Tag Archives: family vacations

Birthplace of a Banshee

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I have to admit, I got nostalgic as our crowded, sandy Jetta sped (figuratively speaking, of course) along once familiar highways.  Road signs pointing to places like Jamestown, Williamsburg.  Closer to DC, the signs read Woodbridge, Quantico, Potomac Mills.

Things kinda ground to a halt where they always have done:  Tyson’s Corner.

There, it seemed the Beltway, Washington’s legendary ring road, was being revamped.  An endless line of traffic stretched from suburban Virgina, across the Potomac, and well into Maryland.  Day-um.

I know the Beltway.  It doesn’t scare me or intimidate me but like everyone else who drives it, the damn thing frustrates me.  Clearly, nothing had changed in that regard.  What has changed since I left my hometown in 1993 is the sheer volume of traffic.

Jesusmaryandjoseph, the TRAFFIC.  First I supposed it was construction.  Then I mused that it was the downpour combined with the construction. Then, over one hour later, having not gone more than two miles, I considered the fact that there were too many cars on too little highway.  Looking around as we sat – what else could we do – I looked at the new lanes under construction and knew instantly they would not be enough.

Welcome home, Banshee.

Talking to friends during our visit, the consensus is that too many people drive in DC.  There is constant gridlock – on every freeway, parkway, avenue, and side street.  If a goose so much as poops on Connecticut Avenue within an hour of rush hour, it will cost motorists hours of delay.  They will sit and sit and fume and fume (as we did) and they will never see any evidence of a problem – just the endless glow of tail lights ahead of them.  The goose will have made it back to Canada before commuters in DC get to their homes.

‘Nuff about traffic.  Once we made it to our hotel, The Madison on 15th Avenue NW, we were almost too pooped to notice our luxe surroundings.  The Madison is a posh hotel where power brokers come to schmooze each other.  The game hasn’t changed in this town.  The outdoor cafe was full even as we dragged our road-weary selves in around 11 pm; everybody in it oozed something – money?  Power?  Importance?  We oozed burger grease and sand.

The linens on the bed were the finest we’d felt yet.  The decor was the epitome of understated elegance.  Thank you, Visa rewards points for this hotel I murmured as I passed out on at least 101 bed pillows.

The next morning I awoke to find my husband gone.  This is not at all unusual.  He likes to wake early and get a lay of the land before he herds us sleepy folk around.  I knew roughly where we were – the Washington Post Building was two doors down and the White House was right around the corner – but the husband likes to explore.  Plus, he’s well-trained to scope out the nearest Starbucks for me as I don’t go very far at all without a latte.

Sure enough, he had it all worked out by the time we got up.  The plan on this very, very hot day was to see:

  • The Smithsonian’s Natural History and Air & Space Museums
  • The White House (from the outside)
  • The Spy Museum
  • any other art gallery or museum that was free

The Smithsonian complex crams no less than ten museums within a mile and they’re all FREE.  The Potomac River along the Tidal Basin is also chock full of things to see – also free. That said, it’s nearly impossible to see everything in one day – the museums are huge and crammed full of fascinating (ever-changing too) exhibits.  By the time you get to the memorials on the river, you’re at risk of falling into the water due to exhaustion.

On this day, I left the museum trekking to the family; I paid my respects to the Gems section (Hello, Hope Diamond!) and then I split.  I had a lunch date with my dearest friend from DC who is like a sister.  If I ever get famous and if she ever decides to write a book – WHEW!  I’m in trouble.  That kind of friend.

I walked up Constitution Ave to 12th St. NW and hopped on the Metro at Federal Triangle.  I scurried by the IRS Building with my head down (yeah, I owe them some money). During the short walk, I noticed how clean everything was.  DC looked like it was all spiffed up for a party.  I also noticed how lovely the buildings, the trees, and the wide streets were.  It’s a beautiful city, my city.  It’s funny how we can live in the midst of beauty (for over thirty years) and fail to see it.  Was it always this nice?

Once I figured out the Metro ticket machine (thank you little old man from the info. kiosk!), I was on my way.  On DC’s Metro system, riders pay by distance; the further you go on the line, the more it costs.  Unlike Toronto where you pay $3 whether you go one stop or 20. Fares increase during peak hours.  Based on the traffic I’d seen, it was clear more people needed to ride it.

After a lovely lunch, my friend and I battled midday gridlock to get to her house in a close-in suburb.  Around six pm her husband joined us for the rush-hour gridlock back to the Metro station nearest their house.  Here’s the thing about the transit system in DC: once you get to your stop, you might still have a long commute to your house (if you live in the suburbs).  Yikes.  If I ever live there again, it will be downtown.

