Road Trip #21 – Natural History Museum

It has been our experience that the first and last days of any vacation with the kids are the most trying.  With the first day, it is all about navigating the transition out of routines into some degree of chaos and about managing expectations; with the last day, it is all about fatigue causing crankiness and an unconscious or conscious desire to return to familiar routines, a need to retreat back into the family cave for some hibernation after all the stimulation.

We, therefore, kept our final day of the road trip pretty low key.  We were travelling back to the Philly suburbs that day anyway plus had arranged to meet a dear friend for lunch so we only had the morning to fill.  We selected the Natural History Museum, part of the Smithsonian.  Actually, Mr Pict was keen for us to try a second visit to the Museum of American History since our first family visit there had been less than stellar.  I had cause to reference the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly in my blog post about it.  In the hopes that those issues had been resolved, we first headed to the Museum of American History, picked up a map, and discovered that absolutely nothing had changed since our last visit two years before.  Half the museum was still closed off due to renovation work.  We decided to jettison that plan (actually I was keen on jettisoning it as soon as it was the plan since our last visit there had been so cruddy) and move next door to the Natural History Museum.

We had not chosen the Natural History Museum for our last morning in DC simply because we had visited the Field Museum in Chicago just the week before and it felt like a repetition.  However, for that very reason it turned out to be a good choice.  As parents, we felt we could just relax and take a step back since we did not feel that same pressure to educate the kids.  We could just let them wander and engage as they saw fit rather than trying to guide them and focus their interest.

We started with a genuine Easter Island moai statue.  The boys had seen a plaster cast of one of these in February 2014 when we visited the Natural History Museum in New York city but this was the first time they had seen a real one.  It turns out this is because the Smithsonian owns the only two moai in America.  We then ascended the stairs around a group of spectacularly carved totem poles.  The boys enjoyed looking at the carved characters and reading the stories behind them.  The first gallery we visited was one exhibiting National Geographic photographs of Africa.  I love photography and the kids love animals so we spent some time admiring the images.

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Our first proper destination in the museum, however, was the hall of gems.  As I have explained before, our 10 year old loves anything sparkly or shiny.  He has magpie DNA.  We, therefore, thought he ought to see the Hope Diamond.  This blue diamond is one of the largest and most famous precious stones in the world.  We told the kids it had a long, interesting and intriguing history to the point that it had been associated with a curse.  And then we took them in to see it.  And they were underwhelmed.  I think their vision of a large diamond was one the size of the palm of a hand or larger.  It was a failure of reality matching expectations.

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The rest of the gem and mineral collection, however, was a massive hit with the kids – and not just the one who likes sparkles.  They found the diversity of the minerals to be really fascinating and they wandered from case to case choosing favourites.  There were big chunks of quartz that contained bubbles like sedate lava lamps.  There were rocks that looked like Doozer constructions from beneath Fraggle Rock and shards that looked like they came from the Dark Crystal.  There were chunks of gems encrusted with other stones or minerals, such as a chunk of calcite sparkling with a thick seam of chalcopyrite.  There were other lumps of calcite that looked like elaborate desserts encrusted with sugary confections.  There were geodes on display that had been split open to reveal their colourful, sparkling contents – and I could see my 10 year old wanting to take a rock hammer on every nature ramble now.  There was an otherwise unprepossessing rock that had a wide mouth split to reveal lots of rows of white fuzzy mounts inside and which looked entirely like something Jim Henson would have imagined.  There were formations that looked like chunky frost or snowflake clusters.  A geometric piece of purple-red fluorite made my kids think of a set design for Tron or else something from Minecraft.  By contrast, there were pastel hued pieces that looked like petrified clouds or bubbly candy floss.  One enticing display case was filled with forms of gold and silver, thought it was a blobby chunk of copper that I liked best.  When the boys saw the case of glowing willemite calcite, the green glow made the boys think of it as having been spattered with Predator blood. The 10 year old was ecstatic about getting to touch a massive chunk of amethyst and now wants a chunk of his own.  I had never seen that child go as full Gollum as he did in that room full of gems and jewellery.

