A European finds a Washington she did not know existed

July 21, 2011

Nancy Pelosi was scurrying past reporters outside the Capitol, avoiding any comment about what had everyone inside the building abuzz: the resignation just minutes before of pants-dropping and Democratic ire-raising Rep. Anthony Weiner.

A few hundred feet away, Veronika Zaludova was trying to ignore another below-the-belt topic. An anti-circumcision activist, armed with startling facts (the foreskin has 20,000 nerve endings!) and graphic posters, was blocking the vista of the Mall and Washington Monument laid out in Zaludova’s camera’s viewfinder. She patiently waited out the protester, who moved on to lecture a Midwestern mom. (“Your kids, all kids, need to know this!” the activist enjoined.) Zaludova ignored the exchange and snapped her shot of the Mall.

“It’s like the back yard of someone’s house,” she said of the back lawn of the Capitol. “Everyone is just doing what they want, like it’s their own.”

Like Pelosi, who had ventured outside into the media scrum to plant a tree in honor of the late Rep. John Murtha, Zaludova ignored the distractions and proceeded with her mission of the day: to see the Mall, museums and monuments. On the third day of her four-day trip to Washington, the 34-year-old Czech, now living in Zurich, had had enough of boutique-hopping in Old Town and standing in line for cupcakes in Georgetown, and was ready for “the real tourist tour to start.”

“Ever since I saw these buildings in my textbooks, I’ve wanted to get up close,” she said. “And it’s like I’m still looking in the book. They’re just as monumental in person, maybe more.” It was this sense of awe that kept her from getting distracted by the Beltway version of Washington, with its texting scandals, deficit battles and TV satellite vans at the ready.

Zaludova hadn’t paid much attention to the headlines and had decided against taking a tour of the Capitol. “When I am on vacation, I don’t want to watch other people work; I don’t want to be reminded of the stress, of sitting at a desk.”

* * *

Zaludova had the perfect guide to give her a tour free of politics and heavy on monuments: Terezie Palmer, her college roommate and flat-mate in Prague.

Although Palmer first moved to the Washington area six years ago, she had recently rediscovered a newcomer’s sense of wonderment regarding the city. In 2008, she left her home in Springfield to take a job with the United Nations and immediately fell in love with the energy of New York, which intensified her sense that Washington was boring. “It just felt so flat, no energy compared to Manhattan,” Palmer said. Since her return to the area in 2009, Palmer said her appreciation of “the calmness and the greenness” had deepened. “I don’t know, somehow the beauty of D.C., the wide-open spaces and the history just opened up to me.”

When Zaludova told her she was making her maiden voyage to the United States for a three-week visit to see friends in New Jersey, New York and Washington, Palmer began buying the makings for a true Czech dinner and mapping out a mix of comfy, suburban excursions (yoga class, dog walks, meeting Palmer’s husband and work friends for a truly American happy hour) and more cultural and historical jaunts.

“I want to show her what I love about D.C.: how you can just get off at Union Station, walk a few blocks and be right here,” Palmer said, opening her arms wide to take in the Capitol. “I’ll never forget my first real visit downtown. I just kept on walking once I got off the Metro. It felt so new and fresh, not like in Europe, where the beauty is in the diversity of all the different sizes of buildings. Here, you could see how they’d planned it to look: big and beautiful and perfectly laid out.”

In the middle of an overcast work day, with no marches or rallies on the schedule and only the occasional Hill staffer on a lunchtime walk, name badge swinging with each step, signs of Washington’s official business were few and far between.

“It’s like make-believe almost, as if no one really works or lives down here,” Zaludova said, as they made their way toward the Smithsonian Castle. Even those who were working didn’t quite fit the part. When a federal agent, outfitted in shorts and a knit shirt with FBI emblazoned across the back, zoomed past on his modified Segway/scooter hybrid, Zaludova and Palmer giggled at the less-than-menacing sight. “That’s the FBI?” she asked. “What’s he going to do riding that around?”

Later, taking a break in front of the Washington Monument, Zaludova was blending in in ways she hadn’t quite expected.

“Here, I feel like I’m part of an exhibit, like all the museums are turned inside out, and we’re all just in this beautiful, peaceful display,” she said. Two high school runners sprinted past, finishing an after-school practice. The runners’ labored, almost synchronized breathing matched the flap of the flags around the monument’s base, creating a low, rhythmic hum. Palmer lay down on the grass, as if lulled into a siesta.

