Last week was a busy one! It started with a relaxed and cheerful evening at Wrigley Field where I showed up to watch a Cubs vs. Dodgers game with Todd, Carolyn and Kevin (note, Todd, that no Oxford comma is remotely necessary) which was, to be honest, not really diminished at all by the cancellation – due to rain – of any actual playing of baseball. That’s not intended to be a dig at baseball. It’s more a tribute to the atmosphere and the company.
The next day I turned 29 (I know what you’re thinking, and yes, it is a prime number) and I celebrated with Randi and Amanda by going back to Red Square for dinner. It holds a special yet frightening place in our hearts because after meeting Amanda for the first time and showing her around her prospective apartment home, almost two years ago, we had all walked together along Division Street and decided to “get to know each other” over pierogi. As we walked in, the owner (or, if not the owner, an enthusiastic ambassador) put his arms around my shoulder and invited me (and only me) to the baths downstairs. I declined, somewhat fearfully, and we quickly retreated to the outside tables… but the pierogi were good! This time we escaped without any kidnapping attempts, and I returned home in one piece to enjoy Randi’s amazing homemade chocolate cake.
On Wednesday evening I grabbed a beer with Jonah, who had been sending stalkerish photos of Chicago over WhatsApp, and on the following night I was due for Birthday Dinner #2 at Spacca Napoli Pizzeria with Randi, Catherine and AJ. This was good pizza. If you’re looking for a place which is respectably fancy enough for a birthday dinner, but deep down all your heart desires is pizza, this is your place.
OK, enough prelude, let’s get to Virginia.
Charlottesville is a large town (sorry, an ‘independent city’) with a wonderfully pedestrianised downtown area, a historic university and the sort of vibe which produces colourful markets, boutique shops and RBG fridge magnets. So I was very glad we had a good reason for a long weekend visit, together with Villy, to see this for myself and undo some of the mental association between the words ‘Charlottesville’ and ‘murderous Nazi rally’.
The other famous association is with Thomas Jefferson and his plantation at Monticello, which we also visited. As with our visit to a plantation in Charleston, it’s difficult to square the workings of a tourist site (gift shop, shuttle bus, tour tickets) with the fundamental horrors of slavery. It’s even more complicated at Monticello since, whatever you think of Thomas Jefferson (and I am not a fan, for multiple reasons) he’s clearly a historical figure of huge significance and talent.
I can say that the presentation was more historically honest than in Charleston. We were probably lucky in our guide, a University of Virginia student. For example, during the tour of Jefferson’s house, and after giving equal prominence to Jefferson’s acknowledged and unacknowledged children, she shot down one man’s suggestion that Sally Hemings was Jefferson’s “mistress” or “special friend” with a firm “no, she was his slave”. It was a small moment, but a brave one, because it’s not an easy thing to risk a confrontation like that when your job is on the line.
Talking of workplace confrontations: in a Charlottesville taproom I caught up with Brett, a volunteer we met on the 2016 Hillary campaign in Toledo, for a non-hypothetical discussion about what to do when a colleague truly believes that the Earth is flat. True story.
The aforementioned ‘good reason’ for being in Charlottesville was the wedding of Chelsea (Randi and Villy’s middle school friend) and Daniel. Congratulations to them! The wedding took place outdoors at a winery which was both incredibly beautiful and very, very sunny. Fortunately, fans were provided. It was also great fun to hang out with Villy, who was very helpful and responsive to my emergency questions whilst doing last-minute shirt shopping at Charlottesville’s TJ Maxx.
Finally, on Sunday morning we got the early morning Amtrak to Washington DC and spent the day with Randi’s cousin Ben. Randi’s patience for taking photos around famous DC monuments has worn very thin in the current era, so instead I will use this photo of a much younger me outside the Washington Monument from 1999. At least the monument itself has greatly improved!
The highlight of this day trip – other than meeting Ben – was seeing the official portraits of Barack and Michelle Obama at the National Portrait Gallery. To build anticipation we counted up through the portraits of the 42 previous Presidential office holders first, passing a swift-but-fair judgement on them all in turn. FDR had a line drawing of Stalin in the bottom left, which seems a little unfair.
To conclude, here is a transcribed exchange between an elderly couple over breakfast: