When I was at the doctor’s surgery recently, I saw a young woman wearing a black veil that sparkled with diamond-like sequins. She had a baby in her arms and a small toddler by her side, and I commented how sweet the baby was and she gave me a big smile. As she kept looking round at me, I asked her where she was from. At this she motioned to a young man standing at the reception desk who approached and in good English explained that they were from Afghanistan, that he had been an interpreter for the US army and that they had only been in the US a month. I welcomed them to San Antonio and wished them good luck.
I often think of that young Afghani couple, especially given the recent turn American immigration policy has taken. Not long after that encounter, Mattie and I were in Washington DC for a few days, between Christmas and the New Year: I had wanted to experience the city before Obama left, and Mattie (unlike Mike!) wanted a cold Christmas – and cold it certainly was.
Now that Trump is in power and I hear some pronouncement coming out of a senator’s or congressman’s mouth in Washington, I think back to our first evening there when we walked around the Capitol after dark. It was all lit up, there was hardly a soul around and it looked particularly beautiful viewed through the bare branches of the surrounding trees. I remember how we turned a corner and much to our delight saw a huge Christmas tree filled with green and blue lights. It was on a lawn facing the Mall that is dotted with monuments and Smithsonian museums, all of them free. I remember how splendid the Capitol was inside, too, not least the murals in the Senate chambers that were painted by a pupil of Raphael.
Now, when I see Trump in the Oval Office signing one of his executive orders, I think back to the National Christmas Tree outside the White House with its hundreds of white lights, the little children excitedly watching the clockwork trains running around it, and the 50 smaller Christmas trees encircling it, each representing a State. And I remember the drone of military helicopters landing on and leaving the White House lawn, seeing them fly to and from the Pentagon, the tourists pointing and taking photos.
When Trump recently nominated a new Judge to the Supreme Court, I remember how silent and majestic that building was, too, by night, and the glorious ‘beaux arts’ Library of Congress next door with another huge Christmas tree in its lobby, and its gorgeous reading room. I recall wandering down streets in the Capitol historic district lined with 18th and 19th century houses, the indoor food market, the small park with its famous statue of Lincoln and the freed slave, the bookshops and funky little restaurants and cafés.
When Trump sends out an incendiary tweet, I compare that to President Lincoln and his appeal to the ‘better angels of our nature’. I think of the tree-lined path that leads peacefully from the Washington Monument down to the awe-inspiring Lincoln Memorial (Mattie remembered the scene from ‘Forrest Gump’ that was filmed near there!) And I recall our watching Dickens’ ‘A Christmas Carol’ at the Ford Theatre where Lincoln was assassinated, and the tiny museum in its basement where we saw the actual gun and bullet. During the performance I often looked up at the box where Lincoln had sat and I wondered what he would think of his country right now.
When Trump this week gathered together a few black sympathisers, I recalled my visit to the new Smithsonian African American museum on the Mall (whilst Mattie was visiting the Natural History Museum). My disappointment on learning that only ticket holders were allowed in – and then my delight when a Pennsylvania couple immediately approached and offered me, a total stranger, a spare. I remember the joyfulness and the chatter on the top two floors of the museum that showcased sport, music and the arts. And the intensity and silence in the basement where inscriptions and exhibits documenting slavery were carefully studied. (I was quite surprised that only 10% – if that – of visitors on that packed day were white.)
I recall the conversations I had with people there, in the museums and on the streets. The Botanical Gardens and the poinsettia displays. The open-air ice rink by the National Gallery where I would drink a gluhwein whilst watching Mattie skate. Seeing the snow come down, ever so lightly, on our last day.