Mar 11

Trip Report: United States, Part 3


Just a couple days in Philadelphia to meetup with Moses, Ben, Rocky, Dr. Barnes, family and friends

Everyone goes to the Eiffel Tower. Everyone goes to Times Square and snaps blurry pics of their family in front of the video screens and neon. Everyone goes to Disneyland, Big Ben, the Brandenburg Gates. For me, the pleasure of traveling is finding the unexpected, usually out-of-the-way place or experience that turns into a long memory. I’ve had more than my share of these over the last few years: a foggy, otherworldly Swedish archipelago at 5a.m., a friendly hole-in-the-wall pub in an Amsterdam alley, an impromptu road trip from Malaga to Madrid, a massive, crumbling glacier in Norway.

Philadelphia gave us an early morning wander into a bustling Reading Terminal Market and a chance encounter with Mr. Moses Smucker. The big, friendly man with a big hat and a big beard struck up conversation with Facty, quickly discovered our whole Ireland story and reached for his mobile phone. Before she knew it, she was on the phone with a some friend or other of Moses’, discussing his occasional trips to Dublin. Moses is one of those people – someone who goes from stranger to old friend in mere minutes. Much like a favorite uncle of mine. Much like a poker blogging friend you may know…

We took our leave of Moses and his delicious fried egg sandwiches and headed off to get the requisite dose of U.S. history. It is Philadelphia, after all. Perhaps it was the cold weather, but Independence Hall featured a stiff tour guide and a dull crowd. The Liberty Bell was poorly lit. Christ Church was just ok. Betsy Ross’ house would have been a dud, but for the living history actress who saved things right at the end. All in all, I was underwhelmed and grumpy. A random photo walk and lunch helped, after which we found Ben Franklin’s museum. While I think a lot of the “founding father” reverence is nonsense hyperbole, Franklin is one of the few figures from this era that inspires genuine awe. An actual renaissance man. This, combined with the vintage late 60s museum displays (fonts, trimline phones) raised spirits and capped the day.

After dinner and catching up with my long lost cousin and her family, we met up for drinks with Mr.CantHang and friends at McGillin’s Olde Ale House. A sleepy night by Al’s standards, but it was great to catch up and it dredged up many fond memories of Decembers past at the MGM and Caesar’s Palace poker rooms. Hope to get back to one of those gathering soon.

Next morning was back to business, into a taxi and out to the Barnes Foundation in Lower Merion. Barnes made his fortune in gonorrhea (what?) and spent it building his own personal museum – filling it with Renoirs, Cezannes and Matisses, which he stipulated in his will were never to move. Long legal battles predictably ensued as the Foundation looks to move downtown, next to the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Barnes is a key figure in Facty’s research and dissertation. I was less than thrilled with their photography policy.

A far better photography policy was to be found at that same Philadelphia Museum of Art. A very nice Pistoletto exhibit and the Duchamp pieces in the permanent collection were among the highlights. We did climb the Rocky steps, but there is no evidence of posing.

With no time to spare, it was back to the hotel for bags and off to catch the train to New York City for blizzards, liberty, Rothko, Hello Kitty and more photos….

Feb 11

Trip Report: United States, Part 2

Washington D.C.

We hit the (snowy) ground running on our first day in D.C. Facty raced to her appointment with the super secret behind-the-scenes art and archives at the Phillips Collection. It was me and the kids for a few hours and we were there to be tourists. Off to the U.S. Capitol building and Library of Congress.

We signed up for the group tour, watched the short film meant to stir our patriotism (I suppose) and then gathered for the guided tour given by a grizzled veteran of a tour guide. I’m guessing he came with the building – as we walked the halls and he gave his spiel, he greeted every single employee we crossed by name, including a couple of Congressman. When we reached the room that originally held the House of Representatives, he dazzled and amazed the group by demonstrating the unusual acoustics created by the semi-circle ceiling. After instructing the group to stay in a particular spot, he went over and spoke in a normal voice from across the room in a corresponding spot. If you’ve been to any children’s science museum and experienced the two half-spheres pointed at each other across a room, you understand this. The rest of our tour group was, apparently, unfamiliar with the phenomenon. When he rejoined us and asked the group how this worked, everyone stood there, baffled. I finally spoke up and gave a half-assed explanation. With confirmation from our guide, the others in the group looked at me like I was Einstein.

