Washington, DC 8

On our last day we missed seeing the International Spy Museum and the National Air and Space Museum for the same reason – it was a Saturday and I didn’t think to get tickets in advance. Kids, fortunately, were stoic (like Zeus) and patient. I gave them a choice between the National Portrait Gallery and National Building Museum and they picked the latter.

The Building Museum is located in an enormous magnificent empty building. It’s surrounded by a frieze by Casper Buberl detailing the units of the Union Army that deserves a separate exhibition on its own. There are photos on the museum site: https://www.nbm.org/about/historic-home/

The middle of the central hall normally has a fountain which is currently covered by a sculpture, Look Here by Suchi Reddy. The point of the sculpture is for the viewer to see themeselves reflected in photos of historical acts of protest printed on the reflective forms and to consider that they, the viewer, as well as architecture, are both parts of shaping our society for the better. The small grey squares you can barely see in the middle are bed-sized pillows and rocking chairs on which tired parents recline while their children take part in the LEGO build on the second floor. It is a beautiful and restful spot, which qualities distract from the message of protest and activism.

Besides the LEGO build there’s an empty room with posters about the life of the founder, General Meigs, a room with a collection of animals in sculpture (very beautiful, but insufficiently explained), some great doll houses and scale models of historical homes , and a really cool exhibit showing different ways of framing a house.

There are also a lot of empty rooms and a general feeling that we should’ve come during an event or performance. Totally worth it for the beauty and the LEGO break, but next time I’m looking at their calendar before visiting.

Traveling with kids means that there’s only a short window to see things, and it’s approximately 9 am to 3 pm. After that it’s food and physical activity time. Younger Kid requires 3 hours of physical activity per day plus bed-flopping breaks.

Overall, it was a great trip – much easier and less stressful than I expected. We saw completely different things than I thought we’d see, ate different foods than I thought we’d eat, and spent far more time at the gym with more enjoyment than I would have believed.

Washington, DC 7

As much as National Children’s Museum was a disappointment Planet Word was an unexpected delight. My expectations of it were low, 3/5 – but Younger Kid put it as a 5 and Older Kid as a 4, besides it was two blocks away from the hotel. I feel very lucky that we went there and will come back again if I can. Planet Word is a museum dedicated to words and language, and it’s absolutely beautiful inside and outside.

One enters through a courtyard with a lit tree and a statue of someone that seems to be trying to pull themselves together out of letters. I’m not sure whether this is what the sculptor intended, but it’s an image that I can really identify with (yes, the dangling participle just here is ironic).

The tree was not lit when we came, but as we were leaving we saw the first few lamps turned on.

Inside there are three floors and one starts at the top. The first room contains a lit globe surrounded by tablets, each containing short videos by language carriers about their language. I must have been very tired, because I became a bit teary-eyed at the explanation of how to say some simple thing in Amharic.

The most interesting things I learned are that Miriwoong (one of the 250ish Native Australian languages) has not words for hello and good bye, but only “How are you”, that Wolof speakers in Senegal do not refer to anything as “mine” if they can plausibly call it “ours”, and that Senegalese in general are so reluctant to talk about their accomplishments that each family has a designated praise giver, whose job it is to bring up the achievements of family members as needed.

Next is an interactive video played against a wall of 1,000 most common English words, talking about where they came from (1/3 each Saxon, Norman, and borrowed apparently, I assume not enough remains of the Celtic languages to count). An interesting factoid from the video is that teenage girls have been the most active new word inventors since the 15th century at least, and are responsible for introducing “you” instead of “thou” and “does” instead of “doth”. It’s a relatively simple video – a disembodied voice talks, audience shouts answers into microphones, the voice either says “yes, the answer is” or “no, the answer is”, visuals are spare (fire, water, animal silhouettes) but the whole is very beautiful. In fact “simple and beautiful” really defines Planet Word.