Over dinner that night at Irish pub in the heart of the city, the family recounted their day.  The kids’ favourite place had been The Spy Museum.  It sounded awesome – very interactive.  The kids were fascinated by the prevalence of spy games during the Cold War. Offices, hotels, and restaurants were all bugged back then.  DC was on the front lines; there was a spy on every corner.

DC is the epicenter of great power.  The architecture reflects this.  As we walked by the Old Executive Office Building my husband commented, “This whole place was designed to impress.”  Absolutely.  Maybe Washington has always had to prove itself, to “dress for success”; that’s why there is so much grandiose architecture downtown. Back in the beginning, the U.S. had to fake it til it made it.  Nothing like a lot of marble and gold leaf to accomplish the effect.

So much there wasn’t time for: the Vietnam Memorial, the Lincoln and Jefferson Memorials – I know that even my somewhat jaded teens would’ve been moved and impressed.  The Capitol Building, surely one of the most wondrous sights.  Then there’s Georgetown – a perennially hip district once full of boutiques and funky shops.  A side trip to Mt. Vernon would’ve been cool too (the kids are always asking me about George Washington).

Nonetheless, Washington, birthplace of Banshee, got a huge thumbs up from everyone.  We will surely go back and see much more.  Thanks grande dame by the Potomac, hopefully we will see you again soon!  I am proud to call you home.

The traffic, though.  Get that sorted.  It reminded me a lot of Congress:  perpetual gridlock.

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A Word on Family Road Trips

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Road trips used to be easier.  We used to truss  sorry – fasten securely in their car seats – the kids up in the back of the car with a laptop, some DVD’s, some snacks and we’d reach our destination with nary (ok, a minimum) of complaint.

Times have changed.

Our kids, both teens, are no longer content to sit in the back of any moving vehicle unless it contains at least two of their friends and is rolling towards either a mall, a movie theatre, or an amusement park.  Once the destination is reached, said teens flee the car before any other humans can see that they’ve arrived under the control of their parents.

So, imagine their…let’s use the word dismay…at being trapped in a car – not even a cool car with video screens or GPS – for upwards of nine hours at a time whilst their parents (one driving, one napping) provide absolutely no entertainment whatsoever and who have the unmitigated gall to drive right by any and all amusement parks.

Think then of the parents’ resultant rebuttal dismay  at being trapped in same said uncool vehicle for upwards of 9 hours at a time with bored, slightly hostile spawn.  Some tempers might become frayed.  Ok, just mine as my husband is a saint.

Back in the good old days, the worst we dreaded from our little ones was a tiny foot hammering away at the back of the seat  or a sudden potty break.  Mostly, our kids were dreamy travelers – they napped.  Our daughter’s eyes would start drooping the minute we strapped her in.  I remember my son sucking contentedly on his pacifier, his huge brown eyes gazing up at the car ceiling as if it was the most fascinating thing on earth.  Then his eyes too would close and peace would descend on our little mobile world.

On this trip, my daughter’s steely blue eyes bore into the back of my head, not blinking.  If I dared make eye contact in the rearview she fixed me with The Look, then slowly peeled her gaze away.  Oh dear.  We’ve gone beyond the days when all discontent could be fixed with a container of Honey Nut Cheerios, a sippy cup and a Dora the Explorer backpack full of paper and crayons.

The boy child was somewhat easier to handle.  He was quite content to sit for hours and play his DS.  The problem with this strategy revealed itself after we realized he hadn’t had a decent meal in six hours.  Dr. Jekyll, may I introduce Mr. Hyde?  Not pretty.

My husband and I must shoulder the blame for subjecting them to the monumental torture of a summer road trip to start with.  However, if I may just offer a word (or 500) to my “little” ones:

Sometimes, just sometimes, the world does not revolve around you.  Reality sucks, I agree, but sometimes trips have to be arranged according to time, budget, and parental desires as follows:

  1. It’s a miracle we went anywhere at all this summer given your father’s work schedule
  2. Sadly, none of our lottery tickets paid out and the miracle did not go so far as to provide us with an unlimited budget.  These days, we simply cannot afford to fly all four of us…anywhere.  Even if we could’ve afforded plane tickets, we would’ve slept in the airport terminal as a car rental would’ve done us in financially
  3. Last summer was The Big Vacation; this summer was about catching up, re-visiting old stomping grounds of the adults.  As you saw with eyes glazed over by stupefying boredom, your parents had friends, lives, houses, sand dunes that they could claim as their very own territory before you two became the focus of our familial universe

I know you did not enjoy this summer’s vacation as much as last summer’s.  And no wonder but it is important to realize that last summer was The Big One.  Not every summer will be filled with exotic locations such as Monte Carlo, Rome, and Santorini.

Kids, I wish we could.  I wish we were so filthy, stinking rich that we could go somewhere new and exotic every summer – and we could take all of your friends with us – in separate private jets, no less.  That is not our reality.  Next summer?  You’re probably going off to separate work camps nature camps.  Or working and going to the pool or that really, really big lake out front called Lake Ontario (complete with beaches, lifeguards, and cleaner water than we saw anywhere in the Mediterranean – or Virginia Beach).

