Arlington National Cemetery

This Spring Break, my in-laws flew over from England and rented a house in Vienna, Virginia.  We, therefore, travelled down to spend a few days with them in Northern Virginia.

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As you know, I love to visit cemeteries.  I had not been to Arlington National Cemetery since the summer of 1995 and, as such, my kids had never been.  I, therefore, decided that we should go visit Arlington National Cemetery given its significance.  I drew up a list of 40 graves that I thought we should aim to visit, 20 of which were prioritized, and I plotted them on a map according to the section and grave numbers.  Some of these were family graves but most were the final resting places of people of historic significance.  Despite all of my preparation work, however, my missions were largely not to be accomplished.  Mostly this was simply because of the vast scale of Arlington Cemetery.  It was created on land that had been the estate of Robert E Lee’s wife and covers over 600 acres.  There was simply no way we could ever hope to cover every section of the cemetery.  I, therefore, culled from my list any of the graves that were not plotted in the centre of the map.  The other factor that complicated my search for individual graves was the peculiar numbering system.  Sometimes it was easy to follow because the numbers were in clear consecutive order but, in other sections, the numbering system was erratic with graves in the 4000s being sited adjacent to graves in the 8000s and the 3000s nowhere to be found.  There absolutely has to be some logic to it but the puzzle confounded and defied me.  As such, we did not find a single one of the graves of Mr Pict’s family members, not even the one who is famous enough to have a Wikipedia entry.  Oddly enough, however, we did find the only one of my family members who is interred in the cemetery, Elizabeth Brown Levy, nee Stout.

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Arlington contains only two equestrian memorial statues and we happened to visit both of them.  One of them is for Field Marshall Sir John Dill, who was the first non-American to be buried in the cemetery.  The other is for Philip Kearny, a Major General killed during the Civil War.

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On the subject of the Civil War, of course we had to visit a number of the graves of prominent Civil War Generals because that is where the Venn diagram of my love of cemeteries intersects with Mr Pict’s interest in the Civil War.  These included George Crook, John Gibbon, William Starke Rosencrans.  We had hoped to locate Frederick William Benteen, since we had visited the Little Bighorn last summer, but we were unsuccessful.  My 9 year old, however, did find the grave of Dan Sickles.  He served in the Civil War, was a Member of Congress, and a Diplomat, but what the kids and I know him for is his murder of Philip Barton Key and his successful use of the temporary insanity plea, its first use in American judicial history.  We had visited the grave of his victim in Baltimore in 2017.  We also stopped by the grave of John Lincoln Clem, a drummer boy in the Union Army who holds the record as the youngest noncommissioned army officer in US history.  I asked my kids to imagine what it must have been like to experience war as a 10 year old, though I don’t think it is possible to really grasp it.

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We took the kids to pay their respects at the Tomb of the Unknowns.  We felt it was extremely important that the boys visit that site to appreciate the sacrifice these unidentified people represent, the symbolism, the poignancy, the tragedy of it all.

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We also visited the grave of Thurgood Marshall, Civil Rights lawyer and Supreme Court Justice.  I had hoped to make it to Medgar Evers’ but I was thwarted.  We also saw the grave of John Glenn, Senator and astronaut – the first American to orbit the earth and the oldest person to fly in space.  The connection for the kids was having been to Grand Turk in December since that was where John Glenn arrived back on earth following his orbit in 1962.  As someone who has an interest in pandemics and the history of disease, I was pleased to find the grave of Albert Sabin, the medical pioneer who developed the oral polio vaccine.  We also visited the oldest grave in the cemetery, that of Mary Randolph who died in 1828 and was buried long before Arlington was established as a National Cemetery.

