Van Gogh Immersive Experience

Early evening on the first Sunday in November, we headed to Upper Darby’s historic Tower Theater. The purpose of our visit was to go to the Van Gogh Immersive Experience. We had booked tickets in the Spring hoping we would feel confident enough to attend an indoor event safely. We took the chance and crossed our fingers because Van Gogh is our 16 year old’s favourite artist and the Experience was coming to the Philly area around the time of his birthday.

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The first half of the Experience was engaging and interesting. There were three-dimensional objects on which projected images were moving, replicas of Van Gogh’s works, and well-curated information boards. I actually learned a couple of things about Van Gogh that I had not previously known – that he was very possibly colour blind and that the reds in his paintings have disappeared over time because of the degrading of the particular pigment he used. Had this section been the sum total of the Experience, however, I would have been disappointed. It was an attractive and appealing way to present information but would not have justified the ticket price.

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The second half of the Experience, however, was utterly mesmerizing. A large room had images being projected on all four walls and on the floor. The changing images told the story of Van Gogh’s life as an artist, conveyed something of his emotional and mental state, and showcased the imagery of his paintings. I thought the almond blossom section was especially aesthetically pleasing while the crows in the wheatfield were emotionally stirring and the Starry Night was evocative.

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My husband and two youngest sons plonked themselves in deckchairs and enjoyed the entire show from that vantage point. Our 16 year old loves the movie ‘At Eternity’s Gate’ so he popped in his earbuds and listened to the soundtrack of that film throughout his visit – though there was a lovely soundtrack accompanying the imagery. He was definitely into the “immersive” aspect of our time there. He most certainly did not appreciate me breaking into his bubble to take his photo or talk to him. Meanwhile I chose to wander around and see what things looked like from different perspectives in the room. I also enjoyed looking around the room and seeing the sunflowers and crabs and branches being projected onto the floor flitting across all of the other visitors.

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There was an option to extend the “immersion” by doing a virtual reality activity. There was an extra cost involved but it was not too steep. The boys were not keen enough on the idea, however, to want to queue up for a turn plus we were all getting hungry so we did not opt into that. We really enjoyed the Van Gogh Immersive Experience. This type of event was a first for me and I would certainly be keen to visit others with a similar approach. It’s just a different way of engaging in a subject.

Season of Masks and Mellow Fruitfulness

Apologies to Keats for the lame pun.  Maybe it is not the best idea – during a deadly pandemic –  to reference a text in which the poet uses Autumn to reflect on his own imminent mortality but I couldn’t resist.  It has been some time since I last hit “post” on this blog because, for obvious reasons, I don’t have much to report but I thought I could write something about what we have been up to this Autumn.

We started October with a birthday: our second oldest son turned 15.  He is my movie geek so normally his celebration would involve a cinema trip and a restaurant dinner with us and some of his friends.  While that was not possible this year, his birthday still revolved around movies, especially some of his favourites.  Our 13 year old, for instance, drew his brother’s favourite Director – Martin Scorsese – as a gift and the decorations for his cake were all cinema inspired.

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My 15 year old’s favourite movie of recent years is ‘The Lighthouse’ and his favourite actor is Willem Dafoe.  It was, therefore, not a surprise when he chose to dress up as Dafoe’s character in ‘The Lighthouse’ for Halloween.  Our youngest son went trick or treating as a cat. Our neighbourhood did a safe, socially-distanced trick or treat event.  Candy had to be bagged up in advance and left down by the sidewalk so that nobody had to approach houses and everyone had to walk in the direction of traffic to avoid passing.  It worked really well as a zero contact event and I was glad we could do something approaching “normal” for the youngest members of the community.  Honestly, I rather hope this becomes the new tradition.  It was much easier and the kids were able to gather so much more candy in a shorter period of time because they were not having to leave the sidewalks or wait for people to answer the door.  I am adding that to the list of things I hope don’t return to normal after the pandemic.

