Caribbean Cruise – Miami

We Picts closed out 2018 on a bang as we spent the festive period on vacation.  My in-laws had generously gifted us a Caribbean Cruise for Christmas so the eight of us celebrated the season on the high seas, spending a week exploring new places and cultures (for the kids and me at least), and experiencing a cruise for the first time in the case of our youngest two children and me.

Of course, before we could board the ship and sail off in the lap of luxury, we had to get to Miami.  We, therefore, spent two days driving south from the Philly suburbs to Miami.  That’s a whole lot of the I95, a useful but incredibly boring road that sometimes feels as if it is never going to earn.  We spent the first night on the outskirts of Savannah and arrived in Miami the following evening.  We had hoped for a bit more time in Miami but holiday traffic had other plans for us.  Nevertheless, we were able to meet up with my in-laws (who had flown over from the UK) in time to have a delicious dinner.

However, as early risers, the next morning we had enough time to explore Miami Beach.  As frequent readers of this blog will be well aware, I am not a fan of sand.  The only good sand is glass as far as I am concerned.  However, Mr Pict and the Pictlings love the beach so I suck it up, brace myself, and just deal with my discomfort.  The kids found a shiny but decidedly dead fish and our youngest son found a teenie-weenie coconut.  While they enjoyed the beach and the warm sea air, what I liked about the beach area was all the 1930s architecture of Ocean Drive and its environs.  I love Art Deco for its elegant use of geometric shapes and clean lines and pops of colour.  There were also some sleek buildings in the moderne style and some that seemed to have a hispanic influence.

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As luck should have it, we happened to be standing on Ocean Drive when the local fire brigade drove past in a formation.  While the emergency lights were flashing, there were no sirens.  That is because this was no emergency.  Instead, it was their Christmas parade.  The fire engines were being driven by Santa and elves while the Grinch and a gingerbread man appeared as passengers.  There were children on board too so we waved enthusiastically at them as they passed by.

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We left Miami beach and headed to the port area to ready ourselves for embarking onto the cruise ship.  I admit that I found the whole process quite stressful.  As someone used to either travelling entirely under my own steam when road tripping or experiencing the relatively controlled routines of flying, the process for boarding the ship felt quite stressful.  My anxiety hit peak when we had to leave our luggage with a porter which pretty much left it unattended among hordes of people.  Having travelled around London for decades and then having flown in the post-9/11 world, the whole idea of “unattended luggage” is anathema to me.  Add to that the fact that I experienced having possessions stolen from my luggage 20 years ago and I was deeply unsettled by the whole thing.  Then there were milling crowds.  I am British and, therefore, culturally hard-wired to strongly prefer orderly queuing.  The random hustle and bustle unsettled me further.  It all just felt a bit chaotic and haphazard.  Even when we boarded, because our rooms were not going to be available for a few hours more, it was a case of everyone scuttling to find a space in which to settle down.  In the grand scheme of things, these are all small beer quibbles but I cannot deny that those were an intense few hours for me, neurotic control freak that I am.

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We wandered the ship to start getting our bearings and finally had access to our rooms in early afternoon.  Then we were finally off.  We bid farewell to Miami and I headed off on my very first cruise.

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Shofuso Japanese Cultural Center

Our Labour Day weekend trip – our last hurrah of Summer break – was to the Shofuso Japanese Cultural Center.  It’s this little portion of Japan in the midst of Philadelphia.  It is also authentically Japanese as the buildings were built in Nagoya, using traditional materials and techniques, and were then transported to America.  I read that even the rocks in the garden were imported from Japan.  Originally, it was part of an exhibition in New York before being disassembled and reconstructed in Philadelphia.  It has been in Philly since the late 1950s.

We started our visit with the house.  We slipped off our shoes and entered the house in our socks.  It was everything you think about when you think about traditional Japanese architecture: elevated off the ground, connections between the interior and the exterior, between the man-made and the natural, verandas, lots of wood, sliding doors, and gently curved roofs.  There is something inherently relaxing about being in those spaces but I know myself well enough to know I could never actually live in such a space.  I am far too fond of objects to be capable of minimalism and maintaining clean lines.  And my pelvis is too wrecked to cope with floor sitting.  But I like to imagine I could live in such a space.  I especially loved the kitchen.  I feel like you learn a lot about a culture by looking at kitchens (and supermarkets actually) because so much of culture revolves around food.  My kids had zero patience for me reading the information about each room of the house but I insisted on reading all the detail about the kitchen.  It was pretty fascinating stuff.  I thought the little tea house would be the most intriguing and engaging part of the house but for me it was actually the kitchen.

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The garden surrounding the house was similarly gorgeous.  It is such an obvious and probably uninteresting thing to state but it was so green and so harmonious.  Apparently the landscaping was designed to echo 17th Century styles.  The boys absolutely loved the pond which was stocked with carp.  They had some fish food and, within seconds of throwing the first pellet into the water, there was a scrum of koi torpedoing towards them.  There was a line of them wiggling through the water from the bridge and making a beeline to the area where my kids were waiting to feed them.  Their dorsal fins cut through the surface of the water and created wakes.  I couldn’t help but hum the soundtrack from ‘Jaws’.  Despite the fact these carp must surely get so fed up of eating the same pellets all the time, there was a serious feeding frenzy.

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This is such a cliche that I initially resisted typing it out but the whole space really was so peaceful.  I could have chilled there for ages.  A good book and a glass of cold lemonade and it would have been so easy to just sit there for hours enjoying the garden.  But I had four kids with me who had run out of patience and wanted to get home to do their own thing for the final days of Summer so no chance of zen for me.

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Road Trip 2018 #2 – House on the Rock

I am an incredibly obsessive planner when it comes to our vacations.  Mr Pict and I plot out our route and then I set to work researching the possible things to see and do along the way, drawing up detailed spreadsheets as I do so.  I usually generate 18 to 20 sides of paper per spreadsheet.  Sometimes I even colour code the spreadsheets and draw up corresponding colour coded maps.  Yes, I am a control freak and this degree of planning suits my way of being.  However, it also enables me to be flexible.  If I have a long list of possibilities then I can adapt to something unpredictable, such as bad weather or a child breaking an arm, move away from the thing we planned to do and find something else to place in its stead.  With all of that over-planning, therefore, it does not often happen that I stumble across something unexpected.  That, however, is precisely what happened on the second day of our road trip.

It had not remotely appeared on my research radar but, as soon as Mr Pict and I flicked through the pamphlet in our hotel lobby, we were smitten with the idea of visiting the House on the Rock.  We, therefore, binned the plan we had for the first half of the day and decided to go.  Mr Pict and I love history, unusual architecture, and eccentricity.  House on the Rock offered all three in abundance.  It reminded me of the Mercer Museum and the Shelburne Museum in Vermont, both of which I loved.  We trusted that the property would offer enough variety to engage our kids and set off.  We had not even entered the building and purchased our tickets before we were all smitten with the place.  The road into the property and the car park were lined with bonkers gigantic vase like sculptures covered with crawling dragons.

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House on the Rock was designed by a wealthy eccentric man with hermit inclinations named Alex Jordan.  An apocryphal story suggests that Jordan embarked on his building as a reaction against a snooty Frank Lloyd Wright, whose Taliesin is nearby.  It is definitely the case that Jordan’s design aesthetics don’t have much in common with those of the famed architect but it was an incredibly fun and fascinating building to explore.  As its name suggests, the house is perched on top of a rock.  Originally one dwelling, Jordan kept extending it so that it became an elaborate maze of a building stuffed to the brim with all manner of antiques, replicas, nick nacks, and random collections.

The original dwelling house itself was pretty weird.  There were narrow, twisting corridors opening up into living spaces, lots of rock walls, and cosy little nooks here and there.  The rooms were dark but the spaces seemed like they would be relaxing and comfortable to hang out in.  I could well imagine lying on one of the banquette sofas with a good book and a roaring fire.  There were beautiful Art Nouveau glass pieces, oriental style cabinets, and lovely metalwork.  There were also mechanical orchestras and string instruments playing music dotted throughout the property.  A big hit with the boys was the Infinity Room.  It juts out from the building and stretches for about 220 feet without having any supports beneath.  While it made me feel uneasy, the kids enjoyed the fact they could feel the room moving when they bounced.  They also liked the optical illusion of the room stretching out to the horizon.

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A Streets of Yesteryear section reminded we Potterphiles of Diagon Alley.  It was essentially a reproduction 19th Century street with store fronts filled with displays of collections.  I loved the coloured glass bottles glowing on the shelves of the pharmacy window while the kids loved the Sheriff’s office that included jars containing hands and a head on a desk.  There was also a massive and elaborate calliope at the end of the street.  Along with our tickets, we had been given tokens and the kids were able to use these to make some of the machines work.  Our youngest son popped a token into the calliope and was enthralled to see it working.

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The most incredible section had a maritime theme. The centre of the vast, tall room was dedicated to an absolutely massive model of a squid battling a whale.  It was completely kitsch but also utterly impressive.  By moving onto different levels of the room, we could take in the detail of different areas of the model but it was impossible to stand far enough back to take it all in.  It was completely bonkers and we loved it.  There was also an automaton octopus that played The Beatles’ ‘Octopus’ Garden’ when a token was popped in the slot.  Surrounding displays in the same room exhibited various maritime items, such as beautifully crafted model ships, scrimshaw, and a diving suit.

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Yet another room was dedicated to a huge carousel.  It apparently contains 269 carousel animals.  I did not count them but I noted all manner of zoological beasties and mythological critters.  There were also hundreds more carousel animals on the walls and ceilings and accompanying them were mannequins.  The whole effect was weird and creepy and a bit dizzifying.  Another smaller carousel featured dolls and it was definitely creepy to look at.

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There were still more collections of creepy dolls, Faberge eggs, dolls houses, circus models, cars – including one covered in ceramic tiles and a steam-powered hearse – a model of Titanic, the inner workings of a huge clock face, taxidermy, rooms full of gigantic musical dioramas, a full size mannequin orchestra, the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse dangling from the ceiling, a diverse array of puppets, all manner of automata, and armour for an elephant.  House on the Rock was definitely not a case of “less is more” and proof that there can be “too much of a good thing”.  We reached a point, probably four fifths of the way through, when our brains just could not absorb any more and when we started to feel the effects of being over-stimulated.  Our 11 year old rounded a corner to see a whole room stuffed full of arms and militaria with no exit in sight and collapsed on the floor in protest.  We, therefore, rushed through the final section of the House, which felt a lot like navigating a maze, and were relieved to pop out into the fresh air, bright light, and tranquility of the Japanese garden.  Overwhelming though it was, the House on the Rock was an amazing place and we were certainly glad we had decided to ditch Plan A so we could visit.

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The Mercer Museum

This summer, in addition to our recent road trip, my in-laws decided to take the Pictlings on vacation in pairs.  For the first time in over ten years, therefore, I was left with just two children to care for and keep busy.  The youngest two went off on their grandparent vacation first so I had the 11 and 14 year old at home.  I decided, therefore, to take them to explore a place none of us had visited: the Mercer Museum in Doylestown.

The Mercer Museum is named for Henry Chapman Mercer and reflects his pursuits and hobbies.  He was a tile-maker, an avid collector, and an archaeologist and the museum showcases all of these interests.  The museum building is, in fact, one of his creations.  Mercer designed three poured concrete buildings, all in Doylestown: his Moravian Tile Works; his home, Fonthill; and the museum.  The building, therefore, is an exhibit in its own right and – in my opinion – it was the best thing about the museum.

