When does Teddy Roosevelt look like Vladimir Lenin?

When you’re visiting Theodore Roosevelt Island, of course!

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During a recent camping trip near Mt. Fuji, the family and I visited Mt. Fuji’s Station Five, a popular starting point for climbs to Fuji’s peak. Until then I had no interest in climbing Fuji myself, but that visit got me fired up. So on my shopping list for my Washington, DC visit: new hiking boots. I stopped by REI and picked up a pair, then set out for a short hike to start breaking them in. I chose Theodore Roosevelt Island, which lies in the middle of the Potomac River.

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Brand new hiking boots in need of a quick/easy break-in hike
Theodore Roosevelt Island sits between Georgetown on the Washington, DC side and Rosslyn on the Virginia side. Native Americans first settled the island in the late 17th century, and over time the island changed hands through various families. The Mason family lived there last; they built a mansion and a farm which they left behind in the 1830s when the river silted up and caused nasty, stagnant water. A century later, the Theodore Roosevelt Memorial Association bought the island and started clearing it for parkland.

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Looking north-ish toward Georgetown (Washington DC)…
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…and south toward Rosslyn (Virginia)
Landscape architects cleared the neglected farmland and tore down the last of the mostly-burned out mansion. According to the National Park Service, they planted “a real forest” (their quotes, not mine) to mimic the landscape before the island’s farming days.

The result: several miles of lovely trails, with an oddly Lenin-esque statue of Teddy in the very middle.

So let’s talk about Teddy and Vlad.

Here’s Teddy:

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And Vladimir Lenin:

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This photo of Lenin at Finland Station (St. Petersburg) is courtesy of Trip Advisor
Why is TR depicted in a classic Lenin pose? I’m trying to picture the Theodore Roosevelt Memorial Association meeting where someone argued, “The horse and rider look is totally played out. Let’s make him look more like a despot directly responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands of people!”. Maybe that was just The Look for statues in the 1930s–though I’m not the only visitor to wonder about the Lenin resemblance.

Soviet-esque statuary aside, the island makes for a lovely outing. A leisurely stroll around the island’s perimeter takes about 35 minutes, taking you through marshes and forested paths. It’s a great spot for a quick nature stroll with the kids or pups, and it sits just a few minutes from downtown DC.

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Hanging out at the National Gallery of Art with Dad and Ginevra

We’re in Washington! The kids and I arrived last week, and I delivered them to summer camp last Sunday. I assume that they are having fun, but I don’t know since neither child has responded to messages or care packages (ingrates!). The camp director assures parents that no news is good news, and homesick children never miss a chance to reach out to parents.

While not-receiving messages from the kids, I have been catching up with family and friends and revisiting some favorite sites at home. The first stop: The National Gallery of Art, about a mile from our house.

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Me and Dad at the National Gallery of Art in Washington

On Tuesday my dad and I met at the National Gallery and headed straight for my favorite painting: Leonardo da Vinci’s portrait of Ginevra de’ Benci. It’s the only da Vinci on public view in the Americas–take that New York! Unlike the insane crowds at the Louvre to “see” the Mona Lisa behind, glass, barriers, and hundreds of fellow tourists (and pick pockets)….


Esta foto de Museo del Louvre es cortesía de TripAdvisor

…the gallery with Ginevra usually looks like it did on Tuesday.

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Ginevra de’ Benci by Leonardo da Vinci

The painting is on a panel, not canvas. The backside of the panel is also painted and on display, and you can walk around to view both sides.

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Dad and the back of Ginevra’s portrait

A guard stands off to the side, and the occasional group comes through on a tour. But most of the time the gallery is pretty empty, and I can stand face to face with Ginevra for as long as I want. So I do.

I love having a favorite painting that I revisit once or twice a year. Every time, I stand there and marvel at how a brush and paint could render such perfect skin, and the minute curls of hair. I think about what I’ve experienced since I stood there last, for better or worse. It’s just wonderful, and grounding. If you don’t have favorite painting that you revisit–go find one!

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Just a few Monets. No biggie.

