When in Rome

Matt Frei has been the BBC's man in Washington for the past six years. Here, he travels around the US capital with Jackie McGlone and explains what the city and the country mean to him.

DRIVING through the traffic- clotted streets of Los Angeles recently, Matt Frei narrowly escaped causing a multiple pile-up because he had almost crashed into his own face, scarily blown up on a vast billboard announcing his arrival on American television.

"It seems I'm an anchorman!" snorts the BBC's erstwhile Washington correspondent, who is indeed the newly appointed frontman for BBC World News America. Which means, in plain English, that "I'm a TV presenter," explains Frei, as we birl around Washington DC in his open-top sports car, on a muggy grey Sunday afternoon amid swirling clouds of dead cherry blossom.

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He constantly points out to colleagues that the British "don't do anchors". "I mean, is Jeremy Paxman an anchorman? I think not," he says, adding that he's nonetheless been given a great opportunity to be British in the American market, "like Tony Blair and David Beckham and Simon Cowell. Not that I'm remotely in that league!"

The German-born 43-year-old – nicknamed "Stir Frei" for his lively reporting style and crisp delivery – has been based in the world's most powerful capital since 2002. It is, he suggests, the Rome of the 21st century, a thesis on which he expounds incisively in his immensely enjoyable, well-written book, Only in America, in which he sets out to tell "everything that's good and bad about the place everybody loves to hate".

A tall, dashing figure in a distressed suede jacket and faded denims, with a shock of silvering hair and a terrific tan (he's just back from holidaying in the Bahamas with his artist wife, Penny, and their four children, whose ages range from four to ten), Frei looks every inch the glamorous foreign correspondent, a job he's been doing for most of his award-winning journalistic career. In fact, he and Penny, a Londoner, have spent a decade on the move. They've lived in Europe and the Middle East as Frei worked in Jerusalem, Berlin, Bonn, and Rome.

Prior to his Washington posting he was the BBC's Asia correspondent, based in Singapore and Hong Kong, taking up the job shortly before the handover to China.

He's covered the fall of the Berlin Wall – thanks to his mother's sharp eye for a news story, of which more later – the war in the former Yugoslavia, the Palestinian Intifada and the Gulf War. He's twice received Amnesty International awards for his reports from Vietnam and Indonesia and a Royal Television Society International News Award for his coverage of the turmoil in East Timor, as well as the Prix Bayeux for War Reporting.

He's been blanked by both Hillary Clinton and Arnold Schwarzenegger, and had trouble shutting up a post-interview George W Bush. Indeed, the man who hates to talk almost made him miss his deadline because he was so chatty off-camera.

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My previous visits to Washington DC have been fleeting, so Frei insists on taking me for a drive around this artificial city, doing his tour guide bit by telling me facts and figures about the city's triumphalist architecture, its endless marmoreal war memorials, and the anomalous 555-foot obelisk that is the Washington Monument. Eventually, we repair for afternoon tea to the Four Seasons Hotel in trendy Georgetown, scene of many a political power breakfast in this city that Frei not only compares to ancient Rome but to Athens because "it's a city of raw power and a citadel of refined ideas".

"Washington is the window to America's soul," he writes, describing himself as a political tourist with family in tow, trying to find his way around the corridors of power, to discover what makes the colossus tick, and set up a home, which the Freis have done in a house described as genuine colonial, "which means it was built in 1953", on Tilden Street, descending towards Rock Green Park, the green belt that used to divide Washington between rich and poor, black and white. As we drive down Massachusetts Avenue, he says: "On one level, this city is like Oxford University with a large army attached." He's referring to the proliferation of think-tanks. In fact, we're on think-tank alley, the intellectual spinal cord of Washington, "which may be a much duller city than either New York or Chicago, have mediocre theatres and overpriced restaurants, but when it come to politics it's buzzing with ideas".