[LECTURE ENDS HERE]

In an effort to reach some sort of common ground, I attempted to ascertain what comprised a good vacation – private jets and exotic locales notwithstanding.

Conclusion?  There is no common ground, at least not in our little unit.

My idea of a good time is my snow-white ass parked on a stretch of pristine beach with a good book, a bucket of SPF 50 by my side.  If a waiter wanders by with a tray of margaritas, so much the better.  My idea of a wild and crazy time is to add headphones to that picture.

My husband loves a little bit of time on a beach but ultimately he gets twitchy and longs for some physical activity – playing frisbee, flying a kite, blasting up and down the shoreline on a jet ski.  He also loves museums and churches.

The kids want to be waited on, catered to, and entertained.  Location is the only thing that differentiates vacation from an ordinary day at home.  My daughter loves a good pool and a beach with awesome, adrenaline-pumping sport like parasailing. She drives a mean jet ski.  My son would be just fine in a cave – not spelunking but playing video games.  Only occasionally would he emerge, blinking, into the light of day to sightsee.  I haven’t really nailed down his favourite type of place but the Colosseum and the Coca-Cola Museum were his two faves from the last two years.  A trail of chocolate would help in drawing him forth from any cave.

Are separate vacations the answer?  I need copious amounts of downtime – and food/alcohol at regular intervals – or I become unbearably witchy.  My husband and daughter are marathoners who can sightsee until their legs nearly drop off.  My son is a wildcard – depending on his mood and the charge left on his DS.

Vacations are supposed to be relaxing – a break from the tedium of everyday life.  Can this family’s vacationing future be saved?

Writing on the Run

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I sincerely hope that I never have to go on the lam because if I do, it will surely spell the end of my writing career.  I’ve only been gone two weeks and despite all good intentions, I managed to post ONE blog entry.

[Insert picture of Banshee hanging her head in shame HERE]

Perhaps it is the nature of our vacations.  Perhaps I am not organized enough.  Perhaps I am too:

  • old
  • cranky
  • tired
  • all of the above

What the hell happened?

We brought a computer – mostly for my benefit.  Hubby doesn’t need his laptop to stay connected – he can do everything on his iPhone and he was determined to check emails as little as possible.  I vaguely remember flipping open the laptop early in our stay in Atlanta and then…darkness.

In my defense, we were SO busy in Atlanta.  Tired after the long drive from Toronto (via Cincinnati), we found we had no respite from driving while in our former Southern home.  We literally spent the entire four days there behind the wheel.  With one exception, all of our friends live waaaaaaaaay outside the city.

And, if I’m honest, I partied in Atlanta.  I hadn’t seen some of these people in nearly ten years.  I woke late and went to bed later.

Burnt out, exhausted, and with a cumulative hangover, I set out for Virginia Beach thinking a few days on the shore would restore me, get me back on track.  I thought my biggest worry would be spilling sand or margarita on the laptop.  It was not to be.

The rain poured down – inside and outside our hotel.  Our feet stuck to the room carpet.  I begged the children NOT to expose any bare skin to the bed covers.  We fled the next day.  In our haste to leave, we apparently left behind the power cord for the computer.  Ooops.

Rattled, we fled to a luxurious beachside hotel in Kitty Hawk, NC.  I felt behind in my scheduled relaxation.  It was still drizzling but I was ON THE BEACH.  Determined to get as much time with my old friend, the Atlantic Ocean, I put all thoughts of blogging far from my mind.

Washington DC afforded me no extra time either – being bitchy takes time and energy.  We were all experiencing severe travel burn-out at this point.  The best thing to do was split up – I went for lunch with a dear friend and hubby went on a museum/gallery trek with the kids.  Although we had Wi-Fi in the room, our computer had no battery power left.

We looked northward with dread, I have to admit.  Another long drive with less-than-inspiring scenery (New Jersey Turnpike) and the exhausting prospect of sightseeing in Manhattan.  The good news:  we wouldn’t have to drive.  The bad news:  we were just plain pooped and tired of being cooped up together 24/7.

No power left in the computer, no energy left in me.  I got on the Staten Island ferry hoping that some fresh air (ok, I know its New York Harbour) would perk me up.  I walked to the hotel business center and sat down in front of one of the computers.

The sign read:  Insert Credit Card here.

Free Wi-Fi in the room but not there.  Fuuuhhgetaboutit.

Oh well, I’m more of a yarn spinner than a diarist.  Maybe this is the way it has to be for me.

The piles of dirty laundry in my living room are rivaling the Empire State Building in height.  As soon as we hit the house, we each fled to our separate spaces.   This morning, cup of coffee from my neighbourhood cafe by my side, the laptop was opened.  So simple.

