One of the first American things we did upon emigrating just over four years ago was visit a pumpkin patch. It, therefore, became an important part of our annual traditions, so much so that the kids insist that we return to the exact same farm each year. This year, however, only five of us visited the pumpkin patch. At 14.5, our oldest son has outgrown the tradition and opted out. Sniffle.
We started with the horror barn. At night, there are live actors inside the barn who jump out at visitors and there are also moving parts and more special effects. I am a horror movie fan and totally cool with gore but I don’t imagine I would cope with the evening version of the horror barn. Mr Pict and I once visited the London Dungeon early in the morning which made us the first visitors. Mr Pict nipped to the restroom, leaving me alone in a dark room. When one of the models moved, I screamed very loudly and almost punched the poor employee. Anyway, the day time version of the horror barn contains the fixed props, some of which are very gory, and some sound effects. My kids love it but we did see a couple of kids crying, one hysterically.
The Alien barn is another favourite of the boys. It is all 3D paint effects, black light glowing, and disorienting strobe effects. And it definitely can be disorienting: in the pitch black, I walked smack into a wall that I thought was a door.
We also did a lot of the “country fair” type stuff that the farm runs during its Halloween festival. We shared a funnel cake, which is a must, and the boys used canon to fire vegetables at targets. A new thing this year was a range of sports ball activities. My very unsporty boys had a whale of a time measuring the speed of their baseball throws, getting balls through targets, shooting hoops, and scoring goals.
We also made another attempt at the farm’s corn maze. My children know nothing of the story and movie ‘Children of the Corn’ beyond the title but still decided to act out being spooky little ghouls among the corn stalks. The idea of the maze is to visit each of five stations within it in order to paint the fingers of one hand a different colour. For a bit of fun, the pattern of the colours on each individual’s hand then determines a funny little action each person takes – such as playing air fiddle or shaking your tail feathers. We have never yet managed to find all five stations. I think we are officially hopeless at mazes – though we did find our way back out again.
We hopped on the wagon which took us out to the pumpkin patch. The boys had wanted to select a small or medium pumpkin each but there were only large ones left so they agreed they would team up to pick and carve one communal pumpkin. Getting them to agree on a pumpkin was a whole other matter. Pumpkins were considered and rejected, argued over, discussed and dismissed. Finally they found one they could all agree upon. Now we just have to agree on a design and carve the thing.
On the basis of better late than never, this is how our Halloween unfolded this year. It was a super-busy, hectic, exhausting day and I still have not caught up with myself but at least all the stuff keeping me on my feet (literally) was fun stuff. I spent the morning working at the preschool dressed up as the Cat in the Hat which included a parade and a party. Then I dashed to my kids’ Elementary School for the first of their three Halloween parties, watched the school’s Halloween parade, and ran between two classrooms for the other two class parties. Then it was home to prepare for the evening – finishing touches to the house decorations, including setting up our giant jumping spider, and getting dinner cooking for the guests we had coming over. My reward was that after all of that hubbub of activity all day, my friend and I got to sit on the porch handing out treats while quaffing some deliciously cockle-warming Autumn apple cider sangria. It was a wonderful, fun-filled day of festivities and friendship.
Costumes! Halloween for my kids is more about the dressing up than it is about candy. My oldest son was undecided as to whether to go trick or treating or not. Ultimately he decided to accompany his brothers around the streets while wearing a super-creepy-gross mask but without earning any candy. That was his compromise with himself. My youngest dressed up as the Grim Reaper. He changed his mind dozens of times about what he was going to dress up as and then ended up picking something quick and easy from a store shelf. My 11 year old cobbled together his character and costume from various bits and pieces we already owned. As soon as he saw the metallic red mask in a store, he knew he wanted to build a creepy character around it. He spent all day being asked what he was dressed up as but he didn’t care. He just wanted to do his own thing.
My 9 year old, meanwhile, had had his costume designed and planned for months. He is into Steampunk so was determined to have a costume that worked with that aesthetic. We spent a lot of time scouring thrift stores and crafting accessories, adapting shop bought items to make them work. Probably a more crafty and capable parent would have been able to construct the whole costume in a matter of a couple of afternoons or evenings but, with my sewing skills and my lack of experience with jewellery making, it took me ages. It was a labour of love for sure and I am adamant that he will be wearing this costume until I see fit.
