Footloose and baby-free in Chi-town!

A joint Stateside trip from my sister Lucy and our very good friend Anna was the perfect excuse to plan a girls’ weekend to bid goodbye to summer a couple of weeks ago. Leaving Chris holding the baby (thank you, thank you!!), we headed west to Chicago, ready for a weekend of sightseeing, al fresco drinking, and being able to leave the hotel without half my bodyweight in nappies and wipes. What a treat!

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Goodbye Philly, hello Chicago!

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Here come the girls….

This was my third trip to Chicago, but the girls’ first, so a mixture of touristy things and neighbourhood wanderings was on the agenda. It was a packed weekend with so much to see and do (amazing how much you can jam in when you’re not governed by naps and bedtimes!) – here are my top five recommendations for a baby-free weekend in the Windy City:

  1. Perusing the neighbourhoods: On the recommendation of several friends, we ventured beyond downtown on this trip to explore some of the neighbourhoods Chicago has to offer. Logan Square, to the north-east of the city, was a perfect destination for a Friday night – packed with tempting bars and restaurants full of locals celebrating the start of the weekend. We had incredible cocktails and gourmet popcorn at the pavement tables of a lovely cocktail bar (http://billy-sunday.com), before taking up the recommendation of a lovely local couple sat next to us and heading to a bar across the square for wine and sharing plates (http://websterwinebar.com). So extensive was the menu, so lovely was our server, and so great was our people-watching position (perched in armchairs right in the window) that our bar crawl ended there; but we did return to sample the selection of beers made on site at Revolution Brewing (http://revbrew.com/home), a little further south in the neighbourhood, the following day.
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An evening well-spent in Logan Square

The neighbourhoods of Logan Square and Wicker Park (another young neighbourhood a bit further in to town, and our chosen destination for Saturday brunch) are loosely linked by the 606 trail (http://www.the606.org) – Chicago’s answer to New York’s High Line. This elevated, disused railway has been developed in to a lovely three-mile stretch popular with runners and cyclists. Although the views aren’t as iconic as its Big Apple counterpart, the trail is much less busy and there’s some great rooftop / back yard snooping to be had from its height, as well as cute, colourful murals underneath its arches. The Bongo Room (http://thebongoroom.com) on N. Milwaukee Ave in Wicker Park was a perfect pit-stop to fuel up on brunch and hair-of-the-dog cocktails before we began the walk.

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Lovely views and green spaces on the 606 trail

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Sweet murals cluster under the arches of the 606

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Hair of the dog brunch cocktails in Wicker Park (swiftly followed by a BLT Benedict – DREAM!)

  1. Shopping local: Being stroller-free made navigating the many lovely shops on offer in Chicago all the easier. Wicker Park was full of vintage shops and quirky boutiques – if Luce could have furnished her new flat from here, she would have done! And it seemed everywhere we turned there was another lovely book store: from the cavernous Uncharted Books in Logan Square, a treasure trove of used books where we nearly got caught up in a poetry reading, to Volumes Book Café in Wicker Park where you can browse the shelves whilst waiting for your brunch to arrive. I’d read that children’s section at City Lit bookstore in Logan Square had a fantastic kids’ book section and stopped off here for a gift for Ella. It wasn’t a disappointment, and I particularly enjoyed the selection of in-house monthly book groups that were advertised – from the Weird and Wonderful group sharing science-fiction, to the Bitter Women Book Club (not for kids, I should say…). Is this a pseudonym for your U3A book group, Granny?!
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Wicker Park was a great destination for a mooch in the shops

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Order brunch whilst you browse the bookshelves at Volumes Book Cafe (left); all set for a book reading at Uncharted Books (right) – very SATC.

  1. Laughs at the legendary Second City: On Sunday we headed for the early evening performance at Second City (http://www.secondcity.com), the iconic comedy club most famous for improvisation shows that have become a rite of passage for writers and performers destined for the bright lights of Saturday Night Live – America’s topical prime time weekly sketch show – and beyond (past alumni include Bill Murray, John Candy, Steve Carrell and Tina Fey). The theatre is small and wide, so regardless of whether you have a floor or a balcony seat (as we did) you feel pretty close to the action. We saw a performance by an ensemble of six comedians, which followed Second City’s typical formula: two acts of ‘polished’ sketches that have been previously workshopped and rehearsed, followed by a third of completely improvised scenarios, which might either flop or fly. The idea is that the show is constantly evolving, and anything good that comes from the third act will be worked up and incorporated in to the main show for future performances. It was brilliant fun: the first two acts full of smart satire of American culture and politics (lots of material there at the moment!), and the third laced with anticipation about whether the audience or the actors would have the last laugh. With tickets for under $25 and about 2.5 hours of entertainment, it was a brilliant value night out. I’m so pleased that (third time lucky!) I finally made it to this Chicago institution!

