Three have Fun in Manhattan – Day 3 – Statue of Liberty

After breakfasting at the Moonstruck Diner again, we caught the downtown tour bus and hopped off at Battery Park.  Our mission for the day was to visit the Statue of Liberty.  Tickets to get inside and ascend the Statue sell out in advance but we didn’t mind as we only wanted to visit the island anyway.  I personally don’t think I will ever climb that statue as I have claustrophobia and a crippling fear of heights.  The queue for the ticket line moved quickly but the queue to get through the security checks moved like molasses.  I am not against security screening at all.  I completely understand the need for it.  However, there has to be a more efficient system for processing people.  For instance, initially we were in an orderly queue but then the fence opened up wider and we were all directed to fill every nook and cranny of the space which meant any order there had been was completely lost.  It’s the type of anti-queuing that makes we British people twitchy.  That blob of people then had to narrow down to get up a set of steps and through a door which created a bottleneck.  That bottleneck was what slowed everything up because once inside it took really no time at all to go through the security check, not least because we had all had ample time to strip off belts and organise our possessions so that we didn’t bleep.

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Once on board the boat – which can transport a heck of a lot of people – we scurried up to the top deck to get a good view of Governors Island, the NYC skyline, Ellis Island and, of course, the Statue of Liberty.  It was very cold indeed out on the water and I was dressed like a polar gnome for the third day in a row but the views made it worthwhile.  It took no time at all to reach the island and make land fall.  I had seen the Statue of Liberty before but en route to Ellis Island, back in August 2001, so this was actually my first time on Liberty Island too.  After the obligatory trip to the restrooms, we went for a stroll around the statue.

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As impressive as Lady Liberty is from a distance, she is even more striking at close quarters.  I am curious as to what the statue would have looked like when the copper was new and shiny but the patination of the verdigris is effective in emphasising the contours of the figure and the folds of the cloth, the weight in the stance, the facial expression and the contrast with the brightness of the flame element.  It was interesting to see her from different angles, really appreciate the dimension of the sculpture, understand the way the pose works to support the symbolism.  I must have snapped a hundred photos of the statue as we circled around it.

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Back on the boat, it was a hop, skip and a jump to get to Ellis Island.  We were tempted to get off and explore but knew our timings were tight so decided that we would all three return to New York some time and visit both Ellis Island and the 9/11 Museum.  Although I have been to Ellis Island before, my kids have not yet been and I am eager to take them as they are the descendants of immigrants to America as well as being immigrants themselves.  As with our trip to Plimoth Plantation, I do love it when family, social and national history combine and drill some learning into my kids.  So I will be back some time with the family in tow.  The 9/11 Museum, however, will have to wait until the kids are older.  I digress.  We resisted temptation and landed back at Battery Park.

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There, we caught the tour bus which unfortunately completed its downtown circuit by heading up the west shore of Manhattan.  Unfortunate because the blue skies and sunshine of the day had led to the upper deck being opened up; unfortunate because we decided to go and sit on the top deck to get the best views, shored up by our false belief that it was warmer than it was; and unfortunate because the wind sweeping across the Hudson was freezing.  We did our best to scrunch up against the cold, burrowing into our coats, hats and scarves, but our fingers went numb and our skulls felt as if they were vibrating in the chill wind.  And the traffic was slow, painfully slow, so we dragged past the meatpacking district, Chelsea, the piers, before turning inland a bit in the region of Hell’s Kitchen where we then went from a crawl to a standstill as we encountered gridlock.  The slow pace of the traffic seemed to provoke lawlessness too as cars continued to creep out against a red light simply because the vehicles who had a green light were moving so slowly that they could risk it.  It was like bandit country in the middle of the city.  Finally the bus rocked forward far enough to escape the traffic stalemate and we got back to the theatre district.  Had we been permitted to disembark, we would most certainly have been quicker walking the last leg of the journey.

We badly needed to thaw out and eat warm food.  A and M wanted to experience a New York slice so we went off in search of some street pizza.  There were hot dogs and pretzels galore but trying to find a hole in the wall selling pizza proved to be more difficult than we envisaged.  Finally we found a little place just off Broadway and better still it had a place to sit down and better still it had more than 20 tables which meant it had to have a restroom.  It is all about toilets, you see.  The pizza could have stood to be hotter – especially since we were so very cold – but it was really tasty and had a lovely crisp base.  I chose a slice of veggie pizza and a slice with fresh tomatoes and mozzarella on it, a warm version of a caprese pizza.  I devoured both.  A great last supper for our trip together.