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We started in a modern extension to the building where there was a special exhibition about one woman’s collection of quilts and a selection of marvelous dollhouses.  I have no ability with sewing and could never even dream of embarking on something like a quilt but I enjoyed seeing the variety of designs and styles.  All three of us liked the dollhouses for all the tiny details and the meticulous crafting of scaled household items.  Soon enough, however, it was time to enter the actual museum building and it was a wow moment to step out into the central area.  We were surrounded on all sides by spaces full of interesting collections but the real impact came from looking up.  The museum is six or seven floors (it gets confusing) and we could stand in that first atrium area and look up through all of the floors, up to where a collection of chairs were suspended from the ceiling, our eyes darting past buggies and boats and even a fire engine that were dangling from the walls.

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Walking around the Mercer Museum is like poking around in someone’s really organised attic. Each collection has its own designated nook within the space.  Mercer appears to have been interested in the tools, equipment, and workshops of a wide variety of trades so each display space was themed around some industry.  We saw, for example, a collection of hair combs made from tortoise shell along with the shells and the tools used to slice and carve them.  There was a room dedicated to shoemaking with a large collection of cobbler’s lasts hanging on one wall.  Another space was full of hats and hat-making equipment.  There was a woodworking shop, a blacksmith’s furnace, a room full of spindles and spinning wheels, medical and apothecary equipment, a huge collection of lanterns, musical instruments (my kids laughed when I said the word “hurdy gurdy” with my Scottish accent), moulds for making confectionery, whaling implements, and so much more.  I confess to being not very enthused by industrial history but I found this collection quite charming.  With it being organised the way it was, I could quickly skim and scan the collections that I was not fussed by – such as gunsmithing – and spend more time with the items I did find more engaging, such as the glassblowing workshop.

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Now, being honest, my sons were not really digging the museum.  They gave passing glances to most displays but were not overly interested in the contents or in hearing me tell them about domestic industries of times past.  They were, however, more interested in the large items on display.  Seeing a whaleboat up close gave them an appreciation for how dangerous and difficult the job of whaling was when sent out in a relatively small, narrow and shallow whaling boat into the midst of large sea mammals.  They also thought the Conestoga wagon and stagecoach were cool.  One narrow little entry way took us into an area that was set up to look like a general store and they found that pretty interesting, spotting familiar items in unfamiliar packaging.  Being macabre little souls (they take after me in that respect) they also liked seeing a set of gallows and implements linked to crime and punishment.  We also entertained ourselves with our usual museum quest to find the ugliest and/or most offensive items on display.  The various tobacco advert carvings easily won the contest.

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There was a dog theme running throughout the museum.  Apparently Mercer loved dogs, especially Chesapeake Bay Retrievers.  We saw a statue of one on the way in and then, when we found ourselves in various children’s sections of the museum, there were a couple of cuddly dogs.  Best of all, however, were a set of paw prints, made by a dog named Rollo, imprinted into the concrete between two upper floors of the museum.  Finally, outside the museum, as we headed back to the car, we passed the grave markers for two pet pooches.

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For them and for me, however, the whole highlight of our visit was simply the building itself.  It was marvelously bonkers.  Each set of stairs brought us to another level lined with strange little nooks and crannies, there were weird doorways, steps that went up only to immediately go down again, and all manner of strangely shaped windows.  It was incredible to think that all of these shapes and forms and levels had been constructed by pouring concrete.  We really enjoyed the experience of wandering around and never quite knowing, despite having a map, where we were going to end up.  At one point, we took a staircase down to see a vast collection of stoveplates, entered an adjoining room showcasing tiles, and somehow found ourselves back in a room we had been in some time before and on a different floor altogether.  It made all three of us think of Hogwart’s Castle.  Thinking back to the dollhouses at the beginning of our visit, I could not help thinking about how much fun it would be to have unfettered access to the museum and play within its walls.  We will now have to visit Fonthill and the Moravian Tile Works some time.

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