Shofuso Japanese Cultural Center

Our Labour Day weekend trip – our last hurrah of Summer break – was to the Shofuso Japanese Cultural Center.  It’s this little portion of Japan in the midst of Philadelphia.  It is also authentically Japanese as the buildings were built in Nagoya, using traditional materials and techniques, and were then transported to America.  I read that even the rocks in the garden were imported from Japan.  Originally, it was part of an exhibition in New York before being disassembled and reconstructed in Philadelphia.  It has been in Philly since the late 1950s.

We started our visit with the house.  We slipped off our shoes and entered the house in our socks.  It was everything you think about when you think about traditional Japanese architecture: elevated off the ground, connections between the interior and the exterior, between the man-made and the natural, verandas, lots of wood, sliding doors, and gently curved roofs.  There is something inherently relaxing about being in those spaces but I know myself well enough to know I could never actually live in such a space.  I am far too fond of objects to be capable of minimalism and maintaining clean lines.  And my pelvis is too wrecked to cope with floor sitting.  But I like to imagine I could live in such a space.  I especially loved the kitchen.  I feel like you learn a lot about a culture by looking at kitchens (and supermarkets actually) because so much of culture revolves around food.  My kids had zero patience for me reading the information about each room of the house but I insisted on reading all the detail about the kitchen.  It was pretty fascinating stuff.  I thought the little tea house would be the most intriguing and engaging part of the house but for me it was actually the kitchen.

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The garden surrounding the house was similarly gorgeous.  It is such an obvious and probably uninteresting thing to state but it was so green and so harmonious.  Apparently the landscaping was designed to echo 17th Century styles.  The boys absolutely loved the pond which was stocked with carp.  They had some fish food and, within seconds of throwing the first pellet into the water, there was a scrum of koi torpedoing towards them.  There was a line of them wiggling through the water from the bridge and making a beeline to the area where my kids were waiting to feed them.  Their dorsal fins cut through the surface of the water and created wakes.  I couldn’t help but hum the soundtrack from ‘Jaws’.  Despite the fact these carp must surely get so fed up of eating the same pellets all the time, there was a serious feeding frenzy.

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This is such a cliche that I initially resisted typing it out but the whole space really was so peaceful.  I could have chilled there for ages.  A good book and a glass of cold lemonade and it would have been so easy to just sit there for hours enjoying the garden.  But I had four kids with me who had run out of patience and wanted to get home to do their own thing for the final days of Summer so no chance of zen for me.

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Longwood Gardens

It was our 22nd Wedding Anniversary last week and  – as our children happened to be gallivanting with their grandparent for a few days – we could celebrate the occasion as a couple.  Unfortunately, I was still recovering from my oral surgery – a complication having caused me two weeks of excruciating and ceaseless neuralgic pain – which slightly put the damper on things and certainly reduced my ability to enjoy a meal out on the actual day.  However, eight days into my recovery, I felt well enough to venture out for the evening.  We opted for a visit to Longwood Gardens, having never been before and knowing that our children might not have the required patience for a visit to formal gardens.

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Longwood Gardens developed from a site that had been farmed and turned into an arboretum in the 18th Century.  When, at the dawn of the 20th Century, the trees of the arboretum were at risk from being chopped down for lumber, the super-wealthy businessman Pierre du Pont stepped in to save the trees by purchasing the entire property.  The site then developed into the formal gardens that exist today.  It is spread across over a thousand acres so there is a massive amount to see – too much for us as it turned out.

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I am not much of a gardener at all and my knowledge of flowers, plants and trees is pretty limited.  However, I can appreciate the aesthetic qualities of plants and I certainly like garden features, such as fountains and sculptures.  I, therefore, thoroughly enjoyed wandering along the pathways at Longwood and seeing what vistas and colours opened up before me.  Visiting in the evening not only meant we were spared the worst of the day’s baking heat and gross humidity but were also bathed in a golden light as the sun started to slip lower.

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We stopped to watch the fountains in action as music played.  It was all very pleasing and relaxing.  We had visited the pump room and were amazed by all the power involved in working the fountains but, as we watched water shoot up into the sky and dance and spray from so many fountains at once, we understood why that power was required.