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Just like that, our trip together was over.  A and M had to catch their bus back to the airport and I had to catch the train to get back home.  I actually lucked out and entered Penn Station and reached the NJ Transit area just as my train was about to head off so I had no malingering to endure.  Our three days as a trio went very quickly and we barely scratched the surface of what Manhattan has to offer.

In terms of tourism, the highlight of this trip to New York City was certainly seeing the Statue of Liberty.  However, for me the highlight was getting to spend quality time with my good friends.  Considering we used to see each other daily and meet up at least once a week, I cannot claim it was just like old times but – after 18 months apart – it was great to know we could just pick up where we left off with our friendship and have a whale of a time together.   “When shall we three meet again?”  We were already discussing where we might meet up next.  Hopefully with warmer temperatures.

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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.

Three have Fun in Manhattan – Day 1 – Downtown

There are many ways in which one can measure or assess friendships.  One measure might be friends who are willing to cross an ocean just to spend a few days with you.  Two of my closest friends from Scotland did just that.  How awesome is that?  I choose not to write about how much I miss my family and friends.  For a start, it is stating the obvious and there is not much to write about beyond that obvious statement.  It is also too vulnerable a set of emotions to share in an open forum.  Of course, the internet and social media make it far easier to keep in touch these days and that enables me to feel connected to the everyday lives of my family and friends, which certainly helps take the edge off things.  However, nothing compares to actually spending some quality time together.  Needless to say, therefore, I had been looking forward to this reunion for months.

My friends, A and M, flew in on the Thursday evening and I took the train up to New York City on Friday morning.  That leg of the trip actually represented my first ever solo travel within North America, as I have always travelled with either Mr Pict or the Pictlings before.  So that was a wee milestone.  My friends actually came to Penn Station to meet me which was a complete surprise, not least because they were right under my nose before I noticed they were there in front of me.  The three of us then walked to our hotel so that I could check in.  We were staying at the Jolly Madison Tower Hotel which is situated on 38th and Madison.  At check in, I was given an upgrade for no good reason which meant I ended up with a suite: a spacious bedroom, a large living room and a really nice bathroom.  I even got complementary personal care items and bottles of water.  A and M were outraged by the lack of parity.  Righteous indignation is one of the qualities we all share and which no doubt helps bond us.  My fourteenth floor suite had a view onto a brick wall, an aesthetically pleasing red brick wall but still not much of a view.  However, that wall did protect me from the potential racket of NYC streets.  Furthermore, my living room area proved to be a good spot for hanging out and chatting in the evenings. Having dumped my bags, we wasted no time at all in heading back out onto the streets of Manhattan.

A and M had already visited Times Square, Grand Central Terminal and the Empire State Building so we thought it might be a good idea to head out of midtown and check out downtown.  I suggested that we take the Staten Island Ferry so as to get a different perspective on the New York City skyline so that became our plan.  We were on Broadway when we conferred and decided it might be a worthwhile investment to buy ticket passes for a tour bus company to help us get around while still seeing the sites.  We went with Go New York tours.  They ran several circuits around Manhattan which offered good area coverage and each tour came with an on board tour guide.  Of the four guides we experienced, only one chap was duff.  The other three were all very good: knowledgeable, enthusiastic, full of humour and engaging.  In fact, the only down side to the whole experience was that they were not explicit – even when asked directly – about the final schedule times for some of the circuits – more of which later.

Having passed the Wall Street bull – and seen people having their photos taken beside it at both ends – we hopped off the bus at the Battery.  We were all very peckish indeed by that point so we looked around for something to eat.  Finding value for money munchies in Manhattan was to be a recurring theme of our trip.  It was a potent reminder of why I had made packed lunches for us when Mr Pict and I had visited with the kids in February.  We finally opted for a Deli opposite Bowling Green where the prices were actually not too bad considering I ate a very filling and very tasty wrap.  Replete, we headed across the street to the Whitehall Terminal to catch the Staten Island Ferry.  Designed, of course, to shuttle commuters back and forth, the ferry is also a great resource for tourists and is entirely free.  How is that for value for money?  We had wanted to get out on the open decks but they remained roped off plus it was also very cold indeed.  We, therefore, managed to get a spot by a window so that we could catch the views of Battery Park and the downtown skyline along with the Statue of Liberty.  Then we disembarked, walked through the waiting room and got straight back on the return ferry.

