For some time, we have known that the Summer of 2008 was possibly the last family holiday - certainly the last one we were likely to take together for a while. In mid-July, Alan was due to have finished his finals at university, Philip would have finished his A levels, and Ian finished his GCSEs. They would all be free at the same time, and still in the school holidays when prices are likely to be lower than a few weeks later.
As it happens, Alan is now booked on to a 4 year course, but he was still free at this time.
After getting nowhere for a long time, Philip informs us that some friends from the web site he and Alan are involved with are planning to get together in America in July. After a lot more investigation, we have a plan: ten days in the USA - a few days in New York, a few days travelling, and a few days in Wildwood, NJ, for the 'meet'.
We start and end the holiday at my parents' house in London, which is in easy travelling distance of Gatwick. For some reason, Sue didn't fancy trying to get to Gatwick from Bristol and back again after a night without sleep...
Sunday 20 July: An early start. We are intending to leave the house at 9:00, but actually manage it by 9:15 which isn't bad by our past record. Roger and Father drive us to Gatwick: the journey is excellent, and we are dropped off without difficulty ahead of schedule.
We check in our baggage. They think Sue is blind, possibly because she had told them she has problems hearing. We think they have allocated her two seats for some reason, and change the seats - printed on our boarding cards - so that we can all be together. As we leave the check-in desk, my parents and Roger find us and we go for a coffee. At 11:00 when we were due to be checking in our luggage, we are all sitting with our drinks.
They leave, and we go though the security check. The flight takes a very long time to be called. Philip and I both look at the Asus Eee in Dixons, but the machine is only £25 less than the usual price and I have been told you can get computer hardware for about half price in the USA, so pass up the offer.
When going through the boarding check, Philip and I are fine but they stop Alan because he has already boarded, and they stop Ian because his seat is already taken by someone else. Because of the changed seats? They are eventually let through. Someone else is asked to open up the luggage they checked in earlier as something had been found 'which might endanger the flight.'
On the plane, Sue and I find that our seats have been taken by two other men, because their seats had been taken by two ladies. Our men get up and ask for their own seats; the two ladies grumble but move forward a row. Then two more people turn up and ask to have those seats, and they move from the window seats to what are presumably their own seats in the middle of the plane.
The flight is fine, but about half an hour out of JFK the captain tells us there is an emergency in the airport and we will have to circle for an hour. Don't worry: we have enough fuel for twelve more hours flight. We never find out what the emergency was, but only circle for half an hour and then in to land. Possibly partly because it is over water, we have the roughest landing I have ever experienced, and most of the passengers start to clap as soon as we are down - which is another first for me.
The friendly chap at the customs point lets most of us through, but has no record of Philip being on the flight. Philip gets in anyway.
We wait a bit for the booked transport to arrive, and then when it does, we have to share with a few others despite paying for sole use. We thought - rightly! - that we might be a bit tired by this point and wanting to get to the hotel with as little delay as possible. But we are not taken too far out of our way.
The Cosmopolitan Hotel is in Manhattan, on the corner of West Broadway and Chambers. It is in an area called Tribeca, and overlooks the 'triangle'. We get into our rooms and then go and find something to eat at the Reade Street Pub and Kitchen - both hotel and eatery are recommended by Sue's MoneySaving friends.
We leave the hotel by the wrong exit and consequently walk around the block, but it is still only 8 pm when we arrive... 1 am in real money. The burger is the best I have tasted since the days of Brett's Burgers in Guildford, which is saying something. Back to the hotel and bed around 10:30.
Monday 21: I go and try to find Sue a cup of Redbush tea. The hotel directs me to a tea shop a few blocks away, who are certain to have it. But they don't, and don't know of anywhere else, so I return with a decaf instead. The hotel doesn't have any drink making facilities in the rooms.
After a while, we are all ready to go out and find some breakfast. I show them some places I found earlier, and we decide to eat at Quiznos, just up the road at 84 Chamber Street. It's basically a choice of filled rolls, and I think we all end up eating more than we intended.
After breakfast, we set out to try and get hold of some cheap tickets for 'Wicked' - the show Philip would like to see while we are in NY. We walk via ground zero, only a few blocks from the hotel, and then 'Century 21' - a department store - to use the toilets. We seem to walk through half the store, but emerge eventually.
The ticket shop has a queue in the sun, there are fifteen minutes before it opens, and the temperature is already uncomfortably hot. Sue and the boys wait in the shade, while I join the queue. We wait, reach the front... and there are no tickets for Wicked, or for Spamalot, the next choice. We depart.
Almost next door is a big exhibition of dead bodies, and parts thereof. We give it a miss, and move to the side of the East River, where we find some beautiful big sailing ships. Get an ice cream and wander downstream to find the ferry to the Statue of Liberty.
The queue is quite incredible. Ian still wants to go. We try to buy a ticket, and discover that the booth is selling tickets for a different boat: one with a much shorter queue, but which only goes round Statue Island without landing. But you can take photographs from the boat. And you can't go up the statue these days, not since 9/11. And, by the way... that queue is only for the ferry; the longer queue over there is the one for the tickets for the ferry.
