Maryland & Virginia & West Virginia, June 2015, part 2

Lockhouse 49


We could not believe it when we saw the place, in fact, we biked past it.  Unlike the wooden lockhouse buildings we had been passing- white with green shutters- this place was brick. It was on the other side of the locks we had passed, the opposite side from most other lockhouses we had passed.  Circling back for a better look, yes, wow!  This was Lockhouse 49 in what used to be the Four Locks community – our home for the next two nights.  It was magical to stay here!  As a lovingly restored historic home, it was a little like a museum or fancy B&B.  It also was a bit like camping (no plumbing), and like a youth hostel (4 beds per room).  We explored the house and the area and got settled in. There were books and old photos inside the house, outside we could walk around the bottom of the canal where the boats used to float back in the day.


Day 4

We walked around the lock structures around us again this morning.  It was a beautiful day, and the stone structures were interesting and lovely in the light.


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Fort Frederick

The kids were reluctant to go after two days of biking, but this place surpassed our expectations and turned out to be a highlight of the trip.  It was about 3 miles from the lockhouse, back the way we had came, so we biked over to mile 112.4 to check it out.  From the entrance to the park, we could tell this place was really cool.  There was a rustic wooden fence, the kind with rough-cut wood leaning at angles against the parallel ones.  Beyond was a massive stone wall as far as we could see.  To the left was a parking lot with plenty of bike parking, which we rapidly monopolized.  There was a log cabin-type buiding next to the parking area, and several smaller buildings behind that.

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Fort (L) and visitor center (R)

We were looking around when L. Wonderful started trying to gather us to let us know “There are costumed reenactors!  They’ll give us a tour!”  We all headed for the fort entrance, which we learned until recently had a massive wooden door.  Standing by the entrance were indeed two men in costume, one of whom was speaking about the history of the fort in a strong English accent.

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The guide with the accent turned out to actually be from England and both guides were happy to discuss history of the Fort.  We had them talking for a long time after they did their usual tour since there were not a lot of visitors that day.  The fort was built for the French and Indian War, also known as the Seven Years War, in the 1750’s.  It was later used during the Revolutionary War as a prison for British soldiers, and during the Civil War for Union soldiers to protect the C&O Canal from attack. Later, it was forgotten, fell into disrepair, and was even used to house livestock until the 1920’s when it became owned by the State of Maryland and was rebuilt as a Civil Conservation Corps project in the 1930’s.  Meanwhile, here in 2015, the kids ran around and tried on costumes and generally explored the place and played all they wanted.

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Above: start of tour inside soldier barracks (outside is shown in last picture) Below: our kids running around and playing in costume

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It was so unexpected and so much fun.  L Wonderful and I loved hearing the English version of the Boston Tea Party and details of the soldier’s lives in Fort Frederick.  It is also interesting to know that Fort Duquesne, currently known as Pittsburgh, had a similar design, ironically a French design, of a large square with diamond-shaped corners, shown below.

below: L and me trying to make straight faces so we can be proper soldiers!

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After the fort, we went back to the lockhouse.  Happily, we were indoors during the big rainstorm that happened that evening.  We played cards, looked at the books and other reading material about the history of the area, and enjoyed the old-fashioned kids’ games that were there for our use in the house.  That night, it might have happened that I had to get up and use the facilities, and it is also possible I started thinking a lot about ghosts there in that house for a moment in the quiet dark night in that old, old house…

Day 5

This was to be a light day of biking with time to relax and explore a canal town.  We packed up the bikes and cleaned the lockhouse after breakfast.  Our next stop was only 10 miles away and we were to stay in a hotel this night.  We passed some nice rock faces, a dam area where the canal boats used to ride on the river on the flat area upstream of the dam, and wonderful views of the Potomac.  A large group of young men on a group trip passed us energetically.

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Williamsport, MD

We arrived, biked to the hotel, then explored this cute town for the day.  We found a swimming pool, an ice cream shop, an historic farm, and an antique car show.  Getting off the trail at mile 99.4 there was an aqueduct (the one where a boat fell off in the 1920’s!  You can still see the damage.) and a nice museum about the canal. The Conococheague – which I am proud I learned to pronounce as “KAHN-eh-ka-jig” – River meets the Potomac here, thus the aqueduct.


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above: Williamsport, the affected side of the aqueduct(with grassy hill in foreground), the intact side

below: things we found in Williamsport, in no particular order.  The town park was very nice – green, large, included a swimming pool open to the public for just $3! We had it almost to ourselves.  Antique cars, ice cream parlor, Springfield farm.

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We had a swim, some ice cream, and a walk around the town before calling it a day.  We went to sleep in a modern building for the first time in 4 nights, and waited for the rain everyone said would come over night.

Day 6

We awoke to the sound of rain.  A steady, relentless rain that had been predicted the day before.  The Park Service people even said the rain might threaten the towpath; parts had washed out from rain in the past.  We decided to give up our last day of biking and drive the rest of the way to Harper’s Ferry.  R. Wonderful and I were to drive him there to pick up his car, bring both cars back to the hotel, then we would all pack the cars and head out.  We headed in the rain for my car in the parking lot, a few yards from the hotel room.  In that short space of time, we realized that a few people wanted to bike in the rain.  Heck, I wanted to bike in the rain.  So did RW.  And Mr. Fantastic didn’t really want to bike; he might be happy to take non-bikers to a museum or something… and so hatched the plan to bike 40 miles in the pouring rain!  What happened?  Stay tuned, tripsters!!


Maryland &Virginia& West Virginia, June, 2015 part 1

This was an eight-day extravaganza!! We have now done seven bike/camp trips with the Wonderful family in the past eight years and I think this one is the best yet.  It was a fitting send-off in a way, since we are planning to be RTW tripping this time next year and don’t know when our next joint adventure will be. So this trip was special in more ways than one. First a major shout-out to R. Wonderful for extensive planning during the winter and spring. He researched everything and even made spreadsheets! Not my skill set! I am humbled and grateful.  It takes a lot of planning to handle 12 people (including 8 kids!), meals, accomodations, vehicles, and all those miles.  Thank you!!