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For most of our time in the Cemetery – with the noted exception of the Tomb of the Unknowns – we barely encountered other people.  Such a massive space can, of course, absorb masses of people.  The area that was most crowded, much more so even than the Tomb of the Unknowns, was the grave of President John F Kennedy.  It was packed with people and I had the distinct impression that many people clamber off of tour buses just to come see this grave site and then they return to their buses and move on.  Kennedy, however, is not the only President buried in Arlington: the last grave we searched for was that of President William Howard Taft.  Somewhat surprisingly, his memorial obelisk was more challenging to locate than one would imagine.  I persevered, however, because I have decided that one of my side travel missions will be to see the presidential graves.  The kids, however, were beyond flagging by this stage (my father-in-laws fitbit informed us we had walked 11,000 steps) so they were doner-than-done with our explorations of Arlington National Cemetery and ready to go back to the rental house to soak in the hot tub and not remotely receptive to the notion of visiting a whole load more presidential graves.

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Caribbean Cruise – Sea Days

Our first and last days of cruising were spent at sea.  They served as the maritime equivalent of our road-tripping repositioning days where we do nothing but driving.  However, unlike entire days spent trapped in a car with five other people, the cruising equivalent was wonderfully relaxing.

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As you may have noted if you have read any of the travel episodes of this blog, we jam-pack our vacations with activity.  There really is very little down time, not for the adults at least.  However, on the ship – with no chores to do, no cooking, cleaning, or laundry* – I found myself with large chunks of free time.  What a luxury!  I read two and a half books within one week.  I even (accidentally) napped one afternoon.  Woah! With the exception of the two times when I had ‘flu, I have not napped since I became a parent almost 16 years ago.  We took ourselves off for afternoon tea – sometimes formally, with dainty sandwiches and little helpings of sugary treats, and sometimes informally, with mugs of tea and slices of cake from the buffet.  One evening, Mr Pict and I sat out on the lido deck to watch a movie on the big screen.  It was pouring with rain but the air temperature was warm so we stuck it out.  We wrapped ourselves up in beach towels, complete with snoods, and made ourselves feel cosy with mugs of tea and a packet of popcorn.

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There was lots to do on board, including areas we had absolutely zero to do with such as casinos, bars, and clubs.  The swimming pool was small and often so crammed full of people that it was akin to human soup so the kids only really used the pool on a couple of afternoons.  They loved the flumes and hot tubs.  There was a volleyball court, a mini golf course, and some deck games.  We took advantage of the library, not for the books but for its collection of board games.  Sometimes we played in the library and other times we took the games back to our rooms.  We participated in some trivia events (including a satisfyingly challenging Harry Potter one where the kids and I got to exercise our nerd knowledge), we went along to some stand up comedy routines, and we watched several shows in the ship’s large theatre.  The production values of the stage shows were incredible.  While the quality of singing and dancing could be professional but patchy, the production was always slick, polished, and very impressive.

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While I did not take advantage of the opportunity to eat whenever I felt like it, the boys sure as heck did.  They absolutely loved being able to wander along to the buffet area and order a burger, munch a slice of wood fired pizza, or construct a burrito, or (less often) make up a salad or grab some fruit.  They certainly took advantage of the amazing desserts on offer.  I had to give one of my sons a dressing down upon learning he had eaten seven slices of cake in one evening.  Seven!  At home, under the auspices of parents, they eat at set mealtimes and have the option to snack on fruit between meals.  Needless to say, they loved the freedom of being able to snack on pretty much anything they felt like it whenever they felt like it.

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We had a formal dinner as a party of eight every evening.  We had the same table and the same waiting staff each evening so we got into a relaxing groove with it, even when we had to dress up for the “elegant” nights.  I cannot remember the last time I managed to eat three courses in one sitting but – largely thanks to sensible portion sizes and partly just due to irresistible deliciousness – we ate three courses each evening.  Everything was cooked to perfection.  Some meals were tastier than others, of course, but all were impeccably cooked and immaculately, sometimes exquisitely presented.  A whole week without meal planning, with zero cooking, no washing up, and no complaining from the kids about what they were being served, was very much a luxury for me.

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I was not sure that cruising would be for me.  I definitely have the mindset that vacations have to be utterly packed with experiences in order to represent value for money and, therefore, I found it mentally difficult to transition into a vacation that involved entire days of doing “nothing”.  I actually found it difficult to give myself permission to relax.  I also felt guilty that my ability to relax and experience the luxury of laziness was down to the hard work of incredible numbers of crew who were missing the holidays with their families in order to cater to mine.  However, despite all that, I did enjoy the experience of cruising and would consider doing it again as a way of sampling different destinations.

