Canada Trip #4 – Roadside Burlington

We managed to fit a bit of Roadside America into the day and a half we spent in Vermont.  When we returned to Burlington post-hike, we went off to see the World’s Tallest Filing Cabinet.  It is apparently 38 feet tall and actually comprises dozens of filing cabinets stacked on top of each other, some with their drawers open.  It was constructed as a sculpture in the early 2000s and I am not sure what it is supposed to be communicating – relentless bureaucracy possibly – but I just like finding random things when we are travelling and I like that people feel compelled to create even when the outcome is something a bit bonkers.

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Which segues neatly into the final tourist destination of that day: a small troop of Flying Monkeys atop the roofs of buildings in central Burlington.  As long time readers of my blog(s) will know, I love the Flying Monkeys from ‘The Wizard of Oz’ – largely because they terrified me as a wee girl – so obviously I had to ensure that I saw these simian sculptures.  They were very easy to spot.  There were a few silhouetted against the sunny sky on top of one buildings roof and another couple clambering on the roof of another building.  I did not manage to get great photos of them but the kids and I enjoyed seeing them.

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The first thing we did the following morning was head out to see Burlington’s Earth Clock.  This is a sundial, compass, and calendar built into the grass of a local park.  The time markers have the look of neolithic standing stones and the idea is that a person standing in the centre acts as the gnomon so that the shadow can accurately tell the time.  We found it was a wee bit off but it is entirely possible that was user error.

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Our final stop in Burlington was the Lake Champlain Chocolate Factory.  Our youngest son is a chocaholic so this was really part of our itinerary for him.  The tour involved a very informative talk, during which we could feel and smell ingredients and enjoy some samples, while also watching workers in the factory make some of the handcrafted chocolates that the company sells.  It was an enjoyable diversion and put us in a good mood for another day of driving.

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Central Burlington, incidentally, is a pretty cool place.  I liked its atmosphere a lot and there was certainly plenty to see and do in the area so I made a mental note to consider Burlington for a future mini-break.

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Canada Trip #2 – Ben & Jerry’s and other Food

Before we crossed the border into Canada, we spent a couple of days pootling around in Vermont.  This enabled the boys to claim a new state.  My plan had been to take the boys to Shelburne Museum, an incredible, vast, eclectic and eccentric museum.  I had absolutely adored that museum when I visited back in 2001 but we agreed the kids probably wouldn’t find it had the same impact since we visited the similarly bonkers House on the Rock last year.  Shelburne Museum would have absorbed the entire day so abandoning that plan freed up time to do a lot more exploring.  A lot of the first day in the Burlington area was food-based – but don’t worry because we definitely earned our calories.

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First up was Ben & Jerry’s.  Mr Pict had been when he was a kid and before it was an ice cream empire and the kids and I had never been before.  I anticipated a small factory tour and a lot of brand merchandising but thank goodness we turned up early enough to get on the first tour of the day because that place is crazy.  It’s like a small theme park.  By the time we were taken off on our factory tour, the reception and shop area was packed with people like herring in a barrel.  It was ridiculous.

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The tour itself was efficient but interesting.  Sadly no ice cream was being produced because some part was getting replaced but we got to see the machinery and have the process explained to us, including the ways in which Ben & Jerry’s is different from its competitors.  It helped that our tour guide was an amusing nerd and it also helped that we got to sample a scoop of ice cream at the conclusion.  Extra samples meant that our youngest son lucked out and was given two samples.

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After the tour, we wandered around in the “Flavor Graveyard”, the way in which the company memorialises flavours that it has tried out on the general public and then permanently withdrawn.  We had learned that there are other flavours that get withdrawn and then make a comeback.  Those are called zombie flavours.

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That area of Vermont is also known for its cheese and cider so, much later in the afternoon, we went off to sample and buy some of both.  First up was the Cold Hollow Cider Mill.  While cider and apples were certainly the running theme of the store, there were lots of other products for sale too so we had a good pootle about but we kept our focus on the cider.  We watched a video about the company’s history of cider production and got to sample some.  I am generally not a massive fan of non-alcoholic cider or apple juice but it was ice cold and refreshing and just what I needed at that point in the day.  The kids were peckish so they chose a snack each.  Two of them chose hot dogs that had been steamed in cider, one chose an apple cider doughnut filled with cream, and the youngest bought four miniature fruit pies.

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Then we popped into the Cabot cheese farm store.  I am lactose intolerant so had to keep my sampling to a minimum but the boys and Mr Pict had fun taste testing all of the available cheeses and I tried some delicious mustard that I decided to buy and bring home with me as an edible souvenir.