We started by biking some of the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal towpath starting in Cumberland, MD. This trail skirts the borders of MD, VA, WV, and PA.  It connects with the Great Allegheny Passage to form a 335 mile bike path between Pittsburgh, PA and Washington, DC. We biked about 70 miles of the GAP three years ago with the Wonderfuls through the beautiful Ohiopyle State Park. Now we were tackling part of the C&O.


Western end of the towpath, around mile 184 (L), our first campsite (R)

C&O Canal

This amazing piece of history was a jewel to discover, both as a bicycler who appreciates the scenery and campsites, and also for the canal structures and culture which has disappeared as a way of life. The C&O canal was built in the 1820s as an efficient way to move goods across difficult terrain and parallel to the Potomac River, which was considered unnavigable. Canal freight boats were about 90 feet in length, were towed by mules on the towpath, and were homes for some canal families. Children lived on the boats, sometimes tethered to them for safety!  The boats were wooden and not only included kitchen, food storage and bedrooms, but also had stables for the mules, who worked and rested in six-hour shifts, and space for about 15 tons of coal. They carried other cargo such as milled grains, sometimes loaded directly from canalside mills. This transport system involved mule drivers (often kids) who walked with the mules, boatmen using poles to steer the boats away from the stone walls of the canals, and lock keepers who maintained the canals and operated locks to raise and lower the boats to the changing water levels. The canal itself is just under 185 miles in length. It is now a national park and includes structures such as lock houses where the lock workers lived, aqueducts that carried the canal over rivers that would otherwise obstruct its flow, and elaborate locks with gates to control water levels.


towpath with lockhouse to the right and remains of lock to left

As you may guess, I became obsessed with the canal history and the ruins around us as I biked along. Some of the biking was tough since there were muddy patches, bad gravel, and I was towing our heavy gear in a bike trailer. I could identify with the mules at times!

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a muddy patch – it was to get much worse!  Me towing the “Joyrider” trailer

We found some books about the canal life with actual interviews done in the late 1970s with people who had grown up in that life. Home on the Canal by Elizabeth Kytle was my favorite. We went to a museum that had a silent film done in 1917 by Thomas Edison’s film crew which they filmed while boating down the canal and through locks. About eight years after that, the canals had a terrible flood and by then were also becoming obsolete due to the railroads and they never recovered. By then, though, the canals had a ninety year history and structures that would remain today and hopefully for a long time to come.

As a bike path, the C&O is wonderful in many respects. It is quite level, it has stunning scenery including massive rock faces and views of the Potomac River, it provides port-a-johns and drinking water every five miles or so, it is dotted with historical sites and lovely towns, and there are free camp sites all along the path. Two things to note are that the path is not paved, so wider tires are helpful as it can be bumpy and muddy, and drinking water from the pumps (not available in winter, BTW) is treated with iodine, which didn’t bother us too much but it is noticeable.  The canal structures such as lock houses, aqueducts, and the locks themselves are fascinating.

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remains of lock (L), aqueduct (R)

Day 1

We arrived in Cumberland, MD, the Western end of the towpath and biked 4 miles to a campsite. Two adults drove cars to Williamsport, MD, and Harpers Ferry, West Virginia and then took the train back to Cumberland and biked to camp with us. This took about five hours. Our campsite was called Evitt’s Creek (mile 180.1) and was between the towpath and the Potomac. Just past the towpath was the canal which at this stretch had water and many turtles and algae, unfortunately many bugs as well.

Parallel to the canal, towpath and river were several active train tracks with trains passing by at least once an hour. I was delighted to be camping and starting the journey, I also love the sound of nearby trains, but other campsites proved to be further from the tracks so others may choose to go a few more miles to avoid them.  It is interesting to note that at times we on the towpath were moving parallel to trains that replaced the canal system, which were running parallel to highways with semi trucks that have largely replaced the trains! Three transport systems side by side, one gone, one partly used, and one going strong.

Day 2

We awoke, packed our gear, and headed out on our first long day. The trail was bumpy on my narrow tires, but the twins’ little bikes had fatter tires and they did well.  The teens carried little gear and got ahead, so we had a policy of stopping every three miles to meet up before heading out again. There are mile markers every mile, which made it easy to know where to meet. There are also maps and guidebooks to show campsites, towns, structures, and other points of interest, all using mile numbers to identify location.  The canal was to our left and continued to be full of croaking frogs, turtles lounging on logs, and seaweed. The kids saw a large black snake. There were groundhogs and deer. We mostly biked under a green canopy of trees on a double trail with grass in the center. I often heard “on you left” as bikers from our group and others passed me as I trundled along. We saw our first lockhouse and we also filled our water bottles at trailside water pumps.


We went through Paw Paw Tunnel, hand carved, lined with six million bricks, and over 3,000 feet long.   There is dripping water, uneven footing, and almost complete darkness at times, so we were glad to obey the signs by walking our bikes and using headlights.


IMG_0144The other side of the tunnel was one of my favorite parts of the trip.  There was a wooden walkway next to a steep rock face with the canal and another sloping rock wall on the other side.  When the wooden path ended, there was a single earth trail still with the canal to the left and tilted rock walls on either side.  Gorgeous!imageimageimage

We stopped and made lunch at a lovely campsite, which I’m pretty sure was Purselane Run at mile 157.4. We biked to Devil’s Alley at mile 144.5 and set up our camp. As soon as our tents were up there was a thunderstorm so we hid out in our tents until it was over. Luckily, it lasted under an hour and we were able to enjoy the evening at the campsite. We cooked dinner, played cards, and the kids swam in the river. There was a beautiful sunset.



selfie in tent during storm



Day 3

Oh the misery of a sore butt! Thirty-six miles in a day are not much in comparison to other bikers on this trail, but most of them are not carrying all their camping/cooking gear and stopping every three miles to gather the kids.  I was sore in numerous places but there was nothing to do but get back on the trail. I got onto a groove and kept going. At one point, I was lagging behind as usual when a bunch of our group started coming towards me. Why were they going the wrong way? It turned out there was a paved path we could use for about twenty miles. And so we turned around and headed uphill to the Western Maryland Rail Trail. And we were in awe of the wonder of asphalt! The ride became smooth like buttah! I didn’t realize how difficult the bumpy, muddy path was until I sailed on the silky black WMRT. We all enjoyed it immensely. We stopped in the tiny town of Hancock for lunch.

