August 2011


Sometimes, even when you live in a city that others flock to for vacation, it’s easy to forget that you live in a really cool place.  I first learned this while living in Rome and, much to my horror, walked by the Spanish Steps one night without even blinking at their grandeur, like they were just another set of old marble stairs.

The same thing has happened to me in Washington, D.C., after living here for almost two-and-a-half years.  That time has flown by here in the U.S. capital, and like most long-term situations the initial sense of novelty and awe has faded into the background of the daily grind, i.e. the day-to-day routine.  For instance, the typical routine of a young professional in D.C.:  Wake up early to drag yourself to the gym, make a strong cup of coffee, groggily ride the Metro to work, get into “the zone” at the office, do your best at work, and groggily ride the Metro back home to scarf down some dinner (or groggily meet up with friends to scarf down some dinner) before catching some z’s and beginning the process over again.

They say to “stop and smell the roses,” and today I did just that, albeit completely by accident.  I’d taken a lunch break to run over to Good Stuff Eatery, close to the House of Representatives and a favorite burger joint of congressional staffers, to say hello to my friends Aaron and David, both of whom are buddies from my first days in D.C. and both of whom I had not seen in ages.  We caught up for a bit before I needed to head back to the office and began the brisk walk back.

Or so I tried.  I hadn’t planned to walk the twenty minutes to see Aaron and David that day, and that morning I had picked out a pair of cute high heels to go with my dress. It soon became clear that it was not the day to wear high heels, and my brisk walk morphed from quick strides to slow paces to a limping shuffle.  (Any girl who has tried to walk a long distance in high heels can quickly empathize).

As I limped along, I found myself walking in front of the U.S. Capitol.  I’ve walked in front of the Capitol and the National Mall dozens of times, but this time I was pretty much forced to make it a slow jaunt.  I noticed groups of tourists standing around, just looking up at the imposing building with their mouths open in awe or snapping away with their cameras.  Before I knew it, I too was taking some photos with my Iphone and enjoying the beauty of the city.  I even think my mouth was gaping open at one point.

After taking some photos and resting my throbbing feet for a minute, I made it back to my office, thankful to be able to sit down.  I was also thankful, in a way, to have been forced to slow down and be reminded of where I live.  Looking back on the 2.5 years, from when I first arrived in D.C. as a wide-eyed young professional not knowing what lay ahead, to the blessing of having the job I do now, I was reminded at how cool Washington, D.C., really is.  For all of its intensity, power trips, frustrations, and randomness, it really is a beautiful place.  I’m glad that I was reminded of that today.

And after I ride the Metro home, I’m going to soak my feet.  The next time I “stop and smell the city,” I’ll try to wear flip flops.

                      Thank you, evil high heels, for making me pause and enjoy this view

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Last week had to be one of the most random weeks of my life.  Within the same week, not only was Washington, D.C., rocked by an earthquake, but it was also hit by a hurricane.  Even the usually composed newscasters on the evening news seemed a little stressed out, and the reporters on The Weather Channel could barely contain their glee at their moment of journalistic glory.

After evacuating from my office last Tuesday to regroup from the earthquake, it was almost immediately time to shift gears and prepare for Hurricane Irene.  The storm was set to hit D.C./Maryland/Virginia on Saturday, and naturally I wanted to be prepared.  Leon and I made a couple of trips to the grocery store after work to stock up on non-perishable items in case we had power outages during the storm.  On Friday, however, I wanted to run by the supermarket one last time.

I’ll be honest–the main reason why I wanted to hit the grocery store one last time was to stock up on treats.  The first couple of trips had been to purchase practical items, like cases of water, batteries for flashlights, canned goods, and so forth.  The more I thought about being cooped up in my apartment during the hurricane, though, the more I began to crave random things that I used to enjoy as a kid but don’t buy anymore in the name of “being a healthy adult.”

Case in point–while Friday afternoon shoppers were frantically clearing the aisles of toilet paper and bottled water, I was perusing the cereal aisle.  My cart soon held the treasures of Lucky Charms, Fruity Pebbles, and Frosted Pop-Tarts.  Now I was ready for Irene’s wrath.

