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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Memorials at Night

After so many hours spent in Arlington National Cemetery, we decided to treat ourselves to a restaurant meal.  Mr Pict and I had fond memories of eating in a Southern food restaurant in Alexandria, called Southside 851, so we headed there.  When we ate there in 2002, it was the first time I had had fried green tomatoes and I absolutely loved them.  We, therefore, ordered those as a shared starter.  They were just as delicious as I remembered them.  The other courses we ate were flavoursome and good quality but far too greasy for our palates.  Still, the calories had been well-earned and our full bellies set us up for an evening exploring some of the monuments and memorials of Washington DC at night.

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We started at the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial because I remembered being impressed by how it looked at night and because my kids had never visited it at any time of day at all.  I have to confess, however, that I was disappointed this time.  The lighting appeared weaker than I recalled, with some of the statues so poorly lit that they were almost obscured by the darkness, and definitely much less dramatic.  Between the dim lighting and the hordes of school groups clambering all over everything, my kids were distinctly unimpressed by what is actually a very striking memorial full of historical references and symbolism.  What was most aggravating, however, was that none of the water features were in action.  These obviously have aesthetic and sensory appeal but they also symbolise various aspects of FDR’s presidency so there absence undermined the impact of the whole memorial.  I actually felt annoyed that this was my kids’ first introduction to this memorial.

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A statue that was definitely as striking by night as it was by day was the memorial to Martin Luther King Jr.  This was my first time viewing it in the dark and the lighting was just spot on.  It’s an incredible melding of portraiture, symbolism, and messaging, and really very moving.

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Our group split up after that with Mr Pict taking some of the boys to the Lincoln Memorial (our 13 year old’s favourite) while I took our youngest son and the grandparents back to the car.  Once we were all back together again, we decided to visit one last memorial.  It has been over a quarter of a century since I last visited the Iwo Jima Marine Memorial and I had never seen it at night so I thought this was a good opportunity to show it to the kids, given they are familiar with the iconic photograph from which it takes its inspiration.  I think it is a memorial that really needs to be seen by daylight as too much of the detail is lost when it is not as well lit.

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Ambling in Annapolis

For reasons too tedious to explain but involving leave entitlement, ceaseless winter storms, and rolling rescheduling, Mr Pict and I found ourselves spending a weekend driving to and from Washington DC.  My in-laws had flown in from England and met us there in order to then take our four children on a Spring break vacation.  Mr Pict and I, therefore, found ourselves unexpectedly child-free in Washington DC.

We spent the evening catching up with friends over dinner and wine.  Before I earned that grown up treat, however, I had to trail my husband around some Civil War sites he had never visited.  As I have previously explained, my husband spent his early teens living in the suburbs of DC.  How he managed to live there for years plus have us return from the UK to visit his parents several times without ever visiting these sites is beyond me.  However, as a Civil War nerd, it is on his bucket list to visit just about every obscure Civil War site in the nation so I was happy to indulge him and his bucket list collecting.

First up was Fort Stevens.  I don’t know why I made any sort of assumptions but I had expected the site to be a little more grand or at least cared for than it clearly was.  Instead, what I found were some mounds of earth on a patch of scrappy grass in the middle of a residential neighbourhood, a couple of canons surrounded by litter and broken glass, and the noise of a construction site that abutted the remains of the fort.  Fort Stevens’ significance rests in the fact that it was the site of the only Civil War battle to take place within the limits of the nation’s capital and it was the only time when a serving President came under enemy fire.  The history is that, in July 1864, Jubal Early’s Confederate troops decided to march on the capital following a battle in nearby Frederick.  They encountered Fort Stevens – one of a series of forts protecting the city – and there was a brief battle that repelled the Confederate soldiers.  Lincoln and his wife visited the fort and witnessed the battle, hence his coming under fire.  A rock with a bronze plaque marks the spot where Lincoln stood on the earthworks.

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I was underwhelmed by Fort Stevens but the next stop on the itinerary was a little more my cup of tea in that it was a cemetery.  Battleground Cemetery contains the graves of the 40 soldiers who died in the defence of Fort Stevens and others who fought there – the last to be interred being buried there as recently as 1936.  Again there was a Lincoln connection since Abe attended the burial cemetery and dedicated the land, which makes it one of America’s smallest national cemeteries.  It was indeed a modest cemetery.  There were a few regimental memorials within its walls but the graves themselves were very small and simple and arranged in a circle.  It was well-maintained and a tiny pocket of peace and quiet despite being within a major city.

