"Dear Friend of Romanian Studies," the letter began, and I was flattered to be included among that distinguished company -- even though I've never been to Romania, know little about its history and could not name any of its principal exports, navigable rivers or cultural luminaries.
Actually, it was a form letter from Georgetown University, inviting me to a reception for "scores of Romanian craftsmen, artists and musicians" who will be gathering on the Mall starting today to take part in this summer's Smithsonian Folklife Festival. The letter also promised a glimpse of a new portrait of the Romanian diplomat Nicolae Titulescu, previously unknown to me, which will be unveiled at the reception next week.
The photocopied form letter reminded me of a delightful but occasionally overwhelming fact about Washington. We are the world's capital of self-improvement. Not an evening passes without one of our city's noble institutions hosting a seminar, lecture, gallery tour or panel discussion -- all to make us better and wiser.
This is the part of Washington that never gets mentioned in the tedious attacks on life "inside the Beltway." The truth is, we are Cleveland and Dallas and Memphis writ a little larger -- with our own symphonies, art galleries, soccer leagues, school boards, discussion groups and church socials. People who only watch television or read newspapers might imagine that all Washingtonians ever talk about is politics and foreign policy. That, as we know from our own real lives, is laughably wrong.
It's true that there is a deadness -- and a meanness, too -- in our political life these days, which spills over into the cultural life of the region. But beyond the political blather, the Washington area is experiencing a kind of civic nirvana. The country is at peace, the economy is booming, and people are going out in the evening to, as my invitation put it, "enjoy a glass of wine, mingle with the Romanian artists, and view the new Titelescu portrait."
If you doubt that we are living in a new Athens, consider this list of events taking place around the region this week, culled from the Internet. Simply to contemplate so much civic improvement is invigorating and exhausting.
If the Romanians don't interest you, for example, an exhibit on South African crafts opens today at the Folklife Festival on the Mall. And nearby, at the National Museum of African Art, a splendid show has just opened featuring "Post-Apartheid Art from South Africa."
Elsewhere on the Mall, the Freer Gallery Thursday night continues its Turkish film festival with a feature called "Cholera Street." Before the movie, you might want to stop by the Rumba Club at the Hirshhorn Museum's "Latin Music on the Plaza" series.
If you're the kind of Washingtonian who likes a good lecture -- and who among us is not? -- the Smithsonian Associates is offering a delightful array this week. You can hear one tonight on the history of zoos, one tomorrow night by the British author A. N. Wilson on the decline of religious faith in the West during the 19th century and a lecture-concert combo Saturday on "Bossa Nova and Cool Jazz."
Speaking of music, the National Symphony's annual Summer Mozart Festival begins Thursday at the Kennedy Center. Also Thursday night, the Platters (remember them?) are performing at the Silver Spring Swings series of free concerts. And if you're still looking for music Thursday night, the U.S. Navy Band is performing one of its free summer concerts on the Ellipse. You may have missed the 266th anniversary of Martha Washington's birth 10 days ago, but the Mount Vernon Ladies' Association, the remarkable private philanthropy that maintains George Washington's home, hosts a daily series of tours, lectures and archaeological investigations.
And if you're really serious about self-improvement, the Smithsonian is offering its summer "Campus on the Mall." Course offerings range from this weekend's "Armchair Tour of Ancient Roman Port Cities" to next month's "The Many Delights of Beer." And a five-week seminar starts next month on what's surely one of Washington's favorite topics: "The Art and Craft of Ghostwriting."
I could go on. And on, and on. For in truth, I've barely scratched the surface of the region's cultural offerings. I haven't mentioned theater or dance, and I haven't touched the hundreds of religious and civic groups that will be out in the community this week -- taking meals to shut-ins, tutoring needy kids, struggling with recovering addicts. It's enough to make even a professionally jaded person scratch his head with appreciation.
The sociologist Robert Putnam wrote an essay several years ago called "Bowling Alone," in which he bemoaned the decline of voluntary civic associations in American life. Perhaps that's true, on some levels -- the nation undoubtedly has fewer bowling leagues and polka clubs.
But Washington may illustrate the counter-trend. No place in America has a greater reputation for cynicism and alienation. And yet, beneath the surface, we're a beehive of community activities. Oscar Wilde once observed that the problem with socialism was that it would take up too many evenings. That's the only drawback I can see to Washington's festival of enlightenment.