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  1. Taking to the water: Chicago is famous for its architecture – almost all of the city centre’s buildings were burnt to the ground in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 and, as such, the city had an almost blank canvas on which to re-build. As architects began to experiment with space by building up rather than out, the city gave rise to the world’s first skyscraper, and has been innovating in the design stakes ever since. The great thing about the fairly concentrated downtown area is that you can see almost all of the most iconic sights from the river that flows through the city centre and out to Lake Michigan. The city’s famous architectural boat tours run half-hourly during the summer season, and the beautifully sunny Sunday afternoon that we had was perfect for hopping on board. I’d taken the tour on my first trip to Chiacgo in November a couple of years ago, but the warmer weather made for a less bracing trip with as much people-watching on the riverbanks to be had as architectural ogling. I should say, this one’s a bit of a cheat on the ‘baby-free’ list as you could definitely do it with kids in tow, but not having to worry about where there’d be room for the stroller or restraining my little wriggler from leaning over the edge of the railing made for a much more relaxing experience and meant we could enjoy a cold beer or two on-deck!
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The stunning city skyline, seen from our boat

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Iconic architecture on the riverfront

  1. Al fresco dining and drinking: I’ve lost track of the number of times this summer I’ve looked longingly at child-free couples or friends enjoying a leisurely brunch at a pavement cafe, or whiling away the hours nursing a pint in a beer garden. Yes, obviously you can eat and drink with a little one in tow, but your options in terms or where to do so are limited by stroller access and high chair availability, and you count it a successful trip if you manage to get through half your food before the baby starts lobbing theirs on to the floor. With Ella otherwise occupied, it was such a treat to be able to dine at leisure on this break, and we made the most of the lovely weather by doing much of it outside. We had monster sandwiches in the shadow of ‘The Bean’ (Anish Kapoor’s stunning Cloud Gate sculpture in Millennium Park – one of my favourite Chicago spots) and enjoyed the happy hour offerings on the 29th floor terrace of our hotel (http://www.milenorthhotel.com). We chanced our luck for cocktails at the amazing rooftop bar atop London House (on the recommendation of the waiter at dinner the previous night, who clearly fancied himself as a bit of a Chicago playboy as he described their tough door policy but said it ‘might be worth you giving it a go’) – and were rewarded for our gumption with stunning views and stuff drinks (https://londonhousechicago.com/rooftop/ – turns out the hardest thing is finding the unmarked door out to the terrace: if you can manage that, they’ll let anyone in – the place was crawling with Philadelphia Eagles fans there to watch the big football match against the Chicago Bears, and if they’ll let Eagles fans in the bar is pretty low!). Probably my favourite spot of the weekend, though, was River Roast in the River North area of the city, where we ventured for Sunday lunch (http://www.riverroastchicago.com). Our table on a sunny terrace overlooking the river was the perfect spot from which to enjoy mimosas and bellinis, listen to a Chicago Blues band, and whet our appetites with a scotch egg starter (oh yes!) before demolishing a delicious roast that was carved at our table. You can take the girls out of England, but…..!
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The beautiful ‘Bean’

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Happy hour drinks at the hotel rooftop bar

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Stunning views from the top of London House

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Luce makes the most of her front row seat at London House

 

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Brunch, booze and blues at River Roast – perfect Sunday!

 

All in all it was a fantastic weekend – and the girls agreed it made a great, more relaxed, alternative to a New York City break for anyone looking to venture beyond the Big Apple.

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We ❤ Chicago!

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Thanks for a great weekend Chi-town!

 

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Vacationing on the Vineyard

We’ve had a great and busy summer, with a steady stream of visitors from the end of May until the end of September. Since my last blog we have loved celebrating Ella’s birthday (not to mention her first footsteps a few weeks before!) with my sister Katie and her boyfriend Simon, and Chris’s parents Mo and George; hosted my cousin Ellie and her boyfriend Doug for a few nights towards the end of their month-long US roadtrip; and welcomed the start of slightly cooler weather with visits from my sister Lucy, and best friend Anna (a trip which also included a baby-free weekend for us girls to Chicago – more on that to come!). In amongst the visits Chris was called back to the UK for a work trip, and we used it as an opportunity for a whistle-stop trip home to celebrate Ella’s birthday with the rest of the family, before returning to the US for our own family holiday. With Chris forced to check out of work for two weeks on his annual block leave, it was a great opportunity to explore a bit more of the East coast and enjoy some relaxing family time just the three of us.

We flew back from London to Boston at the end of August, picked up a car and headed 80-odd miles south to our first stop in Newport, Rhode Island. This pretty coastal town was, in its heyday around the turn of the 20th century, a playground for the rich and famous – as evidenced by the spectacular holiday ‘cottages’ they built on cliffs overlooking the sea. The lovely Cliff Walk that winds around the shoreline is one of the town’s biggest attractions, and perfect fodder for a naturally curious (i.e. nosey) soul like me to marvel at how the other half live. For those with more time (and no one year-old wrecking ball in tow), a number of the houses which are no longer used as residences can also be toured, including several that have been used as film sets in years gone by.

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This isn’t how they make ‘cottages’ at home #holidayhousegoals

Newport was a lovely spot in which to spend a couple of days. We stayed on the edge of town right by East Beach – a wide stretch perfect for families – and enjoyed the views and little pool in our hotel. The town itself is a popular sailing centre, with a gorgeous harbour that backs on to quaint little wharves full of shops, restaurants and bars ripe for people-watching (we stopped counting how many we would have taken a pit-stop at had we not had Ella to entertain!). The town also hosts the International Tennis Hall of Fame – a stunning club and museum that provided a good stop-off on a particularly rainy afternoon.

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East beach and view over to the start of the Cliff Walk

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Around Newport Harbour

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Show court and museum at the International Tennis Hall of Fame. Can you believe someone wore this ostrich-feather tutu to compete at Wimbledon in the 1950s?!

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Newport capitalises on election fever

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Who’s got more beef?

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What every easily walkable town needs – drive-through banking

Leaving the Ocean State behind, we drove on to Cape Cod, from where we caught a ferry to the island of Martha’s Vineyard for the main part of our holiday. The Vineyard was once a fairly simple island community of farms and fishing villages, but has seen its star rise in recent decades after being selected as the holiday destination of most of the recent Democratic presidents. We arrived with hopes of a relaxing time without pressure to do too much, and dreams of being served fried clams by Sasha Obama and her bodyguards (http://www.nydailynews.com/life-style/sasha-obama-summer-job-martha-vineyard-article-1.2738232).