                                  Empty shelves at the grocery store before Hurricane Irene

Saturday started out pretty calm, and I woke up wondering when the storm would begin to descend on the D.C. area.  I worked out at the gym, made a big pot of coffee, and watched the weather radar to keep track of the storm.  The sky looked pretty creepy–it was a dreary gray color, and you could see dark clouds slowly circulating, marching lifelessly along like they knew what was coming and had resigned themselves to it.

Starting Saturday afternoon the winds began to howl and the rain started to come down in sheets.  I stayed glued to the television and was saddened to hear that lives had already been lost in the hurricane, from falling limbs or car accidents.  No matter how long I had to be indoors, there was no way I was leaving my apartment.

I woke up Sunday to no power, as the electricity company had already warned would happen.  I couldn’t watch a sermon on television, since all of my electronics were dead, so I read a Bible devotional and sipped on some water, pretending like it was fresh coffee.  The day passed quietly, and I ended up taking a long nap, something I hadn’t done in ages.  It was still raining Sunday afternoon, but eventually the clouds gave way to actual sunlight.

Thankfully the power came back on Sunday evening, so I didn’t have to worry about heading into work on Monday without having a shower first.  Leon and I ended up taking a walk around my neighborhood to get some exercise and see how the streets looked.  Silver Spring had some damaged trees, but it looked overall like things were okay.  There were crowds of people outside, just hanging out and walking around, grateful that a new week was about to begin.  Everyone looked pretty weary, and the joke among many was, “I wonder which natural disaster we’ll have this week?”

Hopefully this week D.C. will have a break from crazy weather.  In the meantime, I also hope that my sugar coma from all of the kids’ cereals and Pop-Tarts wears off.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011, began as any other work day and did not feel like it was going to be a particularly special day.  My friend and coworker, Lisa, and I had gone out to the D.C. food trucks to grab lunch and had just finished eating.  We were quietly working away at our computers when, out of the blue, we both stopped typing and looked at each other.

My first thought was, “Are they doing construction on the building today?”  It felt like there were vibrations below us, building in strength until it felt like the building was shaking from side to side.  One of us remarked, “Let’s get out of here, now!” and we took off.

As we raced with our fellow colleagues and other building residents down the stairwell, my head was spinning.  My initial thought that the building was undergoing construction briefly gave way to thoughts of, “oh no, we are across from the Capitol and it’s almost the ten year anniversary of September 11,” to, “maybe it was an earthquake…but we don’t have earthquakes in D.C.”  As a Christian, I also wondered if the Rapture was happening and we would soon hear the heavenly trumpets sounding their call of Jesus’s return.

Once outside and once my eyes had adjusted to the bright sun, I was amazed at the crowds of people streaming out of the many office buildings.  Everyone sort of resembled a line of worker ants filing out of the spaces and into the streets.  People were chatting nervously and coming up with different theories about what happened.  That is, those who had left their offices without their phones were chatting–those of us who had grabbed our iPhones and Blackberries and so forth were intensely focused on Twitter, Facebook, and other social media to try to figure out what had happened.

Thanks to modern technology, news spread like wildfire.  People from New York to North Carolina to Florida took to social media to announce that they were also evacuating.  News reporters tweeted that a 5.8 magnitude earthquake had hit the East coast, with the epicenter located at the little town of Mineral, Virginia.  It was the first earthquake of that scale since 1897.

There was a collective sigh of relief upon hearing that it had been an earthquake and not a terrorist attack.  My friend Kristin, who works in the House of Representatives, said that congressional staffers had assumed the worst.  As well, defense officials had reportedly felt the Pentagon tremble and thought that we were getting attacked again.

Phone lines were quickly jammed and I couldn’t get any calls through, so I texted friends and family to let them know I was safe.  Leon had evacuated his office building up in Maryland, and I was glad to know that he and other loved ones were safe.  I later found out from the news that there were no reports of serious injuries, but that some damage had been done to buildings around D.C. and the National Monument would be closed indefinitely to fix some cracks caused by the tremors.

