
Besides, we needed time to check out the Gallery shop, which proved to be the most costly one we visited—lots of VERY nice things there--.

We went back to the hotel and dropped off things like cameras we would not need later, and went out to a local restaurant/bakery called Bread and Chocolate for dinner. They have an interesting light meal menu, and Georgie had a very nice chicken pot pie, and I tried the moussaka. The owners of the chain are of Greek ancestry, so I was pleased to find the moussaka was made authentically with eggplant, instead of the potato you get in less adventurous restaurants. It was very good, and accompanied with a nice salad, which was also garnished with pickles, in this case sweet gherkins. (Must be a current fad in the D.C. area--).

A shuttle bus ran from the nearby Metro stop to Kennedy Center, and we caught one and got to the Center in good time. Although it contains a number of halls (rather like the Marcus performing arts center here in Milwaukee) the Opera House is the central and largest venue there. The auditorium itself is quite plain in decoration, save for a very pretty chandelier, and is actually a bit smaller than Uihline Hall, so, although we were in the balcony we had quite good sight lines.
We thought that the opera, Verdi’s Ballo in Maschera, was quite well sung, and nicely supported by the orchestra, although the Washington Post reviewer ( was quite a bit more harsh. One thing that we were in agreement on was that the costuming was drab and ugly. The principals were the only ones with any color in their outfits, and the climactic “masked ball” scene, which ought to be a riot of color, had all the chorus wearing identical grim gray outfits, which just did NOT work. The minimalist set was somewhat more effective, with the main platform dividing and being used in some clever fashions. As for singing, Salvatore Licitra in the role of King Gustavo had a big tenor voice that easily filled the hall after a few bobbles at the start. (We think there ought to be a rule saying tenors have to warm up ten minutes more than they think they need--.) Tamara Wilson was a competent Amelia whose voice was a match for Licitra’s. Micaëla Oeste was athletic and charming in the “breeches” role of Oscar, and Elena Manistina was good and witchy as Ulrica the fortune-teller.

Placido Domingo is the director of the Washington National Opera, and it was a bit of a treat to see the famous tenor in person, even if he was only introducing the show.

The shuttle was quite popular, and we stood in line to catch the second one (surprising how many people you can cram on one of those mini-buses) and were back at our hotel in good time.

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Greg and Georgie Go To Washington: Day 5, Cirque de Soleil, OVO

We enjoy Cirque de Soleil, and so when I saw that they were opening their show “OVO” in the Washington area the weekend we were there, I ordered tickets. (We were quite the “first nighters”—Saturday had been the opening night of “Ballo” and of the National Opera season, as well.) We got tickets for the Sunday matinee, which gave us plenty of time to get out to the site, National Harbor, which is actually in Maryland south of the District of Columbia.

On Sunday, we wanted a nicer breakfast than the continental one that the hotel provided, and so went back to Bread and Chocolate. I had cinnamon challah French toast, which was delicious, and Georgie had the ‘very berry’ French toast, which came with fruit sauce. (The Best Western offered cereal, juice, tea or coffee, fruit, bagels, sweet rolls, donuts, toaster waffles, hard boiled eggs, biscuits, and what appeared to be “sausage gravy.” I sampled some of the latter, which tastes (and looks) like warm wallpaper paste with brown bits in it. It’s loathsome.)

Getting to the Cirque venue was a bit of an adventure as it involved taking the Metro all the way to the end of its southernmost line, and then catching a bus to National Harbor, which is a newish marina/condo/hotel/ shopping development. According to the signs at the Metro station, busses were supposed to run every half hour, but, after 40 minutes with no bus, we caught a cab from the nearby stand. The Plateau, where the circus was set up, is right near the highway and the blue and yellow stripes of the big top (the “Grand Chapiteau”) were easily visible. We had the cab drop us off at a shuttle stop, and took that the rest of the way up to the circus tents.

The Cirque du Soleil is nothing if not organized for marketing, and had an extensive refreshment/gift shop setup in place, where we bought a souvenir program. I wasn’t shocked to be charged six dollars for a bottle of water, but was very pleasantly surprised to find that it came in a reusable stainless steel bottle with the Cirque logo.

The theme of the OVO production is ‘the world of insects’, so music and costumes were done with insect styles in mind, which we found very creative and interesting. Like all Cirque shows, there are no animal acts, so the performances run to feats of strength, balance, juggling, acrobatics, and clowning, but that is not a limitation, as they expand the limits of what human beings can do. They also bring great innovation to their art. One would have thought that not much new could be done with the venerable trampoline act, for example, but it becomes a new thing when you add new high-tech materials and a climbing wall to bounce off, cling onto, and clamber across, not to mention the Cirque’s trademark precision and choreography. The same can be said for the fixed trapeze act, the slack wire act, and the foot juggling, wherein the jugglers end up juggling one another.