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the smoooooth WMRT (top L), coming into Hancock, relaxing and having lunch in Hancock’s town park

After Hancock, we were back on the asphalt, but only for a few miles.  We returned to the C&O towpath and got excited about stopping for the night, as well as where we would be stopping.  You see, R. Wonderful had found unusual accomodations for the next 2 nights – an historic lockhouse!  Check out part 2…

NC and DC, late Feb-early March, 2015, Part 2


Snowy DC and a cozy apartment

The first I heard of the big snowstorm, Thor, was as we were heading into it as we left Chapel Hill, NC. A woman had mentioned it at a store where we were buying some supplies for lunch on the road. I didn’t take it very seriously since we had been through this in late January with the “potentially historic” snowstorm that created panic and closed schools in our area but failed to deliver much actual snow. Also, it was markedly warmer and most NC snow had melted. The sky was blue and we merrily passed mile markers and state lines on our way to the capital of our country. We were listening to a Ramona and Beezus audio book. The kids were getting along and I was looking forward to seeing LW and her dog Lincoln. Things were good.

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Walking around and playing in a park in the pre-blizzard rain

Bit of a buzzkill to drive into DC.  Traffic, road blocks, one-way streets, no parking.  On LW’s advice, we parked in a hotel garage a block from her place.  Yes, our car stayed in a fancy hotel!  It turned out to be a great logistical arrangement, since we had sleeping bags and snow clothes for the five of us – a considerable amount of gear.  The car was safe from parking tickets and weather.  We could walk or take the Metro to the museums, since LW was not too far from the Mall.

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Walking around LW’s neighborhood, outside her door

I had planned to go to museums the first day with the kids since LW had to work and it would be nice to walk around after our drive. But as luck had it, LW’s meeting was cancelled, and she and Lincoln- who is always ready for a walk- were ready for a walk. We headed out of her apartment building and into the neighborhood.  It was drizzling lightly. We walked on a paved path above a freeway and across from another park. We stayed outside for a while then went back to the apartment. We set up camp in the living room, made dinner, ate, then watched a movie and called it a night.

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Snowy scenes around the neighborhood
The next day there was snow falling when we awoke and predictions were extreme. Things were closed- a mixed blessing for us. LW had the day off! Unfortunately, museums were closed. LW was sanguine on her sudden status as Hostess to the Fantastic Five as we occupied every inch of her living room and contemplated a change in plans. She has extensive experience with the developing world, traveling, and managing government projects so perhaps that is why she didn’t even blink. She made two brief phone calls and the next thing I knew we were heading out in the snow to a wonderfully cozy brunch place called Bread and Chocolate. Wow!  After a great brunch, we went to her gym, which was housed in a fancy hotel and more like a spa with sauna, steam room, and pool.  The kids loved it and we were there for hours.  The kids were especially impressed with the fancy soaps and lotions on hand in the showers and by the mirrors for primping after a swim.

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Spa-like gym – lower picture shows snow on window/roof!

Afterwards, we walked around the area some more.  We made a great dinner, watched another movie, and just enjoyed the apartment and the relaxed, quiet city.  The twins took some pictures of the apartment – it was so different from the Chapel Hill Fabulous family house and they were clearly impressed.  Especially with the bathroom and the elevator!

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The next day, LW had to return to work, but she scored a 2-hour delay!  We got to hang out some more as we packed and hauled our stuff out to the car.  Then we said our goodbyes to LW, Lincoln, and the cozy little clubhouse of the apartment.  We had one more adventure before we had to head back home.


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Walking to the Metro stop, the Metro, Truly with snowball outside the museum

We really only had time for one museum, but I was determined to get to the Mall and go.  We took the – I am not being sarcastic here-stunningly beautiful Metro subway. It is so clean and light, despite being underground.  It is far newer than the NYC and Philly subways we are used to, with lovely tiles and artwork.  I figured out the one-card-per-person system which had confused me and cost me $100 in NYC once.  We decided to ride to save some time and avoid walking the icy sidewalks. We had a nice ride to the Mall and were pleasantly surprised to find the cumbersomely-named Smithsonian Institution National Museum of Natural History was open.  I wanted to get to the Mall hell or high water since we had been in DC almost 48 hours, within walking distance, without getting there!  It occurred to me on the ride over that the opening might have been delayed, but happily that was not the case and we got to business.

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It is a gorgeous building with many floors and exhibits.  We saw the orchids, the ocean area, and a few other things.  A word about lunch: the museum may be free, but the café was far from it – think $6 PB-and-J sandwiches-so plan accordingly.  We shared a snack and planned to eat later on the way home.

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Girls at the powder room of our car’s fancy hotel, the road home

It was time to get the car and go.  We made one stop to use the hotel’s fancy facilities before getting the car and heading home.  We had survived the blizzard Thor and had a delightful time. The roads were fine by the time we left and the snow-covered pines were lovely as we headed North, another splendid trip behind us.  Thanks LW and Lincoln!!!


NC and DC, late Feb-early March, 2015, Part 1

What were we thinking?

I had planned this trip a little haphazardly and allotted for snow, but we were going South for pete’s sake, and I certainly didn’t plan on a blizzard!  The day before we left, there was a 75-car pileup on route 95, the road we take most of the way, due to snow and ice.  Chapel Hill schools had been closed for most of the previous two weeks due to snow. On top of all that, our friends were moving house so even more chaos than usual was guaranteed.  But, as I kept texting Dr. Mama, hell or high water- we were going!

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Carolina sunset as we rolled into town, Fiercely & sisters selfie in the car

Chapel Hill and the Fabulous Family

North Carolina was melting. Prior to our arrival, there had been an unusual amount of snow and the accompanying panic this entails in the South. It was warmer the day we landed, and there were rivers of melted snow everywhere. Dr. Mama was feeling the effects of over two weeks of homebound children, enforced homeschooling if you will, and happy as we came into town.  She had been packing for six weeks, having some painting/minor repairs done in both houses, managing five kids, two cats and the dog, and working at her job as an ER pediatrician.  Dr. Papa and his father Mr. F were on hand when we arrived to the ‘old’ house.


