Peddler’s Village

We had other plans for this weekend but between the murk and cold and my aches and pains, we decided at last minute to jettison them for something else.  We decided to go and explore Peddler’s Village because it afforded us a comfortable balance between fresh air and bursts of time spent indoors.

Peddler’s Village is essentially a shopping centre but one laid out like a small village rather than a strip mall.  The architecture is interesting and harks back to a bygone era and rural idyll but is, of course, completely faux.  I found it to be quaint and quiet and certainly preferable to the atmosphere of the average shopping mall.  It also presented us with the opportunity to pootle around in some independent retail stores as opposed to the same old chains.

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The first of these we visited was a cheese shop which tells you a lot about our family’s priorities.  I may be lactose intolerant but I am also an unrepentant cheesaholic.  I have given up all other forms of dairy except for cheese and clotted cream.  I take the hit of physical pain over the emotional pain of a life without cheese.  The cheese shop offered a wonderful array of delicious cheeses.  We all nibbled on samples and pressed our noses against the glass of the display case.  Imported and artisan cheeses aren’t cheap here in the US so we had to exercise self-restraint and limit ourselves to two wedges of cheese.  In the end we chose some Port Salut for reasons of nostalgia and a wonderfully tangy, mature cheddar that had been marinated and aged in balsamic vinegar.  On the subject of vinegars, the shop also sold bottles of infused olive oils and balsamic vinegars.  I absolutely adored an orange and cranberry vinegar and even more so an amazing pomegranate infused one but I managed to leave the store without making a further purchase.

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The boys particularly enjoyed a store filled with geeky t-shirts and accessories and a toy store.  They spent ages in the toy store because it contained lots of items they had never seen in a chain toy store, despite the fact that most of those items were for a younger age group than them.  We also took them into an arcade where they enjoyed clambering on pieces of equipment and watching graphics.  Two of them decided to spend some money on playing a game but otherwise they weren’t really into it.  I have always hated arcades but Mr Pict has many happy childhood memories of playing in them.  Our sons seem to fall somewhere between our attitudes.

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There were lots of stores selling ceramics, housewares, a very tempting glassware shop, purveyors of jewellery and clothes.  I am not much of a shopper but I probably would have had more of a nose around in more stores had I not had the boys in tow.  Since there was nothing I needed or was looking for, I opted out of the stress and worry of taking kids into stores or listening to their whines as they were forced to wait outside for me, especially since by this juncture the boys were growing “hangry”.

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We left Peddler’s Village and crossed the river into New Jersey.  It had been ages since we had visited New Hope and Lambertville and we had never eaten there – discounting doughnuts and ice cream.  We choose to eat in the Lambertville Station and happily, despite being a party of six, there was only a brief wait for a table despite the place being very busy.  As its name suggests, the restaurant is a converted train station.  It’s interior was lovely with lots of wood and brass.  The Maitre’ d’s desk was what looked to be the old ticket booth.  We were seated in the area that had once been the platform which gave us a view over the canal and the streets outside.  The atmosphere was lovely, the staff were attentive, and the food was delicious.

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Since we were all stuffed full, we decided to get a spot of fresh air before getting back into the car and heading home.  We thought the boys would just have a bit of a wander on the shore line, watching the ducks and geese, but in the end they were there for ages, making up some game to entertain themselves, and we had to drag them into the car.  So the day might not have been remotely what we had planned but it was still a success.

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A Visit to the Mütter Museum

Mr Pict’s parents flew over the Atlantic to stay with us during the festive season.  As such, we had the opportunity for some babysitting so we left the kids with the grandparents so that we could head into Philadelphia for the day.  Time alone together as a couple is incredibly rare so what did we do with this brief period of child-free time?  We went to the Mütter Museum to look at medical specimens.  Ah the romance!

I have wanted to visit the Mütter Museum since we emigrated to the Philly area just over three years ago.  However, not being certain of how child-friendly it was, we had not been in a position to go.  I am definitely much more into medical oddities than Mr Pict is but he was happy to accompany me to the Museum and check it out.

The Mütter Museum is actually part of the College of Physicians and the original collection was compiled and donated by Dr Thomas Dent Mütter in order to serve as an education tool.  The collection is absolutely vast and apparently only 13% of it is on display at any one time.  This is no doubt in part because the building is actually pretty small by Museum standards.  One exhibition space is essentially just the mezzanine around a staircase, for instance.  For obvious reasons – these exhibits being the remains of individual human beings – photography is not permitted within the galleries.  I, therefore, decided I would take a sketchbook, pencil and fountain pen along with me so I sketched (which is permitted) as I wandered around.  The cramped spaces and the fact that the Museum was so busy made drawing quite awkward, primarily because I found it hard to find a spot that allowed me a good enough view to draw a specimen while not obscuring the views of others but also because ever so often people would gather around me to see what I was drawing and made me feel self-conscious since I was only rattling off rapid sketches.

