Our other Winter break trip was to the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Our last visit was in 2015 so it was time for a return and all four boys were agreeable to coming on this outing.
We made an effort to visit the galleries we had either missed or only flitted through in our previous visit. I was surprised by how into medieval and renaissance art the boys were so we spent a lot of time in the early European art section. There were entire furnished rooms from historic buildings and things like church screens on display but later we discovered that there were entire chunks of ecclesiastical architecture, including a whole cloister, and a Japanese temple from the 14th Century. How had we managed to miss such massive exhibits on our previous visit?
I don’t think it is necessary for me to write at any length about our visit. We wandered around, appreciated works of art from diverse cultures, a wide variety of periods, and different media, and had some good quality discussions along the way. Everyone got to see something that was a highlight for them – such as my 17 year old seeing one of Van Gogh’s sunflower paintings – and we did not push everyone beyond their tolerance by insisting that we visit every single nook and cranny of the museum.
When the boys were younger, we always used to keep them occupied and engaged in museums by giving them pencil and paper and encouraging them to draw; once they got older, however, we evolved a new family challenge: each person has to find an exhibit that they try to replicate through mime or tableau. I will, therefore, close this blog post with some of our attempts from this trip.
Given our desire to keep Winter break low-key and low-demand, we decided to curtail our usual bent for travel and exploration and instead play at being tourists in our own area. Despite having lived here for 9 years now, I had still never been to Independence Hall. We decided, therefore, to head into the city for a visit there.
Although I am generally very interested in history, the Revolutionary era is not one that captures my imagination. It definitely feels more like a homework assignment or chore to absorb that learning. I think it is because so much of that era is dominated by military history which is very much not my jam. However, the importance of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution to American society and culture means that I really did want to visit Independence Hall. I was accompanied by my husband and our oldest and youngest sons.
The Ranger for our tour group did a great job of providing an accessible precis of the relevant history, focusing on the more engaging highlights and peppering in some jokes about the nature of group assignments. It was also a very brief tour, which was welcome to our sons. Now I can check Independence Hall off my list!
My husband suggested that we take a walk down to the 9th Street Market area. I liked the idea of having a good walk and I needed to restock on vegetables post-Christmas so that seemed like as good a destination as any. My oldest son was bemused by my excitement when I was able to buy parsnips, massive leeks, and fresh figs.
Of course, I should have known that my husband had an ulterior motive when he suggested 9th Street because what he was actually aiming for was cheesesteaks. I don’t eat meat so this was of zero interest to me. The boys, however, joined their dad in ordering and munching cheesesteaks. Although Pat’s is one of the famous Philly purveyors and they did enjoy the food, they all agreed that they have had better cheesesteaks elsewhere.
City murals and celebrations of cheese are much more my thing.
I had a birthday recently and managed to double-dip with celebrations since the actual fell on a weekend and I received my gift the following weekend.
On my actual birthday, we took a day trip to Frenchtown, New Jersey. I had read several times that Frenchtown is New Jersey’s most appealing/quaint/cute town so I have had it on my list to visit for a while. I get to impose trips on my family without their complaints or protestations twice a year: Mother’s Day and my birthday. My original plan had been to visit Frenchtown for the Mother’s Day trip but – for one reason or another – that outing kept getting postponed until it collided with my birthday 6 months later. It, therefore, became my birthday trip (and now I am contemplating which historic cemetery will be the destination for the second “no moans” trip I am owed.)
It was a perfect day for aimlessly meandering, golden Autumn sunshine and the perfect temperature, so we took our time wandering around the streets. We popped into several stores, whatever grabbed our attention. My 17 year old is a magpie whose eye is always drawn to shiny, sparkly things (one of the few things he has inherited from me) so we spent a lot of time in a gem store. My 15 year old, meanwhile, loved a hip clothing store but mostly because it had a vintage pinball machine that the store owner encouraged him to play. And the 13 year old predictably loved a candy store. I meanwhile loved spending time in an independent book store and making selections in an artisan cheese shop.
All of the stores are clustered around one main street so it did not take us long to complete our pootling around the stores. We, therefore, decided to get a late lunch / early dinner at a little Mexican place. The food was tasty but unfortunately the service was terrible but I cannot complain since any meal I did not have to cook is appreciated, especially on my birthday.