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Interviewing intellectuals, such as Francis Fukuyama, and politicians of every persuasion, as well as covering major news stories, such as the appalling aftermath of Hurricane Katrina (he recalls having to flannel-bathe in Perrier for a week) and the terrifying shooting spree of the Washington sniper, Frei says he constantly agonised about his role as the Beeb's man on the spot.

"Was I being too critical of the administration? Was I not being critical enough?" he ponders as we drive past the new $450m Newseum, on Pennsylvania Avenue, dedicated to tracing the history of news reporting from the 16th century to the present day.

"Only in Washington – a museum of reporting and journalism! Isn't that brilliant?" exclaims Frei, who began his broadcasting career in radio with the BBC's World Service, after being cruelly rejected by one publication after another – even being turned down for a reporter's job on the Nursing Times. "All I wanted was to get out there and report."

The son of a foreign correspondent for German radio, Frei grew up in London and was educated at Oxford University, where he read history and Spanish. He "became English" at the age of 12 when he and his brother were sent to board at Westminster School. "Before that I had only German friends and spoke only German, so I had to learn English pretty damn fast."

In 1988, he was sent to Israel by the World Service to do a half-hour feature. "I just fell in love with the intensity of being a foreign correspondent. Yeah, there was a bit of that Boy's Own thing, too. It was compelling and sometimes dangerous, although the Intifada was nothing like as fatal as the one in 2000."

He had been there for eight months when his mother called and said: "I don't know what you're doing in Israel. I know it's a great story, but do you realise what's happening in East Germany?" She went on to tell him that all their relatives were trying to get on trains to leave and get to London.

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First, though, Frei went off on holiday to Africa – canoeing down the Zambesi – while listening to the BBC World Service. When he realised the importance of what was happening, he called his redoubtable mother and asked her to get him an East German visa. Since she knew the East German ambassador in Bonn, she rang him up and fixed it, saying, "You have to do this for my son, he's a lovely boy!" "She's a great mum," says Frei. "A Jewish mother who happens to be German."

So Frei turned up in Berlin on the day when the wall came down. "It was amazing, a real career break because there were hundreds of other correspondents there. However, as someone who spoke German and came from there, I had the edge.

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"I was sitting in my hotel room writing my piece for Radio 4, when there was a knock on the door and there was our East German family that I'd never seen before. They were all standing there in matching purple shellsuits, my Uncle Wolfgang and his kids. They were more interested in this luxury hotel than me because they'd never seen anywhere like it.

"Suddenly, the story that I'd been writing in this very detached way came alive, because to me modern Teutonic German culture was really strange. It was rather wonderful meeting my relatives because it made me stop and ask who I am and where I'm from."

And who is he? "Well, I guess I'm just Eurotrash. A German pretending to be English."

Putting a poignant human face on that momentous story has stood Frei in good stead and has made him the good reporter he is today. He believes you can always tell the political through the personal, going from the panoramic to the particular if you want to be pompous about it . It's a technique that he's employed successfully in Only in America, using his family's search for a home and finding schools for his children to explore the – albeit white – American way of life.

Once a critic always a critic, Frei, who first job was as a music, theatre and film critic for the BBC's German service, says if he were reviewing his own book, he would have to point out that he hasn't really explored in depth the two DCs – the mainly white centre and Northwest of the city and its suburbs, and the rest, dominated by black ghettos and violent gang culture.

"The African-Americans who live in the slums of Washington are totally divorced from what goes on in the rest of it, and they're out of sight and out of mind for the great majority of white people living here, living segregated lives," he sighs. "Sadly, that's the story in every big American city I've ever reported from."

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Nonetheless, he loves America, both its dreams and its nightmares, insisting, though, that his soul does not reside there. "My soul's in Europe. Berlin, maybe. I guess London's my heart's home because it's Penny's too, so we've yet to make our nest. For the time being, though, being a journalist in America and getting paid for indulging my natural curiosity is a great way to make a living while maintaining a wide-eyed fascination with my surroundings."

• Only in America by Matt Frei is published by Fourth Estate at 20. Matt Frei will be at the Edinburgh Book Festival tomorrow at 6:30pm.