My kids immediately settled into the snowbound vibe in the big, nearly empty house.  There was a snowy yard, 3 pets, lots of echoing rooms, exciting snacks, a functioning screen for movies, a giant bathtub, and, of course, nine kids, aged 4-14.


Cozy does not begin to describe the scene.  Cozy with a big bunch of crazy!  Anyway, that was the old house.  The second day, we moved many boxes to the new house.  We were a fearsome crew, what with the motivated under-tens who were paid for their work loading the van, the formidable septuagenarian Mr. F, Drs. Mama and Papa, and yours truly who has gypsy wanderlust in the blood and a related love of moving.  No joke, I love moving, even if its not me moving.  I love the change in spaces, the physical work and the camraderie, the getting rid of stuff, the new perspective – its hard for me to believe I haven’t personally moved for almost 8 years!  So I get vicarious pleasure from helping other people move.  But I digress.  This was a long day of moving boxes, many to the third floor of the new house where the play room and one bedroom are located.

Many props to Mr. F, an Irish-born font of unstoppable energy.  He is of a rapidly disappearing class of person who has probably worked from sunup to sundown since he could walk and, despite some slowing down and minor problems in his 71-year-old knees, worked harder and longer than any of us.  Fortified by his daily breakfast of a customized oatmeal-root-herb concoction, the man moved boxes, hung framed art, assembled furniture, attached light fixtures, installed a cat door, and did I don’t know what else all day.  Dr. Mama had to make frequent runs to the store for various projects to keep him busy “or else he would start doing things that don’t need to be done” like altering the cabinetry.  I wish I had a good picture of him, but I was too shy to get one, plus he doesn’t slow down much!


Dinner for 13 in the new house!  There is Mr. F in the big white Irish wool sweater sitting with his back to us at the counter. Lacking a dining room table, we ate on the floor “like most of the people in the world” as Dr Mama correctly pointed out!

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moving van!  Unpacking and playing! 

The new neighborhood was very walkable with the kids’ grade school and a small shopping center a few blocks away as well as a paved trail that connects to other trails in the Chapel Hill area.  When the rain stopped and we were at the new house, we took a walk around the area.

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Above – neighborhood and nearby creek. Below – I took these when I went for a run on the path called (I think) Fan Branch Trail. Amazing, well-maintained trail with bridges, tunnels, and signage similar to a highway but for bikes/joggers/etc.

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Museum of Life and Science, Durham

The Fabulous kids did go to school one day, so I took the Fantastics to this museum.  I have written about it before here and here.  The weather was not too great and we really only went to the main building this time, but with the changing exhibits there was still a lot to see at this cool place.

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Interacting with media – “catching” projected images and making music by running around

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Learning about salt at the lab, witchy sisters at a cauldron at a weather exhibit

So we spent a lot of time in both houses, doing various moving-related things and also just hanging out.  We hated to say goodbye, but they were getting back to their routine after many snow days and a move, and we were headed to the nation’s capitol and, more importantly, LW and Lincoln of DC fame.  We learned of Winter Storm Thor as we were headed into it.  What happened next? Stay tuned, tripsters!


The Rockettes, The Renaissance, and a Really Ridiculous Oz – December 2014

We have had a particularly theatrical month. Actually, a lot of it happened over a single week.  The kids went from the stage to the audience and then to another show.  Cleverly was Toto, a Lady from the 1600’s, and had a chorus/dancer role in a teen production – all in a few days!  Let’s start with NYC.




Top: us in front of Radio City. Bottom: just two of the elaborate sets from the show.  Lower R had a moving double-decker bus and lower L a functional ice rink

We did our usual Christmas trip to Manhattan for a day, and this time we saw The Rockettes!  Only the kids kept calling them the Chipettes – if you are blissfully unfamiliar, I envy you.  The Chipettes are female versions of The Chipmunks and they do really annoying renditions of pop songs, think a chorus of Lady Gagas being played too fast and you’ll have the idea.

Anyway, there we were at Radio City Music Hall a week or so before Christmas watching the renowned holiday spectacular.  It was pretty entertaining, what with the glitter, fireworks, floating light balls, full live orchestra, real camels, and of course the singer/dancers themselves.  The American-ness of the event struck me.  It is a specific mix of patriotism, Jesus, and sex that to me typifies mainstream US culture.  In one act, they removed faux winter coats to show their tighter outfits, in another they made a nativity scene.  The audience was exclusively white and noticably on the silver-hair part of life.  The dancers are as precise in their actions as a drill team.  Their are roughly 50 of them in their sparkly leotards, at various times dolls, reindeer, toy soldiers, Santas, candy canes, and other costumes I am forgetting.  We were entertained, and I can check that off the bucket list.  Seems like something you should do at least once.

Yule Feast



clockwise from top R: Our table, part of the feast seen from the balcony, 3 maidens (Fiercely in center with a friend and Cleverly), the balcony

Well, I couldn’t go to Pennsic last July, but I could celebrate Yule in period clothing with the gang.  We borrowed finery from a local group and went to a gorgeous historic building for the evening activities of a day-long SCA event.  We partook in a 5-course period-appropriate meal with other garbed individuals.  It was kind of like a wedding; we didn’t know anyone, were assigned seating with strangers, but made friends pretty easily.  Once you realize everyone there is willing to dress in pre-17th century clothing and geek out on the details of life from that time, certain social conventions are already breached as a group and you just go with it!  We enjoyed some unfamiliar vegetable dishes (leek casserole, red cabbage with currants) and despite our mostly-vegetarianism tried some of the several meat dishes (chicken/apple pie, a large beef roast), and got down with the dessert table (more currants, spice cake, dearth of chocolate!).  A strolling magician came by and did a few tricks for the kids.  Later, there was Renaissance dancing with live musical accompaniment and a “dance master” who was like a square dance “caller” and described the (very simple) dance steps.  It felt a lot like very slow square dancing, it was easy and social and just fun. In a beautiful space with the clothing (much of it handmade), the food and music, it really felt magical.