My birthday gift from my husband and kids was a surprise trip to New York to see a show. Therefore, this past weekend, my husband and I took the train into Manhattan. Despite the train being an all-stopper (and in rolling stock probably as old as I am) we arrived mid-morning so we had time to do some other things before heading to the theatre. First up, since we were right next door, was Moynihan Train Hall. I have zero interest in trains or mass transit beyond their transportation purpose so this was of very little interest to me. However, Mr Pict had been involved in the project to transform the old Post Office building into an extension of Penn Station so he was keen to see the completed building with his own two eyes.
As someone who likes the Harry Potter books and movies (November is our month for watching all of the movies as a family), I was interested to visit the store. I had heard about long lines to enter the store but that must have been when it first opened because we just walked in and it really wasn’t that busy. My only plan was to browse the store so we did not spend time even investigating any of the VR experiences or making purchases from the Butterbeer bar. Of course there was merch galore to look at but what I was really keen to see for myself was the design of the store. I was really impressed by how much thought had gone into creating a flow around what is actually a reasonably compact space and the way in which different sections were themed and structured as their own mini experiences. There were also fun details like mandrakes and dirigible plums dangling from the ceiling and a giant Nagini slithering between Ministry of Magic tiles.
The Harry Potter store is just south of the Flatiron building so from there we just had to walk about 26 blocks up Broadway in order to get to the theatre. We were going to see a matinee performance of Hadestown at the Walter Kerr Theatre. Despite having visited NYC several times, this was my first ever experience of seeing a show on Broadway. I was very excited! My husband had picked Hadestown because I am a fan of Anais Mitchell’s music and have been listening to songs from the concept album for over a decade. The show was fantastic and the performances were excellent. It was an amazing experience and I am thrilled to have finally seen a musical on Broadway.
It was getting dark when we left the theatre so we took a stroll from the Times Square area over to the Rockerfeller Center to see the lights and window shop and people watch. We had not eaten all day so were pretty famished by this juncture so we found a Mexican restaurant tucked away on a side street for dinner. It was very loud but the food was delicious, the prices were right, and the service was excellent so it was just the ticket. We then we just had to schlep all the way back to Penn Station and take the NJT back to Trenton and, from there, drive home. It made for a long day but I had a fabulous time and I very much appreciated my birthday trip. Mr Pict did an amazing job planning my surprise trip. He’s a keeper.
We were looking for something indoors that we could do on a very hot day that threatened with thunderstorms. The middle two kids were meeting up with friends and that scheduling meant we could not venture too far from home base. I, therefore, suggested the Mercer Museum as my husband and youngest son had never visited. My only previous visit had been in 2017 so I was happy to return.
The Museum is named for Henry Chapman Mercer and was created to house his vast collections. Mercer had a deep interest in a vast array of pre-industrial trades and tools and the building he commissioned is full of weird shaped rooms and nooks and crannies where he could showcase these according to subject and theme. We learned that the team of men who had constructed the building – from hand-mixed concrete – had been paid about $1.70 for a ten hour day. That is the equivalent of about $5 per hour in contemporary money. Mercer got a right bargain out of that because – to my mind – the building itself is the absolute star of the show.
I may have unintentionally oversold the experience of this museum to the rest of the family because they were underwhelmed. My husband’s problem is that he compares all eccentric buildings or museums to the Shelburne Museum in Vermont or the House on the Rock in Wisconsin and finds them lacking as a result. As for the kids, I guess they have grown accustomed to interactive exhibits and experiences to capture their interest or some way I have created to engage them. They did enjoy some of the activities designed for kids along the way – despite being 13 and 19 – but they were otherwise a bit checked out. Despite having a bunch of moaners in tow, however, I still loved the place and all of its quirks.
I will say that visiting a concrete building on an intensely hot day was a challenge in and of itself. I often felt as if I was exploring the interior of a pizza oven. The fans became very welcome and appreciated waypoints around the building. Temperature control was, I guess, the one real flaw in Mercer’s design.
We have just returned from a week at the beach. Our destination this summer was Prime Hook in Delaware. Delaware again. I confess I was not jazzed at the prospect of a third summer spent on the Delaware shore. However, a variety of alternative travel plans fell through for a number of reasons and it seems like Delaware is now our default setting for family vacations. One advantage of having very much been there and done that is that our time at the beach was very chill because there was zero reason to go out exploring. Rather than experiences, therefore, our focus was on properly relaxing and recharging our batteries and on spending quality time together as a family – and this time our oldest son came with us too so we had all six of us on vacation for the first time since 2019.
