Sunday in the Park with Picts

On a normal, everyday basis, I am pretty used to living in America now.  There are times, however, when I almost pinch myself and think to myself how weird it is that I live here.  Sunday was just such a day.  The littlest Pict – as part of his birthday festivities – requested a trip to New York City.  So we did.  And that felt a bit weird and also pretty cool.

Young kids travel free on the New Jersey transit on weekends so – with three of our kids qualifying – we determined that we could make a trip to NYC an affordable day trip.  We crossed state lines by car and hopped on the train.  It was the first time my kids had ever been on a double-decker train, a concept which they thought was excitingly awesome.  We travelled there on the top tier and came back on the bottom one so that they could experience both decks.  They thought it was cool to be eye level with people’s feet when on the bottom deck.  In really no time at all we were at Penn Station and right in the midst of midtown Manhattan.

The train tickets were our expense for the day so we were all about free fun.  We strolled up through the smack-bang-wallop sights and sounds of Times Square and continued on a few blocks until we reached Central Park, the focus of our trip.  Yes indeed: we essentially travelled all of the way to New York in order to play in a park.  Also kind of weird and kind of cool.

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We were no sooner in Central Park – which was absolutely thronging with people out enjoying the Sunday sunshine – than my four kids all scarpered off to climb on rocks.  They scrambled up and down the rocks like a herd of little mountain goats.  I have acrophobia so watching their antics gives me the heebie-jeebies but I don’t want to turn my kids into little quaking jellies like me so I try to let them just get on with it.  Of course, all four of my kids have broken teeth through face planting before so perhaps my hands-off policy is not the best.

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Our 9 year old has the most powerful imagination of the bunch and he is also the most persuasive so he engineered a game they could all play on the rocks.  The game was very complex, too complex for me to comprehend, but it definitely involved battling mountain orcs.  Occasionally I would spot another child or two wander towards my kids, observing them, perhaps tempted to join the fray, but my kids are kind of a pack and completely wrapped up in their game there was not a chance anyone else was going to get absorbed into their play.  That’s the thing about a gang of four brothers who are also best buddies: they have each other so they can tend towards exclusivity.  So they ran around on the rocks for a couple of hours, being orcs, killing orcs, and ever so often Mr Pict and I would herd them a few yards further into the park so that we could make some sort of progress.  They would then career around and caper on some other rocks for a good while.

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Eventually they decided they were up for a stroll.  They were quite taken with the pond near the Hallett Nature Sanctuary so we idled there for a while before doubling back towards the Dairy so we could gulp cold water from the drinking fountain there and refill our water bottles.  The boys then decided they wanted to see some statues so we wandered along Literary Walk where we saw Shakespeare, Walter Scott and Robert Burns.  We the continued along the Mall to Bethesda Terrace because I wanted to see the Bethesda Fountain actually operating.  I had seen it on my trip to New York a couple of months ago but that was in very different weather conditions.  The bronze angel dates from the early 1870s and symbolises purity, hence the lily in her hand.  Below her feet are four cherubs who apparently represent purity, health, temperance and peace.

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We then cut across to the east and wended our way past the model boat pond, which was full of model yachts competing with a few ducks, and then to the Alice in Wonderland Statue.  I had had a notion to take the boys on a highlights tour of Central Park statues but they had spent so long enjoying simply running around on the rocks and across the grass that my plan was abandoned as soon as it was hatched.  They did, however, want to see the Alice statue.  It was, as always, covered in children.  I managed to get an almost child-free photo of it last time I was in Central Park but there was no chance of that this time.  The photographer in me might find that a little dismaying but the parent in me is much stronger and enjoyed seeing all of the kids – not just my own – enjoying the sculpture and becoming part of the Mad Hatter’s tea party.  Half a century of kids clambering all over the statue has given it a glowing patina.  My kids particularly enjoyed exploring beneath the mushrooms, finding all the smaller sculpted details of bugs and beasties, and also enjoying the shade it provided.

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We then popped out onto 5th Avenue with its many museums behind us and its miles of very expensive shops in front of us.  We had not even reached the southside of Central Park before the kids started to flag so they had an ice cream to fortify themselves for the many more steps to come.  We did, however, decide to add another free item to our day’s itinerary not least because it offered us some shade and air conditioning, and that was a trip into FAO Schwarz.

