Who are we

We are a family of 3 who took a break from our routine. Usually we live in Scotland but February to the end of July 2011 we were on the road in North America for 6 months. We are Mark (also known as Dad), Rachel (also known as Mum... and a whole bunch of other names... my usual at-home blog is here) and Heather (10/11 years of age during the trip).

Thursday, 31 March 2011

Philadelphia day trip

Independence hall

For the next couple of weeks we are based with cousins of Mark’s on the New Jersey coast… much family activity, much fine dining, many play dates… but in amongst it all we have a few city days too. This Monday Mark and I left h with a responsible adult cousin and high-tailed it off to Philadelphia for a day of adults-only touristy visiting with absolutely no gift shops (No stickers! No bookmarks! No teddy bears!).

The photos below will show you where we went but here are the areas/activities to help you follow the route. Apart from the journey from NJ (including over the Benjamin Franklin bridge) we walked it all so we had pretty tired feet by the end. We went:

- Into the indoors Reading Terminal Market (great atmosphere, every possible foodstuff, busy but very friendly and somehow refined, we did split a Philly Cheesesteak – not bad)

- Then along Market Street to the central tourist area where we viewed…

- The outdoor display about George Washington’s slaves (and the history of slavery in the US) at the President’s House (details here)

- The Liberty Bell (impossible to get a photo without other tourists in it!)

- Independence Hall (where the Declaration of Independence and the US constitution were debated and adopted… and you are only allowed in with a tour so we joined in with a school group of teenagers from Boston. The ‘ranger’ who led the tour was a show in himself – more than a touch gung-ho and never letting facts get in the way of the greatest story ever told…)

- Congress Hall (again ‘tours only’ so we just looked at the outside)

- Next we went past the Free Quaker meeting house (where the Quakers who did join in with the fighting for independence in the late 18th century hung out – it was closed)

- And onto the 1804 Quaker meeting house (non-fighting division, still functional and it was open so we called in and looked around)

- After that we moved into the Old City (lovely buildings, lots of little restaurants and galleries and museums, pretty quiet on a Monday in March...)

- Over to Penn’s Landing (newish development by the Delaware river – probably more lively in the summer)

- Past the Irish Memorial (dedicated to those who died in the Irish famine of 1845)

- Over to Society Hill (more lovely buildings, very neat and tidy and clean…)

- Along South Street (lots of cool shops – mainly closed by the time we got there – and cafés and tattoo places and such)

- Back into Market Street (past lots of hospitals and a theatre or two)

- And finally into Chinatown for a quick, yummy meal before getting back into the car and setting back off over the bridge to New Jersey.

It was a busy day but we really liked the city and the people seemed awful friendly and relaxed. The sun shone too which helped of course.

Next week… NYC…


Tuesday, 29 March 2011

New England - part three

So here we are in New Jersey now... and trying to catch up with our trips so far... before we have new trips to write about!

The last part of our New England adventure was Wednesday and Thursday of last week (and yet it seems like ages ago already...). We moved on from Concord, MA to Plymouth, MA (there are Plymouths everywhere) and spent a day there back in the seventeenth century. First we boarded the reproduction of the Mayflower (well, first we had a really nice lunch at a cafe by the sea... but after that we headed to the ship). The staff on the Mayflower II were really helpful (some just technical, some in costume and thoroughly living 1620 style). We also saw the (purely symbolic) Plymouth rock. Photos of this visit below:

Mayflower 2>

Then we moved along the coast a few miles and visited the Plimouth plantation (that's how they spell it for this section of the museum - it's all connected). This (mainly outdoor) museum was absolutely fascinating. The first section is about the local Native American Wampanoag people - both their history and their present - and you can see their traditional houses, how they make their mishoons (a kind of canoe) and you can speak to the people there (which we did and it was really interesting). The next area is back into reliving history and there were lots of people dressed as pilgrims from 1620 - totally role-playing (and very well too - accents, details, all playing individual characters, not all agreeing with each other). We learned loads about American (and European) history and met some friendly people. The whole day was great - highly recommended. Photos below.