Our minds are made up: forget the Statue of Liberty; we will take the Staten Island Ferry instead. Heading back through Battery Park, we visit the war memorial to those who died in the Atlantic, and see some entertaining street performers doing acrobatics, including tumbling on gravel. Ouch. That must take a bit of practice.
The Staten Island Ferry is a great idea: only a few minutes' wait and we get on, then we have a decent view of the Statue of Liberty as we sail past, and a tremendous view of Manhatten to the rear. On the left (okay, port) side, heading out, on the other side to the Statue of Liberty, there is a very impressive bridge joining New York and New Jersey. That must be the route we plan to drive along when we head back to the airport next Tuesday.
We have to get off at the other end, and nearly head straight back, but I convince the others to poke our noses out of the door - we are not likely to come here again. We wander for a few minutes and find a delightful Greek restaurant where we grab a bite of lunch. The boys are confused by the signs in the street which say 'No Standing' but I explain this means you can't park cars. It's one of those 'divided by a common tongue' moments.
Back to NY on the ferry, then we walk up Broadway. The Wall Street Bull is impressive, as is the fact that it 'just appeared' one morning, and was eventually given somewhere to stay.
Sue nearly buys a pink bag (in truth, she nearly buys another pink bag...) but bravely resists.
We walk past a spa. On the off chance, Sue and I go in and I ask about a sauna. Yes, they have one, despite it not being mentioned in the list of facilities outside. Can I use it? Oh, yes, most certainly. How much? People book a session of treatment, maybe a day, maybe half a day, and the sauna is thrown in. But I only want to use the sauna, no treatment - is that possible? The assistant will have to ask the manager...
After a few minutes, the assistant comes back. Yes, the manager agrees we can do that. Wonderful: when would be possible? Any time. How much? Well, if you have this treatment... I don't want the treatment, only the sauna. It will be difficult for the two of you to use the sauna at the same time, but if we do this and then maybe... But Sue doesn't want a sauna. I want a sauna. On my own, or with others: I don't mind. But I only want to pay for one person. How much will it cost? Well, if the two of you would like this treatment, then we can work out a price... At some point, the manager has turned up, but the two of them seem equally confused. The one thing they are clear about is that nobody ever comes in and asks for just a sauna. I am welcome to go for just a sauna, but they cannot tell me how much it will cost.
In the end, we take a business card and escape. I never find out what the price would have been, and I don't think they ever got their heads around the idea that Sue and I were both in the shop, but only one of us wanted the sauna. And possibly the wrong one of us, at that.
Somewhere a little further up Broadway, Sue's sandal breaks.
We are heading for a museum of holography, which is featured on one of our map guides. We are reasonably close, so press on at a slightly reduced pace. We walk round the block... no sign. I go into a gallery in roughly the right position and ask. There is no museum of holography, never has been to the best of their knowledge. People come in and ask about it all the time.
The gallery was rather deserted. It strikes me the gallery owners might do better by opening a museum of holography instead, but decide against going back and offering them this helpful suggestion.
We are certainly in, or at least on the edge of China Town, with some very interesting shops and foods on sale. We hobble back to the hotel.
The fallback plan, if we can't get to see a Broadway show, is to see a blockbuster film. The unanimous choice is The Dark Knight. We locate a cinema in walking distance, using Alan's laptop, and it has a reasonably early showing.
Ian wants us to stop by a guitar shop on the way to the cinema, but I persuade him to do it on the way back. We have a surprising level of difficulty in locating the cinema, which turns out to be not on a road but on a small pedestrian walkway, and situated quite a distance off the ground above a shoe shop.
It is still incredibly hot and humid, and while we are in the queue for tickets they tell us that the auditorium for the Dark Knight showing will have no air conditioning. No way. Since we are there, we decide to go for a different film, and come back for Batman tomorrow night.
After some hurried discussion, we opt for Hellboy 2, after assuring Sue that it won't be as gory as she fears. It isn't. The film is silly but very entertaining, and includes some scenes in New York of places we walked past earlier in the day, which is quite satisfying. And there are some beautiful scenes, including one in which two of the non-human characters drown their sorrows and get drunk together while listening to old fashioned pop music.
After the film, we walk round in circles trying to find Ian's guitar shop. Eventually, Ian goes into an appartment block, quite a high class one, to try and get directions. After a bit, Sue goes in to join him. They spend some time talking with a delightful grandma, who was married to a famous person. But the guitar shop is not here.
Not sure how it starts, but we have a fascinating discussion with Ian about market economics and morality. Try to explain why a market requires both selfishness and an underlying moral framework - which must go beyond a set of rules which are enforced by punishing offenders.
A late tea in a small restaurant, the Twin Cafe, and back to the hotel and bed.
Ian's guitar shop turns out to be nowhere near the cinema from last night, but it is in walking distance of an electronics and computer shop that Alan, Philip and I are quite keen to visit. We get to the guitar shop about 10:50, and it opens at 11:00 so we walk round the block, and by the time we return it is open. Sue stays with Ian and we set off.
