USA Part Two
After two wonderful weeks in Texas, having said a tearful ‘goodbye, for now’, we board an internal flight to Washington DC.
Why are we not flying home to England? Well, many moons ago, when I was eleven years and three months old – February 1968 in fact, I applied for a USA penfriend through my weekly comic, Princess Tina.
I begged a fourpenny stamp (pre decimalisation) and an envelope, from my mother without telling her what it was for. I posted the form in the local post box and told no one.
Exactly what my mother had thought I was doing I am not sure!
I had no idea of the workings of all this of course. How was I to know that my letter with its fourpenny stamp, had to wend its way across the ocean to America? On a separate piece of paper, I had to write the name of the comic, my name and my address. (This I did, probably in secret as my elder sister was never far away and might have poured scorn on my efforts).
I had put the letter to the back of my mind but at the beginning of April I received a letter, this is it.
It had been written on March 29th and is postmarked 4th April. Somehow, my hurriedly written request had travelled far on its fourpenny stamp.
Unbeknown to me then, my future penfriend’s class had been set a project and each had been assigned a pen pal. These pen pals, must have originated from the place where my own application had ended up.
My new Penfriend, AKA Pen Pal, lived in Caledonia, Minnesota. I had no idea what Minnesota was like but through her letters, I soon found out. Our correspondence had begun. Here’s the first photo she sent me.
Fast forward 55 years and here we are.
In all that time, we had not met until today, 17th April 2023. There was a short time when we didn’t write so often and as I concentrated on raising my family, and she on her career, somehow, as we both moved around, an address went missing. Had I known Kathy’s mother lived in the same house all her life, I would have contacted her but as it was, there were a few missing years in which I added to our family and Kathy changed addresses. In 1995 the internet came into our home. With it, came newfound skills to search.
There were no mobile phones nor was there Social Media of course but there was, ‘America Online.’ As previously explained, by contacting Kathy’s University Dean, I was able to learn that she was now known as Kate and that she worked at Gannett. A tentative email later (just to make sure I really had found the right person) I received a very pleased reply and we were back in touch.
Since that day, we have swapped emails more than snail mail. Even our then, four-year-old sons emailed each other for a time. However, still, we had not met in person. I think we both knew we’d know when the time was right.
Facebook opened up our lives even more and the world became smaller. Social media had arrived and with it the opportunity to actually participate in each other’s lives to some extent.
It wasn’t until 2022, while we planned our 2023 trip to Dallas to see Laura and the family, that I realised now would be an ideal time to break the return journey with a visit to Washington DC, to meet up with Kate. She was very excited, as was I. I was bowled over by her eagerness to help by meeting us at the airport and coming with us to look at the sights. I just knew we would get on as well in person, as we did in letter form.
Now, after all the planning, emailing and waiting, here we are!
Kate and husband Gary, meet us at the airport. As we wait by the exit, they pull their cars into the waiting bay to pick us up with our luggage. Heedless of traffic, I leave my bags with the others and we rush towards each other. Do we hug or not? Well, there is no question because we both hug, Kate hauling me off my feet as we express our utter joy and excitement at finally meeting face to face. Face to face may be the wrong expression, I am short, (“Teen- tiny” Laura squeaks whenever we are together). Kate is taller.
As we chat on the way to the hotel, we begin to believe it is happening. A quick freshen up and we join Kate and Gary for dinner at a local restaurant where the conversation flows. Here we are, Dave, Lisa and I, with Gary and Kate. Gary is interesting and easy company. We cannot believe we have only just met. Oh, and the thoughtful bags of goodies Kate had prepared for each us to take to the hotel were much appreciated, nibbles, fruit, notebooks, pens, hand sanitisers and water – such an unexpected kindness!
Kate is an absolute star over the coming days. She drives us places (We Uber to hers when necessary) she has booked us timed tours and ferries us around, despite not feeling quite herself at the moment. We stroll around the city, stopping for coffee or a bite to eat. Today, we visit the Library of Congress.
This is somewhere I have always wanted to visit. Dave loves it too and disappears for a while. He has found a 1st edition book by Danielis Bernoulli – Hydrodynamica, published in 1738. I think he could immerse himself in that room for hours! It is hard to drag him away.
From here we head to the Whitehouse where, on the same day, a toddler is on the news for climbing through the railings and causing a security alert. (Laura enquires whether it has really been her teeny- tiny mother) All right Laura, that’s enough! 😊
Leaving Kate, because the hotel staff told us we can walk back from here and Kate agrees, it should be a 15 minute walk, Lisa opens Google maps and checks,
‘Says it is 3.8 miles,” she frowns.
