Nemours

We had four guests visiting us over the Thanksgiving holiday: my in-laws and Mr Pict’s oldest friend and his partner.  After a day of over-indulging in feasting, we all felt the need to get some fresh air and burn off some calories.  We, therefore, headed to Valley Forge to hike around the site of the encampment and the surrounding fields.  I have blogged about a previous visit to Valley Forge, back in Spring of 2016, so will not repeat myself here.  Suffice to say it was a fair bit colder than it had been during that first exploration.  The wind was so biting that I lost feeling in my ears.  I also tried to recreate a previous “gargoyle” photo but had misremembered which son was the model.

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The following day, the six adults went on a child-free trip across the border into Delaware.  Our destination for the day was Nemours.  This is a French chateau style mansion that Alfred Dupont built for the woman who would become his second wife.  We learned that Alicia was not easily wooed and that the mansion was Alfred’s final pitch at winning her affections.  She agreed to marry him but I am pretty certain he did not win her affections.  Indeed, the subtext of our entire tour of the property was how problematic and dysfunctional Alfred’s marriages were – and obviously he was the common denominator – and how suspicious a few events in the biographical timeline were, including sudden deaths that removed the necessity for a divorce or the mysterious advent of infants.  I basically had my own little dramatic soap opera playing in my head as I moved from room to room and learned more about Alfred and his wives.

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After a quick pootle around the grounds, we embarked on a guided tour led by an enthusiastic young woman named Kat.  She started the tour in the mansion’s basement and that turned out to be my favourite part of the house.  I have visited hundreds of stately homes, palaces, and castles in my time and the public rooms tend to be much of a muchness.  What set this home apart from the others that I have visited was that basement level.  Since he had built his mansion from scratch in the early 20th Century, Alfred was not having to cram modern technology into a much older building or try to couple the old and new.  He also seemed to be especially enthralled with engineering and with the cutting edge of mod cons so there were lots of fascinating gizmos, gadgets, and gubbins going on beneath the surface of the building.  As someone who spends too much of her life doing laundry, I especially liked the spacious laundry room – housed in an exterior building but connected to the mansion through a tunnel so that undies need never be exposed to public view.

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Each room in the house had been decorated for the Christmas season.  The chosen decorations were on a theme connected to the space in which they were sited and I enjoyed the festive sparkle and the attention to detail.  Again, my favourite trees were to be found in the basement level – a steampunk tree in the boiler room and a bottle tree in the bottling room.

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The house is beautifully decorated and immaculately maintained.  I found myself admiring the skill of the people who must remove every speck of dust from the surfaces in advance of doors being opened each day.  There was a lot of opulence on display but it was not so lavish as to be garish or excessive.  My favourite room was the conservatory closely followed by the kitchen.

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After completing our tour of the house, we wandered over to the garage – which was larger than my house – to see the family’s collection of very shiny luxury cars.  We contemplated having a walk around the grounds, which are laid out in a French style, but it was far too cold and we were too hungry to tolerate the cold.  We, therefore, bid farewell to Nemours and its muffled tales of familial dysfunction.  Since we have also visited Hagley Museum (way back in 2015), we now need to visit Delaware’s other open-to-the-public DuPont property at Winterarthur.

 

National Museum of American Jewish History and Ghost Ship

Today is my birthday.  Today is also election day and, since my workplace is used as a polling station, my birthday treat is a day off of work to be home alone.  Each year, on a weekend adjacent to my birthday, I get to decide where we go and what we do for a day trip.  I love museums so my choice was to visit a museum in Philly that we had not yet visited.

