Meeting the President of the United States

It’s been awhile since my last blog post and I have a lot of catching up to do. Over the last four months, I’ve traveled to Germany, Scotland, England, Canada and Brazil. Those trips were all in the name of business, of course, but since it was my first visit to all (except England) they deserve their own blog posts. And I plan to do so. But first…

I had a very fascinating experience right here in Washington, DC in April, almost exactly 7 months to the day that I arrived in DC. I’ve been asked by several people to blog about it. It was certainly a once-in-a-lifetime event, so for the sake of posterity, here goes:

It was Easter Sunday, April 8, 2012. As I do every Easter, I had planned to go to church. I’ve been going to St. John’s Episcopal Church since I moved here. It’s nicknamed The President’s Church because every US President since James Madison in 1816 has attended church here at some point. And for good reason: it’s located directly across from The White House, separated only by Lafayette Square. My friend Jocelyn has been blessed to see the Obamas there at least twice, as well as both George Bush Sr. and George Bush Jr. at different times.

I had been told that the 11 a.m. service tends to fill up quickly and the church usually has to turn people away. So, I planned to arrive an hour early to guarantee I could get in. As I arrived at 10 a.m. on the Metro, and turned the corner onto H Street, I knew something important was happening. About 20 Secret Service officers were surrounding the entrance to the church. They all wore dark suits with earpieces and a small circular lapel pin indicating secret service. Disappointed, I figured the President was inside the church already for the 9 a.m. service. I missed him again! At the entrance, the usher handed me a program. “The 9 a.m. service is still going on, so you might want to sit in the Parish Hall and have some coffee while you wait,” he said. “Oh, and if I were you, I’d get in there pretty quickly. The President is coming to the 11 a.m. service.”

I smiled, thanked the usher and remained calm. But inside, I was so excited. Giddy, actually. I didn’t miss him after all. I quickly entered through the side door and into the Parish Hall. It was virtually empty and I kept expecting the Secret Service to approach me and ask me to wait outside. But they never did. As the 9 a.m. service ended and the people filed out, they brought in the bomb-sniffing dogs to sweep the church. The handful of us who were waiting in the Parish Hall were scanned by metal detecting wands by the Secret Service. And then, we were the first ones allowed into the sanctuary.

The President has a special pew reserved just for him. It’s about 10 rows from the alter and has a bronze plate indicating it as such. The row in front of it and behind it had reserved signs. And the rows across the aisle had reserved signs. But the row exactly across the aisle from the presidential pew was empty and had no signs. I figured this had to be a mistake. If I sat there, I’m sure Secret Service would ask me to move – if I extended my arm out across the aisle, the President and I could touch. I took the risk and sat there anyway. I saved two seats next to me for Jocelyn and her friend who were on their way. I didn’t know, however, that poor Jocelyn had been turned away at the entrance due to capacity.

The Presidents’ Pew at St. John Episcopal Church

Surprisingly, nobody asked me to move. The church filled up to capacity. And just before the service started, the Obamas – Barack, Michelle, Sacha and Malia – entered through a side door to a standing ovation. Then they walked towards me and filed into the Presidential Pew. I couldn’t believe it. President Obama was right next to me, separated only by an aisle. And all eyes were on him. Except mine because I didn’t want to be obvious and gawk at this proximity. Secret Service occupied the pew directly behind him. And the rest of the reserved pews were family and friends of the Obamas including the ones behind me.

And there we were having church together. I was so close I could hear his voice in the collective responses to the Reverend. Just after the Sermon and the Prayers of the People, there came The Peace. This is essentially where you greet your neighbor with a “peace be with you” and a handshake. I greeted those in the pew directly ahead of me and those behind me. And then in happened…

President Obama turned towards me and stepped out into the aisle at the exact same time that I turned towards him. He extended his arm and said “Happy Easter! And peace be with you.” I shook his hand and repeated his words back to him. I was surprised how warm his hand was and how his whole demeanor exuded warmth. He struck me as thinner than I imagined and tall, but not as tall as I imagined either. He graciously shook hands with those around me.

We continued on with Holy Communion. Since we were separated by an aisle, I took communion off to the side while the Obamas went to the alter. However, on the way back to our pews we ended up walking side by side. I smiled at Sacha and she smiled right back at me. Michelle saw this and nodded towards me. She said “Happy Easter” as I took my seat. I watched as the congregation filed past their pew and smiled and nodded at the President and his family. The choir led the singing of Handel’s “Hallelujah” towards the end of the service and I had to admit it was the perfect song to describe what I was feeling.