‘Can’t be!’ we reply and double check. It certainly says 3.8 miles but maybe there is a glitch in the directions.
I am not convinced. However, we decide to follow the directions, hoping Google maps will sort itself out as we go. We begin walking. After a mile, I become very concerned that our hotel is on 15th Street and we are now going from 12th to 11th…I am even more alarmed that we are now leaving the main byways and walking down the backstreets past dustbins and along cracked pavements. Can this be right?
It is hot, we are tired, we have no idea where we are…I swear I see 6th now.
We passed the Google building earlier. I think we should have gone in and complained about their app.
Finally, as we admit defeat with another 2.5 miles to go, we call an Uber. That is, Lisa orders the Uber. She orders them all on this trip, her bank account is over-loaded with them. Goodness knows what she has spent but it has been worth it.
Back at the Hotel, we check the map again, from here to the Whitehouse is 0.7 miles! Where have we been?
Kate invites us to have dinner at her house in Alexandria. Alexandria lies across the Potomac river. We leap at the offer. Mind you, she does follow up the invitation with an assertion that it won’t be very good as she is not a good cook. We go in spite of this, and I can say that the meal is delicious, Kate has done us proud. The house is so pretty and the garden, well, sitting on the terrace with a drink is superb; drink, company and surroundings are perfect. Kate produces items we have swapped over the years, among them, the locket I sent her as a teenager and a pen and ink drawing from when I was in my last year at school…I am quite overcome that she has kept my letters and these things for so long. I then recall that I still have all the letters and gifts she sent me, including a velvet choker, highly fashionable in the seventies, now safely tucked away in my jewellery box, having been worn often back then. Dave and Gary marvel at our tenacity I think.
Deciding to breakfast next door at the affiliated, Blue Stone Lane café, on day three, Dave, Lisa and I order at the counter using the automated screen before realising we have ordered a takeout. Oops, we wait an age as the order gets mixed up because we are in fact eating in. Cold boxed up toast is not good. Never mind, lesson learnt.
Happily, we will have lunch with Kate today.
Temperatures this week are around 30 degrees.
Today, we are going to the US Capitol Building. Yes, the very building that was stormed after the 2020 election. Today all is peaceful in the sunshine. Kate has booked us in. We are meeting her there.
Our Uber driver drops us on the far side of the building. We message Kate. She is on 1st Street, she tells us, where we were yesterday. We cannot remember exactly where we were yesterday, but we think it will come to us if we just walk round the building. We won’t trust Google maps. So, we push ahead and finally, we find the queue and Kate joins us. Ah yes, this is where we stood yesterday! There is the lovely little café that I remember. The Sweet Lemon Café, I believe.
Shepherded towards the Visitor’s Centre, our bags passing through airport-like security…us through a scanner, I ask the official who takes my bag, if I need remove my necklace.
‘No, ma’am I don’t think it’d suit me anyway,’ he grins. How refreshing! A security guard with a sense of humour 😊
On arrival, we are shown a film which gives us an introduction to the way the American political system works. This is very interesting to those of us who have always found it a little mysterious. With all that knowledge tucked away for later perusal, I am sure Dave will be the one perusing it as he remembers everything, we are given a tour of the building by our designated, red coated, guide.
‘No taking photographs on the stairs!’ barks our guide into our headphones, as we climb to the second floor. So, guess who has to be reminded on the way down? Yes, Lisa. ‘No photos on the stairs,’ barks another guide, several times in fact, before Lisa realises he is speaking to her. Think of the health and safety aspect Lisa!
We all take plenty of photographs (not on the stairs) just because it is all so stunning and photo worthy. The ceilings and paintings are breathtaking, the statues impelling…hard to believe anyone stormed this place a couple of years ago.
It is no surprise that we choose to lunch at The Sweet Lemon Café. The aroma of freshly baked food, draws us in and the quiche, hot from the oven, is delicious. It is good to rest our weary feet for a moment. I think we have worn Kate out this week, as she tries to fit us in between work commitments, or should that be, she tries to fit work in between commitments to us? LOL! We decide to catch an Uber to the monument while Kate heads home. We are meeting up with her and Gary later in Old Town Alexandria.
Washington’s buildings are not tall. No buildings are allowed to be built taller that the monument, hence the latter can be seen from any point in the City.