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Dinner that evening was fast food of the local variety.  Al’s Food Frys is apparently a local Burlington institution so we decided to give it a try.  I must admit that the use of “Frys” instead of “Fries” made me all manner of twitchy and fast food is not my favourite way to eat but it is fun to try something new and specific to an area.  I must admit that the fries (not frys) were pretty delicious, really potatoey and with fluffy insides but crisp on the outside.  Those who had burgers said they were scrummy and my 12 year old loved the flavour of coating on the fried chicken he ordered.

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Day two of our trip was definitely about “travelling on our stomachs”.

Canada Trip #1 – Hyde Park

Last year’s road trip (which saw us drive from the Philly ‘burbs to a corner of Montana and back) was a stretch for our tolerance of each other’s company in the confines of the car and the ratio of miles in a car to miles covered by foot.  We, therefore, curbed our ambitions this year and decided to try a different pace of vacation.  In comparison to our previous family road trips, our plans were extremely modest: Quebec, Montreal, and Lake Charleston, Ontario.

The first day of our trip took us through upstate New York.  Determined to achieve at least one thing beyond getting from A to B, we decided to stop off at Hyde Park, the Hudson Valley home of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.  This is the site of FDR’s presidential library and of Springwood, his family home.  Although the property was older, it had been owned by Roosevelt’s father since the 1860s and had been expanded and extended over the decades.  Roosevelt was born there in 1882 and, when Roosevelt married Eleanor in 1905, they moved into his boyhood home.  They lived and raised their family there and continued to visit even after FDR became president and the White House became their primary digs.

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We kept our visit to perambulating in the grounds as the kids were not enthused by the prospect of a tour of the house.  I acquiesced because I had visited previously and had vivid memories of the house and the presidential library.  It was not until the end of our visit, however, that Mr Pict revealed that he thought he had never been there before.  He seriously had zero memory of ever having visited.  I started rattling off details of the interiors and finally something stirred in his memory banks and he recollected that he had at least been there.  Therefore, we probably should have forced the kids to submit to a tour.

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As you may recall, I have a new domestic travel bucket list which is to visit every presidential gravesite.  I love to visit cemeteries, I am keen on history, and I am enthusiastic about travel (trifecta!) so I think it’s an eminently sensible ambition.  I have a good few checked off already and had obviously previously visited this particular grave but I want my husband and kids to “opt in” to my scheme so I was happy to have the opportunity to see the grave of my favourite US President and First Lady.

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After departing Hyde Park, we had no plans beyond getting to Burlington, Vermont. We were by then thinking of food.  Our road trips often involve thoughts of food because we are always either famished or indulging.  We seem to have no mode between.  I, therefore, foolishly googled best places to eat in Burlington and, after a family discussion, booked a table for early evening.  In doing so, I utterly jinxed us.  Almost instantly, our journey went off-piste.  We had no signal for GPS and no map operating at the detail required for our cross-country hypotenuse.  We must have taken a wrong turn but, when we double-backed, we couldn’t identify the road we should have taken, so we triple-backed and forged on.  And then we realised that we had no choice but to cross Lake Champlain by ferry.  We crossed near Fort Ticonderoga on a chain ferry that could thankfully take enough cars that we made it onto the next available crossing.  Still, it set us back.

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Thankfully, when we got back into phone reception, the restaurant was willing and able to push our booking back to accommodate our late arrival.  This was just as well because Mr Pict and the Pictlings were salivating for barbecue food and would have been despondent about a change of dinner venue.  The restaurant was Bluebird Barbecue in Burlington.  We ate in a screened in porch area that was lovely in the early evening air after a day inside a stuffy car.  Barbecue is not really my thing so I cannot judge the quality but my carnivorous husband was happy, my oldest son got to try out the fusion of barbecue and ramen, and I was happy because I had an absolutely delicious lavender flavoured mocktail.  It was a great way to end the first day of our road trip.

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I Voted!

I voted early this morning.

I was so excited and enthusiastic.  I literally squealed when I saw my name and signature in the electoral register.  I had had nightmares about my name not being in there because I became a citizen and registered so recently and was all prepared for requesting a provisional ballot.  Turns out the admin for voting runs more smoothly than most American bureaucracies I have had to deal with.

Five years of living in a country while not enfranchised to vote has been stressful.  I am raising my kids here and I pay taxes here and I intend to stay here so I am invested in this country.  Today I was relieved to be able to exercise my right and responsibility as a US citizen.