The Panto of Oz

This was our homeschool theater group’s third panto.  We were in a much larger theater this year, with over twice the number of seats, a giant stage, and a large downstairs cast hang-out area with dressing rooms!!  The kids loved all of this of course, and set about rehearsing and preening like the divas that they are.


The Panto of Oz featured an obnoxious Dorothy (in silver shoes like in the book), her well-known companions, a disgruntled male mandrill, good and bad witches, Santa Clause (who reminded us he was in book 5 of the Oz series) and a chorus of mice/Munchkins/monkeys.  There was also a giant paper maché neon green Oz head that occupied my basement for several months.  Mr. Fantastic played Glinda and Auntie Em, Cleverly was several small roles, Fiercely was Toto, and the twins were in the chorus.  I was in the audience!


Oz head with the bad witch on L, Mr Fantastic as the Wicked Witch of the South (who is angry at being left out of the Oz film) on R

And that is that for now.  A couple of posts coming on other adventures, stay tuned!


I just found this poem

I was reminded yesterday of traveling alone, pre-kids, and looking forward to mail from home.  A poem I had read in the 90’s described the weary feeling- mission accomplished and looking for a small reward- so well.  I thought a peace corps volunteer had written it, but I learned otherwise.

This came about because I recently finished a major project I had worked on for several months.  It was the kind of project that sucks up your energy and free time and offers very little reward upon completion, other than not having to do it any more.  I had a final step where I had to interact with an administrative type for some minor paperwork.  She was completely uninterested and informed me that I needed to wait for a certain piece of paper for closure.  It was so anti-climatic and I was so bone-tired, the poem came to mind.  I searched for a phrase and from the wonders of the internet, there was the poem! I wanted to tuck it in here so I can visit it once in awhile.

                 Maratea Porto: The Dear Postmistress There

I run up the stairs too fast every morning

and panting for mail, I stagger inside

and there she sits wagging a negative finger.

Her frown is etched in and her mouth sour

Niente per voi today.

This is Odysseus. I’ve come a long way.

I’ve beaten a giant, real mean with one eye.

Even the sea. I’ve defeated the water.

But now I’m home, pooped. Where’s Penelope?

Niente per voi today.

My name is Joseph and this, my wife Mary.

We’ve had a long journey and Mary is heavy.

The facts are odd. The child could be holy

and I wonder, have you a room in your inn?

Niente per voi today.

I’m Ghengis Kahn and this is my army.

We’ve conquered your land. Now we want women.

Bring them today at high noon to the square.

After we’ve had them, we’ll get out of here.

Niente per voi today.

I’m Michelangelo, here to make statues.

I’ve lugged this damn marble all the way from the Alps.

I’ll need a large scaffold and plenty of ropes,

a chisel, a mallet, and oodles of wine.

Niente per voi today.

Oh, heroes of time, you’re never a hero

until you’ve endured ten days without mail.

Slaughter the stars and come home in splendor.

She’ll always be there at the end of the trail.

Niente per voi today.

                                             -Richard Hugo

Pennsic Wars and Washington, DC, August 2014

Mr. Fantastic, wearing peasant’s clothes sewn by Fiercely, was calling me from 16th century Europe, sort of.  “It’s amazing! I just met a scrivener from Italy!  There’s a giant castle wall 50 feet from me right now!!  You have to come next year!”

About a year ago, he had seen an unusual formation of canvas tents outside of Pittsburgh, PA.  After a little research, he happened upon The Pennsic Wars and a new Fantastic adventure was born.  How had we not known about this before?  It has been going on for over 40 years!  It is kind of a Renaissance Fair, where you live and act SCA style, for up to two weeks every summer. There are classes and artisans and everyone wears costumes the whole time.  In its 43rd year, it draws thousands annually.  What does it look like?  I had to borrow some internet pics because I’m not there and none of the Fantastics brought a camera!

Per reconnaissance reports from the Fantastic 5 I understand there is a daily newspaper that reported a population of just under 10,000 the other day.  Over 2,000 participated in a war reenactment per Mr. Fantastic.  And yes, dear reader, as you may have guessed I am missing out on this experience because someone has to go to work around here.

addendum: someone showed me this article yesterday by another East Coast first-time Pennsic participant!

As for garb, Fiercely sewed great costumes for the crew, here are Truly, Cleverly, and Really: IMG_2689

But our heroine finds a trip!

Not to be deterred, I noticed a 3-day weekend in my work schedule as this trip was in the planning and immediately schemed a solo trip to DC.  I do not mind at all being left out of some trips if I get my own adventure plus a rendezvous with that rare and coveted beast Free Time!  So, aside from spending time at my job, I went to DC, relaxed, slacked, cooked and cleaned very little, and worked on this blog.  Which reminds me of a quote from a far more dedicated writer than myself, Whoopsie Piggle: “Life as a writer: I sent my family on vacation this morning while I stay home. So I can write about them.”  So I sent them off.  And off I went to the nation’s capital!  And now I write.


How to get to DC without a car?  I love trains, but with the always-limited budget, bus travel is pretty appealing.  There are several large bus companies that go up and down the east coast, some even offer $1 trips if you plan well enough, but this was sorta last minute.  I really like that Sino-pseudo-Greyhound: the Chinatown Bus.  These buses go between NYC, Philly, DC, and Richmond, VA and a few other places that apparently have Chinatowns of their own.  The buses arrive and depart in Chinatown in each city.  Richmond, VA has a Chinatown?  Well, according to a very short Wikipedia entry with multiple quotation marks, Richmond

has a “Chinatown” on a “semi-suburban road” setting on Horsepen Road

So, say Ni Hao and thanks for the great cheap bus service if you’re ever on Horsepen Road in Richmond!  I paid $18 round trip from Philadelphia to DC – $10 there and $8 for the return trip.  I felt like I was cheating someone; I think it costs more in gas and tolls for that trip!  The buses were on time to leave and early to arrive, clean, and they have bathrooms.  Word to the wise: BYO TP because there wasn’t any in the bathrooms.  So maybe its a little unacceptable for the typical traveler, but to me it brought back days of travel in Central America and I didn’t mind.  The bus stations are small and basic, they do have bathrooms with toilet paper BTW.  

