Spring Break Day 8 – Gettysburg

We packed up the holiday house in a jiffy in order to head off as early as possible and squeeze another fun day out of our holiday.  My in-laws had arranged to have lunch with friends in Aberdeen so we Picts went on an adventure to Gettysburg.  This was entirely apt because it was last year’s 150th anniversary of the battle of Gettysburg that ultimately led to our relocation from Scotland to America.  Mr Pict is a total Civil War geek and had this idea two summers ago that we could vacation in the US so that he could be at Gettysburg on the 150th anniversary of the battle.  We were just mulling that over when, two weeks later, he casually mentioned late at night that instead of just going on holiday there maybe we could investigate moving to America.  So that was how the seed was sewn: the history of a bloody battle.

My husband decided to take us on tour of the highlights.  He had come by himself before we arrived in the US so that he could indulge in several hours of touring around the vast site using a phone app as his guide.  The only time I have been before was in 1995 and it is very different now with an impressive visitors’ centre and locations much more clearly demarcated.  We went to the visitors’ centre first to use the conveniences after our journey from Virginia.  Mr Pict bought pretzels as K rations for the kids and the boys also bought some things in the shop: the 8 year old bought a cuddly Lincoln and the 7 year old bought a poster showing Union Generals on one side and Confederate Generals on the other.  We also grabbed a photo opportunity with a bronze statue of Lincoln before heading back to the car to start the tour of Mr Pict’s highlights.

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First stop was the Longstreet Observation Tower.  This involved ascending seven flights of metal stairs.  I suffer from vertigo but I also have a recurring nightmare about a child falling – usually one of my own – and I always wake up at the point of impact.  My other recurring dream – which I have had since I was 4 – is about a T Rex stalking me.  That dinosaur turns up in all sorts of dreams.  He was once scary but now he is just a pest.  Anyway, as my boys charged up the pretty open staircase, my anxiety levels spiked.  I felt quite wobbly.  It was all probably just about maybe worth it, however, as the Tower afforded us a good view over the terrain which helped what Mr Pict was saying about tactics and strategy make sense.  We could see and appreciate the significance of Little Round Top in that geographical context.  And in the other direction we could see Eisenhower’s farm which was a little history bonus.

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We then drove over Big Round Top to get to Little Round Top.  We saw monuments to the Maine, New York and Pennsylvania regiments.  The boys loved clambering over the boulders between bouts of actually listening to their Dad explaining how the battle unfolded.  I meanwhile pottered around taking photos (of course!) of such things as the statue of Gouverneur K Warren, who had prompted the defence of Little Round Top, overlooking the landscape and reading poignant stories on the interpretive boards.  It was not actually very difficult to imagine the terrible noise and bloody carnage of the battle.

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Mr Pict and three of the boys then walked from Little Round Top, descending through the scrub, to meet the 8 year old and me (who brought the car around) at Devil’s Den, doing a reverse of confederate troop movements.  The boys thoroughly enjoyed playing on the large rocks and among the crevices at Devil’s Den.

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There are monuments galore all over the place at Gettysburg – well over a thousand of them.  Some are plain with a focus just on the words but others are more elaborate and some are quite intriguing.  Scattered across site as they are, they also serve to emphasise the scale of the battlefield and the huge number of casualties, the largest of any Civil War battle.  I must explore them more some time when we return and I also want to go to the Cemetery as it was at its dedication that Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address which I think is the most perfect speech ever written.

Spring Break Day 7 – Manassas

After brunch at the Silver Diner, Mr Pict and I, along with my Father-In-Law, took our two youngest sons to the battlefield at Manassas.  Amazingly the kids managed to sit through the 45 minute introductory film which told the story of the two battles that took place at Manassas.  The stylistics were very much borrowed from Ken Burns’ Civil War documentary and the production values were certainly better than the film we watched at the Shiloh battlefield in 2002.  Mr Pict was absorbed in all the military history elements, watching the tactics unfold on screen, whereas my only way of engaging in the Civil War is through the social history or the human elements so for me the key parts of the story were the poignant death of Judith Henry and the African-American driver of the gloriously named Fannie Ricketts being taken as contraband and probably sold into slavery.

We walked the battlefield according to the tour along the sites of the first battle of Manassas.  It took us past the building rebuilt on the site of the Henry House and the grave of Judith Henry.  The family of the elderly Mrs Henry had tried to remove her to a safer position during the battle but she ordered them to return her to her home.  Caught in the crossfire, a shell crashed into the house and mortally injured the 85 year old woman. 