We pass one interesting shop and I want to stop but Alan and Philip want to press on. Another ten or fifteen minutes later, we reach the address and... there is no shop looking remotely useful either at or near 490 Ninth Avenue. I text Sue: do we come back? No reply.
We walk up to 42nd Street and along it. We pause by Ripley's Believe It Or Not and are invited in, but sadly have to decline the offer - it looks like one of those things you really ought to do in New York.
Times Square has lots of flashing lights, but is somehow less impressive than expected. Maybe you have to be there at night? We wait for Sue and Ian in a nearby small park. When you look at the skyscrapers, a surprising number have some interesting features. Ian phones, and we tell him where we are.
When Sue and Ian join us, we all set out for the Rockerfeller Centre. We have been told it is a better place to visit than the Empire State Building.
Ian bought a guitar in the shop, which I suppose I should have seen coming. There are various thoughts about how to get it back home on the plane. In the end, the guitar is taken to pieces, and packed into the luggage, but I won't go into all the gory details about how we reach this point: suffice it to say that the work that went into getting the guitar home in one piece (okay, it didn't get home in one piece, but you know what I mean...) was approximately equal to the work involved in planning the rest of the holiday for the five of us.
Inside the Rockerfeller Centre, we have a group photograph taken, with all five of us sitting on a girder, seemingly high in the air, in homage to the famous shots of the construction workers having their lunches. We ought to have at least one group photograph from this holiday.
The escalator ride up is good: the ceiling is transparent, and you can see the lift shaft with lights flashing past. It takes us out onto the top floor with floor to ceiling windows, and the view is impressive. Then up to 'The Top of the Rock' and it is simply stunning. They have some telescopes: we pay to use one for a few minutes, but they have a useful guide to what you can see at different angles, which enables us to identify the sights without using the telescope. Central Park is an incredible sight.
Eventually we descend and buy our photograph in the shop. One odd detail: they had already printed it off. Presumably most people do purchase. We wander round the shops, various people decide against eating in one or other of them, and there are too many people in others places. We end up in a Pizza shop.
I ask if they do a tuna pizza, and the man says they do. I say I'll have a piece, and he serves it on a plate. When I get to a table and start eating, it turns out to be plain cheese. It is possibly the most boring slice of pizza I have ever eaten. But by the time I have discovered this, Alan is already negotiating to get his selection changed and I decide we have created enough chaos for them for one day. But the boys heard me ask for tuna, and also thought the assistant had understood.
We are - and remain - baffled by this, and it is repeated in various ways through the holiday. Possibly the best was in a motorway service station:
"Do you have raspberry flavour ice tea?"
"Can I have some, please?"
"What do you want?"
"Err... raspberry flavour ice tea."
We walk up to and through a small part of Central Park. It is brilliant: a strange mixture of the natural and wild, and the totally artificial. And it is big. Simply wonderful.
We catch the subway. Sue and Ian go back to the guitar shop, while I take the other two to the shop we passed in our walk that morning: we have been talking, and decided that it must be the place we were heading for, and we must have the wrong street number.
The shop, B&H, does not look very impressive on the outside, but it is incredible when you go inside: much larger than it looks, and on several floors. We have to check our bags in at the door. I have never had to do that in a shop before.
It turns out to be a bit disappointing for us - lots of cameras, computer screens, electrical and computer bits of all descriptions, but only one Asus Eee, an ultra-small PC, and the price is the same after conversion as I could have bought it for in Dixons in the Duty Free. Philip is looking for a memory card, but doesn't buy one either. We go back to the hotel.
Sue and Ian are back there, Ian playing his new electric guitar. We turn around and head stright back out to the cinema. This time, we just miss the last tickets for the film. Another hurried conversation, and we decide to see Wanted tonight, and to buy our tickets for Dark Knight at the same time to avoid this problem tomorrow.
The film is a pleasant piece of entertainment, with some of the most imaginative stunts we have ever seen. Imagine the sort of absurdly over-the-top effects from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon being applied to a Bruce Willis film with guns and car chases, and you get the idea. The unexpected twist is fairly predictable, but, shockingly, the bad guy turns out to be Morgan Freeman.
We walk down through Battery Park to the ferry, but on the way we see a brillaant firework display on Staten Island. We sit and enjoy the spectacle. It contains a number of fireworks I have never seen before: starbursts where the leading edge changes colour, heart shapes, and a sort of ball with hoops around it.
We just catch the Staten Island Ferry, just to go over and straight back. Manhatten at night is everything the pictures lead you to expect, but I fail to capture anything on film thanks to the low light level and the moving boat. One tip: the stern is less crowded than the prow, so you get a better view more easily when leaving Manhatten.
We walk up Broadway again, this time with fewer crowds, and we are able to take note of the people and events commemorated in the strips in the pavement.
Back at the hotel, Sue books our room for another night and send an email to the car hire firm to postpone our car by one day. We have decided to stay an extra day. It turns out there are still things we have not seen and done in New York, and it solves the problem of working out what we want to do outside New York.
