Washington DC 2011

Travelled to Heathrow Friday, flew Club World to Washington Dulles. Wow, wow, personal cubicle with seat/bed and wonderful service:- awesome. We booked economy and then blew all of Ann’s BA miles accumulated over the years to upgrade to Club World. Spoilt me forever, how could I fly long haul in a normal seat now? Well, given the price I’ll have to somehow!

Arrived and after the usual interminable wait for US Immigration (hey we only need 2 people working, just wait), travelled to Hamilton (Crowne Plaza) hotel on 14th and K and crashed out and slept our way thru’ the time difference quite well. Large room, nicely appointed but basic amenities all 1960s in origin, e.g. air con, bath, shower. Obviously very modern furniture, beds, carpets etc., but like in many US cities they’re slightly behind the current level of EU hotels which have been built or refurbished more recently. (I exclude London and Paris which are also often also a little tired)

On Saturday got up. Gosh it’s cold, very cold, around -6 deg Celcius, with wind chill coming in around -12 C. But it’s got space, the blocks are small, the streets are very very wide, but also there is a huge expanse of open parkland in the centre of the city next to the Potomac river. This is the National Mall and full of museums (and gosh there’s a lot of really impressive Smithsonian museums), memorials and at one end Capitol Hill and the White House off to one side. As we find the double decker bus we usually use the acquaint ourselves with cities we realise that even with thermal underwear we are not really equipped for the cold and wind. The bus is not heated and so we freeze whether on the bus or on the ground. [We therefore suggest that if you come here that you consider Tourmobile tours which have heated buses, or Gray Line or the Trolley bus tours, the converted London double deckers don’t work in this weather.]

As we tour I begin to understand this crucial capitol of the USA, of the walkable distances between the White House (which is charming and understated), the different federal buildings, Congress and also the cultural highpoints and symbols of the development of this young nation. We get out and visit the Jefferson Memorial, my favourite founding father, the Lincoln Memorial, the Great Emacipator, the Korean, and WW2 memorial. Ann is so cold that she gets a very bad headache and we retire hurt but having seen a lot.

On Sunday we have a great run of synchronicity. We walk to the bus stop near the White House and the correct route bus arrives. We arrive at the Arlington National Cemetery, and immediately board a Tourmobile bus that take around the cemetery and drops us at the Kennedy graves, the Tomb of the Unknowns, and back at the Visitors Centre just in time to immediately board our (cold) bus and move onto the shopping centre at Pentagon City, having just passed the Pentagon. I didn’t realise that the Pentagon is just over the river from DC, the White House and Capitol Hill are a heart beat away from there by plane.. suddenly I realise just how shocked the government in DC must have been on 9/11.. the plan that hit the Pentagon was seconds from taking out the legislature or executive of the USA. New York was the shocker but the hit in DC must have really been as shocking in implication for the country. My understanding of Virginia, Maryland and DC geography has improved in leaps and bounds and the cultural impact of that as well.

Shopping was fun, but the mall was smaller than Meadowhall in Sheffield or the Metro Centre in Tyne and Wear or Brent Cross in London. Again the impression I got was how much Europe has caught up with the USA in much that we view as essentially North American. We take the Metro Rail back to the hotel, and here the USA has leapfrogged the UK, having built this underground light rail so much later than ours it’s head and shoulders above London or Paris, with fast wide trains running with a pace as good as the U-Bahns and S-Bahns in Germany. Drivers need to go easy on the brakes tho’, they’ll be breaking some elderly bones if they keep jolting the trains as they decelerate. Noticeably the fare structure is unnecessarily complex, but most US government systems and tariffs seem to be so. It’s a very good metro light rail system tho’

Monday I turn up at the Transportation Research Board nice and early using the Metro Rail. It’s different than the events I am used to. It’s bigger, and very disciplined with regard to start times, speaker durations and general event etiquette. It’s also hands off with regard to food, drink, wifi, etc. Essentially if you want a drink you buy it, if you want to eat you can buy a sandwich or pay for a full meal, but it’s down to you. There is no conference organised wifi, you can use the hotel wireless in the lobby for free (as can anyone.. it’s quite poor) or if you have a room then you can use the wireless in the event rooms. It’s typical of the hands off, make your own choices mindset that applies here. I don’t mind, but it is slightly impersonal and unwelcoming, and I know it’d go down like a lead balloon at the events I organise in the EU…

The talks and presentations are good, my interest rises, I meet some old friends and colleagues (Laetitia D, Robert G, Mike B etc.). I decide that Tuesday will be a full day and go back the hotel and go out for a great meal on the Waterfront where the cold is so sharp that the fountains have become giant slushie machines full of ice mountains and yet still pumping more water around to freeze some more. I wish I understood thermodynamics, does a spray make the water freeze faster? The food is good, I have a steak so good that I suspect that I’ll have to have another before I go home.

Tuesday. Up early since I have a full schedule of sessions to attend. Starts well with a session that consists of US and international people reviewing the EU freight policies. Eerie feeling as you hear how others see us. Robert Govaers and I compare notes about how the US and EU differ, both charmed and puzzled alternately. I meet my friend Roberta W whose husband has recently passed on, she’s very upbeat and busy, but I feel deeply sad.

Washington, D.C. Flickr Set

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