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Citizen Pict

I emigrated from Scotland to America as a Green Card holder in October 2013.  My husband has been a dual US/UK national since his birth and our children became dual nationals when they became resident in America, made official by them obtaining US passports in October 2015.  I, therefore, have been the only alien in the Pict family for quite some time now.

My original plan had been, for many and varied reasons, to wait to apply for citizenship until closer to the time when my 10 year Green Card would expire.  However, the 2016 presidential election was tough on my psyche and it didn’t get any easier to live in this country without having the ability to vote in 2017.  I have always exercised my right to vote so being entirely disenfranchised and unable to participate in the democratic process was really challenging.  That, therefore, became the primary reason why I decided to bring forward my timeline for becoming an American citizen.

The immigration process was complex and expensive.  The naturalization process was not quite as challenging and not quite as expensive but it still involved a whole load of tricky bureaucracy and a massive chunk of money.  It also involved a large investment of time and a fair dollop of stress.

The first stage was to submit my application, which was time consuming and sometimes had me raking through the dusty, musty corners of my memory banks, but nowhere near as complex as the immigration application had been.  This was then sent off to Chicago to be picked over and start the ball rolling.  However, no sooner had my application arrived in Chicago (I was tracking it) than I received a letter informing me that I was to report to a USCIS field office to have my biometrics taken.  No problem except that I had just one day’s notice between receiving the appointment card and the date of the appointment.  One day.  I flew into instant panic.  My husband was working in New York so I had to organise childcare backup for if I had any sort of delay outside school hours – however unlikely – and I had to scramble to find someone to take my place at work.  That fits neatly into a single sentence but it involved a whole lot of stress.

On the day of my appointment, I dropped off my youngest kids at school and drove off into northern Philly.  Thank goodness for Google maps because I had zero clue where I was going.  I did, however, meet almost every red light and had to stop at a rail crossing while an exceedingly lengthy cargo train rumbled past so I arrived at the USCIS field office with a mere five minutes to spare.  When I walked into the building, it was like a wasteland.  There was one other client visible and then everyone else was an employee.  The whole appointment, therefore, went smoothly and rapidly and ultimately felt like a giant waste of my time.  I had already had biometrics taken (eye scans and fingerprints) when I emigrated and I have had my fingerprints taking subsequently for volunteering and employment purposes.  The appointment, therefore, felt like replication.  The staff were friendly and courteous and worked efficiently so in no time at all I had been processed and sent on my way with a study guide for the tests.

And then I waited.

And waited.

And waited.

It is unbearably stressful to be in any sort of limbo situation.  We had been through this before with the Immigration process.  While we had to move forward with our lives as if we were relocating to America, the fact that at any stage either the immigration process might have had a hiccup or the employment prospects for my husband have fallen through, we would have had to abandon the whole plan and root ourselves back into our lives in Scotland.  However, that always felt as if it had forward momentum.  The Naturalization process felt like suffocating in stasis.

After the Biometrics appointment, I had zero contact from USCIS for months.  In many ways, that was a positive sign.  They did not need to request further information from me which meant my application was sound and, of course, they would have contacted me had they decided to outright reject my application.  However, to receive no correspondence for months, no update, no indication that progress was happening, however slowly, was painful.  It was also stressful because I could not commit to anything and had to opt out of certain plans because I had no idea when I might be called for Interview (and then the oath taking) but I was pretty sure it would be at short notice when it did happen.  Granted I am prone to stress and anxiety but it really was a pretty intense period of waiting.

I started to log into my USCIS online account at least once a week to see if there were any updates on my case.  In doing so, I discovered that I could monitor the progress of the Philadelphia field office through all the N-400 applications they were handling.  Whereas it used to take a few months from submitting an application to being called for interview, they were estimating at least a year.  I heard from other sources that this backlog is happening all over the US due to understaffed USCIS offices having to handle a massive increase in applications prompted by the political climate.  While not altogether surprising, therefore, it was a bit deflating.  It was estimated that I would be called for interview in the Autumn of 2018 which was not just a long time away but would also prevent me from registering to vote in time for the midterm elections.  I continued to obsessively check my USCIS account and track the field office and there was never any change.  My husband and I decided, therefore, that it was probably safe to plan out a summer vacation.  Nothing elaborate, nothing involving crossing an international border, and mostly things that could be cancelled with a full refund at 24 hours notice, just in case.