The National Museum of American Jewish History is situated in the old city.  It is housed in a lovely building that allows its collections to be organised into clear chronological and narrative strands.  We started on the an upper floor and with the story of the first Jewish community to immigrate to the United States and then moved throughout the galleries and levels to learn about the contributions the Jewish community have made to American history and culture.  I realised that I knew almost nothing about Jews in colonial America so I found that gallery to be especially interesting.  My kids enjoyed the section about migration within the US and my youngest had a hoot dressing up in prairie clothes and pretending to cook beneath the covered wagon.  He tried on various costumes in several sections of the museum which was a great way to keep him moving and engaged.  At one point he even pretended to be a dog in a kennel.  My 14 year old is currently reading the book ‘Refugee’ by Alan Gratz so he liked the display about the perilous journey of the St Louis and, of course, the tragic consequences of countries refusing permission to land.  Predictably, Mr Pict liked the section on the Civil War.  For my part, I really enjoyed my visit to this museum.  I especially like social history and there was plenty of that being showcased.  I actually would have benefited from more time in the museum as I had to rush through the last section and even then we were the last visitors to leave and they literally locked the doors behind us.

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After the museum, we headed off in search of food.  Before we found a suitable option, however, we passed Shanes Confectionery and had to pop in.  Aside from being a sweet-toothed family, Shanes claims to be the longest running confectionery shop in the US.  We were gifted some Shanes chocolate and famous clear candy a few years ago now so we have sampled some but it was great to finally be in the store.  Stepping across the threshold was like stepping back in time as the store has been lovingly and beautifully restored to its early 20th Century style, including restored machinery and gadgets.  My oldest son found the narrowness of the store to be too claustrophobic for his liking but the rest of us thought it was all wonderful.  My youngest is a chocaholic so he was smitten to the point of being overwhelmed by all the marvellous chocolates.  He is also cat-obsessed so he loved seeing chocolate in feline form.  I loved seeing the old cash registers and the stained glass and the patina on all the wooden shelves.  There were so many fabulous confections to choose from but we rose to the challenge and made our selections.

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Dinner was in a British themed pub.  We were all excited to spot that Irn Bru was one of the soft drinks available.  Even though the recipe has (somewhat controversially) changed since we left Scotland, it was a taste of home.  There were also mushy peas available as a side so Mr Pict and I ordered those.  They were far too good quality to taste authentic but that is not a cause for complaint.  I can usually only manage a single course when eating but I had spotted sticky toffee pudding on the menu so had to order it – though I did share with some of the boys.  I was delighted to discover that it had been made with dates just as it should be.  It was scrumptious.

The closing ceremony for my birthday trip was to view an art installation on the Delaware River.  When we arrived at the Race Street Pier, it was already dark so the ghost ship should have been visible.  Alas, it was not.  We were informed that the organizers were experiencing technical difficulties and they had no timeline whatsoever for a resolution.  Oh dear.  The crowd was restless.  Some people were loudly complaining.  We took up a position along the pier’s barrier and waited patiently for the glitch to be fixed.  After half an hour of waiting, however, the boys were bottomed out on patience and started to plead with me to give up and to just go home.  I was, however, determined to see this thing so just tuned out their gripes.  I admit that even my patience was waning as the cold seeped into my bones some time after the 40 minute mark.  Finally, water erupted from rigging that sat on the water’s surface and, as the fountains spumed, the image of an 18th Century schooner appeared, projected onto the water.  It was impressive and I was glad to see it.  Was it remarkable enough to wait almost an hour in the cold with four moaning children?  The verdict is still out.

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Canada Trip #10 – Ramparts of Quebec

After our visit to the Montmorency Falls and the Ile d’Orleans, we wanted to spend the evening back in Quebec’s old city given it was our last evening there.  It was completely lovely to be out in the cooling air and the golden light of the sinking sun really showcased the city’s architecture.  We didn’t really have an objective when we set out for our stroll but then inspiration struck and we decided to walk along a section of the Ramparts.

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The fortifications technically date from the mid-18th Century after the British took the city from the French but they have been demolished and reconstructed over the centuries so they are a bit of an architectural Frankenstein.  We could not have walked the entire perimeter of the walls even had we wanted to because, once again, as with our attempt to reach the Plains of Abraham, we were thwarted by construction works.  We, therefore, walked a stretch from Porte Saint-Jean around to the area of the Plains of Abraham.