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My own personal Halloween horror story was surviving without a fridge-freezer for almost the whole of October.  In addition to being an unexpected expense, we had a whole lot of stress trying to problem-solve a replacement.  When we bought our house, it had not been remotely updated since it was built in 1968 with the exception of the kitchen which dates from about 1990.  It was not, therefore, wholly surprising when the fridge-freezer went kaput.  Unfortunately, dimensions of appliances have changed over the past 30 years and we could not find a replacement fridge-freezer that would fit into the space.  Aside from the fact that we cannot afford to replace the entire kitchen right now, the units are actually in excellent condition.  The only solution we could come up with that maintained the integrity of the surrounding cabinets was to remove the doors from the cabinets above the fridge-freezer space, cut down the interior box, and create an open shelving situation.  It is not ideal but it will do for now and until we do renovate the entire kitchen.  The plumbing for the fridge-freezer was not in line with current code so that was another hiccup along the way.  Needless to say, after a month without a functioning fridge-freezer, I am so happy and grateful to have a new one.

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My birthday fell in election week so the election and the stressful wait for the results dominated the week.  It did, however, make for a very memorable birthday.  I cannot imagine I will ever forget it.  My husband’s birthday fell just two days after we went into lockdown in the Spring and I have the last birthday of the year in our household so we have all had this weird birthday experience now.

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My birthday tradition is to have a trip somewhere that everyone has to agree to and not complain (too much) about.  A lot of things are off limits right now and then there are things we assess as being too high risk.  Luckily, however, one of my favourite pastimes is visiting cemeteries and that is a safe thing to do in the current context.  We, therefore, took a trip to Woodlands Cemetery in Philadelphia.

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It is always useful to have a focus to our cemetery visits so I went armed with research into some graves we could try to locate.  Mr Pict actually has some distant relatives buried in the cemetery but we had no success in finding them.  Our focus, therefore, was on famous graves.

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The first grave I really wanted to find was that of Mary Grew.  She was an abolitionist and suffragist and, given 2020 is the centenary of women being enfranchised in America and Americans have just elected the nation’s first female VP, it seemed apt to go visit her grave.

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Just a hop, skip, and a jump away, we located the grave of the artist Thomas Eakins.  I confess I had not heard of Eakins until we emigrated and settled in the suburbs of Philadelphia.  One of Eakins’ most famous paintings is The Gross Clinic and the subject of that painting, Dr Samuel Gross, is buried elsewhere in the cemetery.  One of my nerdy interests – an offshoot of my fascination with disease and pandemics – is the history of medicine and the painting of Gross provides some insight into the practices in surgical theatres at that time – not a lot of hygiene, for instance.  That same interest is what drew me to find the resting place of John Conrad Otto.  He identified the pattern of hereditary that caused the transmission of hemophilia.

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As you may recall, Mr Pict is a Civil War nerd so we, of course, had to visit at least a couple of the graves of notable Civil War veterans: Naval Commodore William David Porter and David Bell Birney.

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My kids have remained 100% virtual for education but, just last week, those students who wished to were able to return to brick and mortar schools on a hybrid model.  By the end of the week, the county public health department ordered that all schools had to pivot back to 100% online for all students for a period of two weeks.  Apart from the fact I returned to work, we have continued to live in a “lockdown” mode so nothing much alters for us.  It may, however, indicate that a strict lockdown is on the horizon.  Apart from not wishing to be furloughed again, we are prepared for it.  We will just continue to watch movies, play board games, and bake.  

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Longwood Gardens and The Last Days of Pandemic Summer

And so our summer has officially drawn to a close with the return to work (me) and school (my sons).  It has been a very peculiar summer, of course.  I am sure most people reading this have had a very different summer from the one they anticipated and planned for.  We, for example, were supposed to fly back to the UK for a few weeks to spend time with our families and attend my youngest brother’s wedding.  Instead, my brother contracted Covid 19, his wedding was postponed and we obviously did not travel to Britain.  We have tried to make the most of our family time, being stuck together pretty much 24/7, but – again, I am sure in common with everyone else – it has been fatiguing and dispiriting.  I think, however, that the transition back to work and (distance learning) school is going to be far tougher than anything we have experienced so far.

