Notes on an Epic American Road Trip

It has been years (more than 5…) since I last contributed to the PIR blog.  But during a 6-week long roadtrip in April/May – covering San Francisco, Washington DC, Charleston SC, Vermont (my home), Baltimore + a lot of time at various points at Newark (NJ) airport – I decided that I’d had so many interesting experiences that I’d share some reflections:

  • Washington DC is where I spent the most time (over a month) doing fieldwork for the TRANSWORLD project on US-European relations.  It was the first time I’d been there in 10 years and the longest I’d ever stayed there.  Really feel like I got to know the place and was struck by what I found:
  1. I worked out of the Center for Transatlantic Relations at the School for Advanced International Studies of Johns Hopkins University.  CTR was a truly wonderful place from which to work:  I had quality time with their Fellows, post-docs, PhD students and enjoyed literally every interaction I had.  Gave a talk on ‘Britain’s European Debate’, at the request of CTR’s Director, the remarkable Dan Hamilton, who I first interviewed 18 years ago when he was Richard Holbrooke’s top adviser (when the latter was Undersecretary of State for Europe in the Clinton administration and sorting out the end of the Bosnia war).  For what it is worth, you can hear the talk I gave by clicking here.
  2. The DC license plate (on cars) has the motto:  Taxation without Representation!  Plucky!  DC, of course, has 1 Representative in the House of Reps, but no Senators.
  3. It is a surprisingly friendly and warm-hearted place, where people are very polite and it is easy to strike up conversations with strangers.  Feels like a quite small, southern town.
  4. One inevitably encounters immigrants from exotic, black (can’t think of any other appropriate adjective…) countries.  The taxi driver the night I arrived was from Ethiopia.  The guy I dealt with at the bank was from Jamaica.  I practiced my French with a woman at the CVS pharmacy in my neighbourhood (see below) who was from Haiti.  The guy who came to fix my internet connection was Sierra Leone (when I heard that, I told him I hoped he hadn’t lost any family in the slaughter there in the 90’s but he had…).  You can see why DC is a draw for them:  even with ‘sequestration’, it is a pretty much recession-proof city.  And they all fit right in there in what African-Americans themselves call ‘The Chocolate City’!
  5. I’d never noticed what an enthusiastic sports town Washington is.  The Nationals (baseball) have a very good team, even if they’ve under-performed this season so far.  The Capitols (hockey) also are good.  And – based on all the stickers on cars – people are crazy about the Redskins (American football), even if they now play in Maryland (I think) and they get heat about their politically incorrect name.  The only bad professional sports team they have are the Wizards (basketball), who are really bad and last won a championship in 1978…
  6. DC also is a terrific music town.  I was so busy with work (including marking Senior Honours dissertations in the evenings…) that I only got out to see one show:  Lori McKenna – a terrific singer & songwriter who I’ve loved for a long time – at a great venue called The Hamilton (because it is so close to the US Treasury & Alexander Hamilton was the first US Treasury Secretary).  But other shows I wish I could’ve seen:  Aimee Mann, Hugh Masekela and a tribute concert to the great jazz trumpeter Donald Byrd.  
  7. I read somewhere that Washington is sometimes called Hollywood for ugly people! And one can see why:  you see a lot of really geeky looking and badly dressed people who are (something like) counterterrorism or food safety experts…I guess.
  8. I had to travel really light and rotate a very limited wardrobe carefully, but was proud to receive a lot of compliments about my ties, so many that I lost count.  Think there’s a lesson here:  when you do interviewing fieldwork, it is important to look good as a sign of respect to those who are making time for you. 
  9. It can be very hot and humid in DC.  It is the one reason I could never live there.  It was in the mid-80s F when I first arrived and most days I just couldn’t wait to get home, out of my suit and tie, and into the shower.  And that’s April/May.  I was once there in August and it was like living in a swamp…
  10. I stayed in a couple different neighbourhoods (a hotel near Dupont Circle, with a friend in suburban Maryland) but spent most of the month+ in a short lease place in southwest Washington, close to where the Nationals play (went to a game; it was a 7 minute walk).  That neighbourhood has been transformed in recent years.  I remember being warned on a past trip that I shouldn’t go there at 12 noon on Easter Sunday!  The ‘hood still has pockets of terrible deprivation but clearly has been extensively modernised and (to be honest) gentrified, mostly as a result of Washington city administration buildings being built there (as well as the ballpark).  SW DC is where a lot of luminaries grew up, including Marvin Gaye, Elgin Baylor (a terrific baskeball player) and Nina Simone had lived in the building where my flat was.  
  11. VERY stressful – but humourous in retrospect – entry to my DC flat.  Came at end of long, exhausting travel day:  starting in San Francisco (7am flight, nearly 6 hours), then 3 hour wait at Newark airport, followed by 3 hour train Newark-DC.  Had to collect keys to my DC flat at one end of town then head to an opposite end (SW), where I got into building ok & found my flat only to discover:  there was clearly someone in the flat, watching ESPN Sports Centre with sound on loud.  Didn’t know what to do, so knocked once & then again louder.  Finally, just turned the key and went in to find no one there, but the TV on & up loud!  Anti-crime, break in tactic?  I never found out (& agent who rented me place was as surprised as me…).  But, boy, was I happy to be in my new ‘home’!
  12. One Sunday I went to the Presbyterian church just over the road from my DC place wondering whether I might be the only white person attending.  In fact, it was totally mixed race (as you can see from their web-site), there was terrific music, and all I met were just terribly nice.  I emailed the minister afterwards to tell him all that and we later met for coffee; he had spent time in Scotland.
  13. A new and distinctive feature of DC life is food trucks:  they are everywhere in the downtown area.  I was told that no successful restaurant is without one, dispensing any & all varieties of food, often (according to locals) at very high quality.  There was an Indian food truck every evening in my neighb in SW DC & I had a curry one night:  amongst the best I’ve ever had!
  14. DC always impresses me as the most politically powerful city in the world, but also one which is very fickle:  political issues bubble up, and everyone focuses on it for about a week – the gun control legislation that was voted down by Congress was an example while I was there – and then everyone moves onto the next issue.  Maybe helps explain why Washington seems so dysfunctional these days:  there’s very little time for reflection on the system, as opposed to the issue of the day.  Makes the recent, terrific book by Thomas Mann (who I saw on this trip) and Norman Ornstein, It’s Even Worse than it Looks, an even more important contribution.

