Birthday Celebrations

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.)

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Sunday in the Park with Picts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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