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There were cannon scattered across the field to mark the positions of artillery during the battle.  We saw the foundations of the Robinson house which had somehow managed to survive both battles unscathed. Manassas was where Stonewall Jackson earned that sobriquet.  The nickname was coined by Barnard Bee whose place of death is marked by a commemorative stone on the battlefield.  Adjacent to it is a modern statue of Stonewall Jackson on horseback.  The statue is comical in its absurdity as it is of a muscular horse and a disconcertingly curvaceous Jackson who is sitting astride the body-building beast in what my 7 year old astutely described as a “Superman pose”.  He is now obsessed with Stonewall Jackson.

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 Mr Pict enjoyed being a Civil War nerd in the shop with all the old male docents who are Civil War buffs.  We bought a National Parks passport for the kids to get stamped as we travel around the US and received the first two stamps at the main visitor centre.  We knew we could not pick up the stamp at the Stone House as it is only open at weekends but we then trekked to Brawner’s Farm to get another stamp only to find it too was closed.  Despite their tender ages, our two small Picts really got absorbed in the Civil War while wandering around the battlefield.  My husband may have found his acolyte in our 7 year old who has decided he is Daddy’s “Battlefield Buddy”.

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Spring Break Day 6 – Museum of American History

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We took the metro into Washington DC having decided that the National Museum of American History would be a good choice of place to visit since the kids had done a Natural History Museum when we were in New York and because we are trying to provide them with an overview of US history and top up their general knowledge of American History.  Disappointingly, however, it transpired when we picked up the map that half of the museum was closed.  Literally half of each floor was unavailable.  Perhaps we should have done our homework rather than relied on our own knowledge to select the venue for the day but still it was incredibly frustrating.  I had last been there in 1995 but had remembered it as being really interesting and full of diverting exhibits and the kids were looking forward to it so we decided to plough on with the plan.  The Museum has, as one might expect, had a major facelift since I last visited but sadly – like many literal facelifts – this one was not beneficial.  It was a case of the Good, the Bad and the Ugly.

The Good section was that focusing on the Star Spangled Banner.  When I had last visited, I had entered the main entrance and been greeted by the original Star Spangled Banner.  It was an impressive site and an awesome welcome but from a conservation point of view it was clearly catastrophic.  Therefore, in the intervening decades, it has been moved into an atmosphere and light controlled room and is displayed behind a vast glass panel.  The corridor around the flag has been cleverly thought out in terms of the exhibits as it is themed on the national anthem, using Francis Scott Key’s poem “Defence of Fort McHenry” to tell the contextual story of the flag’s creation and significance.  So there was a rocket – as in “rocket’s red glare” – and a bomb – as in “bursting in air” – showcased along with some other military items.  There was also a display case of sewing items as might have been used to create the flag and biographical information about Mary Pickersgill who sewed the flag along with her daughter, two nieces and two African-American women.

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The Bad was the Presidents’ section.  The kids were really looking forward to it since they have become pretty obsessed with learning facts about various Presidents as my 7 year old did a school project about George Washington for President’s Day and my 8 year old had to do a research paper on a President of his choice.  Since he loves to be obscure, he chose James Abram Garfield who actually turned out to be more interesting than you might imagine for a president who only lasted 200 days, most of those days being spent on his deathbed – yet not completely interesting either.  The 8 year old is also a massive Lincoln fan and the 7 year old’s favourite is Teddy Roosevelt because he protected wildlife in the US while going around shooting it and also hunting animals in other people’s countries.  My husband and sons are also related to two Presidents – John Adams and John Quincy Adams – so that was another route to engagement in the whole history of the Presidency.  The Presidents’ section should have been fascinating since it was filled with such wonderful items to showcase.  However, it had been organised in such a way as to be a complete muddle.  One might think it would be organised in terms of chronology, from Washington to Obama, or maybe even in terms of the President’s role if the curators were wanting to do something more avant garde.  However, they had opted to organise it in such a way that it was just a hodge podge with no clear thread pulling visitors through the exhibits.  It was like a pot luck supper as we wandered from one area to the next.  We moved from a side section dedicated to Presidents who had been assassinated or died in office into a section about weddings at the White House, surely a strange and awkward juxtaposition by anyone’s standards.  There was just no logic to it at all, as if the people curating it had a junkyard mentality.

