Paradoxically enough, the US capital is the best known and, at the same time, most enigmatic city among the other American megalopolises. For some, Washington, D.C. is the hub of the world’s evil; for others, it’s the heart of the world’s power. But in any case, few will think of it as a real city, with its streets, houses, and dwellers. This is the city we’ll try to take a look at today. My interlocutor is Oles Berezhny, a translator, writer, author of the short story collection Chervony Borshch (The Beetroot Soup), and a long-time resident of the American capital.
How and when did you come to live in Washington, D.C.?
“In the summer of 1996, I was accepted into a graduate (M.A.) program in international relations by two very good schools in the opposite ends of the continental U.S.: the Monterey Institute of International Studies in California on the Pacific coast, and Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. in the east, on the Atlantic coast. Before that I had spent several years in Midwest, i.e., in the heart of the continent, on the banks of the turbid Chicago River and the shores of Lake Michigan in the city, which wittily labels itself as “the US third coast,” that is, in the windy and gloomy Chicago. So it’s only natural that I should be very much attracted by the sunny California.
“California on the whole seems to me a geographical personification of the American dream and one of the sweetest and prettiest corners of the world, especially with regard to entertainment and leisure, with all its smooth beaches, palm trees, surfing, the celebrated sunny valleys of Hollywood, computing and vineyards...
“However, I figured out that Washington would suit my personal ambitions better, due to its numerous governmental, federal, and international offices, embassies, “brain centers,” lobbying companies, analytical headquarters, and the offices of the world’s major corporations. All this makes it a really vibrant place, full of opportunities to find an interesting job in the sphere of international relations.”
So, weren’t your first impressions disappointing?
“At first, I saw Washington, D.C., as my native Kyiv, miraculously teleported into the subtropical belt – and devoid at the same time of all of its modern uninspiring residential areas; the only difference being our famed chestnut trees replaced with fragrant evergreen magnolias, spreading sycamores, and other exotic flora.”
Was it difficult to adapt to the subtropical climate?
“Adaptation to Washington was faster than to America on the whole. The reason for this is the international nature of this city. The vast majority of people I met here were mostly strangers, from other states or even from abroad. Therefore, aliens here enjoy benevolent treatment and feel the locals’ genuine interest, understanding, and undying desire to expand their horizons, accompanied by an amazing ease at making new acquaintances.
“Once we are on the subject of rhythm and atmosphere, I would like to speak of one of Washington’s suburbs where I’m currently living. Unlike New York, “the City That Never Sleeps,” this is a respectable, neat suburb where people are off to bed quite early, both in the literal and figurative sense. That is why you won’t find a McDonald’s or any other suchlike joint working round the clock anywhere in the neighborhood. Living in these residential towns around Washington, D.C., where the house-proud residents take pains to look after their lawns and flower beds, is perhaps comparable to living in the cottage towns round Kyiv. One essential difference is the absence of fences.”
What was it that you liked the most in Washington, D.C., and what do you still like?
“Museums! They are abundant here, and they are really great. By the way, the vast majority of the museums in Washington are free.”
And what can annoy you?
“The underground, and some visiting drivers, mostly with NYC or diplomatic license plates. The thing is that the drivers from New York or New Jersey (perhaps in line with Darwin’s theory of natural selection) are very aggressive and nervous and behave as if they were at home – i.e., like an average Ukrainian driver on a Ukrainian road. They act like ‘true macho men’ for whom yielding to a smaller, slower, or cheaper car equals to no less than a personal insult, rather than a demonstration of generosity, tolerance, or at least some common sense and acknowledgement of traffic rules.
“On the other hand, on several occasions I have seen here cars with exotic license plates, from the ‘overseas’ states like Alaska or Hawaii. Well, they enjoyed an absolutely different treatment, as it seemed as though each local driver would not only smile or wave at them, but also was eager to quit all his or her business and stop to give directions or help in any other possible way.
“As to diplomats and their cars, a common sight in the streets of Washington, they drive and park in the same thoughtless and arrogant manner as they do in their home countries (though in fact this depends on which country they actually come from). On top of it, some of the diplomatic drivers must feel exactly like the Ukrainian nouveaux riches – they indeed enjoy diplomatic immunity, protecting them from the strict, but mostly fair American cops.
“As to the underground in Washington, well, it’s a separate topic. I’m convinced that most Kyivites do not even suspect how lucky they are to have theirs! Despite all the challenges and problems, it is about 100 times faster and more reliable than its Washington counterpart, leave alone the matters of esthetics and cost.”
So, what are your favorite spots and routes in this city?
“My back yard opens onto a bicycle and jogging path which is the longest park reserve in Northern Virginia and stretches through bigger and smaller towns for hundreds of kilometers. Until the 1970s a railroad used to run here. Then this strip was asphalted, mended, and given to walkers, joggers, and cyclists, whose number is growing with each year.