Plymouth Plantation

Then on Thursday we left Massachusetts, drove through Rhode Island and finally moved into Connecticut. The sunshine appeared and we headed for Mystic - because I had seen photos of it before (and it looked lovely) and we fancied some pizza. After this we drove along the coast and then up to Danbury, CT to meet fellow blogger Jeanne Iris for a delightful dinner and a tour of her town. Altogether the New England experience was fantastic (photos of the last section below). We'll be back with New Jersey and eventually NYC photos soon.


Saturday, 26 March 2011

New England - part two

So Massachusetts… we chose to stay three nights in West Concord (lots of history, possible to reach Boston by public transport) and it was a good decision as it turned out (it's a pretty and peaceful area all round). For a start there was a really nice restaurant that did great cocktails next to the hotel… but it wasn’t all boozing and stuffing our faces… we did all this too:

Monday 21st March
We started with a visit to Orchard House in Concord where Louisa May Alcott lived with her family and wrote ‘Little Women’. It was a really precious visit – snow falling lightly outside, gorgeous eccentric house, really informative tour guide (it’s one of those places you can’t visit without a guide), all kinds of snippets about the whole fascinating family. My Mum loved ‘Little Women’ and I have to confess this visit brought a wee tear to my eye here and there… in a good way though. It was really worth doing… if you like this kind of thing, of course.
Next we took a trip round the historical centres of the Concord and Lexington area (all connected to the Battles of Lexington and Concord - the first military engagements of the American Revolutionary War). It wasn’t the best day for exploring battlefields (cold, snowy, wet underfoot) so we stuck to the indoor information centres. All good though – we learned a lot.

Tuesday 22nd March
We took the commuter train into Boston (there is a subway system – the ‘T’ - but we would have had to drive further in to find that). The commuter train was like something out of an old movie – dusty and huge (we practically had to climb a ladder to get into it). The conductors work in a kind of charming old-school way too (they call out each station, you can’t get off without telling them…). We didn’t travel during rush hour of course.
Once in the city we took a ‘Duck tour’ around Boston (in an amphibious WW2 style vehicle). As we only had one day we wanted to see as much of the city as possible and we chose to take one of these tours where they take you on land and water because we thought it might be something different/memorable/fun. We had a great guide (lots of sights and stories - historical, educational... all the boxes ticked) plus Mark and h both got to drive the vehicle on the Charles river too so all round it was excellent (expensive but well worth it).
After that we made a visit to Boston Science Museum’s recently refitted Planetarium for their show ‘Undiscovered Worlds’ (had read about it in the ‘Boston Globe’). It had very comfortable seats and some pretty space shots but overall it wasn’t as mindblowing as we’d hoped in all honesty.
Next we took a (chilly) walk around the city taking in… the fake Cheers bar (good beer…), the Cheers souvenir shop, the Quincey Market, Irish pub Kennedy’s for our tea/dinner (it was more Irish than in Ireland possibly – good beer too), the theatre district, the edge of Boston Common, the general city streets ambience. It's one of those cities that feels quite tightly packed - all the architectural styles fighting for view. As we left there was an ice hockey game (the Bruins!) going on in the sports arena near the station (and people are sports mad here – they were watching it in the station, listening in cabs, it was all quite exciting). No sports for us tired tourists though - we got the big, old train back to Concord and slept like babies. Might have been the beer, I suppose. No beer for h of course - just the educational experience that is watching your old folks drink...

Next post – Plymouth, Massachusetts and then on out of New England.

New England part 2

Thursday, 24 March 2011

New England - part one

Last we checked in we were in Rochester, NY. Well, we left there last Saturday morning and set off east towards New England. We took in some highway first, then came off to find lunch in a small town... and that proved harder than you might think. We found sweet nothing in Little Falls, NY and kept going through the countryside for some miles (parallel to the highway). Eventually we stopped at a 'New York Pizzeria' in little place called Fort Plain... and were just sitting enjoying a very delicious slice of pizza (each) when a horse and a little black box-like carriage went past (along a fairly ordinary looking small-town street). Amish people! Very exciting and quite unexpected in amongst the cars and pizza places. Didn't get a photo though (too busy eating).

Because we don't like to do too much driving in a day we stopped for the night in Amsterdam, NY (and we don't have a whole lot to say about that apart from that it doesn't seem to have too much in common with Amsterdam, NL). Sunday morning though we were up and ready to get into New England - first stop Bennington, Vermont.

Bennington is just inside the Vermont border and was added onto the itinerary largely because the poet Robert Frost is buried there (and we weren't going to manage to get to any of the other Frost landmarks around the US... and I am a fan). His grave is by the Old First Church in Bennington (and you can read about why it is there here) and because it was Sunday morning the church service was just finishing as we were coming out of the graveyard. The locals were very friendly and let us into their beautiful old church for a good look round, a chance for some photos and some hints about where to go for lunch. After this we wandered up to the Battle Monument (remembering the Battle of Bennington 1777 from the Revolutionary War/American War of Independence), enjoyed the sunshine and gorgeous views and worked up an appetite. Next we headed into the lovely little town and had a great lunch in Madisons (local restaurant that makes its own, very good, beer). We could have stayed longer but our booking for the night was down near Boston, MA and we had a few states to get through before bed.

We drove east through dazzling scenery - mountains, trees, snow still high up on the peaks - and we stopped at the look-out for a few more photos. Then it was back down the hill towards Brattleboro and over the border into New Hampshire. We had originally had a longer NH stay planned but that had had to be changed - still, it seemed mad to be so close and not at least put our feet on NH soil. So we crossed into our third state of the day, stopped to try and find a cup of something, failed, took some more photos (oldest continuously working Post Office in Hinsdale, NH - posted a card there too), drove past an amazing garage completely covered in car number plates and then crossed another border into Massachusetts (where we did finally find a cup of coffee in a lovely local store in Northfield, MA). Then it was onto our stop for the night (Concord, MA). But that will be the next post...
New England part 1

Saturday, 19 March 2011

Empire State

After Ohio we spent one hour in Pennsylvania (on highway 90 along Lake Erie for the most part). It probably wasn’t enough time to be able to judge a place and that’s just as well because we had one not very good meal (courtesy of the ‘Bob Evans’ chain) and an odd encounter in a convenience store car-park. Never mind we will be back in the state… later in the trip… though we will be coming at it from the other direction then. This time it was St. Patrick’s Day and the waitress in the Evans place seemed to take it personally that we weren’t decked out head-to-foot in shamrocks (“where’s your green?”). At least I think that was her problem. Anyway, we have included a few St. Patrick’s Day related photos in the slideshow below but we didn’t see any of the famous parades because they took place, for the main part, the Saturday before. We did see lots of flags and variations on the St Patrick’s Day novelty hat however… and Mark had a glass of the good stuff with his evening meal too. But then he often does that.

After our brief Pennsylvania pitstop we headed straight into New York State. I have to admit it felt quite exciting… and I particularly liked the fact that the first sign on the road in front of us said ‘Gay Road’ (out of focus photo though I’m afraid – not a good shot). It reminded me of a Jon Stewart line on his show the other week in his Rumsfeld interview (“Yes, on the coast, we just curse and have gay sex”). You had to be there…

Once in the Empire State we drove past Buffalo (so close to Niagara once again…) and then onto our place for the next couple of nights – Rochester. We’d picked it because it was the right kind of distance for one of our kind of days on the road and also because a couple of the attractions there looked interesting. They were and the Rochester NY stop was top quality - particularly thanks to the following highlights:

A walk along the Genesee river with the sunset to keep us company (it was a warm evening).

A lovely meal in a Cajun/blues restaurant called the Beale Street Café in the South Wedge area of the city (good atmosphere… friendly, laid-back, fun).

A trip to the George Eastman House/International Museum of Photography and Film. It had great exhibitions (including one of Civil War photography) as well as Eastman’s amazing house to explore (witness elephant head décor – used to be real, now a reproduction) and lots of information on the history of Eastman’s company Kodak and how popular access to photography funded a lot of Rochester’s expansion. Also, as is so often the case here, the staff were super-friendly. Good café too. And the picture at the top of this post is a computer-generated picture of Eastman made from all the photos in the gallery collection - visitors get permission to photograph that and the house (but no other photos on show).

A couple of walks through the East End area of the city – some beautiful, colourful houses of all sizes, tree-lined streets, all pretty gorgeous.