This Labour Day weekend, my four boys got to experience an American tradition: running a lemonade stand. They suggested the idea and we supported it. This was not something they would have experienced back home in Scotland so we were keen to let them do something that their born-and-bred American peers have probably done.
They made a gallon of lemonade from scratch, all taking turns at squeezing the juice from the lemons using the citrus reamer. I think they liked how aggressive they were getting to be with a kitchen utensil. I am given to understand now that actually the American tradition for lemonade stands is to use a powder mix as the base of the drink but never mind. They had never made lemonade from scratch before so that just added to the joy of it all being a new experience. I also baked chocolate brownies for them to sell.
We left them to come up with the promotional posters and to decide on things like the price points. We provided them with a float and showed them how to set out their income and expenditure accounts, a basic version of course, and then it was time for them to set up their stall. A Saturday of a holiday weekend and with a storm predicted was always going to be slow going so I used the modern grapevine – Facebook – to send a message around the neighbourhood that they had set up stall and were selling freshly squeezed lemonade and brownies. What was lovely was that so many neighbours stopped by to give them some support and encouragement, financial and verbal, but they also got some passing trade from cars driving through the neighbourhood and from our mail man.
It was, however, still pretty slow going and so they learned something about the boredom involved in certain retail ventures, about handling a rush period alongside stretches of inactivity, and finally about the math of determining profit. They actually made a surprising amount for a couple of hours of work and were quite pleased with their earnings. I think they had hoped to rake in much more, however, so it will be interesting to see if they wish to repeat the exercise next summer and – if so – what they might do differently. It was fun to see them experiencing something new about America, something that is a tradition for many American families, but I mostly enjoyed seeing them work cooperatively as a team and having to interact with other people without having we adults hovering as a crutch. I like to think they have learned some life skills from the whole experience. They also got to eat lots of leftover brownies.
In what has become a Halloween tradition in the two years that we have lived in America, we headed to Shady Brook Farm this weekend to have some spooky themed fun and pick out pumpkins. Mr Pict and I had thought to take the kids somewhere else, change things up a bit instead of repeating the previous years’ jaunts, but the boys all protested and wanted to return to familiar territory. The Pictlings have determined the tradition.
The boys bounced on the giant trampolines, looked at the animals, played on the climbing frame, and ate pretzels, funnel cake and deep fried oreos. The middle two boys had a shot of a corn cannon, blasting corn cobs at various objects. Everyone guffawed when my 10 year old managed to hit the giant corn doll in its groin. Our 6 year old had fun blasting zombies with a paint ball through a rather too rapid fire technique.
There are two barns that get decked out spooky style for Halloween. In the evening, folks can wander through the dark interior while real life “ghouls” terrorise them but by day it is equally fun to wander around and see all the grotesque and fun decorations. The kids love the alien barn. Donning 3D glasses makes paint jump off the walls and models of aliens seem to vibrate. The kids think it is massive fun. My 12 year old and I then had a wander through the horror barn. It’s grotesque in places with imagery lifted from gory horror movies but it’s the room full of clowns that freaks me out the most.
Then it was time to head to the pumpkin patch so that each of the boys could select a pumpkin for carving. I guess the pumpkins were nearing the end of their season as there were many rotten and smashed ones littering the ground. It, therefore, took a while for the kids to find the pumpkins they wanted. We set them a size and weight limit which was not an issue for our 10 year old who wanted the smallest, roundest, most orange pumpkin he could find.
We then did some freestyle carving to turn the pumpkins into a My Little Pony, two vampires and Jack Skellington. With that, the pumpkins were ready to be transformed into lanterns for Halloween.
We participated in a local Summer tradition yesterday evening thanks to a thunderstorm and torrential rain. The storms and the related flood warning meant that Mr Pict arrived home from working in the city early enough to eat dinner with us. He then suggested that we go out to Rita’s for dessert. The male Picts have all munched at Rita’s before – last summer when we went to the Jersey shore – but this was a first for me.
Rita’s was founded thirty years ago in a nearby town. It has expanded nationally since then but going to Rita’s in the summer months remains very much a local edible tradition – such as favouring Geno’s or Pat’s cheesesteaks and eating pretzels whenever the opportunity arises. It only operates in the summer months but it feels like there are Rita’s shacks on most roads around Philly. I learned this year that on the first day of Spring they give away free water ice but that was irrelevant to us this year as the first day of Spring involved a heavy dumping of snow and digging out the driveway. Not really water ice weather let alone joining a long queue for water ice weather.
