Tuesday, May 26, 2015

One Down, Another One Coming

Phew! Memorial Day weekend is over, thank God! The motorcycles are gone, we get a break from the Rolling Thunder for a whole year.  So now we get a breather before bracing for the next onslaught of tourists, road closures and general chaos coming to the nation's capital for Independence Day weekend. Those who can will flee Washington and return when the dust settles down. I will be struggling to find my way to work and begging friends in the suburbs to invite me for a sleepover until the noise and crowds go away.

I still remember my first Independence Day in Washington. I was spending July of 1978 in the United States through an international student-exchange program, and my American hosts from suburban Virginia took me to Washington to attend the holiday concert with fireworks. I was impressed with the patriotism displayed on the Capitol lawn, people enjoying the camaraderie as much as the blueberries, wine and cheese, and dancing in defiance of the scorching sun. What a difference from my then-homeland Yugoslavia where none of my friends celebrated national holidays unless they were forced to, but enjoyed the days off in a private setting! 

During that first holiday in Washington, I was even more impressed with the order in which the event unfolded, with no one pushing or shoving, no trash left behind and with the smooth traffic that allowed us to return home literally within minutes.

Many moons later, I shudder at the thought of Independence Day celebration in my neighborhood because now it means having to travel long circuitous routes to anywhere I need to get. Living on Capitol Hill means having to use Independence or Constitution Avenue nearly anywhere you go, and those routes are closed to traffic during major holidays. Even walking through the area is not easy with fences allowing only narrow passages for crowds to squeeze through.  If you are not careful, you can get jammed in one of these crawling lines, unable to disentangle yourself for hours. So the best strategy is not to get anywhere near the Capitol at that time.

If only this were the sole glitch. But no, a much worse July 4 nightmare are the firecrackers. Despite the terror threat which seem to require battalions of police on the Capitol grounds, directing your every step (no "freedom of movement" here), the local police has no qualms about firecrackers blasting all over residential areas just blocks away from the congressional buildings, Supreme Court, Library of Congress and other important institutions. Noise lovers in my neighborhood acquire huge supplies of the cheap Chinese-made commodity and start shooting them off days ahead of the holiday for practice, and days after the holiday to use up the acquired arsenal. And for some inexplicable reason, firecracker consumers like to shoot between midnight and early morning hours. It is hard to comprehend why the police that force pedestrians into one particular path during the holiday events, have such complete tolerance for the indiscriminate explosions in the residential neighborhoods where many people have to get up at dawn the next day to get ready for work. Still and all, one could survive one noisy night a year (or two if you add New Year's Eve to that), but the explosions go on for at least a week and up to 10 days around July 4.   

In addition, Capitol Hill residents can expect at least one or two all-day blasting events at the JFK Stadium, with sounds carrying as far as the National Mall, but heard most loudly in the residential areas in between.  We pay such exorbitant property taxes for this?  Certainly not to feel free and comfortable in our homes. 

How did such great holidays as Memorial Day, Independence Day and even New Year's Eve turn into such dread-inspiring time for D.C. residents?   Gradually, of course. In my first years as a U.S. citizen, I still enjoyed going to the Mall with other European necomers, relax on a blanket and enjoy the fireworks. One memorable one was with a bunch of Slavic friends; a socially conscious Pole who condemned the fireworks as a "senseless waist of money that would be better spent on feeding the hungry of this world," and a Croatian one reacting to an especially spectacular fiery display: "Wow! This one could have fed all of Ethiopia," making everyone burst into a merry laughter.  The memory still makes me smile.

But we never go to the Mall any more. In fact we try to stay away from it as far as possible during the holidays.

European cities are going in the same direction.  During a recent visit to Italy after almost three decades, I was put off by the crowds.  St. Peter's Square used to be a lovely open space, amenable to leisurely strolling from one café to another.  Now it is a fortress surrounded by security gates with metal detectors.  Soon you may be asked to take off your shoes  before entering the hallowed ground.  And don't even try to get into a Vatican museum on the spur of the moment. Same goes for Florence, while Venice is to be avoided at all costs.  As my friend, an economist, noted: "That's because today there is 10 times more visitors to the same number of monuments."

Badminton anyone? Only if you can enter the park.
As the Washington D.C. area developed, what used to be a rural countryside has turned into a sprawling suburbia, where traffic is as bad as in the capital. A day trip in the country is unimaginable around holiday time because most of it would be spent in a vehicle. A weekend on the beach during the season could mean hours crossing the Bay Bridge, more hours driving through the outlet-shopping traffic outside your chosen resort, still more hours looking for a parking space at your destination, and then another hour looking for a spot on the beach.  I remember with nostalgia my early years in Washington when we used to zip to Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, in the morning and return home for dinner.  

Local national parks cannot accommodate the number of visitors that would like to spend a day basking in the nature.  On a holiday weekend, you may spend hours in the car just waiting to enter a park.

So if you cannot afford days off to leave town before the holidays and return after the crowds, you may as well stay in D.C.  Most city parks have picnic tables where you are more likely to find a space than anywhere out of town.  I am not telling which one is my favorite to make sure there is a picnic table available for me next time around.

Happy Fourth!
A legion of hogs descends on DC each Memorial Day weekend for the Rolling Thunder Motorcycle Rally. This “ride for freedom” draws upwards of 900,000 motorcycle riders from all over the country who journey to honor POWs and MIAs. While the riding rally, held on Sunday, May 24, is the main draw each year, there are other Rolling Thunder events on the docket, too: a candlelight vigil will be conducted on Friday, May 22; an official vendor site, Thunder Alley, will be opened at 9 a.m. at 22nd Street and Constitution Avenue NW, on Saturday, May 23; and on Sunday evening, look for Rolling Thunder’s Saluting Our Troops concert near the Vietnam War Memorial.
4. At dusk on Memorial Day eve, the West Lawn of the U.S. Capitol transforms into a patriotic concert venue. The free performance pays tribute to those who have served our country, and with a portion of the evening being dedicated to honoring current service members, there will be many opportunities for you to recognize active servicewoman or serviceman. As for the concert, it will be co-hosted this year by Tony Award-winner Joe Mantegna and Emmy Award-winner Gary Sinise, two actors who have taken on veterans causes in recent years, and it features the National Symphony Orchestra.
- See more at: http://washington.org/article/10-ways-celebrate-memorial-day-weekend-washington-dc#sthash.QxYqiZg6.dpuf

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