A trip to the Strong National Museum of Play (one of the best kids museum-type places I’ve ever been to - huge, spacious, heaps of fun, good diner inside… and a carousel). Luckily we caught the late-night opening of the Strong so we were there till closing time at 8pm on Friday night… which was lucky as there was so much to do. It was very varied and featured a great toy collection (witness the Ghandi doll!), a whole take-a-walk-down Sesame Street section, heaps of hands-on stuff (including a whole kids-size supermarket complete with working tills and barcodes!), books around all over the place, a superhero section, a ‘life in 1900’ section (with costumes), a map of the USA with toys. This list could run all day. I wish every city had a kids play place as fun as this one.

An interesting skyline - the odd building you'll see in the slideshow is the Times Square Building (and those pointy things the 'wings of progress' apparently...) but there is plenty of Kodak to see up there too.

Apparently Rochester comes high in lists of ‘good places to live in the US’, ‘good places to raise a family’ and all that kind of thing and that is easy to believe. It is a small, friendly city with lots going on and people from all over (plus someone actually said ‘Oy vey’ to me at one point - which I loved). Highly recommended.

And then we drove east again… starting to get dizzy…

Rochester, NY

Ohio rolling

We would have liked to have had more time in Ohio (heck, we would like more time everywhere but then maybe we’re just greedy…) but as it is we left Michigan on Wednesday morning and drove pretty much straight into its south-eastern neighbour, knowing that our relationship with that state this time around would amount to little more than a one-night stand. The visa clock has started ticking, you see, and there’s a long, long way to go before June…

So, after crossing the Michigan/Ohio state line we zipped past Toledo and then drove more gently along the side of Lake Erie (on the smaller roads because they have much better quality/interesting stopping places, excellent photo opportunities and good lake views). It was a beautiful day too – real sunshine, real warmth – and we were really starting to enjoy being on the road. We stopped for ‘gas’ (ha!) and other bits and pieces and I continued in my quest to try ‘all the American things I’ve seen on TV’. This time I ate a Twinkie and it tasted, as I’ve mentioned elsewhere, a little plastic (kind of like the1970s) but h quite liked hers (Mark took one mouthful and refused to go any further). Next time ‘milk duds’…

As the Twinkie wasn’t a sustaining meal we went a little further and then had lunch in sleepy Port Clinton (on the lake). We went for the Big Boy restaurant chain this time… cheap and cheerful and really very satisfactory (and h is going for the grilled-cheese-eating record… I’ve lost count of how many she’s eaten already).

Then it was just straight on to Cleveland – a city we’ve never known much about but it was on our route and we fancied a look round the Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame that they have on the waterfront there (big glass pyramid affair). The museum was open late too so we got there about 4 and were there practically till it closed (late-night opening Weds – very rock’n’roll). It is a bit sanitised I suppose… but then it is an attraction for all the family and all that… and in fact we did all really enjoyed it. It had lots of history of rock/pop music and in this area there had obviously been a concerted effort to provide the whole picture (i.e. not just the white folks’ music) and that can only be good. There was mention of a few artists we hadn’t heard of before which was good too (I took notes). It also had lots of interactive display stuff (which h loved – a computer jukebox thing kept her entertained for ages), rows of outrageous stage costumes and case after case of memorabilia. For example in the R’n’R Hall of Fame you can see:

The cover of the first ‘Rolling Stone’ magazine
A Grateful Dead banjo
Kurt Cobain’s death certificate
An Elton John outfit from 2002 that surely belonged to the Queen Mother at some point
A Steve Winwood leather poncho from 1967
U2’s rejection letters from record companies from the late ‘70s
George Clinton’s enormous ‘dog’ shoes (1983)
One of those Flavor Flav clocks he used to wear
A Grandmaster Flash mixer
A pair of Run DMC’s Adidas
Sketches done by Jimi Hendrix
Jim Morrison’s school report cards
And, most bizarrely of all, the Hendrix family couch (c. 1960).

After a stunning day the light in the glass museum was quite beautiful as the sun set and we felt all tired and emotional (in a good way). We weren't allowed to take photos of many exhibits inside the museum (just a few… like the Janis Joplin Porsche in the slideshow) but we took some pictures of the outside and of the view from the third floor. It really was worth a visit – very friendly and helpful staff too.

Then it was back into the big black car and off to a hotel a little way along the lake. Thursday would be a little bit of Pennsylvania and then into New York State… but all that will have to wait until next post.