We picked our hotel, the Winnetu, on the basis of its family-friendly credentials. Our cottage accommodation, whilst not quite living up to the standards set by Newport’s historic holiday home-owners, gave us a kitchen and living space to hang out in once we’d put Ella down to bed, and a terrace for me to read on whilst Chris and Ella enjoyed two-hour long lunchtime naps (what more could I ask for on holiday?!). Ella loved the swimming pool, playing ‘Peepo’ amongst the pieces of the life-size chess set, and the afternoon rides around the local area on the back of the hotel’s antique fire truck; Chris and I were happy to be able to enjoy a nice meal and great views from the hotel’s lovely restaurant without anyone batting an eyelid if more food made its way on to the floor than in to Ella’s mouth. There was also an annexe to the main hotel site with a brilliant indoor and outdoor playspace, and daily supervised activities for toddlers and parents. Ella milked the staff’s willingness to fuss over her with regular cart rides around the playground – and roped Daddy in to chauffeur duties too!

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‘Carry on, driver!’

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The lovely playspace at the hotel’s activity centre

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Our room, terrace and the library at the Winnetu

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Fun and games around the hotel. I mean, what holiday is complete without a daily antique fire truck ride?

The hotel also had direct access to the island’s stunning South Beach, and we enjoyed a couple of afternoons being chased by the incoming tide, unsuccessfully showing Ella how to build sand castles, and trying to limit the amount of sand she ingested. Par for the course on a family beach holiday, I suspect!

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Stunning South Beach

Many people travel over to Martha’s Vineyard as foot passengers (there are tons of cycle paths so hiring a bike is a popular way to get around), but having a car made it easier for us to explore the island with Ella. We made afternoon trips to the island’s three main towns – Vineyard Haven, Oak Bluffs (where Ella rode the country’s oldest carousel and enjoyed test-driving every car ride in the little arcade), and Edgartown. The latter was the closest to our hotel and definitely our favourite – full of cute boutiques and cafes, another lovely harbour, and two heavenly book shops in which I could have whiled away several hours if only I’d been allowed! We also visited two local farms, where Ella was introduced to chickens, ducks, a heavily pregnant pig (she wasn’t much up for entertaining admirers) and a large herd of Alpacas. I’m not going to lie, they were cute but they posed a challenge to our attempts to help Ella muster the sounds of the bog-standard farm animals…

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Oak Bluffs (below) and above, the town’s famous Flying Horses carousel. Riders try to earn a free go by attempting to catch a brass ring from as they ride. Ella didn’t quite master that this time…

 

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Petrolhead

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Beautiful Main Street in Edgartown

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A book lover’s dream!

 

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Down on the farm with Daddy

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Sun and seasonal treats at Katama Farm

After a lovely and very relaxing week, we began our drive back to Philly, with a final pit stop for the night in Long Island. Conveniently, the hotel that Chris had booked for the night in Riverhead just so happened to be right next to the Long Island Aquarium (what are the chances?!) so we ticked yet another one off our list before the final push home. The little we saw of Long Island was beautiful and we were sorry not to have more time to explore there – yet another place to add to our ever-growing wish list of future travel destinations!

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Views over New London from the Long Island Sound ferry

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Lovely Riverhead

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The view from the road: that’s NYC in the distant, honest!

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Home sweet home after a brilliant holiday

 

 

Stay-cationing from Philly

One of the lovely things about living abroad is that we (well, OK, poor Chris has to be at work a lot of time, but Ella and I) get to share in the holidays of all of our visitors. In June, my parents came for an extended stay and, having got many of the big Philly sights under their belts on previous visits, we decided to plan a couple of short breaks a little further afield; first stop, the Jersey shore.

Philly is a little over an hour west of the nearest spots on New Jersey’s shoreline and, as such, many Philadelphians make it a regular get-away spot throughout the summer months. Normally we number among the few poor buggers left behind to sweat it out in the city heat, but with Mum and Dad in tow on a sunny June Friday afternoon, we joined the throngs heading east, bound for Cape May – a charming little seaside town on the southern tip of the shore. 

Now, ask most Brits of my generation what their expectations of the Jersey shore are, and (American friends, please forgive our ignorance!) you’ll probably get some version of the stereotypes spawned by the reality TV show of the same name: party towns populated by young, image-obsessed 20-somethings out for their five seconds of fame. Cape May is a far cry from that: with its grand Victorian villas, vast open beaches, home-grown brewery and iconic lighthouse, it’s reminiscent of my favourite place in the UK – the Suffolk coastal town of Southwold. It even has a similar promenade of benches with plaques touchingly dedicated to the families who’ve enjoyed vacationing there for generations – a real home away from home! 

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An example of the Victorian architecture typical of Cape May

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Benches with a view along the beachfront

Our base for the weekend was a charming clapperboard cottage set on a wide street two blocks away from the beach. The house and many of its neighbours came complete with white picket fence and perfectly manicured lawn, lending the area a bit of a Stepford Wives feel, but its crowning glory was a huge back deck that seemed to catch the sun from dawn until dusk – such a treat coming from our high-rise centre-city apartment block! 

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Our charming home for the weekend

We could have spent a week in this glorious little town – its restaurants, cycle paths and nearby vineyards would definitely have given us enough to play with – but we made the most of our weekend with beachside strolls, ice creams in the sunshine, al fresco meals and afternoon beers accompanied by gentle live music (what is it about American holiday spots and live music? Every other bar seemed to have something on offer here – from acoustic guitars to steel drums. That’s a tip Southwold could adopt!). Ella got her first taste of sand (literally as well as metaphorically) which she seemed to enjoy, and had her first toe dip in the sea, about which she was less keen. And whilst Chris, Dad and I endured a lacklustre performance by England in their first match of the Euros, Ella and Mum definitely had a better afternoon making friends with the locals and cooling off in the town fountain. 