“There’s a kind of respectful silence,” Zaludova said. “I keep expecting someone to shush us if we talk too loudly!”

Two helicopters whirred past, interrupting the reverie, looping toward the White House. Palmer started counting. “If there are three, then it’s the president,” she told Zaludova. “At least, that’s what they say. Who really knows?”

* * *

With the World War II Memorial in view, the two friends checked the time. They’d planned on going to the jazz club Bohemian Caverns later but were starting to wonder if they should scrap it. Zaludova had left her passport in Springfield. “You Americans are very serious about seeing IDs when it comes to bars,” she said. Instead of risking being turned away at the club’s door, they decided to continue their monumental march. Besides, Zaludova still hadn’t spotted her Moby Dick of the Mall photo ops: the Reflecting Pool.

Although most images of the Mall had come from Zaludova’s history books and intense pre-trip online research, at least one was manufactured in Hollywood: At each body of water along the route, Zaludova asked her pal, “Is this the one from ‘Forrest Gump?’ ” referring to the scene in which Forrest’s sweetheart, Jenny, runs through the pool to see him. When Zaludova finally arrived, there was no water. Instead a large under-renovation sign and fencing stopped the two in their tracks.

“Nothing is reflecting off of that,” Palmer said, pointing to the mounds of dirt. Still, Zaludova gamely posed for a photo, her arm slung around her best friend’s shoulder, steel fencing filling the background.

* * *

The ability to reach out and touch what had only been in history books, art magazines and movies helped sustain Zaludova’s sense of awe.

Two weeks before, she’d read an article about the revered Swiss sculptor and artist Alberto Giacometti. Zipping into the east wing of the National Gallery of Art for a quick bathroom break, Zaludova encountered “Walking Man II,” the Swiss artist’s life-size bronze sculpture. (“Walking Man I” broke records in 2010, selling for $104.3 million at Sotheby’s in London.) “A piece of his had just sold for $17 million, and here was his work, right there on the way to the toilet!”

At the Lincoln Memorial, she put her feet where Martin Luther King Jr. had stood, moving over to catch a free history lesson: “It was on this spot in 1963 that Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his ‘I Have a Dream’ speech,” the tour guide shouted to anyone within earshot.

Although the space around Lincoln’s statue was more packed than a K Street bar at happy hour, Zaludova seemed oblivious to the hustle. Dozens of cameras pointed at Lincoln, but she avoided tourists jostling for a better picture, then made her way back out to the steps, where she looked back toward the Capitol, taking in how far she’d come in two hours.

“I can’t get over the space — such wide-open spaces here. That is the defining sense of D.C.,” she said. “I do like the skyscrapers of New York, but actually seeing the sky is a very good thing — I feel like I can breathe here.”

And that was exactly what Palmer had hoped her friend would do: breathe in the Washington that had welcomed Palmer back when she returned from New York. After living in Zurich for three years, Zaludova was smarting from Switzerland’s close-knit, almost insular culture, where the term “friend” is reserved for those you’ve known since childhood. Friends met later in life, she explained, are called “colleagues,” even if they don’t work together.

“I’ve probably made more friends in America in the last three weeks than I’ve made there in three years living there,” she said. Strangers chit-chatted with her on the Metro, fellow yogis slid their mats over to make room for her in Alexandria, and a cashier in Georgetown gave her a free cup of frozen yogurt. The easygoing warmth of Americans was proving to be the best surprise of all.

“I’ll be honest: I was worried. I thought people here would be too [reserved], not nice, not willing to help me or talk to me,” Zaludova said about her pre-trip jitters. “But everyone is so chatty and ready to talk. It’s not like they’re telling you their private lives, but no one lets you feel alone for too long.”

Small talk and the kindness of strangers pulled Zaludova deeper into the exhibit that is Washington in the summertime. As they walked, arms around each other, through the National Gallery’s Sculpture Garden, Palmer showed Zaludova the installation that looks like a metro station in Paris. “I like to come here when I miss home,” Palmer said, explaining that not only the architecture, but also the wintertime ice-skating remind her of Europe.

“Well, we’ll have to come back here in the winter and skate, like real Europeans,” Zaludova said. And they headed off to pose for photos under a stainless steel tree, designed to look like the real thing.

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