Ohio and Cleveland

Wednesday, 16 March 2011

First stop, USA

Friday last we drove from Niagara to Sarnia – a town just on the Canadian side of the Canada/US border. We narrowly missed a huge winter shower on the roads and arrived in sleepy out-of-season Sarnia to find a good few inches of fresh snow everywhere. We settled into a motel, tracked down a lovely local pizza place and walked to it (quite a way) through the lovely fresh white stuff. Firenze was more café than restaurant (no frills, excellent food) and we got the usual friendly chat and amazed reactions (‘you’re away for how long?? How do you manage that??’). Then we went back to the motel and to bed - hoping the US guards would look kindly on us in the morning.

Morning came and we sat only 15 minutes on the bridge over the river St Clair (apparently it can be hours in the summer). After that we stood an hour or so in the immigration office waiting for our ‘entry docs’ (along with a whole crowd of other people) and then away we went – onto the fairly knackered roads of Michigan state. Very quickly things looked different – the stars and stripes waving instead of maple leaves of course but other things too – more battered cars and less big, fancy trucks, no Tim Horton’s coffee shops (they’re EVERYWHERE in Ontario) and, as I mentioned, big potholes in the roads. The state of Motown it might have been once… not anymore.

We were headed for relatives of mine in Ann Arbor and we drove the quiet way in (via Flint rather than Detroit - we have a lot of cities to negotiate on this trip and we try to keep to quieter roads if we can). We pretty much went straight there – straight to a cup of a tea and a piece of cake (these are relatives of mine on my Dad’s side and so, at least in part, English).

Ann Arbor is a university town (technically it’s a city but it’s pretty small and compact and it feels more like a town... you can even walk here, for a decent distance, without looking like a freak). We have spent a lovely, chilled-out few days here and features included:

- Buying our first ever Girl Scout cookies on Main Street. We’ve seen them on the TV but never bought or eaten them before.
- Seeing the local squirrels everywhere. They are fox squirrels (photo in the slideshow below). We saw our first Cardinal (red bird) as well. And lots of deer out in the countryside.
- Seeing snowdrops (also photo below). People in the UK have been mentioning spring flowers for a few weeks now but these are the first ones we’ve seen over here. You will notice that we are gradually wearing less clothes outdoors too (‘look – no woolly hat!’). It’s a shame really to be in Ann Arbor (city of trees… hence the squirrels) before it turns green for the spring but this was the only way we could fit it in with the dates and distances. The main green we saw here was all the preparations for St Patrick’s Day… banners, t-shirts, everywhere!
- Exploring the university area (very much the heart of the city). The institution in question is the University of Michigan and everywhere you go you see its students, its logo, its buses (I loved the blue and yellow buses – completely free for all to travel), its buildings, its frat houses, its hospitals, its merchandise (college sports are religions it seems… more than that possibly). I heard U of M referred to as the ‘Harvard of the mid-west’ – it is a good public university and people are very proud of it.
- Some great t-shirt slogans. I liked ‘Ann Arbor – six square miles surrounded by reality’ (thanks to Elmo's for the welcome and photos). There was also ‘Detroit – you wouldn’t last a day here’… people talk a lot about Detroit here as it’s very close but very different (to say the least). We did want to see Detroit (Motown Museum, Fox Theatre, people bringing the empty parts of the city back to life… like here) but we couldn’t work it in the end. Plus it was really nice to see these particular, very lovely relatives (don’t get to see them often – some we’re never met before) and it seemed right to spend as much time with them as possible. And now we’re heading off east today because we are on a clock of sorts. This was a short but very sweet visit.
- A very good, free university art gallery. It has a great range of work and some really informative materials alongside it too. From one exhibit I learned a lot about how the west was won (how about 1823’s “the right of occupancy is subordinate to the right of discovery”… hmmm…). They had a lovely Whistler (he was a tonalist apparently… never heard that one before), a couple of Picassos and lots more besides (plus we got a chance to linger as h was having fun with the host relatives).
- Lots of lovely cafes – some even offering a range of vegetarian (and even vegan food). Lots of posters for organic food too which I haven’t seen much so far. Even a Fair Trade shop (not food related). A university town for sure (and one with a solid pinko reputation).
- Also second hand bookshops, arty cinemas, second hand record shops (yes, records), little galleries and art shops. Borders opened its first bookshop here in 1971 and whilst it is still here for now its days feel fairly numbered. Some of the shops in the city have tiny ‘fairy doors’ on the side somewhere too (photo of one in the slideshow).
- A fun kids museum called the ‘Hands-on museum’ (hence h let loose in an ambulance… amongst other things – see photos).
- A trip out of town along the side of the Huron river to see pretty little Michigan towns like Dexter and Chelsea (and to visit the teddy bear museum in the latter – and yes, that is a Stars and Stripes teddy bear mosaic in the photos too). The area around was all big houses and churches – apparently people even go to the churches here too (we saw a boy in a Bible Bee t-shirt at the museum… that’s national Bible quiz, people, so get cramming…).