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We started off on the aforementioned mezzanine level.  This was organised on a sort of Brothers Grimm theme, connecting medical conditions to some of the grotesque elements of their stories.  I thought that was quite an unexpected and interesting theme on which to curate the collection.  There were lots of desiccated limbs and the occasional head.  We read about dry samples – useful because medical students could actually handle them and information, things like blood vessels, could be written or drawn on them – and wet samples, the type stored in jars of liquid.  In addition to the actual human remains, there were casts and wax models of other medical anomalies.  Strangely enough, because these actually looked more human, given they were neither shrivelled or bloated by the preservation techniques, they were more disconcerting to look at than the actual human remains.  Probably the star attraction on this level were the slides of tissue taken from Einstein’s brain.  For me, the most interesting part of that particular exhibit wasn’t the tiny slivers of grey matter but the fact it highlighted the ethics of taking and keeping samples of human tissue.  Neither Einstein nor his next of kin had consented to having his brain removed and studied which means that ownership of any of his brain tissue surely violates moral codes if not medical ethics.  The case of Einstein’s brain is particularly captivating of course because of his fame and the fact his death was relatively recent.  The same moral debate, however, could be applied to probably the majority of specimens held by the Mütter Museum.  I very much doubt that most of the people whose bodies or parts are on display consented to be used for medical science and education.  This moral quandary added another layer of interest and engagement to our visit.

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Probably the most arresting display – for me at least – in the whole museum was a cabinet, the length of one wall, of scores of skulls.  Arranged in serried rows in glass cabinets, these skulls were the collection of Joseph Hyrtl, an anatomist from Vienna.  Apparently the idea of the collection was to demonstrate the variety evidenced in European anatomy, not eugenics or phrenology, and as such each skull was labelled to identify its origin.  What was disconcerting and somewhat unsettling about these labels was that it gave not just the nationality of the individual but in most cases their name, age, and cause of death.  It was impossible not to think of the lives behind these skulls, the stories that led to their deaths, the loved ones they left behind to mourn them.  In many cases, the deaths were violent ones – either execution or suicide – and so the tragedy was amplified.  There were teenagers, for example, who had committed suicide when they were discovered to have committed a theft and I found myself wondering what desperate straits had motivated the crime and what awful crises they must have experienced to feel that the only solution was death.  I found I could not just gloss over any single skull.  Each of them represented an individual person and I felt this quite powerful obligation to pay my respects to each of them, to acknowledge that each had existed.  It was weirdly emotive and I find it quite difficult to convey that mixture of fascination and poignancy.

Given he is a Civil War nerd, Mr Pict enjoyed a gallery devoted to the effects of that bloody conflict on human anatomy.  There were the famous photographs of skeletal remains being exhumed from battlefields in order to be interred in cemeteries and the photographs of legs and arms in the baskets of field hospitals but there were also bones containing bullets and shrapnel, intestines scarred from dysentery and preserved organs ravaged with other diseases that felled many soldiers.  The Mütter Museum houses a vast collection of books so another exhibition was dedicated to Vesalius, whose writings and drawings became some of the earliest medical textbooks.

The basement floor of the Museum is really where most of the “oddities” are.  This is the area of the museum that is really devoted to rare medical anomalies most of us won’t encounter in our lifetimes either because they are so rare or because medical advances would either prevent the conditions or would at least make them treatable.  Most challenging for Mr Pict and I were all the specimens of babies, both fetuses and newborns.  I imagine very few people would be unmoved by these tiny little bodies in jars or otherwise preserved.  However, because we have experienced pregnancy loss and had a stillborn son, these particular specimens were even more emotive for us and stirred up trauma and grief.  Mr Pict found it too difficult to spend much time in that area of the museum.  I found I could compartmentalise enough to have a read and a look and I even drew one of the conjoined twin skeletons.  It was definitely the most difficult part of the museum, however.

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I have an interest in the history of freakshows.  Among the most famous “freaks” were the conjoined twins, Chang and Eng Bunker whose origins in what is now Thailand originated the term “Siamese Twins”.  The Mütter Museum possesses a death cast of Chang and Eng’s heads and torsos and their conjoined liver because the College of Physicians conducted the autopsy when the men died in the 1870s.  Those were interesting to see since I have read so much about Chang and Eng.  There were also some fascinating osteological specimens.  These include the tallest skeleton on exhibit in America, that of a man who stood at 7’6″ tall.  His remains were contrasted with those of a dwarf who had died in childbirth.  There is also the skeleton of a man named Harry Eastlack who succumbed to a condition called FOP which caused all of his issues to ossify.  He had actually donated his body to the collection to aid research into his medical condition and potentially benefit others.

