Lancaster, Pennsylvania

My husband and I enjoyed our day away in Gettysburg in May so much that we decided to grab at another opportunity to have a parents-only day out. We decided upon Lancaster because, while I have been to Lancaster County several times, I have never actually been into the town of Lancaster itself. I also had another specific reason for selecting that location which I will explain later.

We wandered along to the Central Market, the oldest continuously operated market in the entire nation. Lancaster has had a regular market since 1730, pretty much on the same site. Unfortunately we were visiting the day after Independence Day so approximately half of the stalls were closed since the vendors were on vacation. We enjoyed wandering around, however, and taking in all of the produce and wares on sale. We bought some wonderful rhubarb from an Amish vendor and a punnet of fresh figs, the first fresh figs I have had in at least three years.

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Our next port of call was a cemetery, the modest Shreiner-Concord Cemetery. You know I love cemeteries and finding graves and you also know that my husband is a massive Civil War nerd so the first grave we visited was that of Jonathan Sweeney, a black Civil War veteran. Pretty much adjacent to that grave was the one that was the focus of my visit: the final resting place of Thaddeus Stevens. Stevens was a radical politician and passionate abolitionist, active in the Underground Railroad and an advocate for both the Emancipation Proclamation and the Thirteenth Amendment. Stevens had elected to be buried in this cemetery because it was not segregated.

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We next wandered back towards the centre of Lancaster. In common with many towns that are trying to rejuvenate their retail and leisure areas, Lancaster has lots of independent stores, quirky specialists, and interesting eateries. My husband and I enjoyed pottering around in all of the vintage stores on Queen Street. I was tempted to buy a mid-century punch bowl and glasses but could not justify doing so since I really have no regular use for it. Mr Pict enjoyed flicking through stacks of old vinyl albums and he did buy one.

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We had worked up an appetite after a morning of exploring on foot so we headed back towards the Market and a pub-restaurant that was recommended by the staff at the visitor centre.

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Refuelled, we collected our car and headed back to our final destination in Lancaster and the one that was actually the prime reason for our visit: Woodward Hill Cemetery. Yes, I love cemeteries anyway but I had a specific reason to visit this one. You see, I have accidentally created a somewhat random travel bucket list. I have visited enough Presidential graves that I now want to see if I can visit as many as possible. I am not as fanatical about this travel mission as I am, for instance, about visiting all 50 states but I think it gives my cemetery wanderings a focus and suggests ideas for trips. Anyway, James Buchanan, the 15th US President, is interned in Woodward Hill Cemetery. The cemetery itself is in a bit of a state, with plentiful collapsed gravestones. We saw myriad groundhogs during our visit who might have something to do with that. Buchanan’s grave, therefore, while inherently simple, looked a little grander by comparison to the surrounding grave markers. Buchanan is consistently ranked as one of the worst presidents in history, often as the worst. Maybe, therefore, he should be honoured to be the 9th president whose grave I have visited.

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Return to the Mercer Museum

We were looking for something indoors that we could do on a very hot day that threatened with thunderstorms. The middle two kids were meeting up with friends and that scheduling meant we could not venture too far from home base. I, therefore, suggested the Mercer Museum as my husband and youngest son had never visited. My only previous visit had been in 2017 so I was happy to return.

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The Museum is named for Henry Chapman Mercer and was created to house his vast collections. Mercer had a deep interest in a vast array of pre-industrial trades and tools and the building he commissioned is full of weird shaped rooms and nooks and crannies where he could showcase these according to subject and theme. We learned that the team of men who had constructed the building – from hand-mixed concrete – had been paid about $1.70 for a ten hour day. That is the equivalent of about $5 per hour in contemporary money. Mercer got a right bargain out of that because – to my mind – the building itself is the absolute star of the show.

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I may have unintentionally oversold the experience of this museum to the rest of the family because they were underwhelmed. My husband’s problem is that he compares all eccentric buildings or museums to the Shelburne Museum in Vermont or the House on the Rock in Wisconsin and finds them lacking as a result. As for the kids, I guess they have grown accustomed to interactive exhibits and experiences to capture their interest or some way I have created to engage them. They did enjoy some of the activities designed for kids along the way – despite being 13 and 19 – but they were otherwise a bit checked out. Despite having a bunch of moaners in tow, however, I still loved the place and all of its quirks.

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I will say that visiting a concrete building on an intensely hot day was a challenge in and of itself. I often felt as if I was exploring the interior of a pizza oven. The fans became very welcome and appreciated waypoints around the building. Temperature control was, I guess, the one real flaw in Mercer’s design.