(One wonders how they put these shows together. With their numerous shows, Cirque de Soleil must be the largest employer of circus performers in the world, and presumably can have their pick of performers, but I envisage things like this--.

PHONE: Ring, ring!
M. Le Jongleur: Hallo!
Cirque: Hello, Monsieur Le Jongleur, this is Cirque de Soleil calling. We’d like you to be in our new show.
M. Le Jongleur: Cette marvellieuse! I am very interested.
Cirque: Of course, you know, in our productions, you would have to spot and shift props for the other performers.
M. Le Jongleur: Oui, that is no problem.
Cirque: And everyone has to dance (more or less).
M. Le Jongleur: Oh, I can dance (more or less).
Cirque: And for this show, you will have to wear a bug suit.
M. Le Jongleur: ---
Cirque: Hallo? )

The show opens with the stage mostly filled by a huge luminous egg, which various members of the cast crawl around and seem to worship. Getting this offstage so that the show can commence is one of the niftiest effects of the program. We are then introduced to the clowns who act in the place of the conventional ringmaster, and the show is on. Most of the performers have specific, if fanciful, insect denominations: the foot jugglers are “ants”, the trapeze artists “fleas”, and the trampoline bouncers “crickets” and so on, but the head clown resembles nothing so much as the “highly magnified woggle-bug” from L. Frank Baum and does not have a classification.

A blue bug, the “stranger” enters, carrying another egg as large as he is, which pretty speedily gets stolen from him and becomes a Looney Toon style object of desire, changing hands several times as a running gag throughout the performance. All of the acts were astonishing and beautiful, although this show is a bit smaller scaled and not as jaw-dropping as some we have seen. The second act clowning interval involving audience members was cute and did not run over long.

After the show, we made shuttle, bus, and Metro connections back into town with no problems. We were bemused to note, going and coming, the presence of a number of “Tea Partiers” going to and coming from a 9/12 tax protest rally on the Mall. (The Mall had evidently been reserved in advance for 9/11 for a National Black Women’s Family Reunion, which seemed like a very nice event from what we saw of it.) From what I was able to observe, the average attendee for the tax protest was white, over 50 if not over 60, reasonably well off, and, interestingly, in good health. Given the age demographic, I would have expected to see at least a few canes, walkers, or wheelchairs, but I saw none. Which leads me to believe that the average tax protester IS actually sufficiently fortunately situated that taxes can actually be their main worry—as opposed to poverty, unemployment, or health care, which have a lot more moment for a lot more people. I suppose their concerns are real to them, but I don’t expect a majority of Americans share those particular priorities. They all seemed like nice enough people, despite being festooned with dissatisfied slogans, but I do believe that most people are basically decent (and besides, we didn't try to talk politics with any of them--).

We got dinner at a hole-in-the-wall “kabob shop” near the hotel, which was good, fast, cheap, and authentically spiced. After that, we went back to our hotel, got most of our packing done, and settled in to watch “Masterpiece Mystery” before going to bed.

Our flight back to Milwaukee Monday morning was at the civilized hour of 11:00AM, and we had no problems getting to the airport and had a decent flight home, made better by the fact that this one actually had the Midwest chocolate chip cookies.

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Georgie and Greg go to Washington: Georgie's comments, part 1

This year Greg and I are going on a real get-away vacation, as opposed to a tear-out-the-upstairs -hall-carpeting sort of "vacation." We both need a break. We're spending 6 days in Washington DC. to do all the Smithsonian Museums. DC is expensive, they say, but the national museums at least are FREE.
Okay, we went and are back, and here's part of our report. Greg, the faster typist, is giving the play-by-play, so I'll do color; interleaved, as it were.
I hate airplanes, but as cold, noisy, nervous-making procedures go, it was a decent flight. I was amused to note that Milwaukee's Mitchell Airport has a section labeled "Recombobulation Area" where you can put your shoes back on and return all the stuff to your pockets after having been discombobulated by the check-in.

There's something unreal about flying, for me. I couldn't quite believe we reached the East Coast in about the time it takes us to drive to Madison! As the plane banked for descent, it was a sort of shock to see the real, actual Jefferson memorial and Washington monument below us.

The hotel was pleasant and comfortable, and pretty quiet, given that it was sandwiched between two student resident halls. The elevators, however, recognized us as con-going fans, and behaved accordingly. The Washington Post was provided free at the included hotel breakfast. Do you realize that Mark Trail and Blondie are still published?! They must have included these ancient chestnuts so the late Senator Byrd would have something familiar to read with his coffee.
Greg tried the biscuit and sausage gravy at the breakfast buffet and found it disgusting.

