It was said to me in a low voice at one particular moment, but it could have captured any one of a million moments.
My few days in Washington have taken in a number of cultural highlights. From the grey, glass-and-steel, sprawling-shopping-centre dullness of corporate suburbia at Tyson’s Corner, where so many contractors converge to grow fat off the Federal Government, I moved to an altogether less sanitised slice of America.
Driving through one of Washington’s less salubrious neighbourhoods, I was able to take in a matinee performance of the ‘crack shuffle’. I cannot say it put me in mind of the ‘kabuki’ theatre I attended in Tokyo; imagine something a little more akin to street improvisation. The jerky, seemingly incoherent and unpredictable movements of the lead mesmerised as we slowed to a crawl through a junction in Washington.
In Baltimore, we passed through areas that would have made London’s inner-city council estates appear full of joy and hope. Stretch after stretch of three story barrack-house brick-built blocks of flats ended in a prison surrounded with barbed-wire. Straight after the prison was a left turn onto Constitution Street. The narrow lane carried a rather damaged air, hemmed in as it was with high walls, aging cars and yet more barbed wire. We turned right instead, away from the prison and the barbed wire and the low rise blocks of flats. We passed, instead, the Baltimore Reedom School; the F had long since gone and the new spelling somehow seemed a little more appropriate.
For dinner there was Ben’s Chilli Bowl, a Washington institution since 1958. We sat at the bar eating chilli-con-carne slopped over chips and watched the staff ‘clean’ the grime from the stove by first scattering ice cubes across its top, and then scraping the surface with a burger flipping spatula. Moments later, the same implement was indeed used to flip the weird pink meat that was to make a burger, or at least flip the bits of patty that had not cemented themselves to the newly cleaned metal surface.
Were these where I was in the right place? Or was it the Buddhist meditation session I attended at a Unitarian church? It is hard to know where to begin. But I will trust to my companion. I was in the right place.
And indeed I was. Few weeks have been as restful and simply enjoyable as this week with a friend in Washington. For the most part I stayed away from the tourist trail: I have been here a couple of times before. Still, it was interesting to look inside the Library of Congress (it felt so much smaller than either the Bodleian or the British Library), and to enter the Rotunda of the National Archives to see the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights. I visited too, the National Cemetery at Arlington, and walked around the serried ranks of gravestones. I visited the tomb of the Unknown Soldier and watched two nineteen year old soldiers go through their paces in the changing of the guard. My companion, himself an ex-(US) marine, showed me the graves of his friends and told me their stories. These were stories, always tinged with sadness, of extreme humanity, told with a gentle joy. Though the graves stretched to beyond where the eye could see, these stories seemed to stretch back even further.
So my week has ended. Tomorrow I will again be in the office in Riyadh. This slice of America, from junkies to war heroes, from buildings crumbling into despair to people overflowing with optimism, from fast food to fine food, demands that one ask oneself ‘where am I meant to be?’.
Was my companion right? I still will trust to him. I was in the right place. But where next will the right place be?