Wednesday 23: Breakfast again in The Soda Shop. Browsing through the leaflets in the hotel lobby, I find an advert for an electronics shop quite near by, so we walk down to City Hall Park and browse for nearly an hour. This time, we don't have to check our bags in at the door. Sue is very patient, Ian browses through an extensive range of keyboards, and the rest of us look at the computers. They have a much better range of the ultra-small PCs, but the prices are still essentially the same as in the UK - apart from one incredibly low spec machine for $299. I hesitate for a bit, then decide it is probably not going to do what I need.
We take the Subway up to Central Park. The boys want to spend the day riding bicycles round the park, and a short way up the street we find several people offering bicycle hire. As we stand and look at the prices, a foreign-looking gentleman comes up and offers a much better deal, so the boys go off with him and Sue and I continue up to the park and wander through it for a while.
After a bit, at a viewpoint over a small boating lake, Sue finds a toilet and goes in. I continue to the viewpoint and find the boys with their bikes. We chat for a bit, then they cycle off just before Sue emerges. We continue heading up to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
There is a special exhibition in the roof garden. It takes us quite a while to find our way up there, but it is worth finding: large balloon sculptures and inflated plastic shapes rendered in steel - both fun and creative. And the view from the top over Central Park is worth the price of admission on its own.
We have a bite to eat, and on to another special exhibition: how to read a Chinese painting. Quite fascinating, including some instructions on Chinese calligraphy, and a text on filial duty, which I rather feel our boys would benefit from reading. Sue goes and sits in a recreation of a garden, which is simply beautiful. On the way out, we shoot through another exhibition on the fairly obvious connection between Super Heroes and Fashion.
The journey back takes longer than planned, but we still have not encountered anything as crowded as the London rush hour. The boys are, fortunately, already back, and we head out again straight away for our third attempt.
This time, we get to see The Dark Knight. It is much longer than expected, and several times the film seems to be winding to a close when it suddenly starts up again. But it does an incredibly good job of posing and exploring an issue I do not recall being presented with in these terms before: society has to establish rules and then play by them, which inevitably makes it vulnerable to those who choose not to play by those rules. The Joker in this film is deeply disturbing as an outsider - not just a criminal, but someone who is outside the criminal community, just as much as he is outside of mainstream society. And, in this situation, does society need someone who is outside the system and who also does not need to play by the rules, to counter this threat?
It seems to me that part of the weakness of this problem, as posed by this film, is the arbitrary nature of the rules which normal people are supposed to play by. We do this, we don't do that - but why? It seems there is no higher authority beyond the voice of the people - which can easily become the voice of the panic-stricken crowd. The problem can be resolved if you have a higher authority you can trust, but can it be resolved if you lack such ultimate trust? I'm not sure.
The ethical issues also come to the foreground in one of the core plot drivers: people start to blame Batman for the deaths of people who are being killed until he unmasks himself. But this is a very shaky foundation to drive the plot - the person to blame for the murders is the person who is committing them, not his intended victim.
The film creates a horribly artificial scenario with two groups of people on boats filled with explosives, but the psychology is quite brilliant. Each group can set off the explosives in the other boat, thereby killing the other people and ensuring their own survival. And there is a deadline: if neither group has killed the other by this point, both groups die. It is worth watching the film just for this part of the plot.
A recurring question is: when pushed, will people behave in their own selfish interests? The film suggests that often they do, but sometimes they surprise you and resist that temptation. We are very impressed.
On the way back, we visit the local Amish store, then back to the Reade Street Pub and Kitchen, where we ate the first night, for some tea. As we walk, the rain begins, and rapidly gets serious. Sitting in the pub, it looks like a tropical storm outside, with impressive lightning. It eases off a few times, then starts to come down more heavily again. Eventually, we leave and get soaked in the few yards back to the hotel.
Thursday 24: Breakfast in The Soda Shop, pack and check out. Walk with all the bags to the Brooklyn Bridge subway, down in the lift, and along to Grand Central Station. We take the wrong exit from the subway, but that takes us along the road and into the statiion. It is certainly grand, and very impressive. We stop for some refreshments, and Sue buys me a pretzel - had not managed to get one sooner. It's nothing to write home about, but maybe a railway station is not the best place to go for quality food.
Philip, Sue and I go for a wander and take some pictures. Philip abandons us, and we go shopping. There is lots of wonderful food on offer, including Drunken Goat's Cheese - "Don't worry: we checked its ID!" but we only buy a few figs. However, in the Swatch shop Sue finds a watch for herself, and one for Alan who currently doesn't have one. He is nearly overjoyed by the gift.
From Grand Central Station we take the train to North White Plains and the car rental company, just over the road from the station.
Sue had booked a Ford, but the assistant, a fairly elderly and persuasive individual, tries to persuade us to take a SUV instead: much more space, he says, and only another $15 a day. We are not interested. Then we discover the Ford doesn't have SatNav. After some negotiating and several phone calls, they provide us with a Chevrolet Impala, automatic, of course.