We decided to have one last family adventure of the Summer.  Having spent six months avoiding being anywhere peopley, we thought we would brave going somewhere a bit busier but which would still afford us the opportunity to social distance and be safe.  After considering at least a dozen options and discarding them as not having robust enough safety measures, we hit upon the idea of Longwood Gardens.  Not too far from home, largely outdoors, and lots of procedures to mitigate the risk factors.  Mr Pict and I had visited Longwood two years ago but a) I was suffering with some post-op complications and b) the kids had never visited.  We spent a lovely few hours there, felt completely safe throughout our visit, and were glad we went.

In case you were wondering, one of my sons decided when we went into lockdown that he would not cut his hair for that whole period; now he has decided he won’t cut it for the duration of the pandemic.  I suspect his hair is going to get very long.  And my oldest son is not dressed appropriately for the climate because he prefers to wear a “uniform”.  It is slightly crazy making but, as the parent of two autistic children, I have to choose which battles I am going to go full Viking on and which I am just going to wave the white flag at.

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We continued to return to trails we had not visited in years.  Some of these walks were more successful than others.  For instance, we made the poor decision to revisit French Creek State Park in the aftermath of a very nasty storm.  The ground was hard going, sticky and slick, which combined with the steep terrain at points made it very exhausting to walk and I found I was having to concentrate so much on my footing that I was not remotely enjoying my surroundings.  It was also disgustingly humid.  I felt like I was breathing in water.  I just felt muddy and gross and mosquitoes the size of zeppelins were devouring me and making me swell up.  I completed the walk, about 5 miles because we abandoned our intended trail for a shortcut, looking like a parboiled lobster cosplaying as Rambo.  So gross.  We did encounter a lot of frogs on our trek though.

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We have also been playing a lot of board games.  I really like board games but my husband is really fanatical about board games and has amassed quite a massive collection over the years so we always have lots to choose from.  One of the games we have been playing is Pandemic, thematically apt, a co-operative game we don’t often win.  We, however, had a stonking win one afternoon and defeated all of the diseases.  Let’s hope that is a portent of things to come in real life.

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One of my big summer projects was to tame the chaos of our converted garage space and turn it into an organized storage space, including a space for my teaching materials and a larder for all the things I tend to buy in bulk.  I should have thought to take a before photo because it really was a mess.  Things had been hurriedly and thoughtlessly dumped in that room first when we had our basement flood and then when we had to reorganize household spaces with everyone learning and working from home.  Since shelves had become inaccessible during that period, things that actually permanently belonged in that room had not been put in their correct place.  Necessary changes at work due to pandemic mitigation mean I also have to store all of my teaching resources at home and, of course, the only place I had to store them was also the garage.  You will just have to take my word from it that it was an overwhelming mess.  I have spent this summer working on it bit by bit because it was a time consuming project.  It does not look like much and certainly is not going to win any awards for being aesthetically pleasing but the chaos is no more, everything now has a place, and everything is so organized that I can put my hands on any item in that room in an instant.  The shelving unit of square cubbies contain my lesson plans, teaching materials, toys, and books.  It still needs a fair bit of finessing with better storage solutions for some items but it is a functional and much more efficient system.

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On the subject of work, I have also been spending time going into my classroom and getting it ready for a new batch of students and, of course, a new way of operating.  I have had to strip out so much fun stuff from my classroom and my lesson planning because of teaching in the context of a pandemic so it is a bit deflating and dispiriting but I am excited to meet my new students and create fun learning experiences for them.

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I continued to bake my way through the stress of this situation.  I will never be an applicant for a baking show but I have definitely improved my skill level and confidence when it comes to baking.  I have had the odd failure – such as a sunken chocolate cherry cake – but my successes have outnumbered the failures and even the failures were tasty enough.  Like Pavlov’s dogs, however, my boys have become way too accustomed to having a sweet treat available on an almost daily basis.  Since I will not have time for daily baking when I am back at work, it is going to be an adjustment for them and may involve some sugar withdrawal.  Incidentally, that cake in the photo is supposed to have a crack in it as it is an orange Madeira cake.

