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Our house is made of white wood and faces west. The black-painted door has a fan carved above it and the shutters of the three windows are nailed back in case some prudish European should think of closing them at night.
At the back, hidden from the street, is a garden with an ivy-covered lawn. In the midst of the ivy, like a mermaid rising from the waves, is a concrete cupid. The owners may have hoped that Washington winters would make it look antique, but if that was the case, they are going to have to wait a little longer. For the time being, the concrete cupid still looks like a cupid made of concrete and continues to pour imaginary water from a concrete jug while staring in open hostility at the world round about—squirrels, blackbirds, and the occasional Italian tenant.
The house is on Thirty-fourth Street, which runs one way downhill through Georgetown. Actually, Thirty-fourth Street itself is a curious thoroughfare. It's only busy from four to six in the afternoon, when the massed office staffs of Washington descend toward M Street and cross the Potomac over Key Bridge on their way home to the immaculate suburbs of North Virginia. For the remaining twenty-two hours of the day, Thirty-fourth Street is a quiet road of brightly painted houses where people call each other by their first names and pretend that Georgetown is still the sleepy village that used to make a living from the tobacco trade at the time of the Revolution.
Apart from a certain number of lawyers, who in America are practically ubiquitous, our stretch of Thirty-fourth Street, from Volta Place to P Street, boasts an allergy specialist, a clerk at the World Bank, the daughter of a former CIA agent, a senator from Montana, and five exquisitely polite students from New England, whom I have unsuccessfully encouraged to behave like John Belushi in the film Animal House. Dave, their spokesperson, gently hinted that it would be undignified for a young American to humor a foreigner's fantasies.
Georgetown is known officially as West Washington, a name that is used by no one. It extends over one square mile and has had a checkered history. When there is a Democrat in the White House (Kennedy, Carter, Clinton), its stock rises, only to fall when the Republicans move in (Nixon, Reagan, Bush). Conservatives prefer the quiet of the suburbs to the Bohemian lifestyle of the center. In the western part of Georgetown, near the river Potomac, lies the university, founded by Jesuits in the eighteenth century. To the east, beyond the lights of Wisconsin Avenue, the houses are larger and older. In the center are the dwellings that once belonged to artisans or traders. We live in the center.
These cramped, dark houses with their steep staircases are about as un-American as you could possibly imagine. A farmer from Oklahoma might use one for keeping poultry. In fact, Washington's propertied classes do exactly the same thing, only their chickens come from the far side of the Atlantic. Yes, we Europeans love houses like these to distraction. In a detached suburban house, we might risk feeling we were actually living in America but the tiny rooms and woodworm-riddled floors of Georgetown serve to cushion the blow of moving from the Old World. We are prepared to pay a premium for inconvenience of this caliber. The agencies know it and take full advantage.
Finding a house with just the right degree of discomfort among so many inconvenient homes was not easy. Knowing that we would only be staying in the United States for a year, our first thoughts were to go for a furnished residence. These do exist in Washington but the problem is the furniture. In the course of a week-long search—in the company of a certain Ellen, who kept telling us not to worry, thus increasing our anxiety—we inspected a number of bizarre places. Selected highlights include: a basement flat decked out like a Bavarian castle, complete with hunting trophies; a six-floor house on P Street with one room per floor; a house decorated in purple throughout, including the bathroom and kitchen; and a house in Glover Park where the only thing missing to shoot a horror film was a suitable victim. Us, presumably.
Naturally, we changed tack and looked at unfurnished accommodation, which in America is the norm. Americans take everything with them when they move, like tortoises. Anything they can't carry is sold, thrown away or put into storage. Our search was carried out in the small ads of the Washington Post and operational headquarters were set up in the kitchen of some British friends, who helped us to decipher the more intriguing prospects. For example, what does this mean?
NE—3br, 11U2 ba semi-det, w/w cpt, eat-in kit, Sect 8 welcome
Who are the initiates of "Sect 8"? And why didn't the owner of GEO'TN 3br, 21U2 ba, spac, renv TH, Pkg, WD, Lg-trm lse spend a couple of dollars more and buy a few vowels? Or what on earth can you say about GEO'TWN Classic 3br TH, fpl, gdn, plus guest or au-pair?