The car has a mind of its own, which is not always what you want. Philip describes it as 'fascist' at one point, and from then on it is simply 'the fascist car'. Take it out of park and it locks the doors for you. I suppose it keeps you safe from the danger of accidentally throwing yourself out of the car while driving along the motorway, but it makes checking whether you are inside the lines when you park harder than it should be.
Sue drives. North White Plains is a small and quiet town, and ideal for your first experience of driving on the wrong side of the road in a foreign and automatic car.
The journey goes well. We stop at a MacDonalds service station and have a pizza. The navigation is fine until we are almost at the door of the hotel. The SatNav even says 'You have arrived' and we can see the hotel just a few yards down the road, but we are in the wrong lane.
Despite there being no traffic behind us, Sue dutifully turns left instead of going straight ahead. We drive into a different hotel, round the driveway, and back to the road. Then instead of turning left, Sue drives straight ahead. Then, confused, she sees a sign which says 'Freeway Exit' and takes it... which leads us back onto the Freeway.
Up to the next exit, and following the SatNav instructions we manage to do a 360 degree turn, and end up back on the Freeway again, heading further away from our destination.
After some ten or twelve miles, we succeed in leaving the Freeway, set the Satnav to avoid Freeways, and take the back roads back to the hotel. We make it back about an hour and a half later.
We check in. The hotel has no food, and no sauna. We chose it because it had a sauna. Back into the car, and I drive a mile or so to a local gym. I go in, and Sue and the boys walk next door for something to eat.
At the reception, I explain to the nice lady that I am staying at a local hotel and thought it had a suana, but the manager had rung the gym and they had said it would be okay for me to come and use the sauna there. She says that is fine. I try to pay, but she says I can come in for free. I thank her.
The lockers need padlocks, and I don't have one. Back to reception. I need a token from a machine. Find a machine. Try to feed money into it... several times. Find a member of staff. He tries to feed the machine. Several times. It has run out of tokens. Okay, can I buy a token at reception? No, we don't have tokens at reception: the machine is supplied by another company.
It seems there is no alternative. I have on my person, perhaps unwisely, both my passport and my wallet with my credit cards and most of my American money. In the end, I leave my passport and wallet with a member of staff, who puts them into a drawer behind the reception counter.
My clothes go into a locker, unlocked, and I shower. The steam room inside the mens locker room has a sign saying that swimming costumes are required. The sauna is next to the pool, and massive. Since I have to wear a costume anyway, I might as well use the sauna.
The sauna is okay, but almost all the conversation in it revolves around paying for sex, in various ways. I have never heard a conversation in a sauna like it. I don't think there is any way I can join in the conversation without picking a fight, so I keep silent.
Another odd feature is the amount of clothing people wear. Most are in swimming costumes as expected, but some men also wear a t-shirt, and a few seem to come in in jogging tops and bottoms. They only stay for a little while. I wonder what they get out of it, and if they think they have experienced a sauna.
The steam room turns out to be much hotter than the sauna, and consistently hot. Fewer people go in it, and nobody is overdressed - beyond the swimming costume, that is.
At the end, I shower off as usual, then have a panic: my clothes are not in the locker. After maybe ten minutes searching, I locate the right locker, and my clothes are still in it. I retrieve my bits from reception, and Sue and the boys are waiting for me. They enjoyed their food. I drive us back to the hotel, and we go to bed.
The hotel is on the junction of the New Jersey Turnpike, which we came down yesterday, and Route 18, which we drove a mile along last night. The SatNav takes us down Route 18 quite a distance before we turn off.
At the services, we buy a map of New Jersey. I feel much more comfortable having an alternative to the SatNav if it is needed. But the journey goes without hitch: Sue drives us straight to the Lolipop Motel in Wildwood, NJ. We park, register, and unload the car.
We head out, and on to the Boardwalk. Turn left, and walk along to the North end: a place with nice views, so we take some photographs. Then we walk the two and a half miles down the Boardwalk to the Convention Centre at the other end, where the boys are planning to meet their friends a little later.
The Boardwalk is just amazing: non-stop seaside and fairground attractions - test your strength, hoopla, electronic shooting ranges, various types of gambling, ghost trains, throw the basketball through the hoop and win a giant teddy bear, and lots of places to eat.
We stop for tea. Philip says we have to try Bufalo Wings, but they are a bit too hot. The boys go off to meet their friends, and Sue and I go back to the motel. We visit a supermarket to get some breakfast, coffee, milk and fruit. Take the shopping back to the Motel, then straight out again back to the Boardwalk.
One of the attractions of Wildwood is the public firework display on Friday nights at 10:30. It is very impressive. Possibly not as impressive as the Staten Island display on Tuesday, but we are much closer and can hear the bangs and smell the gunpowder. It really is quite loud.
The arrangement, as we had thought, was to meet at a certain place on the Boardwalk after the fireworks, but after half an hour the boys have still not turned up. We phone. They are at the far end. We walk down to meet them, then back to the motel.