As the final song “Welcome Happy Morning” was sung, I tried to figure out a plan to take a photo of the President and his family. My big plan was to have my iPhone ready as soon as the service ended and sneak a photo as the President shook hands with people. But, of course, Secret Service escorted the President out of the church during the song and I missed my big chance. I still hold onto hope that the church photographer managed to click a picture of the President …. and maybe somewhere there’s a glimpse of me across the aisle.

A view of the alter of the church



A Tourist in my New Town

I moved to Washington, DC at the end of summer when temperatures were still in the 80s and the air was thick with humidity. Air conditioning was a must during the day, but at night the temperature dropped to a comfortable, almost-need-a-sweater degree. The worst part about dusk was that the mosquitos came out. I haven’t been around mosquitos in years and they sensed it. I was attacked nightly. I’m not sure if it’s worse because I live on the waterfront or if it’s like this all across DC, but they loved me. Between my giant frizzy hair and the red welts all over my body, I was certainly a sight to see.

The Waterfront Metro Station

My first big adventure was navigating the DC Metro system. I tested it the day before I had to go into work. The Waterfront Metro Station next door to my apartment is on the Green Line, which is a straight shot to Chinatown where my office is located. On most days, I can get to the office in less than 15 minutes which is the best commute to work I’ve ever had. My first impression of the Metro was that it reminded me of the Space Mountain ride at Disneyland. It even smelled like that ride, which made me quite nostalgic.

The domed building is where my office is housed

Chinatown Arch

At the office

The best part about moving to a new city is that every day is new. I see something or experience something new, which makes it more like being on a permanent vacation. On day one of my job, I was already overwhelmed by the sheer number of things to see and do in this city. Luckily, I had several opportunities to immerse myself in it – a company retreat with my communications colleagues and hosting a group of German and UK media during two weeks in October. They say a picture is worth a thousand words, so I’ll let these images speak for themselves:

Me in front of the U.S. Capitol Building

On a City Segway Tour of the Monuments (super fun!)

Me and the Marketing & Communications team on a segway tour

A View of the White House from the POV Lounge at W Hotel. A closer look will reveal two secret service agents on the White House roof

Me on a Bike and Roll Tour of the Monuments

The FDR Memorial

The new Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial

The Lincoln Memorial at night (best time to see it)

Me at Ford's Theatre where President Lincoln was assassinated

President Lincoln's balcony at Ford's Theatre

Korean War Memorial

Location where Martin Luther King gave his famous "I Have a Dream" speech

Vietnam Veterans Memorial

WWII Memorial

The White House

President Lincoln's Cottage

Tomb of the Unknown Soldier - Arlington Cemetery

Changing of the Guards - Arlington Cemetery

Ben's Chili Bowl on U Street - A favorite of Bill Cosby and President Obama

My favorite picture of the Washington Monument

Road Trip!

2011 was certainly a memorable year of travel. I thought my mom’s 60th birthday Mediterranean cruise in May would be the highlight. It was the time of our lives. With that trip, I had finally fulfilled my long-awaited dream to visit Spain and could cross that one off my bucket list. I was prepared to sit patiently through the rest of the year and maybe start planning a few trips for 2012. But, no sooner had we returned home from the cruise, than the winds of change picked up. And Lord knows with my restless spirit, I had been praying for a major change in my life.

Me in front of the iconic Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas sign

I had spent 13 years of my life in Las Vegas, Nevada. When I tell people that, most look at me and say “how on earth did you stay that long?” It’s such a transient city and when you think of the lifestyle which comes from a city like that, nobody can imagine having 13 years of stamina when a 3-day weekend in Vegas is plenty for anyone.  Four of those years were devoted to college and nine were all about starting my career and climbing that corporate ladder. It was a great city to spend my wild 20s. But life, when I wasn’t traveling, had become stagnant. It was the same ole routine day in and day out. My job was at a dead end; I wasn’t going anywhere. My love life was at a dead end; it wasn’t going anywhere. I was really unhappy with just about every aspect of my existence. And that’s when Washington, DC came calling. And breathed life back into me again.

Leaving Las Vegas!

