Part VII of the Serial “The World is my Home”
Arts and architecture are often means to manifest the identity of a people, the feeling of home, especially with people who are forced to leave their home country and have to settle elsewhere, and with culture and traditions taken over in bigger and smaller details of daily life this can be achieved. Also colonial powers have left their footmarks in their colonies and provinces of which we have proof enough here in Cyprus and over the centuries these footprints become part of a country’s identity.
American Tunes –Arts and Monuments in Washington and Food in Chesapeake Bay
By Heidi Trautmann
We had left cold New York from Pennsylvania Station with a comfortable Amtrak train to arrive in Washington three hours later with much more agreeable temperatures. On the train were young people with rucksacks, students travelling, relatives visiting, them very casual. There were business men and government employees in conservative suits, working on their small laptops, sitting next to families with their babies. Union Station in Washington D.C., where we arrived was for me something very special, one of these monumental buildings in the middle of the government district, a place where people go to not only for travelling or shoe polishing reasons but also for meeting at one of the nice restaurants. The noise in this huge building under barrel-vaults and on marble floors sounds exciting. Here, in Washington, you get the idea of how Americans think of themselves. The basic idea of creating a place to demonstrate the creation of the first democracy in self-government has manifested itself in colossal buildings and wide avenues. The designer of the city plan was a Frenchman, Pierre L'Enfant, who did the layout of the city after the Louvre and Place de la Concorde in Paris. Also democracy requires the appearance of a kingdom, the Capitol and all the oversized memorials for their heroes, temples for the greatness of America.
School classes of early age on travel from far to be taught “we are a great nation”, don't forget it! Busloads of Americans from all over the continent come here to be reassured. You have to see it for yourself to understand it, I am proud to be an American, (I am happy to be a Turk). The sorrow for the dead in the Korean and Vietnamese war shown in immensely big memorials, also the nurses’ and mariners’ memorials, often very beautiful sculpture work, displayed in the middle of the road for everybody to touch.
When we sat on one of the many park benches in the governmental area around lunch time under cherry trees Washington is famous for, the blossoms of which were just about to pop open, we observed the employees rush along with their lunch boxes to find a place in the sunshine, secretaries with the old fashioned little costume, tight skirt and jacket and high heels, elegant but with a distant air, their male colleagues in dark suits with well polished shoes and well shaved, all office-pale and serious.
Another enormous building is the Smithsonian National Gallery of Art. (There are several buildings with various collections.) It is one of the many marble temples on the Constitution Avenue but also the biggest marble building in the world with marble from Tennessee, from Toscana and Vermont. Other events take place here too, lectures on art, family programmes, concerts and changing exhibitions. 9000 square meters of exhibition area, unbelievable collections of art from the 13th century onward, original art works of painters I had never dreamt of seeing, and here only 10 cm away from my nose. It's only in the original where you can study the true colours, the brushstroke, and the impression it makes on you is completely different from pictures in a catalogue. I saw many Toulouse-Lautrecs, his beautiful sketches on simple brown paper, never have I seen them in so complete a collection. Many collections have been donated, as I could see from a plate next to the pictures. Here it becomes obvious that the Americans have been keen travellers and art collectors in the last two centuries in order to fill their museums and decorate their houses with European art and furniture. But I am especially interested in the early American artists and here I got to learn a lot, also in other museums on our way down South and across the country.
With a happy sigh and to get a more down to earth feeling away from this ‘centre point of the world’, we took a taxi out to Georgetown, a historical suburb of Washington with its beautifully renovated mostly two-storied houses with the typical architecture of 200 years ago, now boutiques, galleries and restaurants, and people who strolled through the streets just like us. We dined in a nice renowned place which had photos of all their famous sports people on their walls - an honour to sit among them. I cannot remember the food but it must have been ok, the beer was nice and cool.