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Ella having a good old nose at the band in this bar. Really subtle.

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Surveying the sea

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Making a splash with Granny

On the Sunday afternoon we took the scenic route back to Philly, winding north up the shore to get a feel for some of the other coastal towns. Avalon, Stone Harbour and Somers Point all looked like lovely spots, although our lunch stop in Wildwood – complete with blisteringly hot Boardwalk, tacky souvenir shacks and seafront amusement park – was a gentle reminder that we’d probably picked the right place for an inter-generational family weekend! Cape May was delightful, and somewhere I would definitely return for another summer escape from the city.

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The delights of Wildwood. Everything about this place was bold and brash – even the religion!

After a pit-stop in Philly to send Chris back to work, Mum, Dad, Ella and I took off for another few nights, this time headed west to the heart of Pennsylvania Dutch country. Although less than two hours away from Philly, this rural area of the state feels a world away: it’s covered with gorgeous farmland and home to one of the country’s largest populations of Amish people. Once again our temporary home was a far cry from city living – an annexe of a gorgeous farmhouse that was quite the loveliest Air B n B I’ve ever seen (search Honeybrook and check out the Stolzfus Farm guest house – you won’t be disappointed). In addition to beautiful decor and another lovely sun porch, the house had a stunning bay window that looked out on to the passing country lane, along which passed iconic Amish buggies throughout the day and evening. Watching this very quiet corner of the world go by, beer in hand, as the sun faded in to the distance, was a rather lovely way to while away my birthday evening!

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The beautiful farmhouse we stayed in

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Iconic views from the farmhouse window

We spent our few days in Amish country pootling around the gentle countryside and stopping to explore whenever somewhere took our fancy. Pit-stops included the infamously named town of Intercourse (you can just imagine the kind of souvenirs on display there), the stunning Wyebrook Farm and Market – a restaurant and speciality food shop selling produce grown and reared on the farm with sweeping views across the neighbouring valley – and Kitchen Kettle Village, a quaint collection of shops and cafes peddling traditional Pennsylvania Dutch crafts and foods. We also really enjoyed visiting The Amish Village – a kind of ‘living museum’ giving an insight into the Amish way of life. Although definitely geared to tourists, it was a good introduction to how these very traditional communities live in the modern world, with the chance to tour a farmhouse, one-room schoolhouse and blacksmith shop, and ask lots of questions without intruding. It was lovely, also, to show Ella some of her first farm animals, even if a squalling peacock did reduce her to tears….

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Tourist bants

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The stunning Wyebrook Farm and Market. A return trip to the restaurant here is definitely needed!

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Jazz and japes at Kitchen Kettle Village

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The one-room schoolhouse at the Amish Village

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A traditional Amish covered bridge. So basically a tunnel, then, yeah?

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Down on the farm

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This city kid isn’t too sure about some of these animals…

Driving around Dutch country was, itself, very entertaining – a high-stakes game of I Spy.  Ten points for a pair of straw-hatted children kicking their legs from the open side of a tractor trailer; twenty for an Amish buggy parked outside a drive-thru CVS. Perhaps the best spot (during a walk around Lancaster city centre, a trip otherwise thwarted by rain and the fact that the famed indoor food market doesn’t open on a Thursday but also doesn’t advertise that fact ANYWHERE) was an apparently Amish lady hopping out of her mate’s Mercedes at a traffic light, before the driver (another Amish woman) headed off at speed. So much for rejecting modern conveniences…

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Everyday excursions in Amish country. (N.B. Amish people are not permitted to pose for photographs, believing them to be graven images, but we were told that as long as faces are not recognisable, there’s an acceptance that they help to support tourism in the area, on which many rely. I hope these pictures don’t cause offence. The I-Spy rules were pretty strict and relied on photographic evidence)

We rounded off our trip with a sunset tour of our hosts’ farm – another chance to show our city-bred baby a slice of country life. It was the kind of evening that I imagine people picturing when they reminisce about ‘the good old days’: kind strangers who were delighted to share their home with us, their children running barefooted through the fields, and neighbours interrupting their evening chores to chat to us. In fact, if ever a place was itself to epitomise ‘the good old days’, it’s PA Dutch country. What a joy to discover so close to our city home. An idyllic few days. 

Second city, second time around

When Chris and I first visited Chicago (aka the Second City – so-called because of its relative status to New York) a few months after we arrived in the States, I fell in love. No, it’s not NYC, but in many ways I preferred it – it’s more walkable, the architecture makes the whole of downtown feel like an outdoor exhibition, it has incredible art (both in galleries and public spaces), and riding the ‘El’ on its elevated tracks around the Loop (the subway circuit that all lines converge around in the centre of the city) is more like a theme park ride than a standard subway trip. So when the opportunity to re-visit presented itself, by making a long weekend of a work trip Chris had to take, I jumped at the chance.

Of course, a few months ago when we had a static baby for whom mealtimes simply involved me sitting down with her somewhere, the prospect of a city break wasn’t a big deal – we’d just pack her up and carry on as we were, right? I did (for more than a few moments) question this logic the day before our departure, as I wondered what on earth we were doing plucking our incredibly mobile eight month-old messy eater out of her routine and carting her to an un-baby-proofed, kitchen-less hotel room for four days. Still, carpe diem, and all that….