Water ice always strikes me as a tautology but it refers to a particular style of sorbet, fruit puree frozen as if it was ice cream. It is definitely not like shaved ice or slushy. Rita’s also serves frozen custard and gelati, which is a mixture of the custard and water ice. The Rita’s shack had a menu listing all the day’s available flavours and toppings so we perused the board and made our choices. Some of us kept things simple – I had a tropical water ice – while others went big style and had the gelati concoction with sauce, multiple toppings, whipped cream and a cherry.
This was an edible local tradition I could get on board with. I have been past but never into either Geno’s or Pat’s because I don’t eat red meat so I am never going to eat a cheesesteak. I also do not like pretzels. I am not very taken with tomato pie either, much preferring traditional pizza. My stomach might be deported from Pennsylvania. Water ice, however, has saved the day. I rather enjoyed it. It was refreshing and light and flavourful. Our evening trip to Rita’s was the perfect antidote to a muggy, steamy evening.
I like Thanksgiving as a holiday and I am glad I now get to legitimately celebrate it. As it is not related to a faith group or specific culture, it is inclusive (albeit that it is technically linked to a commemoration of colonising and persecuting an indigenous population) and everyone is off school and work at the same time. There is no frenzy of gift buying and wrapping, no decking of the halls (at least not for us) and so the focus is just on togetherness and feasting.
Being relatively new to Thanksgiving, I am only just gradually trying and testing different traditions and seeing which fit and which do not. This year, literally just two days before Thanksgiving, we had a painter in decorating our living rooms. The house was topsy-turvy, with boxes of art work, ornaments, books and possessions, shelves and cushions stowed absolutely everywhere else in the house. It was not conducive to organising anything and – in truth – I forgot to even meal plan until the day before. And that was the day when my oldest son came down with a sickness bug so we were housebound. Therefore, partly out of pragmatism and necessity and partly because I needed to use my time in other areas – such as putting the house back together – I took some lazy options and decided to try some American traditional foods.
I love green bean casserole. It’s delicious. That is partly because I load it with even more strong cheese and wholegrain mustard than the recipe instructs but it is just entirely scrummy. That’s a tradition I am totally on board with. Brining the turkey ensured that it was succulent and juicy despite its massive bulk. I am a roast potato fan but at least one of my kids claims he only likes potato if it is mashed so we decided to follow the American tradition of having mash. To make it extra creamy, however, I added sour cream and cream cheese. It was amazingly creamy and rich but my kids hated it. No actually they loathed it. Fail. Back to the drawing board with the mash then. We also used corn muffin mix rather than making them from scratch just because of time. They were OK but not amazing. The biggest fail of the day though was the stuffing. In Britain, stuffing is normally based around sausage meat. My intention, however, had been to make my mother-in-law’s recipe for rice and mushroom stuffing. Again, however, my timings being scuppered we opted to try out traditional American stuffing which is based around seasoned bread. It was horrid. Nobody ate more than a morsel of it because it was so entirely bland both in flavour and texture. Not doing that again. None of our desserts were homemade this year either. However, my husband and kids assure me that the pumpkin pie, pecan pie and fruit tart were delicious. So our Thanksgiving feasting traditions will continue to evolve until we get a mixture of things we all enjoy – or which the majority of us enjoy at least. And next year we won’t schedule lots of upheaval just before the holidays either.
The following evening, we took a trip out to Shady Brook Farm to see their Holiday Light Show. This was another attempt at forging a tradition since we had also gone there last year. The car drives through the displays of light which makes for some lazy spectating but keeps everyone contained and cosy. My kids each had a blanket in the car with them. The first section was themed around the song ‘Twelve Days of Christmas’ so we all sang the song, loudly, as we drove past each section of lights, often in a tuneless muddle but it was fun nevertheless. We also liked the sea themed section, the landmarks of the world and fairy tale sections. The displays all seemed to be the same designs as we had seen last year but that was OK as everyone enjoyed the twinkly lights – especially the tunnels of lights we drove through.
After the driving section, we parked up and wandered around the produce market section. While festive music played and synchronised lights twinkled and flashed, people were toasting s’mores around fire pits and aromas of salty kettle popcorn, melting chocolate and fried
dough filled the air, wafting at us temptingly from the surrounding stalls. We capitulated to temptation and bought a toasty hot funnel cake which the boys devoured in a matter of seconds, like hyenas ripping through a downed wildebeest. I should have made funnel cake and s’mores for Thanksgiving dinner.