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The Ugly was the American Stories section.  My understanding was that the items displayed had been chosen through ‘crowdsourcing’, by “the people” deciding by some unclear mechanism which exhibits best represented America.  As much as inclusivity and democracy are wonderful ideals to aspire to, the whole section was evidence of the fact that not all curators are created equally as it ended up just a random “jumble sale” of bits and bobs with nothing properly telling any kind of story about America because there was simply no context, no structure and no apparent point.  I was very excited to see Miss Piggy, Benjamin Franklin’s walking stick, FDR’s microphone from his Fireside Chats and a life mask of Lincoln but I think anyone would be hard pressed to see a connection between any of them beyond their icon status, though that was a theme not supported by the inclusion of dozens of other items.  Furthermore, none of the labelling supported the claim to be telling us stories about America or the American experience.  I subsequently looked at the Museum’s website and read that the exhibits fell into five clusters representing eras in American history but that was not supported by either the layout or the labelling. The whole thing made by brain feel fidgety and, since the kids were becoming increasingly literally fidgety, we decided to depart from the museum.

We walked to Union Station past the sculpture garden of the National Art Gallery.  I think the kids would have liked to have spent more time there but we were on our way to meet up with a friend at Union Station.  That just added to the sense that we had wasted time in the Museum of American History.  We dined at Thunder Grill.  The food was delicious.  I had a catfish sandwich with smoked tomato aoli and salsa which was succulent, full of strong but well-balanced flavours and very satisfying.

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Spring Break Day 5 – Cinema and Lego

We decided to have a mid week slump in terms of level of activity so we spent the morning at home base so that the kids could enjoy playing indoors and in the vast garden.  Then in the afternoon we went to the cinema at Tyson’s Corner Mall.  Our oldest son was not bothered about the movie options so he stayed behind with his grandparents and played board games instead. Mr Pict and the two middlies saw ‘Captain America – Winter Soldier’ while I took the youngest to see ‘Rio 2’.  He and I had a bit of time to kill after our film ended but before the other film let out so we had a bit of a wander around the mall.  He liked testing poufs out in a home décor store called West Elm and he was fascinated by the sushi conveyer belts in an eatery.  We also spent some time in the children’s section of Barnes & Noble book store but the thing the littlest Pict loved doing most was just travelling up and down on escalators. 

Once the others had joined us, we headed to the Lego store.  The kids love to make their own minifigures up so they spent some time doing that.  Our 8 year old has read ‘The Hunger Games’ trilogy a few times and is a bit obsessed so he wanted to make minifigures that represented characters from those books.  They have a new thing in the lego stores whereby you can hold up a set that contains over 500 pieces to a screen and it then shows a 3D representation of that model.  I asked a staff member to demonstrate how it worked and it was brilliant so my 7 year old and I tried it and nothing happened.  So the same staff member showed me how it worked again and I tried again and yet again nothing happened.  I was going to ask for another demonstration but the 7 year old said that would be embarrassing.

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PS  Please excuse the quality of the photos – I am not very good at using the camera on my phone but I didn’t have my DSLR on me.

 

Spring Break Day 4 – Air and Space Museum

After a leisurely start to the day, we set off on an expedition to the Udvar-Hazy Center at Chantilly – an extension of the Smithsonian’s Air and Space Museum housed in two old aircraft hangars.  The incredible space afforded by the nature of the buildings means that it can house some of the most significant aeroplanes in American history – in world history in some instances.

The kids were handed Scavenger Hunt sheets that instructed them to find about eight aeroplanes across the collection which all had a name or nickname associated with an animal.  That was a good means of pulling them through the space to see various highlights.  Our oldest son accompanied his grandparents to undertake a more thorough tour with a bit more science and engineering focus while Mr Pict and I took the other three children around.  Our 8 year old can be very difficult to engage in even arts and humanities subjects at times but trying to engage him in science and technology was pretty much mission impossible.  I think there were two things in the entire Museum that he showed a particular interest in.  I am intrigued to discover, in the weeks and months to come, how much information he actually managed to absorb from osmosis or subliminal learning.

The boys liked the Blackbird because it features in the movie ‘X Men: First Class’.  In the film, one of the mutants designs it and it can transport the whole team.  It was interesting for them to note, therefore, how miniscule the cockpit actually was, especially in proportion to the scale of the rest of the plane.  They also enjoyed seeing various aircraft from Nazi Germany which they knew from the Indiana Jones movies.