After Ginevra we hit some other favorites: the Rembrandt and Vermeer galleries, and the Impressionists. I saw the Gauguin paintings and wondered about the woman who attacked a painting several years ago because she didn’t like the half naked ladies depicted.

Fun fact about Gauguin’s nudes! Tahiti was fully Christianized by the time Gauguin arrived, and the Tahitian ladies wore mostly neck-to-ankle Christian missionary gowns called Mother Hubbards. So he made up the whole nude thing. He returned to Europe with several dozen paintings but only sold four because the public considered his work vulgar. Those same paintings sell for tens of millions of dollars today.

Back to the attack–I asked a guard about it, and she was there that day! “Was it kind of exciting?” I asked. “Oh yeah!” she replied. I asked her which painting it was and she led me to this one.

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The media coverage from the time indicates that a different painting was attacked: Two Tahitian Women, which was on loan from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Can you imagine that awkward post-attack phone call between museum directors? Thankfully the damage to the painting was minimal, with only minor scratches that were easily removed. The guard added that the attacker won herself a lifetime ban from the National Gallery: “We have her picture everywhere!”.

While wandering the galleries I noticed easels set up throughout and one easel with a painter hard at work. I didn’t bother him while he worked, but a few minutes later he sat on a bench taking a break and I chatted him up. He described NGA’s Copyist Program, which gives artists the chance to paint from original masterpieces. The artist can come in one day per week for as long as it takes to finish the painting. NGA has offered this program since its opening in 1941! Of course there are rules, background checks, and so on. But still–dream big, kids!

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A participant in the Copyist Program hard at work

The Demilitarized Zone

A few weeks ago when I considered booking this weekend trip to Seoul my ears perked up when the travel agent mentioned a tour to the Demilitarized Zone, or DMZ. I never realized that I wanted to see it until that moment. So this morning we met our tour bus, passports in hand, and headed out. 


Some brief history first.

After World War II Korea was divided between U.S. and UN Command in the South and Soviet protection in the North. South Korea declared independence in 1948, followed by North Korea shortly after. Tensions between the two exploded into the Korean War between 1950 and 1953. At the war’s end a hard line between the two nations was drawn: the Line of Control, with its surrounding four kilometer buffer zone called the Demilitarized Zone, or DMZ. 

An armistice to end the war was signed by the Chinese, North Koreans, and UN Command. The South Koreans refused to sign, so technically both countries are still at war and merely observing a cease fire–the longest deadlock in military history. 

Back to today’s tour. Our tour bus left Seoul and headed north. The suburbs of Seoul quickly gave way to lots of barbed wire and observation posts on the banks of the Han River. Though we were still a ways from the DMZ itself, soldiers stood guard with weapons trained. Right after I snapped this blurry shot of one such watch tower from the bus we were told not to take pictures from the bus–so apologies for not trying for a clearer shot. 

The somber environment–and tons of barbed wire–along the drive to the DMZ gave way to lines of buses, mobs of tourists, and oddly cheerful souvenir stands and snack shops once we arrived. It was just so…odd. Mark described our standing there as more dangerous than a volcano that’s about to blow, and here we stand gaping at the North and buying tacky DMZ souvenirs. 

Souvenir rice grown in the sole agricultural village in the South’s part

Over the years the South discovered several tunnels from the North to South crossing under the DMZ. Our first stop on the tour was to one such tunnel, called the Third Infiltration tunnel. It measured not-quite 2 meters in height, which meant hunching over and occasionally whacking a hard hat-protected head on the pipes overhead. We walked along the rough walls blasted from rock and stopped just short of the Line of Control. Three walls of concrete seal the tunnel, and small windows in the first wall allowed us to peek through to the next gap. Photos inside the tunnel itself were forbidden, but this shot of the various cameras inside the tunnel shows our journey. 