Truth be told, I was ready to go anywhere if it meant I could finally leave Las Vegas. In my job search, Washington, DC kept popping up again and again. I applied for an open position at Destination DC. The job: International Media Relations Manager for the destination marketing organization for Washington, DC. Essentially, my dream job! After a summer of phone interviews, an in-person interview and writing tests, I was offered the position in August. I was thrilled! But, they needed me to start in 3 weeks. Eeek! Imagine having only 3 weeks to completely end one life in one city, travel across the entire country and start a new life in another city. It was a challenge I was willing to accept.

With the help of my mom and sister, I packed up my entire house

First things first, I gave notice at work. I spent two solid weeks packing up all of my belongings every spare moment I could find. My sister and I embarked upon an extensive online apartment search; a search for a reputable moving company; and mapping out my driving route for the road trip of a lifetime. Somewhere in there, I had to make time to say goodbye to 13 years worth of friendships, which was by far the hardest part. I also had to say goodbye to my trusty Mitsubishi Lancer that had safely gotten me from Point A to Point B for more than 8 years. I sold her the day before I left and picked up my new Chevy Impala rental car for the 2,500-mile journey ahead.

Saying goodbye to my Mitsubishi Lancer

Pulling out of my driveway for the last time - Sept. 5, 2011

On Labor Day – Monday, Sept. 5, 2011 – I watched the movers load the contents of my three-bedroom house onto a moving truck. I loaded up my rental car and said a tearful goodbye to my sister. With my dogs comfortably in the backseat, we pulled out of the driveway for the last time and set course for the open road. As a single woman traveling alone, my goal was to only drive eight hours a day during daylight. First destination: Albuquerque, New Mexico.

A rainbow during the drive through Arizona

The drive took me through Boulder City, Nevada down to Kingman, Arizona and essentially the historic Route 66. It rained most of the way past Phoenix and into New Mexico. Since I had gotten a late start, I ended up driving well into the night and through a torrential downpour which blinded me for the last 90 miles to Alburquerque. I white knuckled it most of the way there. I checked into the pet-friendly Hampton Inn around 11:30 p.m. My dogs – whose biggest road trip until now had been down the street to the vet and back – were completely freaked out by the hotel. They barked at every little noise and would howl as loud as they could if I left the room for even a minute to get something out of the car. I was so nervous about someone complaining that the next day, as I was gulping down the free hotel breakfast, I made them sit in the locked car and parked it where I could watch them.

Large White Cross on Interstate 40

From Albuquerque, my next destination was Oklahoma, City, Oklahoma. Ironically, I passed by Las Vegas, New Mexico which was fun to see. Then, I set the cruise control through the flat Texas plains. Along Interstate 40, I kept my eyes peeled for something unique like the largest ball of twine or something straight out of “Pee Wee’s Big Adventure.” I settled for this giant white cross looming on the horizon for miles. Along the way, I also saw a giant watertower proudly declaring the home of Garth Brooks in Yukon, Oklahoma. Something about Oklahoma makes you want to listen to country music.

I arrived at the pet friendly Best Western Saddleback Inn, which may have been my favorite hotel along the way for several reasons: the awesome southern accents that greeted me at the front desk, and the fact that there was a large grassy front yard in front of my first-floor hotel room for the dogs. There was also room service which meant I could finally have a decent dinner in my room without the dogs howling the whole time. Oh and a spectacular free hot breakfast buffet!

Wednesday morning we were back on the road heading from Oklahoma City to Memphis, Tennessee. I put more country music on to pass through Carrie Underwood’s hometown of Checotah, Oklahoma. Today we were making a very special stop in Morrilton, Arkansas. My step-mom Linda and her husband live there. She was my dad’s second wife for 10 years (from the time I was almost 2 until I was almost 12). I hadn’t seen Linda in years. She works as a janitor for a local elementary school, so when I arrived around 12:30 p.m. she asked me to meet her there. It was a great reunion and I got to see the charming town she lives in. We went to her home where I met her Aunt Donna. They took the dogs and me on a walk along the Arkansas River and then Linda made her famous “Linda Tacos” for lunch, just like old times. I  couldn’t stay long since I still had quite a drive ahead to Memphis, but our few hours together was worth it.

Linda and me

Back on the road, my second favorite moment (next to seeing Linda) was when I arrived in Memphis just after dark. There was something so magical about crossing the mighty Mississippi River and seeing downtown Memphis all lit up at night. It was breathtaking. I so wish I had a photo of  that moment, but you know – I was driving. On a bridge. At night. With dogs panting in my ears. I drove all the way through the winding freeways of Memphis, which was another white knuckle moment for me, until we arrived at Drury Hotel. Our room was on the second floor which meant we had to take an elevator – Maya and Chloe’s first elevator ride. Sounds easy, right? Until they refuse to get in and other guests are sighing and rolling their eyes. And of course they had to howl and bark when I left them in the room to get the luggage. They were driving me crazy.