Of course like everyone else around the world we have been keeping an eye on the news and wondering just how bad it will get in Japan. I see online that some people are writing poems for Japan, others are praying, others are watching 24 hour video footage. It’s hard to take in these ‘elsewhere’ huge disasters wherever you are but we are on the road just now so what can we do but move on? Next stops Ohio and New York State.

Ann Arbor

Friday, 11 March 2011

Extremes of everything

What is it about travelling that makes the whole world suddenly seem to start falling to pieces? Since we’ve been away there have been earthquakes aplenty … on what would normally be the other side of the world. My brother was close to the Christchurch one (very close… but he’s fine) and now there is all this in Japan and elsewhere. We’ve had a death (in England) in the family too… and yet still, here we are on the much-acclaimed ‘trip of a lifetime’ and kind of duty-bound to be having-a-great-time. And we are, of course, but it doesn’t stop it being weird sometimes… especially when the place we’ve been in this week has been Canadian Niagara Falls (the capital of weird in some ways). And why so? Well, read on….

Recipe for Niagara Falls cocktail - take one originally-natural wonder of the world, add several layers of weirdness, some frankly depressing architecture (think Cumbernauld, think new-town-‘60s-anywhere... but with even more carparks), throw in every chain restaurant and hotel you’ve ever heard of (except maybe Little Chef) and lots of kids attractions and waxworks and stuff, make it spookily quiet (mid March lull before the real season starts and also before Canadian Spring Break)… and then you have our two days in Niagara Falls. And you know what? I still really liked it. The rush of the water, the closeness of ‘other’ (the USA always in view), the huge melting pot of nationalities and, as I say, the weirdness (someone dressed as a giant Hershey Kiss just walked by as I type…). What, as they say, is not to like?

We didn’t start with the Falls though, no no! We drove down the crazy highway from the GTA (Greater Toronto Area) and then we headed for the small, country, wine-growing place that is Niagara-on-the-Lake first (where we had lunch, walked in rain, bought wine, looked at lake). N-o-t-L is one of those places that looks like a film set and you feel like you should be wearing, at the very least, a long frock and a bonnet of some kind. Oh and look, here comes Pa with the pony and trap, gonna go pick me some apples (except these days round here it would be grapes… nothing but grapes). It was lovely, pretty as a picture… and quiet, so quiet (it being March).

Then we went to (Canadian) Niagara Falls, just down the road. We had booked into the hotel that claims the best view of the Falls (Oakes – overlooking the Falls) and got a very good deal (again, it being early March). And up on the 11th Floor we did have a great view of the biggest Horseshoe Falls (the ones the Canadians call their own… the Americans have the smaller, straighter ‘American Falls’ and the even smaller ‘Bridal Veil Falls’ alongside). Our hotel was fairly no-frills but it was all about the view anyway – no rainbows during our stay but still pretty amazing and different to how I’d imagined it. Somehow I had expected all the town developments to be at the foot of the Falls but our hotel, as you can see from the photos, actually put us up above them – strange! In some ways what amazed me most was the view of the river as it surges towards the drop of the Falls… especially when you think that people have gone over that edge (some on purpose, some by accident, some in nothing but a bathing suit). It is one heck of a river.

Our first evening in town we walked (hurray for walking!) all around…in dark and drizzle…looking at the Falls, at the town, at the neon. h’s reward for her excellent walking-without-moaning (she’s a great walker) was tea/dinner at the Rainforest Café (a chain restaurant that kids love… we’ve never been to one before). It was fun… totally surreal of course (a rainforest by the Great Lakes in March…) but lively and better food than many a fancy British gastro pub (despite the chain merchandise, staff in shorts and the display of plastic gorillas in the corner). Then it was back to the Hotel and listening to the Falls in bed. It reminded of me of the days when we used to really live by the sea and hear the water pounding the rocks at night.