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The elevation of the walls afforded us a great view over the city streets, lots of panoramic vistas, and letterbox vignettes observed through these oblong windows cut into the walls.  It also helped us appreciate how these fortifications functioned as defences and how much they must have dominated the city.

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The ramparts made for a really lovely stroll, away from the crowds yet still in the thick of things, and it was especially pleasant to be so high up as the sun set and then to be back in the area of the Place Royale in the dark to enjoy the twinkling lights and glow from the lamps.  It turned out to be the best way for us to bid farewell to Quebec.

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Canada Trip #6 – Musee de la Civilisation

We were keen to do something educational in Quebec, really learn something about the history and culture of the place.  The Musee de la Civilisation was a mere hop, skip, and jump from our apartment so we headed there.  It’s a museum of history and anthropology which obviously has a particular focus on French Canada and the First Nations peoples.  It was, therefore, perfect for our purposes.  I suppose because I am more used to Victorian museum buildings so I was pleasantly surprised by how spacious this museum was and how the flow worked between sections.

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I enjoyed the exhibition on the history of French Canada.  It was presented in chronological order and I thought the artefacts were well-curated in order to illustrate that history and communicate something about the people of each period.  Lots of social history too which is my thing.  The kids really did not dig this section at all and did not especially engage but they are all old enough now that they could mill around at their own pace while their father and I took our time.

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What we all uniformly enjoyed was a special exhibition on the subject of poison.  We learned about poisons used for good and poisons used for malicious purposes and the presentation was very visual and interactive.  My macabre lot found it fascinating – though I suspect their highlight was seeing a bloke (hopefully an employee) reaching his bare arm and ungloved hand into a tank full of poisonous frogs.  As I have previously confided, I have an interest in the history of pandemics and that has led to a bit of an interest in medical history.  I, therefore, enjoyed all of the items that were about turning poisons into medicines – some of which were obviously of questionable merit (hello, mercury!) and a display case full of bezoars.  As someone who loves the macabre, I also liked the poisons that were used for detecting witches.  Mr Pict and two of our oldest sons are arachnophobes but they liked seeing a tarantula and a black widow.

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The next section we visited was a sort of maze full of games that were, I think, about using your senses to solve puzzles and messing around with optical illusions.  The boys especially enjoyed playing around with a mirror in which they could pretend to be dangling above skyscrapers and a maze that was absolutely devoid of light.  It was fun to find our way around using just our hands and it was even more fun to watch each other on the night vision cameras.

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The final section we went to was about prehistory.  I mean, what history museum is complete without some fossils?  I loved the way several exhibits were presented, with an audiovisual animation of a creature playing behind the glass case containing the relevant fossil.  My youngest – who is absolutely obsessed with cats – was delighted to find a mummified cat on display.

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It was a really good quality museum and a thoroughly pleasing way to spend a morning in Quebec.

Canada Trip #3 – Ricker Basin Ghost Village

Between our tour of Ben & Jerry’s and all of our edible tourism later in the day, we went for a hike in Little River State Park.  We all like to wander in the wilderness and I love ghost towns so our aim was to do the history trail that took us around the abandoned farming community of Ricker basin.  What I had not planned for, when proposing this hike, was the weather and the elevation of the trail.  We arrived at the State Park in absolutely torrential rain.  Even the park officers looked at us like we were loopy.  They also revealed to us that the trail should take us a few hours.  This did not compute with me, even as I looked at the map, but that was because I had not comprehended that the hike was going to be so steep and, at points, difficult underfoot.  I did that thing of assuming the park folks were basing their estimation on a slow pace of walking instead of asking about the topography so we committed to the trek and off we went.

Thankfully, the rain eased up and then stopped entirely early on in our trail.  The mud underfoot was still something we had to contend with and the intense humidity brought with it mosquitoes and other biting minibeasts galore but we were thankful at least to not be battling through rain.  One of the reasons Ricker Basin was abandoned was because of flooding.  It experienced two awful floods in 1927 and 1934, the first of which killed 55 people.  The second flood inspired the construction of a dam and led to a declining population.  Until then, however, the area had been farmed by a number of families for a century.