Arlington, VA

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Selfie on LW’s balcony, walking around Arlington with Lincoln

My friend LW from Peace Corps Honduras lives outside the “diamond” shape of DC proper but still on the metro line and about 10 minutes from The Mall.  She and her dog Lincoln were gracious hosts and happy to walk me around the neighborhood.  Arlington is a strange mix of what the young and upwardly-mobile want today – high-rise apartment buildings that have the feel of upscale student housing, a farmer’s market, bike share, and big-box stores on walkable city blocks.  At one point, we walked by a strip mall (Crate & Barrel, Barnes & Noble, etc.) that anywhere else would be surrounded by a large parking lot, only there was no parking lot, and this was on a very pedestrian street.  There was also a dog park, not like a fenced field, but a dedicated lot with a special fence,  some type of kitty litter stuff on most of the ground, and a waterfall/water play area designed for the upscale dogs we saw strolling around.

James Hunter Dog Park

Rock Creek, Chevy Chase

So, Link liked the dog park, but what he really loved was jumping into Rock Creek.  We visited Chevy Chase, Maryland and took a long walk next to the creek.  There was a wooded park there perfect for a long walk.  Apparently Rock Creek Park is the largest park inside city limits in the US – 1700 acres-  impressive!  We saw deer, which Link had fun chasing.

Rock Creek Park

Roosevelt Island

If you’re getting the idea that this trip did not involve any museums or historic sights, you are right.  We did a lot of walking and hanging out.  There is a lot of DC outside the Mall, interesting neighborhoods and surprisingly nice parks.  We did get to see a monument at Roosevelt Island, a small car-free island accessible by footbridge in the Potomac with hiking trails and plenty of river access.  We saw kayakers, and plenty of dogs including the joyful, swimming Link.  I didn’t bring my camera, but here are some pics:

It really was a strange place – a sort of hidden monument that most visitors to DC will never see. It seemed to be a popular spot for locals who were jogging, hiking, and walking their dogs.   There were large defunct fountains at the monument, but otherwise the area was maintained.  I wonder how Mr Roosevelt would feel about it.

Adams Morgan/Columbia Heights

We found ourselves in this neighborhood visiting some peace corps friends.  There were a lot of hip-looking shops, at least one bike shop, and Victorian archetecture to make me feel drawn to the area.  Bottom picture is of a faux-historic mews-style condo I liked.  The peace corps folks say there are baleadas here as good as the Honduran ones – we weren’t able to get any that day so clearly I must return!

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And back to Chinatown

The Chinatown neighborhood seemed to be gentrifying as evidenced by the fact that I saw a sleeping drunk and a family of brunching yuppies on the same block.   They have a lovely arch and some good-looking restaurants.  For me, though, it was just about catching the bus back.  This time, with memories of a great weekend in my mind and toilet paper in my pocket.



Chicago, May 2014, part 1

Did we really drive to Chicago to fly kites with an octogenarian uncle?  Why, yes, we did!  We took six days and drove through 5 states and over 2,000 miles to fly kites on the banks of Lake Michigan in the Windy City with Uncle Mike.  We tacked on a couple of side trips along the way and, considering this trip came hot on the heels after Ohio and North Carolina, I believe we hit a family best of 17 days of traveling and over 4,000 miles on the car during 3 road trips in about 5 weeks.  And we parents managed to keep our jobs.  And most of our sanity. Whew!


Truly with a kite, Poppa’s Uncle Mike with Cleverly and his bike and kite string, beautiful Lake Michigan and the lovely Chicago skyline

Our first stop was Painesville, OH to see the grandparents.  Unfortunately, my Dad was in the hospital for unexpected surgery so we visited him there.  We entertained him with stories and kids antics and drawings on the whiteboard.  Happily, he went home later that day and is doing well.  We might have stayed, but he needed rest and quiet – not exactly what we would bring to him, and besides, we had kites to fly!  He understood, and we planned to see him on the way back.

Detroit and lunch with Uncle Paul

Next up was lunch with Poppa’s Uncle Paul.  We crossed the Michigan – or should I say Pure Michigan – border and headed for the Motor City.  We were early, we noticed a thrift store, so of course the thrift store found 6 new customers.  We scored an UNOPENED Harry Potter book on tape – the exact one we were listening to but we were missing several, ok more like half or more, of the 17 cassettes – for 25¢!!  That will go down in the legendary thrift scores to be discussed for years to come.


The restaurant Uncle Paul took us to is worth mentioning.  El Barzon has gourmet Italian AND gourmet Mexican food with cloth napkins, fancy glasses (3 spilled and 1 broken by us) and no kids menu.  I loved it!  It was located in a rough-looking neighborhood and had a gated, guarded parking lot.  Inside was an oasis with a waterfall and outdoor seating, and amazing food.  It reminded me of Honduras or Malawi in a way – such opulence surrounded by harsh urban conditions.

We did not see much of Detroit, unfortunately.  I am very interested, though, in the local phenomena of Motown Studio A, the thriving urban farming scene, Detroit underground music/art, and the access to Canada via the Detroit/Windsor Tunnel and also the Ambassador Bridge.  I wish we had had more time!

Grand Rapids, Michigan

But we were off to see some friends in Grand Rapids.  Every time I hear about this town, it is followed by an exclamation of what a nice small town it is.  I may be influenced by the spectacular weather and our friends – heck, the sketchy neighborhood in Detroit even looked pretty good that day- but it was really beautiful.  The architecture, the tree-lined blocks, the lack of corporate chain drug stores and fast food places downtown, and the public art all impressed me.  Residential streets were as neat as a pin, and also, the town has a proud connection to sculptor/mobilist Alexander Calder as it reminds you on street signs and manhole covers.  That’s the river and Calder’s La Grande Vitesse on the manhole cover below, which can be translated as “the great swiftness” or “the GRAND RAPIDS”!!!  The large, red Calder sculpture is a downtown centerpiece for the town and they are justifiably proud.