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Prime Hook Beach, Delaware

We have just returned from a week at the beach. Our destination this summer was Prime Hook in Delaware. Delaware again. I confess I was not jazzed at the prospect of a third summer spent on the Delaware shore. However, a variety of alternative travel plans fell through for a number of reasons and it seems like Delaware is now our default setting for family vacations. One advantage of having very much been there and done that is that our time at the beach was very chill because there was zero reason to go out exploring. Rather than experiences, therefore, our focus was on properly relaxing and recharging our batteries and on spending quality time together as a family – and this time our oldest son came with us too so we had all six of us on vacation for the first time since 2019.

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Our oldest son had not been to Fort Miles at Cape Henlopen for several years so he accompanied his Aged Parents on a jaunt there. We were actually able to get inside Battery 519 for the first time so at least that was a new experience. My husband spent a lot of time chatting with the docents about a U-boat captain and the Civil War while I wandered around and looked at the exhibits.

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We also went into Rehoboth one morning. Our first stop was the Farmers’ Market so we could pick up some patisserie for breakfast but we also spent some time on the boardwalk and browsing in stores. One incessantly rainy day, we decided to take a tour of some nearby thrift stores as a fun retail challenge. We ate a few meals out too and – after three summers of trying – my husband was finally able to order soft shell crab – so he ate two of them.

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Most of our time, however, was spent at the rental house. With the house being right on the beach, a lot of time was spent in the water and on the sand. I am not so much a beach person so I just dipped in and out of such activities but I enjoyed sitting in the sunshine and watching the boys larking around in the water. I was able to spend some time on art and reading and we also played a lot of board games as a family.

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We also got to enjoy terrific sunsets every evening.

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Our week at the beach was a much-needed break away from our daily stresses and our usual routines and ruts. It was definitely relaxing and restorative. Next year, however, I am hoping for some travel plans that expand my experiences.

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Eisenhower’s Farm

This Memorial Day, Mr Pict and I decided to go out for the day without the kids. They were invited to join us but declined so we thought we would take the opportunity to do something they would find tedious. We have been to Gettysburg many times since emigrating to the US. However, because Mr Pict is a Civil War nerd, our focus has always been on the battlefield. This time, therefore, we decided to approach Gettysburg from a different angle and visit Eisenhower’s home.

We arrived a little too early for a tour so we had a wander of the exterior of the property. We saw the limousine the Eisenhowers would take from the White House to Gettysburg and I was imagining this fancy car bumping along the uneven roads for two or three hours. Popping into the barn, I ended up chatting to one Ranger about Scotland generally and specifically about Eisenhower’s suite in Culzean Castle. It has been a long time since I visited Culzean so I had forgotten the Eisenhower connection. It is, therefore, pretty weird that I have ended up visiting two places where he lived given he is not exactly of interest to me. Adjacent to the barn, we saw the cramped cinder block hut that was the base of operations for the Secret Service Agents.

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We lucked out when it was time for our tour as we were assigned to a very informative and engaging Ranger. I only possess general knowledge of Eisenhower so I found it all very educational. I learned that the farm house was purchased and extensively restored by the Eisenhowers as part of their retirement plan but Ike kept being called back to serve his country in one way or another so it took many years before they could use the property as their permanent residence. They did, however, use it as a weekend bolt hole and to entertain visiting Heads of State. Only one – Nehru – stayed overnight and we saw the guest bedroom where he slept.

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My major takeaway from my visit was that, while Eisenhower was a man of extraordinary achievements in public life, in private life the Eisenhowers were massively ordinary. Since I am much more interested in social history than I am military or political history, this actually led me to engage with the tour much more than I anticipated because the home was a time capsule of mid-century taste rather than being a grand home. For example, the Eisenhowers loved to dinner eat off of tray tables while watching TV so we saw the sun room where they used to relax and their wonderfully cuboid TV cabinet. We saw the bedroom where Ike took naps and recuperated from his various acute health complaints and the master bedroom where Mamie would issue orders to staff while still in bed in her nightgown.

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After leaving the Eisenhower farm, we headed into Gettysburg. The centre was packed because of the Memorial Day celebrations so we ended up parked a few blocks away. As it happened, we were near a brewery so we decided to pop in for a grown up lunch and some day drinking on my part since I had a cider. That repast then gave us the recharge required to do some extensive wandering in the blistering heat. Most of the historic buildings were closed because it was a holiday but we took in the exteriors and browsed in some fun stores. Mr Pict enjoyed seeing the house where Lincoln had slept the night before he delivered the Gettysburg Address and was also in nerd heaven in a store selling board games and another filled to the gunnels with Civil War antiques. We strolled back to our car along the route of the Memorial Day Parade so we could take in some of the festivities as we went.

