The Magnificence of the Capital

We all know I like to drop in on other people’s conversations to listen in on some aspect of their lives. While some exchanges are more interesting than others, a recent conversation overheard at a D.C. café made me pause and take notice.

After visiting one of the city’s museums, I stopped into a nearby bakery for an afternoon pick-me-up. As I took a seat in one of the chairs outside, I overheard the foreign accents of three girls at a table nearby. Although I could not identify their nationality, the subject of their conversation made it clear that they were foreign tourists visiting our nation’s capital.

My ears peaked at their mention of Dan Brown’s novel The Lost Symbol. Set in the district, the book follows Professor Langdon as he works to uncover the Mason’s Pyramid and the Lost Word. Like Brown’s earlier novels, The Lost Symbol is a travel book in disguise, guiding readers to a certain city’s most acclaimed sites and teaching them about its rich history.

For these girls, their mission in D.C. was to have an adventure just like Professor Langdon. They wanted to explore the Capitol, climb the Washington Monument and snap pictures in front of the CIA. To them, Washington was a city worth exploring.

Admittedly, I have taken living in the district for granted. It was not until I overheard these girls talking that I came to realize how much D.C. has to offer. Like the cities I visited during my abroad adventures, D.C. is a unique place for history, art, culture, food and even scandal.

History: Although Washington’s founding is relatively recent when compared to other places like Paris and Rome, its history is rich with detail. Founded in 1791, the city on the north bank of the Potomac honors our first president with its name. As one walks the streets, plaques indicate which famous American once lived there or the site of a famous speech or battle. Over the past two hundred and twenty years it has been the center of debate, tragedy and triumph. A tour of the capital today is a tribute to the original ideas fostered by the nation’s Founding Fathers.

Art: D.C. is home to dozens of museums exhibiting works from some of the world’s most renowned artists. Notably, the National Gallery of Art is home to the only work by Leonardo da Vinci in the Western Hemisphere: Ginevra de’Benci. The museum also showcases other European painters, including Titian, Bellini, Monet and Degas, in addition to some of America’s most famous artists, like Mary Cassatt and John Singer Sargent.

There are also other sites across the city exhibiting our nation’s talented artists: the National Sculpture Garden displays unique models from lesser-known American sculptors; the Phillips Collection in Dupont Circle houses many Georgia O’Keefe painting; and the National Portrait Gallery showcases portraits of iconic figures of today and classic figures of the past.

Culture: If the one thing that instantly comes to mind with its mention defines a city’s culture, then D.C.’s culture would be defined by politics. Men and women in suits, power lunches, [bi]partisanship and Airforce One are just a few of the things connected with the Washington scene. Home to the nation’s governing bodies, politics and debate cannot be avoided in this city. As everyone else sleeps, there is always something happening waiting to be reported on tomorrow’s front page.

Food: The French have bread and cheese; Italians have pasta and pizza; the Greek have lamb and tzatziki; D.C. has half-smokes and Rickeys. Washington cannot exactly be defined as a foodie destination, but this does not mean it lacks good eats. The district is proud to call home some of the nation’s most acclaimed chefs, including Jose Andres, Todd Gray and Michel Richard; even Oprah’s former chef Art Smith has a restaurant here. Its cuisine is as diverse as its clientele; from upscale and classic to innovative and indulgent. Whether it is a bowl of chili from Ben’s Chili Bowl or crab cakes made from Maryland blue crabs, Washingtonians and visitors have plenty of options to satisfy hunger.

Scandal: During my stay in Italy this spring, I rolled my eyes each time I heard mention of Berlusconi’s name and the negative press that often accompanied it. Whether the anchor discussed the Prime Minister’s sexual affairs or alleged ties to the Mafia, there was always something keeping him in the news. With such controversy surrounding him, I often wondered how such a man could stay in power.

When I returned to Washington, I realized that many of our politicians are no different. Former Representative Anthony Weiner and former Senator John Edwards are just two politicians who, despite their power and better judgment, became involved in scandals costing them their political careers. No country is immune from poor leadership and controversy; power can often be the catalyst for anyone’s scandal.

Although D.C. does not have quaintness of Paris or the food of Florence, it certainly has its charm. As the American traveler and writer M.E.W. Sherwood once said about the city, “… anything so delightful as Washington I have never seen elsewhere. There were a mingled simplicity and grandeur, a mingled state and quiet intimacy, a brilliancy of conversation—the proud prominence of intellect over material prosperity which does not exist in any other city of the Union.”

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