FAO Schwarz is the oldest toy store in America, having been founded in 1862, but sadly it is going to be closing its doors this summer.  I was eager to get the kids into this iconic shop before it ceased to be in that location and perhaps even ceased to be permanently.  The store front – part of the General Motors Building – is actually quite unassuming but is Tardis-like once inside.  I was instantly wowed by the chill blast of the air conditioning but my children were wowed, their eyes like saucers and their jaws agape, by a massive display of cuddly toys.  It was like a zoological park of plush animals.  Some of these were massive and carried massive price tags to match.  Our 8 year old was smitten with unicorns and pegasuses the size of Shetland ponies but a lifetime of pocket money was not going to get him one.  Knowing there was no way we were going to cover the whole store, the boys were asked to determine which areas and displays they wanted to see.  Inevitably, therefore, the sections we visited were for superhero action figures, Minions, video games and Lego.  The kids had a great time looking at all the toys, mentally creating lists for Santa.

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Then it was time to leave the soothing cool of the toy store and go back out onto the busy, baking streets.  Somehow the walk back to Penn Station felt so much longer and further than the walk to Central Park had been that morning.  The train was surprisingly busy for a Sunday, alarmingly so since we had to walk the length of several carriages to find one that had space.  The kids’ feet and legs were pegging out at the mere thought of there being standing room only all the way back to our destination station.  Thankfully, at the penultimate carriage, we found some spaces on the bottom deck.  We sank into the chairs, exhausted, sticky from humidity and park dust, but very glad that our very first day trip to New York City had been a grand success and one I think we shall repeat.

Three have Fun in Manhattan – Day 2 – Central Park and Brooklyn by Night

Waking early, we strolled across the street and popped into the Moonstruck Diner for breakfast.  The whole place had the feel of a retro diner but with modern decorative flourishes such as tables covered in petrol iridescent mosaic tiles.  The service was great, the menu was good and the prices were pretty fair by Manhattan standards.  I had a bowl of oatmeal with fresh fruit which was good fuel for the day which was useful because it was an absolutely freezing cold day, complete with flurries of snow and wind that whipped and chapped our skin and chilled us to our marrows.

We walked up through Times Square, already starting to bustle even that early in the morning.  We popped into the M&M store partly to show M and A the bizarreness of a store dedicated to just one single type of candy but also partly for some respite from the outdoor temperatures.  Three floors of nothing but M&M merchandise and a whole wall covered in tubes of different coloured chocolate sweeties, the shop is completely and utterly bonkers but impressively so.

Thawed out, we emerged back onto the streets and headed up into Central Park because you absolutely cannot visit New York City without a visit to Central Park.  We walked up through the centre of the park as far as Bethesda Terrace.  Unfortunately the fountain was not running, presumably because of the low temperatures but the angel was still appealing.  We then cut east past lots of sculptures.  We stopped to study the charming Alice in Wonderland statue just in time because a massive group of teenagers on a school trip then clambered all over it.  Then we popped out onto the Museum Mile section of Fifth Avenue.  Snow was falling by this point and it felt like we had to walk much further than a mile to reach our eventual destination: the Museum of the City of New York.

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Tickets for the Museum had been part of the package that came with our bus tour tickets.  Given the temperatures, we would otherwise have chosen to visit a much closer museum.  We were welcomed by a lovely lady who explained what the current exhibitions were in enthusiastic detail when all we desperately wanted to know were where the restrooms were.  Having availed ourselves of the facilities, we then sought out a place to rest our weary legs and view a permanent exhibition, a short film named Timescapes.  Narrated by Stanley Tucci, it told the story of the city from pre-European settlement through to the present day.  A particularly successful element of the film was the use of maps to illustrate the expansion of the city and its development.  Another memorable element was the juxtaposition, across the three screens, of photos showing the lives of wealthy residents contrasted with those of the poorest residents.  Both of those aspects of the film drove the message of New York being a city of contrasts and of constant change.

The other exhibit we spent time in was a section devoted to the city’s history of social activism: abolitionists, suffragettes, gay rights activists, environmentalists, social justice campaigners, the Civil Rights movement , cycle safety and bang up to date with the controversy over the siting of the Park51 Islamic community centre.   All these examples of activism were represented in the exhibition space and illustrated with various artifacts, photographs, film footage and audio excerpts.  The slave irons were poignant but the section that I found most evocative was the revolving gallery of photographs by Jacob Riis depicting the city’s slums, impoverished residents and criminals.  The artifact I enjoyed most, however, was a plastic doll – a bit like Barbie’s boyfriend Ken – who was named “Gay Bob” and whose box read “Come out of the closet with Gay Bob”.  I thought the disarming wit of that item was fantastic and demonstrated a another approach to activism, differing from all the debating, arguing and rage.