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All of these summer blog posts have ended with portraits of the cats so here are some portraits of Peanut (ginger) and Satchi (grey) doing their feline thing.

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And here is one of our “bonus” pets.  When our basement window wells flood, frogs move in.  Here is a photo of one who brought his packed lunch slug with him.

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Final Escapades of 2019

Trigger Warning: This blog post contains photos of spiders and other bugs.

Happy New Year!

This brief blog post is a precis of the last Pict family escapades of 2019, what we got up to over winter break.  We were not overly ambitious or adventurous, choosing to stick fairly close to home and keeping each outing brief, because our focus was on quality family time, enjoying each other’s company, and relaxing after what has been a stressful, chaotic, and busy few months.

The first family event of winter break was a cinema trip to see ‘Rise of Skywalker’.  We are a family of Star Wars nerds.  Mr Pict and I have loved it since we were kids and so we introduced it to each of the boys when they were babies. We, therefore, had to see the latest installment in the saga as soon as we possibly could.

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Mr Pict and I took our youngest son into Philly to see the Christmas lights and wander around the market that sets up near city hall every holiday season.  The light show that projects images onto the facade of city hall is well done, though the accompanying music could have been louder.  I really detest crowds but at least the throngs were all people in good spirits and nobody was in a particular rush.  It did, however, make me appreciate the relative peace and quiet of the adjacent garden space with its antler clad figures and twinkling fairy lights.  We had a wander around the market stalls, just taking in the sights, sounds, and smells.  We were not making any purchases so didn’t have to get involved with any jostling and thankfully we didn’t need any refreshments because the queues for food were astounding.  The whole area of the city had a good buzz to it.  I think maybe sparkling lights make everything feel better.

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We had a lovely Christmas Day, full of fun and feasting.  My personal highlight was receiving a Little Baby Yoda made for me by my 14 year old son.

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Mr Pict took our 12 year old skiing in the Poconos.  I have never had an interest in skiing but Mr Pict introduced all of the boys to the sport a few years ago.  Our current 12 year old is the only one who took to it so a day of skiing has become an annual event for the two of them.

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Finally, we had some tickets for the Insectarium so we took a trip there just before the new year.  Our only previous visit there had been in our first winter in Pennsylvania, almost exactly six years ago.  It was the subject of one of my early blog posts.  Much of the Insectarium was the same but the building has also expanded so it includes a butterfly pavilion.  We enjoyed wandering among the large butterflies, most of which were the same species.  I cannot remember the name of them but they were large with brown patterned wings which opened up to reveal a stunning, shiny blue.  They also seemed to be fond of eating oranges.  The absolute highlight of our time there for my youngest son and me, however, was being permitted to hold a tarantula.  We loved it.  I was completely smitten.

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That concludes my round up of the last embers of 2019.  Let’s see what is in store for us in 2020.

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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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Rodin Museum

On Saturday, we were in the city for other reasons but decided to build in a jaunt to the Rodin Museum.  There are still (after 5 years of living here) several Philadelphia museums I have yet to visit and the Rodin was among them so I was glad to have the opportunity to check it off the list.  The building, which dates from the interwar period, is charming and its grounds are a little oasis of plants and water and calm in the city.  There were people relaxing in the courtyard with a book and I can well imagine it being a superb space in which to wile away some time and unwind.

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The basis of the museum is the collection of one man, apparently an avid fan of Auguste Rodin’s work.  It houses many of the sculptor’s most famous works.  Indeed, one of the dozen versions of his most celebrated work – The Thinker – greets visitors outside the museum.  I have seen versions of The Thinker before – at the Burrell Collection in Glasgow and I think the National Gallery in Washington DC – but this was the best version I have seen.  The thing I really appreciate about Rodin’s sculptures are the rough hewn textures, the sense of weight in the bodies, the torsion in the poses.  Being able to see a large scale version of The Thinker up close I could really observe the grip of the toes on the pedestals, the pressure of the elbow on the thigh, the weight of the chin on the raised hand.