I’d Like to Buy the World a Coke

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Several things come to mind when thinking of Atlanta:  the War (as in Civil) and Coca-Cola.  And, of course, the Braves if you’re a  baseball fan.  I could add traffic and an amazing array of fantastic eateries but that would be getting too far off track.

Back in the 1880’s, a guy named John S. Pemberton pondered a refreshing treat to get his customers through another muggy, hot Atlanta summer.  Eventually, he came up with the formula (still held in great secrecy over 100 years later) for Coca-Cola.  Incredibly, it wasn’t a sure thing when it first appeared – Pemberton was a pharmacist, not a marketer – and he only sold 51 drinks that first summer.

The most incredible thing about Coke has been its longevity and the army of marketing genius behind the brand – dating back to the turn of the 20th Century.  Once it took off, it became a stellar money-maker and the company hasn’t looked back since.  In 1919, the formula for Coke was purchased for an astounding $25 million dollars.  That’s like a gazillion dollars today.

So, when one goes to Atlanta, one must visit the World of Coca-Cola.  This relatively new museum occupies prime real estate downtown adjacent to Centennial Olympic Park and next to the Georgia Aquarium.  There was another World of Coca-Cola but it was old, rundown, and outdated – and uninspiring.  Kind of like when they changed the Coke formula.

Technology rules at the new museum; it isn’t so much an ode to the drink itself as a tribute to the marketing machine that has propelled the company since the early 1900’s.  There is a little theatre where you can watch old commercials and those from other countries.  There is also a theatre presentation in “4D” where the seats move, you get squirted with water, and if you can skip it you might want to – especially if you have back issues.

The best?  The Pop Culture Gallery – the colourful wood carvings of Coke bottles and the giant collage piece is worth the price of admission.  And then, there is the section known as Taste It! where you can taste over 60 flavours made by the Coca-Cola Company all over the world.  The gift shop is everything you’d expect.  Interesting tidbit:  all apparel sold there is made from recycled plastic bottles.

I’m not a rabid fan of Coke but I’m glad I went to this museum.  It’s a fascinating look at the vision of a few men and one of the most closely held secrets in the world.

Tomorrow:  the Georgia Aquarium

Costa Concordia

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The Costa Concordia cruise ship disaster might well go down in history as one of the most senseless, preventable wrecks ever.  While Captain Schettino is telling anyone who will listen how he “fell” into a lifeboat before all his passengers were evacuated and how he “was ordered” to sail close to that island, I’ve been ruminating on the cruise we took in July 2011.

Re-reading my blogs from our Mediterranean cruise, certain memories now make me shudder.  Our ship, Royal Caribbean’s Brilliance of the Seas was smaller than the Costa Concordia.  Still, I remember my first sight of it and thinking it truly was a floating highrise hotel, an unwieldy behemoth.  A Ferrari (or any sports car) it was not. 

Our ship was so big and yet, when the seas were rough, it got bounced around a fair amount.  I remember lying in bed the first night and feeling as though I was going down a toboggan hill head first every time the ship rolled.  I remember looking up at the life boats strung above the decks and and being comforted by their size and sturdiness. It never occurred to me that they couldn’t be deployed if the ship were listing badly.  Thinking back to the courteous and helpful crew on board, it never occurred to me that they might not be there for us in an emergency.

In retrospect, we were quite careless on board.  We let the kids run free all over the ship.  They ran from our cabin to the pool, to the arcade, and the various restaurants.  I confess we didn’t always know exactly where they were; twice, we ate dinner at separate times in separate places.  Had we hit a rock at the dinner hour, how could we have ever reached our children?

Because the cruise ship was massive – with multiple storeys, elevators, and other amenities – we forgot that we were far from land (thank you, Captain) in a sizeable body of deep, often rough, probably cold water.  Sure there was one lifeboat drill, after which waiters came around and offered everyone free rum punch. The tedium of the drill was soon a distant memory.

Our captain seemed to be the antithesis to Captain Schettino – cautious, prudent, and very communicative with his passengers.  We were given detailed weather and wave reports every day, twice a day.  We didn’t go to Nice, France because the water was too rough to anchor.  Still, if the boat were sinking, I cannot imagine what a difficult task it would be to account for and safely evacuate every passenger.  At least on an airplane, the flight attendants can look down the aisles and see everyone they’re responsible for.  Almost every day I got lost trying to find my cabin – how could anyone find me?

 I cannot even imagine the anguish, the terror, and the confusion the Costa Concordia passengers felt two weeks ago.  It’s an accident that never should have happened.  Will it spell choppy waters for the cruise industry?  One would hope not – this appears to be the reckless actions of one egotistical, reckless captain.  Still, I’m kind of glad our cruise is behind us and not in front of us.