Did the owner want to rent us a guest or an au-pair? And what about that "classic"? This is the country where classic is a kind of Coca-Cola. So, thanks anyway, but no.
In the end, just as our British friends were becoming discreetly desperate, we found GEO'TWN Grace and charm. 3br, 31U2 ba, immac, lib, cac, lg gdn. Ph Ms Webb.
The crucial information here is not 3br (three monastery cell-sized bedrooms), nor is it 31U2 ba (three and a half bathrooms that, added together, are smaller than one bathroom in an Italian flat). It is not immaculate and not even cac, or central air-conditioning. The magic words are grace and charm, which have much the same effect on Europeans as a worm on a hook has on a fish.
As it turned out, the house actually did possess considerable grace and charm. The agent, Ms. Webb, had not lied. But even if she had, it would have been inadvisable to mention the fact because Patty Webb, a historian's wife, is slender, sprightly, and ever so sweetly autocratic. Her neatly trimmed gray hair and small face frame a pair of acutely observant eyes. She wears jeans. And she possesses the most stunningly effective bye-bye I have ever heard. After one of Patty Webb's bye-byes, there is simply nothing more to say.
She may be brisk, but that doesn't stop her being considerate. As well as taking our side in the negotiations with the owner, Patty intended to make sure we had a minimum survival kit. On the evening we moved in, she arrived with a pan, two plates, two forks, and two glasses that, in addition to the table lamp sitting on the floor, give the house a delightful day-after-the-Wall-Street-Crash look. If we had had a telephone, we could have ordered a pizza from Domino's, sat in the empty room, and toasted our arrival. That's what couples generally do in American films. We didn't have a phone so we went out for a hamburger instead. Locking the door behind us, we set off resolutely in the wrong direction.
For Italians coming to live in the United States, the greatest satisfaction derives not from seeing films six months before they are released in Italy, or choosing from fifty different kinds of breakfast cereal, or reading two kilos of newspaper on a Sunday morning. What really tickles our epiglottis is grappling with American bureaucracy. Why is that? It's because, having trained on the Italian version, we feel like a matador faced with a milk cow. It's a pushover.
Unfortunately, the experience doesn't last long and leaves you with a vague feeling of dissatisfaction. After sorting everything out, an Italian has a craving for a few more phone calls to make, some last-minute problem to unravel, or another clerk to convince. But it's no use. Americans see no existential significance in, say, getting a phone installed (the struggle, the pleading, the long wait, the final victory). As soon as your new phone's dialing tone tells you it's connected up, they abandon you to your fate.
What now follows is the story of one short but exciting morning in action against the bureaucratic legions of Washington. Battle stations was a phone booth at Sugar's, a Korean coffee shop on the corner of P and Thirty-fifth streets. Weapons and ammunition—five quarters, paper, pen, passport, map of the city, a good command of English, and a moderate degree of optimism.
The first thing, in a country where everything is done over the phone, was to get a telephone. All this took was a call to C&P (the local—private and therefore efficient—equivalent of the Italian Telecom) to ask for a number. The clerk asked a few questions of the kind that any student on a beginner's English language course could answer—name, surname, age, address. At the end of the conversation, the same clerk told me, "Get your pen and write. This is your number. You'll be connected in twenty-four hours." Total time required for the transaction—ten minutes. Cost—twenty-five cents.
At this point, it is necessary to connect your new phone to a long-distance carrier. Competition among AT&T, MCI, and Sprint is ruthless. Each provider offers special conditions, such as discounts on numbers you call frequently, on calls to a foreign country of your choice, at particular times of day or on certain days of the week. Time required to decide—fifteen minutes. Cost—nothing. Each company has its own free phone number (which in the USA begin with 1-800).
