We decided that our first family mini-vacation in America should be to New York City. This was partly because, at under two hours away, it was an easy city break to accomplish and plan for and partly because one of the first things our boys asked when they learned we were emigrating to the States was, “Can we go up the Empire State Building?” closely followed by, “Can we see the Statue of Liberty?” New York is, of course, also of historic significance in many an immigrant story but that was not a factor in our decision making.
It’s been an arduous six months for us all as a family. We were separated, of course, when Mr Pict moved to America in advance of the kids and I following and then the whole process of settling into some sort of normal life and routine has been a bit of a strain at times, not to mention the ups and downs of trying to adjust to a new way of life in a new country. Mr Pict and I also felt that it was important for the boys to gain a better understanding of the geography of and the expanse that is America by experiencing some travel.
We aimed to leave the house before 8am and, thanks to our kids being pretty well seasoned travellers and Mr Pict and I being experienced packers, we managed to leave just shortly after 7. Just under two hours later – including a pit stop in New Jersey – we were in the centre of New York City. It was an incredibly easy journey in, a pretty straightforward route that took us through the Lincoln Tunnel and straight into midtown Manhattan. We parked up the car – or rather a valet did, something that always freaks me out about US multi-storey car parks – and headed along 42nd Street to do some exploring.
The boys were instantly enthralled by the sights and sounds: electronic billboards, neon signs, yellow taxi cabs, skyscrapers, honking horns, theatre posters, music; it was a sensory overload. Although they have been to major cities in Britain, including London, I don’t think they had ever experienced anything quite like it. From 42nd Street, we headed down Broadway – passing en route the office building that Mr Pict works from when he is in New York, a bit of personal sight seeing – and headed towards the Empire State Building.
First stop was a comic book store spread across two floors. Mr Pict and I are unabashed and avid geeks in lots of areas of obscure knowledge – things like ancient Rome for him and plagues for me – so it is not surprising at all that our children have all turned out to be wee geeks. However, neither he nor I have any connection to superheroes or comic books yet our sons are somewhat obsessed with them. Our oldest son loves to pore over the comic books whenever we are in a comic book store – and we are delighted that we have a great one not ten minutes drive from our house – and the other three love the comics and the merchandise, the cult bits and bobs, just the idea of collecting. So we spent a good 40 minutes in there as they oohed and aahed at the cases of books, shelves of comics and displays of models and figures and toys.
We emerged from the comic store as the snow began to fall, just tiny flakes at first but then getting chunkier. The ground was quite wet from the thaw of the previous snow fall and the air temperature relatively mild, however, so the snow was not settling on the ground. That was when the boys decided they were peckish so Mr Pict stopped at a food cart and bought a hot dog for the littlest one and pretzels for the other three boys. So they stood, the four of them, huddled in the snow against the side of a bank, chomping their way through NYC street food. I think they had it on their checklists all along that they wanted to eat food from a street cart as part of their tourist itinerary.
Ultimately, just as we arrived at the entrance to the Empire State Building, we decided to jettison the whole plan. The snow had made the sky murky grey and the visibility was so reduced we would have been spending money on a limited view and seriously reducing the impact of the entire experience for the boys. So we turned heel and headed back the way we came. However, we took a diversion through Macy’s, just so we could say we had been through what was until 2009 the world’s largest department store and – much more importantly – to have some respite from the biting wind.
Our 8 year old, the family magpie, loved all the displays of bling and I had to tell him to stop touching brightly coloured leather bags as he walked past them. He was entranced by the chandeliers in the jewellery section of the store, one that fell like sparkling raindrops from an oval in the ceiling and one that was a combination of crystals and white feathers – like the debris from an angel. You can tell our kids have grown up in the sticks by the way they behave around escalators: to them escalators hold the same allure as amusement park rides. It’s sweetly sad really. So we had an excursion up one set of escalators just so we could immediately come back down again. Even I, however, got excited when I spotted some escalators that led to the basement level. So excited in fact that I shouted my husband and kids back. The cause of my excitement was that the escalators were wooden. Presumably they were the original escalators from the shop’s opening. I had never, in my whole life, seen let alone been on wooden escalators. It had to be done. So the six of us were transported downstairs on a set of wooden escalators to then immediately return to the ground floor on the companion set. I can’t imagine where the kids get it from. It seriously stands as one of the highlights of this trip that I can now say I have been on wooden escalators.
We popped out the other side of Macy’s and it was then a brief but bracing walk from there – past a whole legion of yellow taxi cabs – back to 42nd Street. We had had a discussion about which indoor activity to do with the kids as we walked, presenting them with a choice of either Madam Tussaud’s or Ripley’s Believe It or Not. In Madam Tussaud’s favour was the fact that they had a whole display about the Avengers – which my little comic book nerds loved the idea of – but against it was the fact there would be a whole host of models, sports stars being the obvious example, that really only my husband would recognise. In Ripley’s favour was the fact it was going to be a varied collection of exhibits, rather than just room after room of looky-likey wax models, but against it was the fact that the boys might just find it a bit too obscure or maybe even grotesque in parts. I personally was rooting for Ripley’s. One of my geeky interests is the history of sideshows. I am intrigued by society’s relationship with what is categorised as and perceived to be weird and abnormal. I find it a fascinating and absorbing topic and have read all the books I have ever found on the topic of sideshows, including histories and biographies of famous “freaks” and of PT Barnum. I find the whole idea of exploiting human difference and disability for entertainment morally repellent but, on the other hand, in a bygone era when many of these people might have been outcasts or at best dependent on others for their welfare, they were able to support themselves financially by being employed as sideshow acts. It’s that ethical dichotomy that I find so interesting as well as the light it casts on social mores and attitudes of the time and also of our understanding of either obscure or misunderstood medical conditions and physical phenomenon. So that is another reason why Ripley’s was very much my cup of tea. I was glad, therefore, when the decision was taken that that was where we would go.
