Rather than subject ourselves to airline security for the short hop to Washington, we’d booked on a train from New York. But Amtrak runs trains that don’t carry luggage, and that was the only one with available seats in our time frame, so we had to send our suitcases on an earlier train. They would be waiting when we arrived. We checked out of our hotel and trundled our suitcases over the footpaths to the railway station. There’s nothing like the stubby little wheels on a suitcase to highlight every crack, every broken slab, and every bit of garbage on the way. It was a lot harder than walking unimpeded. There was no way we were going to manhandle those bags down the stairs into the subway. There had to be a lift, which we found in due course. We checked the bags and waited for our train, watching the busyness that is the subway while we waited.
Pete and I boarded and went off searching for our seats which were printed on the tickets. We were having trouble working out the numbering system when I gentleman already seated took pity on us. “I’ve been catching this train for years,” he said. “Never has been any seat allocation.”
Well, that made it simpler. We picked a row and sat. When we’d booked in Australia we had picked a service which offered catering. That turned out to be a cup of coffee and a sandwich. Gee, thanks.
The train travels through a tunnel to get off the island, then heads south through New Jersey to Philadelphia, then Washington. We didn’t take pictures but our impressions were of rusting, abandoned factories, ramshackle neighbourhoods, crumbling infrastructure. Despair was almost palpable, an invisible miasma. It was more the sort of vista we might have expected in a third world country. Outside the city the train rolled through parkland with housing estates further from the tracks, more the sort of thing we’d expect from America.
After a brief stop at Philadelphia, the train went on to Washington, arriving early afternoon.But the excitement wasn’t over. For some reason the train couldn’t pull in to the station so we had to climb down and walk along the track, then climb up several flights of steps to get into the station proper. The third world analogy continues :).
In contrast the railway station (like many around the world) is magnificent, built of white stone with domes and arches. Our first job was to get hold of our luggage. We could see it, locked away in an area closed off with a locked gate. Getting hold of somebody to get it out for us took a while, but it did happen. Then we joined the end of the queue waiting for a taxi. That took a while, too.
We’d opted for a serviced apartment for our stay in the city, a place within walking distance of the museum precinct. Pete had booked and paid before we left Australia, so it was a bit disconcerting when the clerk told us we didn’t have a booking. The place was busy, with a lot of people wearing kippahs standing in the foyer. They were attending a Jewish-American event in the nearby convention centre and I expect our reservation got lost in the noise. Pete handed over his printed copy of our paid-for booking and eventually they found us an apartment. It was nice to have some room to spread out.
Then we needed to get some supplies so we could eat in. That would mean a supermarket. The clerk pointed us to a nearby shop, but that was just a convenience store, so we asked the customers and people passing in the street. After a few false starts we found a local who directed us to a real supermarket a few blocks away. We like going to stores in foreign (to us) places. It gives a feel for the ordinary lives of people who actually live here. A lot of the goods were just like home – but some weren’t. They had a great deli section. We stocked up with necessities and went to the checkout where the clerk asked us if we had a loyalty card. “no,” we said, “we’re only going to be here for a few days.”
“It’s cheaper if you’ve got one.” The girl pulled out a form for us, which we filled out.
It was really nice of her. In fact, most Americans we encountered were very nice, regardless of colour. On another occasion we asked a fellow where we could find a liquor store. He stopped, pulled out his cell phone and had a look for us online. It wasn’t easy, but he willingly gave us a good ten minutes of his time trying to help a couple of elderly tourists find a bottle of Scotch.
One thing we noticed about the neighbourhood where we stayed was the number of seemingly empty, abandoned buildings. Weird.
We walked back to the hotel and rustled up a gourmet meal of spag boll and a salad. Then we headed off for a look around. It being a Sunday, the roads were pretty empty. In many respects the city reminded me of Australia’s capital, Canberra. Or maybe any city that was created to BE a capital. The architecture is very formal, with buildings dressed to impress. The feel is neo-classical with arches, domes, pillars, and formal statues. Not that Canberra has that sort of architecture – more that it’s as if it’s for show, to make an impression.
Tomorrow we’d be off to the Smithsonian. I could hardly wait.