So obviously – because Murphy’s Law – a mere two days after the refund deadline had passed for the one vacation commitment that didn’t have a generous cancellation policy, I logged into my USCIS account and learned that I was being called for interview.  Of course, no date or time was provided with the electronic notice.  Nope.  It was just a notification that I would be receiving a notification by mail.  You know what a stress-head I am so you can probably well imagine the panic I had on seeing that notice and the anxiety I experienced waiting for the paper notification.  I found I was actually hoping for the same extremely short notice I had received for the Biometrics appointment because then it would be before my vacation.  I learned that the notice for an interview is usually between 2 and 4 weeks, parameters that were definitely going to scupper our travel plans.  Anxiety was developing into panic and attempts at problem-solving all the possibilities.  Could we delay our departure?  Could we return home early?  Could I fly back to Philly from random road trip location A and get a flight to random road trip location B?  After over a week of intense waiting for the letter to arrive, it was good news: my scheduled interview date permitted us to go ahead with our travel plans and I even had a day to spare.  Phew.

A few days after returning from our road trip, therefore, I entered the USCIS office in Philadelphia for my interview.  I went through security and got checked in about 20 minutes before my scheduled interview time but I had no sooner sat down – not even enough time to open my book – when my name was called.  The officer who interviewed me was friendly and jolly which immediately put me at ease.  After a little bit of introductory admin – such as checking my IDs and Green Card – I was launched straight into the tests.  There are 100 possible questions on American civics, history, and geography from which the interviewing officer will ask 10.  The first time I took the test of the full 100 questions, I got 96 correct.  After studying and really concentrating on dates and numbers (those being my weakness when it comes to memorisation) I was regularly getting 100% but you know how neurotic I am.  Those four wrong answers from the first run through niggled at me.  I was making anxiety mountains out of molehills.  I got 100% on the test.  I obviously had zero concerns about the English reading and writing tests and passed those.  I was then asked a series of questions that were really just a means of ensuring that my oral answers were consistent with those given on my submitted paperwork.  A few more bits of admin and that was it.  Interview over.  I was approved.  The letter had told me to allow for two hours.  I was done in 30 minutes.  I guess they decided that a marriage of 22 years with 4 kids probably meant this was not some sort of sham Green Card marriage and that no intense interrogation was required.

Now there was just one final step.

It took about three weeks to receive the date and time of my Naturalization Oath Ceremony in the mail and, when it arrived, it gave me under a week’s notice.  USCIS really does like to keep us on our toes.  Luckily I don’t work during the summer months and my in-laws had coincidentally flown in two days earlier to they could babysit the children.  I had swithered about having the boys attend the ceremony but I could not obtain information about provision for guests or how long the ceremony was likely to be so we decided – given the grandparents were around – to leave them at home.  My husband had no choice but to take some time off work to accompany me not just because I wanted someone there at the ceremony for me but also because I could not drive myself, having just had general anaesthesia for oral surgery.  Yeah, the timing of this ceremony was not particularly great given the state of my mouth and the level of discomfort I was in but I was not about to postpone it.

My ceremony was scheduled for 9am on Friday morning.  There were 56 other people taking the oath of allegiance with me during the ceremony and we represented 31 different countries.  I was the only one from the UK.  They kept us all very organised and had us process through various administrative processes according to the rows we were seated in.  I was the sixth person into the room and was, therefore, in the front row.  The chap who was “compering” the ceremony was very genial and warm and helped put us all at ease.  I had this weird, illogical anxiety that something might go wrong at the last moment.  A contributing factor was the fact I was still very woozy from the after effects of the anesthesia and strong painkillers which led me to make an error on one of my forms, thankfully not a critical error but one that left me with a malingering feeling of paranoia.  I had to return my Green Card as part of the Naturalization admin.  It felt weird to be giving away something that has been so important these past few years and something which was quite a bit of an ordeal to acquire.  There were some videos to watch and then we all stood for the oath taking part, which was led by another USCIS official.  At that point, at approximately 10am, I became an American citizen.  I was given my Certificate of Citizenship and all the formalities were over.

By 10.30am, I had registered to vote.  I will have to change my status with the Social Security department and then I will have to apply for a US passport so I still have some bureaucracy to plough through.  However, the big milestone is now done and dusted.  I am now Citizen Pict.