Another fun fact – apparently there’s no agreement on how many words English has, because there’s no agreement on how to count words like “run”, which has 345ish definitions

The second floor is where I’d stay forever. It starts with a quiet library – color-coordinated books, mirrors in the ceiling, a table for coloring and a center table on which one can place a book from the shelf and see played out on top of it a short video explaining the book or telling some interesting story about how it came to be written. One of the library walls is actually a secret door, leading to a small quiet room with a couch where one can sit and listen to poetry being read out loud and shown on a screen. Here is that door seen from the inside.

Walls of the library are inset with large mirrors in gilded frames. Underneath each one is a quote from a book that, when said out loud by someone without an accent (I drafted Younger Kid) temporarily transforms the mirror into a diorama from the book while another disembodied voice continues the quote. Each diorama is in a different style and range of material (e. g. The Little Prince is an all-white globe with paper cut-outs inside), all are remarkably beautiful, and many quite realistic, but it’s very hard to make a good photograph of a mirror, so, unfortunately, I can only show two.

Besides the beautiful library there is a purple room devoted to karaoke, a yellow room (I want a yellow room. Preferably one where I can drink tea in the morning) all about jokes and how to tell them, and a green room in which kids can dip brushes into adjective pails and alter a virtual landscape on the wall by painting over it. For instance “autumnal” turned the leaves yellow and “crepuscular” introduced twilight.

The bottom floor had a spiral exhibition on ads and the techniques they use, stories of language and a room to record one’s own story, and a gift shop where I was surprised to learn that Older Kid prefers Wizard of Oz to Harry Potter (yes, that same HP that they’ve been reading non-stop for the last 4 years), and the Phantom Tollbooth to both. I read the Phantom Tollbooth in either Odessa or Moscow as a kid, and remember almost nothing except that I liked it and the word “cacophony”. Will have to re-read.

Younger Kid requested and received a manual on writing jokes for kids and a book about the history of punctuation marks. Can’t wait to see whether he’ll read these. Right now he’s reading a biography of Michael Jordan, acquired as part of his search for gifts for Older Kid (they got a cupcake cookbook in that particular store).

Washington, DC 6

Wednesday was a lovely and relaxed day. We strolled Georgetown at random using my favorite process – picked something to look for, in this case a playground. We found three playgrounds, all of which were really cool. One was locked, the other was occupied by a camp, and the third devoted solely to toddlers. We stopped there anyway, because it had fountains. Younger Kid now wants a balance bike and a red Radio Flyer tricycle.

Georgetown is full of very similar houses, all of which have big enticing balconies, towers, and ornate cast-iron front steps. It seems very cohesive and I would’ve enjoyed walking there more.

Strangely, DC seems to have very few homeless people, and passerby seem sober and friendly. The streets overall seem safe, clean, and populated. I’ve yet to smell cannabis anywhere, but that may be because we’re more or less staying in the same small area.

It was really great that Younger Kid was into strolling and discovering a neighborhood with me and seemed to understand why it’s fun. I wish I knew how the day was for him.

Once we got tired of walking I gave Younger Kid a choice of another museum, historical house, or an aquatic park. Once it became clear that the aquatic park is a boardwalk hike in a swamp with lotuses he picked the historical house. Specifically, Tudor House, inhabited by descendants of Martha Washington for six generations. She did not have children with George Washington, but he raised her kids from a prior marriage and this is the house where they lived.

The house is surrounded by a beautiful garden. We kept getting lost at it, because we expected the scale to be similar to Filoli. It’s actually (being a city and not a county house) a lot smaller, so we’d constantly look for paths that we’ve passed awhile ago. Younger Kid was somewhat disappointed at not being allowed to touch those lead dogs, but I really liked it that he came up with the prohibition himself, all I had to do was to confirm it.

The tour is built around the day Marquis de Lafayette came to visit in 1824. Our guide was incredibly knowledgeable and enthusiastic about the house and its inhabitants and history, good and bad. It was more the idea of learning things about the past than what those things were – so she was equally enthusiastic about Lafayette, General Lee (who also visited, being a near connection by marriage), the gardener whose name unfortunately I’ve forgotten, and Martha Washington’s punch bowl (very beautiful, Chinese, made for export to Britain).

