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Washington, then Toronto, September 2016

Updated: May 10, 2021

We are in Washington DC, recuperating from the flight, in our room in the Crowne Plaza Hamilton, named after the great founding father Alexander Hamilton who invented the US Treasury but got himself killed in a duel.

This needs some explanation – not so much the duel as why we’re there. It’s the IBA again (the International Bar Association). This year the annual conference is in Washington. I don’t participate at all these days, but we catch up with friends. Also, Mary has never set foot in the city and my only visit was so long ago that I’ve forgotten almost everything about it.

Washington (20-22 September)

Our hotel is just by Franklin Park, which seems to be a favoured place for the city’s vagrants. Walking by it we watch the ubiquitous grey squirrels, but also spot a smaller animal that looks very like a rat. Mary points it out to the group of black guys sitting on a bench. Is it a rat? They roar with friendly laughter. No, it’s a squirrel-rat. What? A crossbreed? Are they laughing at our ignorance or our credulity? Where is Sir David Attenborough when you need him?

We have dinner with Bill and Janet Rowley, our Canadian friends (who are a large part of the reason we’re here – see below), and A&O partner Michael Reynolds (still much involved with the IBA) and his partner David Neville. They’ve selected an ultra-tasteful, colonial style restaurant in Georgetown (where all the best people live) called 1789. This is not, I think, anything to do with the fall of the Bastille – what a thought! – but rather some event in the history of Washington. No one seems very clear what. The website says it was when someone bought the site – and also when the US Constitution was “adopted”, not signed. Anyway, a wonderful restaurant, redolent with Washington tradition.

We do our orientation tour by going on the “Big Bus”. It goes around the main sights with some 20 stops. You get on and off as you like; if you get off, the next bus comes in about 20 minutes. We stay with ours for the whole tour so as to stick with the guide – a delightful elderly man, very American (from Wyoming), with a dry sense of humour. He told Mary she was a sweetheart.

As we passed the statue of Alexander Hamilton outside the Treasury (of which he was the first Secretary before his fatal duel), our guide told us blandly that he “was shot by the Vice-President”. No one seemed surprised. Stuff happens.

We saw large numbers of trees, particularly around the Capitol, with glorious red blossoms just like our tree by the swimming pool in France. We’ve been told it’s called Lagerstroemia, named by the great Linnaeus after a friend of his. Our guide called them Crepes Myrtle, which sounds better.

I paid a rapid visit to the National Gallery of Art, to be repeated at more leisure. It has the only painting by Leonardo in the Americas (see below), three (or possibly four) of the few Vermeers in the world and an amazing collection of Impressionists, donated by rich American collectors over the years.

Our only contact with the IBA is to get ourselves invited to one of the many receptions given by law firms, this one by a Norwegian firm I know well. They’d managed to hold it on the roof of one of the office buildings with a magnificent view of the Capitol in the setting sunshine. They’d invited Susanne Petersen, a Norwegian who is the second best female golfer on the planet. We are now both proud owners of caps signed by her.

Jeff Golden, our first US law partner (although now doing other things), suggested we join him and his wife Rita for dinner with various unspecified others. The venue was the Palm Restaurant, which is something of a Washington institution: very crowded, very noisy, with literally hundreds of drawings, even portraits, of Washingtonians on all the walls – including Jeff, as well as US presidents. Zagat calls it a place for the “affluent and connected”.

We take a walk around Georgetown, the very desirable, highly expensive, residential quarter. It seems a thousand miles away from the downtown: brick houses, leafy streets, all delightfully quiet. Some of the houses go back to 1800 when it was all first laid out.

At the recommendation of Bill Rowley, we go to the Phillips Collection, a small private museum of modern art – back in Washington proper, but still also in a leafy suburb. They have one very famous picture, Renoir’s Luncheon of the Boating Party – so wellknown that you wonder how it came to be here. Otherwise, some Van Goghs and assorted much more modern stuff.

As Mary said, the building and the atmosphere of the place are better than the contents – except the Renoir, which is magnificent. You can see just a detail on the left.