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Road Trip 2018 #18 – Skyline Drive

My in-laws used to live in the suburbs of Washington DC and Mr Pict and I would fly out to visit them there and use their home as a base for exploration.  Now, of course, I live in the suburbs of Philadelphia, also on the mid-Atlantic coast.  It is, therefore, actually a bit ridiculous that I have never visited Shenandoah National Park.  I really don’t know why we have never gotten around to it.  Always something else to see that was placed as a higher priority I suppose.  Navigating our route home through Virginia on the very last day of our road trip, I spotted an opportunity: I could at least do the Skyline Drive element of Shenandoah since it took us in the right direction.  I discussed my plan in quiet code with Mr Pict as I knew I would be met with resistance from the kids.  He agreed and we took the twisting turn to start ascending the mountains.

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The kids were on to us immediately and were not best pleased.  This was the fifteenth day of our road trip and they just wanted to get home.  I could understand their motivation but, at the same time, I wanted to cram one more experience into our trip.  One of the things I love about America’s National Park system is that its parks result from someone just deciding that something is beautiful or unique or historic or any combination of the three and that it should consequently be preserved and protected.  In this case, said person was President Hoover who decided that a road should be built so that more people could access and appreciate the views of the Blue Ridge Mountains.  The views were indeed breathtaking.  The boys, however, were not appreciating them.  They were just doner than done with tourism and were 200% over road tripping.  Other than when we stopped at a ranger station, the older two even refused to get out of the car on any of the stops.  To be fair, the little grouches were also complaining about how twisty turny the road was and how queasy it was making them feel.  I too was feeling nauseous.  And the going was very slow.  I admitted defeat.  We exited the park at Swift Run Gap, rejoined major roads, and focused on getting home.

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This post then concludes all of my blogging about our 2018 road trip.  Ten new states visited in just two weeks bringing me to a total of 40 US states visited.  That was an awful lot of driving (4550 miles!) and I think we probably – definitely – pushed ourselves to the limits of our tolerance for driving trips.  I don’t think I would undertake a trip involving such massive distances across just two weeks again – especially not with kids in tow.  It was too exhausting and the ratio of fun per miles was inadequate on this particular trip.  That is not to say that it was not worth it.  I would just learn from it and not push ourselves quite so far next time.  It was worth it because I loved seeing how different the landscapes of the Plains states were compared to those I had already visited.  Visiting a whole new region of the country underscored just how vast and diverse America is.  The focus of our road trip had been reaching the Dakotas – everything else just slotting into place as the route there and back – and the Dakotas did not disappoint.  In particular, I could probably have happily spent two weeks just travelling around South Dakota and exploring.  I was glad we spent more time there than anywhere else.  The trade off for that, of course, was that we barely touched the surface of some states.  I will need to go back and explore those properly at some stage.  But maybe not for a while.  I feel like I need a relaxing vacation now in order to recover from my vacation.

Road Trip 2018 #17 – Stones River National Battlefield

The final two days of our road trip were really just about covering distance in order to reach home.  Both were, therefore, slogs of days with no real time available for exploring.  On the penultimate day, however, we did indulge Mr Pict’s Civil War geekery by opting to stretch our legs at Stones River National Battlefield.

Having been to Shiloh in 2002, this was actually my second Tennessee Civil War battlefield.  I feel like I am collecting Civil War sites by association.  Confusingly, Mr Pict talks about this place as Murfreesboro, the name of a nearby town, which makes it even more difficult for me to retain the information.  We were greeted at the Visitor Center by an incredibly chipper Park Ranger.  He provided a summary of the site’s history and I, therefore, learned that this was the first place that the Emancipation Proclamation was enforced.  Furthermore, it was also on the route of the original Trail of Tears in 1838.  However, because the road charged a toll for each Cherokee, the government baulked at the expense and a different route was taken from then onwards.  Mr Pict also informed me that Stones River had the highest percentage of casualties of all the major battles of the Civil War.  And that is the extent of everything I learned during my visit.  Sometimes my brain is just too exhausted to absorb any information I am not keenly interested in.  This was one such time.

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After the Visitor Center, we took a driving tour of battlefield sites.  It helps that the modern day Pike and railroad are in the same positions they were in 1863 when it comes to interpreting the battlefield landscape and understanding the focus of the conflict.  Mr Pict took a stroll through the area of rocks and woodland known as the Slaughter Pen.  A series of attacks in this spot meant that the bodies started piling up and blood was everywhere.  Staying on that theme, we also visited Hell’s Half Acre, which had ended up covered in Confederate dead.  The battle counts as a Union victory only because they managed to repel two Confederate attacks which led to the Confederates withdrawing.  And that really is the limit of my osmosis-gained knowledge.

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