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Next up – mainly because it was near the restrooms – we popped in to visit the dinosaurs.  We looked at the large fossil specimens of a T-Rex and a triceratops but otherwise, between the Field Museum and the Creation Museum, the kids had experienced quite enough dinosaurs for one vacation.  We, therefore, found ourselves a spot in the insect section.  The boys enjoyed seeing the cockroaches since we used to have Madagascan Hissing Cockroaches as pets back in Scotland but they also got to see a tarantula up close and some butterflies hatching out of their cocoons.  And then we were all museumed out.  Partly it was because our friend had arrived and it was time to head for lunch, partly it was because the museum was very crowded, but mostly we had just absorbed as much in the way of experiences as we cared to absorb for the fifteen days of our road trip.

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And so, after a tasty lunch with great company, after heading back to NoMa to pick up our car and luggage, a few hours’ drive to collect the cats from their cat hotel – to much excited squealing from the kids – we finally emerged from the car that had been our mobile home and tour bus for a fortnight and we were home.  And we were glad to be home.

Teenage Bedroom Makeover

We actually decorated our oldest son’s bedroom months ago but I forgot that I had been sharing our makeover process on the blog.  He has the smallest bedroom so it was the easiest to tackle.  Having become a teenager since we moved into this house, we also felt his room deserved to have a bit more of a mature look to it.

When we viewed the house, this room was being used not as a bedroom but as an upstairs snug living room.  It was full of chairs and tables and a TV and so looked very cramped.  It also had a mud brown shag pile carpet.  We had the carpet replaced before we moved in to make life easier.  The room was very spartan but provided us with a totally blank canvas.  It has a built-in closet that provides good storage space but we definitely needed more furniture to make the room functional.

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We asked our son what colour he wanted his walls to be painted and he said black.  The compromise was a deep charcoal grey.  While moving furniture around in order to paint the walls, his bed collapsed and broke beyond repair.  Happily, the previous owners had left a nearly new double bed in the basement so we dragged that up to his bedroom.  He was thrilled to have such a large bed to himself.  His younger brothers were warned to not even think about breaking their beds in order to get bigger beds. We also installed additional furniture to store all of his stuff, especially all of his school and stationery materials.  We had these great quality shelves that had been in our formal living room so we put those on our son’s wall above his bed so that he could display his collection of Funko Pops and other assorted nerdy things.

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All really simple changes but now he has a bedroom that will last him a good few years.

Spider-Cat and the ’70s Wallpaper

Other than our “vintage” bathrooms, by far and away the renovation job Mr Pict and I most dread and which we will probably procrastinate over for at least an eon is the wallpaper in the master bedroom.  This is no ordinary wallpaper.  This is 1970s grass wallpaper, all murky browns and hairy texture and all adhered to the wall using the toughest glue imaginable.  That would be quite horrendous enough but the previous owner had wallpapered every single surface in the room: every wall, every door, the light switches, and the air vents.  It is like being in a forest of hairy wallpaper and not in a cosy fairytale either.  We console ourselves with the fact that at least it was 1970s brown that was chosen and not bright magenta.  That would be much more difficult to live with while we decide how to problem solve the wallpaper horror.

So we hate the wallpaper in our bedroom but it turns out we know someone who loves it: Peanut the kitten.  Peanut is mischievous and likes to explore.  He likes to do parkour using our furniture.  Turns out, he also loves to scale walls that are covered in hairy 1970s wallpaper.  To Peanut, our bedroom is essentially a really large scratching post.  The first time I discovered this new activity of his, I saw it out of the corner of my eye and thought I was imagining things.  But, no, my cat was scaling the walls, Spider-Man style, and was then shuffling around the ceiling level of the room like a Bat-Crab.  If Bat-Crabs were a thing.  Maybe Peanut will somehow manage to remove the hideous wallpaper for me.

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PS I still don’t have a working camera (*sob*) so that is my explanation for the cruddy phone photos.

Vesta – Mixed Media Mythology

The last of my Mixed Media Mythology lessons was taken by Sarah Leonard.  The subject of this final lesson was Vesta, the Roman goddess of the hearth and home.  Because Mr Pict is a complete and utter nerd about ancient Rome, I was very familiar with Vesta (and her Greek counterpart Hestia).  Vesta was both the oldest and the youngest of the major gods in that she was the first born child of Kronos and Rhea but the last to be released from her father’s stomach when Jupiter killed Kronos and freed his siblings.  She chose to remain a virgin (hence Vestal Virgins) and she took care of Jupiter’s house for him, which leads to her association with domesticity.