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We wandered up Greenwich Street and came to the National 9/11 Memorial.  As busy as the area was, the quiet was telling.  Apart from one family who were posing for smiley-faced photos in front of the FDNY Memorial – an evocative brass wall sculpture – everyone in the area was appropriately sombre and reverential.  The photos of the 343 firefighters who perished that day had me choked.  We then moved over to look at the reflecting pools.  They are beautiful and peaceful, a tasteful and thoughtful memorial to the almost three thousand people killed that day.  We stood for some time just watching the water and thinking.  This was my first time seeing the completed One World Trade Center and I have to say that it is a very striking building.  I think it works as a symbol of America’s resilience.

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Dusk was settling at that point so we headed back over to Broadway to catch our tour bus back to midtown.  Except we couldn’t.  Because the bus had stopped running that circuit.  It took us almost half an hour to figure that out, however, so we stood there, the three of us, waiting for a bus that would never come as if we were in some absurdist play.  We were dangerously close to freezing into a tourist attraction when we figured out our problem.  Feeling stupid and disgruntled, we started hoofing it back up Broadway.  At approximately a block per minute, we were making good time but it was still a pretty long walk.   We ticked off neighbourhoods as we went to make us feel like we were accomplishing something.  Crossing Houston from SoHo into NoHo felt like an actual achievement and we were over the moon when we reached Union Square, by which time it was dark.  We were flagging and hungry by the time we were wandering along Park Avenue so we were glad to spy an empty table in an Irish pub (of which there are many in midtown).

Desperation does not make for good decisions.  The service ranged from indifferent to surly and the drinks were pricey.  My Buffalo chicken wrap with side salad was good (though I was admittedly prepared to eat a rotten rhino by that point) but M and A’s nachos were not up to scratch.  We also learned that we are too old to tolerate the skull thumping volume of music in pubs.  We were sitting at close quarters to one another but were pretty much reliant on lip reading and gesticulation in order to communicate.  We gobbled, gulped, paid the bill and departed.  We then repaired to our hotel where we flopped in the bar.  This was a lovely, cosy, comfy space.  It was also quiet.  This was a welcome contrast to the Irish bar but maybe a little too quiet.  It is a bit intense to be the only three customers for a barman who was clearly bored rigid.  The drinks were no more expensive than they had been in the pub.  We decided to have cocktails and A and I had a Manhattan each since that seemed the most appropriate drink for the location.  That was our night cap.  We shambled off to our rooms to get enough sleep to recharge for day 2.

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.

New York, You Nork – Day 2: Empire State Building and Times Square

As soon as we were up and ready, we wrapped up warm and headed out to see the sights.  We again walked along 42nd Street – as we found that to be a handy route – but instead of turning off down Broadway we kept straight ahead.  The Chrysler building was on the horizon as we strolled.  It is my favourite New York skyscraper.  I love the glistering fish scaled peak of terraced arches and the sleek perfection of the Art Deco architecture.  I really ought to pop into the lobby some day in order to see the interior.

We popped into Bryant Park because Mr Pict had just been reading about how it was once the city’s reservoir but had then been filled in.  Posters declared that it was set up to be some sort of Winter Wonderland.  I am sure it had been perfectly lovely and festive during the holidays but what this currently meant was that wrought iron tables and chairs were set among smoggy grey piles of snow.  An area had been turned into an ice skating rink which is apparently something Bryant Park is famed for.  The boys enjoyed seeing people skating around, from the people wobbling and failing like newborn deer to the people gliding around performing moves in lycra leggings as if they were at Sochi going for Olympic gold.  From there, just around the corner, we saw the front of the New York Public Library.  This was a building known to the kids from the disaster movie ‘The Day After Tomorrow’, as it is where several characters huddle up to seek refuge from the extremely perishing temperatures outside.  I am not sure that memory did much to convince them that they were not cold and should be happy to walk the streets of Manhattan all day.

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 Our destination for the morning was the Empire State Building.  Outside there were people trying to convince us to upgrade to a skyline ticket but we managed to nip past them and into building.  I had been once before, during my last time in New York, but that was a few weeks prior to 9/11, before the War on Terror and Homeland Security.  It was a very different process to get into the building than it had been before.  We queued to get through security and undergo a screening process that was exactly like that conducted at an airport: coats, bags and hats off, belts off, phone and bags in the box and all scanned while each of us walked through a metal detector.  It was a bit of a time-consuming fankle though, of course, I absolutely appreciate the necessity.  Then there was the queue for the tickets.  Then there was a queue for the lift to take us to the 80th floor.  From the 80th floor we could either queue again to get in the lift or we could climb six flights of stairs to the Observation Deck.  We chose the latter option, as did quite a few people.  The boys were wee troopers and slogged up the stairs without complaint.