Lisa takes the opportunity as we sit on the grass, to Facetime her Mum who is back home in the UK and who thinks it amazing that we, in America, are in her living room. Given how Kate and I began conversing, it is pretty amazing, I have to agree.
The WW2 memorial is captivating and consists of 56 granite pillars arranged in a semi-circle around the plaza. Each pillar is inscribed with the name of one of the 48 US States of 1945. Yes, more photos…
Should we attempt walking from here to the Hotel? Since I have left my guide books and helpful map back in the UK, it was stressful packing and arranging dog care and getting the beds made for our housesitters and doing all those things that one has to do before embarking on the trip of a lifetime, we decide not to trust Google maps today and Lisa calls an Uber.
Old Town Alexandria is vibrant, friendly and a feast for the eyes. We stroll along the river bank and try to capture just a little of the evening on our screens. We eat dinner in a local restaurant and you may notice, we have smartened up for the occasion.
When we finally say goodnight, we realise that tomorrow will be our last full day in Washington.
Our last day dawns hot and sunny. Breakfast at the hotel is hit and miss. Lisa declares to the befuddled head waiter that we have no butter on the table. The waiter declares, “you do. There it is, in that little pot, next to the ketchup”. Lisa tastes it.
“That’s not butter, it’s cream,’ she declares.
“It’s butter Madam, are you from Holland?”
“The UK, but that is not butter,”
The waiter takes a deep breath to stop himself from exploding,
“Madam, I have worked here for many years and I assure you, that is butter,’
I cringe, Lisa shrugs and nods, finally accepting what he says. He departs to cool down, doubtless thinking how mad the British are!
I spread the ‘butter’ on my toast. It tastes a little odd but I am not about to complain.
I have also ordered cereal but it never arrives.
You might think we are staying in an odd hotel. This is not the case. The Darcy is wonderful. The staff are friendly and warm (That waiter just could not cope with Lisa) and our suites are delightful. We love it here.
We are meeting Kate at her house this morning (Lisa orders an Uber) and she plans to drive us to Mount Vernon to see George Washington’s House.
It is a very pretty drive and makes us quite homesick for England as we see the green fields and trees glide by. We have enjoyed Texas for its contrasts, for being ‘different’, Washington DC for its cosmopolitan feel and city sights but Virginia is green and welcoming in a different way, a calm way. We miss the UK!
At Mount Vernon, George Washington’s house beckons. From the outside, it looks to be made of stone but closer inspection reveals it to be built from yellow pine that has then been ‘rusticated.’ The planks are bevelled and treated with paint and sand to look, from a few feet away, like stone. I will allow you to enjoy the photographs and to take a peek at the more magical parts of this place, such as the fife player who regales visitors with tunes from home as well as offering facts about the Civil War. A rendition of, ‘Soldier soldier, will you marry me, with your musket, fife and drum,’ enthralls us.
Lisa orders another Uber, our last? once back at Kate and Gary’s, and knowing we will meet up for the last time this evening, for dinner near our hotel, we take a last, lingering look at Alexandria.
It is evening.
The restaurant is noisy and full of life. We could have picked a quieter venue perhaps. However, the staff are lovely and I swear Freddy Mercury, reincarnated, serves us.
As we chat, we think how sad it is to be meeting up for the last time. We feel as though we have known each other forever (In a way Kate and I have). As we leave the restaurant and stroll along the Washington streets, it is hard to believe that, just a few short days ago, we had never actually met.
We reach the car park where Gary has left his car and we must say goodbye. This has been a real adventure, and we feel we are leaving behind old friends, the best kind, the kind one can meet up with any time in the future and carry on from where we last left off.
That, I suppose is the true test of friendship.
It is time to leave. Our bags are packed, our taxi is here, we head to the airport. As we set our watches to five hours hence, we will land at Heathrow just after 6am. We fly into the sunrise.
Well, what a trip this has been!
We spent two weeks with Laura and the family in Texas. We visited Dallas, the Sixth floor museum and the Arboretum, and let’s not forget Southfork! We experienced our first Rodeo, and had plenty of cuddles and time with the grandchildren (and Laura). It was so hard to leave. In Washington DC, we cemented a friendship started 55 years ago and one that will continue. We visited the Whitehouse, The Capitol Building and The Library of Congress and we went to Mount Vernon. Throughout it all we had the best guides, saw the most memorable sights and can’t wait to do it all again, um, think I need a good long rest first!