Saturday 26: The 'instant oatmeal' we bought last night boils over in the microwave, so it is not a complete success. Otherwise, breakfast is fine. The boys disappear to meet their friends. Sue and I walk down the Boardwalk past the Convention Centre, where there is a Craft Fair. Not impressed, sadly. Craft Fairs are usually full of things I couldn't make, and can enjoy looking at; this was full of things I could make but wouldn't want to. There were a few moderately interesting stalls, but nothing memorable.
We keep going down to the far end, do a few yards along the beach, then up the steps and back up the Boardwalk, on the landward side of the stalls. Still nothing.
We want some lunch, but the sandwiches on the menu board at the first place we try are only for breakfast. The waitress seems quite irritated at us for trying to buy breakfast at lunchtime. We are supposed to know that sandwiches are for breakfast only? It certainly does not say so on the board. We move on.
I want to stop somewhere which takes credit cards, which cuts out most of the possibilities. The next place to eat which takes credit cards has a very nice waitress. When we are seated, Sue sends Alan a text to say where we are, and a few minutes later he turns up at our table: he and his friends were already eating at the same place, at a table further in, and were nearly ready to leave.
We take our time wandering back, buy some holiday presents, then go back to the motel.
We drive out to another 'scenic overview' looking over the lake on the landward side of Wildwood, the site of the Battle of Turtlegut: the only Revolutionary War battle fought in Cape May County was here on Sunset Lake. Thought you would want to know that.
There is a 'Life Memorial' at the scenic overview, which I assume to be in memory of the life of some famous resident of Wildwood, but from the text inside it seems instead to be a memorial to life as a gift from God, and somehow connected with Angelic protection. As far as we can tell, it is a prime example of the worst sort of contentless new Age mysticism, being promoted on a civic monument. Not for the first time, I am wondering if this is for real, or is it actually some kind of elaborate hoax.
We drive back via the 'fitness park'. This turns out to be a patch of scrubby grass. A friendly policeman says there is a gym on the corner of New Jersey Avenue and 10th Avenue, so we go there. Yes! The gym exists, it has a sauna, and I can use it. They close at 8. It is just gone 6 pm, so we drive back to the motel, I grab my sauna bag,and drive back to the gym.
The sauna turns out to be a steam room. After a few minutes, the helpful manager comes to see if I'm okay and turns up the steam. I seem to be the only other person on the premises, so I ask him if I need to keep my swimming costume on if I'm on my own. He says that you have to wear a swimming costume unless you are Russian, which I'm sure is a joke. I assume he believes that only Russians don't wear a swimming costume in the sauna. He is too nice a chap to argue with, and in any case, he says I can wrap a towel around me. I say I only have the one to dry myself on, and he brings me a towel. As I say, a nice chap. So, for the rest of the session, I sit on his towel in the steam room, and wrap it round me to walk between the steam room and the shower in the lockers.
Back to the motel. We are planning to go out for a nice meal, but Sue wants to use Alan's computer frist and the boys are about to return. They eventually get back, very sunburnt.
The restaurant we are planning to eat at is closed. It closed at 9 pm. The advert doesn't mention this minor detail - presumably it is assumed that everyone knows a restaurant will close at 9. The others we find are all closed, too, which strengthens the assumption.
So it is on to the supermarket, where we buy a couple of French Rolls. Back to the motel.
The boys have not gone out again as planned, so we sit in their room and eat the rolls. Sue uses Alan's computer while I watch South Park with the boys. It is a fascinating and insightful comment on the way in which free speech is so easily thrown away when society is threatened by terrorism, with a sub-plot commenting on the absurd way in which most people react more to harmless nudity than they do to real harm and violence. I don't like the style of the cartoon or much of the humour, but the targets of the humour are spot-on.
Sunday 27: To be honest, we had planned to go to church this morning, but we oversleep and get up too late. So we potter around a bit, tidy up, and drive down to Cape May. The boys are out with their friends again.
In Cape May we find a Trollybus Park and Ride car park. We park. There are no signs up anywhere saying what days or times it operates - again, presumably we are supposed to just know this sort of thing? The only sign is painted on the ground, and says 'Teacher of the Year' - we are next door to a school.
Another car drives in and parks next to us. A couple get out. A trollybus drives past the front of the car park... and keeps on going. Were we supposed to be standing on the road and put our hand out?
The couple has a piece of card with a map. They decide to walk, and we go with them. We walk down Maddison Avenue and chat. He is a firefighter from the state capital. We walk past a water tower with 'Cape May Historic National Landmark' painted on it. He explains that all of Cape May is a historic national landmark because of the many Victorian houses here. We have to keep reminding ourselves that Victorian in this context is really, really old. I comment to him that 'landmark' has a different meaning in English.
Down to the beach, where we wave goodbye and cross the road. There is an entrance to the beach, across the fenced off dunes, but they charge you for a token to access the beach so we give that a miss.
It has been getting darker as we walked, and starts to rain, so we pop into a nearby hotel for some lunch. Very heavy rain, but it clears up before we are ready to leave.