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The following day we decided to stop off in Annapolis as we wended our way back to the Philly suburbs.  Being a bitterly cold Sunday in March, there was not an awful lot for us to do but wander around and absorb the charm of Annapolis’ historic district.  To give our pit stop a little more focus, we decided to visit the Maryland State House.  Occupied since the 1770s, it is the oldest state capitol in continuous use and once served as the nation’s capitol.

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I started out my visit there by stopping by the statue of Thurgood Marshall.  It depicts Marshall as a young lawyer at the start of his career and behind him are pillars reading “Equal Justice Under Law”.  The sculpture also contains three other related statues: one of Donald Gaines Murray, whose case was one of Marshall’s early victories in the fight to desegregate schools, and two children who symbolise Brown V the Board of Education.  It used to be the case that a statue of Roger Taney stood on the grounds but his statue was removed last year.  I personally was glad to see Marshall celebrated at the State House and to see Taney’s absence.

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Once inside, we explored the various rooms on a self-guided tour. We had the whole place virtually to ourselves so it was very relaxing and informal.  We had a peek into the current Senate and House chambers.  Mr Pict enjoyed seeing the voting buttons on each desk whereas I was enamoured of the Tiffany skylights.  The Caucus room was very dark but was filled with gleaming silverware.  This was a service from the USS Maryland which is designed with lots of references and symbols relating to the state.  I like things that are shiny but the silverware was all a bit fussy for my taste.  I wouldn’t want to keep it polished either.  Just as well I will never own a silver service set then!  Probably the most historically significant room in the State House is the Old Senate Chamber.  It was in this space, in December 1783, that George Washington resigned his commission as Commander of the Continental Army thus establishing an important precedent for America’s democracy.

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Back out on the cold streets, we wandered around and poked our noses into the odd shop.  We spent a lot of time rummaging in a very cluttered, very musty, but entirely wonderful book shop.  We then wandered down to the Dock area.  There I found the statue commemorating Alex Haley, author of Roots, and Kunta Kinte, the fictionalised African ancestor of Haley’s that is the starting point of his saga.  We sat there and people- and duck-watched for a bit before walking back through the old streets and back to the car.

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This was my first visit to Annapolis since I first visited in 1995 and I had forgotten how quaint and attractive it is.  At some point we will have to return with the kids, in warmer temperatures, and when there is more to do.

Road Trip #21 – Natural History Museum

It has been our experience that the first and last days of any vacation with the kids are the most trying.  With the first day, it is all about navigating the transition out of routines into some degree of chaos and about managing expectations; with the last day, it is all about fatigue causing crankiness and an unconscious or conscious desire to return to familiar routines, a need to retreat back into the family cave for some hibernation after all the stimulation.

We, therefore, kept our final day of the road trip pretty low key.  We were travelling back to the Philly suburbs that day anyway plus had arranged to meet a dear friend for lunch so we only had the morning to fill.  We selected the Natural History Museum, part of the Smithsonian.  Actually, Mr Pict was keen for us to try a second visit to the Museum of American History since our first family visit there had been less than stellar.  I had cause to reference the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly in my blog post about it.  In the hopes that those issues had been resolved, we first headed to the Museum of American History, picked up a map, and discovered that absolutely nothing had changed since our last visit two years before.  Half the museum was still closed off due to renovation work.  We decided to jettison that plan (actually I was keen on jettisoning it as soon as it was the plan since our last visit there had been so cruddy) and move next door to the Natural History Museum.

We had not chosen the Natural History Museum for our last morning in DC simply because we had visited the Field Museum in Chicago just the week before and it felt like a repetition.  However, for that very reason it turned out to be a good choice.  As parents, we felt we could just relax and take a step back since we did not feel that same pressure to educate the kids.  We could just let them wander and engage as they saw fit rather than trying to guide them and focus their interest.

We started with a genuine Easter Island moai statue.  The boys had seen a plaster cast of one of these in February 2014 when we visited the Natural History Museum in New York city but this was the first time they had seen a real one.  It turns out this is because the Smithsonian owns the only two moai in America.  We then ascended the stairs around a group of spectacularly carved totem poles.  The boys enjoyed looking at the carved characters and reading the stories behind them.  The first gallery we visited was one exhibiting National Geographic photographs of Africa.  I love photography and the kids love animals so we spent some time admiring the images.