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As we trudged past the remnants of farmhouses and buildings, it seemed incredible to me that people had ever lived here.  The terrain was really pretty steep.  It was little wonder that they were largely subsistence farmers because trudging back and forth to market would have been quite the task.  Even before that, however, it must have been a massive undertaking to clear the land and prepare the ground for agriculture.  In the years since its abandonment, nature had almost completely engulfed all signs of human habitation.  There were trees everywhere.  There must have been even more dense woodland back when Mr Ricker first bought the land and started endeavouring to clear it.  These were definitely hardy people.

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One building is still standing but otherwise nothing remains of the buildings except for foundations and the occasional basement.  In addition to the farms, there was also a school house, and a couple of cemeteries.  At one of the cemeteries, I learned that the family who owned the plot had planted trees around its borders, one for every member of the family, planting another when someone married into the family, so that each individual had a tree available for cutting down and turning into a coffin when they died.  As morbid as it seems to have a coffin tree planted to commemorate your birth or wedding, I actually found myself admiring the pragmatism and forward planning of the scheme.  Circle of Life and all that.  As we walked – and it was a whole lot of walking, our phones logging almost 15,000 steps – we would occasionally stumble across a little fragment of metal.  Previous hikers had started a tradition of gathering artefacts found on or near the paths into collections in specific sites so we picked up what we found and added the items – including a bolt and a bed spring – to gatherings of other finds lined up on walls.

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It was a really enjoyable walk that reminded me a lot of some of our favourite treks in Argyll.  It mercifully did not take us the four or five hours the park rangers had predicted but it did take us a great deal more time and energy than I had anticipated.  Thankfully all the little spots of human habitation kept all of us – especially the children – engaged.  We definitely earned our calorie intake that day.

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Reading World War II Weekend

Followers of this blog will know that both Mr Pict and I have a keen interest in history.  Mr Pict, however, is really into military history which is not really my bag unless it intersects with family history or social history.  My husband is very much an American Civil War nerd but his next favourite period of military history is the Second World War.  He was, therefore, really keen to go along to an event in Reading that focused on that particular conflict and, since I like to go on jaunts and have new experiences, I decided to accompany him and our youngest son.

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It’s a massive event.  It takes place over a whole weekend, though we only went for a day, and covers a huge area.  We were absolutely staggered by the number of people who were in attendance.  There were umpteen parking lots to accommodate all of the visitors’ cars and multiple school buses taxiing people from those lots to the actual airfield that was hosting the event.  That place absorbed a heck of a lot of people without it ever feeling ridiculously crowded – though there were exceedingly long lines for portaloos – and I was impressed with how organised the staff were at keeping people flowing.

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Given it was being accommodated at an airfield, the event was especially focused on the airshow element and there were vintage planes galore.  I know nothing about planes and even less than that about vintage planes but Mr Pict was excited.  We had a gander at a lot of planes that were being exhibited at ground level, watched a reenactment of a dog fight, and watched planes doing aerial stunts.  The highlight of my husband’s day was seeing a Mitsubishi Zero, which apparently was the fastest propellor plane (if I was paying attention to what I was told).

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The other thing there were a lot of were reenactors.  For obvious reasons, the majority of people chose to depict American military personnel but there were also some Brits, a smattering of Poles, some Japanese pilots, a smattering of Russians, and a surprising number of Germans.  I observed that the latter had by far the most immaculate uniforms and best posture.  The reenactors were really into the details too and I enjoyed looking at all of the vignettes they had created in their camps and the still lifes of vintage objects they had curated.  I guess I like those little human details and the creativity because, goodness knows, the vehicles, weapons, and military paraphernalia don’t do it for me.

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There was a fun Home Front section housed in one of the hangars.  Part had been turned into a movie theatre that was showing old newsreels and cartoons.  We didn’t catch any of those but we did sit in some shade to take in one of the radio show performances which happened to be a couple of singers.  There was also the recreation of a 1940s American sitting room, a group who were putting women’s hair up into “victory rolls”, and a candy store.  From the latter, we bought a fresh lemon that had a lemon candy straw poked into it.  It was deliciously refreshing.