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Apparently Longwood’s main conservatory is one of the world’s largest greenhouses.  I would certainly estimate it to be the largest I have ever visited.  It was arranged into a series of spaces that each focused on a theme.  Although we had no kids with us, Mr Pict and I wandered around the children’s indoor garden and found it to be charming.  Younger visitors seemed to be delighted by all of the wonderful details and fun little nooks and crannies.  We explored the main conservatory – including the ballroom and organ – and also enjoyed the other conservatories and the lily pond, complete with giant lily pads, between them.  I loved the gallery of orchids and Mr Pict loved all the banana plants.  The whole place was supremely polished and thoughtful in its detailing.  It was a feast for the eyes and the nose.

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We realised too late that we should have saved the conservatories for last since they had interior lighting while the exterior gardens had, during our time indoors, been plunged into darkness.  We still had a good wander in the dark.  There was actually something pretty magical about being at the Italian gardens and seeing all the fireflies glowing as they flew up from the grass and into the air.  We also saw bats swooping down to chomp on the insects that were hovering above the ponds.  Some areas, however, were just too dark to permit any exploration so we had to abandon those.  However, an advantage of having found ourselves in Longwood Gardens in the pitch darkness was that we could watch the performance of water, lighting, and music back at the main fountains.  The theme of the show happened to be “movies” which was completely perfect for Mr Pict and me since we are such movie nerds.  The whole show was amazingly accomplished and very impressive.  We thoroughly enjoyed it.  Unfortunately, my pain meds had completely worn off about halfway through the show and I was so close to passing out from the pain that I had to sit on the gravel behind rows of standing spectators so missed the last quarter of the event.

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Mr Pict and I both agreed that we would love to return to Longwood Gardens some time, maybe another summer trip to take in the things we missed, maybe during one of their festivals, maybe in a different season to see it in a different context.  We might even take the kids some time.

Hopewell Furnace

Our youngest son turned 9 over Memorial Day weekend.  He likes to get out and explore new places so, after gfit opening and birthday breakfast, we decided to take a day trip to Hopewell Furnace.  Despite being relatively close to home, it is a National Historic Site we had not visited in our four years of living in PA so it was high time we went to check it out.

As Hopewell Furnace was in operation prior to the American Revolution, it is considered to be one of America’s oldest industrial sites and, therefore, a place of historic significance.  We began our trip in the Visitor’s Centre with a video providing us with a useful potted history of the “iron plantation”.  We learned about the site having been chosen because of a confluence of natural resources, about the evolving treatment of and attitude African-American workers – ranging from slavery to early desegregation and the Underground Railroad – and of female employees, its contribution to the War of Independence, and about the process of manufacturing iron as it was undertaken from the 1770s through to its closure in the 1880s.

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As with all National Parks sites, Hopewell Furnace was beautifully maintained and easy to navigate.  We found that we could walk in a loop and take in all of the buildings and ruins.  Hopewell operated as a charcoal furnace for most of its existence because the price of hauling coal to the site was prohibitive so we saw the area where charcoal would have been created.  We had learned that the furnace could consume as much as 800 bushels of charcoal in one day so it must have been a demanding job.  We all enjoyed seeing the blast furnace, not simply because it was very cool inside on such a hot day.  I normally find it pretty challenging to engage with industrial heritage but I had no difficulty imagining the workers operating inside the furnace as it all seemed so visually clear.  We had seen where the “ingredients” would be dropped into the shaft in order to be super-heated, and then the bit at the bottom of the “chimney” from where the molten metal would flow once the seal was broken.  There was then a nearby area where the skilled workers would pour the iron into sand moulds in order to manufacture various items.  We were all somewhat mesmerised by the water wheel.  Sure it was a nifty piece of engineering and critical to the manufacturing process but I think for at least the boys and me it was really just that there is something aesthetically pleasing and calming about watching a wheel rotate.

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We had been informed that the workers’ houses were not yet open to the public for the season but, in fact, we found that a couple of them were open.  They had been furnished with reproduction furniture and household items which was fantastic as it helped us understand how families utilised the space and also allowed the kids to engage a bit more since the experience became tactile.  My husband and the birthday boy even played a quick card game in one of the houses.  Industrial history doesn’t really do it for me so it was the social history regarding issues like racial (in)equality and the lives of the workers that really helped to anchor my interest in the site.