We arrived in Chicago to a gloriously sunny spring Saturday afternoon, and took advantage of the weather by heading straight to one of my favourite spots from our last trip – Millennium Park. Squeezed in between the shores of Lake Michigan and the fabulous Chicago Museum of Art, the park is home to fantastic sculptures, whimsical flower gardens, and incredible views of the city skyline. We re-visited the star attraction – Anish Kapoor’s ‘Cloud Gate’ sculpture (affectionately known as ‘The Bean’) – and watched as Ella wondered at the reflections in its seamless steel surface. Heading East over the impressive BP Bridge (another sweeping steel installation), we also came across the most incredible playground, housing swaying pirate ships, climbing frames fashioned as turreted castles, and the largest slides I’ve ever seen. Never mind ruing the fact that Ella was a bit young to appreciate it – I was sorry I was too old to have a go myself.

The following day the sun was out to play again, so we headed north on the ‘El’ to the Fullerton area of town, bound for Lincoln Park – a six-mile stretch of greenery, lakes and trails that fronts on to Lake Michigan. En route through the gorgeous neighbourhood, buzzing with Sunday morning joggers and coffee drinkers, we stumbled across another lovely space – Oz Park – complete with ‘Dorothy’s Playlot’, the ‘Emerald Garden’ and statues of all the crew. The Tin Man looked particularly glorious in the sunshine…

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The Tin Man at Oz Park

The star attraction of Lincoln Park is its zoo – a free (yes, FREE!) family-favourite featuring rhinos, giraffe, big cats and much more. When we first arrived it seemed the animals were suffering from stage fright (leading grumpy Chris to grumble something about preferring to pay than having to look this hard…), but as the crowds thickened they gradually emerged. Highlights for us were the monkeys and tigers, although Ella seemed to struggle with the concept that these were just like the friends she has on her play mat at home….

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Ella, however, wasn’t entirely convinced…

In the afternoon we headed out to the lake and walked along the shoreline to Ohio Street Beach, and then on to the Navy Pier. The beach wasn’t at its finest in April, but the lakefront trail was buzzing with Sunday strollers, cyclists, runners and even the odd roller-blader. At the pier, we skipped the crowds at the Haagen Daaz cafe and Margarita-ville (as tempting as those were) and headed to the end of the wharf to enjoy the spectacular views back towards the city’s mighty skyline. In summer, the pier plays host to fireworks displays twice a week – another reason to return and see Chicago in yet another season!

On Monday, Chris made the most of an extra day off by shepherding us to his favourite attraction in any city – the aquarium. Ella enjoyed getting up close and personal with penguins and tropical fish (seemingly more of a hit at her age than the zoo animals), and we spotted a few dolphins too, but the verdict was we’re still waiting for somewhere to out-aquarium Baltimore! As Chris had some preparation to do for the conference the next day, we took the afternoon a bit easier with some pottering around the local neighbourhood, including scouting out the best swing park for Ella.

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Another city, another swing

With Chris at large among the CFOs of America’s finest Asset Managers on Tuesday (rather him than me…), Ella and I were flying solo, and decided to venture to the Museum of Chicago. Here a range of exhibitions chronicle the city’s history, political milestones, and significant cultural and sporting events. A special children’s area encouraged tiny visitors to ‘see, smell, hear, touch and taste’ their way around Chicago, with some of the hands-on areas having exhibits that little ones even as young as Ella could experience. Before we headed back to the hotel for a nap, we negotiated brunch for the two of us at the excellent Elly’s Pancake House opposite the museum (a brilliant choice for families – loads of space to pull up both a stroller and a high chair at the tables, friendly and accommodating staff and quick service). It’s strange how the things from which you derive satisfaction change…I practically high-fived myself all the way back to the hotel that we had both managed to leave the restaurant fed, watered, relatively clean and without leaving a trail of fuming serving staff in our wake.

Our afternoon plan to head up to the observation deck in the nearby John Hancock Center was stymied somewhat by the weather, so instead we spent an hour or two perusing the shops on the so-called ‘Magnificent Mile’. Amongst the usual chains, we stumbled across a shop with a Lego Pick ‘n’ Mix, a three-floor emporium exclusively dedicated to American Girl dolls (for those unfamiliar Brits, American Girl is the thinking girl’s Barbie – a craze I pray Ella never gets swept up by, judging by the vast array of ‘must-haves’ and scary price tags), and a fantastic gallery-shop featuring original artwork from Dr Seuss books. A fitting end to a baby-based trip!

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The John Hancock Center – not a great deal to be seen from 96 floors up on a day like today

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A glorious find

So, were we right after all to seize the day? Is it possible to city-break with a baby in tow? Absolutely. Our days may not have been packed to the rafters with sight-seeing, neighbourhood-hopping and leisurely meals as once they might have been, but once we accepted that we couldn’t do it all we arguably got a better taste of what Chicago life is like. We enjoyed ticking off some of the big attractions and Ella had her excitement piqued by swings with a different view and picnic dinners on our hotel room floor (not to mention the marble floors and full-length mirrors in the bathroom – a source of endless amusement for a curious 8 month-old trying to find her feet). And one of the best things? With lights out in our hotel room around 7.30pm each night, I enjoyed some of the longest, bubbliest baths I’ve had in years and was still in bed by 9pm. Is it sad that that’s now the marker of a good holiday?!

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Her very own amusement park

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Home time now, please!

The Weird Weird West

As those subjected to my moaning may recall, the Philly winter last year was BRUTAL. We’re talking regular snow and icy winds so cold that I used to plan with military precision how to combine errands to minimise the time spent outdoors. Clearly Chris was anxious about being on the receiving end of my lamentations once again this year, as he had the foresight to pre-book a winter sun getaway to Florida’s Key West all the way back in August, on the back of recommendations from several work colleagues. And so it was last month that we left behind predicted temperatures of -16 on the North East Coast, and embarked upon our first family break away.