Needless to say, riding on the Metro did not seem like a great idea since there was talk of aftershocks occurring after the initial quake, so I ended up sticking around downtown D.C. with friends until traffic had cleared.  Leon managed to make it down from Maryland to pick me up, and we met up with his friend Tyler (who had just gotten into town for a business conference) to have some dinner.  Fittingly, we went to Old Ebbitt Grill, close to the crowds still hovering around the White House to see if anything would happen around there.  Everyone inside the restaurant was talking about the earthquake.  People were pretty shaken up (no pun intended).

Once traffic finally died down, Leon was able to drive me home to check on my apartment.  The building management had warned everyone to check cabinets carefully to see if anything had been broken, and I was anxious to see how my 13th floor apartment had fared.  Thankfully, all of my breakable items were fine and the electricity was working.

I stayed up late texting back friends and family, and I felt truly blessed to have people who cared enough to check on me.  Granted, the earthquake in D.C. was not nearly as catastrophic as the ones endured by Californians, for example, but it was still a pretty unnerving experience.  Being up high in an office building and feeling like the floor is going to give way is a pretty scary feeling.

The earthquake was a blunt reminder that even the center of American political power, Washington, D.C., is not infallible, and neither are its inhabitants.  Life can be interrupted or cut short at any moment, with no warning, and it is important to remember that.

Needless to say, I think that everyone in D.C. headed into work on Wednesday morning a little more aware of their own mortality.

Before I moved to Maryland recently, I hadn’t really spent much time in the state.  I’d been to Baltimore once or twice for a baseball game or something, but that was about it.  Once I moved to Silver Spring and Leon moved to Laurel (we’re planning on being in the Maryland area for the next year), however, it felt appropriate to do some more exploring.

Last weekend my mother was in town visiting, and I was trying to think of something fun for us to do in a place I’d never been before.  Leon and I decided to take her to check out the antique shops in Annapolis and then drive on to Kent Island to eat the famous crab cakes at The Narrows restaurant.

I must admit that my first impression of Silver Spring was, well, not the greatest.  In its defense, the city has undergone extensive efforts to open up new restaurants and shopping centers, and they are doing a pretty good job.  However, there are still parts of Maryland that even locals will tell you are pretty rough.  So I was pleasantly surprised that as we began to drive up to Annapolis, it was nothing but beautiful foliage and lush forests.  I was eager to see what Annapolis was like.

Annapolis is, of course, known for the U.S. Naval Academy, which has a lovely campus.  We drove around the capitol building, which is surrounded by quaint little streets with even quainter shops.  We stopped into Blue Crab Antiques and Evergreen Antiques, both filled with treasures.  I picked up an antique coffee table for a steal, while Leon walked away with a walnut side table and my mom scored a unique candelabra.

After that it was time to head to Kent Island to make our reservation at the Narrows.  I think that my favorite part of the outing was driving across the Chesapeake Bay Bridge–you were literally driving over the water for about  ten minutes before “landing” on the island.  The Narrows looked very much like a New England establishment where one could acquire some great seafood, and it did not disappoint.

The Narrows is well known for its cream of crab soup and lump crab cakes, and being big fans of crab, we ordered the soup for appetizers and crab cakes for our entrees.  I swooned immediately after trying the cream of crab soup; the words that came to mind were “rich,” “thick,” and “savory.”  It was delicious.  The same can be said about the crab cakes, which had enormous pieces of crab meat crafted into perfectly breaded portions.  Add all of this together with the beautiful ambience of looking over the water, and it was a fantastic dining experience.

Our dinner was finished off with a seasonal peach cobbler, and we were all stuffed to the gills.  It was then time to drive back south, back over the Chesapeake Bay Bridge and back towards the more industrial, gritty city section of Maryland.

From the outing, I found a new appreciation for my temporary state of residence.  It only took about an hour to drive from Silver Spring to Annapolis, making it a great option for day trips from the D.C. area.  If you’re looking for small town antiquing with a New England twist, polished off with some great seafood, Annapolis and Kent Island are calling your name.