The wind was blasting and the snow was whirling when we stepped back out onto Fifth Avenue so we were glad to be able to catch the tour bus to take us back down to Times Square.  The journey on the bus did nothing to warm us up but our plan was to stay out of the cold as much as possible by popping in and out of shops.  There were various items that M and A wanted to purchase so that was our mission for the afternoon.  Our first pit stop – after a quick bite to eat in a cafe – was Macy’s.  Macy’s bills itself as the world’s largest department store and it is certainly a bit of a warren inside, a maze of escalators and elevators and half floors.  The store was absolutely thronging too.  In addition to people who were there to shop, of which there were masses, there were also people who were visiting in order to apparently see all of the flowers that were on display.  Apparently Macy’s hold an annual floral exhibition and that event had apparently attracted a whole horde of people.  They were taking photos of flowers, standing around discussing botanical species and posing with the floral displays to have their photos taken.  Navigating the heaving crowds certainly helped warm us up.  I was determined to show A and M the wooden escalators in the store.  Most of the escalators have the original wooden sides but with modern metal steps but I really wanted them to see the flight of escalators that still have wooden treads.  That was my nerdy mission.  I was over the moon when I finally found them.  I suspect A and M were underwhelmed.  We wandered in and out of a few more stores so that my friends could buy all of the things they wanted to get and buy souvenirs to take back to Scotland and then it was time to wander back up into the theatre district to catch the bus for the night tour.

The night tour was the only bus ride we had with a female guide.  It would have been quite useful to have encountered her earlier in the trip as she was obsessed with toilets and was able to tell us which were the cleanest ladies’ loos in the midtown area.  As a female traveller, that type of intel is golden.  The three of us plus a lady from Florida elected to sit right at the back of the upper deck.  This was because the rear section of the perspex roof had been removed and we could get a better view and better photographs.  Any warmth we had accumulated from our jaunts in and out of shops immediately dissipated with the breeze whipping in through the back of the bus.  We also had to inhale exhaust fumes ever so often.  We all refused to budge, however, even though the seats were also too high for us which meant we all shuttled forwards any time the bus came to a jolting stop, which it did frequently.  We thought unimpaired views and better photographs made it worthwhile.  The tour took us past all the usual suspect sites but it also took us over the Manhattan Bridge onto Brooklyn – affording us a decent view of the Brooklyn Bridge – and then along the side of the East River so that we could see another view of downtown Manhattan before taking us back over the river to complete the circuit.

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Temperatures had fallen to subzero (centigrade) while we were on our bus tour so we decided to just scurry back to home base which we did as quickly as possible but via a wine shop.  We chilled out in the living room of my hotel room, drinking wine, chatting and giggling until the wee small hours of Sunday morning because this trip was about reuniting with friends as well as exploring the city and that was our last evening together.

New York, You Nork – Day 3: Central Park and the American Museum of Natural History

This was a first ever President’s Day for the boys and myself and we decided that our mission for the day should be to absorb some learning by heading off to the American Museum of Natural History.  Our first stop, however, was less educational: the red steps at Times Square.  Our 8 year old actually has a pretty good handle on Manhattan geography because of having his little lego superheroes run around in his Marvel Lego game on the PS3 and so it was at his request that we locate the “red steps”.  These turn out to be a flight of red steps or bleachers that form the roof of a booth selling reduced price theatre tickets on Duffy Square.  The 8 year old seemed happy to have had the chance to run up and down them.

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Central Park looked wonderful in the snow.  The last time I was there was on a sultry day that made us feel sticky and lethargic as we trudged across it.  We were not there to see Central Park but were just crossing it to get from A to B.  This time we decided to spend a little bit of time there.  Of course, Central Park is vast.  I remember when I went up the Empire State Building late at night it was just this massive black oblong, like a hole cut out of the cityscape.  There was no way we were even going to skim the surface of all the things we could see or do in the park.  I would have personally loved to have taken a route that walked us past the wonderful sculptures, like Alice in Wonderland or the Pilgrim, Balto, Hans Christian Andersen, but that was not to be for this trip because we were still using Central Park to get from A to B but were just being a bit more leisurely about it.