Free tip: if you put your hotel key card in your purse and send it through the scanner at the Capitol, it won't work any more.

The old Smithsonian Red Castle had an interesting display of former Sec. of State and ambassador Madelein Albright's decorative pins. Collected over a lifetime, she began using them as symbolic signals of her position and general state of mind after the Hussein -supporting Iraqi press castigated her as a "consummate serpent." At her next meeting, she wore a jeweled snake pin proudly. After that, the U.S. press corps and politicos craned to see her lapel for an inside policy message. Fortunately, she's a broad-shouldered woman of substantial bosom, because some of those pins were really sizable! It was fun to see the assortment of animals, symbols and oddities, and imagine what message she might have sent with them.

I liked the Natural History Museum, even though there are others more au courant. I'm a big fan of the Burgess Shale collection: very early - and extremely weird - small ocean creatures of the early Devonian, most of whom left no extant progeny. They look like the assemblage of a 3 year old child given tinker toys: too many legs, impracticably attached; a tripartite axis, and so on. There were little models as well. I was thrilled.
Do you realize the ancient, currently living coelacanth fish has a tail, 5 fins and 2 fleshy vertical lobe (almost leg) fins?

The Freer gallery had great bronzes, like the heroic guardians of the 4 directions, each shown energetically stomping really cool demons with yellow glass eyes. And an elephant/lion chimaera, and a Hindu god with his breechcloth painted in a fine red floral chintz pattern.(All about the 14th c.) My favorite drawing was an exquisite brush painting of Bodhiharma (he brought Buddhism from India to China) in subtle flowing grays and striking blacks.

The Air/Space Museum was great. The German B2 rocket was there: iconic prototype of the Hugo award. The Wrights' first flier was reproduced, mostly canvas and bicycle wire and chain gearing. The lunar lander is impressive in photos, but close up looks like something you could build yourself in your backyard, if you had an old 1960s furnace to start with. That's the insight I took from this: the aeronautic history of 3/4ths of the 20th century was kluged by inspired amateurs.

There was a poignant, naive little silent film romance from 1910 that tried to imagined what an air war could be. It was meant to be cautionary, but they were innocents in those days...

The American History museum seemed merely a popular presentation of popular culture, but I was impressed at the vast size of the original star spangled banner, - done in light weight wool with cotton stars. The collection of First Ladies' inaugural gowns was interesting. Grace Coolidge was evidently a lot hotter than I suspected, to judge from her black and metallic bronze flapper style gown. Frances Harding was another fashionable sophisticate. I found I liked the gowns of a number of ladies whose politics I didn't care for, proving that aesthetic taste isn't interchangeable with political or social principles. I guess.

The Spy museum was worth the money and fun.

DC is a sizable city, but it looms small because there are no skyscrapers in the government neighborhood: vast buildings seem to go on for blocks, but not up. It is not big on public signage, you are supposed to be a local who knows where things are and what to look for. If the voters ever managed to elect an entire congress of newcomers, as some wish could happen, I am convinced that nothing would get done for at least four years, because the out-of-towners would take that long to catch on. And when they did, they'd be insiders by then, anyway.

Watching the populace reminded me of a theory I have that cities with a convenient public transport system have less obesity. It might be due to the fact that we were based in a college neighborhood with a younger population, but we went other places too, and even the more mature folks weren't especially overweight. As opposed to Milwaukee...

I think if you can walk 4 blocks to a Metro station, you are more likely to walk more often to more places, setting down a useful habit of exercise. In Milwaukee, most people don't go anywhere they can't drive right up to.

Or maybe something else is operating. But the people certainly like to eat, here. Still, the only McDonalds we saw was in the Air/Space museum food court...

Of course, the makeup of the population changed on the weekend, as Tea Party tax protesters showed up from all over the country. You can't tell much about a movement's
principles just from their signs, but I have to say I think there is more to "Tyranny" than not being given your way... And when someone says "I want my country back", I long to ask them, "What do you plan to do with it? Will you share it with me? Even when I disagree with you?" I had the chance, but I don't do confrontational politics at breakfast with nice people, it gives me indigestion all day.

Cities have their own signature pace. New Orleans (before Katrina) was a relaxed saunter. In New York City, people hustle along as though driven by some great urgency, whether inner or outer. In DC, people didn't hurry, but moved briskly and purposefully, as though they had something important to do... presently.

Anyway, next time, if you are interested, I'll tell you about the Capitol tour, the National Conservatory, the splendid Jefferson building of the Library of Congress, the National Gallery, the Washington Opera, and finding our way out (way out) to Cirque du Soleil's new touring production OVO.

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