Finally, a few general reflections (not specifically on Washington):

  • Charleston, South Carolina, where I went for a family wedding one weekend, is a truly amazing place.  For one thing, it is a long way from DC:  the mid-Atlantic region is really not ‘my part of America’:  I really only know New England, New York (whole state) & California (ditto), which is quite a lot of territory in itself.  But if you’d asked me how long it would take to get from DC to Charleston on the train before this trip (flights were outrageously expensive), I would’ve said ‘a couple of hours’  Try 10!  Went down on a Thursday & returned on Sunday, and it was a lot of time on the train.  But there was at least sporadic internet access on the train, which meant that I could use the time to work on the talk I gave at CTR (see above).  But, anyway, Charleston was great/interesting because:
  1. I got to stay with 9 members of my extended family in a huge house right on the beach at an idyllic place on the ocean just east of Charleston called Folly Beach.
  2. the wildlife was amazing:  exotic shore and sea birds, dolphins and alligators!
  3. Charleston has a real rich, old money, southern vibe about it, with palatial homes and beautiful architecture.
  4. It was the main port for slaves prior to (and during) the Civil War, and it has a sort of strange, tragic, sad vibe for that reason.
  5. It is considerably further south than Atlanta, so no wonder it took so long to get there on the train from DC!
  • The Boston Marathon bombings were traumatic from me:  being a New Englander (& fanatical Red Sox fan – that’s baseball), Boston is very close to my heart.  I also didn’t know for about 45 minutes whether my sister, who has run the Marathon multiple times, might be there when I heard of the bombings (she wasn’t).  Have to say that the coverage of the bombings and all that happened afterwards – ie total lock-down of most of the city – were covered brilliantly on the public radio Boston station (this is the barely-funded US equivalent of BBC local radio), WBUR, was brilliant.  I sent them a cheque after it was all over.
  • While I was in the US, the terrible tragedy of the West Texas fertilizer complex explosion occurred.  14 people died, 200 injured (including major burn cases), explosion left a crater 93 feet by 10 feet.  The back story is that Texas is notorious for hosting companies that flout basic, federal health and safety regulations.  The owners of the complex were repeatedly fined for doing so in the past (click here) and I read that the recent US energy bonanza that arises from ‘fracking’ probably stretched this complex even more than usual, since chemicals they produce are used in the fracking process.  Without stooping to cliches, it is clear that Cowboy Capitalism is alive and well in the US….
  • Finally, a weekend in Vermont in early May was perfect:  after a long, cold, difficult spring, the weather turned suddenly summer-like, I got to be with most of my immediate family, & there was a lot of time spent outdoors admiring Vermont literally coming to life beneath our feet, after the long, tough, dark Vermont winter.  No wonder we love spring, baseball and the Red Sox so much!

Thanks for reading.

John Peterson