Younger Kid requested souvenirs, and got a hat (he’s been begging for a natty hat for awhile now) and lemon balm tea, which he said Older Kid will love. I need to figure out how to resist this particular sales approach.

Just outside, on the same street we found (and lightly sampled) a neighborhood herb garden. Younger kid also noted the rainbow and Ukrainian flags and concluded that these must be very good people. I’m inclined to agree.

Next, we went along the Georgetown Heritage Canal. Unfortunately, we were too late to get a boat tour, but we did examine the locks in detail. The next day we missed the same tour because of bad luck with Uber 🙁 It was a beautiful area and I hope Older Kid feels well enough Friday that we can attempt the tour again.

Sunday, and Monday we finished the day at the pool. Tuesday we were very tired and the pool was, according to Younger Kid, too full of people. That is why Wednesday we went to the gym. The gym at this hotel (Hilton Embassy on 10th) is well hidden – it’s on a lower floor accessible by only one of four elevators and unmarked. But it’s big, and well-equipped, and we spent an hour and a half there. Would’ve been more, but we forgot water bottles and there were no cups.

Thursday, unfortunately, was almost a complete loss as far as touristing goes – we went to the National Children’s Museum, which is an indoor playground.

There’s a cool climbing structure with a slide, but the one in San Diego is much more interesting.

There are some exhibits pretending to be scientific, but after Exploratorium they look weak.

Younger Kid enjoyed building a swing from wooden blocks and tackle (we tried to fit in a pulley, but there was no rational place for it), using an air stream to lift balls into a basket, and doing baseball practice hits. I was really impressed at how organized the line for the baseball was – kids intuitively, without discussion, agreed on the length of turns and kept to it politely and without fuss.

Afterward we walked back to the hotel, did another hour and a half of gym, and three hours at the pool. I barely pulled Younger Kid away by telling him the hotel restaurant will close. Fortunately, he really loves this restaurant.

He’s being quite adventurous with food – ordered a quinoa salad for breakfast (ate out pomegranate seeds and raisins and left the rest, but still) and an apple and cheddar salad for dinner (ate all the apples and cheddar and half the arugula, the waitress even commented on how much he ate – it was a very big bowl). Even more strikingly he followed up the salad with an “exotic mushroom” pizza, as opposed to his normal extra cheese. I’m becoming more and more optimistic about foreign travel.

Washington, DC 5.5

Tuesday evening we went on a ghost tour. I picked it because younger kid has never been on one before, and because I thought he might be bored on a historical one. Given how much he’s begged to go on the historical canal tour I may have been wrong about that one.

The ghost tour was fun, and more story than ghost, although it’s nice to know that the capitol building is haunted by a demon cat (DC, get it, get it?). None of my photos came out well, and the main thing I took away from the tour is the desire to see the Library of Congress from the inside and to do a Halloween overnight at the Folger Shakespeare Library.

The tour guide was funny, interesting, and generally great (Ghosts of D. C. tour – highly recommend) and it ended next to a very cool thing – a robin roosting tree full of robins. They were asleep and completely ignored us, even though we were almost close enough to touch them (I could’ve reached them if I’d jumped). They seemed fluffy from below, cozy, and somehow magical.

Washington, DC 5

On Tuesday we went to the zoo and took literally hundreds of pictures. There are way too many to show here, so I’ll just go with a few favorites. The zoo is big, but we saw all of it, except North American mammals, because we were tired and most of those we’ve seen in the wild.

Washington Zoo is not especially big (I believe San Diego and Miami may be larger), but it has two outstanding features that other zoos lack. The first, of course, is the pandas. Notice the adorable toe beans. Both kids believe that it looks exactly the same as our cat (the cat, while large, is somewhat smaller and tabby, but also has adorable toe beans)

My favorite part of the zoo was the Small Mammal House. Unlike other zoos that I’ve seen Washington Zoo has a lot of buildings, and most of them seem larger inside than they are outside. Small Mammal House looks small, but it’s very cleverly planned and positively enormous on the inside.

