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So Long, Washington (for Now)

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By Anne Applebaum
Wednesday, May 24, 2006

To be perfectly honest, I never really got used to it. However many times I had to say it, the words never sounded natural. "What does your husband do?" the nice woman in the carpool line or the pleasant man at the cocktail party would ask, and I'd try to toss it off lightly: "Well, actually, he's the defense minister of Poland."

Then the nice woman or the pleasant man would look at me slightly cross-eyed, trying to guess whether I was serious. After they had worked out that I was indeed completely serious, they would demand explanations. "How on earth did that happen?" was a frequent question, as if the answer might involve some mysterious deus ex machina or a coup d'etat, nothing so dull as a democratic election. "Oh, that must be terribly difficult," was a common commiseration -- as if we were discussing a great tragedy. But my favorite reaction by far -- and it was by no means unusual -- came from the people who wrinkled their foreheads and asked:

"Is that a job you can do in Washington?"

Well, no, being Polish defense minister isn't a job you can do in Washington. Nor is it a job that can be done while commuting from Washington. On the contrary, the Polish defense minister pretty much has to be in Poland all the time, what with cabinet meetings to attend, NATO summits to plan, interviews to give and troops to manage in Iraq, Afghanistan, Kosovo and elsewhere.

Nevertheless I find it heartwarming that so many Washingtonians think that maybe someone could be the Polish defense minister while living in Washington. It is often alleged that we now live in a thoroughly globalized world, a world where everyone knows everything in real time, where everyone has instant access to all information, where the man who answers Microsoft's help line is in Bangalore and the grapes at the Chevy Chase supermarket come from Chile. Yet even so, Washington -- the metaphoric capital of this globalized world -- still retains a streak of the small-town provincialism it had when I was a child.

Those who live in the orbit of the White House and Capitol Hill still find it hard to imagine how anyone could bear to exist beyond the Potomac watershed. Those who live in the orbit of the Chevy Chase supermarket still think of foreign countries as places to go on vacation. Poland, Brazil, Congo, Kazakhstan, Wherever: They may be Allies, they may be Strategic Partners, they may be Important Front Page Stories, but -- let's face it -- they're still less absorbing than the latest K Street scandal or Little League game. It's a relief, somehow, to know that the global village hasn't yet replaced real villages altogether.

I concede that there really was something odd about living for the past year in Washington while my husband ran for election to the Polish senate, joined the government there and became defense minister. There was a long prehistory to the situation (we lived in Poland before, my husband was in government before) and a good explanation for it (I wanted my children to finish the school year here), but it's still been surreal to read about his life in the Polish press -- while waiting in that carpool line on my way to the supermarket. All of which is an overlong way of explaining why this column is about to disappear, temporarily. When it reappears, a few months from now, I will be in Poland or somewhere close by.

But I doubt I'll write again about my husband's job: After all, my views about most things were formed long before he had it. In fact, I'm only writing about it now because if I don't explain why I'm leaving, lots of people -- relatives, friends, childhood acquaintances -- will wonder what happened. I realize, of course, that out there in cyberspace no one could care less if another local writer leaves town for Europe or blasts off into outer space. But Washington -- not the metaphoric Washington, but the real Washington -- still cares about its offspring. And I hope it always will.

applebaumanne@yahoo.com


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