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It was a fun day out and we are hopeful for more day trips – preferably with our kids – now that we are officially in Summer.

Spring Break 2022 – National Zoo

We wanted an outdoor venue for our meetup with friends and elected to visit the National Zoo as that would suit the wide span of ages. We had last visited the National Zoo as part of a road trip all the way back in 2016 – which feels somewhat like a bygone era now. This was also our first experience with a very crowded tourist attraction during the pandemic. I don’t like crowds even at the best of times and areas of the zoo were definitely too densely populated for my liking but otherwise visitors were dispersed throughout the zoo in a way that was manageable.

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We had much more success with viewing animals during our previous visit to this zoo. As one of the first properly hot days of the year, perhaps it was too much to ask the animals to be out of their shaded shelters and be out on show for us, but it was a bit disappointing to be seeing so many empty enclosures. The sloth bear offered a fair compromise as he was relaxing in a hammock.

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Although we only saw them at a distance, the pandas put on an entertaining show. One of the juveniles was being a complete derp. As it tried to clamber over some branches to reach a platform, its coordination kept failing and it would wobble off the branches. It almost fell several times – to great gasps from the human onlookers – and even managed to fall off the platform once it had reached it. We can add lack of gymnastic aptitude and no sense of balance to the reasons why pandas are so endangered.

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Our 15 year old is obsessed with the movie ‘Kung Fu Panda’ (it’s his third favourite after the 1977 Soviet movie ‘The Ascent’ and the 1997 Iranian movie ‘Taste of Cherry’). He had a mission to find as many of the animals who make up the animated cast of ‘Kung Fu Panda’ as he possibly could. He especially wanted to see the red panda (Master Shifu) and we had almost given up when it appeared in the window of its indoor enclosure. That quick glimpse was all he got but the mission was accomplished. I am sure he will attempt this challenge in the future during visits to other zoos.

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Spring Break 2022 – Monuments at night

It seems to have become a family tradition for us to visit Washington DC’s monuments and memorials at night. While we have taken the kids to see the sites three times, the most recent two trips have been at night.

We started with the Washington Monument and then moved on to see the Martin Luther King Jr Memorial, which is one of my absolute favourites. I think the sculpture of King is wonderful in and of itself but I also love the symbolism of passing through the “mountain of despair” to see the “stone of hope” from which the figure of MLK is emerging. I would love to see it in cherry blossom season some time.

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From there, we circled back to see Mr Pict’s favourite memorial: the Korean War Veterans Memorial. It proved a little tricky to locate and access in the dark because much of that area is hoarded of for construction of horse stables and an expansion of the memorial itself. It is a very evocative memorial, with the expressive faces on the slightly larger than life figures and the way they are placed within the juniper bushes.

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Of course, no trip to the National Mall is complete without a pop in to see Abraham Lincoln. I cannot help but think of that scene from ‘The Simpsons’ where the statue of Thomas Jefferson complains to Lisa that nobody ever thinks to visit him as they all head to see Lincoln instead. We actually had planned to trek out to the Jefferson Memorial on this trip but it was too dark by the time we arrived in the city centre to walk all the way out to the other end of the tidal basin so, yes, we neglected Jefferson yet again. It is definitely better to visit the Lincoln Memorial at night because it can feel a bit too like being a herring in a barrel during the day.

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Incidentally, this Spring break trip was the first time the boys and I had used mass transit since before the pandemic. It, therefore, felt like part of the vacation to them to be travelling on the metro. They especially loved how steep the escalators were and enjoyed challenging themselves to run up the steps as fast as possible.

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Spring Break 2022 – University of Maryland

While my kids get a week long Spring break, I only get a few days off work. We, therefore, opted to have a little mini-break in Washington DC, a location not too far from home and that would enable us to catch up with good friends we have not seen since before the pandemic.

We have also been thinking about introducing our middle two sons – currently a high school sophomore and freshman – to different types of universities so that they can begin to percolate their thoughts about where they would like to land up should they choose to continue into tertiary education. They have already visited a campus that is on the outskirts of a smaller city as we visited my oldest son at RIT. We thought, therefore, that we would make the University of Maryland a waypoint on our journey so that they could experience a campus that is more of a suburb with easy access to a major city.

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The University of Maryland’s mascot is a terrapin so there were terrapin statues, images, and references all over the place. Forget the reptiles, however, because I was more excited by the amphibian on campus. Jim Henson is a University alumnus so there is a statue of him and Kermit outside the student union building. As a lifelong Muppet fan, that was the highlight of the trip for me.

