Day 7 – DC & the Capitol Ltd

Firstly an apology that this post is almost 24 hours late – lack of wifi on the overnight train is to blame although I did actually write this on the train last night.

Quotes of the day:

‘It’s a bad sign that I’ve started singing the Star-Spangled Banner’ – Becca

‘I need some insulin’ – Mike

‘Good evening gentlemen’ – the welcome from our waitress in the dining car

‘Dining is communal. You will make a friend’ – Amtrak dining car announcement

 

So, another sunny day in Washington DC and unfortunately our last. We both feel like we could spend another week here. We’ve really loved it!

After another American breakfast (this time at Kramer Books in the Dupont Circle area – another of Afshin’s recommendations) we went to the Phillips Art Collection on 12th Street. This was a great little gallery with art from the impressionists onwards, including many works by Picasso, Cezanne, Klee, Kandinsky etc.

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We returned to our apartment to get ourselves prepared for our first overnight train from Washington DC to Chicago. We had one last binge on milkshakes for lunch from Good Stuff Eatery near the Capitol building before rolling to Union Station.

Union Station is a really impressive building. When it was opened in 1908 it was the biggest railway station in the world.

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Taking a long-distance Amtrak train is a lot like taking a plane (obviously without the flying) and quite different from the many European trains we’ve taken in the past. You have the option of checking your baggage into a baggage car so you don’t need to worry about it on the journey. Also you wait in a lounge before going through a boarding gate.

The train itself is huge. It consists of around 10-12 carriages and all, except the baggage car, are double-deckers. Our ‘superliner roomette’ is on the top floor of one of the sleeper carriages. The train has a dining car, a café car with a sightseeing lounge on the top (it has huge windows from floor to ceiling), and a cinema. Unfortunately it doesn’t have wifi, hence why this blog post is late going up. There were a lot of staff on the train. Each sleeping car has an attendant. Ours was called Larry – he was very friendly and we had many conversations during our journey about London, the American civil war etc. The lady running the café kiosk was particularly humorous – enticing us with various chocolate bars, confectionary and pizza types via the tannoy or singing ‘choo choo’ as she walks up and down the train.

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Larry came round to welcome us after we had settled into our compartment. A dining car attendant then came round to make our dinner reservation – meals and refreshments are included in the price of a sleeper car ticket. Dinner was a starter of salad and a roll, a choice of six main courses and a choice of four desserts. Meals are quite basic and clearly just reheated in a microwave, but sitting in the dining car is fun as everyone is seated with strangers. Conversation seemed to flow quite easily, although we weren’t allocated any friends this time around.

The other travellers were interesting – there were several Amish families and we probably brought the average age down by a good 20 years or so. The sleeper compartments were really small and you slept long-wise to the train (the opposite way to European sleepers). There were two seats facing one another which slid down to form the lower bunk. The upper bunk was pulled down from the wall.

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The route from DC to Chicago passes through the Civil War territory, including Harper’s Ferry and Martinsburg. The total journey takes 18 hours, covers 780 miles, enters another time zone (putting us another hour behind), and crosses 6 states – Maryland, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana and Illinois.

See you at the other end!

Bec x

Day 6 – DC

Quotes of the day – 

“News is what somebody, somewhere, wants to suppress.” Lord Northcliffe, British newspaper publisher, Newseum, DC 

“We’re 72% sure that you’ll love it 100% of the time.” Anchorman exhibit, Newseum, DC

“I asked you to take off your bag – what did you think I meant?” Security guard, Smithsonian Institute

“Some reporters said I don’t have vision – I don’t see that.” George H W Bush

So another day in a very friendly DC – our time here has passed so quickly. First a visit to the Newseum, dedicated to the history of news reporting and the principle of freedom of press. Highlights include the JFK exhibit, daily front page news headlines from around the world and a memorial to journalists killed in action.There is also a balcony at the top, with a great view of Capitol Hill. 

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One of the film pieces at the Newseum was about error in journalism – and the effect it has on individuals and organisations. On this theme I would like to apologise for an erratum on my previous post. Ben’s Chili Bowl produces outstanding food. My misspelling of bowl as bowel was a genuine error – and not sarcasm, a medical condition or a Freudian slip. Interestingly spices do have a peripheral neurological effect – there are unique receptors within the bowel which respond to spiced food… nuff said.

Our tour of American cuisine continued today, with a visit to Ollie’s Trolley on 12th and E street. The counter is like the set on Happy Days – the only missing ingredients are the guy in the leather jacket on the motorbike, and the canned laughter when the ketchup self combusts in the corner. Great food, and reasonable prices. 