A quick and possibly forbidden shot of the views from inside the tunnel

The next stop was Dorasan Observation post. Think of places like Niagara Falls, the Grand Canyon, or anywhere else with binoculars that require a coin to operate. Dorasan is just like that–only with a view into North Korea and the famous Propaganda Village filled with crumbling buildings to show the South what they’re missing. Propaganda Village also features the largest flagpole in the world. North and South take turns building taller and taller flagpoles, and the North currently has the lead. 

Elbowing through the crowd for a turn at the binos–not for the weak of heart
Looking North toward Propaganda Village

After Dorasan Observatory we headed to Dorasan station, a train station opened to cross border train traffic in 2007. Raw materials went from the South to the Kaesong Industrial Region in the North; finished goods then returned South. The arrangement lasted less than a year when the North called it off in 2008. The station remains in use with a handful of trains per day ferrying tourists back and forth to Seoul. The customs and immigration areas sit empty, and the To Peonguang sign leads to blocked tracks. 

The forlorn, empty-for-now customs and immigration areas

The propaganda machine of the North certainly takes the grand prize–but frankly I found the spin in the various DMZ exhibits a little heavy handed. The outlandish behavior of the North speaks for itself, such as the mere existence of the numerous infiltration tunnels. So the introductory movie  at the Tunnel showing repeated, simulated Arrows of Death and Destruction obliterating Seoul? Perhaps a wee bit of overkill. 

We did not have the chance to visit the Joint Security Area, or JSA. This is the only part of the DMZ where South and North soldiers stand face to face. Remarkably, the travel agent here offers JSA tours, but alas–our youngest does not meet the minimum age requirement. Maybe next time.

The experience definitely left we wanting to learn more about the Korean War and the current tensions. 

On tomorrow’s schedule: a palace visit and martial arts comedy show.  

A Weekend Getaway to Seoul

Mark has a long weekend thanks to Monday’s Independence Day/Fourth of July holiday. The travel agent on base advertises weekend getaways, so we decided to try one out and head to Seoul for the weekend. 

The expectation: It’s a 2.5 hour flight, we figured. Easy! 

The reality: 10 hours door to door, from home to hotel. 

We live much closer to Haneda airport, but using that airport doubled the cost of the trip. So shortly after 7:30 AM we headed for Narita (1.5 hours), added time for traffic, parked the car at a remote lot, took the shuttle, arrived more than two hours early, grabbed a bite, flew, cleared customs and immigration, caught the bus to the hotel, sat through traffic, then finally arrived shortly before 6 PM. Ten. Hours. 

We are staying at the Dragon Hill Lodge, a hotel for Department of Defense personnel located on a joint U.S. military base called Yongsan Garrison. It’s slightly fancier than a standard American hotel, but totally, colossally bigger than anything we have ever staying in during our Japan travels. We love this! 

After checking in we set out for dinner in what can only be described as pissing rain. We headed for Itaewon, a nearby district popular with expats and packed with restaurants and shopping. We ate dinner at the improbably named Maple Tree, a delicious Korean barbecue restaurant. 


Mark ordered several meats for us to grill at our table, and a small ceramic grill filled with glowing red coals quickly appeared.

 A waiter delivered our banchan, an assortment of appetizers. My favorites were the thin marinated mushroom slices and tofu with pepper paste and soy-based sauce. The best part of banchan? They keep coming! Once you finish your favorite a waiter delivers complimentary refills. 

One interesting difference of dining in Korea is the chopsticks. In Japan we see either single-use or lacquered wooden chopsticks, but here heavy, stainless steel chopsticks are the norm. We hold them the same way, but the extra weight and slickness of stick-on-stick action make them tricky. After a few minutes I got used to them, and I was pleasantly surprised to see the kids manage just fine without asking for forks. 

After dinner we caught a cab back toward the hotel. The cab couldn’t drive onto the base itself, so the driver dropped us off as near as he could. We found ourselves standing before the War Memorial of Korea, a series of buildings, statues, and monuments to commemorate the Korean War. The rain and darkness made for a very dramatic setting, and I would have loved to spend more time there. But alas, the needs of the family sent us back through the rain and to our beds. 


Tomorrow’s outing: a trip to the Demilitarized Zone, or DMZ.