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After some time spent befriending Maximilian the horse, our final stop was the Ironmaster’s house.  The ground floor is open for viewing, with barriers keeping visitors back from the furniture and other artefacts that bring each room to life.  I think what my kids most enjoyed about the “big house”, however, was the porch complete with rocking chairs.  After months of dismal weather, they have not yet readjusted to heat and sunlight.  They better get used to it, however, as I intend for us to be outdoors a lot this summer after hibernating for months.

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Flowers and Freedom

On Saturday, I went with a friend to the Philadelphia Flower Show.  On my own.  Child-free.  No clock-watching or pressure of time.  It was an absolute luxury.  I really know very little about flowers and gardening.  My friend knows a bit more than I do but is no expert.  I think it is safe to say, therefore, that attending the Flower Show was an opportunity to just be grown ups together and enjoy each other’s company more than it was about indulging any horticultural interest or ability.

This was also my first time attending an event in the Convention Centre.  My husband and two of my children have attended Philly Comic Con annually since we emigrated to America so they are veterans of the Convention Centre but I have had no reason to go before.  The Flower Show is run by the Philadelphia Horticultural Society and is apparently America’s longest running and oldest flower show, dating as it does from 1829.  I imagine that people attend in order to be inspired by new plant varieties, by landscape design, to participate in competitions, and to meet with other flower enthusiasts.  Aside from the opportunity for a day of unfettered freedom, the appeal for me lay in seeing a riot of colour and vibrant life given how much I have been loathing Winter and craving Spring.

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Given my degree of ignorance, this will not be a long blog post.  I did, however, enjoy wandering among the displays and showcases.  Most impressive was a tropical jungle built around scaffolding poles that had been painted to mimic bamboo and which were festooned with stunning flowers in bold colours, including cascades of orchids and swirling leaves, and incorporating various water features including a series of waterfalls and the occasional shower of rain.  I was also very taken with a desert area filled with an incredible variety of cacti and succulents.  My friend and I became a tad obsessed with one colloquially named “dinosaur back” because of all of its folds and ridges.  Had one been available for purchase, I might have brought that home with me.  I am not very good at keeping houseplants alive but cacti do somehow manage to survive in my care despite my negligence and evil eye.

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The theme of the flower show was apparently water.  That seemed like a very easy challenge to me since almost all plants require water for sustenance and many garden designs incorporate water.  Still, I do enjoy a good water feature so I liked seeing the variety of ways in which water had been built into the landscaping.  Aside from the water, we noticed some other repetitions of design: glass orbs and copper.  We congratulated ourselves on spotting what might be a gardening “trend”.  There was. for instance, a visually appealing display involving a mirrored table (imagine keeping that clean of smears and finger smudges?) with glass orbs hanging above it like a chandelier, each orb containing a plant.  I thought it would make for a pretty wedding table whereas in my home it would make for megatons of stress and fingers being cut on shards of smashed glass.  On the subject of weddings, I did love an outdoor wedding table, all wood and soft moss, including what looked like a tiered cake made from slices of log.  I could imagine Oberon and Titania dining in just such a setting.

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The competition areas were befuddling to me.  My lack of expertise meant that I could not possibly figure out why one plant or arrangement had been awarded first place while another was an honorable mention.  It was another opportunity to see a diverse selection of plants I had never encountered before.  There was a miniature citrus tree with blossoms and fruit, venus fly traps and pitcher plants inside humid terrariums, arrangements inside tea cups (I liked those a lot!), lots of breathtaking orchids, and blooms in every shape and colour.  I was drawn to the weirdo plants, the non-conformists, and the ones that looked like me if I was a plant.  I got more excited than a grown woman ought to when I spotted some chubby tuberous plants that looked just like mandrakes from ‘Harry Potter’.

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In truth, I cannot say I learned much after a day at the Flower Show and any sense of inspiration was tempered by the reality of my green-finger skills (which are brown-thumbed to be honest).  I did, however, very much enjoy a pleasant day out without the responsibility of keeping children engaged.