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The space section was probably the most successful in terms of holding the kids’ attention.  I am not massively interested in space travel and exploration but even I was excited to see the space shuttle Discovery up close and my husband – who is very much into astronomy and outer space – was absolutely thrilled.  I have been to Cape Canaveral before so the scale was something I was familiar with but for some reason I felt I could see the detail more on this shuttle – or maybe I was just a bit more interested this time.  I noted the smoothness of the design and even of the component parts.  The same area also housed various space modules and re-entry pods and glass cases full of astronaut artefacts including some vomit-inducing foods inside squeezy tubes and some underpants for collecting urine.  Somewhat incongruously but excitingly for me, there was also a model of the mother ship from ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind’ on which the model makers had hidden various real world items such as a submarine, sharks, a VW minibus, a graveyard and R2D2 – which our 8 year old found right away.

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I had seen part of the Enola Gay in the regular Air and Space Museum back in 1995 but it really was quite something to see the entire thing reassembled.  I had not appreciated how large it was before seeing it in its entirety.  It’s impact, of course, is not so much what it is in itself but the role it played in the Second World War and consequently in the history of the modern world and in the history of ethics.  Apparently our 11 year old took part in quite an in-depth discussion with his grandparents about the efficacy and ethics of the decision to drop the atomic bombs on Japan.

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We saw aircraft on every scale – from tiny little things even I, at my height, could be hard pressed to fit into to Concorde – and of every colour – from plain varnished wood to dazzlingly shiny chrome –  and from every era – from pioneering aircraft to modern engineering.  We also saw items linked to specific pilots, such as Amelia Earhart’s jumpsuit and a whole series of glass cases filled with souvenir trinkets and toys celebrating Charles Lindbergh.

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Spring Break Day 3 – A Birthday and Jamestown

Our oldest son’s eleventh birthday fell on the third day of our Spring Break vacation. We, therefore, began the day with card and gift opening.  He was delighted with everything he received: games, books and video game stuff and clothing.

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Our oldest had recently completed a 5th Grade project called “Discovery”.  His teacher organised the class into groups and each group had the objective of setting up and sustaining a colony as a sort of challenge game while he also teaching the students about aspects of the history of colonial America.  As such, we decided an appropriate day trip would be to Jamestown Settlement where the colony of 1607 has been set up as a “living museum” of replica houses, Indian village and ships.  Last time I was at Jamestown was 19 years ago and I was devoured by insects.  I had only recently developed an allergic response to such bites in the form of cellulitis swelling which had me blowing up like a blimp.  However, the infection from those particular bites led to septicaemia and a short spell in hospital followed by a long spell of antibiotics.  That experience took some of the gloss off my memories of Jamestown but I still remembered it as being worth visiting.

 The very long and tedious journey down served as a bum-numbing reminder of how vast Virginia actually is.  It was made even longer by being snaggled up in construction related traffic jams.  We pit-stopped off for breakfast in Fredericksburg at Shoney’s just in time for its breakfast buffet since the Birthday Boy is such a fan of breakfast food.  We happened to mention to our server that it was our son’s birthday so he was given a birthday sing-song and a chocolate fudge cake in celebration.  He was embarrassed and found the attention awkward but accepted it with good grace and gratitude.  I thought it was thoughtful and sweet.

The actual outdoor exhibits at Jamestown had not changed at all since my last visit but in place of the once small and traditional museum there is now a massive interpretation centre that houses not only the exhibits but also shows a movie and contains a large shop and lots of facilities.  The film shown was similar to the one I saw all those years ago but as well as covering the colonists and the Indians they had built in a section about the Angolan slaves who were brought to Jamestown.  They also no longer even referenced the romantic story about Pocahontas saving John Smith’s life.  Both are positive and welcome changes.

We started with the colony as that was where our kids scampered off to.  The boys all enjoyed exploring each building.  The littlest liked trying out the rope sprung beds and was desperate to climb into the pew in the church.  The 7 year old liked the musket firing display.  The oldest liked seeing how everyone lived and details like the tobacco leaves hanging from the rafters.  The 8 year old meanwhile decided to play with the dried dirt on the ground, calling it “spirit dust”, filling the pockets of his shorts with it and sprinkling it all over the place to determine where to go to.  Off-task much?