 

                                               Crab Cakes at The Narrows, Kent Island

Needless to say, as someone who has visited London several times and attended graduate school there, I was alarmed to hear the news of recent riots that have spread around the city and even other parts of England.

London is a vibrant city, with such a mix of historical uniqueness and modern flair, and it is quite disturbing to see what is happening this week with the senseless, aggressive violence committed so vagrantly by out-of-control thugs.  The news is awash with chilling photos of British citizens, innocently trying to get home, being forced to strip down in broad daylight and being robbed by masked hooligans who have no concern for basic decency.  Numerous stores have been looted, and fires are being set everywhere.  I saw one photo of a woman jumping out of a burning building into safety, and it left me speechless.  And to add insult to injury, several British politicians are trying to blame the current economic difficulties and attempts to cut spending as justification for why these crooks are “understandably” acting out.

Thankfully, many Londoners are trying to fight back.  They are using Facebook, Twitter, and other forms of social media to band together to do good things, instead of using them for evil as the hooligans did.  I read one story about people coordinating cleanup efforts to try to undo some of the catastrophic damage that British officials are already estimating will cost a fortune to remedy.

My friends in London assured me that they are fine, but they are definitely laying low and are being extra careful.  It cannot be assumed that even the most “posh” of neighborhoods in London are immune to the violence.  Right now it seems that everyone is scrambling to get home, hoping that the police will continue their diligence in combating this wave of senselessness, and looking to make sense of a situation fueled by chaos.

Hopefully the city known for its culture of politeness will return to stability soon, and those who have injured so many with their cruelty and anarchic ways will be held accountable.

After Leon and I got back from a wonderful weekend in Houston with my grandfather, parents, and a few aunts/uncles/cousins from the Douthit clan, we both jumped back into work.  Even though we’re in completely different professions, our colleagues and everyone around us in D.C. were talking about the debt ceiling agreement and the stock market.  For my job, I also had to do a little analysis work on the current economic conditions (scary).

Which, in an indirect way (and probably to try and cheer myself up) made me think of non-stock related marketplaces in the U.S. and around the world.  With all of the talk about GDP, enormous debt, high unemployment, and so forth, all of the numbers and statistics being thrown around can be overwhelming.  For a smaller economic microcosm that’s easier to digest, however, one need only look to a marketplace.  Whether visiting a market in your neighborhood or a bazaar in some exotic location, the economy of culture is alive and well everywhere.

My mother first introduced me to markets as a child.  She was an antique collector, and to make extra money she would sell her finds at a local shop in McKinney.  I remember dreading the early Saturday mornings when we’d head to McKinney Trade Day or other markets to scour the booths for treasures.  Now, as an adult, I love going to markets.

Markets are fascinating snapshots of the local culture.  You can gain great insight into how locals live, what kind of food they like, what they consider to be worth selling, and what social mores exist within that particular environment (yell while bartering in Egypt and you’re normal, yell while bartering in Texas and you’re crazy).  They’re also a lot of fun.

Whenever I go to a new country, I try to check out the main market and usually make a Saturday of it.  In my mind, there’s nothing more fun and relaxing than poking around a market with some treats to nibble on and interesting people to watch.  (I also began a jewelry collection from my market experiences, so if I have a daughter she’ll have to listen to plenty of stories about where Mommy bought such and such necklace).

I still think back fondly on the times when my parents, brothers, and I would go to McKinney Trade Day, and I hope to take my family to markets one day.  I’ve listed some of my favorite markets around the world–I definitely recommend each of them if you want a unique, “culturally economic” experience.

Madrid, Spain:  El Rastro.  Literally translated, it means “the trail,” and it certainly is one.  I spent an entire day winding my way down the long road of stalls checking out antiques and other cool Spanish wares, scoring some framed antique prints of the Spanish landscape for only a few dollars.

Bangkok, Thailand:  Chatuchak Weekend Market.  This enormous market covers 35 acres of land and has over 15,000 stalls filled with goodies.  I picked up some locally made wallets, coin purses, and other crafts to give to friends back home, plus stocked up on delicious smelling incense.

