Living in Washington, one can't help notice little differences that set it apart from other cities. For one thing, the word "national" gets appended to almost everything -- airport, zoo, cathedral, symphony, museums. The D.C. phone directory has more than seven pages of listings that begin with "national."
Then there are all the dignitaries. Unfazed drivers sit through traffic jams caused by screaming police cars and motorcycles that escort heads of state all over town.
But it's the people who really make a city unique, and listening to what they say is the true key to understanding local culture. Certain themes that tie one generation to the next continually emerge in conversation. Chicagoans, for example, are forever debating the merits of nighttime baseball. Bostonians exchange advice on when and where to get the best deal on lobsters.
But in Washington, topics of conversation have the life expectancy of one budget cycle. Culture? That's something everybody is waiting to go home to whenever they finish what they came for.
That doesn't mean that conversation here can't be revealing. It's just that to get at Washington's character, you have to pay attention to what isn't said.
Here are some statements you may hear other places but rarely will pass the lips of a true Washingtonian:
What say we head on down to the ballpark and catch a baseball game.
My, that's a tall building!
That does it. I'm writing a letter to my senator.
What this town needs is a good museum.
Hi, honey, I'm home early. I made all the lights and there was hardly any traffic.
I think they ought to get rid of half the government.
What a nice airport.
Money and power just don't turn me on.
(At 2 a.m.) Let's go out and get a pizza.
(In July or August) It's so nice out, why don't we eat on the patio?
It's real easy to get there from here. Just go straight down this street.
I'm not working on anything important. I think I'll stay home today.
Oh, now I see how the subway system works.
Go ahead and park there -- the police have more important things to do than worry about parking tickets.
Just catch a taxi. The driver will know how to get there.
I don't know the answer to that.
I'm not really interested in politics.
I just don't know any lawyers.
I'll take you to this little out-of-the-way cafe' I found. Nobody knows about it.