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The settlement also showcases replicas of the original three ships – the ‘Susan Constant’, ‘Discovery’ and ‘Godspeed’.  All the boys thoroughly enjoyed exploring the boats, especially the ‘Susan Constant’ since it was the largest.  It was hard to imagine how such small and ultimately pretty fragile boats had undertaken that crossing and how they had fitted enough people and provisions on board to even begin to establish a viable colony.  The small size of them did however mean that we were comfortable just letting the kids have the run of the place so they soon settled into playing some sort of pirate game, not historically faithful or even relevant but fun all the same.

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We then explored the Powhatan village.  The kids all loved that section of the site and it became their favourite bit of the trip.  They especially liked seeing all of the fur pelts hanging from the walls of the houses which ranged from squirrels and raccoons through to bobcats, wolves and even a bear.  Our 7 year old also liked seeing a deer hide strung up and being turned into leather using oyster shells to scrape off the hair. 

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On the way home, we stopped off in Fredericksburg again for our freshly-minted 11 year old’s birthday dinner.  We ate at Chilli’s since that is his favourite restaurant (so far!) and we experienced some of the best service we have ever had as a family as the waiter brought refills without being asked and knew the balance between checking on us and leaving us be.  We were all actually still quite full from breakfast so we ended the day stuffed well beyond our gunnels.  Vacation bellies.

Spring Break Day 2 – Monuments and Memorials

We travelled into Washington DC on the orange line from Vienna Metro station which meant it was the kids’ first ever time on the metro.  They didn’t seem to think it was notable.  We emerged at the station on McPherson Square and headed to the White House.  The two things the kids really wanted to do in Washington DC were the White House and the Lincoln Memorial and the thing I really wanted to do was see the famous cherry blossoms.  As previously explained, I had never been to Washington DC in the Spring before and probably would have missed the blooming of the trees had it not been for the “good fortune” of the harsh winter waylaying the arrival of Spring.  We walked through a park of fallen blossoms so we were clearly just in time to see the blooms.

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We saw both sides of the White House.  Mr Pict and I had obviously seen it several times before but this was a first for the kids.  Their reaction was somewhat contrary: they were very happy to finally see such an iconic building but were otherwise completely underwhelmed.  I admit to feeling a bit deflated by their reaction. I am not sure what it was they were expecting but I can only assume those expectations had not been met.  I think our 7 year old had thought he might get to take a tour of the interior and maybe say howdee to Barack and Michelle.

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We then headed to the exterior of the Museum of American History to meet up with an old friend which afforded the boys the opportunity to eat pretzels and play in the – admittedly somewhat grubby – water of the fountain, wading in it, freaking out ducks and finding coins to then throw back in for luck.  Do thrown coins keep dispensing wishes no matter how many times they are thrown?

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We walked along the Mall, past the Washington Monument.  This was a momentous occasion for me since it was the first time I had ever seen the Washington Monument without scaffolding all over it.  Our 7 year old was excited and delighted to encounter two mounted police officers on our wanderings on the Mall since he is so obsessed with horses.  His deep brown eyes lit up.  Our wanders took us via the World War Two Memorial.  As it was opened on 2004 and my last trip to Washington DC had been in 2002, I had not seen it before so that was a new one for me.  The Memorial is impressively vast and almost theatrical in its design with its pillars and triumphal arches, its fountains, pool and plaza. 

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We then walked along the side of the reflecting pool and finally reached the Lincoln Memorial at which point the boys’ legs suddenly regained momentum and they leapt up the steps.  I have a treasured memory of sitting for hours on the steps of the Memorial on 4 July 1995 in order to watch the Independence Day fireworks.  The fireworks display was spectacular but even better was the experience of just being there.  Over the course of the six months that we have lived in America, the boys have been learning about the Presidents and have come to love Abraham Lincoln in particular so they had been really excited to see the Memorial.  This time they were not underwhelmed or disappointed.  Their eyes grew wide with the scale of the Memorial, with its massive classical columns, and of the statue of Lincoln itself.  The whole place was absolutely heaving with people so it was impossible to just stand and look and appreciate.  The sculpture is magnificent.  I love its proportionality, the white of the marble and the look of serious contemplation on Lincoln’s face and the sense of the burden of responsibility in the pose chosen.  Somehow the Memorial manages to balance implying the idea of a god-like status through the allusions to classical temple sculptures with suggesting Lincoln’s humanity and humility. 