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A visit to DC would not be complete without a walk past the White House and the memorials, which are very well kept and important symbols of past struggles. However like the Brits, the Americans are very good at snatching victory from the jaws of defeat – taking a highly dubious military campaign and turning it into a Princess Zelda adventure. On the journey around the national memorials it is difficult not to get swept along by the patriotism and moral gluttony. By the time we reached the Jefferson memorial I was ready to buy a ranch in Texas, join the Navy SEALS, invade Cuba and buy something from the gift shop. 

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After an afternoon outdoors, time to see the greatest memorial of them all – the John F Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. This magnificent building includes a concert hall and an opera house. The panoramic view from the terrace at night is quite something. We saw the NSO play Kodaly, Liszt and Prokofiev.

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And so our time at DC is drawing to a close – this city has welcomed us with open arms. The first President, Washington, took the oath in Manhattan, just off Wall Street – but it soon became clear that the Confederates would not tolerate New York as the Capital of the Union. A deal was struck to make Philadelphia the capital temporarily, whilst DC was made ready for government. From my limited experience of both –  New York feels like the capital but isn’t, whilst DC does not feel like the capital but is.

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Tomorrow we travel to Chicago.

Much love,

Mike x

Day 5 – Smithsonian, DC

A very cold bright day today. Luckily we spent most of the day inside exploring a couple of the Smithsonian museums. We took the metro down towards the Madison Drive area. For some reason the metro stinks of hot rubber, which is pretty gross. We arrived in town before the museums were open so we took a walk along to the Capitol Hill area.

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We decided to visit two of the museums – there are 19 of them in total – the first being the Air and Space Museum. The best exhibition in this museum was the one about the Wright brothers which includes the Wright Flyer – the plane they used in 1903 for their first flight.

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We had lunch at the American Indian museum – you could everything from alligator to buffalo. We stuck to safer options!

We spent the afternoon in the Natural History Museum (of Night at the Museum fame). There was one exhibition which particularly stood out called ‘Written in Bone’. This was about forensic archaeology and the discovery of the bodies in Jamestown (the first English settlement in America). Mike was particularly interested in this – there was a lot of pathology involved. We also held some creepy crawlies in the entomology gallery.

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We met a friend that we used to sing with in the evening for a ‘pub night’, which was really good. 

All in all we have been really impressed with DC so far. People have been so polite and friendly – it’s been great!

An early night needed tonight – planning another action-packed day tomorrow.

Becca x

 

 

Day 4 – NYC and DC

Quotes of the day –

“There is all sorts of stuff which shouldn’t be there – it’s really gross” (Dr Manny, health expert on Fox 5 news, discussing bacterial colonisation of toothbrushes)

“Not everyone is convinced that pets should wear perfume” (Exclusive News Report, Fox 5 news)

“We’re all in this together. Literally.” (Amtrak Advertisement Poster)

“Great news folks, we’re 10 minutes early!” (Martin the train guard as we pull out of Baltimore…. with an empty train)

So the time has come to begin the train journey west. But first the NY Museum of Natural History 3 blocks up from our apartment.

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(This skeleton turns out to be a T Rex…I had misidentified it as the remains of Dick Cheney)

Before leaving from Penn Station, a quick look at the High Line – a botanical garden project using an abandoned subway line in mid town Manhattan.

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Contrary to popular belief back home, Americans do travel by rail – and they travel in style. The regional service from NY to DC takes three and a half hours. The equivalent journey in the UK would cost at least twice as much, with a significantly lower standard of service – mainly as a result of piecemeal privatisation in the mid 1990s. Many thanks to Martin, the conductor and the train crew…the journey to DC was superb.

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DC has a very different feel to Manhattan – first impressions are of laid back friendliness. After negotiating the accessible bus network, time to follow in the footsteps of Barak Obama – and purchase a chili half smoke, from Ben’s chili bowl opposite U street metro station – awesome!

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Love to all,

Mike x

Day 3 – music, memorials and moggies

Another day of glorious weather in NYC and another action-packed day. We’ve walked so far in the last couple of days that I had to buy some new trainers from Macy’s this evening (what a shame!) as the soles have started to fall apart.

We started the day with another fantastic breakfast close to our apartment – eggs benedict set us up well for the day. We then rode the subway all the way down to South Ferry in lower Manhattan. Here we picked up the Staten Island ferry – one of New York’s greatest bargains! It’s completely free and you get great views of the Statue of Liberty and Manhattan. We rode out to Staten Island and back to enjoy the views.

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We then explored the Wall Street area. We found a lovely little chapel – St Paul’s (episcopal church of America). There were rehearsals going on in there for a lunchtime concert of Britten and a Bach cantata. We sat and listened for a while and were glad of a warm place to sit and the music was fantastic.

