Just in time

I am finally back from accross the Atlantic, and am happy to announce that my plane landed safely the day before the volcano erupted. The cloud of gas must be currently hovering somewhere over my head, but the sky is so blissfully blue at last it doesn’t show at all.

There are many, many things to tell, most of them amounting to how the United States are such an alien planet I can’t believe a mere ocean can still be such a distance. I felt farther from home in Washington DC than I had in North Africa. The things people did that I thought were great were things I would never dream here (like taking care of their neighbourhood even in the shabbiest areas of the city instead of dumping their rubbish anywhere and breaking things for pleasure before blaming the council for not taking care of the place), and other things just made me thankful I am not an American. Among others: is it really so weird in America when you don’t have a car? The only time I managed to get lost was when the hotel where I was supposed to sleep before the conference gave me the directions to come from the underground station to their address… in a car. I still can’t imagine why they didn’t figure out that some people might actually not take their car down the underground. On another topic, do Americans really marry so young?! Most girls at the conference were barely into their PhD but already well into their marriage. That, coupled with the intolerance that according to my students that country has of adultery, makes me fear for the rate of divorce in the USA.

But on the other hand, I didn’t think it was possible to land that easily on another planet, and the experience was wonderful.

I used to imagine DC as… well, I didn’t imagine anything in fact. It could have been rows of daunting buildings or it could have been little Montreal-style houses, I could not have told. It turned out it was everything at the same time: huge rows of buildings so tall I didn’t even start counting the storeys, and peaceful neighbourhoods drowsing under three layers of flowers–did I mention they picked the best season of the year to organise their conference? Architecture was a collection of all the styles we in Europe took centuries to experiment with, all stacked together in the same street in a glaring and charming way: white columns on the front of Victorian brick houses, Haussmanian roofs planted side by side with Tudor facades, turrets and pointed rooftops, pink and yellow mortar and arched windows, and irrationnally big neo-Greek temples sheltering the statues of the nation’s founders. There is no one way to describe it: Americans might surely call it a grand synthesis of the best European styles. I found it touching with naiveté. The only thing I know is that it felt so wonderful to walk there at sunset, when the air started to cool down and the treetops turned pink, that I would havestayed for ages if it had not been for my burning feet and the midges’ bites.

In Arlington, I had to step aside for a flag-covered coffin to be driven past me. On the Mall, the miles-long park between the Capitol and the White House, I took off my shoes to bathe my feet in the World War II monument, and saw the sun go down on the Lincoln temple (they are temples indeed, even if they call them memorials, temple where one should be quiet and where the words of the great men are cast in marble). I stopped under trees in boom in every little square I could find, smelled the reek of the Potomac water when the heat was starting to border on unpleasant, and I did not pick any of the lovely violets on the bank for my travelogue, tempting as that might be. Even in those square numbered avenues, I found a way to misestimate every single distance, so it took me minutes to get where I had expected a long walk, and hours to walk streets I expected to be twenty minutes long. I paused when I realised that this misshapen thing in the Museum of Air and Space was indeed the capsule in which the crew of Apollo 11 had reentered the Earth, and even longer when I discovered that the lunar station they had brought with them was a tin can covered in aluminium foil for isolation. I stopped before a banal French portrait of the 17th century, then realised that it had been painted by one Van Loo, probably forgotten of the world except me, who lived in a street bearing his name in Aix for a while–he was from Aix indeed, and I had to cross the Atlantic to see his work. I almost missed the portrait of Ginevra de Benci in the art gallery, but then I got a map for a very mundane purpose and saw it was Ginevra on the cover and I shouldn’t miss it. And I sat for a while, wondering why the infant Christ on this Raphael painting looked so stoned. You would think he could at least go see what actual babies looked like for a second.

Ten days are what it takes to see a city. When you have exhausted the major sights, it is not time to move on. It is time to come back to places, to dip your feet in a fountain, to sit somewhere and have a talk with random people, to go back to what has become your favourite café among the three you had time to visit. Then you start to feel what it is really like, for a while.

And then it’s time to go…


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