Thursday dawned and we headed for the full Falls tourist experience. We took lots of photos, we mixed in with tourists (lots of Chinese – some insisted on taking h’s photo… I suppose she has more than a hint of Anne of Green Gables…). We also went for the ‘Fury’ making-of-the-Falls experience (h loved it – think standing in a room with someone throwing buckets of water over you… quite Monty Python…) and we saw more souvenir stores in one place than I think I’ve ever seen before (and you can get everything with a moose on you know – everything!). Then it was up to Clifton Hill for tack with more tack on top… a Fun House, a place with lego models of the Falls, the Taj Mahal and, er, an AC/DC concert, a Guinness Book of Records museum… there was lots more we could have done but we were worn out by then. h chose Planet Hollywood for our evening meal location this time but it was closed (I know, shame) so we headed to her next choice, the Hard Rock Café, which was actually really good (delicious grub, the usual pleasant staff and, of course, non-stop music videos which we all quite enjoyed… Chumbawamba… Chumbawamba in Niagara Falls!). This time we got a taxi back to our hotel (it was pouring!) and met the loveliest half-English, half-French Canadian driver.

On our final Falls morning it was snowing (there were visitors from Miami out playing in it – never seen snow before). h fancied the aviary (Bird Kingdom) so she and Mark went down there whilst I… went to the huge Hersheys store over the road and wrote this in a Coca Cola soda fountain type outlet to a totally Motown soundtrack whilst now and then watching cars flow onto the Rainbow Bridge (the one that heads to the USA). We are taking a longer way round (family over by Detroit) but we will get there too... soon... very soon.

Niagara region

Monday, 7 March 2011

Rounding up and rolling high

This past week we've been in Ontario - visiting family, learning new card games (euchre - excellent entertainment), taking trips into Toronto, sorting our stuff for the big road trip to come. We set off from our home-base here this Wednesday and we won't be back till well into July... so quite a lot of sorting and planning to do!

We have had quite a bit of contact with real home this week too - some happy, some really quite the opposite (can't put details, family matter, please don't comment or anything). Some people deal with this all the time of course and we knew things were bound to happen if we were away this long... still, it's weird to be so far away at times.

Below are some pictures from one of the Toronto trips - highlights were an exhibition about the work of director Tim Burton (couldn't take any photos inside the exhibition sadly), a trip up the CN Tower for Mark and h (including a roll on the '342m off the ground' glass floor for h, see above... I went to a ground-level pub with cousins instead) and a mad dash through the city for the train back to the burbs. Their trains leave on time, you know... we just made it.

Next stop Niagara Falls...

Toronto 2nd trip

Tuesday, 1 March 2011

First month post

It’s getting on for a month that we’ve been away from home now and Scotland, the UK and our regular lives do feel a long way away. It's certainly the case that some things here in Canada are much like home but there are huge differences too. Here are a few things we’ve noticed (or not noticed) this time around:

1. Well, obviously the different kind of winter jumps our right at you. Mark’s been to Canada a few times before and h and I have been once but we've all only been here in either summer or fall so this time we are experiencing what you can only call a proper winter for the first time. Features include:

- almost constant minus temperatures (prompting bizarre conversations like "hey, it’s quite mild today" when it’s minus 7 C),
- some pretty impressive snow-moving equipment on the roads,
- a lot of new habits (raise car’s windscreen wipers if leaving it outside overnight, leave heating in the house on overnight),
- skidoos aplenty out in the countryside and on trailers attached to the back of huge trucks and vans,
- an as yet never before experienced lack of moisture in the air,
- a crazy desire to take a bath in moisturising cream and never get out,
- frozen drinks bottles if left in the car,
- the combination of layers of coats with sunglasses (very deceptive that sunshine!),
- the amount of indoor activities and facilities available (malls and more malls, indoor walking/fitness centres, yoga centres by the pound, ATMs/cashpoints – nearly all indoors). We have been for some outdoor walks but there have also been days when even we fairly hardy souls have not been able to stay out long and have looked enviously at people wearing balaclavas.

