I’ve never much understood the quick hit, city-to-city-to-city method of travel. In a couple of days you can only get the barest scrape of a surface, if that. Paris, at its best, is an old, vibrant town, where ‘every street, every boulevard, is its own special art form’, as Woody Allan put it.
Yet, spend only a few days there, among the crowds, expensive tourist restaurants, street sellers and cons, it can just as easily seem like Disneyland for adults.
New York, is much the same. On first glance it might appear filthy, chaotic, deformed. Too overwhelming to take in.
When I arrived in DC, my first view was of a cold and empty place. Memories of those first few weeks are caked in a grey, jet-lagged fog. But when winter breaks, it does so almost instantaneously. A green, balmy city pops up by mid March, a technicolor wash. And I started to see the different characters of DuPont and Georgetown, of Adams Morgan and Shaw. If your focus is the monuments and the Capitol, you’ll probably miss the African restaurants, the books shops, the parks and creeks, the happy hours and brunches.
At the same time, as you get a feel for the details, you get a better sense of the differences from your home town. It’s inevitable to compare, impossible not to. There are just some things about my home, Melbourne, Australia that just can’t be replicated in DC.
For one, much as Washington might aspire to a fertile café culture, there are few, if any cities in the world that can compete with Melbourne. Back home, there is fantastic coffee, literally everywhere. In alleys and laneways, parks and boulevards, almost every nook and cranny of the city is jammed with the smell of fresh beans and tattooed baristas. This obsession stretches to the suburban main streets, even to country towns surrounding the city. And the cafes are rarely ‘coffee shops’ that do coffee and maybe a bagel if you’re lucky, like you’ll find often here in the states. There’s nothing like rolling out of bed on a Saturday morning for a flat white and a plate of poached eggs on avocado toast (and don’t get me started on American bread).
And on the subject of purchasing food, is there a country with a more convoluted system of paying for meals and drinks than this one? Sometimes sorting the bill takes longer than meal itself. Seriously America, it’s pretty simple, include the tax in the listed price and get some decent minimum wage laws so we don’t have to worry about this tipping business. And while I’m at it, I’ll never miss an opportunity to talk up the many virtues of plastic currency.
Washington has a good sporting year, with Capitals and Wizards having great seasons, and the Nationals putting together a solid first part of the baseball seasons. Yet, as a city of expats, there is certain lack of passion for the DC sporting teams. The same cannot be said of Melbourne. Outsiders may not know it, but Melbourne is actually something of a sporting Mecca. Not only do we have nine Australian rules football teams, which sometimes attract attendances of over 90,000 people, we also have host a swathe of internationally renowned events. The Australian Open is one of only four tennis Grand Slam tournaments. The Melbourne Cup is a horse race so large that it has its own public holiday and attracts entrants from all across world. The Rip Curl Pro at Bells Beach is one of world’s most famous surfing events. The Boxing Day Cricket test can attract up more than 250,000 people over five days. We even have a Formula One Grand Prix.
Most starkly for, I feel like Melbourne is a diverse but also well integrated city. There are few of the racial and social disparities that might shock visitors to Washington. Homelessness, while still a problem in Melbourme, occurs at nothing like the scale you find here. Nor is there the stark racial division between those working in office jobs and in the service sector. I don’t think I’ll ever get over being in a shop or restaurant where essentially all customers are white, while all employees are black.
Finally, and as stereotypically Australian as this might be, I really miss the beach. Imagine how nice it would be if you could cool off on one of those muggy DC afternoons with a quick trip down to the beach?
Having said all of this, Washington DC has some incredibly attractive aspects. For one, it is a truly international city. There are people living and working here from all corners. It gives the city a flavour that you would be unlikely to find in other parts of the U.S. or even many parts of the world.
Not only are they far flung, they often come to work in think tanks, universities or embassies. This is a smart city, and one that is passionate about ideas. It isn’t a closed circle either. It’s incredibly easy to roll into a talk at Brookings or Heritage, to drop into a Congressman’s office or to visit an embassy.
One potentially underrated aspect of DC is the depth of its cultural. Tucked up among the vast federal departments are countless museums and galleries, many of which are free. Whatever your fancy, these institutions offer unparalleled views into the worlds of history, art and science.
And yet, Washington retains a comfortable, almost small town feel, especially compared to larger cities in the states. It is easily walkable, the height restriction on downtown buildings removes the glassy claustrophobia that tends to encase larger cities.
Europeans might disagree, but a valuable aspect for me, is the ease of travel to other cities from. Unless you fly, it is simply not possible to head up to Sydney or Adelaide for the weekend from Melbourne, unless you want to spend 20 hours of it in a car. Don’t even talk to me about trying to get anywhere interesting on a bus from Canberra.
From DC it’s incredibly easy to head up to New York, Philadelphia or Baltimore, not to mention many of the other interesting places in Virginia or Maryland. The key sites of America’s founding, and its Civil War, are often only a short trip away.
Finally, Washington is now a very active and youthful city. Not only are there thousands of young staffers on the hill, in the public sector and a constant flow of interns, there are nineteen universities or colleges in the district. From all reports DC is now fitter, younger and more exciting than it has ever been.
It’s not home, but it sure has been a nice place to spend some time.