Monday, 27 March 2017

Houston, we have a problem...

...the Davieses are coming to live in you!  Yes, our North American odyssey continues with Hannah landing a job in the world capital of all things oil: Texas.  I'm not entirely sure what the job is, but if a Chevron pipeline goes wrong anywhere in North America then Hannah's the person who has to go and apologise.  Which, after twenty years of marriage, I'm looking forward to hearing.

When big oil says "jump" you say "to which major conurbation?" which is why we now find ourselves in Houston for a few days, during which time we need to buy a house and find a school for Pete.  We've been to Texas once before, and it was an eye-opener (chicken fried steak!  Steak they fry as if it's a chicken!!) but I have to say that the neighbourhood we're staying in is rather like Berkeley!  If everyone in Berkeley voted Republican and owned a gun, but nevertheless...

Slightly less enticing is the weather, a balmy 85F (29.5C) with humidity hovering somewhere over 100%.  Houston's latitude is south of Cairo's, so this is actually a little chilly for March.  I'm trying to entice my parents - who considered Vancouver a bit on the warm side - to visit in June.  We'll see about that.  At least by then we'll have air conditioning, which the apartment I rented doesn't seem to possess.  But hey, it was cheap!  And meals will be cheap too, as I'm currently eating a lot of humble pie in the presence of a not-too-impressed wife and son.

It's pre-flight breakfast time!

Ah yes, this must be Houston airport.  Thankfully all my firearms are licensed.

And this must be Texas.

Our local shopping mall will be the one with the gigantic ice rink in the middle.  Did I mention they like things big down here?

The beautiful Discovery Green right in the heart of downtown.  If it's ever cool enough to be out of doors...

Sunday, 19 March 2017

Keeping up with the old folks

After the snow melted we packed it all into Mum and Sheila's last few days, and I even let them go off by themselves!  True, Hannah could track their movements via their Metro passes, but who knows how far they could have got on foot?  Yet there comes a time when people get old enough to trust them...and then they get older and you stop trusting them again.  Thankfully they didn't try to jump over the White House fence or anything.

Having done the Smithsonians we spent the weekend on extremely artistic pursuits, namely a trip to The John F. Kennedy Memorial Center for the Performing Arts.  Various of our number went to see Grug and the Rainbow while me and Sheila got a tour.  We had to babysit 1-yr-old Oscar while his elder siblings went to the play, which thoroughly confused the tour guide Susan when I tried to explain the familial connections.

Anyway, the Center is a treasure trove of sculpture and art as well as housing seven different theatres.  Most things inside were gifts to the US in the wake of Kennedy's assassination, with chandeliers from Sweden and Norway, lounges decorated by Israel, Russia and was endless.  We also got to peek into the Presidential boxes, now replete with photos of Trump.  "There's one from the inauguration," I commented.  "How big's the crowd?" our tour guide shot back cheekily.

How could we beat such high culture for their final day?  By going the other way, of course, with lunch at The Cheesecake Factory and a stop at Chuck E. Cheese (aka hell) where Pete has wanted to take Grandma for a very long time.  Hopefully it doesn't put her and Sheila off any return trips...

Ultimate power.

Or is that here?  American government is so weird.

At the Kennedy Center - photo (and extra kids) courtesy of Amanda.

Three generations of wild things.

Inside.  A little larger than The Merlin Theatre where Sheila regularly volunteers.

Two households, both alike in dignity (well, almost).

Nearly a tree hugger.


The happiest place on earth!

Management eventually asked Hannah to let the waiting kids have a go.

Oooooh yes!  My reward for tour guiding.

Sheila: unimpressed.

Tuesday, 14 March 2017

Snow laughing matter

The weather forecasters hereabouts got themselves into a tizzy about the current east coast winter storm, and so Pete's school decided to close before a single flake fell here in Maryland.  To be fair to them a blanket of white did descend overnight, but when you've lived through the Snowpocalypse it takes more than a little eight-inch dusting to get you excited.

Hannah was extremely annoyed to only get a three-hour delayed start (although that did mean an extra cappuccino), but after she left I had the challenge of entertaining people at both extremes of the gerontological spectrum alone.  I decided to divide and conquer: Mum and Pete were sent outside to shovel snow, Sheila got to stay in and read.

Ready to put in a few hours' work.

Of course, it quickly descended into a snowball fight.

The snow was very icy, so this was the best I could manage for a snowman.  D- for effort, F for execution.

Come on out, Grandma.  It's lovely!

By the time Hannah went to work we'd cleared a path for her.  I don't want my princess getting chilly feet, do I?!