“I, too, am starting to consider switching over to a healthier and more ecological method of jogging or cycling to work, instead of burning gas, which is becoming more and more expensive and also involves an indirect financing of Arab terrorists and the Kremlin neo-imperialists. I think I’ll start next month!
“As to my favorite spots, I’ve got plenty of these in Washington, D.C. to satisfy any taste and mood. For example, a sincere, conscious Ukrainian must not pass by the monument to Taras Shevchenko, built in Washington as far back as in the early 1960s by the enthusiastic diaspora, with the active support of US Congress. By the way, this must be perhaps the first monumental portrait where the great Kobzar isn’t wearing his usual scowl; instead, his face is open and inspired as he confidently strides along. Without his canonical sheepskin and the sad, drooping mustache, he looks unexpectedly vigorous in a stylish frock-coat, his face youngish and clean-shaven.”
What does the cityscape look like on the whole?
“I would mention the Potomac as the most expressive feature. It is just near Washington that it becomes wide, though not very deep. Upstream, it’s quite a rapid mountain river, forcing its way through picturesque granite rocks as it flows down the Appalachians. Just a couple of kilometers up the river you get into the kingdom of wildlife, with rapids and cascades, virgin forests, thoughtful rangers, and fenced pathways.”
Speaking of geometry – what are its main vertical and horizontal lines?
“I believe this is one of the most geometrical cities in the whole world. It takes a glance at the map to see its somewhat incomplete squareness. The rectangular boundaries running close to the Potomac are the vast plot of land given to the city by the state of Maryland. Meanwhile, the right bank of the Potomac – Arlington county and the town of Alexandria, which completes the imaginary square – used to belong to the federal capital, but later Virginia claimed the land back.
“The city is built along geometrical lines and figures, but its matrix doesn’t look as humdrum as that of Chicago or New York. The master plan was designed by a French architect, who introduced intricate patterns of boulevards and avenues into it. They merge and radiate all around the city, resembling the sophisticated urbanistic shapes of Paris which were all the rage at that time.
“Besides, the supporters of conspiracy theories will find in this elaborate geometry numerous encoded messages, signs, and symbols of free masons – a lot more than on the dollar note. The masons of Washington, in their turn, are not very anxious to hide, and their luxurious temples attract crowds of tourists.”
Then Washington, D.C. can perhaps be described as a sort of model city?
“Absolutely. This is a city which was designed to be a capital. And in my very biased opinion, the design proved to be successful.”
How much does the status of the federal capital influence city life, and in what way? As they say, “noblesse oblige”?
“Unlike, say, Kyiv or other European capitals, such as Prague or Warsaw, London or Paris, Washington was conceived and built as a new capital of a new state. The status of capital underlay its concept and was its sole raison d’etre.”
Okay then, and how free is Washington in comparison with other American cities?
“According to very unscholarly statistics, this is a place with the highest concentration of ties and suits per capita in the Western hemisphere, as well as all sorts of police and other law enforcement officers, agents, and secret services. Washington has one of America’s strictest laws on selling firearms and the highest fines for traffic violations.
“By the way, it was in Washington, D.C., that I first saw Americans wearing their military uniforms. Generally, the American military seldom appear in uniform outside the premises of their respective military units. As a rule, it happens on very formal occasions, like great ceremonies. However, unlike other American cities, these are plentiful in the capital.”
Going on with comparisons, what city does Washington resemble for you?
“I like Washington; that’s why it resembles Kyiv first of all. Or I could put it otherwise: I like Washington because it resembles Kyiv.”
Is there a typical Washingtonian? Could you describe major city types?
“Historically, Washington is a city with the highest proportion of Afro-American population, something over 75 percent. However, it’s worth mentioning that most people working in the city live outside Washington, in the residential towns of Maryland and Virginia. The city itself is divided into four squares. The southern and eastern neighborhoods are mostly poor. Conversely, the center, north, and north-west are very prestigious and fashionable districts inhabited by the rich, government officers, politicians, and diplomats.
“Another interesting peculiarity is that more women than men live and work in the city. Families with children tend to live in the suburbs. A typical Washingtonian is a young, single individual, with a good formal education (or they may be still studying for their degree at one of the prestigious universities and at the same time working as a trainee in a governmental ministry or agency, an international headquarters, or a ‘brain center.’ Thus, they gain political experience and cherish big ambitions to climb the Olympus in Washington one day.
“The music life in Washington, D.C. is pretty vibrant, so it can satisfy the cultural and leisure requirements of the ‘golden youth.’ It is the city where not only first-rate classics is performed by the world’s top-notch virtuosos, but also the traditional jazz, blues, punk, post-punk, grunge, and even the gloomy gothic music. The legendary Bono and the famous U2 are coming here pretty soon, too.”
I quite realize that now I’m being like the Soviet paper Pravda, notorious for its quest for the “sores of capitalism,” but I can’t help asking this: Are there any crazy or marginal types in this well-to-do city? Or do they arrive with every new rally?