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The interior space of the museum is compact but well lit and the contents are displayed thoughtfully.  There were, of course, lots of smaller works by Rodin.  I especially liked some busts.  However, there were also some sculptures by other artists who were either inspired by Rodin or were competitors of Rodin.  There was an excellent Picasso piece and a charming piece depicting an embrace between a sailor and a female figure that my 9 year old was especially drawn to.  The boys, incidentally, were not especially enthused by this particular trip.  Our 13 year old and our 9 year old were pretty engaged and enjoyed seeing the sculptures but the 16 and 12 year old’s were totally switched off.  Thankfully the museum had some benches for them to plonk themselves on while the rest of us milled about.

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In truth, the best pieces in the collection are all housed outside the museum and can, therefore, be accessed for free.  We were, therefore, lucky that we had visited on a free entry day.  The Gates of Hell is on a wall beside the building’s doors.  It was fascinating seeing the miniature versions of various sculptures within the composition.  The Burghers of Calais (one of a dozen castings) is in the grounds.  It depicts a scene from The Hundred Years’ War and being able to get up close to the figures meant I could really see the way Rodin was conveying the sense of defeat, dejection, and humiliation in their faces and sagging bodies.  My favourite of the pieces in the collection was also within the grounds.  I love the composition of The Three Shades and the way the three male figures combine to form a single, almost organic shape and I also really like the rendering of the musculature in the poses, even if the angles of the necks are wholly unnatural.

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Philly is actually a great city for public art generally, from transitory installations to diverse sculptures to the fantastic murals covering the sides of buildings and walls to monuments and memorials.  We encountered a few of these on our wanderings on Saturday and really I should try to plan out a few walking tours so we can see a lot more of this public art.  I am now also keen to return to the Philadelphia Art Museum.

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Fleetwood Mac

On Friday evening, Mr Pict and I saw Fleetwood Mac live in concert.  The tickets were my Christmas present so I had been excited for months to see them perform.  I have been a Fleetwood Mac fan for almost as long as I can remember so I have been listening to them for four decades.  Whenever I sit at my art table and listen to music while I create, I always play the ‘Rumours’ album, probably my favourite album of all time.  I never imagined I would ever have the opportunity to see them perform live so I was flabbergasted when I received the tickets.  Mr Pict is not a Fleetwood Mac fan but he does love seeing live music so he was more than happy to accompany me.

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Friday was also my first time in the Wells Fargo Center.  We were in the cheap seats so I experienced a wee bit of vertigo when I saw how steeply raked the seating was and there was also not much in the way of leg room.  I am 5’3.5″ but even my knees were feeling the ache when I stood up after two hours.  The compact seating meant we also had to get along well with the random strangers seated next to us since we all had no choice but to move and dance in unison given we were all compressed together.  But this minor discomfort was absolutely worth it for the amazing experience of seeing Fleetwood Mac.  They played most of their “greatest hits”, including all but three of the tracks from the original ‘Rumours’ track-listing.  As such, the crowd was able to cheer within a matter of a couple of notes, recognising what song was about to be performed.  It was really quite something to be one of thousands of people all singing along at the same time.  I admit to feeling a wee bit emotional during a couple of my favourite songs because I had never imagined I would ever see them performed live.  The whole concert was fantastic, extremely polished, incredibly engaging.  My voice was strained by the end of the two hours from singing along continuously.  It really was an amazing concert and I feel very lucky indeed to have been able to experience it.

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PS Excuse the poor quality of the photographs.  My phone doesn’t do well at all in poor lighting.

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.

Citizen Pict

I emigrated from Scotland to America as a Green Card holder in October 2013.  My husband has been a dual US/UK national since his birth and our children became dual nationals when they became resident in America, made official by them obtaining US passports in October 2015.  I, therefore, have been the only alien in the Pict family for quite some time now.

My original plan had been, for many and varied reasons, to wait to apply for citizenship until closer to the time when my 10 year Green Card would expire.  However, the 2016 presidential election was tough on my psyche and it didn’t get any easier to live in this country without having the ability to vote in 2017.  I have always exercised my right to vote so being entirely disenfranchised and unable to participate in the democratic process was really challenging.  That, therefore, became the primary reason why I decided to bring forward my timeline for becoming an American citizen.

