The Center of the World

Updated: Apr 21, 2019

In many ways, Washington DC is the world's most important city. Not only is it the seat of the American government, but it is the headquarters of several of the organizations that influence our globalized world (the World Bank and IMF being just two examples). NGOs, non-profits, lobbyists, and law firms all flock to this city in order to try and influence the policies coming out of these institutions.

The impacts of the decisions made here are felt around the world. And don't you think that those who live there don't know it. Now, don't get me wrong, I loved every second that I lived there. DC has always been one of my favorite places I have lived, but the self-worth felt in the city is on a level I did not experience even when I lived next to the City (the financial district) in London. What does this arrogance say about me, then, as I moved here and would gladly live here again? *insert wink face*.

DC is a youthful city. Those who live there are typically either just starting out in their careers or are on the other end and have reached senior management positions. The mid-career types seem to leave to raise their kids elsewhere. This young vibe means that two things are quite common here: happy hours and unpaid internships; the former being necessary in order to drown out the sorrows of the latter.

The first half of the year I lived in DC, I had one of these unpaid internships. It was with an NGO that focused on education in Iraq. From a skills standpoint, it was a great experience. I learned a lot, both about Iraq and also general office administration. From an "anything else" standpoint, it was a huge mistake. It was 45 hours a week, myself and the other interns received very little respect from our supervisor, and it completely drained my bank account. Even with those working conditions, the position required a bachelor's degree (and preferred those who had master's degrees). The worst part of it was, there was no professional advancement. Twenty years ago, internships were often the first step with a company. This is no longer the case. Interns are hired with the promise that their careers will be helped by the role, but in reality it's a scam that exists in order for organizations to skirt the law by using the free labor of eager young people.

Upon completing my internship, I had less than $400 in my bank account and was no further in my career. It was an incredibly stressful time and I grabbed the first job I could find - an administrative position at a local construction company. This obviously offered zero career development or advancement, but at least it paid for my groceries.

Which brings me to the next section of this youth culture: happy hours. They're not so much cheap drinking options as they are networking orgies. Going back to the sense of self-importance in the city, in order to make friends here you have to be able to provide the other party with something. The difference in my experiences at these happy hours before and after I changed positions was striking. "I work at an international development NGO" sounded a lot better than "I work for a construction company" to the ears of the Ivy Leaguers who sipped their cocktails in my vicinity. I have never lived somewhere so difficult to make friends. I have heard similar stories from friends who have lived in Brussels. This "what can I get out of you" culture appears to be a sad side effect of the influential cities and those who choose to live in them.

For a less serious take on the city's pompousness, I turn your attention now to its weather: DC's winters...well, they exist, anyways. An inch or two (up to five cm) of snow is not abnormal for the area but typically its brown grass that you see. Every few years, an actual blizzard that dumps two feet (0.5 m) of snow does roll through. I don't know the budgets of the local communities, but none of them have the equipment to deal with the snow. I understand why London, for example, doesn't bother with purchasing expensive equipment because it only gets an inch of snow every five years. But DC gets snow every year. I do not understand why an annual phenomenon is not attended to, especially considering the number of cancelled school days that occur every year, the increased number of car accidents because there is no salt on the roads, etc. If anybody familiar with Montgomery County's budget is reading this and can chime in, comment away!

I especially do not understand it because often those living in the DC area think of their winters as apocalyptic. Especially for those who were born and raised in the area, there is this strange mentality that these are the worst winters known to mankind. I was first introduced to this concept by a friend who told me that, because he had more snow days growing up in Maryland than I had growing up in Minnesota, that proved that DC's winters are more intense. I stared at him for a second before I decided that yes, he was being serious. "Uh, I had fewer snow days than you because we have the infrastructure to cope with snow," I told him. I'd like to say he was the only person to make comments like that, but alas.

My theory as to why this mentality exists, despite the well-known existence of Russian winters, lies in the self-centeredness of Washington. Much of the media is based here, and every time the east coast gets any weather it makes the national news. Just imagine, if you saw your local weather on the national news all of the time, you too would believe that it meant your weather was worthy of being on the national news. Five inches (13 cm) of snow in DC is important to the nation, apparently. Meanwhile, the Midwest might get three feet (one meter) of snow overnight and the national media will ignore it.

For another take on the city's weather shenanigans, DC's autumns are absolutely fabulous. The fall I lived there was easily the best one I have ever experienced, with the leaves holding their reds and oranges for nearly a month! Springtime brings with it the Japanese Cherry Blossom Festival, when the cherry blossom trees that line the Tidal Basin (the body of water next to the monuments) bloom for a couple of weeks. Those cherry blossoms were a gift from the mayor of Tokyo back in 1912, given to symbolize the friendship between Japan and the United States. Perhaps that was a little premature, as Pearl Harbor was 29 years later, but hey, we're strong allies again! Other than the cherry blossoms, spring in DC is virtually non-existent, as grey winters turn almost instantly to hot, muggy summers. These summers sometimes come with rains and thunderstorms.

Now. As somebody who comes from a state that gets severe thunderstorms and tornados (not Oklahoma-sized tornadoes, mind, but smaller ones) not infrequently, I don't pay much attention to what we at home call garden-variety thunderstorms aka regular storms. But DC does. It seems as though every storm that passes through is met with the entire city acting as though they have never seen a lightning bolt before. "Did you get caught in the monster storm last night?" a friend asked me on my most recent visit to the city. That "monster storm" had been slight drizzle with a bit of cloud-to-cloud lightning.

One of my favorite memories of this phenomenon happened one day the summer I lived there. My roommate and I were day drinking and playing Settlers of Catan. We had just cracked open our second beer when our third roommate called down the stairs, "did you guys see that we're under a tornado watch?" I shrugged and rolled the dice. My roommate, however, looked terrified. "It's fine," I assured him. Tornado watches are common back home, and the air outside didn't feel stormy so I wasn't fussed. We played another turn, but he was too concerned to concentrate and ended up heading upstairs to check the weather. I thought he would return, but ten minutes later, I myself headed upstairs to figure out where he had gone. I entered the television room to find both roommates literally sitting at the edge of the couch, staring intensely at the television. The local media had actually broken into regular programing to discuss the tornado watch. I tried to convince my friend to come back downstairs, but he was not interested in leaving the meteorologist behind, so I headed back downstairs, grabbed my six-pack, and went out to the porch to enjoy the weather (it was sunny and, for once, not horrendously humid).

What I saw next will amuse me until the end of my days, but I will make the disclaimer that I have never seen such care taken to ensure one's neighbors are safe: we lived in a town home complex, so there were about 40 houses within eyesight. Two neighbors were going around knocking on doors in order to ensure that everybody knew about the tornado watch. Several of the neighbors they warned looked terrified, and ran to their cars to, I kid you not, go to the grocery store and stock up. Because heavy cans are definitely what you want when a tornado rolls through! (they are definitely not what you want when a tornado rolls through).

For as amused as I was with this scene (and still am tbh), I can't deny the kindness that was displayed. And in a city that is often about the rat race, I will never complain when people are watching out for one another.