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Our first proper destination in the museum, however, was the hall of gems.  As I have explained before, our 10 year old loves anything sparkly or shiny.  He has magpie DNA.  We, therefore, thought he ought to see the Hope Diamond.  This blue diamond is one of the largest and most famous precious stones in the world.  We told the kids it had a long, interesting and intriguing history to the point that it had been associated with a curse.  And then we took them in to see it.  And they were underwhelmed.  I think their vision of a large diamond was one the size of the palm of a hand or larger.  It was a failure of reality matching expectations.

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The rest of the gem and mineral collection, however, was a massive hit with the kids – and not just the one who likes sparkles.  They found the diversity of the minerals to be really fascinating and they wandered from case to case choosing favourites.  There were big chunks of quartz that contained bubbles like sedate lava lamps.  There were rocks that looked like Doozer constructions from beneath Fraggle Rock and shards that looked like they came from the Dark Crystal.  There were chunks of gems encrusted with other stones or minerals, such as a chunk of calcite sparkling with a thick seam of chalcopyrite.  There were other lumps of calcite that looked like elaborate desserts encrusted with sugary confections.  There were geodes on display that had been split open to reveal their colourful, sparkling contents – and I could see my 10 year old wanting to take a rock hammer on every nature ramble now.  There was an otherwise unprepossessing rock that had a wide mouth split to reveal lots of rows of white fuzzy mounts inside and which looked entirely like something Jim Henson would have imagined.  There were formations that looked like chunky frost or snowflake clusters.  A geometric piece of purple-red fluorite made my kids think of a set design for Tron or else something from Minecraft.  By contrast, there were pastel hued pieces that looked like petrified clouds or bubbly candy floss.  One enticing display case was filled with forms of gold and silver, thought it was a blobby chunk of copper that I liked best.  When the boys saw the case of glowing willemite calcite, the green glow made the boys think of it as having been spattered with Predator blood. The 10 year old was ecstatic about getting to touch a massive chunk of amethyst and now wants a chunk of his own.  I had never seen that child go as full Gollum as he did in that room full of gems and jewellery.

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Next up – mainly because it was near the restrooms – we popped in to visit the dinosaurs.  We looked at the large fossil specimens of a T-Rex and a triceratops but otherwise, between the Field Museum and the Creation Museum, the kids had experienced quite enough dinosaurs for one vacation.  We, therefore, found ourselves a spot in the insect section.  The boys enjoyed seeing the cockroaches since we used to have Madagascan Hissing Cockroaches as pets back in Scotland but they also got to see a tarantula up close and some butterflies hatching out of their cocoons.  And then we were all museumed out.  Partly it was because our friend had arrived and it was time to head for lunch, partly it was because the museum was very crowded, but mostly we had just absorbed as much in the way of experiences as we cared to absorb for the fifteen days of our road trip.

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And so, after a tasty lunch with great company, after heading back to NoMa to pick up our car and luggage, a few hours’ drive to collect the cats from their cat hotel – to much excited squealing from the kids – we finally emerged from the car that had been our mobile home and tour bus for a fortnight and we were home.  And we were glad to be home.

Road Trip #20 – Monuments at Night

After a restful and cooling break in the hotel, we headed back out for the evening.  Our plan was to show the boys some of Washington DC’s monuments by night because they look quite different when artificially lit compared to how they appear in daylight and also because it is less busy at night and you can sometimes get a better view as a result.

After a bit of a kerfuffle that caused a delayed departure, we emerged from the metro station late enough in the evening that rats were scuttling all over the place.  From journeying on the London Underground late at night, I am familiar with seeing manky rodents on the tracks but these rats were confidently barging past travellers.  While everyone else was recoiling, my kids thought it was so cool to see such big rats.  They wanted to stay near to the metro station to study them and befriend them.  Nope.  Move on.

First stop was the Washington Monument.  It was positively glowing against the night sky. The kids had seen it during the day two years before but agreed it was quite different to see it at night.  Mr Pict and the kids lay down on the ground with their legs leaning against the Monument’s sides in order to achieve a worm’s eye view.