The farm runs a whole Halloween event. In the evening, adults – or at least adults who like a thorough scare and have strong bladders – can explore various barns, fields and corn mazes in the dark while people dressed as various horrific things terrorise them and they encounter horrible props. In daylight, it is still possible to wander through the attractions but, of course, there are sources of light and there are no actual human horrors lurking in corners, just grotesque props. We, therefore, started our afternoon at Shady Brook Farm by heading into the Horror Barn. I went in first with my 11 and 7 year olds. Later Mr Pict went in with the 5 year old. Our 9 year old didn’t want to do it at all, which is fine. Getting the creeps is not for everyone. The thing that unsettles me in the barn is actually the claustrophobia. The narrow corridors created by hoarding and the darkness creep me out far more than corpses dangling from a ceiling and vampiric girls chewing on pet cats. However, this time around, the first room was filled with clowns. I have a proper, deep-seated fear of clowns. Even happy clowns give me serious chills so horror clowns really make my flesh crawl and my spine judder.
After the horror barn, we went into another barn that is a 3D Alien experience. It’s pretty lo-fi but really effective. We were each handed a pair of 3D spectacles and then we entered the darkened barn where the walls of the corridors had been painted with fluorescent paint that vibrated and sprung forward from the walls. There were also dangling dayglo threads and the odd alien figure lurking in a corner with its big eyes and long fingers. There was also a walkway through a rotating cylinder that was dizzifying and the exit was via two large inflatable pillows that we each had to squeeze between. It was exactly the same as last year but none of us minded because it was a ton of fun.
The boys then played on various items of play equipment: an inflatable assault course, a bouncy slide, giant bouncing pillows to trampoline on, wooden play equipment with slides and fireman’s poles and a rope spiderweb. They also snacked on pretzels because we cannot take those kids anywhere in Pennsylvania without them eating pretzels. After the snack stop, we decided to undertake one of the mazes. Last year we had attempted the large corn maze and became terribly lost and bewildered and then panicked as one by one the kids all needed to pee. In desperation, we actually exited via an unofficial gap, having entirely failed to discover each of the designated stations and the exit. This year, therefore, we stuck to the weenie haystack maze and the kids had fun playing hide and seek among the haystacks and crawling through and inside the corn tunnels and the corn wigwam.
A tractor-towed wagon ride delivered us to the pumpkin patch where the kids selected and rejected and selected again about half a dozen pumpkins each. A couple of them were even set on taking home pumpkins that were too heavy to lift. They were told to scale back their ambitions. With carving designs in mind, they finally chose pumpkins they felt were the perfect size and shape for what they wanted to create and construct and two were even green instead of the traditional orange.
It’s rather nice to be cycling through things again as it means we are establishing new traditions in our new country.
*PS I am unsure as to why some of my photos are appearing so small. I have just moved to using Flickr to host my photographs for the blog and I clearly have not got the hang of it. Hopefully it is not too visually annoying.*
As of this past Saturday, I have now officially missed out on the Eurovision Song Contest for the first time in my life.
Watching Eurovision was a tradition in my household growing up, a tradition I then introduced Mr Pict to and which became part of our calendar as a couple and a tradition that then grew to include our children once they were old enough to stay up late on a Saturday night. Therefore, what I am really missing is the loss of one of our deeply ingrained family traditions.
It is possible that if you have always lived outside Europe you have zero idea of what I am even referring to in this blog entry. Let me clue you in. The Eurovision Song Contest has been held every year since 1956 and involves member countries submitting a song. Each song is then performed on one (very long) evening and each member country gets to vote on which they like best which then determines the winner, nominally the most popular song. The contest was long enough when I was a wee lassie but, with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the subsequent creation of new nations, the number of member states has increased massively in the last quarter of a century so that now they have to hold semi-finals and the voting takes an even more interminably long time.
In the decades before I was born, Eurovision was taken quite seriously. It was regarded as an honour for a country to win and to then host the next year’s contest and the acts performing the song could have their careers significantly boosted by a win or even an appearance. Some credible careers – such as Abba – were launched by success at Eurovision. The joy of Eurovision, however, is that in more recent decades the musical and artistic merit has declined so that the songs are utter drivel, frequently sung out of key and the performances are often bizarre. It is an absolutely wonderful night of randomly kitsch and camp entertainment. For most of my life, the BBC’s commentator on the night’s events was the DJ Terry Wogan who would make sarcastic quips as the show progressed and gradually sink into his cups as the voting stretched out before him. He retired and was replaced by another sardonic Irishman, Graham Norton. A lot of the pleasure of watching Eurovision was the commentator’s witty put downs reflecting our own view of the show.