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Mr Pict and I both found at least one thing each in the Mütter Museum that made us squeamish.  In common with many of the male visitors, the genital specimens made Mr Pict feel a little uncomfortable.  Among these was a plaster cast of a hugely swollen scrotum.  Every man I observed looking into that particular case appeared to wince.  For me it was the eyeballs.  One glass case contained row upon row of wax models of eyes suffering from various maladies, diseases and injuries.  Not much about the human body makes me squirm but I definitely do not like anything to do with eyeballs.  The last time I was prescribed eyedrops, all four children had to pin me down while Mr Pict dripped them into my eyes.  That is how much I detest anything to do with eyeballs.  I definitely felt decidedly queasy looking at all of those eyeballs.

Our trip to Philadelphia was not all body parts, however.  After our excursion to the Mütter Museum, we were (maybe somewhat peculiarly) ravenous so we went for lunch in a Mexican restaurant.  It was a definite treat to eat a delicious lunch without having to wrangle kids.  Great food while relaxing with wonderful company – uninterrupted – was the perfect end to a lovely and fascinating day out.

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Annual Gettysburg Trip

As I have related on the blog many times before, Mr Pict is a Civil War nerd.  As such, we end up visiting Gettysburg at least once a year.  This past weekend was time for our 2016 pilgrimage to the battlefield.  It seemed apt to have a family day trip as a last Summer outing since the climate switched almost overnight from muggy summer days to chilly Autumnal ones.

What we try to do when we visit Gettysburg is to balance out revisiting favourite haunts – namely Little Round Top and Devil’s Den – with visiting new areas of the battlefield so that eventually the children gain a fuller understanding and experience of the history of that particular battle and its place in the context of the War.  So, for example, over the past couple of years we have visited McPherson’s Ridge, the National Cemetery, and the Longstreet Observation Tower.  This time we decided to visit the Museum housed inside the Visitor Centre.

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Mr Pict specifically wanted the boys to see the Cyclorama.  I had last seen it in 1995 when it was basically lining the walls of a barn somewhere on the battlefield site and it had very little impact on me.  It is much better displayed now, with good quality lighting, and lighting effects that complement the audio narrative.  The cyclorama – a 360 degree painting – was completed by a French artist named Philippoteaux in the 1880s and has been on display at Gettysburg since the early 20th Century.  The painting depicts Pickett’s Charge, a climactic moment in the battle.  It is a wonderfully detailed painting with its attention to detail, its use of perspective and scale, and its immersive qualities.  It made much more of an impression on me this time.  The kids, not so much.  They preferred the video narrated by Morgan Freeman that we watched prior to seeing the cyclorama.

The cyclorama tickets also covered the Museum so we headed there next.  It is actually a very impressive museum.  There is a lot crammed into a reasonably compact space but the flow was well engineered and the artifacts and displays thoughtfully organised.  I particularly enjoyed seeing the furniture from some of the homes in Gettysburg that bore the marks of bullets and shells and spoke to how the ordinary people of the town experienced the battle.  Unfortunately, the boys did not engage in the museum at all.  They had been dragged around the National Civil War Museum just over a year earlier so in some ways it was fair enough.  With the exception of Mr Pict, we all have a limit to how much we can absorb about that particular period of American history.

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It was, therefore, time to burn off some energy, let the kids clamber and climb, and basically return to their feral ways.  We headed first to Devil’s Den where they always love to climb and jump from rock to rock.  They also have some favourite nooks and crannies where they like to hide.  For the younger boys, there are lots of opportunities for imaginative play.  My oldest meanwhile found a rock to perch on and then read a novel while his brothers played.  Then we moseyed our way up to Little Round Top where they could do more climbing, including of the tower, and take in the views.  The boys were completely happy and eventually had to be dragged back to the car so we could head home.  The lesson learned was that all trips to Gettysburg need to involve freedom of movement and the ability to be wild things.

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Locust Lake State Park

Memorial Day weekend seems to be the traditional starting point for all things summer in these parts – outdoor swimming pools open, people crank up their barbecues, people start wearing less clothing, sunglasses are donned – and this Memorial weekend was a scorcher, a welcome dose of sunshine and heat after such a dreich (dreary) Spring.  We Picts decided this was the perfect opportunity to go an explore another of Pennsylvania’s state park so we headed towards the mountains and to Locust Lake State Park.

