Friday, June 20, 2014

Washington D.C.

After a few travel-free months, I wasn't quite sure how to begin this post.  Sitting on the United plane, I wondered what the first part of this adventure to DC would bring.  As we ascended, I relaxed back into my seat and turned my head to gaze out the window at a very cold, very snowy, Chicago falling away.  To my amusement, I saw that much of the surface of Lake Michigan was coated in sheets of ice - exactly how the Arctic Ocean looked when I flew over it on the way to Incheon a couple years ago.  This winter, "Chiberia" has been unbearably frigid, down to a -52º F wind chill, a temperature I would like to never feel again.  I'm super looking forward to landing in a positive 40º F Washington DC and enjoying my trip with Ben to visit Robert, Maggie, and Baby V.

Friday, February 7, 2014

On the cab ride from the airport, we passed more embassies than I've ever seen in one place.  Appropriately, this is known as Embassy Row.  We saw buildings for the UK, Israel, Brazil, Bolivia, and more.  Even the Vatican has an embassy, which strikes me as odd because in my mind the Vatican is more of a semi-independent country.  But, officially, it's its own place, so I guess it can have an embassy.  Continuing on, we drove past the Vice President's house at the Naval Observatory that has a large clock outside with the official time.  Pleased, I noted that my watch and iPhone were keeping time properly.

Buffalo Wings at Old Ebbitt Grill
Since the flight was pretty early, we were super hungry and planned to fit in lunch before racing off to tour the Bureau of Engraving and Printing.  Ben suggested we eat at Old Ebbitt Grill and insisted that we order their Buffalo wings as an appetizer.  Normally, I'm not into messy food that gets all over my hands, but these Buffalo wings were seriously delicious, spicy, and everything that a Buffalo wing should be.  (Since returning from this trip, I've been constantly eating Buffalo wings.)  For my main course, I ordered an equally impressive entree: the seared salmon burger.  Delicious and highly recommended.  Yum.  Check out the photo.

Seared Salmon Burger at Old Ebbitt Grill
Checking our very correct watches, we noticed that it was almost 2 pm, the closing time for the Bureau of Engraving and Printing.  Since we really, really, really wanted to see how money was printed, we paid for lunch, and pretty much launched ourselves into a powerwalk toward the Bureau. It's a little confusing to find the correct door since everything is locked, but eventually, around 1:58, we ran in the door and joined the last tour of the day.  Inside the Bureau, we learned some pretty amazing facts.  For example, they print $996 million each day between DC and their facility in Fort Worth, Texas.  And they print all this money with a seriously intense printer.  It prints between 7 and 14 colors simultaneously on both sides of the paper at a rate of 12,000 sheets per hour.  Your average dorm printer would croak at the thought of that.  The paper is even a special blend of cotton and linen, and not surprisingly, it is illegal for anyone besides the Bureau of Engraving and Printing to possess this paper.

Sheets of Money at the Bureau of Engraving and Printing
Strolling around on the tour, we peered down into the work space of the employees and saw huge stacks of bills that had yet to be cut apart.  Each stack of these pages of $20 bills was worth $64 million, and they were everywhere.  Our guide informed us that the largest bill ever printed was worth $100,000, and the largest bill ever circulated was worth $10,000.  She mentioned that the $100K bills were printed to make some sort of federal payment easier so there wouldn't be so many smaller bills laying around.  Of course, after all these lovely greenbacks are printed (yes, the backs are really green) and cut apart, a person flips through the bills like a flip book.  If the image on the stage "moves", then they know there was a printing error and the bills aren't all the same.  Otherwise, if the image is stable, the bills continue on to the Federal Reserve to be officially monetized.  By the way, before the Federal Reserve officially includes the bills in circulation, they are worthless.  In the gift shop, I learned that with my shoes on, I'm nearly $1.584 million tall in stacks of $100 bills.  If there was ever an appropriate time to wear stilettos or those sky-high Lady Gaga-style shoes, this was probably it.

The White House
Exhilarated from our first fabulous tour of the day, we continued on to our next destination: the White House, where we met up with Robert in the East Wing.  Visiting the White House from the inside was super cool, and not something I ever thought I would get to do.  I even got a cup of orange juice with the Presidential Seal on it!  Peeking into my neighbor's office, I was surprised by how much light came through the windows.  I wonder if he'll move back to Hyde Park in two more years.  The White House has photos of President Obama lining nearly every hallway and filling every wall.  There are even some pictures of him with his adorable pooch, Bo.