After the tour and a trip through the tunnel to the Library of Congress, we met back up with Facty and wandered out into the snow on the National Mall and eventually to the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. While a bit aged, the NASM has a charm about it. Most of the exhibits look to be from the 80’s or earlier. Plenty about the Apollo missions and moon landings. Some great old posters from the golden age of air travel, when airlines actively advertised their mini-skirted flight attendants. The world was still big. Exotic, faraway locations were still mysterious and the advertising from the old days reflected it. As the kids jockeyed for a chance to get up close to the cockpit of one old airplane or another, I realized they will likely never have the same view of a functional airplane during an actual flight, as kids used to in the old days.

Up early the next day and off towards the White House. We didn’t bother with the reservation gymnastics for a tour, but loitered out front for a while, watching the other tourists take crappy photos in the poor light of an overcast, dark December morning. Wandered about looking for brunch and stumbled into a place called the Old Ebbitt Grill, one of those 150-year-old-institution-presidents-ate-here type places. The coffee was decent and the Eggs Chesapeake was nice.

From there we hit the Smithsonian again, this time the National Museum of American History. As with the Air and Space Museum, the Museum of American History shows its age. Facty remembered some of the exhibits from her last visit – 1976. We patiently explained to the kids why Archie Bunker’s chair and Julia Child’s entire studio kitchen were both in a museum.

Sunday started with a freezing memorial march: Lincoln, Vietnam, WWII, Washington. The scale of Lincoln’s seated statue behind the massive Doric columns is surprising and creates an appropriately solemn atmosphere. The small, early morning crowd quietly took their snapshots at Lincoln’s feet before shuffling off down the snowy steps and into the cold grey National Mall. No one took much notice of the sign near the entrance warning that guns were not allowed in the memorial. Having been in Ireland for almost five years and traveling almost exclusively in Europe during that time, the sign surprised me. Is such a sign necessary? Were people regularly waving firearms around at Lincoln or each other? Does he inspire second amendment fervor?

Next stop, Philadelphia…

Jan 11

Trip Report: United States, Part 1

Since moving to Dublin in 2006, we’ve made the journey back to California every Christmas for a dose of family, friends and, usually, some much-needed sun. While we always look forward to these trips, they come with cost (aside from the obvious one). The two flights – Dublin to Heathrow – LAX add up to 12+ hours in the air, each way, as a part of 18+ hour days. Each year we’re faced with the choice of stuffing gifts (nothing fragile or too heavy or too big) into luggage alongside two weeks of clothes and personal effects or some combination of online purchases and mad shopping trips on arrival (always during the busiest shopping time of year). Crossing 8 hours worth of time zones hits us hard every time, particularly after the return trip. I’m lucky if it only takes me a week to recover. And on and on…

In short, the Christmas trip was getting old and we were increasingly coming away remembering the hassle and pain rather than the family time and holidays. Time for something different.

Meanwhile, the kids. The kids are growing up. Doing well in their respective Irish schools. Despite the news the rest of the world is hearing about Ireland these days, it has not hurt our small part of the education system… yet. Math(s), spelling, science, European history, European geography. Yes, a fine education thus far. And we’ve been here long enough that they have now received more of their education in Ireland than in the U.S. We have noticed, however, that they are missing out on some of the U.S. history and geography they would be getting back in the States. And we expect that someday they may need to know a bit about U.S. government, which states are where on a map and a few details of U.S. history.

Then there is my lovely wife and Cambridge University and a dissertation and a deadline. Research to do. Art to consider. Collections to visit.

And so, these three birds – the dreaded long haul Christmas flight to California, the perfectly understandable gap in our children’s education, and Facty’s art history research – needed a stone. And we came up with one.

Instead of the 8 time-zone, 2 flights (with Heathrow in the middle), 18 hour days to and from California, let’s try the 5 time-zone, one flight, Dublin – East Coast, 9 hour days. Less flying, less time zone traversal, less jet lag, no presents to pack (online only this year), new things to see. Washington D.C. for some history, government and Duncan Phillips. Philadelphia for more history, a bit of family reunion, and Dr. Barnes. New York for shopping, sightseeing, museums, and more history; and finally, Boston for some history, history and history.

Not a perfect plan, as we gave up seeing the family during the holidays and figured we’d miss out on some weather (ahem). So we made the difficult phone calls to California, penciled in a summer visit instead, and headed for Washington.

More photos here