“Like every other big city, Washington has its own homeless living on the streets. Most of them must indeed be individuals with various psychological or psychic problems, that is, the kind of people that are called ‘lunatics’ in Ukraine. I’d like to remind you that in America, no one can send a lunatic to a mental hospital without his or her consent, save for the cases when this individual has committed a crime and there is a relevant court ruling.
“Mostly these are just miserable people with broken and complicated lives who live on the streets and suffer from drug or alcohol addiction. They are believed to have made a conscious choice, because they ignore the shelters for the homeless or other numerous aid programs funded by charity organizations, church, or the state. I think that the vast majority of these lunatics are rather quiet and harmless types.
“It’s quite the opposite with the crazy protesters who label themselves antiglobalists, anarchists, or other weird supporters of the more radical shades of the widest political palette. In my personal view, these are just what we call ‘the golden youth,’ mostly from decent and well-to-do families, who are too lazy to study or work. And they are by no means local residents. You can’t call them ‘peaceful’ either – what they are always looking for is an opportunity to do as much harm as possible. This type of ‘fruitcakes,’ unlike the previous, meets a lot less sympathy and tolerance in the American society on the whole and cops in particular.”
Now, in contrast to the previous question: What is the best season in Washington?
“Spring! In early April, when decorative cherry trees break into blossom – the genuine sakuras given as present by Japan in the early 20th century. They bloom around the Tidal Basin in the center of the city, next to the snow-white marble rotunda, President Jefferson Memorial. And a little later a true colorful hurricane begins when the bright azaleas open, and in Washington they are virtually everywhere. Then tulip poplars blossom out, and for me they are almost like the chestnut trees in Kyiv.”
Sakura trees in bloom are a famous sight. But does Washington have its own myths?
“Given a relatively short life span, some two odd centuries, this city has perhaps as many myths as the old European cities. I guess most of them are related to its unusual layout and toponymy. The streets are oriented along the Cartesian coordinate system, with the center in the Capitol Hill where the US Congress sits. The streets running from north to south have numbers, while those from east to west, letters. The streets running diagonally bear names of the states.
“Washingtonians may play a trick on you by telling about some really good restaurants or stores in J Street – just like the natives of Kyiv can play tricks on their guests, confusing them with square or odd numbers in Verkhnii Val and Nyzhnii Val streets. The thing is that ‘j’ is the only letter in the English alphabet which doesn’t have a street to its name. According to various versions, either the French architect L’Enfant wasn’t very knowledgeable about the English alphabet, or he deliberately didn’t want to perpetuate the initials of one of contemporary politicians, John Jay, against whom he allegedly bore a grudge. In reality, this letter was left out due to more practical considerations: to avoid confusion with the letter ‘i’, as in the 18th century these two characters were often indistinguishable from each other.
“Likewise, the names of I, Q, and U streets are often spelled out with complete words ‘Eye’, ‘Que’ (or ‘Cue’), and ‘You’.”
So, there is a nonexistent, but popular street. What about other charmed places? Or is everything very down-to-earth?
“Unlike the ancient mystery of the Old World’s capitals, the mystery of Washington is younger and more modern, which doesn’t make it less mysterious. It’s enough to mention that the famous mystic of the 19th century, Edgar Poe, not only visited Washington, but he is also buried within Greater Washington, in Baltimore. Even now, queer things continue to occur on his grave each year.
“Another layer of Washingtonian mystery is related to the last century and modernity, black helicopters and conspiracy theories, in particular, those concerning the world government. Also, on Pennsylvania Avenue in this city there are the offices of the cult FBI agents, Fox Mulder and Dana Skully from The X-Files.
“Meanwhile, like other ‘more historical’ locations, Washington has its own underground city where the bed of the River Tiber is concealed. However, in Washington these undergrounds are really secret, due to security reasons. The access to them was blocked in the mid-1990s, after Oklahoma City bombing. After 9/11, the secret service made the underground city as safe as can be and now keeps a close watch on it.”
This can’t be the last of the local mysteries, can it?
“I cannot but mention this city’s unique status and its special secrets as the world’s spy capital. Without doubt, Washington is the focus of the most strenuous effort of all the foreign spies and secret services, clandestine organizations, and influential lobby groups. On top of this, there are also mysterious extra-terrestrial visitors and the assumptions to the effect that in top secret mortuary freezers of the FBI headquarters, next to the White House and quite close to Mulder and Scully’s offices, they keep the bodies of alien UFO pilots...”
So, what does this city look like to you? An alien?
“Washington is a clumsy pink elephant with kind eyes, a donkey’s blue ears, the wings of an eagle, an alligator’s tail, and the beak of a pelican, in which he’s holding a pair of free masons’ compasses. The donkey personifies the industrious ruling Democratic Party; the elephant is the oriental symbol of wisdom and wealth, and also of the Republican Party; the eagle is the American state symbol, and the rest is just associations.”