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Philadelphia Women’s March

On Saturday, Mr Pict and I took our four sons to participate in the Women’s March event happening in Philadelphia, one of many marches happening across the country and around the world.

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As a result of my Gran’s passion for politics and issues, I started attending protests, marches, and demonstrations when I was tiny, maybe five years old.  I have attended scores of such events over the years but then I developed an anxiety problem related to crowds that prevented me from attending any large events, from music festivals to rallies.  I could not join last year’s Women’s March anyway because I had to work but this year I decided to push myself past my crowd anxiety for a number of reasons: I wanted my sons to have the experience of this form of civic engagement and understand how they can utilise their privilege for the benefit of others; as someone not eligible to vote, it is one of the few opportunities for me to stand up and be counted; and most importantly, I am an advocate for civil and human rights, social justice and equity so I felt compelled to go there and represent not just myself and my family but also be there to support all those who could not attend for reasons of mobility, finance, logistics, or personal safety.

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The event was superb and very well-organised.  The atmosphere was energising and inspiring.  Although there were tens of thousands of people there (I read an estimate of 50,000 people), the route up Benjamin Franklin Parkway was wide enough that I never once felt hemmed in enough for my crowd issue to spark my anxiety.  The boys were great and enjoyed reading the placards that so many people were carrying and listening to the chants along the way.  Our ten year old is particularly engaged in current affairs so he especially enjoyed the experience of participating in democracy in this way.  The march ended in front of the Philadelphia Museum of Art and it was there that we listened to various women delivering powerful speeches about the importance of engagement, participation, and activism.  It was also thought-provoking and challenging and, given I am a white woman, prompted some self-reflection on what more I can do to channel my privilege for good.  I am so glad that we went and added our voices to the throng.

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Edgar Allan Poe in Philadelphia

The main focus of my birthday trip to Philadelphia was to visit Edgar Allan Poe’s house in the city.  We decided to walk there from the Independence Hall area since it was a lovely Autumn day and it was only about a half hour walk.  The only snag was that we had to cross a major road but we did so safely since the traffic was moving slowly.  Still, we returned by a different route.  When Poe had lived in that property, it had actually been outside the city limits so it was interesting to think how much the city has sprawled since then.

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Poe’s house is one of three in which he lived in Philly but the only one still standing.  The property has been administered by the National Park Service as a National Historic Site since the 1970s and has been expanded to include two adjacent properties – which I think post-date Poe having lived there – so that one provides space for the museum and one for an additional staircase with fire doors.  Nevertheless, this Poe house was modest but much bigger than his Baltimore home, which we had visited in August.  A Ranger explained that he had been able to afford a year’s rent there after winning a literary prize.  The rooms were much more light and spacious than they had been in the dark and cramped Baltimore home and the staircases, while steep and narrow, were not as claustrophobic as in that property either.

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The house is kept in a state of “arrested decay”.  The spaces, therefore, give an impression of how Poe, his wife-cousin, and aunt-mother-in-law would have lived but they have not been furnished and there are no personal Poe family possessions on display.  I liked all of the walls covered in layers of peeled paint and the boys loved all of the closets.

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A highlight of the house was the cellar.  Since Poe is associated with all things eerie and creepy, it was fun to be in a dark and dingy cellar in one of his houses.  The Ranger had also sparked the boys’ imaginations by asking them where in the cellar they would stash a corpse.  Worryingly, they identified several possibilities.  Perhaps I should just be glad they are problem-solvers.  It is apparently possible that the cellar inspired the one described in ‘The Black Cat’ which appealed to my cat-obsessed 8 year old.

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In the museum area of the site, in one of the houses that would have neighboured Poe’s one, there was a room set up as a reading room and a book case full of Poe’s works, books directly inspired by his works, and some volumes of Poe criticism.  My youngest son settled at a table and read a picture book.  Outside the property, there was a metal raven statue that we all liked and we also spotted a Poe mural on the gable end of a row of houses nearby.  So that was Poe’s Philly house and now I only have his cottage in the Bronx left to visit.  It is on my travel bucket list.

