As the youngest, I watched my brother and sister leave home before me, subconsciously absorbing their examples. While I'd taken the various trips to New York City and Philly, the first city I really felt like I "knew," or that I at least felt a meaningful impact of, was Washington, DC. It's where my sister lived for many years, followed by my brother as well. Don't get me wrong, I'm still a tourist in DC, but there's something different about visiting a place where someone you love lives. They know the places to go. They know which restaurants are best. You walk around trying to see it not just through your eyes alone, but through theirs, trying to absorb the daily life they lead without you.
My mom and I would take the occasional weekend trips to DC throughout high school, a five hour drive from our house, and they were my favorite things. I've still never been to another city like DC, one so vividly divided: the DC of The Government, of The Tourist, of The Monuments. Then there's the DC where, you know, people live.
Both sides always seemed wonderfully overwhelming and fascinating to me. I've been to a lot of the major cities in America now, and population wise, Washington DC pales in comparison to a lot of them. But a lot of the neighborhoods, a lot of the landmarks in DC, the streets, still seem bigger in my memory, some more majestic, some more gritty, all dramatic.
Part of me believes this is just because I view it through my heightened memory of this being The Place Where My Sister Lived, my cosmopolitan, smart, loud and quick-witted sister, where she fit in and where, as a high school kid, I still did not. A lot of the things I did for the first time in Washington, DC I'd go on to do every day in the other places I'd soon live, but they were all things I couldn't do when the weekend came to an end and we went back to Northeast Pennsylvania. This is not to slam Northeast Pennsylvania--I really have a lot of love in my heart for it and I don't mean to sound condescending--it's just that the lack of any of these things there made them even more exciting. Eating thai food. Going to museums. Hearing different languages on every street corner.
All the restaurants we went to always stuck with me, from Ben's Chili Bowl to that barbecue place that had the five different kinds of barbecue sauce on the table. We went to Cosi, which isn't exciting to me now, but ten years ago, a place where you could MAKE S'MORES AT YOUR TABLE? Um, yes please! And that place that both my brother and sister took me to once that had the group unisex bathrooms. I had never even heard of Ethiopian restaurants before. That huge ass Cheesecake Factory in that huge ass fancy mall. Et cetera. And her apartments seemed so sophisticated--this part is still true. My sister's apartments will always be more sophisticated than mine.
But while I know that my exaggerated high school perceptions play a part in my feelings about DC, a big part of me thinks that's just how it is. In a lot of ways, there are things about DC that ARE bigger than anywhere else. I've ridden on a lot of subway systems, but absolutely nothing feels like you have suddenly jumped right into space than the DC Metro. And the sprawling Smithsonian Institutes? Please, those aren't just "museums." The Holocaust Museum? Not a museum, an all-day, life-altering experience. The last time I was "in DC" was for the briefest second last fall mainly to hop on a train to the airport, but Union Station STILL made me feel awestruck.
And a lot of those streets on the other side of DC, the side where the people live, they ARE unique in themselves, too; they do contain more grit and diversity than a lot of the Oh-So-White places I've chosen to live; the architecture is its own impressive thing. I still haven't seen streets like the ones full of those rounded pastel colored townhouses.
In the end, I feel that my sister's emotions about DC after living there for many, many years are mixed. Apparently, it can also be a town full of arrogant douchebags. (Seat of the government? No way!) But overall, as a place to visit, I feel DC is underrated. It's seen as this tourist destination that you flock to as a kid or as a grown-up nerd, but no one ever lists it in the same breath as Chicago or Boston or Seattle or whatnot. And they should. And when my sister disclosed to me recently that she and her soon-to-be-husband may be moving back to it, maybe, a little part of me cheered. Because I want excuses to visit it for a long time. And my sister always knows the best restaurants.