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Then we tramped across the grass of the Mall, which was not the best idea actually since it was very boggy and uneven underfoot and I managed to fall into a hole.  We popped out at the National World War II Memorial, one we had also visited two years before.  It really did look different at night.  The granite pillars were somehow more assertive when lit against the night sky and the fountains seemed to sparkle and dance.  I noted on my previous visit and it was the case again on this visit that people were permitting their children to wade in the water of the Memorial and even some adults were sitting on the side with their feet dangling in the water.  While I can appreciate the temptation on a sultry, sticky evening, a Memorial to those who fought and died in the Second World War is truly not the place to cool off.

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We emerged from the World War II Memorial and headed off to visit Abe Lincoln.  We were being eaten alive by mosquitoes hovering over the reflecting pool so were disgruntled as well as tired by the time we reached the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.  The littlest Pict’s energy levels were flagging so I stayed with him while the older boys trekked up the steps to see the statue, my 10 year old taking my DSLR so that he could take some photos of his favourite President looking thoughtful and wise.

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Next up and just a short stroll away was the Korean War Veterans Memorial.  This was particularly haunting to view at night.  The main feature of the Memorial is a triangle of juniper bushes containing steel statues of 19 military personnel on patrol.  Something about them being surrounded by pitch darkness, their feet being consumed by a dense carpet of foliage, their expressions alert and pensive, made the Memorial even more arresting.

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The plan had been to take the boys to see the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial, which I have actually only ever visited at night, and then out to the Jefferson Memorial.  The latter was always ambitious and had been pretty much written off by the delay in embarking on our evening foray into the city centre but sadly we also had to jettison a visit to FDR because the kids were sapped of energy, the little one was half asleep and was shambling like a zombie, and we wanted to call a halt to things before they all started snarling and grumping.  We were, therefore, about to set off back to the metro station when Mr Pict suggested we get an Uber back to the hotel.  My thriftiness made me argue for a return journey on the metro but the prospect of an air conditioned car journey meant I was outvoted by all the male Picts.  I, therefore, got to experience my first ever Uber journey and experience my kids falling asleep in the car of a random stranger.

Road Trip #19 – National Zoo

I first visited the National Zoo in 1995 when living in Washington DC for three months while my then-boyfriend-now-husband was working as an intern.  As a UK national, I was not employed for those three months so was footloose and fancy free during his work hours and could explore all over Washington DC and its suburbs – essentially anywhere the metro system or Shanks Pony could take me.  I saw a lot of the city that summer, worked out where had the best water fountains (DC, certainly back then, had atrocious drinking water so this was very useful knowledge), and visited almost all of the major tourist attractions.  One of these was National Zoo and I will state that back in 1995 I thought it was one of those zoos that needed to be closed down.  The enclosures were too small and there was inadequate stimulus for the captive animals.  I have an especially vivid memory of a condor being cramped in a cage so small I doubt it could fully extend its wings.  It was pretty depressing.  I went once and never returned.

My kids, however, were eager to visit the National Zoo and the fact that entry is free (yes, a zoo – usually one of the most expensive things a family can do – that was free!) persuaded us to give the National Zoo another visit 21 years on.  I am very pleased to report that the zoo we visited this summer was almost unrecognisable from the one I had visited in 1995.  The intervening two decades have evidently been spent on a great deal of remodelling and the zoo not only has a better flow and organisation to it but also has appropriate enclosures with stimulation for the animals.  I was, therefore, free to enjoy our day at the zoo as guilt-free as it is possible to be when staring at captive animals.

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The main driver for our visit to National Zoo was that my 10 year old is obsessed with pandas (and zebras but mainly pandas) and National Zoo presented an opportunity for him – for all of us actually – to see a real life panda for the first time.  We, therefore, set off first on the Asia Trail.  Our first encounter was with a Sloth Bear who was ambling about in his enclosure.  I loved his funny lips and his shaggy hair.  We also saw a brace of Fishing Cats, an endangered species.  Both were snoozing and in their languid slumber looked precisely like our pet cats at home.  One briefly lifted its head in feline contempt when a child (not one of mine) knocked on the glass and then it went straight back to sleep again.  The nearby otters were much more alert and were racing around their enclosure as a pack.  It seems likely they were awaiting feeding time as they were clearly trying to spot something and were being very vigilant.  We had a bird’s eye view of the elephant enclosure just as they were being released into their playground and then we arrived at the panda area.