I go back for my repeat visit to the National Gallery of Art. It has a truly amazing collection of both paintings and sculpture. Most of Degas’ wax sculptures wound up there.

I joined a little group of ladies who were analyzing and discussing in much detail Turner’s view of the embankment at Mortlake. For some reason, the leader of the group turned to me and asked me what time of day I thought was being depicted. Just before sunset, said I, as there was the sun setting in the west. I knew it was west because I knew the stretch of river pretty well. They all seemed delighted to hear this, loving a bit of audience participation. I failed to tell them that I had had lunch there a few weeks ago in a building that had sprung up where Turner had painted the trees – I thought this might distract them unduly from their studies.

One of the prize exhibits is a Raphael Madonna. I also listened to a guide talking about that. It had been owned by the Czars of Russia before the Revolution and the Soviets sold it, along with much else, to raise some funds. American collectors were at that time standing at the ready, with cheque books to hand.

The Folger Shakespeare Library caught my eye, with my interest in Shakespeare memorabilia, driven particularly by my recent conviction that the guy from Stratford on Avon had nothing to do with writing the plays. The Library has more copies (over 80) of the First Folio of the plays – the earliest complete edition – than anywhere else in the world. (There are about 230 that survive.) The main exhibition at the moment is about a curious comparison between the lives of Shakespeare and Jane Austen, full of wholly speculative and probably completely inaccurate stuff about the life of our man from Stratford, plus (of course) much better documented, and, I’m sure, true things about Jane Austen.

We duly attended the Allen & Overy party, held in the Museum of Women in the Arts – A&O demonstrating its feminine, if not feminist, side. It’s a splendid building, once a Masonic lodge, now housing paintings by women. The main ones on show were by the French 18th century court painter, Vigée Le Brun, she having been much favoured by Marie-Antoinette.

After the party, we went to dinner again with Jeff and Rita Golden. He led us, with his great knowledge of Washington eateries, to one of those uniquely American restaurants, the Old Ebbitt Grill: old style, lively, with (somewhat curiously) large erotic paintings of nude women on the walls. Jeff was disappointed to find that his favourite bartender had finally and quite recently left his post.

Washington seems to the visiting tourist to be a well-ordered place (I’m sure it has its other side). It has its broad streets and avenues laid out with mathematical precision on a grid. Streets go north/south, numbered from the centre; bigger streets go east/west, named by letters; avenues are on the diagonal, named after each of the original states (I think). Walking around, if you have the energy in the heat (up in the 80's Fahrenheit), is easy, with pedestrian traffic lights that everyone actually obeys.

Taxis are everywhere; almost all driven by Ethiopians. Why Ethiopians, we kept asking? Many said they came to the States because they already had family here. But why was that? One rather learned driver (Ethiopian, of course) explained that the US had a good special relationship with Ethiopia in the days of the late-lamented Haile Selassie and offered a particularly warm (non-Donald Trumpian) welcome to Ethiopian immigrants.

To Canada (23 September)

We are now at Reagan National Airport, the domestic airport, Canada counting as domestic. The Americans manage to name their airports after political heroes in a way that we haven’t aspired to. When might Heathrow be renamed Thatcher International? No time soon, I suspect. We do make a tentative step in this direction with John Lennon Liverpool Airport. But he was a musician, so that doesn’t count.

Reagan Airport does provide a new experience. In the middle of the “pod” with the various gates around it, is a counter for coffee and other goodies. Each seat at the counter has its own screen on which you order what you want: cappuccino (with or without extra shot), eggs and bacon, even pain-au-chocolat. Then it arrives, waitress service. You can also play poker, blackjack and many other games if ordering coffee gets too boring. A vision of the future.

Why are we here? Bill and Janet Rowley have very kindly invited us to stay over the weekend at their house in the country outside Toronto and then, in some disdain for the old saying that fish and guests go off after three days, to go to their house in Toronto for a few more days.

We join them on the Air Canada shuttle to Toronto. It’s two hours delayed, but the sign on the gate puts the revised time – with “on time” against it. It’s late. But "on time" late.