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*No laundry for seven days was a thing of wonder for me, someone who usually has to do an average of one load per day.  Of course, I paid for it when we arrived home and disgorged the contents of our cases as I had to do several loads in 24 hours but it was very nice indeed to have a break from the daily grind of laundry nevertheless.

Caribbean Cruise – Grand Turk

Our final destination of the cruise was Grand Turk, one of the Turks and Caicos Islands.  Two decades ago, Mr Pict had a job opportunity that would have taken us to live on Grand Turk for at least two years.  He declined for various reasons but I was curious to see what the island was like and to imagine what my life would have been like there.

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The ship docked at a beach resort area but we were eager to see something of the real Grand Turk, albeit from a completely skewed tourist perspective.  We, therefore, squeezed into a taxi and were whisked up the length of the narrow, flat island to the capital city, Cockburn Town.  The population of the whole of Grand Turk is under 4000 so it’s a compact city more akin to a village.  We spent some time perusing the stalls on Front Street and poking around on the beach – my kids found bits of coral, lobster body parts, and sun lounging dogs – and enjoying the view of the stunning turquoise water.

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Our goal for the day was the National Museum so we popped in there when it opened.  I am so often surprised by the quality of small, local museums or those dedicated to narrow interests.  This was the case with the Turks and Caicos National Museum.  The staff were very friendly and knowledgeable and they had really made the most of showcasing their exhibits, curating them in such a way that they told clear stories about the island.  The Museum is sited in the Guinep House, one of the oldest buildings on the island.  We learned that most of the timbers used in its construction were likely salvaged from shipwrecks, one of which was exposed so we could see it for ourselves.  I was rather charmed by this fact since one of my Shetland ancestors was imprisoned in the 1840s for pillaging from a shipwreck, another group of islands with very few trees.

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The ground floor of the museum was dedicated to showcasing its big ticket item: the finds from a wreck known as the Molasses Reef Wreck.  A caravel from the very early 16th Century, it is the oldest European ship excavated in the Americas.  While some like to claim that it could very well be Columbus’ ship Pinta (yup. him again), the museum staff were clear that identification has not been possible beyond stating the caravel was Spanish in origin and dated prior to 1520 at the latest.  It is possible, for instance, that is was a slave ship.  Regardless of its specific history, it was very cool to see the remains of such an old vessel.  We saw timbers that still had the wooden “nails” in them, various armaments, and a massive anchor.  A related exhibit illustrated how the ballast on the sea bed had been critical to identification and analysis and demonstrated how archaeologists had worked on the site.

Upstairs, we found an exhibit about the salt industry, the Fresnel lens of the island’s lighthouse, the story of an Irish helmet diver whose two brothers had drowned while diving, the culture of the indigenous Lucayans, and John Glenn’s landing in 1962 following his orbiting of the earth.

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Following the Museum, we returned to the resort bay.  My in-laws decided to relax on the ship but we Picts decided we would have a final beach day.  The kids played on the sand and in the surf with their dad while I listened to a podcast while lying on a shaded lounger.  That is the type of beach time I can compromise on.  Not a bad hurrah for the last shore day of our cruise.

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Caribbean Cruise – San Juan, Puerto Rico

Our next port of call, on Boxing Day, was San Juan, the capital city of Puerto Rico.  Our ship was one of several cruise ships in port that day so the place was bustling with tourists.  It was quite funny to see these absolutely massive boats moored up next to a replica of one of Columbus’ ships.  Incidentally, it felt like I was being haunted by the malevolent spirit of Christopher Columbus for the entire vacation.  References to him abounded everywhere we went.  For so many reasons, it would be great if history could reframe his “discovery” of the Americas by placing it in a more appropriate and accurate context.  But I digress …

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We were disgorged from the ship in the old city which was convenient as that was the area of San Juan we most wanted to see.  We immediately headed up to Castillo de San Cristóbal, hoping that it might be open despite the government shutdown.  For once, we were in luck, thanks to the wonderful employees of the National Parks System who were willing to work without pay in order to keep historic sites open to the public.  One of three forts on Puerto Rico, this particular fort is the largest that the Spanish built in the New World.  It was in continuous use from Spanish colonial times all the way through to World War Two so has a long and varied history.