To be honest, we didn’t have the best start. A last minute work commitment for Chris meant we had to delay our plans by a day, and our drive from Miami down to the Keys was hampered by an inexplicable traffic jam that brought us to a standstill for two hours. Fortunately we didn’t have an increasingly restless baby who needed to be fed, we had plenty of snacks in the car, and we had a multitude of radio options to tune in to other than the local station’s flagship programme ‘This Week in Fishing’. Oh no, wait….When we finally rolled in to Key West, it was pretty dark and we were too intent on getting Ella settled to register much. So it wasn’t until the following morning that we started to piece together our first impressions – and to conclude that we were holidaying in the capital of Weird.

Traffic jam

Our first Floridian sunset, as seen from a MASSIVE traffic jam. How romantic.

The main strip in Key West, Duval Street, is where the action happens; by 10am on a Friday morning, the pavements were buzzing with live music spilling out of its bars (of which every other building is one), entertaining a mixture of mature holiday-makers (Chris described the crowd as like a 50-year reunion of Club 18-30) and chickens. Yep, roosters freely roam the streets of Key West, vying for space alongside the island’s preferred modes of transport – bikes with really tall handlebars, golf buggies, and the odd seriously pimped-up ride….

Conch truck

Why wouldn’t you decorate your truck with conch shells? Highly practical.

Chicken crossing the road

Why did the chicken cross the road…?

The combination of music and glorious sunshine thrown against an array of poster-paint coloured buildings set an early party tone for the bank holiday weekend, with hoards of senior bar crawlers hitting their stride well before midday. A sight to behold.

Duval St - golf buggy

The senior bar crawler’s preferred mode of transport.

Duval St - Hard Rock

A distinctive looking Hard Rock.

That evening the weirdness took a turn for the wonderful as we joined the throngs at the island’s famous daily sunset celebration at Mallory Square. From this vantage point on the north of the island you can watch the sun drop in to the sea, and the spectacle is complemented with displays from street performers, ranging from your run-of-the-mill buskers to performing dogs, fire-jugglers and contortionists. I guess it’s some sort of touristy take on pagan sun-worshipping…whatever the reasoning behind it, it was wacky and glorious and unlike anything we’d seen before.

Mallory 1

Mallory Square contortionist

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Yep, that’s a TENNIS RACQUET he’s squeezing himself through.

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Fire juggler

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The crowds gather for the famous sunset.

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A pretty special view.

The following day I went on the trail of Key West’s most famous inhabitant – Ernest Hemingway. The island was the author’s part-time home during the second of his four marriages, and was where he completed many of his most famous works – including A Farewell to Arms, Death in the Afternoon and The Snows of Kilimanjaro. The Hemingway House is now a popular museum – the highlight of which was definitely his writing studio, which has been curated as it was in his time – although you’d be mistaken if you thought this historic site was immune from the crazies. Oh no, the house remains home to the ancestors of Hemingway’s famous six-toed cats. In fact, its odd-footed feline population currently stands at no less than 54 (although the cat graveyard in the garden is the eternal resting place of many more) and whilst they are free to roam the house itself during the day (the gift shop smelt like a proper crazy cat lady’s house), at night they retire to a purpose-built cat-size replica – complete with shutters, porches and garden foliage. I swear I didn’t have sunstroke-induced confusion – that’s not normal, is it?!

Hemingway House

The actual Hemingway House…

Cat house

…and the cat version.

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One of Mr Hemingway’s six-toed feline friends

Cat cemetry

Cat cemetery in the grounds of the house.

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On a more normal note, Hemingway’s writing studio.

The trip to the Hemingway House also gave me a couple of child-free hours to check out a little of the old town away from the main drag – and here things began to take more of the shape of the island paradise I had expected. Gorgeous porched houses sit alongside cavernous book stores, antiques shops and tiny art galleries. Surly cigar vendors grunt their offerings from the sidewalks, next to one-room rum distilleries and fresh juice bars. I stumbled across The Little White House – a grand building that was the working holiday home of President Truman during the Cold War and has since hosted other commanders-in-chief including Kennedy, Carter and Clinton. And all of this minutes from the ocean and bathed in glorious, glorious sunshine – what’s not to love?

Little White House

Beautiful porched houses off the main drag (above) and Truman’s Little White House (below).

Before we left we also had time to take Ella for her first swim (a big hit – mainly due to her fascination with the ripples), for Chris to introduce her to his love of aquariums, and to sample some of the area’s fabulous seafood. And, luckily for us (well, me at least), the oddities continued right to the end: we rounded off our trip with lunch on a gorgeous sun-drenched terrace listening to a senior folk band’s ever-so-unique take on Meghan Trainor’s All About that Bass (more than a little disturbing when interpreted by the OAP brigade), whilst Spurs nicked a last-minute winner away at Man City. Now, what could be weirder than that?

Swim

Ella enjoys her first dip

Aquarium 1

Like father, like daughter…

Aquarium 2

A close encounter

Hotel turtles

Views from our hotel (above) and its very own turtle pond (below).

P.S. Since returning from our break, I’ve noticed an ad campaign running whose slogan is ‘Key West: close to perfect, far from normal’. Just about sums it up!

How Americans do Christmas (and what we Brits could learn from them…)

As we prepare to fly home for a very British Christmas later this week, I thought I’d share a few additional things I’ve noticed this year about how American traditions differ to ours. And let’s be honest, the country that brought us Bing Crosby, Home Alone and the Coke advert is pretty expert at this most festive of seasons – so what can we Brits learn from how America does Christmas?