There were porcupines. Look at that lovely nose. No, seriously, look at it – isn’t it wonderful?

This is a chinchilla. Yes, I do feel guilty for eating beef. Yes, there is an obvious connection.

This is a rare desert sand cat. Younger Kid thinks it looks like our younger cat, but he says that about every non-chubby feline.

This is a lemur, on his way to goose another lemur and run away with an evil laugh.

Dwarf mongoose – much cuter than the regular-sized ones.

Very cute meercats grooming each other.

Of course it’s not just mammals. We saw at least a dozen different species of turtles and tortoises. This one is definitely threatening.

One of the coolest buildings was the Think Tank. Also small from the outside, on the inside it’s a full-sized museum of thinking, with lots to read, fun puzzles, interesting historical exhibits, a cool rat house (with a cool rat in it), and two large enclosures – for chimpanzees and orangutans. Orangutans get the option of either staying there or taking a high wire across the whole zoo to their regular enclosure. The point of them being there is to conduct experiments that would help figure out whether or not they are thinking, and if so, what and how. For instance, the experiment described while we were there had orangutans look at their main enclosure on a screen and tracked whether or not they are more likely to go there if they notice the other orangutans do something interesting.

Orangutans, of course, are impossible to photograph.

Lastly, we visited the Amazon building, which had really great birds and rays.

It also had lots of different frogs and toads, a waterfall, and water dripping everywhere from walls and balconies to form stalactites, which was a bit disconcerting.

Washington, DC 4

Monday we went to the Hirshhorn Modern Art museum. This is one Younger Kid specifically asked for. I was surprised, but went in with no expectations.

We started at the sculpture garden outside – sat next to creepy headless people, and ate ice cream. They watched us.

We also really liked these three:

Pretty awesome spider made out of strings or wires, thus less scary than a normal spider.

Miro, because of the amazing textures. It’s hard to tell in the photo, but the box is corrugated cardboard.

Typewriter eraser. Younger kid felt betrayed – both parents told him there’s no such thing.

White tree of Gondor (Younger Kid recognized it)

The Thinker – reminded me of the Black Rabbit from Watership Down

But our favorite was House I, by Lichtenstein. We did not make it spin, but the moment of going from thinking “it’s flat, but the illusion is that it’s 3D” to realizing that it is 3D was really great.

Hirshhorn was dark. Like an avalanche of gloom and terror.

Between the one spiky and beautiful globe of rainbows by Eliasson and the glorious prisms by Mary Bauermeister (above) was

  1. A funereal purple installation about consumerism killing the world https://hirshhorn.si.edu/exhibitions/john-akomfrah-purple/
  2. A deadly green film about the jungle (I wish I had photographed the leaves dripping paint) and the actor’s need to be constantly seen (a very sad and cynical riff on Socrates, but gloriously green, wet, and liquid)
  3. An exhibition of modern Chinese photography. I was most struck by a series of portraits of the artist’s parents (from revolution to old age, sickness, and death), a collage of hundreds of identical 3-people family photos, and a version of the traditional four seasons paintings (circle in a square with a branch and a bird) in which all birds have been messily killed. Keep in mind that I steered away from the scarier walls. https://hirshhorn.si.edu/exhibitions/a-window-suddenly-opens-contemporary-photography-in-china/
  4. A floor dedicated to an abstract Pickett’s Charge – chaos and violence in torn paper. https://hirshhorn.si.edu/exhibitions/mark-bradford-picketts-charge/
  5. An overwhelming, chaotic, complex and screaming black and white room about ravens, flood, absurdity, and inevitable destruction of the world, which may be a dream anyway.
  6. An exhibition centered on the pains and troubles of being a non-male artist
  7. A red white and black room about current politics and the world in general https://hirshhorn.si.edu/exhibitions/barbara-kruger-beliefdoubt/
  8. A desert-colored meditation by Dana Awartani about impermanence of home and memory. There was a mosaic tile, re-created with sand, on the floor, and a movie about the destruction of the same in an abandoned home in the village where her grandparents used to live before history happened, as it does. She made an immensely complicated pattern with colored sand in order to sweep it up, a melancholy mandala.

