The West Wing
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.
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 asked them.
“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.
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.