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Mr Pict likes military history more than I do so he and his father took more time reading the information boards while the kids and I enjoyed exploring the fascinating architecture, poking around in all the nooks and crannies, and taking in the amazing views across the city.  I had read that Puerto Rico has more iguanas than humans so the younger two boys had their fingers crossed for an iguana encounter.  Thankfully we did indeed meet an iguana who was not too skittish and allowed us to get up close.  Our 9 year old decided its name was Tim.  No idea why.

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After we left the fort, we had a wander through the streets of old San Juan.  I loved all of the architectural details, the diversity of building styles, and the bold colours.  We strolled some streets that retained their blue cobblestones from Spanish colonial times.  I was really quite taken with San Juan and – since the cruise could only ever give us a brief taster of each location – I found myself being left thirsty for more.  Of all the places we visited on our vacation, I am most eager to return to Puerto Rico and take in more of not just San Juan but the whole island.

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Caribbean Cruise – Charlotte Amalie, St Thomas

We woke on Christmas morning in the bay of Charlotte Amalie on the island of St Thomas.  We had had a faux Christmas prior to departing on vacation but Santa, of course, had still magicked himself down the ship’s funnel to fill the stockings.  The boys opened those and some gifts from their grandparents, then we grabbed a quick breakfast, and headed onto dry land.  Unfortunately our oldest son was stricken with the same truly rotten cold that had felled a few of us in December and did not feel up to exploring so he stayed aboard the ship in order to rest and recuperate.

While my in-laws poked around in the the many shops of Charlotte Amalie, we Picts decided to take in some of the other sights of the town.  Charlotte Amalie is the largest city and the capital of the US Virgin Islands.  As a colonial town, it was founded by the Danish in the 17th Century.  Our first stop, therefore, was Fort Christian, the oldest extant building in the Virgin Islands.  In addition to that, the Fort also houses a museum and is a National Historic Landmark.  Unfortunately, thanks to it being Christmas Day and the midst of a government shutdown, we were unable to visit other than to see the exterior.

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St Thomas has deep harbours and that meant it was an ideal location for pirates and their ships.  We saw lots of nods to this history of pillaging and skullduggery as we milled about the streets.  Everyone loves (old timey) pirates after all.  Some of us grew up with Long John Silver and some grew up with Captain Jack Sparrow but we all enjoy a good pirate tale, whether fiction or history.  Apparently Charlotte Amalie is particularly associated with Bluebeard and Blackbeard (beards compulsory?) and one of the island’s attractions is Blackbeard’s Castle.  We knew it was closed – thanks not only to Christmas and the shutdown but sadly also storm damage from the recent hurricanes – but we thought we would go and have a look see regardless.  It is always useful for us to have a goal in mind when wandering with children.

The climb was steep and the steps took us past Government House.  We stopped to admire its architecture and to have a quick breather before ascending the final flights of steps to reach the peak and Blackbeard’s Castle.  Although its name associates it with the infamous pirate, the structure was actually built as a defensive watchtower by the Danish since Fort Christian was at sea level.  It now houses a pirate museum which the boys would have loved.  Sigh.  Still, we cannot complain about the poor timing of our tourist wanderings given the damage and distress Hurricane Irma caused for the Virgin Islanders.  I wandered the perimeter fence but could not get a decent look at the tower.  I did manage to get a photo of a statue of Edward Teach by poking my camera lens against a rust hole.  We could see something of the tower from the street.  The best view was from the statue of the Three Queens, honouring the enslaved leaders of the Fireburn rebellion.