  1. Firstly, and thankfully, Christmas preparations here don’t begin in September as some UK supermarket chains seem intent on encouraging – there are too many other holidays to look forward to in the back end of the year. Halloween gets the glory in October and as soon as that’s done there’s a three and a half week countdown to Thanksgiving – always on the last Thursday of November. By the time people have had their first big turkey fill on the year, it’s practically time for the advent calendars to come out, and more than acceptable to have done at least two viewings of Elf.
  1. Decorations here are, in my personal opinion, classier than they generally are at home. Less tinsel and fewer light displays inspired by the latest Disney film (I’m looking at you Oxford Street), and more simple green wreaths, traditional red bows and white lights. Of course, there are exceptions to every rule – as this block in South Philly proves.
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The self-titled ‘Miracle on 13th Street.’ Rumour has it you have to be interviewed by a neighbourhood panel if you want to move in to the street, to ensure you’ll keep up the festive standard.

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It’s good, but it’s not Tovil, is it?

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More subtle decorations elsewhere in town

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Outdoor babbles – this I could definitely get behind.

3. Whilst people at home might gather in the town centre or on a particular street in London to watch decorative light displays being switched on (generally festooned from lampposts and buildings and coordinated in some overall theme), here the big focus is on tree-lighting (as in illuminating a Christmas tree with fairy lights, rather than sending it up in flames) – and it’s a big deal. The lighting ceremony at the Rockefeller Center in New York, which is home to the big daddy of Christmas trees (he of Home Alone 2 fame), featured performances from Sting, Mary J. Blige and Andrea Bocelli, and was broadcast on national TV. The tree-lighting in our local park, Rittenhouse Square, was a more modest affair, but we were still treated to free elf hats from a city bank, carols from a local kids’ choir (♯winning), an appearance from Santa, and a musical procession from a band of Mummers – a unique Philly tradition involving troops of people combining to dress up, play music and perform in a huge parade on new year’s day (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mummers_Parade). This lot looked to me like a pimped-up version of the Pearly Kings and Queens back home. Very festive…

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Expectant elves and reindeer (brought to you by T D Bank) gather to listen to carolling kids

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Rittenhouse Square tree

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Ella takes in the lights

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The Mummers band

4. On the subject of trees, it seems to me that unless you live in a high-rise building like we do, where they are sadly banned, more people here go in for real trees than at home. In the city, parking lots and street corners fill up with pop-up fir shops, and lots of people head to Christmas Tree farms in the country to select and cut down their own trees. A much more romantic experience than a whizz round the garden section of Homebase!

5. Americans are pretty good at charity year-round (from what I’ve seen there’s more emphasis on fundraising and community service in schools here than there is at home, so it’s instilled from a young age), but they come in to their own at Christmas. There have been toy drives at various festive events we’ve been to, our apartment block is participating in a city-wide food drive, and lots of shops ask if you would like to make a donation or buy a gift for someone in need when you get to the till. It’s a great strategy – it’s hard to say no when you’re indulging for people who already have a lot more. The celebratory bell-ringing and whooping from store staff when a donation is made, however, they can keep!

6. Last, but by no means least, is of course the way America extends the seasonal cheer to its furry friends. From festive costumes, to doggy Christmas dinners, to canine stocking stuffers, America’s shops have got it covered.  I’m not sure if this kind of gifting is entirely for me, but if you’re a pet lover you’re bound to be a fan…

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Festive window display at ‘Doggie Style’, featuring seasonal treats and gift ideas, including Philly sports teams kits for your pooch

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Canine stocking stuffer – a ‘Minimergency Kit’….

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…featuring ‘essentials for your haute dog’ such as dental wipes, a collapsible water bowl, and hand cleaning towelettes (for the dog or its owner?)

But it’s not as if us Brits have got it all to learn when it comes to Christmas. There are a few years things missing from American festivities that I think they could definitely benefit from:

1. Mince pies. Not available to buy in the supermarket, at coffee shops, or even in slightly stale form at a school carol concert (ok, I didn’t test this one, but I’d bet a bag of chocolate coins that I’m right). The mincemeat I ordered from an online specialist shop had to be reconstituted with water, resulting in my pies having slightly soggy bottoms (Paul and Mary would never forgive me). My American friends queried the fact mincemeat contains neither mince nor meat – a British foible that makes me even fonder of said pastry delights, I think. This is one place America has got it wrong.

2. Ditto seasonal beverages. Yes, some of the festive ales that make seasonal guest appearances on the pumps here are pretty tasty, but they’ve got nothing on mulled wine. While available in a few places, a good old cup of mulled is nowhere near as omnipresent here as it is at pubs, markets and parties back home. And don’t even get me started on ‘warm apple cider’. If it’s non-alcoholic (which it almost always is here), it’s just hot apple juice, OK?

3. Whilst we could probably benefit from America’s delayed start to Christmas, they might enjoy our extended enjoyment of it. Try talking to anyone about Boxing Day here and you’ll be greeted with blank stares. Not only does the name mean nothing here (and just try explaining that one…’so, does everyone box?’), it’s not even a bank holiday in the US. Can you imagine waking from your turkey coma on the 26th and having to go in to work? It’s inhumane.

These quibbles aside, I have to say that the US is a pretty lovely place to be in the run-up to Christmas – as indeed it is throughout the October to December festive stretch. We’ve had a great few weeks getting in to the spirit of things with Ella, and are so excited to fly home tomorrow and really get the celebrations underway. Which just leaves me time to say that whichever side of the Atlantic you are celebrating on, I hope you have a very merry Christmas indeed!