Bali, Indonesia:  Kuta Market.  Bali is lively and laid back at the same time, and this market is no exception.  I remember picking up beautiful scarves, handcrafted shoes, and indulgent coffee there.  You can also find nice handcrafted wooden things there–I got a pretty carved container to put in my bathroom.

Seoul, South Korea:  Namdaemun Market.  In Seoul there are two gigantic and famous markets, Dongdaemun and Namdaemun.  Dongdaemun is larger than Namdaemun, but I always went to Namdaemun because it was closer to where I lived.  You just have to walk around to get a VIP pass to Korean culture.  Ajima (word for married or middle aged Korean woman) and ajasshi (Korean men) sold everything from pig’s feet to Korean health concoctions to clothing to furniture.

London, England:  Covent Garden Market.  England has dozens of markets filled with wonderful things, but Covent Garden was my favorite.  I went there pretty much every weekend while studying in London–it’s that addicting.  You can find everything from gorgeous British antiques to funky jewelry to locally made Cornish pasties that melt in your mouth (savory pies filled with meat, cheese, vegetables, or other combinations, done like only the English can do).

Buenos Aires, Argentina:  Recoleta and La Boca Markets.  Recoleta market is located next to Recoleta cemetery, where Evita Peron is buried, and has amazing local jewelry makers displaying gorgeous wares at every turn.  I purchased a necklace made from a local stone, rodochrosita, that is pink with white streaks in it and that always draws compliments from friends.  I’m wearing it today actually.  La Boca market is in a neighborhood of Buenos Aires with super bright and colorful buildings.  It was such a unique neighborhood that in the market I bought a framed picture of one of the buildings as a souvenir.

Santiago, Chile:  Santa Lucia Artisan Market.  While in Chile, my mission was to find some lapis lazuli jewelry, and that was accomplished at Santa Lucia.  The jewelry and other Chilean crafts were also quite impressive.  I walked away with a pretty lapis necklace and keychain without spending that much.

Rio de Janeiro, Brazil:  Feira Hippie de Ipanema (Ipanema Hippie Market).  This market, open on Sundays, is close to the world famous Ipanema beach and is so much fun to visit.  You can scoop up precious stones at wonderfully inexpensive prices, fun crafts, locally made belts and purses, and tons of other things.  And, of course, don’t forget to pick up a pair of Havaianas while you’re there.

Moscow, Russia:  Izmailovskiy Park.  This is apparently the place to go for souvenirs in Moscow, and you can find everything from the famous Russian nesting dolls to replica Faberge eggs to Indian rugs.  I tried Russian shaslik there for the first time and definitely recommend it (the Russian equivalent of barbeque).

Those are just a few of my favorite markets.  I also enjoyed checking out the wares at the Khan al-Khalili market in Cairo, Egypt, Central Market in New Delhi, India, and the Grand Bazaar in Kusadasi, Turkey, but each of those experiences was pretty intense.  Between having obviously American features (a friend overseas told me that Americans are easily spotted because of our teeth) and, at times, being overwhelmed by heat/aggressive vendors/pushy crowds, I remember leaving those markets exhausted.  The souvenirs were worth it though…

I also can’t forget the market that I frequent here in D.C.  Eastern Market is located somewhat close to Capitol Hill, and it is a great place to hang out on the weekends.  There are fun places to have brunch before browsing the jewelry, antiques, furniture, and so forth.  Local farmers also bring fresh fruit and vegetables, and depending on the season it’s a great place to pick up items that aren’t as good at the grocery store.  I love to stock up on locally grown apples, white peaches, and berries.

Even though the financial markets are not doing so well these days, the economy of culture is thriving.  It’s refreshing, for me at least, to take a break from discouraging economic news and enjoy seeing markets that aren’t so volatile.  Markets provide millions around the world a chance to enjoy economics at its most basic–you either like an item or you don’t, you see if the vendor will come down on the price or won’t, and you buy it if you can or don’t if you can’t.  It’s as simple as that.