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We then took the famous 99 steps back down to the main streets.  Apparently the same warehouses that now house jewellery and fashion stores were once where smugglers and pirates stored their booty but I am sure they were used for legit purposes too.  We walked a long stretch of Dronningen’s Gade, ignoring all the banter from shopkeepers, because I was on a mission.  One house on the street was the birthplace of the Impressionist artist Camille Pissarro.  I had researched the number of the house but the numbering system was confusing.  Furthermore, the rain had started when we were up at Blackbeard’s Castle admiring the views – and watching the precipitation advancing – and it was absolutely hammering down as we pounded the pavements.  When we found ourselves in a decidedly dodgy area, we decided to retreat and I had to give up on my mission.  However, on reviewing my photos later that evening, I realised I had taken a photo of my youngest son beneath a sign that declared the building to be the birthplace of Pissarro.  So I somehow managed to both accomplish and fail my mission.

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While I had always intended to return to the ship after wandering the town in order to check on our oldest son, Mr Pict and the other kids had planned on going to the beach.  However, the boys had a change of heart having become drenched in the rain so we all hopped on a taxi (cars drive on the left incidentally) and they used the ship’s pool instead, taking advantage of the fact most people were away for the day.

Caribbean Cruise – Dominican Republic

Our first destination on the cruise was the Dominican Republic.  It was the only day on which we went on an organised excursion.  This was a good move for two reasons.  First of all, the ship docked in a cove that was designed purely for cruise ships which meant it was completely artificial and overtly touristy and the nearest actual town was too far to walk to.  Secondly, the excursion turned out to be excellent and allowed us far greater insights into the Dominican Republic than our own explorations would have done.

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We met with our tour guide and driver and hopped on the minibus.  There were the eight of us and a dozen other people so it was a small group.  The nearest city to the dock was Puerto Plata and, as we drove through, our guide was able to point out several things unique to the country and explain a bit about the culture.  We saw lots of whole roasted pigs on sticks being cooked and sold at stalls on the busy streets.  We learned that this was because this type of roasted pork was the traditional meat for Christmas dinner and lots of people would be buying it that day, Christmas Eve.  We were also informed that the city took its name not from the metal silver but because of a particular tree that grew on the hillsides, the grey leaves of which seemed to look silvery in the mountain fog.  Our drive also took us past various views of the mountain named Isabella.  We learned that this was a name bestowed upon it by Christopher Columbus and that the first European village in the New World was located nearby.  It was such a beautiful place to be the launch pad of a history of disease, conflict, slavery, and genocide.

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Soon we were leaving the city and were wildly bouncing and careering along unsurfaced, winding, uphill roads that took us into the lush vegetation of the rural areas of Puerto Plata province.  On the way, we learned about eclectic subjects such as vernacular architecture, mahogany, the lottery, and tiny stores that sell individual ingredients such as one egg or a few slices of meat at a time.  Our destination was a village where we could learn more about the rural way of life in the region.  We were invited to enter one home, which was Tardis like in its use of space.  I especially enjoyed seeing the kitchen, which was an adjacent but separate building from the home, and the clay wood fired cooker.

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We were shown around the agricultural area and the produce being grown was identified and its uses explained to us.  I found that to be thoroughly interesting.  I, for one, had never seen coffee plants in real life before.  I also saw my first breadfruit tree.  Our 9 year old had two bucket list items for his time in the Caribbean: to see bananas growing and to see cacao in the wild.  He achieved both goals on the trip as there were seven varieties of banana being grown, including a red variety I had never seen before, and there were trees full of cacao pods.  Our wee chocoholic was elated.  He was even more ecstatic when he learned that he was going to get to sample hot chocolate made from the locally grown cacao.  It was richly delicious.  Other members of the family tried the freshly ground coffee.  We all thoroughly enjoyed chunks of freshly harvested pineapple and guava.

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Our next stop was the village elementary school.  As an educator, I found it really interesting to see the similarities and differences in the education system and the way the school buildings and classrooms were organised.  I was, however, glad that school was not in session (given it was Christmas Eve) as I would have felt uncomfortable seeing the students used props for tourists.

