I had only planned a few days in D.C.
Then I got an invitation from my friend Sophie.
If I’d thought I could pass the time on my own, I was wrong. I had canceled my flight and let my friends organize a dinner at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. A visit to the Natural History Museum, I decided, would be impossible without a ticket to the National Air and Space Museum. And the National Zoo.
It was my friend Sophie who first thought I should visit at the end of September. Her boyfriend is at Smith College, and she told me about the orientation weekend their class went on. With a taste of Americans of the Past in mind, I decided to make a trip to D.C.
An hour after the end of orientation, I was at a table of New Yorkers, a group of girls who had been to France and still shared my obsession with Greco-Roman culture. While these New Yorkers seemed to appreciate the colorful styles that still influence our culture, a growing awareness of American architecture among the millennials among them was disconcerting to me.
We had dinner around a table filled with ceramic antiquities. While many of the New Yorkers looked up at the almost mystical treetops in the background, the millennials were scanning the tiles and statues. The trip had somehow failed to find our way to an America of the Present. Instead of brownstones and bourgeoisie brownstones, we were dazzled by something that was time travel.
In past years, there had been parties to talk about Hillary Clinton, a bustling calendar of dinners and an event as exciting as the Women’s March the day after Donald Trump’s inauguration. This year, the past was the past. The real world was hard. The real excitement was with the future.
At the Smithsonian, I made small talk with long-time Smithsonian employees who were working on their laptops, their eyes fixed on the horizon. These people were used to dodging a political storm. They were worried about what might come next.
Three days into my trip, the president of the Smithsonian Institution took the stage at an event at the National Building Museum. It was a black tie gala, and the room felt exceptionally cold. I couldn’t say that the topic of discussion had directly influenced the trajectory of my trip, but the night unfolded with a nastiness that didn’t seem to go with the time-honored tradition of discussing the coming days.
The mood varied from gloomy to downright strange, and the first thing that struck me was how surprising that was. The seat-of-the-pants approach to vacation trips has been in place at the museum for years, and the Smithsonian tends to take a sober, cerebral approach to its monthly lectures. You’re almost making a promise to oneself to not get frazzled and say something of which you later regret. I wondered why the talkers on stage so often used language with which I was unfamiliar.
Each time I chose to experience the crowds at the museums, I was conscious of a cultural wasteland that was silently taking shape. As an American Jew, I found a kitschy Jewish iconography on every corner. All this unfulfilled potential to offer some mental space.
I left the museum a day after the evening speeches. When I saw her standing by the Smithsonian sign, I did not feel comfortable with the idea of being there. What will people think when they see me walking by that sign?
On the way back to my apartment, I looked up and saw a man in a truck watching me. I realized that I was getting out of my time machine, and this weirdness was me, trying to make sense of a world that was very much passing me by.