Sue wants to see the lighthouse, so we walk along to the end of the beach, but all we find is a flag which has been used to drape an American serviceman's coffin and which gets lowered in a ceremony each evening. The lighthouse is still some way off, so we exercise some restraint and tun back towards the shopping mall.
Most of the afternoon is spent shopping and hiding from the rain with the occasional coffee, starting off with an unmissable two-for-one offer on some soft ice cream.
Cape May is certainly more civilised than Wildwood, with a better quality of souveneers. We find a lovely glass Sand Dollar for my mother and a t-shirt for Roger: 'Bring a compass - it is awkward when you have to eat your friends'. A useful message for his Scouts.
We have a final snack in a Cyber Cafe while hiding from the rain again, and eat a pretzel dog as we walk back to the car, finding the Post Office en route and posting the last few postcards.
Back at the car, we head for the motel, passing the place where we plan to go whale watching tomorrow. We stop and try to buy our tickets, but the place is closed. Sue texts Alan, offering to pick the boys up if they need a lift. Alan replies that they are in Cape May and should be fine. Sue repeats the offer, saying we don't mind hanging around in Cape May for a few more hours. Alan eventually replies that they are actually somewhere else, so we go back.
Stop off at the supemarket again for some American snacks to take back to the folk at work. Then we go and visit Wayland's Whaling Wall - number 43 of a series of 100 the world famous artist has been painting. We discover it is on the side of a shopping mall on the Boardwalk, which we have passed many times in the past few days. It's nice, but not worth walking very far to see.
Back to the motel to start packing. The boys turn up eventually: the 'meet' is over.
We buy our tickets for the whale watching at 1 pm - boarding from 12:30 - and drive down to the flagpole to show the boys the view of the lighthouse and the plaque about the lowering of the flag.
A quick lunch at the restaurant opposite. Sue and I have pancakes with apples, then dash back to the boat.
We initially sit downstairs at the back, then move to the top. Rather foggy, but we see a few dolphins near the shore, then move some ten miles offshore where some whales were seen a couple of days previously.
We have not been in the area for long when we see a whale ahead in the distance, then another closer up on the left. And we spend maybe 40 minutes circling around that area, with those two whales regularly appearing, and occasionally swimming together. Quite brilliant. The one frustration was my camera: it has quite a delay and almost all the pictures I took were of empty water where a whale had recently been. We all agree that whale watching is an excellent way to round off the holiday
After the whale watching, we drive back to New Brunswick, taking a short accidental detour through Wildwood. We stop for a coffee on the freeway, and see a shortcut up ahead on the map, so we take that and drive through some interesting places - one in which almost everyone we saw was in traditional Jewish black with beards and skullcap, and many of the buildings have their signs in Hebrew script. Up Route 9, then left onto Route 18.
In New Brunswick, we stop at the oriental buffet Sue and the boys ate at last time, after another slight detour as we negotiate some very counter-intuitive junctions. It is excellent, and very tempting as you can go back for as many refills as you like. Philip and I use the chopsticks to show off, but finish the sauces with a spoon.
Back to the hotel. Sue wants to sort out everything for the flight tomorrow. After a while, it becomes clear that we are missing a suitcase. Alan and I go back down to the reception, but it is not in the lift or found at reception. Left by the car? We collect the key and go out to the car park. Without much hope, I open the boot and see nothing... except... maybe... yes! It is a black suitcase, right at the back of the deep boot, and almost invisible. We return victorious.
Tuesday 29: Breakfast at the hotel, later than planned as we are waiting for Ian to finish his shower. Finish packing, and check out. Ian's new guitar is dismantled into two pieces, with the neck in a suitcase and the body in his hand luggage. It seems the best we can do.
As expected, our route takes us over the large bridge we saw from the Staton Island ferry. It is even more impressive close up, and people drive over it on two levels. We get the top level and the better views, eventually spotting the Statue of Liberty in the distance.
It took us some time in New York to work out where Coney Island is. Our route takes us through Coney Island, and an 'Angel of the North' type structure we see in the distance turns out to be one of the attractions.
Dropping off the fascist car at the Hertz place is much faster and easier than anticipated: we drive into a parking space, a lady with a clipboard walks round the car and tells us to leave the key in the dashboard. That's it.
A train service runs to the airport terminal, and we check in our bags without delay. The lady at the check-in asks Sue if she realises we have 30kg baggage allowance each? Sue explains that she wasn't allowed to go shopping, which is simply not true but produces the intended sympathetic response. We couldn't have fitted any more into our bags anyway.
Strangely, the shops advertise duty free - perhaps you need to produce your boarding card to get a discount? We have a bite to eat while waiting, Sue explores the shops and I wander round the Metropolitan Museum of Art shop nearby. The boys sit and read until it is time to think about boarding. We throw away our remaining bottles of water in preparation for going through the security check.
We upgraded our seats on the way back, so we get 'priority' boarding, and it is very nice to avoid the long queues at the security check. They don't ask about bottles, and there are no signs obout them, or any piles of discarded bottles of water anywhere, so we probably could have carried our water on board after all.