The immigration process was complex and expensive.  The naturalization process was not quite as challenging and not quite as expensive but it still involved a whole load of tricky bureaucracy and a massive chunk of money.  It also involved a large investment of time and a fair dollop of stress.

The first stage was to submit my application, which was time consuming and sometimes had me raking through the dusty, musty corners of my memory banks, but nowhere near as complex as the immigration application had been.  This was then sent off to Chicago to be picked over and start the ball rolling.  However, no sooner had my application arrived in Chicago (I was tracking it) than I received a letter informing me that I was to report to a USCIS field office to have my biometrics taken.  No problem except that I had just one day’s notice between receiving the appointment card and the date of the appointment.  One day.  I flew into instant panic.  My husband was working in New York so I had to organise childcare backup for if I had any sort of delay outside school hours – however unlikely – and I had to scramble to find someone to take my place at work.  That fits neatly into a single sentence but it involved a whole lot of stress.

On the day of my appointment, I dropped off my youngest kids at school and drove off into northern Philly.  Thank goodness for Google maps because I had zero clue where I was going.  I did, however, meet almost every red light and had to stop at a rail crossing while an exceedingly lengthy cargo train rumbled past so I arrived at the USCIS field office with a mere five minutes to spare.  When I walked into the building, it was like a wasteland.  There was one other client visible and then everyone else was an employee.  The whole appointment, therefore, went smoothly and rapidly and ultimately felt like a giant waste of my time.  I had already had biometrics taken (eye scans and fingerprints) when I emigrated and I have had my fingerprints taking subsequently for volunteering and employment purposes.  The appointment, therefore, felt like replication.  The staff were friendly and courteous and worked efficiently so in no time at all I had been processed and sent on my way with a study guide for the tests.

And then I waited.

And waited.

And waited.

It is unbearably stressful to be in any sort of limbo situation.  We had been through this before with the Immigration process.  While we had to move forward with our lives as if we were relocating to America, the fact that at any stage either the immigration process might have had a hiccup or the employment prospects for my husband have fallen through, we would have had to abandon the whole plan and root ourselves back into our lives in Scotland.  However, that always felt as if it had forward momentum.  The Naturalization process felt like suffocating in stasis.

After the Biometrics appointment, I had zero contact from USCIS for months.  In many ways, that was a positive sign.  They did not need to request further information from me which meant my application was sound and, of course, they would have contacted me had they decided to outright reject my application.  However, to receive no correspondence for months, no update, no indication that progress was happening, however slowly, was painful.  It was also stressful because I could not commit to anything and had to opt out of certain plans because I had no idea when I might be called for Interview (and then the oath taking) but I was pretty sure it would be at short notice when it did happen.  Granted I am prone to stress and anxiety but it really was a pretty intense period of waiting.

I started to log into my USCIS online account at least once a week to see if there were any updates on my case.  In doing so, I discovered that I could monitor the progress of the Philadelphia field office through all the N-400 applications they were handling.  Whereas it used to take a few months from submitting an application to being called for interview, they were estimating at least a year.  I heard from other sources that this backlog is happening all over the US due to understaffed USCIS offices having to handle a massive increase in applications prompted by the political climate.  While not altogether surprising, therefore, it was a bit deflating.  It was estimated that I would be called for interview in the Autumn of 2018 which was not just a long time away but would also prevent me from registering to vote in time for the midterm elections.  I continued to obsessively check my USCIS account and track the field office and there was never any change.  My husband and I decided, therefore, that it was probably safe to plan out a summer vacation.  Nothing elaborate, nothing involving crossing an international border, and mostly things that could be cancelled with a full refund at 24 hours notice, just in case.