I did coax Mum and Sheila out by mid-afternoon, sending them to Safeway to buy milk and fruit.  They came back with cheesecake.  Here's hoping for warmer weather tomorrow...

Sunday, 12 March 2017

Witnesses to history

It was time to escape the swampy ground of politics and head away from DC, out into the rural wilds of Virginia and a night in the Shenandoah.  On the way we stopped off at Manassas, a famous battlefield where the slave-owning South won a big victory over the free North in the civil war.  This is what happens when you reject British colonial rule, but thankfully the North triumphed and now everyone in the USA is completely equal.

Our destination was Charlottesville, a beautiful Virginian town where there's a nice hotel and also Vince and Christine, who independently decided to visit while Christine's Dad was staying.  Tempting as it was to leave all the grandparents with all the grandkids, we decided instead to meet up for a family dinner.  And where better to have pre-dinner drinks than a bar that offered 60 beers on tap that you poured yourself, unlocking the pumps with a swipe card and paying for it all at the end?  As business ideas go the Draft Taproom is genius, and extremely dangerous.  Even Mum overdid it on the grapefruit cider.

After hot-tubbing before bed and waffles for breakfast we visited the local Grand Caverns, "America's Oldest Show Cave", walking over a mile underground past precariously dripping rocks.  It was a lot colder above ground than under, presaging the coming winter storm, and we did find one sleeping bat.

Then it was a drive along the crest of the mountains in Shenandoah National Park and back to DC, where at least they're not debating a reintroduction of slavery...but then it is early in this administration.

Going to a civil war battlefield with a 4-yr-old results in A LOT of questions.

Sheila and Mum try to remember 1861.

A slightly more modern classic, where we had lunch.

Pour-your-own.  Never a good idea.


Kids' table.

Mum dives in.

Off to the caverns.


The lone stalagmite is 8 1/2 feet tall and known as George Washington, though surely a relative of the witch of Wookey Hole.

From the caves to the mountains; on Skyline Drive, on the way home.

Friday, 10 March 2017

Granny annex

It's that wonderful time of year when the sun breaks through the clouds, blossom appears on the trees, and Grandma comes to visit.  But, as it's ice skating competition season in the UK, Grandpa couldn't take time off his training schedule (no joke!) and so Mum came with ever-willing traveling companion, Sheila.  Mum is visiting the foremost love of her life - no, not her firstborn son, the other one.  Sheila already has 13 grandkids so is not as bothered.

I started them with a gentle perambulation of our local park, all in full bloom due to the crazy global warming weather we've been having of late, but today put them through their paces with a tour of the Capitol and the Library of Congress.  And it snowed.  Somehow Maryland is even more changeable than the UK.

In between finding out what freedom smells like, grandparent-provided childcare has been ongoing with most days starting with book reading from 6.45am and finishing with endless board games until bed.  But is this not the tacit deal made when you provide your parents with grandchildren?  (I contemplate this as I sit, munching on the chocolate Hobnobs, Marmite cashews, and Malteser bunnies smuggled in for me through customs...)

Mum, Sheila, and between them the reason for the visit.

OK, that's the photo I wanted.  You can amuse yourselves for the rest of the trip.

In the Wheaton Park maze (too easy).

Sheila gets dragged into the action.

Three ladies in Emancipation Hall.

Getting a schooling in history in the old senate chamber.

Some light reading.

Probably the most ornate building in the USA...

With a nice view too.

Finally I don't have to play so many $*(#&@ board games!  Mum, you can stay.

Saturday, 4 March 2017

Rhode trip

Hannah had to go on a work trip back to the promised land (California).  Faced with a few days of self-determination and sole responsibility I did the only sensible thing: ran away.  Throwing a couple of clean pairs of underwear into the car, Pete and I jumped in and followed the sun.  Luckily the sun was pointing north and took us to New York City!

Day 1

Although the East Coast lacks the mesas, canyons, and bizarre tourist spots you find further west, a road trip on this side of the country is no less fascinating as you traverse famous landmarks like the New Jersey Turnpike and the Brooklyn Bridge.  It does, however, undermine the idea of low taxation in America.  Sure, car tax is cheap, but the number of tolls that are levied against you on the way is eye-watering.  You can choose alternative, free routes if you enjoy dodging even more potholes, but it adds a week to your journey.

Today was St David's Day, when those of Welsh origin seek out each other to share stories of the old country, reminisce about rugby triumphs (though not recently) and sing in close harmony.  My cousin Kath lives in Brooklyn so we knocked on her door and traded Welsh cakes for bed and board.  Pete and his cousin Orson got on like a house on fire - and only slightly less destructive - as they ran around the free-standing kitchen brrrrrming and beeping.