The air on the Observation Deck was lung-crushingly cold.  It took a while for my breathing to return to normal as I found myself gasping and coughing as my throat and lungs adjusted to the temperature.  Bracing.  The last time I had visited the Empire State Building was at night which was helpful for my vertigo but meant that the views were rather abstract, with everything reduced to blocks of light and dark and patterns of coloured lights.  The advantage of the day’s chill air was that it was also crisp and bright and visibility was great.  We could see across the river, the Statue of Liberty at the mouth of the Hudson, the Brooklyn Bridge, Central Park and the Flatiron Building.  Our 10 year old was especially interested in the architecture and the different buildings he could see and our 4 year old was excited to see the Statue of Liberty as he has become obsessed with it.  The frigid temperature meant that we did walk the four sides of the building at a fairly brisk pace and then we were back to the queuing, this time to be sorted into elevator-taker and stair-walkers.  Again we chose the stairs so we descended six flights, much more easily than we ascended, and then we queued for the lift to take us back down to the bottom and the inevitable “exit through the gift shop”.  Our 6 year old had been super-excited about going up the Empire State Building because of King Kong so he was hoping to spend some of his pennies on a cuddle King Kong.  There were certainly lots of cuddly Kongs available but they ranged in price from $10 to at least $22.  Thankfully he was persuaded that it was not good value for money to use his savings to buy a King Kong from the gift shop and we managed to leave the Empire State Building without yet another queue to make a purchase.

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From there we went to Grand Central Terminal, a building I love because of the beauty of its architecture, the wonderfully capacious concourse, the four-faced brass clock on the information booth, the tunnels to the train lines, the astronomical ceiling; the boys were excited to see it because it was where the Avengers assembled to team up and kick alien butt and where Alex the Lion got beaten around the head by a grandma’s handbag.  Our 8 year old received the Lego Marvel Heroes game for Christmas and had been recognising various scenes from the game as we wandered around New York so he was busily explaining what happened at Grand Central Terminal.  As the boys needed to rest their weary legs for a bit, we found them a table and seats in the market area and they ate their packed lunches and drank some hot chocolate that Mr Pict bought for them.  You could practically see the steam rising off them as they warmed up.

 We then went off to Times Square to mooch around the shops there.  The Toys R Us on Times Square is amazing.  Normally I am pragmatic about Toys R Us.  It is handy to have the kids wander around a large warehouse and suggest thing they might like for birthdays or Christmas but it is such a soulless place.  The strip lighting is harsh and cold, it always feels a bit disorganised and there is no warmth, charm, enthusiasm or character to the place which is very odd for somewhere trying to appeal to kids.  I much preferred the experience of shopping in Hamley’s toy store in Glasgow to wandering around Toys R Us.  This Toys R Us could not have been more different.

For a start it has a ferris wheel in the middle of store.  A ferris wheel.  That instantly adds character.  But they had also given some thought as to how to display things attractively and make each product area appealing.  Gone were the tall warehouse shelves and instead there were nice low level shelves where, you know, kids could actually see things and you don’t feel like boxes are looming over you.  The kids were immediately drawn to the lego area because lego has them in its thrall.  Not only did they have a wide variety of lego sets available but they also had massive Lego sculptures decorating the area, including a human sized Hulk that the boys posed with and an Empire State Building.  In the adjacent area was an animatronic T Rex.  There were people dressed up as superheroes posing for photographs – for a fee, of course, so my superhero mad kids did not get to do that.  We wandered around the store marvelling at the displays and our youngest son was overcome with excitement seeing a massive minion.

 From there it was on to the Lego Store at the Rockerfeller Plaza.  This meant we also got to see the legendary skating rink and the gilded statue of Prometheus.  It immediately made me think of the ‘Rhapsody in Blue’ section of ‘Fantasia 2000’.  The Lego Store itself was actually a bit disappointing.  We have been to several lego stores now, mostly in Britain but also the one at the King of Prussia mall in Pennsylvania, and this flagship store in New York city was definitely not as good as any of those other stores.   I think largely it was down to the store design as there was a large staircase in the middle of the building leading up to a mezzanine level that contained nothing but checkouts which meant that display and shopping space was narrow and cramped and having windows on so many sides also limited the opportunity for shelf space.  There was also the massive wall for pick ‘n’ mix bricks which also bit a chunk out of the floor and display space.  There was, however, a great window display of the Rockerfeller Center and lego reproductions of some of the nearby statues but otherwise it was a bit deflating.  The middle boys wanted to buy Lego Movie minifigures so I got to experience another queue.  One of the checkout people was making each kid sing the “Everything is Awesome’ brainworm song from the movie when they reached the till.  I was very glad when we were called forward by a different staff member.