The Stone House (24-25 September)

The Rowleys’ country house is about an hour north of Toronto and we drive directly up there. I remember it as being in flat, rather featureless, countryside. But not so. It’s a mile or so from the Niagara Escarpment , which runs north from the Falls up to Georgian Bay, a large offshoot of Lake Huron. This is far from featureless: quite dramatic, wooded descents down to a river valley. The trees are showing tentative signs of their autumnal colours; but as usual our timing is bad (driven indirectly by the IBA). In three weeks’ time it’ll be amazing.

Bill and I plan to paint, he in water colours, me in acrylic. He, being a younger man (by about 3 or 4 years I think), is a bit more modern than me.

The chosen subject is to the left. The work of art is below.

His house – the Stone House – is a painter’s dream: with avenues of trees, a lake (which they call a pond as it is, admittedly, smaller than Lake Ontario) and on it a picturesque, oriental-looking, wooden house on stilts – hard to describe. The garden is over 45 acres. Plenty to paint.

Canada, or perhaps just rural Ontario, has a problem with cappuccino. We go on a minor shopping expedition to the local village and look for a café – one that serves espresso coffee. Our first port of call is a mill that has been reconstituted as an artists’ studio and art gallery. Their café had an espresso machine, but it broke and no one has seen the need to replace it. After much apology, they direct us up the road to another café; same story, no espresso machine, not even a broken one. We then go to a much-revamped hotel/restaurant, where we get the coldest, frothiest, weakest, cappuccinos possible. Quite unprompted, they apologized profusely and didn’t charge. It wasn’t at all clear which aspect wasn’t up to scratch.

Niagara (27 September)

Janet drives us to Niagara. Happily it’s off-season. The first thing you notice is high-rise hotels, seriously high-rise, one marked in big letters at the top “CASINO”. Apparently many casinos have sprung up around the Falls.

Niagara is tacky and touristy. I feel I have to keep up my reports on the availability of espresso coffee. There is only one coffee shop of any description in the visitor centre next to the Falls and that is Tim Horton’s. Tim Horton’s is everywhere in Canada, mainly known for its donuts, I believe; but I’m able to report that its cappuccino is pretty good.

What can one say about the Niagara Falls? You see them best from close by the top of them, just as the water – the green water – is tumbling over: needless to say, vastly impressive, even mesmerizing. When I refer to the Falls, I mean the Canadian “Horseshoe” Falls, as opposed to the (actually smaller) American Falls and its much smaller neighbour the Bridal Falls, both of which are in the US. Much information can be gleaned from Wikipedia. The Horseshoe Falls have been receding over the centuries, making more of a horseshoe. It’s all “only” about 20,000 years old and they predict that in 50,000 years’ time it may have disappeared - just leaving rapids.

I will refrain from reciting more from Wikipedia: How high (actually only 150 feet); how much water goes over every second (too much for our little minds to comprehend).

Down the Niagara River to Lake Ontario is the town of Niagara on the Lake: a complete surprise, not tacky or touristy at all, a charming, beautifully laid-out and maintained town which supports four theatres. This year the season includes Bernard Shaw (at the Shaw Festival Theatre), Oscar Wilde, Chekhov and Strindberg. The town is also the centre of a thriving wine area.

Toronto (26-30 September)

We set off from the Rowley's house (see left) to explore downtown Toronto.

It seems, so far, to be a mixture of modern, high-rise office buildings and shopping centres, on the one hand, and down-at-heal, low-level, decaying shops and bars, on the other. We go to the Eaton Centre, a vast shopping centre on many floors that is firmly in the former category.

We also go to the Art Gallery of Ontario: some impressionists; much Canadian painting obviously; some other things, including a striking Augustus John portrait of a woman with bright red hair. In one of the rooms a wall is entirely covered by closely hung paintings right up to the ceiling. This, perhaps very worthily, is to demonstrate how galleries organized the hanging of paintings a couple of hundred years ago. The downside is that you can’t see the paintings at the top. Unfortunately for me, one of the paintings nudging up against the ceiling is the only John Singer Sergeant they have. A pity.