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The boys had a blast playing in a snow covered playground, scuffing up the snow as their legs moved back and forth on the swings and speeding down the slide to be dolloped into the pile of snow at the bottom.  We were adjacent to Umpire Rock so the children were directed to clamber up that to gain a view of this sector of the park.  Except they didn’t.  They got half way up and scurried off instead into this moulded concrete bunker that looked like something out of the Cold War. I think it might be called Hecksher Playground and that the bunker they were running around in like rats in a sewer is, in warmer months, a water play area with the sewer structures becoming wading pools.  Once the children were retrieved, we continued to wend our way through the Park.  We encountered lots of friendly squirrels – probably because they were on the make for some of the hot roasted nuts being sold on the street – and our six year old was delighted to see some mounted police officers because he is horse daft.  We also saw the Imagine mosaic, the memorial to John Lennon who was murdered outside the nearby Dakota Hotel.

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Finally we were at our destination: the American Museum of Natural History.  As a family, we love museums.  Going to a museum was one of my favourite treats as a child and that enthusiasm of learning through objects and archives is something I hope I have imparted to my children.  The boys were familiar with a version of this museum from the movie ‘Night at the Museum’ so that was an additional hook for them as it provided them with some sort of indication of what things they might see during our visit there.

After a brief pit stop in the basement for packed lunches to be devoured, we headed off to the space section. Mr Pict is into astronomy and for years owned a massive telescope that looked like a giant toilet paper tube.  We decided not to ship it so we sold it before moving to America but I am sure he will buy a replacement at some juncture, though perhaps a smaller one.  He hopes to engage the kids in the subject of outer space probably because I am a dead loss in that regard.  I like the pretty pictures of galaxies and that’s about it.  The kids were immediately drawn towards a massive meteorite in the centre of the room.  This was the Williamette meteorite and even I found it striking because of all the shapes created in it, curves and crevices.  The Native American tribe who lived near where it was found, in Oregon, used it in ceremonies and then, at the very beginning of the twentieth century, a white man found it and dragged it onto his land which led to a dispute between him and the company who owned the land.  So, between its strange history, its appearance and the fact that it was found at a location other than the original impact site, it transpires this was one of the world’s most famous meteorites.  I thought it was pretty. Thankfully our 8 year old is definitely an Arts and Humanities kid whose areas of interest are more akin to my own so, while Mr Pict and the other boys took a while to wander around the universe timeline that spiralled above the hall, my 8 year old and I swirled a sun around and looked at gorgeous images of galaxies.

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We then went into the Hall of African Mammals.  Stuffed animals were displayed in dioramas around the sides of the hall.  I loved how antiquated everything was as I had the definite impression that nothing about these displays had changed in a century, as both the wood and the brass lettering had a rich patina to it.  I actually thought the dioramas were very well done.  It was almost as if the original taxidermists and display team had looked at photographs in National Geographic magazines and decided to reproduce them in three dimensions.  Obviously seeing stuffed beasts does not come close to the impact or educational value of seeing living ones, even in a zoo setting, but for the kids to have the ability to get so close to a representation of a small herd of elephants, for example, was great and at least the dioramas placed the animals in their habitat contexts rather than just mounting them in stark cases.

Now to my mind a Museum of Natural History is about animals, plants, fossils and geology.  It is not about human evolution or civilizations.  That is anthropology.  However, this particular Museum had lumped them together.  I don’t necessarily object to that because some of my most favourite museums – the National Museum of Scotland and the British Museum – have diverse and eclectic collections, stemming largely from Victorian eccentrics scouring the world for things to pillage from far off places.  However, it struck both Mr Pict and I that the anthropological sections were devoid of any European or white exhibits; they were all focused on what might once have been termed “primitive cultures”.  I’m not one for po-faced, broad-brush political correctness by any means but sometimes it does become necessary to revisit how things were once presented by a group of long gone people who, even if they ought to have known better, were not obligated to do so.  It just seemed a bit crass, if not distasteful, to lump the history of African, South American and Pacific peoples along with the history of animals while not including the history of any Caucasian cultures to balance the anthropological section out.

That being said, my kids loved seeing all of the different costumes on display in the African section and I liked seeing the masks.  Our youngest later said that his favourite exhibit in the whole museum was a diorama of a pygmy tribe hunting.  I rather suspect he liked the idea of firing a bow and arrow.  The South American section was a big hit.  The ten year old and the six year old spent ages sitting in front of the Aztec sun disc studying it and the four year old and the eight year old loved all of the carved faces and representations of gods.  The six year old could, as per usual, be relied upon to giggle and chuckle at all of the genitalia.  It was in this section that I found two little sculptures that were to be among the highlights of my trip to the museum.  They were from Venezuela and one was a figurine of a pregnant woman and the other was a little phallic fellow.  Together they were just adorable.