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We watched a reenactment of a skirmish between the Germans and the Allies in a French village.  I was amused by the incongruity of a bunch of blokes in German military uniforms standing around and chatting in front of a fleet of yellow school buses.  When they got going, however, the action was very well choreographed and the volume of the artillery noise was pretty arresting.  I could feel the vibrations in my sternum.  The smoke and noise and crowds was a bit too much sensory overload for our ten year old so we skedaddled from there to the flea market section where a bit of retail therapy (even in the form of “window shopping”) got him recalibrated.

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We somehow managed to spend four hours there despite the fact we were getting toasted by the blazing sunshine and the fact that 2/3 of us were not that engrossed by the subject.  I thought the whole event was very polished and there was clearly a lot to do and engage with if World War II history is your thing so it was definitely worth doing.  It was an enjoyable day out and I was glad I tagged along.  I don’t have a need to repeat the experience but I can definitely envisage my husband making a return visit.

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Caribbean Cruise – Grand Turk

Our final destination of the cruise was Grand Turk, one of the Turks and Caicos Islands.  Two decades ago, Mr Pict had a job opportunity that would have taken us to live on Grand Turk for at least two years.  He declined for various reasons but I was curious to see what the island was like and to imagine what my life would have been like there.

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The ship docked at a beach resort area but we were eager to see something of the real Grand Turk, albeit from a completely skewed tourist perspective.  We, therefore, squeezed into a taxi and were whisked up the length of the narrow, flat island to the capital city, Cockburn Town.  The population of the whole of Grand Turk is under 4000 so it’s a compact city more akin to a village.  We spent some time perusing the stalls on Front Street and poking around on the beach – my kids found bits of coral, lobster body parts, and sun lounging dogs – and enjoying the view of the stunning turquoise water.

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Our goal for the day was the National Museum so we popped in there when it opened.  I am so often surprised by the quality of small, local museums or those dedicated to narrow interests.  This was the case with the Turks and Caicos National Museum.  The staff were very friendly and knowledgeable and they had really made the most of showcasing their exhibits, curating them in such a way that they told clear stories about the island.  The Museum is sited in the Guinep House, one of the oldest buildings on the island.  We learned that most of the timbers used in its construction were likely salvaged from shipwrecks, one of which was exposed so we could see it for ourselves.  I was rather charmed by this fact since one of my Shetland ancestors was imprisoned in the 1840s for pillaging from a shipwreck, another group of islands with very few trees.

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The ground floor of the museum was dedicated to showcasing its big ticket item: the finds from a wreck known as the Molasses Reef Wreck.  A caravel from the very early 16th Century, it is the oldest European ship excavated in the Americas.  While some like to claim that it could very well be Columbus’ ship Pinta (yup. him again), the museum staff were clear that identification has not been possible beyond stating the caravel was Spanish in origin and dated prior to 1520 at the latest.  It is possible, for instance, that is was a slave ship.  Regardless of its specific history, it was very cool to see the remains of such an old vessel.  We saw timbers that still had the wooden “nails” in them, various armaments, and a massive anchor.  A related exhibit illustrated how the ballast on the sea bed had been critical to identification and analysis and demonstrated how archaeologists had worked on the site.

Upstairs, we found an exhibit about the salt industry, the Fresnel lens of the island’s lighthouse, the story of an Irish helmet diver whose two brothers had drowned while diving, the culture of the indigenous Lucayans, and John Glenn’s landing in 1962 following his orbiting of the earth.

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Following the Museum, we returned to the resort bay.  My in-laws decided to relax on the ship but we Picts decided we would have a final beach day.  The kids played on the sand and in the surf with their dad while I listened to a podcast while lying on a shaded lounger.  That is the type of beach time I can compromise on.  Not a bad hurrah for the last shore day of our cruise.

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