Postcards from Abroad: Washington, USA

Bex Gray is a third year Politics and Parliamentary Studies student currently working in the United States. She is spending this semester in Washington DC, interning for Congressman Don Young, representative for All Alaska in the House of Representatives. She’s (supposed to be) learning a lot about American politics, and is enjoying this chance to travel around the US. She hopes, one day, to eradicate the injustice that is the unpaid internship.

Life on the Hill: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly
Although it feels as if I’ve only been in Washington DC for just a few weeks, I’m now just a few weeks away from finishing up my internship at the House of Representatives. It has gone unbelievably fast, and I’m already wishing that I could spend a whole year here, rather than just one semester. It’s gone so quickly that I haven’t really experienced the ‘acclimatisation’ and ‘homesickness’ phases that all study-abroad students were told we would go through. That said, there are definitely more differences between the US and the UK than I ever expected there would be. So, what follows is a random collection of thoughts about things that I’ve experienced in the US so far – the good, the bad, and (sadly) the ugly…

The Good:

Working ‘on the Hill’. Even after two months it’s still pretty cool that I get to walk around the real life House of Cards set every day. Although we are here to ‘work’, a standard day will, more often than not, actually be about who can nab the most free food at a policy briefing, or drink the most free wine at a reception, or who can get the best selfie with a famous politician. The day that Hillary Clinton walked right past me on her way to give evidence at the Benghazi hearing was a pretty cool day. Even though I’ve been to the White House a couple of times now, I’ve yet to actually see the President in person- but fingers crossed I’ll be able to cross that off my bucket list before I fly home!

Although we do spend most of our time in the office, DC has loads of touristy stuff to fill up our weekends – and its all free, which is handy. Between the nineteen Smithsonian museums and galleries, national parks, theatres and the countless monuments, there’s never really an excuse to just be sat around the house. Of the lot, my favourite touristy spot is probably Georgetown. Being able to watch the sunset over the Potomac from the Georgetown waterfront, hot chocolate in hand, is definitely one of the perks of living in this city.The best bit about Georgetown is the amazing range of independent cafes and bakeries that are scattered along the high street. I would happily spend the rest of this year hopping between the artisan markets of Dean and Deluca, Baked and Wired (best cupcakes in the world) and Olivia Macaron. I’m actually gluten intolerant (oops) but the food here is definitely worth having a bad tummy ache for. In that vein though, if you are gluten intolerant and ever find yourself in DC, Georgetown’s Sprinkles do a top-notch gluten free red velvet cupcake. Just FYI.

Another great perk of being in DC is that, in spite of the US’s genuinely awful public transportation systems, there are loads of other great places to visit relatively nearby. My USA highlights definitely include looking out across New York City at 2am from the top of the Empire State building, dining in Boston’s Little Italy, and getting to visit my friends at Harvard University. When a friend and I visited Charlottesville in Virginia, we spent our first day ‘tail-gating’, which is a polite way of saying getting drunk in a car park, before an American football game. Then we spent our second day at a Food Truck Battle (yes, they have those here), listening to live country music whilst attempting to eat thirteen different American-style dishes, which all had bizarre names like ‘sloppy-joes’. Definitely my most American day ever.

The Bad:

So obviously, there is the drinking age to contend with. For those of us who are unfortunate enough to have not turned 21 yet, it feels like we are all 17 again, nervously queuing up outside bars, wondering if we will ever actually be allowed inside. I think it’s made everyone who is still underage realise how reliant our social lives are on alcohol, which is quite tragic really.

Even more tragic however, is the price of food in this city. Or at least, the price of healthy food in this city. And when I say healthy, I just mean anything that hasn’t been pulverised and pumped with preservatives. On my first food shop, I paid over $7 for one avocado. Never went back there again. And the situation is even worse in some restaurants, where you can expect to pay up to $20 for salad and a drink. Chocolate is actually relatively cheap here, but you wouldn’t touch it with a bargepole. Someone told me last week that Hershey’s contains a chemical that is identical to one that is in your vomit, and I have no problem believing them. The best week I’ve had at work was when my Chief of Staff went to Ireland on holiday, and came back with three massive bags of Cadbury’s. I’d never been so glad to see a Dairy Milk.

The Ugly:

Donald Trump. No further explanations required. I saw this guy in the flesh at an anti-Iran Deal rally. He really is awful.

Secondly- Politics. Playing the game of politics can certainly be ugly in the UK, but I would argue that it’s even uglier over here. Many of the big political issues being debated at the moment (planned parenthood, gun laws, health insurance etc) don’t even exist in the UK, but are hugely divisive in the US. The fact that, once again, Congress passed the 2016 budget just hours before the government was due to shutdown, proves how stubborn both parties can be, and even this current agreement only settles matters until 11th December, when the whole fight will flare up again.
And while the politicians can be bad, I’ve unfortunately discovered that some of their constituents are actually much worse. Everyday, constituents call up to rant about things they’ve seen on Fox News, and never in my life have I been confronted with such racist, homophobic, sexist and generally backwards ideas and attitudes. There are, of course, nice people who call in too, but those generally aren’t the conversations you remember at the end of the day. The phone calls you tend to remember are the ones asking for gay people to be shot, or calls to bomb ‘all Muslim countries’ to get rid of the ‘refugee problem’ before it reaches US shores. The responses to the attacks in Paris have been particularly disgusting, and it really makes you wonder what rock some of these people are living under.

Well, I’ve just realised that this ends on rather a sour note – maybe I should have started with the good things! If you put the ugly stuff to one side, it is great here, I promise! It’s an incredibly exciting time to be in the US and getting involved in American politics, and if anyone is wondering whether or not to come to the US to study abroad, just do it! Just be on your guard for Fox News followers.

Bex Gray

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