If you’ve lived in Washington DC for a year, it’s time for reflection. How did I experience this past year? Surprisingly it’s costing me quite some effort to answer this simple question. After all, an emigration process generates such a broad range of impressions and emotions that it’s hard to summarize all of it in a short piece of text. I therefore choose to describe my journey by giving you a tour through the senses.
So how did Washington touch my body and soul? The first thing I felt when I walked out of Dulles Airport in the late summer of 2018 is the intense heat and humidity that hit my body like a wall. I also feel the number of mosquito bites on my arms and legs slowly increasing. These little vampires are crazy about me and I realize that I have to learn to live with them. The big can of Deet in my handbag has become my new best friend.
Although it’s super exciting to face a new adventure, at the same time it’s not easy to leave your familiar surroundings behind to start all over again on the other side of the ocean. During the first couple of months in the US, I experienced some kind of emptiness or loneliness, or even homesickness.
Wandering through immensely large, often extinct supermarkets, endlessly searching for products, while Michael Jackson is singing through the speakers, I absorb my new environment. Everything feels familiar because I know America from holidays, Hollywood movies and TV. Yet living here is so different, alienating, as if I ended up in a parallel universe. Luckily as I start to take root, my sensitivity decreases. And now that I know my way around, Washington feels more and more like home.
The one thing that keeps bothering me though, is the bad condition of the roads. Because of the huge holes and the countless bumps, every trip to the supermarket feels like a crazy funfair ride. First I was surprised, then annoyed. Is this the modern America that Europe looks up to so much?Unbelievable.
Through the lens of my photo camera, I slowly discover my new city. Every neighborhood has its own atmosphere. Historic Georgetown has loads of character and is consequently the most expensive part to live in. Adams Morgan is the entertainment center for the modern bohemian. Between Dupont Circle and Logan Circle you’ll find San Francisco of the East, the only place where I could find a pub to watch the epic European Song Contest (which was finally won by a Dutch artist).
Washington is in full development. The Wharf and The Navy Yard are trendy areas created for living and recreation along the riverside. Exciting plans are being developed by Rem Koolhaas’ architectural firm OMA to connect the poorer Anacostia district, which is located across the river, to the wealthier part of DC.
What I find the most attractive is that Washington is so incredibly green. The city has numerous parks and trees and no large skyscrapers. The law stipulates that buildings may not exceed 13 floors. This gives the city its light, open and relaxed character. In the summer, Washington seems like one big forest where deer and squirrels live peacefully together with the other residents. It’s a huge contrast with the wintertime, when the yellow gold leaves are neatly blown away and all trees are completely bare.
The street scene is an ‘urban cool’ mix of cultures. I see a high level of civil servants in suits around the Capitol and the White House. The American capital is obviously not a blueprint for the rest of the country. In 2016, only about 4 percent of more than 700,000 Washingtonians voted for Donald Trump. Many inhabitants like to demonstrate their dislike of the current conservative policy. I regularly see a rainbow flag attached to a house or a sign with “immigrants welcome” in the garden.
I’m always shocked when a big red fire truck with lots of bells and whistles rushes through the streets. There’s a lot of honking in the streets anyway. It strikes me that not many drivers in this city seem to be aware of others in traffic. They hardly use their direction indicator and most of the time they won’t let you merge. The concept of what the Dutch call ‘zippering’ (insert in turn if there’s one lane less) unfortunately is unknown in the US.
Apart from the bad roads and the misconduct in traffic, driving in America is fantastic. It’s also a must unless you live close to a metro stop. On my car radio, I switch between my favorite channels The Bridge (mellow rock classics) and The Groove (old school R&B). Nothing beats meandering the hilly roads while singing along with Stevie Nicks and Stevie Wonder.
Clean drinking water is an important indicator of the quality of life. Drinking the tap water in Washington DC is an option, but it tastes like chlorine and most people use a water filter. It’s therefore a bit of a hassle to make tea for example. It makes me realize what a luxury and privilege it is to be able to drink delicious, pure water from the tap in the Netherlands.
Another problematic thing is the taste of American bread, with too much sugar and too little grains. Like many Dutch people in Washington I immediately bought a bread baking machine. After a while I banished carbohydrates altogether, because in the land of Coca Cola and hamburgers it’s only a matter of time before you have to be hoisted out of your house.
I can be brief about the smell of Washington. It’s mainly the preparation of food that I am thinking about, the smell of grilled steaks or warm french toast. Although Washington is a green oasis, I barely smell nature. Not like I smell the sea in the Netherlands, the flowers or freshly cut grass. Though, on a more psychological level, I feel like I’m getting more oxygen here, as if I can breathe more easily. It must be the abundance of space and the beauty of nature in the US that give me the air that I need.
Four more years
There’s enough going on in Washington to keep you from getting bored. You can wander all day long in free world-class museums, shop endlessly in malls and outlet centers, and hike for miles in parks in the middle of the city. Yet I miss the typical European old town, the central square with the city hall and the church, the small shops, the cozy terraces. I miss family and friends, the sea, decent electrical sockets and flat bike paths.
But I also started to love the American friendliness and the ‘can do’ mentality. I’m happy to be liberated from the Dutch ‘don’t pretend you’re anything special’ culture and the non-stop criticism in the Netherlands. And I already know what I’ll miss the most when I return to my birth country in four years: the deer, the raccoons, the fireflies, the red cardinals and the squirrels that I can study from my balcony.
Four more years to enjoy this green jungle, a red autumn and a white winter in Washington DC. And I wonder if this will also apply to my fellow citizens in the White House. Keep you posted!