Very few shops on the far side of security, which is consistent with the shops on the other side advertising duty free. No troubles boarding this time. The boys are in row 1, and Sue and I behind them in row 2. We had been told the flight was full, but nobody sits beside us, which makes for an easier flight. We taxi away from the terminal a few minutes ahead of schedule, but then spend nearly an hour taxi-ing around the airport, seemingly at random. I doze through most of this.
We fly through the night, watching the sun set on a flat horizon, and then rise again a few hours later. We watch The Other Bolyn Girl - Sue and I saw it a while back, but it was still a brilliant film the second time round, and then Sue sleeps through most of 27 Dresses which was mostly very predictable, but had a pleasantly surprising level of moral content.
Train up to London, then just miss the next train to Eltham - I am standing by the train door as it closes on me, with the rest of the family a few yards behind. Still, the next one is only 20 minutes later, and it gives us a chance to get a cup of coffee at the cafe on the platform.
Father is waiting for us at the station, and fits the bags and the boys into his car somehow, so Sue and I walk from the station to the house in the morning sunshine. My mother unexpectedly greets us in the street - she is going out for the day, but doesn't have to leave until 9:30, so we have half an hour or so to chat before she leaves.
The boys get some sleep, and I drive our car off to the nearest Banatyne's for a sauna, then back for a few hours kip.
Mother returns from her day out and tells us all about it, then Roger gets home, and we all go out for a meal. Back home, we open the bottle of wine Father made on the day Alan was born - not quite on his 21st birthday as originally promised, but close enough. It was quite strong, but, surprisingly, just drinkable.
People keep asking: how was the holiday? Well, we all had a good time, especially the whale watching. The USA is a nice place to visit, but we wouldn't like to stay too long. It's just so very foreign. They may speak English, or something close most of the time, but France or Germany feels so much more like home.
We expected the tall buildings and bright lights in New York. And we had been warned about the heat and humidity. We did not expect so much of the architecture to be interesting, the traffic to be so light, the subways to be so empty, or the amount of sunshine you get to see in between the skyscrapers.
We had expected some difficulties with the language: sidewalk instead of pavement, movie instead of film, restroom instead of toilet, and so on. We had not expected so much difficulty in communicating even when we thought we were using the right language.
We had expected the Americans we met to be friendly and outgoing, and they were. We expected to find them mostly patriotic and optimistic, and they were. We did not expect to find so much unrelenting earnestness.
It often showed itself in little ways. On the whale watching boat we were told that they are allowed to follow the whales, but they are not allowed to sail towards them if they are heading towards the boat. Fair enough. They think it means the boats will do less harm to the whales, although the way in which the whales are constantly swimming round in circles seems to me to make a complete mockery of any such law. But they also had to tell us that this law is unique to America, and no other nation on earth has passed such a law to protect the whales in their waters.
The message from this comment seems to be that because America has this piece of obscure and ineffective legislation, therefore America is uniquely effective at caring for whales and the environment. There is no possibility that this law might not be the best possible way to care for whales, or that other countries may have passed good laws that America does not share, or... well, you get the idea. It was just a short comment, but in no other country I have every visited has anyone ever needed to tell me anything like this concerning their laws or their way of doing things. And this comment was just one of dozens, maybe hundreds of similar experiences. As I say, it was quite unrelenting.
To take one obvious example: the French are irritating. At least, I often find them irritating. They totally believe that French culture is superior to any other culture. But, no matter how much the French may believe this (absurd!) idea, they have never felt the need to tell me that this or that aspect of their culture is unique or superior. They make a song and dance about the quality of French food (okay - this is often justified) but they never emphasise the fact that it is a French recipe, as if the fact may have escaped your attention. The French may believe themselves to be superior, but somehow I find that easier to live with. At least they don't keep telling me they are superior.
Another unexpected observation: the vast majority of the people we saw, everywhere we went, were reasonably slim and fit. I have read reports on how America, like Britain, is fighting an epidemic of obesity. I expected to see overweight people. But, to be honest, I see far more overweight people on the streets of the UK, in the shops and supermarkets, in fact, everywhere, than I saw anywhere on our trip.
Much of the political comment we saw in the USA was scathing of the establishment, far more vitriolic than would be acceptable in the UK. In the TV and newspapers, it is clear that many people do not buy the official lines. Many people question both the morality and the effectiveness of America's foreign policy, for example. But in all the official communication, there is no hint of any doubt, no room for any uncertainty. It often seems there is no room, even, for any atheism.
It is this ability to operate in two different realities without any acknowledgement in either that the other exists, which I find so difficult to understand and so exhausting to experience. On the one hand, many people openly question the motives behind the war in Iraq, or openly say that it is all about contolling the oil reserves. But on the other hand, there is an unquestioning belief that all the American servicemen who have died in Iraq have died for their country, and were fighting to defend freedom and democracy. There was not one hint anywhere about any alternative: the war may be about access to oil, but none of the servicemen have died defending America's access to oil.
Americans are wonderful people, just don't ask me to understand them.