The next, very early morning, we left our old-fashioned next-to-the-White-House hotel with our rucksacks and our pulley bags in direction of the rent-a-car-office. On the way there we had our breakfast in one of the typical breakfast places for early risers and office goers. ‘Hi Honey, how are you doing this morning, everything ok?’ ...with a deep glance into your soul, ‘ohoh, not so good? Don't you worry, it'll be ok’, and a big laugh comes rolling from deep down of the big stomach behind the counter. The black lady sang a nice tune, and as it seemed, just to herself, and while we ate our eggs I watched her and her customers, yes, she made them smile, and I smiled back.
Three days in Chesapeake Bay, driving out of Washington over many bridges combining the many parts of it, its peninsulas and little harbours, with their weekend houses for Washington people, with the small boat next to it. But there were also poor places; one I remember, where we stopped to get something to drink and to eat, a sandwich or something. While I waited for my order to be executed, one of the ladies screamed and everybody behind the counter rushed towards her, she had dropped her mobile telephone into the boiling fat container and another lady came with a huge sieve and got it out for her. Business continued as usual and the French fries went into the same container. The still young blond lady at the counter taking my money had just four teeth in her mouth but she smiled nonetheless.
We drove through a wide country where nature was still being behind schedule, there were no evergreen trees here and the colour of the days was grey. We ended up in Crisfield on one of the many fingers of the coast... and there we started our seafood tour. From that day on our days began to be bright. Our appetite began to respond to this offer of the coast. We talked to the people of this sea resort and finally we knew where to go to. I still have their business card, “The Cove” where we had the most delicious crab cakes. I took very small bites in order to savour the taste. All the way down south, I often tried for a crab cake but never again was it so delicious.
On our way through the Chesapeake Bay country and across the many rivers we came over so many beautiful and impressive bridges for unbelievable long miles. I felt elevated, without any sorrows, between water and sky, just weightless. The bridges are beautiful pieces of architecture, born out of the necessity to combine all parts of the country, so nobody must be excluded. So far, to keep you informed, we have crossed the States of New York, Maryland and Delaware and have entered Virginia, not far away from Crisfield.
Arriving at Newport News, we had but one goal that was the Mariner's Museum where the famous “Ironclad” USS Monitor is displayed. A battleship of the civil war, with all wooden parts above the water line covered with iron plates. It had not prevented her from being hit and sunk in the end but it had been recovered and the parts are now in that museum in huge tanks to remove the rust and barnacles; however there is a copy rebuilt exactly to the plans of the old one and you can step on it and go inside to get the feeling of being trapped and see that revolving shooting tower work.
Along all the rivers of Chesapeake Bay most of American history has happened and they show it in museums, in historical places and villages rebuilt. Seen on a map, the first settlers obviously found here the best shelter with the many rivers going upcountry, and when they had succeeded to farm the land, the rivers were their only way of transportation. We follow this historical road, still being in the Chesapeake Bay area and come to Yorktown, Williamsburg and Jamestown. It's thanks to private initiatives (also by Rockefeller jun.) that places like that are being rebuilt and also entertained. A historically rebuilt village along the banks of the York River, the other one on the James River, where the American forefathers have first lived. Just like in the old days, soldiers, sailors, blacksmiths go in and out of the wooden forts; there is an Indian village with true Indians; two sailing ships the settlers had come over from Europe, rebuilt according to the old plans, seaworthy, and you could talk to the Captain who looks like a fairytale figure. Battles are fought, canons sound on the old battlefields of the civil war, and the Americans just enjoy it and us too. Carriages go through Williamsburg with town folk nicely dressed up in old costumes, the men wearing those three pointed hats and feathers, the bakery working, the washerwoman doing the washing in huge kettles over the open fire.
In the park of Williamsburg I saw a painter under a big oak tree at his easel and I approached him and we talked. Edwin L. Green, water colours and oil paintings of landscapes and scenes of the area, very nice pictures. I photographed some of them and we exchanged our addresses. He had sailed around the world several times in his life, delivering sailing boats, he knows the Mediterranean quite well and had also come to Cyprus once, and we talked about Kyrenia and about the changes of late. How small the world is.
In Part VIII we mount the train again and travel further south through Virginia, South Carolina and Georgia.
Published in Cyprus Observer on Sep 29, 2012