Glad to Be Back and Eager To Know What's Going On

(By Peter O. Zierlein For The Washington Post)
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By John Kelly
Monday, August 25, 2008

So, did anything happen while I was gone?

I mean besides Washington's taxicabs getting meters and the Nationals getting a new ballpark and the Supreme Court striking down the District's handgun ban?

Oh, and "The Awakening" being pried from Hains Point and the Newseum finally opening and The Washington Post newsroom shrinking and the price of gasoline skyrocketing and the economy tanking . . .

No? Pretty quiet, huh?

Frankly, it was kind of nice to be gone for all of that. And between you and me, there's something to be said for being 3,000 miles away from the nearest presidential candidate. But, please, don't think it was all strawberries and clotted cream for me while I was away doing a fellowship at Oxford University. (That's where I've been for the past year. Don't feel bad if you hadn't noticed. There are people here at The Post who didn't notice. But they've been a bit distracted lately.)

Yes, there were strawberries and clotted cream -- and Stilton and port and veal medallions and roast potatoes crisping up in goose fat and Christmas puddings wrapped in a blue penumbra of flaming brandy . . . mmmm, Christmas puddings in a blue penumbra of flaming brandy.

Where was I again?

Ah, yes: England. There are worse places to spend a year, though to hear my Stilton-hating teenage daughters tell it, not many. I think in time, after years of quiet reflection and expensive therapy, they will come to appreciate having been rudely plucked from their schools, their friends and their familiar surroundings and deposited in a country where it rains all the time. I did it for them, you see, to broaden their horizons.

What I'm getting at is this: Travel teaches us about the places we visit, but it teaches us about the places we leave behind, too. As T.S. Eliot wrote: ". . . the end of all our exploring/Will be to arrive where we started/And know the place for the first time."

And so it is that being away from Washington made me value it all the more. Where once I saw Rockville Pike as an obscene blot oozing its mercantile poison across a blighted landscape, now, after spending a year in a place where all the stores close at 5:30 p.m. and you can't get a jar of low-fat chunky-style peanut butter to save your life, I appreciate the Pike's myriad retail offerings.

On the other hand, after a year of living without a car -- we walked, biked or took the bus -- I find the D.C. area's sclerotic traffic even more dispiriting than I did before. Bring on the $10 gallon of gas!

Everyone should be a foreigner at least once. It reveals the assumptions that the people you've always considered alien have about you.

For my younger daughter, being an American in England meant being repeatedly asked three questions by her classmates: 1. Are you a cheerleader? 2. Is your school back home like the one in the movie "Mean Girls"? 3. Can you do an Alabama accent? (Her answers: No, no and "A what ?")

The questions to me were nowhere near as interesting. Most of them were variations on a single theme: Who will be the next U.S. president?

I was considered a great disappointment when I confessed that I had no idea. But then, I've always been more interested in Washington the city where people live than Washington the capital where politicians work. Being away for a year did nothing to change that.

So now I'm back, pale from lack of sunshine, puffy from a diet of starch and ale, confused by cars driving on the right-hand side of the road -- and eager to see what I've missed. As before, this column is a two-way street. I hope you'll share with me ideas that you think belong here, starting perhaps with the things that make you long for Washington when you're away and the things that irritate you when you return.

My e-mail: My address: 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, DC 20071. My phone number: 202-334-5129.

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