 

Happy Halloween?

I’ve always thought the phrase ‘Happy Halloween’ is an odd one. I mean, that’s not really the point, is it? Sure, those packets of plastic witches’ fingers we used to buy as kids from country post offices during October half terms had their moments (at least until you lost one – being a nine-fingered witch was worse than having no costumer at all). The inevitable boys in drag at themed uni event nights were known to raise a smile. And the cauldrons of punch we used to brew at the annual Highbury New Park Halloween Hurrah induced a certain kind of contentment (at least until the next morning…). But surely Halloween is less about happiness, and more about scaring the pants off unsuspecting friends / neighbours / people in dark stairwells (I’m looking at you, Matt Cope, and your Joker-inspired nurse’s outfit. Gives me the shivers just thinking about it…) – isn’t it?

Well, this year, I’m pleased to say my doubting was proven wrong. With a two-month old in tow it was out with the beer pong and flip cup of last year’s costume party, and in with an American Halloween for kids – even if we could only be observers rather than participants this year.

First stop, a suitable outfit for Ella. In the US pretty much anything goes by way of Halloween costumes – friends with newborns opted for everything from mermaids to Freddie Krueger (complete with hand-knitted glove – nice touch), and kids’ shops were peddling everything from astronauts to ladybirds – but I’m a bit of a traditionalist so wanted to stick to the spooky theme. I was also well aware that any outfit this year was entirely for my own amusement and were I to truss her up in something overly comical, Ella might come to resent both the photographs and me in years to come. Simple black cat fare enabled the capturing of the mandatory ‘first Halloween’ picture for the baby book. I’ll wait until the toddler years to unloose the full-blown homemade pumpkin outfit.

Ella does her best 'Blue Steel'

Ella does her best ‘Blue Steel’

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Next we had to ready ourselves for trick or treaters, and bought a sack load of sweets in anticipation of the hoards of children in our building knocking down doors. In fact our visitors, whilst very cute (I particularly enjoyed the little boy dressed as a crocodile who strolled right in to our apartment to have a good look round, while his mum looked on mortified), weren’t many in number, and our teeth are still paying the price…

So over trick or treating already...

So over trick or treating already…

I suspect the reason for the small number of trick or treaters in our building was that kids in the know ventured out to the streets around us – as we did late afternoon. Earlier in the week, Katie and I had spotted some brilliantly decorated individual houses in the Fairmount and Society Hill areas of the city, but right here in our neighbourhood, whole blocks of houses had joined forces and gone to town. Inventive jack-o’-lanterns (that’s carved pumpkins, in English) and trees bedecked in cobwebs gave way to giant mechanised spiders ready to pounce from a height on unsuspecting victims. Skeletons crawled up walls whilst ghosts wafted from windows. At one particularly impressive mansion (no joke – this place is HUGE), a three-headed dog stood guard at the door whilst ghouls were suspended from the balcony overhead and insects crept up the sides of the building, all set to a soundtrack of shrill screams and sinister cackles.

Haunted house in Fairmount

Haunted house in Fairmount

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Amazing limbed-pumpkin person

Amazing limbed-pumpkin person

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Row homes in Rittenhouse

Row homes in Rittenhouse

Spider getting ready to dive-bomb from above

Spider getting ready to dive-bomb from above

Wall-scaling skeletons

Wall-scaling skeletons

The mother of all mansions

The mother of all mansions

These freaky facades were clearly relished by so many of their young visitors, who had themselves made a massive effort to look the part. Zombies and superheroes rubbed shoulders with Star Wars characters and the obligatory Frozen girls. My particular favourite was a troop of Lego men (Mum, Dad, plus two kids) with perfectly crafted yellow paper maché heads. As early readers of this blog will know, Philly is a city mad about its dogs, so of course they weren’t spared the costume treatment either. Canine sightings included a pumpkin, a reindeer, several hot dogs, a shark and, in my opinion the pièce de doggy resistance, Sebastien the crab accompanying his Little Mermaid owner.

Zombies, cats and a few superheroes for good measure

Zombies, cats and a few superheroes for good measure

Halloween display at 'Doggie Style'. I particularly like the unicorn outfit.

Halloween display at ‘Doggie Style’. I particularly like the unicorn outfit.

All this was brilliant. But where the happiness factor really lay, in my eyes, was in seeing how much effort these homeowners had gone to to give these kids a good time. Huge cauldrons of sweets sat on steps, even where the homeowners were clearly out; some people had set up tables to share pizzas and beers with neighbours; others were dishing out cups of red wine to parental passersby. And so many of the hosts had dressed up themselves – alongside witches and vampires, we spotted adult-sized gorillas, a Willy Wonka and a convincing Snoopy the Dog. I challenge even the hardest of hearts not to be touched by the sight of a man in his 50s in a lovingly homemade Minion costume. What brilliant sports.

A grown-up gorilla stands guard on his block

A grown-up gorilla stands guard on his block

Snoopy and friends

Snoopy and friends

It's a bit blurry, but how could you not love this grown-up Minion?

It’s a bit blurry, but how could you not love this grown-up Minion casually passing the time of day with a witch and one of the Men in Black?

So, I confess, I have shed my British cynicism and am now a fully endorsing member of the ‘Happy Halloween’ club. It’s about getting creative with costumes and decorations. It’s about opening your front door and not just acknowledging your neighbours, but sharing a beer with them. It’s about shedding adult inhibitions to make kids laugh. Now, excuse me whilst I go and plan my own costume for next year….

Some inspiration for next Halloween. Inspired.

An idea for next Halloween? Inspired.