The thing I particularly appreciated about Leonard’s lesson was that it was about translating concepts, ideas, connections into a visual medium.  I liked the flexibility and freedom that afforded.  Therefore, as happened with my response to Leonard’s lesson on Freya, my art work massively diverged from the exemplar.  My painting is mainly watercolour with some ink and I worked in shades of brown to reflect my home, which is mainly neutral, natural colours.  I painted the “hearth” bowl copper (acrylic) because my living room has a large copper trough beneath the window.  The flames are collaged scraps of gelli print and the embers of red and gold are spatters of acrylic.

I focused on Vesta’s connection to the hearth because for me a fireplace has become an important element of a house feeling like home.  We had our last home, in Scotland, built for us and as such I designed the fireplace.  It was more of an emotional wrench for me to leave that fireplace behind than it was to leave the rest of the house.  One of the reasons why our current house particularly appealed to me was that it had a fireplace I could envision us sitting around in winter.  My painting of Vesta, therefore, does stick to the lesson brief in being about domesticity.

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Christmas Day 2015

Incredibly, this is our third Christmas in America.  However, this year was our first Christmas in our new home since the first year we were in rental accommodation and last year we were vacationing in Florida.  It has been fun properly decorating this house for the festive season for the first time, determining the logistics of where gifts should be left, where they should be opened, and cooking Christmas dinner in our kitchen for the first time.  It is almost as if spending Christmas in our new home has cemented its status as “home”.  When we left our home in Scotland, it was emotional because of all the memories and traditions connected to that house.  Now we are making new memories and connecting the house to new traditions.  Since it was just the six of us and no travel was involved, we also had the pleasure of a very relaxed and chilled Christmas Day.  My bonus gift was that my husband took charge of Christmas dinner so I had a day off from cooking.  He’s a pretty good cook so that was delicious treat as well as giving me time to just sit on the sofa and flick through some new books.  Bliss.

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Our Library Corner

We have been like the Three Bears trying to find a feature chair for our library corner in order to finish the makeover of our more formal living room: we wanted a chair with some personality and visual interest but those we had found were either too expensive or were not comfy enough or looked too rigid, lacking the cosy feel we were aiming for.  We had put our active questing on hiatus and figured we would resume our search at some point and would maybe stumble across something appropriate in the interim.

Last weekend, we were perambulating around Costco with the four kids in tow and, somewhere between buying enough toilet roll to build a wall and a huge sack of basmati, we wandered past one of the furniture aisles and spotted a chair that looked like it was worth investigating.  The kids wasted no time in giving it a test run and discovered it was a recliner chair.  We had not even considered a recliner chair for our library corner but I instantly liked the idea.  It was comfy, had a high enough back to support the neck and head, had sturdy arm rests and was sturdy enough to make a visual statement in that area of our living room.

We bought it.  We are now all enjoying having a really comfy spot to park ourselves for quiet activities.

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Back to Blighty #10 – Home to Argyll

Note: The photos illustrating this particular blog post were taken on our journey to Lochgilphead rather than being of Lochgilphead or Ardrishaig.

 

Over 22 months since departing from our home, we returned to Argyll.  As soon as we started crawling along the side of Loch Lomond, I instantly felt my spirits rise.  It was lovely to be among the hills, glens and lochs again.  The dramatic landscapes, the way the changing light skiffs across the hills, definitely made me feel like it was a Homecoming.

We stopped off for breakfast at Luss, on the shore of Loch Lomond.  I have actually only ever stopped at Luss once before.  Because we were always on a mission to get somewhere or else to return home, it never made sense to take that little detour.  The one time I did stop there was in the back of an ambulance when I was in labour with my oldest son so that I could violently vomit.  Ah, happy memories.  Luss is a tourist trap full of coach tours of overseas visitors.  As such, we knew we could rely upon the little shop and cafe to provide us with some full-on Scottish munchies.  It did not disappoint.  We had baps* all round.  Eggs, lorne sausage**, British bacon*** and haggis were consumed with relish and gusto – not all in the same bap mind.  I had egg and vegetarian haggis, something I have not had in over two years.  It fair tickled my tastebuds.  While I would never normally permit my children – or any of us – to have soda for breakfast, washing down our baps with bottles of Irn Bru was a must.  Goodness how we have missed Irn Bru.