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The chapel was right across the street from the twin towers of the World Trade Center used to stand. It’s astonishing that the church did not have any physical damage at all when the towers collapsed as it’s incredibly close. It was used as a base for the volunteers who were helping on the site immediately after the terrorist attack – the church provided beds, counselling, food, massage and all sorts of other help. Dotted around the church were several shrines and exhibitions from that time.

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We visited the 9/11 Memorial at lunchtime. The area includes two memorial pools/fountains as well as new skyscrapers and a museum (which is not yet open).

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The names of everyone who died on 9/11 were inscribed all the way around the pools and people were grouped with others that they worked with. As it was Veterans Day in the US today yellow roses were placed in the names of veterans who had died there.

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We walked back towards mid-town via Chinatown, Little Italy, Greenwich village and ended up at Ravagh’s grill – a Persian restaurant on East 30th St. The food was really good – especially the shrimp kabob. Although one thing we really can’t get used to here is people’s appetites! It really is astonishing how much people can eat! We’ve taken to sharing most things as we can’t manage a portion each and also to having two meals a day instead of three.

Mike made a friend today with a man inexplicably walking around with a cat on his head. We’re not quite sure what was going on here but he was talking to us about Bob back in London. It was a rather bizarre experience!

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So that was our last full day in NYC. We head off on our first rail journey tomorrow afternoon – exciting!!

Becca x

Day 2 – NYC

Quotes of the day – 

“I’m having a waffle baby”

“You have not experienced NYC until you have poured ketchup over yourself”

“We’ll both have scurvy by the time we get home”

Woke up to a glorious morning on upper west side and in central park, where dogs outnumber humans by around 3:1. After protecting the bird lady from the cat burglers, and setting up a blossoming romance at the ice skating rink we made it to the East side – where dogs outnumber humans by 5:1 and the apartments have awnings at the entrance.  

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Thanks to Afshin for her recommendation for breakfast – EJ’s diner on East 73rd and 3rd Ave. The bagels and waffles are intense – and there is nowhere to hide when the maple syrup turns up.

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Then uptown to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where police officers are on high alert for any suspicious behaviour….

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(Don’t worry – the gun this nice policeman is carrying is actually a water pistol, no-one would be silly enough to allow live firearms on the streets of a metropolitan city)

The Met museum has some fantastic exhibits, including Ancient Greek and Roman artifacts and historical musical instruments. A few blocks down from the Met is the Frick collection which, until January, is hosting an exhibition of Flemish paintings from the Hague – including Vermeer’s infamous Girl with the Pearl Earring. The permanent collection is equally impressive and includes the portraits of Thomas More and Thomas Cromwell by Hans Holbein – and works by Thomas Gainsborough, John Constable and J M W Turner. 

Then to the midtown and the cream of art-deco architecture – the Empire State Building which, for no apparent reason was deserted – with 10 people waiting in the queue for the lift. The view at the top is well worth the trip. 

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Dinner at John’s Pizzeria (West 44th and 8th Ave) – we were very nearly beaten over the head by a calzone….

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Love to all,

Mike x

Day 1 – “welcome to the free world”

After a lot of talking about this trip we are actually here in the US! Amtrak adventure here we come!

We flew into JFK from Heathrow with Virgin Atlantic, We had a great flight. It felt long but we both watched 3 films back to back to fill most of the time. We both recommend watching the Great Gatsby if you get a chance – really interesting soundtrack in particular. 

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At JFK we were met with a HUGE queue for immigration which we stood in for more than an hour. When it was our turn at the desk we were asked loads of questions – are you married? why are you here? what do you do for a living? (Mike got a particularly interesting look when he told the guy he was a pathologist!) where are you staying? etc etc Had our fingerprints scanned and photos taken and were then on our way. Mike then turned to me with a raised eyebrow saying “welcome to the free world”.

Thanks to Afshin for giving us advice on how to get from JFK to where we are staying (Upper West Side) – we sailed through buying a metrocard although had a few moments with the subway where we weren’t sure we were actually waiting at the correct platform. The subway map is really confusing and there are weekend engineering works going on which really isn’t helping us right now. We made it to the apartment in one piece and were let in by the owner (Vlad). It’s a great apartment just three doors down from Central Park, which we are going to explore in the morning.

Dinner was grabbing whatever we could from Trader Joe’s supermarket on 72nd Street/Broadway.

A much needed sleep is now required! Soooo tired.

We’re going to attempt to blog each evening if we can. There’ll be more to talk about tomorrow once we’ve actually done something other than sitting on a plane all day! 

Becca x