We had not even reached the head of the queue to buy tickets when our 8 year old was overcome with excitement seeing a Perspex case containing some swirling water because he seems to be obsessed with the word vortex. I meanwhile was excited to see a two-headed calf in a glass case and our 4 year old loved a small glass case in which some stuffed ferrets, dressed in their gladrags, were having a dinner party.
On entering the Odditorium, the first display was of some incredible metal armour for an elephant which the boys thought was cool. That was opposite a stuffed six-legged cow and the world’s largest hairball. That is just a little indication of how varied this “museum” was. I loved it! Weird and random is so up my street. Happily, as well as being little geeks, my kids are also fans of the random and strange so they also scuttled from exhibit to exhibit to see what fascinating weirdness there was to find there. There were lots of taxidermies of animals with additional limbs or heads and also an albino giraffe. There were also models of some famous sideshow acts such as Robert Wadlow, the giant, and Johnny Eck, who was often billed as the “amazing half-boy”.
The youngest two boys loved the fact there was a bookcase that slid away from the wall to reveal another room, and every new room in fact contained a plethora of diverting, intriguing and fascinating items. That is another reason why the visit worked so well: whereas a visit to a less eclectic exhibition might lead the kids to get bored (and even I admit to being thoroughly sick of Minoan libation cups after seeing the umpteenth display of them in the Heraklion Museum), the very diversity and randomness of this collection of oddities meant that every room could be relied upon to have something for everyone. Our oldest son, for instance, finds scientific things interesting so he thought it was cool to see a knobbly shard of glass that had formed when lightning struck sand; our second son likes creativity so he loved a display, showcased beneath a glass platform floor, of the Spanish Armada made entirely from matchsticks, a feat of human patience and fine motor dexterity; our 6 year old likes anything rude or gross so both he and I were amused by a club made out of walrus penis; and our youngest loves animals so was captivated by the calves with extra heads and the chickens with extra legs or the length of the stuffed anaconda or the wine in a bottle filled with snakes. My poor husband really doesn’t get the appeal of freaky stuff so was just dragged along in our wake but even he found Napoleon’s death mask interesting and the locks of hair from historical figures diverting.
There was one particularly gross room – which is a positive in my regard – containing instruments of torture. My kids are pretty gruesome so loved the macabre items such as the Iron Maiden, the iron gibbet (which they recognised from pirate movies) and they all had a turn in the stocks. There was also half a human head, sectioned in profile, which they found appealing and repellent in equal measure.
A nauseating, dizzifying walk through a rotating tunnel – a very clever optical illusion in which the brain convinces the body it is doing something other than walking on level ground in a straight line – took us into a room full of shrunken heads. We all had a go on an interactive screen at turning our own portraits into shrunken heads, which was fun, and my oldest son and I (both having a long-standing interest in such things as shrunken heads and mummies) toured the cases looking at each of the examples. I am always morally torn when looking at things like mummies: I find them utterly fascinating and enjoy the opportunity to study them up close but at the same time I cannot shake the feeling that this was once someone’s child, someone’s parents, someone’s sibling and now here they are shoved in a glass case on display for the entertainment of others. They are quite amazing things, however, and for all that they are grotesque and perhaps a bit on the creepy side to our 21st Century, western standards, the fact that people put the heads through this process as an act of preservation, to keep their ancestors and loved ones close to them, is quite touching at the same time – though I am not going to be shrinking anyone’s head for posterity when the time comes for my loved ones to shuffle off their mortal coils.
Having enjoyed our tour of Ripley’s, the kids needed to rest their legs and have an energy boost so we found a nearby café where Mr Pict bought them each hot chocolate and a soft baked cookie to dunk in it. I sipped a cup of tea and we had a rest and a chat before we then headed to our hotel to check in.
My husband had found a hotel with an apartment room that could sleep six and which had a small kitchen which would enable us to eat in for two meals per day while taking packed lunches for the third. It was ideally situated not far from 42nd Street. We checked in with ease and Mr Pict went off to the car park to collect our suitcases and the bags of food we had brought while the kids and I explored our “home” for the next two nights. It was a lovely set of rooms – a bedroom for all four boys to sleep in and a multi-purpose room for cooking, dining, sitting and where the husband and I would sleep on the sofa and a folding bed – smartly decorated and nicely presented, bland but comfy. We even had a balcony, although it overlooked a busy interchange and some water tanks on the adjacent rooftop, except we could also see One World Trade Center in the distance and, if you looked sideways, it was possible to see the Empire State Building.
We had had a plan to go out to find something to eat – a meal out as a treat – and then wander around Times Square in the dark to see all the lights but the snow was falling again and actually settling plus we could sense a rebellion might be mounted by at least half of the kids so we decided not to push our luck at the end of what had been a really great day of family fun. Instead Mr Pict went out to get some Chinese takeaway and thus fulfilled one of my ambitions since I have never before had Chinese food served in those little cardboard cartons. So we ate our takeaway buffet and the middle children watched ‘Iron Man 2’ on the TV while the rest of us played pontoon. Then we read to the boys and settled them down to sleep at the end of a successful first day in New York.