Thinker or tourist?

Erum Khan/Staff

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When the plan to visit Washington, D.C. this summer first materialized, red, white and blue flashed before my eyes before I could stop myself. What could be more American than the capital itself? I was one of the many clueless souls who thought that being there meant absolutely everything there would be important and political. This included the fleeting yet still absurd thought that I’d catch a glimpse of someone boring and significant — maybe a senator or Obama himself! Of course, even without the spotting of VIPs, D.C. still lived up to its literally historical reputation.

Winding down the grass and pavement bordered sidewalks of the National Mall (did you know it isn’t a shopping mall but a giant park? Go figure), I had dueling urges as I gazed at each monument. I felt the need to soak absolutely everything in, trying to capture history in that moment. These were the spots great men stood by and decided the nation’s future! These were the buildings erected to keep such events in our memories! I needed to stop and remember all that but I also really really wanted to capture it on camera, too. Tourists can be so caught up in picture-taking — as well as just being generally obnoxious — that they forget what monumental places they’re in (yes, pun intended). Was I supposed to stand as close as I could to the Martin Luther King Jr. memorial and smile with my arms in the air as my friend clicked a button or read every quote of his etched into the wall and thoughtfully take in their meanings? A careful combination was called for at each site. Despite the fact that the Washington Monument was under construction and wearing what looked like a very fashionable metal hoop skirt, I settled for a boring “standing-in-front-of” picture — no pretending I was taller than the tall white spindle of a building and “holding its tip” or “stepping on it” poses for me. I did indulge in some silliness next to Eleanor Roosevelt’s bronze statue — nestled snuggly amid a whole barrage of black walls and blocks all dedicated to her infamously four-term husband, three whole chunks of stone declaring his wisdom of, “I hate war” — and mimicked her with my hands clasped in front of me and a patently false smile. Silliness was more difficult next to the hunched-over statues of hungry people representing the Great Depression. If you made fun of them, it was just bad form. Not to mention insensitive.

The same sense of decorum stood at the World War II memorial and the Japanese and Korean War veterans’ ones as well. While some folks did lift their cameras, more veterans and current military members milled about, paying their respects to the deceased. Again, those opposing urges surfaced. Was I supposed to be a tourist or a historian then?

My friend going to school there tells me that she and her friends somehow always end up at the Lincoln Memorial late at night after spending the day around the city. When else can you get ridiculously close to the stone man without someone coming in beside you for a picture? I can never get the picture of animated Zeus from Disney’s “Hercules” out of my head when I think of them lounging around him, dim light illuminating them like ancient Greek torches. Anyway, once I get past my childish tangents, I can’t imagine having a cooler spot to just hang out. We Berkeley kids may sit on the ledge of Doe Library at midnight and think ourselves daredevils, but I don’t think anyone could beat sitting on the steps of the nation’s history on a Friday night just because they can. Hang out in the campus’ quad? Nah, we’ll just hit up good old Abe instead.

All in all, I was reminded that all these types of encounters could exist in one spot. The more glamorous and sometimes annoying temporary moments of tourists grasping for every physical memory they can get to take back home with them. The silent ponderings of someone lost in the past. And finally, the everyday moments of those living there, tucking away memories of their own city.

Contact Erum Khan at [email protected] or follow her on Twitter @erumjkhan.