Pursuing our quest for good coffee – or indeed any coffee at all – we seek out the gallery’s coffee shop. It doesn’t open till 11.30.

Toronto Zoo (29 September)

Janet has very kindly agreed to drive us to the Toronto Zoo. It’s technically still in Toronto, but certainly not in central Toronto. It’s well away from the centre as of course it should be from the all-important point of view of the animals. We go many miles on a 14-lane highway to get there.

The star performers are the giant pandas. The “Panda Experience” is much advertised. The Zoo has been working with the Chinese to breed some pandas – famously not easy. They do it by artificial insemination, I guess because pandas are so reluctant when it comes to sex. Toronto’s panda duly produced twins: unusual in the wild and if they do the mother typically discards one as she knows that she can only eat enough to produce enough milk for one.

The whole “Experience” is excellently and skillfully presented. Anything you don’t know after it, you probably don’t need to know. As everyone probably does know, pandas are fussy eaters, sticking to particular types of bamboo. Of these delicacies, they eat everything – leaves, branches, even the stems, the lot. It all takes a lot of digesting. The Zoo has a transparent container, about the size of a capacious fridge, containing the amount a panda gets through in a day. It all gets shipped up from Memphis, Tennessee – where I guess they have plenty of bamboo, and no pandas.

The two cubs, born seven months ago, were asleep. They’re still on mother’s milk and will be till they’re two years old. Mum was understandably busy munching her way through the required amount of bamboo.

Otherwise, Toronto has all the big beasts – except for elephants, which they did have but which were given away to Washington. No one appeared to know why.

The lions, mum and dad plus four cubs, were resting – as normal. The tigers, cheetah and snow leopards were pacing up and down. They looked reasonably happy, but how can you tell? The whole zoo is beautifully arranged, so they should be.

One curiosity is the human element. The place seems almost deserted. A few weeks before, Janet told us, it would have been heaving with tourists and children, involving long queues, certainly for the pandas. But now the children are back in school and the tourists have disappeared – not helped by the drizzle and the cool temperatures. Toronto is, of course, highly sensitive to the seasons. In the summer it is baking hot, everyone eating outside or retreating into the airconditioning. In winter it’s snowbound. In late September it’s neither one thing or the other. But it does mean that things tend to be closed. All we could get for lunch in the zoo were sandwiches and wraps from our friend Tim Horton, the ubiquitous Canadian fast food chain.

Toronto clubs

We had the same experience at the Royal Canadian Yacht Club. It has its own small island just off-shore. A delightful place, Bill (left) being a member. But the main dining room, with its old-style furnishings and spectacular view of Toronto across the water, had closed a week or so ago. It couldn’t have mattered less. We had a fine lunch on the terrace overlooking the immaculate bowling green.

On our last evening Bill took us to have dinner at another of his clubs, the prestigious and presumably exclusive York Club. Again, the main dining room, with its heavy oak paneling, was closed – this time not because of the season but because of a function. Again, it didn’t matter to us. We had a good dinner in another splendid room. The club maintains proper traditions: suits must be worn. Luckily I had one.

* * *

I’m fearful that I’ve been a bit scathing about Toronto, with my comments about such trivial things as cappuccino - and our timing having meant that things were closed. Toronto is a great city. It is also an example to us all about assimilating immigrants. Someone told us that Canada welcomes over a quarter of a million every year and I imagine that most go to Toronto. It is certainly easily the largest city in Canada. One of the (immigrant) taxi drivers told us proudly that it was only second in North America to Mexico City. Actually, as you might guess, New York and Los Angeles are bigger. But it has certainly been growing at a phenomenal rate over the last decades. To achieve this, and remain as ordered and civilised as it seems to be, is an achievement.

We were lucky both in Washington and Toronto to be guided by good friends: Jeff taking us to the type of restaurants in Washington that we wouldn’t have hit on without him; and Bill and Janet taking us to the clubs in Toronto that wouldn’t even have allowed us in without them - whether wearing a suit or not.

6 October 2016

Tony Herbert

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