Washington Diary: Primary colours bring homesick Japanese flocking to the Potomac riverside

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The Independent Online
IMAGINE what embarrassing footprints your book receipts might leave if something like Dating for Dummies or How to cheat your boss turned up along with that treatise on American foreign policy. Hardly surprising then that a collective shudder has gone through Washington with the news that detectives are sifting through records of Monica Lewinsky's purchases at two of DC's trendier bookshops. Monica, you will remember, was the recipient of a copy of Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass inscribed by Bill Clinton - President Bill Clinton. Her own tastes, it appears, are more corporeal. One documented buy was Vox, by Nicholas Baker, described as a "thin novel of phone sex between two smart but obsessive yuppies". The Association of American Publishers said that searching through receipts was the kind of thing that goes on in Tehran or Baghdad, not in the land of the First Amendment.

YOU would not have thought Washington DC and Kyoto would have much in common. But as March cedes to April, one of the US capital's minor miracles comes to pass; the cherry trees come into full bloom around the Tidal Basin, and the pale blue water reflects a palette of pinks and reds. Local television and newspapers forecast when the blossom show will reach its peak and, if the weekend is sunny, a stream of car-borne visitors processes slowly around the driveway. If it's tolerably warm as well, homesick Japanese settle among the fallen petals to picnic, making for a little Kyoto-on- Potomac.

I USED to find it strange that my (American) husband's Manhattan cousin should so delight in frequent- ing flea-markets and yardsales, a passion pursued also on holidays in Europe. After a year in Washington, I understand perfectly. To patronise fleamarkets and private yardsales is an act of sedition. It is a small, private rebellion against the diktat of the new, according to which a good American feels perpetually obliged to remodel and refurnish - so providing jobs and profits for a whole lot more Americans.

Dazzled by so many colours, styles and qualities of everything - but of a sameness and clumsiness that makes you yearn for Ikea, I, too, can now be found scanning the columns of the Washington Post for the weekend's yardsales and setting off for the lawns of the nearer suburbs. So, while most of Washington is milling round the shopping centres, I am rooting around outdoors among their cast-offs.

The world of yardsales and fleamarkets is a slower, gentler world, where people do not jostle, where they say please and thank you and stop to discuss the latest book or film, their children and their schools. There is room for bargaining - but not too much. And in the fleamarkets, at least, blacks and whites buy and sell side by side, watching out for each other and teasing in the way market people do, but which white and black Washingtonians otherwise find so difficult.

IT'S a funny thing about the US capital, but you sometimes feel that - in contrast to New York or London or Paris - people are only half-urbanised. They drive slowly and erratically without much attempt to signal, as though no one else is on the road. The plus is that they are not usually competitive, London-style. Competition is on the pavements.

On London's shopping streets there is scarcely space to walk, let alone face someone down. On Washington's grid of thoroughfares, eye contact is used for one purpose only: to get someone else out of your way. To diverge from your trajectory is to lose face. You "diss" (show disrespect to) someone, or get "dissed"; the connotations can be cultural, social, racial. It doesn't make for relaxing walking.

YOU'RE probably fed up by now of hearing about Primary Colors, the film that imitates (low) life on the road to the Clinton White House and has not arrived yet in Britain. But in Washington, where it has just opened, it is the social experience of the week.

Cinemas are packed and audience participation is raucous. The loudest appreciation for the many one-liners is reserved for trouble-shooter Libby's retort to the would-be President. "I wished we'd castrated you when we had the chance," which is greeted by a chorused roar of "Yeah!" and loud applause.