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Suitably fuelled for the day ahead, we forged further into Argyll.  We stopped off at the Rest and Be Thankful for nostalgia’s sake.  The Rest and Be Thankful is a pass through the Arrochar Alps at the head of Glen Croe.  The original pass was built by the military in 1753 and gains its name from the fact that weary, physically exhausted travellers could reach the top of their ascent and rest and be thankful.  That original road, which runs parallel to the modern road, is sometimes put into use as a diversion when landslides block the route.  That’s the thing about nostalgia, you see: when we lived in Argyll, the Rest could often be a source of aggravation and hassle whenever landslides closed the road and led to lengthy detours by secondary roads or by ferry; but returning as a visitor I could just focus on the breathtaking splendour of the scene without even thinking about the pain in the bahookie that stretch of road could be to us in times past.

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Finally we arrived in Lochgilphead and it was a strange sensation.  There was almost a sense of autopilot, that we should take certain turns in order to arrive home as we always did, but of course we no longer have a home to go to there.  We were home and yet we were not home.  A very peculiar feeling indeed.  Indeed, the children were a little perturbed and upset by the sight of our former home.

What was lovely, however, was to be back in such a friendly community.  It was impossible for us to walk anywhere in the two days that we were in Mid-Argyll without bumping into people who wanted to say hello to us, find out how we were faring and just generally have a good blether.  That was something I always enjoyed about living a Lochgilphead: there was always someone to have a natter with when out and about, even if it was just to complain about the incessant rain or the ferocity of the midgies.  More generally, I miss the sense of community we experienced living there and all of the groups and organisations we were involved in.  Living in the suburbs of a major city means that the locus of life is so very different to what we had become accustomed to after over a decade of living in such a small population centre.

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For the two days that we were in Mid-Argyll, we were tightly scheduled to meet up with a cornucopia of friends.  It was overwhelming to know how many people wanted to meet up with us or have us visit them.  We were made welcome everywhere we went – and I drank so many cups of tea that my eyeballs were swimming in my head – and we were touched by how many people had altered their schedules and amended their plans in order to accommodate our visit.  The parents of my 9 year old’s best friend had actually come back from vacation early just so our boys could get as big a chunk of time together as possible, which ended up involving a sleepover.  We were really bowled over by the generosity of spirit of all of our friends.

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Again, it was weird not having a home to invite people to.  Instead, we took over the lounge area of the hotel we were staying in overnight.  It was a wee bit like running a drop-in clinic as various friends appeared in order to spend the evening chatting with us and catching up.  So that I could chinwag in peace with all my mum friends, a trio of dads trooped fourteen kids off to a local playpark where they ended up doing circuits of the field in order to avoid the midgies. We do not miss the midgies. Not one bit.

Regardless of whether we were meeting with friends at the hotel or at their houses, the feeling was the same: it was as though we had been away for two weeks on vacation and had just returned rather than having been away for almost two years on a permanent basis.  All our friendships just fell back into their usual rhythms, even the common topics of conversation.  A few friends have been over to America to visit us, of course, but even with those who we have had more sporadic contact with in the time since we have left it was just a case of picking right back up where we had left off, like there had only ever been a brief lull in conversation.  It was a very comforting and comfortable feeling.

We were also very pleased to see the way in which our children just slotted back into their friendships.  Given their ages, they don’t have the same degree of access to online communications as we do to help us keep connected to friends back home but somehow they just snapped right back into things.  My 8 year old has had the same best buddies literally since he was born so it was especially lovely to see them all together again, playing away as if they had never been apart.  My six year old Romeo was also reunited with his Juliet and they got to spend an afternoon together which was adorable and warmed the cockles of my soul.

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So our visit back home that was no longer our home but which felt rather like coming home was a great success.

 

*I realise that I had best explain that a bap is a British word for a small bread roll designed to be filled.  More specifically, our baps were Scottish breakfast rolls which have a nice crispness to them while the interior is soft, light, fluffy and yeasty.

** Lorne sausage is a sliced, square sausage.

*** British bacon is back bacon unlike the streaky bacon my kids have had to become accustomed to since moving to the US.