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Then we went to the M&M Store.  Yes, a store just for M&Ms.  Actually three storeys of a building selling nothing but M&Ms and merchandise.  Everything was set out according to the colours of each M&M, a method of organising displays I approve of because I hang all of my clothes in colour spectrum order.  There were walls of M&Ms, peanut and chocolate ones, in a much wider array of colours than you would ever get in a normal everyday packet,  colours such as violet and teal and cream.  The wall M&Ms cost $12.99 per pound though so our boys (who had already spent some of their money on toys in the previous two stores) were warned to back away from the candy wall.

I had wanted to stroll around FAO Schwarz, New York’s famous independent and iconic toy store.  However, all of the kids were starting to flag at that juncture so we decided to call it quits .  Ambling around FAO Schwarz can be for another trip. So we walked back to our hotel for a brief break before heading out to Times Square in the dark to see that all the lights and electronic billboards looked like at night.

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We ate dinner in Virgil’s Barbecue just off Times Square.  We had smelled barbecue food earlier in the day so I think that put my husband in the mood for that type of food plus they were one of very few places that would take reservations – and reservations are pretty important when you have a family of six and hungry kids don’t like queuing.  The place had a nice relaxed atmosphere – the napkins were flannel cloths – and we experienced very efficient and enthusiastic service.  They had found a way to keep the tables turning over and maximising profit but without making us, as diners, feel rushed or harassed in any way.  The food, it must be said, was not cheap but it was comparable to other prices in the vicinity and the portions were massive and the quality was good.  I normally cannot stand hush puppies because they just taste like greasy lumps to me but their hush puppies were tasty and were served with maple syrup butter which was even tastier.  I had a plate of barbecue pulled chicken with fries that still had their skins on and coleslaw.  And a jalapeno cornbread muffin in case that wasn’t already enough.  It was all really delicious, especially when dipped in some of their hot barbecue sauce, but it was a colossal portion.  I am usually a great eater and I hate wasting food but even I had to admit defeat in the battle of woman versus food.  So it was a great meal and a good dining experience only marred by our 8 year old deciding to build up to a tantrum because apparently he had some pain in his calf muscle.  There were men at the battle of Gettysburg who had their legs shredded by canon and, while having the ragged pulp of their limbs amputated, were more stoic and made less noise than he was making over what was at most a bit of an ache.  We suspected and it was later confirmed, however, that there was nothing wrong with his legs at all.  He just wanted to whip up a melodramatic frenzy because he apparently cannot go on any trip without having some sort of meltdown.  In Phildalephia at Christmas time it was a 40 minute screaming fit on a snowy street because a snowflake had apparently strayed into his eye.  Yes.  A snowflake.  Sigh.

We were back out to Times Square to see what it looked like in the dark.  The answer was mostly the same as it does in daylight since there are so many electronic billboards blazing light on the place.  I guess the electrical signage pops a bit more in the dark.  There were people in costumes working for tips by having their photos taken with tourists.  The littlest Pict had already had his photo taken with Elmo and a Minion partly because he trapped us and partly because he was so delighted it was worth the couple of bucks each time.  He got totally excited at night time, however, seeing the superheroes.  He was screeching at his brothers about how he had just spotted the real Batman.  The.  Real.  Batman. They were good sports and played along, stifling their chuckles.  But then a giant Hello Kitty approached him and he greeted it with “What.  The.  Heck?”  Needless to say he did not have his photo taken with it. We also got to see Puss in Boots bum a cigarette from Woody.  Which was different.

All the walking, climbing and trekking certainly helped the kids fall asleep quickly.  Even the one with the agonising leg difficulty.

New York, You Nork – Day 1: Comic Books and Ripley’s

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.

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 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.

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 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.

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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.

 

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 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.

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Train Ride to Philly

The Family Pict headed into Philadelphia for the day on Saturday.  As I waited for the train to arrive, I realised that this actually marked my first time on a train in America.  I have been to the US half a dozen times before moving here, but I have never once been on an overland train before (just the Washington DC and New York subways).  So obviously I had to take a photo to mark the occasion:

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And here are the rest of the Pict family on the platform:

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I don’t have any incisive comment to pass on the train journey other than the fact it struck me that the carriage was much more clean and comfortable than most city trains I have travelled on.  It was just a train.  But it was my first one so yay anyway.

As for the trip into the city, let’s just gloss over that.  Three little words: Tag; team; tantrums.  But here are some favourite photos from the first trip the boys and I made into Philly.

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