So obviously – because Murphy’s Law – a mere two days after the refund deadline had passed for the one vacation commitment that didn’t have a generous cancellation policy, I logged into my USCIS account and learned that I was being called for interview.  Of course, no date or time was provided with the electronic notice.  Nope.  It was just a notification that I would be receiving a notification by mail.  You know what a stress-head I am so you can probably well imagine the panic I had on seeing that notice and the anxiety I experienced waiting for the paper notification.  I found I was actually hoping for the same extremely short notice I had received for the Biometrics appointment because then it would be before my vacation.  I learned that the notice for an interview is usually between 2 and 4 weeks, parameters that were definitely going to scupper our travel plans.  Anxiety was developing into panic and attempts at problem-solving all the possibilities.  Could we delay our departure?  Could we return home early?  Could I fly back to Philly from random road trip location A and get a flight to random road trip location B?  After over a week of intense waiting for the letter to arrive, it was good news: my scheduled interview date permitted us to go ahead with our travel plans and I even had a day to spare.  Phew.

A few days after returning from our road trip, therefore, I entered the USCIS office in Philadelphia for my interview.  I went through security and got checked in about 20 minutes before my scheduled interview time but I had no sooner sat down – not even enough time to open my book – when my name was called.  The officer who interviewed me was friendly and jolly which immediately put me at ease.  After a little bit of introductory admin – such as checking my IDs and Green Card – I was launched straight into the tests.  There are 100 possible questions on American civics, history, and geography from which the interviewing officer will ask 10.  The first time I took the test of the full 100 questions, I got 96 correct.  After studying and really concentrating on dates and numbers (those being my weakness when it comes to memorisation) I was regularly getting 100% but you know how neurotic I am.  Those four wrong answers from the first run through niggled at me.  I was making anxiety mountains out of molehills.  I got 100% on the test.  I obviously had zero concerns about the English reading and writing tests and passed those.  I was then asked a series of questions that were really just a means of ensuring that my oral answers were consistent with those given on my submitted paperwork.  A few more bits of admin and that was it.  Interview over.  I was approved.  The letter had told me to allow for two hours.  I was done in 30 minutes.  I guess they decided that a marriage of 22 years with 4 kids probably meant this was not some sort of sham Green Card marriage and that no intense interrogation was required.

Now there was just one final step.

It took about three weeks to receive the date and time of my Naturalization Oath Ceremony in the mail and, when it arrived, it gave me under a week’s notice.  USCIS really does like to keep us on our toes.  Luckily I don’t work during the summer months and my in-laws had coincidentally flown in two days earlier to they could babysit the children.  I had swithered about having the boys attend the ceremony but I could not obtain information about provision for guests or how long the ceremony was likely to be so we decided – given the grandparents were around – to leave them at home.  My husband had no choice but to take some time off work to accompany me not just because I wanted someone there at the ceremony for me but also because I could not drive myself, having just had general anaesthesia for oral surgery.  Yeah, the timing of this ceremony was not particularly great given the state of my mouth and the level of discomfort I was in but I was not about to postpone it.

My ceremony was scheduled for 9am on Friday morning.  There were 56 other people taking the oath of allegiance with me during the ceremony and we represented 31 different countries.  I was the only one from the UK.  They kept us all very organised and had us process through various administrative processes according to the rows we were seated in.  I was the sixth person into the room and was, therefore, in the front row.  The chap who was “compering” the ceremony was very genial and warm and helped put us all at ease.  I had this weird, illogical anxiety that something might go wrong at the last moment.  A contributing factor was the fact I was still very woozy from the after effects of the anesthesia and strong painkillers which led me to make an error on one of my forms, thankfully not a critical error but one that left me with a malingering feeling of paranoia.  I had to return my Green Card as part of the Naturalization admin.  It felt weird to be giving away something that has been so important these past few years and something which was quite a bit of an ordeal to acquire.  There were some videos to watch and then we all stood for the oath taking part, which was led by another USCIS official.  At that point, at approximately 10am, I became an American citizen.  I was given my Certificate of Citizenship and all the formalities were over.

By 10.30am, I had registered to vote.  I will have to change my status with the Social Security department and then I will have to apply for a US passport so I still have some bureaucracy to plough through.  However, the big milestone is now done and dusted.  I am now Citizen Pict.

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