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We took a walk from their house to the downtown on a sunny day and found this great playground complete with pre-1990 (as in hardcore, industrial, dangerous, metal) playground equipment used in my childhood before that safety molded plastic crap overtook our playscapes and childhoods… but I digress!  We also saw this great mural, decorative peacocks on a downtown building, and a nice bench.  We spent less than 24 hours there and we were sorry to go, but we were trying to get to Chicago…

Benton Harbor/St Joseph, MI

How did we end up in The Riviera of the Midwest?  We were on the scenic route from Grand Rapids to Chicago, just looking for lunch and trying to catch glimpses of the Great Lake to our west.  These towns looked convenient and larger, like there might be more dining options, plus they are right next to each other and are on the lovely shores of Lake Michigan.  We noticed a lot of pedestrians, beautiful houses, and the Lake in the distance as we drew closer.  Then there were signs about foot traffic due to an unnamed event.  It soon became clear that we had happened upon this.  Well, the pageantry and drama of the 75th Senior-something- Golf blah blah blah were lost on us, however a concurrent event drew us like a magnet.  My friends, I give you… Naschair.

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Yes, we watched tricked-out office chairs propelled by backwards-facing contestants race towards a finish line decked out with an air-inflated arch and hay bales for safety.  The thrill of NASCHAIR!!! Those Michiganers sure are wild-n-crazy.  There were also two other notable attractions: an old Plymouth police car, dutifully documented to later share with my Dad the automobile enthusiast, and an old wooden swing perched on a hill for a thrill.  That’s a carousel building down by the lake, too!  We wanted to get to know Michigan’s riviera more, but Second City beckoned.

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Oh, that’s right, the destination for this trip.  Well, we made it.  We met Uncle Mike and followed the mildly eccentric 80+ year-old kite-flyer as he rode his bike through the city- not an easy task when you are driving a minivan.  He took us to a beautiful spot with excellent wind and we quickly had an airborne kite for each child.  There were a million fuzzy dandelions.  We had crossed a time zone and scored an extra hour!!  And it was my birthday!! What a present – an extra hour and all that blue sky, the lake, the kites – and it got even better!




I posted something on facebook about being in Chicago, then got a phone call from Sylvia Starlight.  I expected to hear ‘happy birthday’ but instead she said ‘where are you?’.  It turns out she, a fellow East Coast Mama and homeschooler, and family were in Chicago, too!  They were downtown, at a hotel with a pool!  Did we want to come and swim? Did we!  After we finished with the kites and made plans to see Uncle Mike in the morning, we headed into the downtown for a serendipitous play date.  I have no photos of the event, but much fun was had.  We were up way too late, and, hmmm, where were we going to stay?  We had been couch surfing thus far and I dreaded to pay for a hotel in the big city.  What did the Fantastics do to save sanity, obtain quality sleeping arrangements, and stay in a frugal budget?  Stay tuned, readers, the answer surprised me!




Chapel Hill, NC, May 2014

It starts happening somewhere in Maryland when you hear “y’all” in a non-sarcastic, non-politically correct kind of way.  And there is at first a mistakable accent, maybe it was on TV or you didn’t hear it right.  It soon becomes unmistakably a southern twang.  You’re still on the east coast, but it is no longer The East Coast.  Gas prices start getting lower.  Also, it starts feeling south, then southern, then you feel you are undoubtedly are in The South.  There are signs for pecans, Bojangles chicken and biscuits, and Virginia.  Once you turn off I-95 and head west on Rt. 85, there is no doubt at all, y’all.

We were off to see the Fabulous Family of Malawi fame.  Fiercely and I had visited them there, then all the kids and I went to see them when they moved to NC about a year ago. They were settled in Chapel Hill and ready to host us for a glorious long weekend.  All together there would be 9 kids, both Drs. Fabulous, a German au pair, and myself.  We lucked out with sunny and warm weather, good-natured kids, and thankfully no car trouble despite this being over 2,000 miles the kids + I put on the car in under 3 weeks with this trip and April’s trip to Ohio so close together.

Durham Museum of Life and Science


This place is over 85 acres, and in addition to the main science building includes wolves, bears, a butterfly house, and multiple outdoor play areas.  It is kind of like a small zoo and an interactive science museum in a large park.  We had been here a few years ago and we’ll likely go again.


Interactive video display – you could “catch” falling colored balls with your shadow on the screen!


Fiercely with a Fabulous twin heading into the insectarium

The weather was great, the kids were enthusiastic, from preschoolers to the teenagers everyone liked something.   There were a lot of things to climb on.

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Then there was a misty playground that was a lot of fun.

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And the butterfly house!

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Chapel Hill Arboretum

This is a part of the college campus in downtown Chapel Hill.  It is like a magical oasis of fields and trees, many of which were flowering.  The official name is the Coker Arboretum, and it is over 100 years old, started by the first Botany professor at the university, Dr Coker.  Mr. and Mrs. Fabulous got engaged here back in the day, grads were taking pictures, there was a little creek and climbing trees…

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There’s a little face in the foliage!!

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Morgan Creek trail

Evidently, this place has a connection to 70’s singer James Taylor.  I know his song about ‘going to Carolina in my mind’ was in my mind during much of the trip, apparently he wrote it after living near Morgan Creek himself.  Lucky for us, this Carolina natural area is accessible by a trail behind the Fabulous’s house.  It was an easy outing, without the usual two minivans we employed to get around.  The kids loved playing with this rope they brought and tied to a tree.  Its the simple things!

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There were also s’mores and tug-of-war in the backyard, a few minor meltdowns, a sleepover party every night, and a great Mama night out for me + Mrs. F. (thanks Mr F.!!) Thank you Fabulouses, thanks Carolina!  We headed back North to our neglected house and poor lonely Mr. Fantastic after being away 11 days in under 3 weeks.  Now we are trying to catch up with laundry, grocery shopping, homeschool projects, and… planning the next trip!

Russia Feb. 2014 – ok, not really

No, we couldn’t actually get to Sochi, but watching the Olympic skiers from the hot tub at the Russian bath house was a pretty sweet alternative.  But it didn’t start out that way, no siree.  Before the Russian experience, there was despair.

