A visit to Williamsburg is like going to Mars, or Hell.
It looks a bit familiar, in a Christopher Wren, Tom Sawyery kind of a way, but overall, the atmosphere is alien. OK, cowboy-and-alien. Don't let the Union Jacks fool you for a moment. This is Americana; restrained, elegant, v ancient, even - but definitely New World.
Wide, aspirational streets lined with quiet clapboard houses that are discreet, not modest. Some of them are still private residences, the line between the two is traced very faintly.
Williamsburg is Old money, shedloads of money and academic gravitas (William and Mary is a stone's throw from the Capitol building) of the sort that makes the presentation of US history feel as serious as a heart attack at the Mayo Clinic. Everything is under control.
A city, but not a huddle-together town, as you'd find in Europe; despite the potentially hostile hinterland, everything's very open plan, partly because your Sunday-afternoon transport can't be left to sit in the garage all week.
Heat. It must have shocked those first pioneers, used to the lukewarm English summers. For us, used to air conditioning, it's equally shocking, out of the world. It's hot like a long, wet, reptilian throat, swallowing every bit of initiative.
How could they be so precise, in this weather? How can you get anything done, in fact... how can you even care. the heat gets inside your bones and between your synapses. I can't believe that the prospect of getting rich, or nation-building would make you do it. Suddenly the concept of forced labour makes a lot more sense - cruel to say so, maybe, but if it weren't for threats and torture I don't see how anything would have gotten done. You'd have to be pretty afraid for your personal safety to dig up stumps and make bricks here.
In the evolutionary tree of Americana, Williamsburg is an early mammal, right next door to notional remains of the amoeba-like Jamestown. The streets are very wide and the houses have a field instead of a garage, but it's the recognizable ancestor of Anyville USA.
The shops and stores might be a bit staged, perhaps; they're pricey, but this is no collection of back-lot facades. Like a buffer between 'modern' Williamsburg and the hallowed historical ground, here's a slightly more modern shopping district that looks like it has been transplanted from Oxfordshire. They sell peanuts and ham and the kind of women's clothes that people who eat peanut and ham can't get into.
Back in the Living Museum bit, this is the cobbler's establishment, full of leather, awls, and glue. And ghost-like inhabitants, everywhere, dressed for comfort.
There's always a bit of a comprehension gap, between the English and American usage of the word 'shop'. in England, we mean a small place where you buy things. A store is something bigger, or else a place where things are stored, not sold. At least in my head. Looking at these shops - place of manufacture, and point of sale all rolled into one, the meaning suddenly lurches into the realms of reasonableness. Maybe I have been here too long.
People who've never been here often imply that there's fakery going on in Williamsburg, that it's all been reconstructed in Lego, as if it were Six Flags without the rides. It isn't. It's been tweaked, sure. You'll find fifes, shoes, soap, mead, wigs, hats, herbs, clocks, and books ... basically lots of single-syllable, historically accurate items for sale. Supposedly, these are the extras that self-sufficient yeoman farmers splurged on after a successful harvest, on something they couldn't make themselves. Can't help suspecting they came here mostly to litigate, but I can't see how you could turn that into a marketable souvenir.
There's a huge, very tasteful hotel right on the edge of the historical district, and plenty of pubs, sorry 'Inns'.
Washington in July - who can say no to that? A clear blue sky, the sun sparkling on the Potomac, all those glorious museums on the Mall, and then in the evening, the redbrick delights of Georgetown.
The first time I came here was for a strained November afternoon, and we took a tram tour to all the sights. The second time was in the depths of a bitter December, and we saw Colbert's portrait and C3PO, and the chilling Holocaust museum. And Dan from the Amazing Race. YAY.
It's hot now, though. Begin with Lincoln, it's the only way.
The best bit of Washington is the Mall. The museums up and down it are all different, all wonderful in their own way. It's neat. They don't try to out-do the Met, they explore the past, and the arts from a different perspective. The Air and Space Museumis perhaps the busiest, the American Indian Museum the oddest, with some really funky food served in their waterside restaurant. I'm talking sauteed cucumber. This is the subway. Looks like Trump meets the Pantheon.
But away from the Mall there's other stuff to see, still part of the Smithsonian - like the Renwick, which is somebody's house converted into an art gallery, but stil retaining that rich party-just about to start atmosphere. Here and in New York in the past months, I've seen so many nudes reclining, resting and generally hanging out, which makes this piece by Karen Lamonte all the more exceptional.
I'm no patriot, but we watched the parade snake by for an hour or so in the oven of the mall, appropriately enough just outside the American History Museum
After a bit, we had enough, and went to the Freer. Cool, silent. Whistlers, and other masterpieces, with the promise of fireworks to come in the night.