The Allure of the Countryside
POSTCARD FROM WASHINGTON, D.C.
When I was offered an internship at the Smithsonian this summer, I was ecstatic.
This is a dream job for me. Eight-and-a-half hours a day, five days a week, I'm planning a party.
The Institution turns 150 years old in August, and we're celebrating. Six hundred thousand people are expected to attend the weekend-long Birthday Party on the Mall.
Whether it's my friend Jennifer's wedding, a New Year's Eve get-together or The Crimson's inaugural dinner, there's nothing I like quite as much as planning a party.
And it's even turning out to be educational. I'm involved in planning a museum exhibition (of birthday cakes) and a demonstration of World Wide Web pages.
My grandmother, too, was ecstatic when I accepted the Smithsonian internship.
She hoped I would live with her for the summer.
She lives in a small town in the mountains of West Virginia's Eastern Panhandle. I lived with her two years ago while interning at a local paper--learning I don't want to be a journalist.
This time, though, I decided to live in the city. Although the D.C. suburbs extend out far enough that people make the daily commute from my grandmother's town to Washington by car, subway, or MARC (the Maryland commuter train), I couldn't bear to add the extra two hours to my day.
So I'm living in an apartment in Dupont Circle--the place to be, I'm told.
My commute is only 15 minutes by Metro--packed like a sardine each morning and evening with the thousands of other federal government workers.
My day is filled with back-to-back meetings, broken up only by the hot and humid walks between my office at L'Enfant Plaza and the National Mall and with a half-hour lunch, usually spent writing memos to participants in the Birthday Party.
On the days I don't have meetings on the Mall, I can go 10 hours without going outside. My office building is connected to a Metro station. So from the time I set foot on the Dupont Circle Metro escalator in the morning until I step off the escalator in the evening I don't see the sky.
And at night I fall asleep in my overpriced urban apartment to the sound of car alarms and fire engines.
I wouldn't trade it for the world. I like my job enough to be considering graduate school in museum studies. And I've decided that I'm destined to live in a city--though probably a California one on the ocean. San Francisco and San Diego are appealing.
But I am beginning to understand the studies which attribute inner-city violence to the lack of green space and quiet in urban teens' lives.
It is impossible to escape the city, the rush, the crowds, the noise.
Even the National Mall, the mile-long National Park Service land stretching from the Washington Monument to the U.S. Capitol, offers little respite.
During the summer, the grass turns brown, trampled by tourist crowds, the Smithsonian's Festival of American Folk-life and the sun. And the central panel, absent of trees, is often nothing but hazy and hot.
For the last several weeks, as I've reached the top of the Metro escalator at L'Enfant Plaza, I've been greeted by teenagers wearing T-shirts emblazoned "Safe Summer '96." Usually they're selling newspapers, though one day a group was playing the guitar.
My reaction has been that although I think it's terrific that these kids have been given a project, what these D.C. teens really need is to get out of the city for the summer.
They need to go someplace where open spaces are really green, where rivers are bordered with trees and campgrounds instead of expensive water-front property populated by restaurants and hotels and office buildings. All city dwellers, I think, need to get out on a regular basis.
So this past weekend, I joined the commuters and boarded the 5:30 MARC train out of Washington's Union Station bound for my mountain retreat in West Virginia.
They're a funny group, these commuters. There's a sleeping group, a reading group and a drinking group (this is mostly a Friday phenomenon, I'm told).
As the concrete cityscape outside the train window transforms into rolling green hills, the people, too, are transformed. The ties come off, the faces relax. People laugh.
It's very different from my Metro commute. On the Metro, even in the evenings, even on Fridays, the city dwellers keep working. They read reports, scribble notes; they're always serious.
But the country dwellers leave work behind in the city. They talk about families and weekend plans.
I wouldn't want to make that daily commute; it means getting up too early and getting home too late. But I understand why people do.
Life really is calmer, slower and friendlier outside the city.
In my building, neighbors have brief conversations in the elevators. But in the country, neighbors talk for hours in the shade of spacious front and back yards.
In my grandmother's town, where I spent last weekend, everybody knows everybody else. I'm told that neighbors schedule their evening walks so they pass my cousins' house in time for trumpet practice.
The town got together two years ago to save the public pool in the park.
And it feels safe. Years ago, when they were still little, my cousins left their house and walked across the park to my grandmother's house alone.
I don't think I'd actually want to live out in the country. I'd miss the activity of the city, the restaurants and the theater.
But I wouldn't survive--even just for three months over the summer--without the opportunity to seek refuge, peace and quiet in the country.
Six years ago my parents moved from a suburban tract house where, even with yards, neighbors are just a stone's throw away, to a house (though still in suburban California) on three-quarters of an acre and backing up to a horse trail.
At the time, I thought the bigger house and the bigger lot were just cool.
Now, for the first time, I understand why they really did it.