Next came connection to cable television (one phone call to Cablevision, who specify the precise time at which their technicians will call the following morning) and insuring the contents of the house against theft or fire (ten minutes, no formalities). But to apply for a Social Security number, which is the de facto equivalent in the United States of an identity card, the phone is not enough. You need to go to the appropriate office, where a clerk asks you questions and types your answers straight into a computer. Queue (sorry, line)—none. Forms—ditto. Interview time—five minutes.
Then we made a visit to the police for a temporary parking permit. (Time—fifteen minutes. Cost—nothing.) After which to open a bank account, all you need to do is turn up with the money (essential), and proof of domicile. The address on a letter is okay. A photocopy of your rent contract is even better. A temporary checkbook is issued on the spot and you can choose the definitive version from a catalog. There's the classic model, the old-fashioned type, and one with Sylvester the cartoon cat on every check. My wife, of course, insisted on Sylvester. That was perhaps the most trying moment of the entire morning.
We came from Italy without moving house in the true sense of the word. We just brought eight trunks containing the absolute minimum—a few pieces of silverware so that we would have something to worry about when we weren't in, one or two paintings, and carpets to prove we're sophisticated Europeans, and some books, clothes, T-shirts, and sneakers identical to those on sale in the United States.
We didn't bring any mattresses because we thought we could buy them at a reasonable price in America. That is true, of course, but there is a snag. In the Washington area, sixty retailers compete for the lower backs of 4 million residents and while the residents know what they want, we didn't have the foggiest idea.
Thus it was that, following the directions in the Yellow Pages, we pulled up outside a place called Mattress Warehouse (12125 Rockville Pike, telephone 230-BEDS), whose advertisement claimed low, low prices and a big, big choice (or it may have been the other way round). Their shrewd sales assistants are seasoned veterans who have done the business thousands of times. They're used to convincing old ladies with lumbago, horizontally-extended families, and majestic African-Americans too tall for any mortal couch. When an unwitting out-of-towner crosses the threshold, their faces light up.
Cast your minds back for a moment to High Noon. The stranger arrives and advances silently across the deserted but mattress-encumbered floor. A lone figure breaks away from the group of sales assistants. He smiles, and walks slowly toward the new arrival (this is all in slow-mo). The sales assistant knows that his adversary has no chance. The stranger, who is unused to the surreal silence of a vast expanse of variously upholstered bedding accessories, loses his nerve and goes for his gun. He misses. What he actually does is say "I want a mattress," which by now is fairly obvious. Guided tours of Washington rarely include the Rockville Pike Mattress Warehouse. The sales assistant smiles at this point, for he knows he can finish the stranger off whenever he wants, and then decides to have some fun.
Our executioner is called Skip. He's tall, burly, and has hair slicked back like Joe DiMaggio's. His eyes shine with the fire of the professional while his colleagues sit back and take note. It's clear that Skip intends to put on a show. He begins by explaining American mattress sizes: twin (normal), full (large), queen (huge), and king (gigantic). Then he points out that mattresses look the same but they actually have different springs, mechanisms, and prices (and names like King Koil Posture Bond Extraordinaire, Beautyrest World Class Conquest Pillowtop, Posturepedic Westport Cushion Firm). The only way to find the one that suits us, he says, is to try them. No sooner said than done. Skip throws himself onto a double bed and obliges me to do likewise. Then he bobbles, he wriggles and he squirms. My wife watches in silence.
Skip goes from bed to bed, bouncing contentedly like a child in a sixties TV commercial. In the end, we make our choice, or rather Skip makes it for us—two phosphorescent king-size mattresses with gargantuan metal frames. They were delivered the following day, and it would immediately become clear that they were too bulky to go up the spiral staircase of a modest Georgetown residence. On the phone, Skip keeps his cool. It's so often the case, he says. However, we can cut them in half. It'll be fifty dollars per mattress. We take all major credit cards.
When you move into an empty house, mattresses and silverware aren't enough. You need tables, dining chairs, and easy chairs. In fact, you need all those things that Americans take with them in rented U-Haul vans when they move from one state to another. The United States is actually a republic founded on relocation. The whole social order is based on one assumption: people move house. Presidents move out of the White House, workers go where the work is, and children leave home for college. There are awesome mechanisms in place to facilitate these operations.