The area had been deforested in the 19th Century because of mining and lumber operations in the area.  It was reclaimed in the 20th Century as an area for fishing and I assume has particularly recovered since it became a state park in the 1960s.  Now there are trails through woodland, camp sites, and a decent sized central lake where people can boat and swim in designated areas.  It was this latter activity that the boys were especially looking forward to – especially after a long drive in a warm car.

Our first stop off was at a play area in the woods.  After being stuck in the car for quite some time, the boys had energy to burn off so the climbing frame was perfect.  The youngest two practiced their simian skills on the monkey bars and then they copied their ten year old brother in trying to find a route climbing over the frame rather than using it how it should be used.  There were points where they freaked themselves out a bit by getting stuck but they persevered and found a way up, over, and down on their own.  Good confidence building stuff.

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A hop, skip and a jump through a wooded glade brought us out onto a stretch of the lake shore that had a beach.  This was not a sandy beach, however.  It was more like coarse grit.  It was not entirely pleasant underfoot but then again I am not the best judge since I generally loathe sand of any kind.  The Pictlings certainly did not mind the gritty sand at all and were soon paddling in the water and enjoying how cool it was.  The area roped off and designated for swimming is pretty shallow so the water had actually been nicely warmed by the sun.  That way it was cool but not chilly.  Perfect swimming temperature actually.  Now that all four of my boys are good swimmers, it is a much more pleasant experience to take them somewhere like this.  Mr Pict and I can just sit back and relax while watching them swim and splash and play rather than feeling like we are in a constant state of high alert, reading to spring into Baywatch mode at any instant.  The kids had a wonderful time swimming back and forth in the water.

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Once they had finally had enough of the water, we decided to take the (very) easy trail around the circumference of the lake so they could dry out and we could all stretch our legs before getting back in the car and heading home.  They did their usual thing of complaining and moaning about how boring the walk would be and then absolutely loving it and not wanting to leave.  My kids are pretty feral – you might have noticed – so within reason we let them go bare foot and get off the beaten track.  They, therefore, turned what might have been a brief stroll into a miniature adventure assault course.  There were some outdoor exercise equipment staging posts that they incorporated into their wanderings but mainly it was about balancing along fallen trunks and wading through burns and shallow creeks.  We didn’t encounter any wildlife beyond that which we find in our own garden (squirrels, chipmunks, and birds) but they did find some freshly hatched gloriously blue robin eggs to study.

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We had a really lovely day out.  We have not had much time for whole family activities in recent months as there have been so many commitments and schedule clashes and such like to contend with.  We, therefore, really welcomed some uninterrupted time as a family of six, especially since there was no phone reception.  Locust Lake was a charming spot and we will definitely need to return some time, maybe in late summer.

Elmwood Park Zoo

We have a season ticket for Elmwood Park Zoo so we decided to take a trip there today with the grandparents in tow.  Temperatures got up to 90 degrees today so a lot of the animals were just flaked out: all we saw of the cougar and wolves were their rumps as they lay prone in the shade.  There were also masses of day camp kids for us to wade through but thankfully the park seemed to absorb all the hordes of people not too badly.

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Since they have all been to that animal park before, the kids enjoyed revisiting favourite animals.  They were pleased to see that Penny the alligator was outside for a change, sunbathing, as were the porcupines.  There were also some new features to the zoo for this trip, I presume because it is now peak season.  The boys liked the fact that there were misters switched on throughout the park.  They loved standing in the water droplets for eons and getting utterly drenched while the droplets created ankle-height rainbows.  They had also introduced a bat cave.  Back in Britain, the boys had loved – at both Chester Zoo and Fife Animal Park – walking among a room full of bats.  Here, however, the bats were segregated from the human visitors by a large glass window.  It was still cool to watch them dangling upside down and crawling hand over hand along branches.

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A less welcome new feature was the fact that to even access the giraffe viewing platform we were required to be feeding the giraffes and the feed came with a per person cost.   I appreciate that animals are expensive to care for and overheads are high but it seemed a bit cheeky to be charging to even view the giraffes.  I was, for instance, charged the fee to ascend to the viewing platform even though I was simply accompanying my children rather than feeding the giraffe.  The boys really wanted to feed the giraffes so, just this once, I sucked up the extra cost and they were handed a bunch of lettuce.  The kids absolutely loved the experience of feeding the giraffe and feeling his blue tongue lapping against their hands.

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The boys had never been in the aviary before as the timings had never worked out but this time we managed to enter and three of them decided to feed them.  This time I did not mind paying the extra fee since it was per stick of feed rather than per person entering the aviary.  The boys who did the feeding absolutely loved having the birds fly onto their hands and being able to see, close up, their beaks nibbling away at the fruit.  They all loved their sweet little faces and brightly coloured plumage.

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After an ice cream break and a run around the large playground, it was time to head home – and pack for our vacation.