Then there is the voting. There is admittedly not a great deal of merit in any of the songs or performances but merit is rarely how Eurovision is won. Instead, there are complex political relationships at work which lead to certain countries always awarding top points to the same allies every single year and denying points to countries with which they have fraught relationships, regardless of the quality of effort. It is actually perfectly possible to predict what some countries will award from the “public voting” each year. In recent years it has also been the case that some countries have, it is suspected, deliberately thrown the contest because they do not want to win. Winning involves hosting the following year. This can be a drain on finances for some and a welcome boost to tourism for others. If, however, you are like Ireland and have hosted several times then it might be time to submit a song performed by a puppet turkey. That actually happened. It is believed that singing in English creates an advantage. There was a rule for a time that songs had to be sung in each country’s native language but it was determined this unfairly advantaged the English speaking nations since English is the second language of most European countries. If you have ever sat through Eurovision then you might agree with me that actually it is probably advantageous to sing in the most obscure language and dialect possible so that as few people as possible can understand that the lyrical content is entirely dire. I also think part of the fun is hearing other languages and it is always a bonus when a country decides to go for a bit of a flourish using an ethnic instrument of some kind- double bonus if done so while wearing some bonkers version of national costume.
Anyway, our Pict family tradition was to score each country’s performance out of 20 with a maximum of ten marks being awarded for the song, five for the performance and five for the costumes. As a family that usually meant that there was much discussion surrounding how low the score should be for each song and it also meant it was possible for our top scorers to have sung in a way that emulated a camel belching so long as they had a top drawer performance and some natty costumes. In recent years we have evolved the tradition of eating nachos in front of the TV while chortling through the musical turns and debating whether the song that made our ears wither deserved even a single point. Of course, the children also love the fact that they get to stay up late – really quite late indeed – while glutting themselves on telly watching. There is also an unspoken tradition of seeing who can come up with the most scathing put down or come up with the most witty one liner about a song or performance. The boys do quite well in that regard. My apprentices.
But no more.
Possibly next year I will find the time to investigate if the Eurovision’s website broadcasts the event online in any other way than live. A Saturday afternoon will never do for Eurovision for one reason or another but watching it “as live” in the evening would be fabulous. So long as I manage to avoid the news of who the winner is which I singly failed to do this year. I turned on the BBC World News and learned that 2014’s winner was Austria with a song performed by a pretty drag performer with a beard. Now that’s Eurovision at its most magnificent!
We participated in an American tradition for the first time on Sunday: we bought Girl Scout Cookies.
This was a fundraising activity we were only aware of through TV programmes and movies (mainly ‘Monster House’) but we had heard the legends that these were the best cookies in the universe. Those Girl Scouts know how to market themselves, that’s for sure. So when two little girls who live at the other end of our street popped by proffering cookies we had to say yes. We are always happy to contribute to good causes anyway but we were also eager to try these baked goods of legend. We bought caramel and peanut butter varieties on the spot and ordered another batch of peanut butter and thin mints.
So far the boys have only sampled the peanut butter cookies but they met with their seal of approval.
For the first time in over a century, Thanksgiving is going to coincide with the first day of Hanukkah and this is the last time that will occur for quite some time to come. This is quite the big deal around here, the collision of two big winter celebrations.
My 6 year old in particular is a tad forlorn that we are not celebrating Hannukah. He claims every single other person in his class is celebrating Hannukah. Biased reporting of statistics. He essentially wants to be part of the double-dip holiday. He would love us to have a menurkey – a menorah shaped like a turkey, invented by a 10 year old from New York city. Tempted though I might be to buy one for posterity, to mark our first Thanksgiving in America, it is not happening. Besides which, menurkeys are sold out.
Yesterday he came home from school begging me to make latkes. This is a child who professes to hating all potato based foods yet he would not stop going on and on about wanting latkes. The menurkey was not something I could accomplish but I might just give in and make some latkes.
What is fun about all of this is that the boys are being exposed to all sorts of different religions, cultures, customs and traditions in a way that they just were not, at least in any direct way, in the homogeneous town we moved here from. So I am quite happy to be hounded for menurkeys and latkes because it means my 6 year old has absorbed information about Hanukkah and Judaism.