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We departed Poe’s house and walked back towards the centre of the city.  We stopped in at Reading Terminal Market.  The only other time I have gone in there was also for my birthday trip, back in 2013 just after we had emigrated to America.  That was a bit of a disaster of a day and we had literally walked into one door of the market and immediately out of another because the kids were fizzing out due to the crowds.  It was definitely less crowded on that Saturday evening but the narrow rows between food stalls still made it feel a bit too bustling for me.  I really don’t do crowds.  My kids are mini foodies so their eyes lit up at the possibility of buying some special treat foods.  We came away with Cajun bacon, some fancy type of jerky, and some root beer – none of which are things I consume.  Then – because we were not done being foodies – we went to a restaurant named Indeblue that serves Indian cuisine.  All of we Picts love curries and Indian flavours so we ordered a selection of items from the menu to share as a smorgasbord.  It was all perfectly cooked and absolutely delicious and was the perfect way to end my celebratory day.

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Harry Potter Festival 2017

On Saturday we went along to Chestnut Hill’s annual Harry Potter Festival.  This was a make-or-break year for us: we had loved the first two years that we had gone but last year the crowds were just far too intense for us to enjoy the experience.  We had decided then that we would give it one more go to see if the organisers could make the required adaptations to accommodate the growing popularity of the festival and, if not, then it would be our last time going.  I do very much feel for the organisers.  They had come up with the brilliant idea of a themed local festival but its popularity had evidently snowballed faster than their ability to creatively problem solve.  I am, therefore, happy to report that they had done a sterling job of resolving last year’s aggravating problems.  There were far more portapotties than last year (though happily none of us ever had to use them); they had extended the stretch of Germantown Avenue that was pedestrianised;  there were more police officers on duty to enforce the road closures; there was pre-paid wristband entry to specified activities; and there were designated parking lots around the area, including some with shuttle buses.  As a result, it was a much smoother and pleasant experience than last year.

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We parked on the campus of a church and from there it was just a gentle stroll to the centre of Chestnut Hill and all of the Harry Potter themed activities.  We decided to start at the top of the Festival, the furthest point from where we had parked, and then work our way back down Germantown Avenue.  We arrived there just as Professor Dumbledore took the stage to officially open the day’s event though we could not get close enough for anyone other than Mr Pict to be able to see over the heads of the crowd gathered around the stage.  We did, however, bump into Lupin, Tonks, and Sirius Black who happily posed with my kids for photos.  That is one of the things we enjoy most about the Festival, seeing all the cosplayers, the visitors dressed in costumes, or the Potterphiles wearing themed clothing.  We saw even more dogs in costume than last year, including one dressed up as an acromantula and one dressed up as a golden snitch.  The common nerdiness generates a warm family friendly atmosphere and a feeling of camaraderie.

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We had decided not to buy the wristbands that would have given us access to certain activities.  Partly it was down to expense but it was also because my kids had “been there and done that” in previous festivals.  That did free up funds for indulging in butterbeer, chocolate frogs, and every flavour beans.  Mostly, however, we just enjoyed absorbing the atmosphere, browsing fun stalls full of Potterphile wares – my 10 year old was sorely tempted by pocket watches – looking at displays in shop windows, and enjoying all of the costumes.  The three younger boys did participate in some free activities too and came away with some goodie bags filled with freebies.  My 14 year old was accompanying us under an Imperius Curse so was refusing to engage with any activity beyond strolling and inadvertent people watching.

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There were on-street performances to watch too.  We arrived too late to get within eyeballing distance of some of them but we did stop to watch a man carve a block of ice into Dobby the House Elf, we watched some great breakdancers (the Potter connection being unclear), and an acrobat performing in Hogwarts uniform.  There was ample to see and do and this year we were not fighting through crowds or feeling like we were drowning in a sea of people.  After a few hours of ambling, perusing, and taking photographs, however, it was time to return to the car.  Aside from anything else, the younger boys were getting a bit crotchety from the heat and we needed a break from the glare of the sun.  Once we got back to the church campus, however, the younger boys got a second wind and decided to play in the shade of the trees.  They decided that the buildings could be Hogwarts and a wooden platform on the grass could be used as a stage for wizard dueling.  It was a chilled way to end a day of Harry Pottering.  The whole event passed our litmus test.  They had made enough changes to make the growth of the Festival function effectively again and we are very pleased as it means we can return again next year.

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