WWII Memorial
The next event on our itinerary was to peruse the Mall (National, not shopping) and check out the monuments and memorials.  While strolling, we passed the Washington Monument, the WWII Memorial, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, the Korean War Memorial, and of course, the Lincoln Memorial.  My grandpas served in WWII and the Korea War, so visiting those two memorials was particularly meaningful.

Vietnam Veterans Memorial
Lincoln Memorial
Korean War Veterans Memorial (above)
The Three Soldiers
As the sun set and the temperature cooled (but didn't freeze!!), we returned to the house to join Robert, Maggie, and Baby V. for dinner (Robert's famous tacos!), and watched the Sochi opening ceremony.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Somewhere in the planning stages of this trip, we decided Saturday would be museum day.  In one day, we checked out the National Archives, the National Portrait Gallery, and the National Museum of American History.

No photography is allowed in the National Archives,
but here's a cool photo of a sunset I took on the Mall.
The National Archives were at the top of my list since I was really excited to see the actual Constitution.  Did you know the original Constitution is four giant parchment pages long and that Pennsylvania and New York are spelled wrong?  If I were writing such an important document, even by hand, I probably would have re-written those pages.  The security guards explained that originally, the Constitution was written in a blue/black ink, but that over time it had turned brown because the ink contained iron.  For the purpose of preservation, the Constitution now lives behind very thick glass in a case in a darkened room.  It's really cool to be able to walk up to such a historical document and actually read it since it's written in English, not an ancient language.  The one thing that makes reading the Constitution difficult is that the handwriting is extremely curly.  Apparently, curved, curly writing was an indication of social status.  More curls = higher social class = looks more like art than a document.  While in the National Archives, we also saw the Declaration of Independence, The Bill of Rights, and the Magna Carta.  Additionally, we saw Charles Ingalls' (Laura's dad from the Little House on the Prairie series) homestead form, which states that back in the day, he paid only $13.86 for all of his land.

Bill Clinton
After we left the National Archives, we power-walked over to the National Portrait Gallery, which is part of the Smithsonian.  The most well-known part of this museum is the collection of portraits of the American Presidents.  As the years progress, it's also interesting (if you're into fashion) to see how their outfits and hair-dos change.
John F. Kennedy
From these portraits, we can learn about the fashion of the day, and also the popular art style of the time period.  JFK's portrait by Elaine de Kooning is an example of abstract expressionism.  Bill Clinton's is by Chuck Close, a famous photorealist.  Others, like Abraham Lincoln's, are rather serious and realistic.  My favorite part of the National Portrait Gallery was their special exhibit called "Dancing the Dream," obviously because I love dancing so much.  The exhibit had some pictures of Baryshnikov (always amazing) and Balanchine, in addition to photos of Misty Copeland as the Firebird with ABT.  Michael Jackson pretty much took over the section about pop music and choreography.

The First Ladies Dress Exhibit
After lunch, we resolved to visit our third museum of the day: The National Museum of American History (also Smithsonian).  This super museum has a fascinating collection of dresses from all the First Ladies.  Some were gaudy, some were high fashion, some were modest, some were homemade, and some I would totally wear (Jackie O.'s wardrobe).  Strolling through the dresses, I was amazed both by Michelle Obama's awesome sense of style and by how long her shoes are.  I'm much shorter than she is, and my feet are also much shorter than hers.  As I passed by Barbara Bush's dress, I couldn't believe my eyes when I read the plaque next to her necklace explaining that her pearls were fake!  She's about the last person I would expect to be wearing fake pearls.

Dorothy's Slippers
In the next exhibit, we saw Dorothy's ruby red slippers from The Wizard of Oz and also Kermit from the Muppets.  We toured Julia Child's kitchen, saw a first generation iPod (too young to be in a museum unless I'm already that old!), and peered curiously at Google's original stack of servers, which looked like a weird antique and are held together with cardboard.  Before leaving the museum, we stopped at the exhibit that contains the huge, original star-spangled banner, which has 15 stars and 15 stripes.  Resolving to come back soon (for the Society for Neuroscience meeting in Nov. 2014), I left the museum and made a quick, mental list of all the things I wanted to explore in DC on my next trip.  We had a lovely dinner and next day with Ben's family and then hopped aboard our flight back to Chicago.  "There's no place like home, there's no place like home, there's no place like home..."

See ya later, DC!
Vietnam Veterans Memorial
Lincoln Memorial
Korean War Veterans Memorial
Portrait of Abraham Lincoln by George Peter Alexander Healy

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