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At first, the kids were a bit deflated.  I think they expected to turn a corner and just see the big pandas all sitting around posing for them and instead they were having to scan a massive enclosure filled with trees, rocks and foliage.  Mr Pict and I spotted one panda up a tree but the kids were having difficulty making it out.  Lips were pouting.  Then we went to view the interior enclosures and it was pandas galore.  Our boys were fizzing with excitement and the 10 year old was about ready to explode with glee.  One panda was curled up in a ball in a corner and the boys were already delighted.  Then we moved to an adjacent area where a panda was flopped over a rock in what looked like a pretty uncomfortable repose.  He would move from time to time in order to adjust his position and he even stuck out his tongue and drooled.  The kids were thrilled.  Then, in the next section, there was a panda playing with a football (or soccer ball if you insist).  Our 10 year old was ecstatic.  He even gained a better view of the panda who was up the tree.  I am not the biggest fan of pandas, truth be told, but even I thought it was pretty magical to finally see real live pandas for the first time in my life.

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Panda Mission accomplished we could wander around the zoo a bit more aimlessly and stop when we wanted to see something and wander past other things.  It was far, far, far too hot and humid to spend the entire day in the open air at the zoo so we knew we would not be able to spend time at every single enclosure or section.  Washington DC can be very muggy and swampy in summer and this was just such a day.  The zoo did have lots of water misters that we could switch on and get a refreshing spray of water to cool us down but the effects did not last nearly long enough on such a sweltering day.  The cheetah was pretty active and was slinking around his enclosure so we spent some time watching him but our next proper stop was the big ape house.

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We all love orangutans (they are the animal my Dad is obsessed with) but we only got a few glimpses of those as they all seemed to be sleeping except for one who was hiding under a bed sheet.  The gorillas, however, were a huge hit with the kids.  One large male was leaning against the glass eating so the kids could really gain a sense of his muscle and bulk and then the same gorilla ran past them right beside the glass and they gained an even stronger sense of his scale and power.  We also erupted into laughter when the large silverback gorilla peed and pooped and then sat back looking smug and arms folded as if to say, “And that’s why I’m the boss”.

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The small mammal building was another big hit with all of us.  We saw porcupines and armadillos which made me squeal with delight, especially when I spotted that the tree porcupines had had a baby who, not yet having hard spikes, looked like an adorable fuzzy tumbleweed.  I have shared before that my 9 year old is hugely obsessed with Naked Mole Rats so we spent some time observing these peculiar wee dudes in their translucent tunnels.  There was actually a squirmy traffic pile up in one tunnel and in another there was a naked mole rat with an itch he just could not scratch as he was wriggling and fidgeting and scratching away, contorting his wrinkly body into peculiar positions.  The kids thought he was awesome.  There was also a sloth (my sisters’ favourites), golden lion tamarins, lemurs with googly eyes, various monkeys, mongoose (mongeese?), and degus all huddled together in a pile on one log.  We also saw a couple of animals I had never seen before, tree anteater things called tamanduas and a tiny little hedgehog thing from Madagascar called a tenrec.

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The reptile house of any zoo is always worth a gander.  Reptiles and amphibians are so varied and interesting.  This reptile house did not disappoint.  We saw several species of snakes, including a massive anaconda.  There were also alligators and crocodiles galore, including a Cuban alligator and a garagal. There were tortoises and poisonous frogs but the kids were most entertained by the turtles.  There was a massive surly looking alligator snapping turtle lurking in a murky tank, a whole tank filled with long-necked turtles who were swimming around with their oddly bendy necks, and a large turtle with shotgun nostrils.

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Our final proper stop was in the Amazon section, showcasing creatures from that region of South America.  There were pink birds that I think were roseate spoonbills wandering around inside and the kids thought it was cool to be so close to these exotic bright birds.  We also saw a tank full of rays and another full of massive fish, including the biggest catfish I have ever seen.  Other tanks contained tree frogs and dart frogs and a tarantula that made my oldest son, an arachnophobe, rather nervous even though it was behind glass and not remotely interested in him.

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I am glad I returned to National Zoo and gave it another try.  The improvements have turned it into a lovely zoo and the inclusion of pandas is clearly a big draw.  Despite the oppressive heat, we spent a really great few hours there and saw plenty of active animals that delighted the kids.

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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