Cherry blossom time
Published: April 9, 2012
Four large men in full Bavarian regalia, alpine hats and all, were speaking German. At first, I thought nothing of it. It took me a couple of seconds to reach the Dorothy-esque conclusion, “Oh, I’m not in Germany anymore.”
In fact, I was in Washington, D.C., for an experience that comes from yet another part of the world. The German tourists and I -- and a few thousand other people -- were there to see the cherry blossoms.
Cherry blossom time in the nation’s capital is an event that, like many other all-American things, didn’t originate here. The trees that line the walkway around the Tidal Basin — home to memorials for U.S. presidents and heroes — were a gift to Washington from the city of Tokyo 100 years ago.
At the peak of their blushing glory, the blooms attract the city’s locals, as well as tourists foreign and domestic. I’m all of the above, I suppose. This is my first springtime since moving here from Germany, and I didn’t want to miss the display.
The hot, whiny inhabitants of summer sightseeing had not arrived, so in spite of the crowd the mood was relaxed the day I went to Potomac Park. Jostling my way from the busy Metro through the equally populated National Mall, I heard snatches of conversation.
“What do the laws even mean anymore?” wondered a woman carrying a First Amendment picket sign.
“It’s not a mall with shops,” said a man to his teenage daughter. “It’s where the monuments are. I think it was called a mall before there really were malls.”
Another interchange reminded me of my own family’s sightseeing foibles.
“Look at all the monuments!” said a mom to her preteen son.
“Look at all the porta-potties!” exclaimed the son.
It was a postcard day, with pink blossoms, dark branches, iconic white marble and a flawless blue sky. The sidewalks and walking paths near Potomac Park were full of middle-schoolers on spring break, parents pushing strollers, walkers, runners, cyclists and plenty of cameras.
Falling petals covered the ground and decorated hairstyles and hats of unsuspecting admirers. Picking the cherry blossoms is prohibited, so catching them as they fall is the only way to wear them. Capturing them on film is one way to take some home.
Painting is another. In a sunny patch of grass, a multitasking artist sat surrounded by canvases and paint boxes. He dabbed at first one painting and then another, creating several works of art at once: the Jefferson Memorial, Smithsonian Castle, and plenty of cherry trees.
In the cool grass under the trees, families spread blankets and picnic feasts. Baskets disgorged wine and cheese at one location, and peanut butter and jelly at another.
When my children were small, we were stationed at Yokota Air Base outside Tokyo. Japanese friends introduced us to hanami, an outing especially for viewing blooming springtime trees, usually accompanied by a picnic.
Our Tokyo friends took a group of us American moms and children to a plum orchard one spring day. Pink- and purple-hued trees and arched wooden bridges stood out like colorful embroidery against the gray sky.
We spread out plastic-lined blankets on the damp ground, removing our shoes as instructed before sitting on the blanket. Everyone brought food to share, a Japanese-American picnic of sandwiches, onigiri, chocolate chip cookies and bean paste sweets.
Like our friends in Japan introduced us to hanami, the city of Tokyo has introduced these enjoyable pursuits to Washington.
After seeing the cherry trees, I traveled home via Metro. Even the conductor was in a springtime mood. His clear bass voice sang out, “Next stop, Foggy Bottommm. Last stop in the District of Col-UM-biahh!”
I recalled the matter-of-fact female recording of “Nächster Halt, Vaihingen” on the German S-Bahn and the soprano intonation of “Roppongi, Roppongi” on the Tokyo subway.
Here in my new home, it was comforting to find reminders of other places our family has called home. Too bad I didn’t cross paths with the German quartet again. If they brought a picnic basket, I could sure go for Brötchen mit Käse, bitte.