Our oldest son had not been to Fort Miles at Cape Henlopen for several years so he accompanied his Aged Parents on a jaunt there. We were actually able to get inside Battery 519 for the first time so at least that was a new experience. My husband spent a lot of time chatting with the docents about a U-boat captain and the Civil War while I wandered around and looked at the exhibits.
We also went into Rehoboth one morning. Our first stop was the Farmers’ Market so we could pick up some patisserie for breakfast but we also spent some time on the boardwalk and browsing in stores. One incessantly rainy day, we decided to take a tour of some nearby thrift stores as a fun retail challenge. We ate a few meals out too and – after three summers of trying – my husband was finally able to order soft shell crab – so he ate two of them.
Most of our time, however, was spent at the rental house. With the house being right on the beach, a lot of time was spent in the water and on the sand. I am not so much a beach person so I just dipped in and out of such activities but I enjoyed sitting in the sunshine and watching the boys larking around in the water. I was able to spend some time on art and reading and we also played a lot of board games as a family.
We also got to enjoy terrific sunsets every evening.
Our week at the beach was a much-needed break away from our daily stresses and our usual routines and ruts. It was definitely relaxing and restorative. Next year, however, I am hoping for some travel plans that expand my experiences.
We wanted an outdoor venue for our meetup with friends and elected to visit the National Zoo as that would suit the wide span of ages. We had last visited the National Zoo as part of a road trip all the way back in 2016 – which feels somewhat like a bygone era now. This was also our first experience with a very crowded tourist attraction during the pandemic. I don’t like crowds even at the best of times and areas of the zoo were definitely too densely populated for my liking but otherwise visitors were dispersed throughout the zoo in a way that was manageable.
We had much more success with viewing animals during our previous visit to this zoo. As one of the first properly hot days of the year, perhaps it was too much to ask the animals to be out of their shaded shelters and be out on show for us, but it was a bit disappointing to be seeing so many empty enclosures. The sloth bear offered a fair compromise as he was relaxing in a hammock.
Although we only saw them at a distance, the pandas put on an entertaining show. One of the juveniles was being a complete derp. As it tried to clamber over some branches to reach a platform, its coordination kept failing and it would wobble off the branches. It almost fell several times – to great gasps from the human onlookers – and even managed to fall off the platform once it had reached it. We can add lack of gymnastic aptitude and no sense of balance to the reasons why pandas are so endangered.
Our 15 year old is obsessed with the movie ‘Kung Fu Panda’ (it’s his third favourite after the 1977 Soviet movie ‘The Ascent’ and the 1997 Iranian movie ‘Taste of Cherry’). He had a mission to find as many of the animals who make up the animated cast of ‘Kung Fu Panda’ as he possibly could. He especially wanted to see the red panda (Master Shifu) and we had almost given up when it appeared in the window of its indoor enclosure. That quick glimpse was all he got but the mission was accomplished. I am sure he will attempt this challenge in the future during visits to other zoos.
We started with the Washington Monument and then moved on to see the Martin Luther King Jr Memorial, which is one of my absolute favourites. I think the sculpture of King is wonderful in and of itself but I also love the symbolism of passing through the “mountain of despair” to see the “stone of hope” from which the figure of MLK is emerging. I would love to see it in cherry blossom season some time.
From there, we circled back to see Mr Pict’s favourite memorial: the Korean War Veterans Memorial. It proved a little tricky to locate and access in the dark because much of that area is hoarded of for construction of horse stables and an expansion of the memorial itself. It is a very evocative memorial, with the expressive faces on the slightly larger than life figures and the way they are placed within the juniper bushes.
Of course, no trip to the National Mall is complete without a pop in to see Abraham Lincoln. I cannot help but think of that scene from ‘The Simpsons’ where the statue of Thomas Jefferson complains to Lisa that nobody ever thinks to visit him as they all head to see Lincoln instead. We actually had planned to trek out to the Jefferson Memorial on this trip but it was too dark by the time we arrived in the city centre to walk all the way out to the other end of the tidal basin so, yes, we neglected Jefferson yet again. It is definitely better to visit the Lincoln Memorial at night because it can feel a bit too like being a herring in a barrel during the day.
