A Small Town With an Embassy Row

Earlier this week was the annual Weinstein lecture, and so members of my family converged on Washington DC. As is our wont, Carrie and I took advantage of the opportunity to go book shopping and found ourselves at Kramerbooks. After selecting a nice pile of reading, we decided the best plan of action would be to mail it home, as we usually do. We buy the books and then inquire about shipping. At first, everything seems fine. Then, once the hipster behind the counter learns we live in Canada, the conversation changes. They don’t ship to Canada. We’re surprised, since they evidently have shipping. There’s a FedEx a few blocks away.

So we bag up the books and walk a few blocks to FedEx. We arrive in the door and ask for a box. After a few exchanges, the FedEx employees inform us that this store, which looks like a normal FedEx store, does not ship internationally. “You have to use the internet for that.” I asked how exactly one uses the internet to ship real physical objects. They explain that we would have to create an account online, print up a shipping label and then bring the label and the books to their FedEx store. Needless to say, they didn’t have the internet there for us to do it on site.

It was a beautiful summer day, so the walk around DC’s Dupont Circle neighborhood was okay. But really: here we were in the capital of the world’s most powerful country (okay, maybe only militarily) and nobody would ship internationally. Not FedEx, not a destination bookstore that is listed in tourist guides. My uncle, for whom the lecture series is named, used to be fond of calling the Washington Post “a small town paper with a foreign desk.” DC isn’t exactly a small town with an embassy row, but sometimes it’s got that mentality.

Of course, we finally found a post office and shipped the books without incident. And of course, DC is still a potential sabbatical destination, since the libraries are amazing. But really, it’s full of people who appear to have no idea it’s an international city. Only in America.

2 replies on “A Small Town With an Embassy Row”

  1. What a cheap and inaccurate dig against DC, and America. The oddly unhelpful behavior you encountered at Kramerbooks is their habit, as we locals know, but that’s one store. And FedEx’s policy is an international corporation’s policy, not something specific to DC.

    How you could possibly assert that DC is “full of people who appear to have no idea it’s an international city” is beyond me. The international backgrounds, the diplomatic corps, the number of residents who have lived overseas, the beautiful array of languages spoken (and language schools) put a smack down to your shot from the lip.

    The mom-and-pop bookstore wouldn’t ship, the courier company was cumbersome. My oh my, you had to go to the Post Office. And you are stumped by this. Only in Canada.

    Same experience I’ve had in France. So, your point was?

  2. You’ve got it backwards. The story is a synecdoche. I lived in DC briefly, and visit the town every year. I had family there for years. I know DC pretty well and think I may spend part of my sabbatical there (depending on what I’m working on). So I’m not shooting from anything but instead commenting on an attitude I’ve experienced over the years in a city I know well enough and like well enough to be able to criticize.

    Washington is at least three cities if not more. Sure, the global cosmopolitan class has taken up residence there, as have many succeeding waves of immigrants. But it can also be very parochial. A longtime resident once told me that DC was a company town, only the company was the U.S. federal government. And then there’s the history of segregation and the wide swaths of the city I wasn’t even supposed to enter as a white resident. You’re right that DC isn’t unique in any of this. One can find plenty of parochialism in Montreal, Quebec, or Canada and you could certainly make the “multiple cities” comment about Montreal.

    But the kind of parochialism is qualitatively different in America, as whole institutions don’t even contemplate that they might operate within an international system, and this is symptomatic of a pervasive attitude: you can see this in airports that aren’t designed for people to move through the U.S. on their way to other countries, in corporate software that can only handle 5-digit zipcodes (as opposed to the many kind of postal codes around the world; in this way FedEx is a very American international corporation), in the relative rarity of passports, in employees of international divisions of phone companies who have never heard of major cities in Europe (Prague), in the elimination of geography as a subject in public education, in the placelessness of much American scholarship compared with scholarship written in other places, in the relative de-emphasis of international news, in the culture of monolingualism, and on and on. We should expect better.

    Anyway, that why I said what I said. BTW, like the masthead says, I’m American, not Canadian.

Comments are closed.