Plan A as I envisioned then Googled

Design, Design Kempinski Hotel With Indoor Swimming Pool: Luxurious Look of Relaxing Indoor Pool DesignsPlan B, same, looks great huh?

We had a wonderful Plan A involving a friend’s country house in rural New Jersey and I had visions of writing about the Victorian architecture and the wintry beauty as the children ran around and we ate too much in front of a fireplace.  But with the weather, the long unplowed country driveway was not functional and we had to consider a Plan B.  As the snow began again, I wasn’t too sad about not driving to rural NJ and on an unplowed driveway.  I casted around for an idea and I decided we would stay at a local hotel with a pool and pretend we were somewhere exotic.  We could still get away together for the night, and we could swim despite the raging arctic winter!  The kids added swimsuits to their already-packed bags.  I spent close to two hours on priceline and calling hotel desks with disappointing results: several expensive hotel options, two fairly affordable ones with pools, and none in my price range with a pool and with vacancies.  It was getting later and with great sadness I decided to bail on the whole thing.  

Default Plan – ugh!

The situation was bleak.  The default was staying home surrounded by laundry and other chores, with the leak in my bedroom that is getting closer and closer to my bed since the roofer can’t get to it until the snow is gone…then I remembered the Russian Spa.


The weekend was saved!  Thanks to me (in pink spa sandals), Rafael (with the girls above), and the Russian Spa.

I had heard about the place from a friend during a discussion about alternative things to do on Christmas Day when tree/presents/family are wearing thin, or maybe you don’t celebrate Christmas, and everything is closed.  It turns out, as I learned from Master Russian, that the tradition  of ба́ня – banya (Russian sauna and steam bath) is a wholesome family affair and a viable option, even on December 25, and there is a facility not too far from where I live.  The place we went to charges $35 for the day – but kids under 10 are free!!!!  Fiercely had plans, so it was just myself and five under-10s.  Yes, we managed to pick up two extra girls – sisters with very trusting parents- and off we went.  If you are calculating, that makes me the only fee-paying adult.  I can’t condone their treatment of Pussy Riot or their anti-gay laws, but when it comes to hot tubs, God bless the Russians!

В ба́не помы́лся — за́ново роди́лся.
Washing up in the banya is like being born again.

How can I describe this place?  Well, it was next to a bowling alley and really didn’t look like much from the outside.  I had more than a little trepidation at herding in five children and only paying one fee.  But from the minute we walked in, we were welcomed and set loose – I truly felt we were out of the USA.  The guy at the desk said things like “Are you sure you want to come today?  It’s so crowded” and let us look around a little first.  Here is what we saw.


The place had this Greco-Roman thing going on near the ceiling, complete with “windows” looking onto painted blue skies.  There were plastic tables and chairs around a large pool.  True to the man’s report, the tables were all full and it didn’t look like we would get one.  But no one was in the pool!  Writing this now, it occurs to me that someone more cautious might have questioned this, but after the dashed hopes of a hotel pool and with five excited kids, and me having driven around for over an hour (part of the time lost and nervously phoning Mr. Fantastic at home on the computer for what amounts to poor man’s GPS), we were all like “POOL!! YES!!” and I paid the guy at the desk.  For the record, we did see others use the pool later, I used it myself, but I think most people do not go there for the pool.

I kind of skulked in and looked for a place to unobtrusively place our things – with six of us we had a lot of coats, boots, etc. – and that is when we met Rafael.  He offered us a shelf back by the linens for our gear then suddenly became elated and pointed to a table where some guests were leaving.  Before I could say “the kids don’t really need robes but thank-” he had five small ones at the ready and one for me, too.  He showed us the bins of pink plastic sandals and we all partook.  He gave us a tour of the 2 steam rooms, the sauna, the cold tub, the showers and the main room with pool and hot tubs.  He appeared unfazed that I had so many children with me and naive to the litigiousness of this country as he showed us the different areas of extremes in temperature and said the kids could roam freely.  “They’ll love it!  Kids are comfortable everywhere.” Rafael enthused.  The lax vibe seemed to extend to the clientele because not once did anyone look askance as the kids went from pool to hot tub to sauna.  As someone who has taken my kids at every age from newborn to age 13 to countless adventures like this, I have to say that this is notable.  And welcome.  I began to relax and enjoy myself.


Truly getting into the pool, Cleverly and friend watching the Olympics, the kids swimming, another view of that decorative ceiling thing

В ба́не ве́ник доро́же де́нег.
A bath-broom in the banya is worth more than money.

So with everyone so happy and relaxed, why were people hitting each other with bunches of branches?  let’s consult Master Russian again.

What do you need a venik in the banya for?

Russian family

  © Shchekalev

At Russian banya there are special bath brooms (ве́ник) that are used. These brooms or veniks are bundles of twigs and leafy branches bound together from some kind of tree—usually they are from birch or oak trees. The veniks are dipped into cold water and then smacked briskly all over the body. There is a special person who is responsible for this, called banschik (ба́нщик). But usually people don’t need banschik’s help because groups of friends typically go together and are able to smack each other with veniks.

So there, it’s therapeutic.  Lucky us, a friendly young Russian couple offered their venik to us and we tried it out.  Personally, I enjoyed it, and I know Cleverly had fun smacking me briskly with the branches.  The couple mentioned that the branches are imported from Russia because though the same trees grow here “they aren’t as good”.

So we spent over 5 hours enjoying the banya, the pool and hot tubs, and the people watching (lots of older men, tattooed youth, some hung-over college kids, a few other children, and a couple with an adorable two-month-old), not to mention the Olympics broadcast.  I have to agree that  Ба́ня здоровит, разгово́р весели́т.
The banya makes you healthy, it stimulates conversation.  People were so relaxed and friendly to me and the kids.  My skin felt great.  I loved the hot sauna followed by the pull-chain shower that was cold enough to be icemelt from the Kolka Glacier.  I kept thinking what a better mother and what a better person I could be if I could do this regularly.     What a great day.  Sometimes the best trips are unexpected and local and preceded by disappointment, and that makes found adventure all the better.