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Despite the day’s heat and the children’s’ small feet, it was decided that we would head towards the Jefferson Memorial to see the cherry blossoms there.  Appropriately, since we had just been at the location of his historic “I have a dream” speech, we went via the Martin Luther King Memorial.  As it had only been completed in 2011, I had never seen that one either.  It is a fantastic design. Inspired by King’s quotation, “Out of a mountain of despair, a stone of hope”, it comprises imposing blocks of granite from one of which the strong figure of King emerges.  Being such an eloquent man who delivered such powerful speeches, a wall is inscribed with quotations from several of his speeches.  The portrait sculpture itself made me think of Soviet sculpture, a style I actually find aesthetically appealing, but the steadfast posture, the stoic facial expression and the gaze fixed on the horizon certainly all seemed apt.

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Ultimately we didn’t make it as far as the Jefferson Memorial as small legs were beginning to tire.  This was one of a few times I have failed to complete a walk out to the Jefferson Memorial – indeed I think I have only made it twice – and for some reason I always used to feel guilty that I had found the time to visit with Lincoln but not Jefferson, as if his feelings were hurt.  Odd, I know.  At least this time I could blame my kids.  I, therefore, made do with the cherry trees on the opposite side of the Tidal Basin.  People were milling about everywhere looking at the blossoms.  I knew the blossoms were a big deal but really had not grasped the scale of the deal at all.  I actually did not know that there was an organised festival each year that celebrates Japan’s gift of the original 3000 trees just over a century ago.  It was so thronging that it was really hard to find a space to take photos.  I ended up pointing my camera upwards a lot.  The boys didn’t seem to share my interest in blossoms, though our 4 year old liked seeing the petals floating in the water, forming a ring at the edge of the lake, and proceeded to gather more fallen petals to gently drop into the water.

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The walk to Foggy Bottom Metro Station seemed to take forever as we all felt stickily hot and grimy and the kids were definitely starting to flag at that point.  Finally, however, we were on board and managed to get a seat after a few stops.  We did have a weird experience of “turbulence” on the metro train as it jerked and stalled at one station because of a problem with circuits (surely an electrical vehicle will only work with a steady supply?) but it amused all the passengers nevertheless.

 Back at the house, we cranked up the barbecue as it was such a nice evening for eating outdoors – we had even eaten breakfast outdoors.  The boys were gallivanting all over the vast garden as there was a climbing frame with a slide and swings and a trampoline.  There were lots of trees in the garden and piles of logs at the rear.  Our 8 year old rolled over a log and shouted there was a snake.  We partly didn’t believe him, as we thought it was one of his jokes, but I quickly walked to him anyway by which time I could see that the other boys, who had joined him, were confirming it was a snake.  The 7 year old asked if he should pick it up and I, therefore, ordered them all to back away from the snake.  Having come from Britain where we only have adders to be concerned about, we tend to be a bit too touchy-feely with wildlife and perhaps complacent too.  We are still learning to exercise control and undertake risk assessments when it comes to interactions with wildlife.  It turned out to be a wee tiddler of a thing, about six or seven inches long and not very thick.  I wondered, however, if it was a baby version of something more serious so still did not touch it and had the boys stay back a bit so they were not within striking distance.  Mr Pict took a photo and uploaded it to Facebook and one of his friends identified it as a De Kay’s Brown Snake which is apparently harmless to humans as it likes to eat earthworms and slugs.  This was still exciting though as it was our first ever wild snake in America.  We used to find lots of slow worms where we lived in Scotland, lizards basking in the sun and even the occasional adder so it was cool to “meet” our first wild American snake.

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Spring Break Day 1 – Nostalgia and Rock Creek Park

Our four boys have been longing to visit Washington DC from before we even pondered the plan to emigrate to the States.  Excepting the Statue of Liberty, so much of the iconography they associate with America is based in the nation’s capital.  On a personal level, they have also always wanted to see the place where Daddy grew up.  They have visited a few of the places where Mr Pict once lived in England but the place he has always spoken most fondly of is suburban DC and, of course, it was one place they had definitely never been.  Therefore, when my in-laws suggested that they come out to visit us at Spring Break, we decided it made sense for us all to take a vacation to the environs of Washington DC to show the kids the sites, introduce them to places that had meaning for their father and for the adults to have a bit of a nostalgia kick.