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The Hall of Human Origins was fascinating.  Seeing the range of scientifically important human remains – fossils and casts – in the collection made it especially captivating.  Our six year old loved all the Neanderthal displays, from the adult and child skeletons to the diorama of some “cave men” and their pile of picked clean mammoth bones.  Just to be able to see even casts of the skeleton of Turkana boy and the Flores skull, the “hobbit” species found only a few years ago, was incredible.  But for me the highlight was to see Lucy.  The real Lucy was returned to Ethiopia last year but even seeing a cast of her skeleton was a treat because I have been hearing about the importance of her remains to the study of human evolution my entire life.  Being able to see the proportions of the cast up close, I could actually appreciate some of the information I had read about her.  Our oldest loved the Hall of Human Origins and is now hopeful that someone at some point in his lifetime will find another early human species, perhaps even an actual “missing link” species.

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As I have explained before, my 8 year old is my magpie child.  He is instantly drawn to anything that sparkles or shines.  We sometimes call him “bling boy” as a consequence.  The Hall of Gems and Minerals therefore had his blue eyes on little stalks.  While the others watched a movie about, I think, a meteorite, he and I wandered around looking at all the amazing colours and formations of gemstones.  He especially loved the massive boulder of azurite and malachite and a glowing lump of topaz.  He also loved the massive amethyst geode.  We saw the Patricia Emerald but failed entirely to locate the Star of India which was frustrating to say the least.  We wandered through the gem galleries but it eluded us and we had to admit defeat.

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We were starting to flag a bit at this point so we decided to be less thorough and attempt a tour of remaining highlights.  We did a whizz past the Great Canoe, which was even more massive and impressive than I was expecting, and then stopped for cupcakes and brownies to recharge our batteries.  Our intention had been to scoot quickly through the hall showcasing North American mammals but ultimately we decided it was a great learning opportunity for the boys to see the type of critters to be found in America that they would not have seen back in Scotland.  The youngest two especially liked the bison and the moose dioramas and were astounded by the scale of the bears.

We then slowed down to an idle again for the Dinosaur Halls because they were just too completely awesome for us to rush through.  There were toothily ferocious carnivores and long-necked gigantic herbivores.  Our six year old was thrilled to see an archaeopteryx because he likes the theory that some dinosaurs did not become extinct but rather evolved into birds.  My favourite dinosaur is the triceratops and my husband’s favourite is the stegosaurus so we were both delighted to encounter fossils of those.  All of the boys loved the section of mammals from the ice age because they love the ‘Ice Age’ series of movies.  They loved running from exhibit to exhibit to identify the fossil critters they knew in cute animated form.  Our six year old, as a fan of all things equine, especially loved the display of early horse evolution.  We all loved the mammoths and the rhino creature with the double-pronged horn.  Our oldest son was excited to see the size of the giant sloth.

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Our final stop was to the Pacific section of the Museum.  We really did not have any time left but we were adamant that we could not leave the Museum without seeing the moai from Easter Island – or Rapa Nui.  I have seen one before – at the British Museum – but this was an opportunity for the boys to see one in real life and appreciate its vast scale and density.  Sadly it turned out that the one in the Museum was a plaster cast rather than being a basalt original – though I am obviously glad that that means fewer moai have been purloined from Easter Island than might otherwise have been the case.  However, the fact it was merely a cast did mean the boys were permitted to get really close to it and still appreciate the scale of it.  All of the children, not just my own, were excited to see it at least because of it being a fun character in ‘Night at the Museum’.

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It then really was time to leave so there was no chance to even pop into the ocean life sections of the Museum.  Instead we decided to give the boys a new experience and take them on the New York subway.  They found this to be quite underwhelming perhaps because it is so very similar to the London Underground.  Still it was another experience to chalk off and they at least appreciated the fact that they were not having to walk all of the way back to the hotel.

I would like to report that we had an uneventful trip back but unfortunately, though the journey itself was smooth, we got waylaid by a wrong turn off the turnpike and then the littlest Pict spewed spectacularly and with little warning which required another pit stop to clean him up, strip him down and dress him in fresh clothes and then we arrived home to find out drive was pretty much impassable because of the snow that had fallen during our weekend away.  Nevertheless, despite that slightly irritating end to our trip, we declared our first family trip to NYC to be a roaring success and one we will definitely repeat.  But maybe when it is warmer.