All this does make a person reassess their own much shorter and milder winter (although of course our summers are also shorter and less reliable…sometimes almost non-existent…). I suspect I will never complain about the cold in the UK again… well, unless that Gulf Stream change thing ever really does happen and our winters do go the east Canadian way. It has been great to experience this winter once for real though because it really is a different way of living (and breathing) and it does require a whole new attitude and set of tools (and we’ve not been anywhere near the real frozen north!).

2. Another feature of Canadian February that we’ve noticed (in Ontario and Quebec anyway) is the business of keeping outdoor Xmas decorations in place after Xmas (in gardens, on shops etc.). In the UK this is considered very bad luck and most people I know rip down their Xmas decs as soon as they can after the festive season. We asked why people keep the outdoor decorations (lights, wreaths, reindeer etc.) in place and were told it’s just too cold to move them (any other answers?). In Quebec City it meant that it still felt like Xmas in the tourist quarters (if a very quiet, empty version of Xmas). So is it just the cold? Or a lack of superstition? Or is it to keep things pretty through the darker months or (in the case of shops) to just help sell stuff? Any ideas?

3. People in Canada are pretty polite. There is a myth that the British are polite but it's quite possible that the Canadians beat us hands down in this regard. And who are the British anyway..?

4. Oh yes, speaking of Brits... it's a bit of a change to be in country where our English accents get the response "I love your accent"...

5. The general standard of driving here is better than in the UK (and we have been in empty country and busy cities in both countries). Maybe it's the bigger spaces to fill and longer distances to cover that contribute to this (maybe you just can’t be wound up like a coil for such a long way). Or maybe we're way off. Obviously the Canadian highway 401 is the exception to this rule (whatever happened to the slow lane... breakneck speeds only!).

6. The average café/restaurant here is certainly better (food and service) than the average place in the UK (but we remembered that from last time – one reason I'm here!). Mostly it makes me disappointed that so many places in the UK are so rubbish. ‘Rip-off Britain’ the tabloids used to call it and whilst I don’t often agree with the shouty press that was one thing they were sometimes right about.

7. The food available here really does reflect the international nature of the population’s backgrounds. I wonder if there is any kind of food you can’t get in Canada?

8. Speaking of food, in the UK there is a lot of campaigning around the issue of Fair Trade products (especially coffee, chocolate, bananas…) but we really haven’t seen much about that here. There is a website with info re Canada and Fair Trade here but so far I haven't seen much evidence of it in shops or restaurants. So is it just not an issue people are aware of/interested in? I have noticed animal rights campaigns information more but very little about FT (just the logo on what-used-to-be-British Cadbury's chocolate which is quite ubiquitous here - creme eggs at every checkout!).

9. On my goodness... the business of adding taxes (different in every province..?) to almost everything you buy and then of course there's the whole tips thing. Much maths required.

10. In Canada estate agents (realtors) use the personal approach (their own photos on the boards… giant photos sometimes… we’d only seen them in the movie ‘American Beauty’ before). Will this ever catch on in the UK? If it did how much vandalising of said signs would go on?

11. Some people here think that because we’re British we give an arse about the royal wedding in the UK this year. We don’t and in this respect we think we are fairly typical Brits. Maybe the whole Windsor clan could up sticks and bricks and move over here. No really, you can have them… please, with our blessing.

12. We’ve heard quite a lot of complaining about politicians since we’ve been here… but that’s a universal activity… eh?

13. On the other hand people do seem pet-crazy here (just like at home). Pet centres, kennels, doggy daycare, pet groomers… maybe our h isn’t so crazy with her ambition to run a dog kennels when she’s older. She could have a global franchise...

14. We have seen ‘beware moose’ signs but as yet have still to see a moose. Just saying...

15. We've seen a lot more 'support our troops' signs here than we ever do in the UK. They look like this:

15. The water here (drinking, bathing) smells, as h points out, "like swimming pools". It tastes OK though.

16. We already know this, of course, but this country is huge. The roads are long, the trucks are giant (the wheels on some of the pick-ups seem bigger than a smart car!), the food portions are (often) enormous (the large pizzas are... REALLY large)... this list could run and run. England, Scotland, Wales... all so tiny-weeny in comparison. Do we really come from that little dot on the map? So much noise from such a miniscule place..?