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Anne Teahan gives an account of her journey through US customs on the way to the Smithonian Institute, Washington DC / 9 July 2010

photo of the White House

The White House in Washington DC photographed through iron railings. Photo by Anne Teahan 2010

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I have never been to America before. I am in a stationary queue at Charlotte Carolina airport, somewhere in-between planes and layers of security, waiting to be processed. One official looks stern and disapproving; she patrols the queue; she inspects us all. She is unimpressed.

Another official walks alongside the queue and says ‘Hi, welcome to Charlotte and where’re you from?’ to every single passenger in turn. In a friendly but efficient way he conducts a high-speed mini-interview, to establish whether we have visas or need some other document. I feel a slight panic as though I am trapped in a quiz show, and having lost my voice, cannot participate properly. And I am so tired I can barely remember where I come from, and just manage to croak ‘London’. I have my precious visa-waiver number scribbled on a scrap of paper which I offer to avoid the effort of further speech.

I also have to squeeze drops into my drying eyes as we wait. My eye lotion comes in tiny plastic capsules. I have worried throughout the journey – would they cause a security alert when I hold one up to the light to tip the liquid out? Would the stash in my case be confiscated? A week without hydration is unthinkable and so I exaggerate their use, to prove this is a regular, harmless ritual.

And then we all have to fill out a densely worded form with tiny print promising that we will not import noxious or toxic or explosive substances into the United States. Again I find myself wishing my treatments looked less incendiary.

And while we wait I see my first American film while in America – on a large flat screen elevated above the queue is a ‘Welcome to America’ set to music. The camera pans across images of lush landscape, deserts, canyons, and gleaming buildings including the White House. Then it zooms in closer to show sample Americans: old and young, every ethnic group and culture and perhaps one American in a wheelchair. All are assembled for the film and they are smiling at the camera. They have beautiful teeth, unblemished skin – and are glowing with health. Happily they welcome us all and our baggage, to America. And the music climaxes. By the time my queue is ready to move I know the sequence by heart. I am very tired. I hope I look healthy enough to be allowed in.

But there are no further long delays – I get through fingerprinting, have my eye photographed; I am asked the purpose of my visit: ‘to see artwork in the Smithsonian’, turns out to be the right answer.

And a couple of hours later, my first impressions of Washington through a cab window are of scale, dazzling light and an enveloping heat. Pure white monuments and domes emerge from the distance; I have never seen them before, and yet they look familiar as background to news items on Obama or Frank Capra films. But without music.

By the time I reach the hostel at Dupont Circus, I know by text that my friend Sue, turned back at Gatwick, has a replacement digital passport and will be travelling on tomorrow. And my first night in a twin room in a Washington hostel is not like the sodden youth hostels I remember in Britain. No bunk beds, or curfews.

And yet another huge TV screen, this time above my bed, reveals a mix of local and national news stations, some Spanish, some English speaking.¬†Stories vary from human to animal and individual to political: marine specialists rescuing turtles caked in BP oil and tenderly revived; a man tells how a bear’s nocturnal visit to his house caused fear but not panic, so the bear left without being shot; an undercover arts-theft detective retires and blows his cover publishing stories of stolen Picassos; a local politician is interviewed about Obama’s health reforms and wearily defends them…

Although this is the start of a year-long Art research project, I have only a few days in Washington, so I must make the most of my very compressed first impressions.

And the channel-flicking shows that although this is the world’s most powerful capital, Washington is just as local as everywhere else. And the bed is comfortable, the air conditioning loud, and the sheets are crisp.¬†

Keywords: access issues