I got an early start out of Memphis but still managed to run into rush hour traffic. I drove the Musical Highway to Nashville and then past Knoxville and Dollywood. I SO wanted to stop in Memphis and see Graceland. And Opryland in Nashville. And Dollywood. But, I had a schedule to keep and couldn’t take the time. I would go back in a heartbeat. This second-to-last leg of the trip took us from Memphis to Bristol, Virginia. I passed the Bristol Motor Speedway where they have NASCAR races. Then found my way to Microtel Inns & Suites. I went to bed without dinner here because Maya was so freaked out by every noise and smell. She was out of control and I’m sure the hotel was happy to see us go the next day.

Maya in Chloe in Bristol, VA

It was Friday, Sept. 9 and Day 5 of our road trip when we finally arrived in Washington, DC around 2 p.m. We had driven through picturesque Virginia where even the rest stops look like beautiful, colonial brick buildings. The drive was so green with rolling hills and farmland; charming red barns and white picket fences. It reminded me of an east coast version of Oregon. And some place where I wouldn’t mind living one day. The drive was easy and effortless and I grew more and more excited as I saw signage for DC. But, just as I crossed the bridge into the District, I became very confused as the road began to split into different directions. My Mapquest directions told me to stay to the right and exit on Maine Ave. but the exit looked like it was blocked by orange cones. So I kept on going along I-395 until I was headed the opposite direction. And from there it became impossible to get back. I exited the freeway and attempted to take the city streets. They would go one way and then split into two directions and you weren’t quite sure which one was still the road you were on. And then suddenly, the streets were one way. And then if you were in the left lane, you were getting back on the freeway. Huh? I panicked for a solid 20 minutes as I think I broke a few traffic laws. Then I breathed and consulted my iPhone map. I managed to find my way to my apartment building and vowed to never drive here again.

Home Sweet Home - my new apartment building, The View at Waterfront

Me and the dogs at home

My teeny tiny apartment

View from my apartment

The kitchen

The bathroom

After seeing my apartment, I set off with the dogs to explore my neighborhood. I live in the Southwest part of The District. Immediately next door is Arena Stage, a performing arts center. On the other side of my building is the Waterfront Metro stop (subway) and a Safeway and CVS Pharmacy. I’m across the street from the Washington Channel which flows into the Tidal Basin (where the Jefferson Memorial is located). The channel is home to the Titanic Memorial, the Harbor Patrol police department, dinner cruise ships, houseboats, recreational boats, and DC’s very own outdoor fish market. I was so pleasantly surprised that this was my neighborhood.

Arena Stage

Boats along the Washington Channel

The park directly behind my apartment building

Feeding ducks along the channel

The Titanic Memorial

Outdoor fish market

My furniture wasn’t scheduled to arrive for another week, so I prepared to camp out in my living room. Luckily, I had stocked my rental car with all the necessities to get me through. Before dropping my rental car off at the airport, I did a huge grocery store run and stocked up on all the heavy items I couldn’t easily carry home. The grocery store itself was different than what I was used to on the west coast. You park in a parking garage where you either have to pay or can get your ticket validated if you buy groceries. You take your cart into an elevator and take it up to the second floor to shop. Not that I was looking for hard liquor, but I also learned that DC grocery stores only sell beer and wine. Anything else has to be sold at a liquor store. I guess I won’t be making margaritas. Toto, I don’t think I’m in Vegas anymore.

After unloading my groceries at home, I returned the rental car to the airport and thought I was going to die on the way. It happened to be rush hour on a Friday afternoon and the traffic was horrendous. I cabbed it back to my apartment after being thoroughly stressed out for the day. So, there I was. The new girl in town. Car-less for the first time in 13 years. Furniture-less for at least the next week. And starting a new job in two days. Chloe was so stressed about the move that she became incontinent for a few days. And I had to order a bark control device so that Maya would quit barking every time I left them alone. It was an adjustment for all of us. But we made it! We drove 2,500 miles and were starting the adventure of a lifetime.

More to come…..stay tuned for sightseeing pics of Washington, DC, my new home.