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It’s a lovely campus with appealing buildings and green spaces. You could not pay me to relive the first 13 years of my school education but I did enjoy my undergraduate and postgraduate years. Part of me wishes I could justify the resources to pursue a PhD because I just love learning and that academic atmosphere. I am, therefore, happy to be creating this program of college excursions. The 15 and 16 year olds decided they liked this type of campus. The 12 year old liked the fact they have their own ice cream producing dairy.

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Museum of Natural History

Our 14 year old had some options for a Biology assignment. I was pretty keen on a project involving writing about unusual diseases that appear in our family history but he chose to undertake one that involved a trip to a Natural History Museum. There is one close to home, in Philadelphia, which would have been more straightforward. However, he requested that we take a trip to New York to visit the museum there, which we had visited as part of the boys’ first ever trip to NYC back in February of 2014.

We had not been to NYC for years so we decided it could form the basis of a fun day trip. We formulated a plan for the day that we had to throw away the evening before the trip when the 14 year old fell of his skateboard and badly sprained his ankle. Since he was still pleading to go and given we had already booked and paid for the admission tickets, we decided to forge ahead with the trip to the museum but to junk all of the other plans for the day.*

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One area of focus for the assignment was early humans so we headed to that section first. I took a DNA test a few years ago as a means of making contact with other family historians researching the same families. It has led to all sorts of interesting interactions but there was really nothing interesting about my DNA. It proved I was as boring genetically as I was on paper. The only unexpected find was that I have a smattering of Neanderthal DNA. Until then, I had not known that Neanderthal DNA can still be identified at detectable levels in contemporary humans. I guess now I know where my massive forehead comes from.

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There was a special exhibition about sharks so we decided to boost our tickets for entry to that gallery. You might recall that my 14 year old and I are a wee bit obsessed with sharks. I cannot say that we especially learned anything new about sharks but we appreciated the life size models as we could really grasp the scale of some of the less familiar sharks. We also had fun with the megalodon models.

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I am sure that many visitors to natural history museums spend a lot of time among the dinosaur fossils. While I am certainly no dino nerd, I have never outgrown that childhood fascination with these ancient beasts. One of the things my son was writing about in his assignment was fossil evidence of dinosaurs being feathered so we particularly honed in on the exhibits relevant to that topic. We also made sure to visit all of our favourite dinosaurs – mine is a triceratops in case you are interested. We visited the Ice Age mammals too. As much as I know it would be wholly unethical to do so, I do think it would be marvelous to resurrect mammoths from extinction.

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Other sections of the museum we visited included the Central American gallery and the meteorite and gem sections. You will observe our family tradition of taking photos of ourselves in the same poses as sculptures. My 16 year old loves sparkly shiny things so has always enjoyed that section and my husband is an astronomy geek so he loves getting up close to space rocks. He was especially enthralled by a case containing three chunks of meteor taken from the surface of the moon.

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Unfortunately the limping 14 year old was starting to feel the strain of his busted ankle so we could not keep forging on through all of the other areas of the museum. We felt satisfied that we had covered a lot of ground, however, so left feeling fulfilled.

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And now we need to return to NYC at some point soon to do all of the things we had planned on doing that day but didn’t manage to achieve.

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*The reason the 14 year old is in the majority of the photos is because they will be used to illustrate his assignment and not because he is more biddable than the others when it comes to having his photo taken.

Capybaras in Cape May

My 14 year old has been obsessed with capybaras for almost a year now. I don’t know the origin of the obsession but he is passionate about capybaras. He has even researched keeping them as pets even though he has been told that is absolutely not happening.

Since we were blessed with good weather and warm temperatures this President’s Day, we decided to take a daytrip to Cape May. This was because the zoo there has capybaras. I have not seen our 14 year old this enthusiastic about a day trip in years. I am pleased to report, therefore, that the capybaras were up and about and doing lots of adorable things. There appeared to be a mother and two juveniles. I was amused by how much the siblings behaved in ways entirely like our cats. They were very playful and endearing. As you can imagine, we were at the capybara enclosure for a long time.

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We did visit other animals in the zoo and we all made sure we saw the areas that contained favourite beasties. My 16 year old wanted to see the primates – I think primarily because he loves the recent Planet of the Apes trilogy – and my 12 year old is cat-obsessed so we saw the various big cats. He especially loved seeing the Amur Leopard and Snow Leopard. The latter made me chuckle because one of them was lying on its back, sunning its belly, just like our three-legged cat at home. For my part, I always like the reptile and amphibian house because I like the weird looking critters.

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It was a lovely day out, just the right length of time away from home to transition out of our Winter hermit ways and something that engaged everyone. I think we definitely fed the capybara obsession, however: on the drive home he was banging on about the best way to give his pet capybaras access to a bathing pool at home and figured some steps up to our bathtub would be the best bet.

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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.