Pete and Orson, enjoying my Welsh cakes.  This could also be a picture of me and Kath circa 1981, proving the strength of the Brinson genes.

Future centre backs for Wales and/or the USA.

A (slightly) quieter moment.

Rob picks up the reading baton the next morning.  We're a very literary family.

Day 2

I can't say I'm in favour of surrendering all personal data to these huge Internet conglomerates, but when it allows Google Maps to inform me that there's a Blue Bottle Coffee right around the corner I'm suddenly happy for them to know everything!  We dropped Orson at school and then picked up a cheeky cappuccino.  Is it as good as the San Francisco original?  Is the East Coast better than the West?  Who can answer such riddles, but it was delicious. 

It was time to head north again, up to the beautiful state of Rhode Island.  Claire and Eavan live here having moved from Walnut Creek shortly after us.  They've also added young Declan to their number, and the pattern of young boys having crazy fun repeated itself within minutes of our arrival.  Claire and I left Eavan in charge (ha!) and went out to an exercise class.

Back in California I used to worship at the altar of Les Mills BodyPump - an exercise class involving weights, effort and suffering.  It was great, before children and encroaching age made such activities impractical and dangerous, and now Claire has qualified as a BodyPump instructor so invited me to her first class.  What could possibly go wrong with putting myself through a grueling physical workout after four years of laziness?  Well, as I'm typing this with my little finger, the only extremity of my body which isn't screaming in pain, I think I may have made what is known as a "bad life decision".

Mmmm...Blue Bottle.

A quick stop on the beach on the way up to Rhode Island.  Quick, because it was sub-zero and 50 mph winds.

Now this is a road trip stop: The Pez Factory!  We followed the smell of orange sherbet and ended up here.

Pete and a big Pez dispenser.


Pete receives his Pez trivia certificate.

The most collectible Pez ever!

And then we found a nuclear submarine we could look around, the USS Nautilus, the first nuclear sub in the world ever!

The helm is yours, Mr Davies.

Under pressure.

Ah, finally, the sign of a real navy.

Pete and Declan, in a rare moment when they weren't whirling blurs.

Day 3

It was a short sojourn in Rhode Island, so today we retraced our steps to NYC through Connecticut's stunning coasts and forests.  On the way we stopped at a kids' science museum (thanks again, Google) and it was a wonderful call-back to the much-missed Science World of Vancouver.  We launched plastic balls into the air using water power, learned how our skeleton helps us cycle, and chased virtual snowflakes across the floor.  We tempered this overdose of the scientific method by listening to Bible stories in the car.

I then demonstrated my rural Somerset upbringing by deciding to drive through New York in rush hour on a Friday night.  Where did all these people come from?  Why do they all have cars?  Our route took us down the east side of Manhattan, and we had plenty of time to admire the skyscrapers as we crawled along.  I complained about the traffic, Pete informed me he wants to live here.

Back at Kath and Rob's, and thanking my mother for the many hours teaching me how to reverse park into a tiny space (the only type available in Brooklyn), my cousins offered me the unbelievable luxury of leaving Pete with Orson and his nanny and taking myself out for a meal and a movie.  So it was that I found myself munching a rib sandwich and zucchini fries in the unspeakably hip Mooburger before meeting Rob and a friend to watch Get Out in a packed New York cinema.  I felt almost adult again.  Not that I ever did anything like this back when I was an adult.

Science, or something.

A little bit of art mixed in.

Exploring the moon with a home-made space helmet (not recommended).

Cycling with a skeleton.

Chasing computer snowflakes.  Yes, it descended into chaos quickly.

Day 4

It was time to return to real life, although describing the current events in DC as "real life" is a bit of a stretch, so we began with a stop at Blue Bottle Coffee and brunch with Elad, Daphny and Ollie.  Their dream since Berkeley was to live in New York, and they're in a different part of Brooklyn (how is New York City so big?!) but one with no less enticing eateries.  I enjoyed a sumptuous Vegetarian Benedict at Daisy's Diner.

Our only stop on the way home was a service station in New Jersey.  "Do people in New Jersey steal things like people in New York do?" Pete asked loudly in the middle of the crowded bathroom after quizzing me about why I'd tucked my camera under the coats on the car back seat.  "Umm...ask your mother," I said as I quickly and embarrassedly whisked him away.  Luckily his mother arrived back an hour after we did.

Brooklynites frequenting their favourite coffee shop.

One for daddy...

...and one for Pete.

Ollie and Pete, obsessed with technology.  Where do they get it from?

Daisy's Diner housed a red telephone box.  Because this is Brooklyn!

Thank you to all our wonderful family and friends up the East Coast!  Come to see us anytime in DC, before we're/it's gone...