Therefore it’s not surprising that we went straight home afterwards, pausing only to admire a small enclosed and fragrant garden. What is surprising although it probably shouldn’t be is that Younger Kid paid careful attention to all of the above (esp. Dana Awartani’s film) and seemed to be thinking about it.

Washington, DC 3

On Sunday we started at the Beauvoir Playground, which is big, and lovely, and which I mainly did not see because I was sitting at the top guarding our luggage.

The playground is right next to the National Cathedral, lucky for me. Kids were a bit aghast at the idea of visiting a working church, but I managed to convince them.

The cathedral was just as beautiful as expected. I particularly enjoyed the carving of hell fire above the main entrance and the space window.

That done, we dropped off Older Kid in their first-ever strangers-only sleepaway camp (Animal Sciences+Leadership) and went on a tour of all Washington DC souvenir shops because Younger Kid wanted to buy a gift for Older Kid.

We made it through approximately 8, and bought a rubber duck and sunglasses. There is MAGA merchandise everywhere, and it’s really unpleasant. My compromise was buying from a store that had both kinds of merch.

Three hours at the pool, and that’s Sunday 🙂

Washington, DC 2

Oddly enough the 30+ degree heat is not too bad, nor is the humidity. In fact, I could use a bit more of the latter – the grey rainy weather is wonderful. I’m not really enjoying the sun, but the rain this morning was wonderful.

There is a lot of greenery everywhere, and all of it is either blooming or fruiting. Hibiscus flowers are amazing irl.

The kids were still very jetlagged and unhappy because of lack of sleep, so did not take heat well. They did perk up for a bit when faced with a row of 20+ food trucks in front of the museum of Natural History, at least half of which were selling ice-cream and boba, but Younger’s ice-cream turned out to be yogurt, and Older was just plain miserable. So, we decided to skip walking the National Mall, and went to the Natural History museum. It was amazingly beautiful.

There are random unconnected areas. We went to Mammals (Older Kid), Cell Phones (accident), Butterflies (joint decision), Insects (while waiting for butterflies), and three gift shops (Younger kid). Gems were insanely crowded, we peeked in and went right out.

Mammals are mainly stuffed mammals, which excited Older and saddened Younger and myself.

My top three things about that section were the statue of the Earliest Mammalian Ancestor

The elephant family tree (I would love having something like this on the wall)

Insects were great, and I could’ve used more of them.

Overall, each section was too small, and none had enough explanations, but I may just be spoiled.

The butterfly garden was small, but very full of butterflies and fragnant. It will, however, have to be a separate post 🙂

Washington, DC 1

The flight was full of pleasant surprises, from the send-off (I don’t normally giggle through the security line) to the short lines, to the kid packs distributed in the plane.

Unfortunately, the sleeping on the plane idea did not work. Neither I nor Older Kid slept, and Younger Kid slept little and fitfully 🙁

Fortunately, we were able to check in at 8 am and have breakfast at the hotel. This cost less than the breakfast anywhere else would’ve, and really simplified my life.

The hotel is right next to the park, and we saw some lovely things on our walk.

Suddenly running into the Ford Theatre and the house where Lincoln died (across the street) was odd. It’s the feeling of history I got at Paris and I did not expect it, although I probably should have.

One of my favorite buildings was the Woodward & Lothrop building, richly decorated in newly-re-painted ironwork.

The anguished face underneath the W&L logo is Zeus, known for his stoicism, while the horrifying ones below are self-portraits (sic!) of Horae, who, apparently, have major issues, probably as a result of being raised by Zeus.

I am unsure of which Hora portrayed herself above, but she is certainly fair-haired.