The drive should only have taken three hours but it took a lot longer because of the sheer weight of traffic on the roads and what seemed like a dozen sets of road works.  We broke up the journey by breakfasting at a Denny’s just over the Maryland border with Delaware.  We have a long-established rule, Mr Pict and I, that the way to claim a state is to do any two of three things in it: eat, sleep and pee.  Our children have inherited these rules from us.  They were, therefore, very eager to breakfast in Delaware as it would enable them to collect that state so long as they also used the restroom.  However, road works and my husband’s misreading of the sat nav app on his phone meant that we ended up eating across the border.  The collection of Delaware will have to wait another day.  I, incidentally, can only claim Delaware because – when driving through the state many years ago – I fell asleep in the car and woke up to have a snack.

Breakfast having been munched, we clambered back into the car again.  It was not long before we were all feeling sticky hot.  That, in turn, led the boys to become fractious.  Cabin fever was setting in.  I am not certain my kids would cope with driving across featureless desert landscapes.

Finally, however, we arrived in Chevy Chase in suburban Maryland.  It was time for some reminiscing and revisiting old haunts since my husband and his parents had all lived there – twice in the case of my mother- and father-in-law.  We drove to the street on which the house Mr Pict had first lived in America stood.  Amazingly it was empty and some handy men were in the garden tidying it up ready for it to be rented out.  My mother-in-law explained why we were stopping to look at the house and they invited us to wander around at our leisure.  Fancy the chances!  I had never visited this particular house but my husband had told me so much about it that it was pretty nifty to be finally inside and to be able to piece his anecdotes together with the fabric of the building.  The décor had not been changed or even maintained since Mr Pict had lived there a quarter of a century before which might be bad news for prospective tenants but was great for nostalgia purposes.  He was struck by how small the house now felt in comparison to how large it had felt when he lived there.  Changing personal size: shifting perspective on scale.  We later drove past the house on another nearby street where he had lived a few years later and where my in-laws had lived when Mr Pict and I used to visit America together.  We also stopped off at one of the high schools my husband had attended in America.  I think he felt like he was time-travelling.

 We then took the boys to Rock Creek Park to stretch their legs, burn off some pent up energy and unwind.  They had fun playing on the climbing frames and other equipment.  My 7 year old was pleased to discover he could dangle across entire sets of monkey bars and my 8 year old borrowed his father’s phone to take video footage of them all playing.  Of course, being my feral kids, both my 8 and 4 year olds decided to slough off their footwear and run around barefoot.  Every single other child in the park was properly shod but they were happy so I left them to it.

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On the way to the rental property, we swung by an area called Kenwood which was lush with cherry blossom.  It was so thronging with people coming to see the trees that police were out directing and controlling the traffic and it was impossible – as per police edict – to pull over and park so we had to drive up and down the streets without stopping.  The roads were pretty narrow as it was a very residential area and that meant the trees, which were festooned with blossoms, created a canopy of blooms, sometimes so close and thick that the arching branches formed a tunnel.  I have wanted to see the cherry blossoms for a long time but have never before visited the area in the Spring.  Even now I should have missed them bursting forth with blooms except that the harsh winter had pushed back Spring.  It was quite something to finally see the famous trees (though of course there more famous cousins are around the various monuments and memorials in the city) but also to see the crowds of people and the convoy of cars turning an annual natural event into a tourist attraction.  I also enjoyed seeing the little girls out on their drives selling lemonade as I admired their entrepreneurial spirit and business savvy.

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Finally, in late afternoon, we arrived at the rental house in Vienna.  We have normally always stayed in either holiday lets or people’s second homes but this time we were actually staying in a family home while the family of two parents and five children went on vacation to Florida.  I am not sure I would be brave enough to let someone stay in my house for a week and I am not sure I would be inclined to clean and tidy it to the extent required.  The fact that it was someone’s actual house, however, meant that it had character, charm and warmth in a way that is sometimes lacking in other houses we have stayed in in the past.  It had spacious, nicely furnished bedrooms, three different living rooms, a playroom full of toys and a massive garden contained a climbing frame and trampoline and swimming pool – the latter not in use at this time of year.  By the time we had unloaded the car and started to unpack, everyone was finally hungry again so we ordered Dominos pizza and everyone wolfed it down as we sat out on the patio. 

We were definitely on vacation!