Incidentally, this Spring break trip was the first time the boys and I had used mass transit since before the pandemic. It, therefore, felt like part of the vacation to them to be travelling on the metro. They especially loved how steep the escalators were and enjoyed challenging themselves to run up the steps as fast as possible.
While my kids get a week long Spring break, I only get a few days off work. We, therefore, opted to have a little mini-break in Washington DC, a location not too far from home and that would enable us to catch up with good friends we have not seen since before the pandemic.
We have also been thinking about introducing our middle two sons – currently a high school sophomore and freshman – to different types of universities so that they can begin to percolate their thoughts about where they would like to land up should they choose to continue into tertiary education. They have already visited a campus that is on the outskirts of a smaller city as we visited my oldest son at RIT. We thought, therefore, that we would make the University of Maryland a waypoint on our journey so that they could experience a campus that is more of a suburb with easy access to a major city.
The University of Maryland’s mascot is a terrapin so there were terrapin statues, images, and references all over the place. Forget the reptiles, however, because I was more excited by the amphibian on campus. Jim Henson is a University alumnus so there is a statue of him and Kermit outside the student union building. As a lifelong Muppet fan, that was the highlight of the trip for me.
It’s a lovely campus with appealing buildings and green spaces. You could not pay me to relive the first 13 years of my school education but I did enjoy my undergraduate and postgraduate years. Part of me wishes I could justify the resources to pursue a PhD because I just love learning and that academic atmosphere. I am, therefore, happy to be creating this program of college excursions. The 15 and 16 year olds decided they liked this type of campus. The 12 year old liked the fact they have their own ice cream producing dairy.
Our 14 year old had some options for a Biology assignment. I was pretty keen on a project involving writing about unusual diseases that appear in our family history but he chose to undertake one that involved a trip to a Natural History Museum. There is one close to home, in Philadelphia, which would have been more straightforward. However, he requested that we take a trip to New York to visit the museum there, which we had visited as part of the boys’ first ever trip to NYC back in February of 2014.
We had not been to NYC for years so we decided it could form the basis of a fun day trip. We formulated a plan for the day that we had to throw away the evening before the trip when the 14 year old fell of his skateboard and badly sprained his ankle. Since he was still pleading to go and given we had already booked and paid for the admission tickets, we decided to forge ahead with the trip to the museum but to junk all of the other plans for the day.*
One area of focus for the assignment was early humans so we headed to that section first. I took a DNA test a few years ago as a means of making contact with other family historians researching the same families. It has led to all sorts of interesting interactions but there was really nothing interesting about my DNA. It proved I was as boring genetically as I was on paper. The only unexpected find was that I have a smattering of Neanderthal DNA. Until then, I had not known that Neanderthal DNA can still be identified at detectable levels in contemporary humans. I guess now I know where my massive forehead comes from.
There was a special exhibition about sharks so we decided to boost our tickets for entry to that gallery. You might recall that my 14 year old and I are a wee bit obsessed with sharks. I cannot say that we especially learned anything new about sharks but we appreciated the life size models as we could really grasp the scale of some of the less familiar sharks. We also had fun with the megalodon models.
I am sure that many visitors to natural history museums spend a lot of time among the dinosaur fossils. While I am certainly no dino nerd, I have never outgrown that childhood fascination with these ancient beasts. One of the things my son was writing about in his assignment was fossil evidence of dinosaurs being feathered so we particularly honed in on the exhibits relevant to that topic. We also made sure to visit all of our favourite dinosaurs – mine is a triceratops in case you are interested. We visited the Ice Age mammals too. As much as I know it would be wholly unethical to do so, I do think it would be marvelous to resurrect mammoths from extinction.
Other sections of the museum we visited included the Central American gallery and the meteorite and gem sections. You will observe our family tradition of taking photos of ourselves in the same poses as sculptures. My 16 year old loves sparkly shiny things so has always enjoyed that section and my husband is an astronomy geek so he loves getting up close to space rocks. He was especially enthralled by a case containing three chunks of meteor taken from the surface of the moon.
Unfortunately the limping 14 year old was starting to feel the strain of his busted ankle so we could not keep forging on through all of the other areas of the museum. We felt satisfied that we had covered a lot of ground, however, so left feeling fulfilled.
And now we need to return to NYC at some point soon to do all of the things we had planned on doing that day but didn’t manage to achieve.
*The reason the 14 year old is in the majority of the photos is because they will be used to illustrate his assignment and not because he is more biddable than the others when it comes to having his photo taken.