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Doris writes a weekly column for LaGaceta, the nation's only trilingual newspaper, which has pages in English, Spanish, and Italian.  Begun in 1922 for Tampa's immigrant community, it continues to thrive more than a century later.  Her column is titled "In Context," as it aims to put contemporary issues in the context of the past.

Christmas in DC

Partly because of a computer glitch, but mostly because I confused my calendar, I wrote this almost two weeks before you will read it. Please put your mind back into a holiday mode, OK? And I hope you had happy ones.

I’m in Shelton, North Carolina, where a sign in the lobby of the Hampton Inn says they have won “the Connie Award” named for famed hotelier Conrad Hilton. Who knew? Either that he was called Connie or that a small town in far western North Carolina would be an award winner?

Hubby and I are on our way back from Washington, where we spent Christmas week with our daughter and son-in-law. First off, never let anyone tell you that the DC area gets an unfair share of federal transportation dollars. Traffic there is horrendous – and has been for decades, even after the construction of an extensive rail system. We lived in Arlington, Virginia, when we were young and before the interstate system, and it was bad then. It still is. Back then, the only viable north-south highway was US 1 (yes, the same US 1 that dead-ends at Key West), but in the nearly half-century since then, the only north-south interstate that has been built is I-95 (yes, the same one that runs from Maine to Miami). There’s only one east-west interstate (I-66), and it dead ends at the Potomac River, many miles before the eastern Virginia and Maryland suburbs end.

The result was that, without intending to, we went by our old Arlington stomping grounds on our way to the White House. Our daughter lives in Manassas, Virginia (yes, where the first real battle of the Civil War was fought in July 1861; the Rebs routed the Yankees), and we were headed up I-95. Even though Manassas is less than 30 miles from downtown DC, we figure it takes at least an hour and twice that at rush hour – which begins at 3:00 and lasts to 7:00, as the feds use flexible work hours in a (nonetheless nearly futile) attempt to ease congestion. It was about 2:-00 when we saw a sign that traffic on I-95 was completely stopped ahead, so we got off on US 50. We knew from living there long ago that it eventually would take us to our old neighborhood near Arlington Cemetery and on to the Lincoln Memorial Bridge near the White House.

That detour turned out to be a good thing, as I realized that the secret military installation where Hubby worked back then is promoting peace now. Then it was the headquarters of the Army Security Agency, and he spent his days spying on the USSR and decoding – or trying to decode – its electronic messages. The heavily guarded facility was near the Pentagon and of course under the Department of Defense (I prefer the old name, Department of War), but now it has been transferred to the Department of State (which I’d like to call the Department of Peace). It serves now as a training facility for diplomats headed abroad. That’s real progress.

Just a bit of personal feminism here. I worked at US News & World Report magazine in those days, which was based in Georgetown. I didn’t get off work until 6:00, while Hubby was off at 4:00. His office was two blocks away from our apartment, while my commute took at least a half-hour. It never occurred to either one of us that he could start supper.

* * *

We were headed to the White House to fulfill a longtime ambition of mine – to see it decorated for Christmas. We got the last possible tour, at 5:00 on December 22. It was dark, rainy, and cold, but we didn’t have to stand in line too long before we cleared security and got a wheelchair for Hubby’s arthritic knee. That turned out also to be a stroke of good luck, as an escort took us to the only available elevator through the kitchen. The first family was in Hawaii by then and the staff was getting a well-deserved break, so it was quiet -- but the thing that impressed me most is that the kitchen is much smaller than I expected. Workers must have to almost stand on top of each other when they are preparing a state banquet. Nor are there any décor amenities, there or in the adjoining halls or elevator. Many – perhaps even most – chefs in good restaurants work in better circumstances.

In fact, that was my impression of the whole place. Maybe it’s because we went through larger palaces in Poland this summer, but the White House struck us (for the first time) as smaller than it should be. Someday I’ll research the measurements, but I’ll bet you could fit several White Houses into Buckingham Palace and many more than that into Windsor Castle. Nonetheless, of course, it was beautiful. Dozens of Christmas trees, wondrously decorated. Informative plaques in every room that told us interesting bits of history for the Red Room, the Green Room, and on and on, including the state dining rooms – which again struck me as small compared to similar ones in Europe. I believe we saw every room on the first floor, and it was a truly democratic experience. The staff was friendly and helpful, and they let us proceed at our own slow pace. A group of violin students at the end skillfully performed carols, including religious ones, and we listened until they finished. There is no war on Christmas, certainly not in the White House.

* * *

Another thing for which the White House gets no credit is the plunge in gas prices. Even though it’s still high holiday travel time, between Christmas and New Years, we saw $1.89 in rural Virginia. It was possible to find gas in the metro area for only about twenty cents more. So I want to remind you of that great prognosticator, Newt Gingrich, who declared that if Obama were elected, gas would be $6 a gallon. Many Republicans still think Newt is smart. These same people also have nothing to say about the fact that the Dow went over 19,000, compared with 9,000 in the last weeks of Dubya’s administration. And again, an astonishing number of people are ready to hand the reins of government to a third Bush. What are they thinking? Could it be any clearer that this memorized catechism on economics is simply wrong, even for their own interests?

Final thought. One of the things that makes the DC area so fascinating is the large number of foreigners who gravitate to it. They bring with them cultural habits and especially cuisine that add new dimensions to American life. Our sweet daughter combined the old and the new for me on different days. She took me to tea at the magnificent Willard Hotel, which was well established when Julia Ward Howe wrote “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” there during the Civil War. (Tampa’s Stuart Golding restored it in the 1980s, by the way. And the lobby ceiling has the seal of each state, with Florida’s directly above the old-fashioned message desk.) On another day, dear daughter made reservations at a Korean bathhouse. With a dozen different types of saunas, many whirlpool opportunities, an ice room, and massage options, it was a fine experience. Even the kimchi in the associated restaurant wasn’t bad. And having eaten kimchi daily during a month in Korea, I’m no fan.

We are so lucky to live in the United States. For most of us, that was just accidental good fortune, and we should be grateful that we don’t have to apply for the citizenship that millions desperately seek. And if you haven’t been to our nation's capital lately, you should go. It’s one of the world’s few capitals that was planned to be such, and that shows in its laid-out lines of historic monuments, parks, museums, and the graceful grandeur of buildings that house our representative government. The effect is to make you humbly proud to be an American.

Doris Weatherford writes a weekly column for La Gaceta, the nation's only trilingual newspaper. With pages in Spanish, Italian, and English, it has been published in Tampa since 1922.
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