Washington - The woman who sat on the toilet too long (and other odd American tales) - CycleBlaze

May 3, 2014


LET US PAUSE to celebrate. France won the war of independence for America. It provided the Statue of Liberty in New York. And it designed the capital in Washington.

Le jour de gloire est arrivé! as the Marseillaise has it shortly before warning of soldiers about to slit your throat and inviting all Frenchmen to make the impure blood of foreigners run in the gutters. We don't do things by half in France.

America picked a load of bog for a capital that nobody else much cared about and said that would do. It had the advantage of not being anywhere else, a capital as artificial as Canberra and Brasilia.

At some stage, the president stuck his walking stick in the ground and said: "Let's build something significant right here!" And that's where they built the Treasury, which had burned down three times and left people too superstitious to build where it had been before.

America called on Lafayette, who'd arranged for France to supply all its bullets and gunpowder and a lot of its navy to drive out the British - that monument at the eastern end of the Transam credits France with winning the last and decisive battle - and Lafayette said he knew this architect called Pierre Charles l'Enfant and maybe he could knock up a good capital.

Enfant didn't take the challenge lightly. He got Thomas Jefferson to give him the plans of Amsterdam, Paris, Frankfurt, Karlsruhe and Milan and said he'd build a garden-lined avenue 1.6km long and 120m wide, what is now the National Mall. Things didn't go smoothly, though. Landowners were happy to give their land but weren't struck by Enfant's plans to knock down their houses. Enfant reckoned the roads should be 50 metres wide and he knocked down the house of someone more influential than he was and he got the push.

But, at home in France, we cling to whatever glory comes our way. Even if, to be honest, I doubt anybody down in the bar in the village has any idea who Enfant was. If he didn't play rugby, they'd never have heard of him.

I've been here for three days now, in a leafy town to the north, across the border in Maryland. I'm staying with Richard and Karla, whom I met eight years ago when I set out, and failed, to ride the TransAm. They have considered me a wan and hopeless sort ever since and, from that sense of charity you get on seeing an animal limping in the road, have taken it on themselves to protect and humour me.

And so it is that together we have toured the capital by moonlight and gazed at the Spirit of St Louis and the world's first successful aeroplane, and been on a guided tour of NPR, the national radio station here - and a very good one at that - which resists urging you every three minutes to buy a used car or profit from bulk deals on toilet paper. You'll never believe how much advertising there is on other radio stations, many of which have reduced the art of broadcasting to playing nothing but music, without even a DJ, and then boasting cheekily that that's just what you wanted, to hear someone's random record collection from a long way away.

NPR still treats listeners intelligently and recognises there's a world east of Chesapeake Bay and west of the Golden Gate. Of course, radio has all changed since I was a lad. I left the BBC just before digital editing came in and I felt, at NPR, like a man who wakes from a long sleep and gasps "What? You don't have steam trains any more?"

But I won't bore you with that, because we are in a small if distinguished minority, we lovers of the glowing valve. But it won't be the last you hear of it because just this morning I heard that I can visit a local station out in the wilds.

Well, I set off tomorrow, down a bike path to Washington then in the footprints of mules and bargees along the Chesapeake and Ohio canal. Do look out for me. I'll be the confused and rather stupid-looking one.

If this place ever comes up for sale, don't buy it: it's smaller than it looks, you can't park outside, you don't get a decent night's sleep because of the floodlights and, my dear, I simply can't tell you how far it is to the nearest Walmart.
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Looking back towards the White House from the Jefferson memorial. That's the Jefferson who lived on the Transam route, thereby giving me two visits without having to go out of my way.
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Old Tom, who to judge by his statue had very big feet, held it as self-evident that all men were created equal. Except black men, of course. They had to wait a little longer.
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From Washington, this is NPR news... The news-reading cubicle, with the running order on the dark blue screen, the microphone and insert faders on the little control panel, and a clock to get into and out of the bulletin to the second.
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