Washington: Canberra’s much older, better-looking sister

Thursday morning we were up at 4am to catch the Amtrak train from New York to Washington.

I have to say, the cross-country trains here are decidedly nicer than Australia’s Countrylink service. You can sit in a quiet car (where people who hate the incessant noise made by other people/loud-chewers/tuneless whistlers/verbal-vomiters congregate together to sit in silence. Heavenly). The trains are clean, they move faster than 20 kilometres an hour and there aren’t any recently-released ex-cons puking in the aisles.

So the 3 hour trip passed pleasantly. From the train we watched a bright red sunrise over Baltimore and Delaware before we finally made it to Washington.

It wasn’t long before we were drawing comparisons, although Washington is clearly way beyond Canberra in nearly every respect. But there are several things that make me think Canberra was probably modelled on the American capital;

1. The roundabouts

Roundabouts. Roundabouts everywhere. Few people, but oh so many roundabouts.

2. The bureaucrat vibe

Even the public bathrooms feel administrative. Like there’s someone in a small room, sitting under buzzing fluorescents, watching you via a hidden camera and ticking a box and photocopying a form once you’ve flushed.

3. The Rapture vibe

Canberra and Washington: where you can walk through the CBD/tourist district in the middle of the day and not see anyone or anything except tumbleweeds, frisky squirrels and a creepy, empty children’s carousel playing Calliope music. Fine, you don’t get squirrels in Canberra. Just unidentified marsupial roadkill.

4. Foliage porn

How you know you’re getting old: you start waxing lyrical about autumn foliage and the change of seasons. But I’m going to do it anyway: Canberra is a beautiful place in autumn when the poplars etc start to turn, but Washington is stunning. Roundabouts and deciduous trees – important elements of a capital city.

5. Museums and Monuments

Both cities are stuffed full of museums and monuments. But where Canberra has the National Carillon and Questacon, Washington has the Washington Monument, the Lincoln Monument, the Martin Luther King memorial and the Smithsonian. Checkmate. Also, Australia’s Parliament House – that massive roundabout-encircled clod of dirt – versus Capitol Hill? No competition.

So to conclude, Washington is just like Canberra in theory, but in reality it’s much more impressive, albeit still somewhat vacant of human life.

I don’t mean to shit all over Canberra, because I actually do have illogical affection for that weird little city. You have to appreciate the perversity of a capital filled with politicians, porn and legal fireworks. But Washington, though quiet and sleepy during our visit (I think the bureaucrats are entering hibernation along with the squirrels), was pretty cool.

Mostly because of the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum. I love a museum in general but I loved this one especially. I walked around for hours gawking like a kid at moon rocks, meteorites, NASA spacesuits used by American and Russian astronauts, vacuum-sealed meals left uneaten by Buzz Aldrin since 1969 (can’t blame him, it was some kind of dehydrated casserole), disarmed American and Russian long-range rockets from the Cold War (sans nuclear warheads, thankfully), The Hubble Ultra-Deep Field photograph (check that out if you want your mind blown, although it may leave you feeling as if mankind is just a glass of milk that some far greater power spilled on the ground and forgot to clean up), and my favourite – the ‘Columbia’ command module that brought the Apollo 11 astronauts home from the first moon landing; you can stand right in front of it and see where the underside was scorched black during re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere.

This place was geek heaven.

By the time I’d taken a journey through the planets (Pluto no longer included) and come not-even-close to understanding the problem and theories of dark matter, I was ready for the far less taxing task of drinking beer and eating tapas. We caught the Metro (about 1,000 x better than Cityrail) to an area outside the CBD known as the U-Street corridor, and managed to do both of those things at an awesome little Spanish joint called Estadio. Nothing takes your mind off the universe like garlic prawns. Sorry – shrimp.

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