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We then had a break for lunch.  It was a buffet of the types of food Dominicans would eat on a typical day.  I especially enjoyed the rice and beans.  The boys loved the fried chicken.  During our lunch pit stop, there was some dancing entertainment to showcase the fusion of indigenous, African, and European culture in the Dominican Republic.  We also saw a man making cigars and sampled some local alcohol.  Our cat fanatic 9 year old was absolutely thrilled to meet a local cat.

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The final destination for the day was a beach, as this area of the country is famed for its beautiful beaches.  The boys loved the opportunity to just let loose and splash and crash among the waves.  Our guides provided some body boards so they tried that out too.  Even as someone who does not like sand, I had to agree it was a pretty good way to end the trip.

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I liked what I saw of the Dominican Republic, from the brief sampling we had, and would definitely consider returning to explore more of the country, its varied history, and its diverse cultures.

Caribbean Cruise – Miami

We Picts closed out 2018 on a bang as we spent the festive period on vacation.  My in-laws had generously gifted us a Caribbean Cruise for Christmas so the eight of us celebrated the season on the high seas, spending a week exploring new places and cultures (for the kids and me at least), and experiencing a cruise for the first time in the case of our youngest two children and me.

Of course, before we could board the ship and sail off in the lap of luxury, we had to get to Miami.  We, therefore, spent two days driving south from the Philly suburbs to Miami.  That’s a whole lot of the I95, a useful but incredibly boring road that sometimes feels as if it is never going to earn.  We spent the first night on the outskirts of Savannah and arrived in Miami the following evening.  We had hoped for a bit more time in Miami but holiday traffic had other plans for us.  Nevertheless, we were able to meet up with my in-laws (who had flown over from the UK) in time to have a delicious dinner.

However, as early risers, the next morning we had enough time to explore Miami Beach.  As frequent readers of this blog will be well aware, I am not a fan of sand.  The only good sand is glass as far as I am concerned.  However, Mr Pict and the Pictlings love the beach so I suck it up, brace myself, and just deal with my discomfort.  The kids found a shiny but decidedly dead fish and our youngest son found a teenie-weenie coconut.  While they enjoyed the beach and the warm sea air, what I liked about the beach area was all the 1930s architecture of Ocean Drive and its environs.  I love Art Deco for its elegant use of geometric shapes and clean lines and pops of colour.  There were also some sleek buildings in the moderne style and some that seemed to have a hispanic influence.

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As luck should have it, we happened to be standing on Ocean Drive when the local fire brigade drove past in a formation.  While the emergency lights were flashing, there were no sirens.  That is because this was no emergency.  Instead, it was their Christmas parade.  The fire engines were being driven by Santa and elves while the Grinch and a gingerbread man appeared as passengers.  There were children on board too so we waved enthusiastically at them as they passed by.

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We left Miami beach and headed to the port area to ready ourselves for embarking onto the cruise ship.  I admit that I found the whole process quite stressful.  As someone used to either travelling entirely under my own steam when road tripping or experiencing the relatively controlled routines of flying, the process for boarding the ship felt quite stressful.  My anxiety hit peak when we had to leave our luggage with a porter which pretty much left it unattended among hordes of people.  Having travelled around London for decades and then having flown in the post-9/11 world, the whole idea of “unattended luggage” is anathema to me.  Add to that the fact that I experienced having possessions stolen from my luggage 20 years ago and I was deeply unsettled by the whole thing.  Then there were milling crowds.  I am British and, therefore, culturally hard-wired to strongly prefer orderly queuing.  The random hustle and bustle unsettled me further.  It all just felt a bit chaotic and haphazard.  Even when we boarded, because our rooms were not going to be available for a few hours more, it was a case of everyone scuttling to find a space in which to settle down.  In the grand scheme of things, these are all small beer quibbles but I cannot deny that those were an intense few hours for me, neurotic control freak that I am.

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We wandered the ship to start getting our bearings and finally had access to our rooms in early afternoon.  Then we were finally off.  We bid farewell to Miami and I headed off on my very first cruise.

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