Washington, DC, May 2015

We pretended we were somewhere in Southeast Asia. We lugged our bags to the Chinatown bus, took the only remaining seats for 5 which were near the smelly toilet, rode for 3 hours (Cleverly became a de facto doorperson for the loo – “someone’s in there”), and then walked with luggage 1.8 miles across Washington to LW’s place in 90º weather, hooray for us! A few days later we walked back the same way, and it was raining.  We were right near the Capitol, passing crowds of well-dressed, cellphone-tethered professionals whom I’m sure are Very Important.  We were four sweaty minors and myself, all somewhat disheveled and getting ready for a year of international wandering.  We drew stares and some slight smiles from the busy people, who I envied not at all.

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riding the suitcase at the bus station, schlepping around DC

The last time we were in DC, it snowed profusely.  This time, it was hot and muggy. Both times, we were hosted by the intrepid LW, my friend from the Peace Corps and a current Foreign Service Officer who is heading for Haiti in a few months.  We took over her apartment, sightsaw, watched movies, and ate with abandon!

Walking around DC

So many flowers blooming!  Especially roses. The twins were vultures at a playground. The architecture was charming.

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The National Zoo

I had never been here before.  It was smaller than I’d imagined, with a surprisingly nice elephant area that you can walk over on a bridge.  It was a Saturday and extremely crowded.  We went with LW and a Pakastani-French-American family, so there were three languages going on -English, Pashto, and French- in our group at any given time.  We loved the flamingos, the water sprays for cooling off, and the reptile house (even though we briefly lost a kid there!).

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Georgetown boat ride

Who knew you could go on a boat tour on the Potomac from a dock in Georgetown?  LW did, and so we went.  We on the Nightingale II went with this company, though we saw a pirate boat tour and a giant spaceship-looking boat as well.  It was nice to see the statues, the bridges, the planes heading to Dulles, even the Washington Monument from the river.

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Here are the other tour boats we saw: the red pirate one and the big spaceship one.

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Georgetown itself was nice, with a healthy commercial district going on:

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Later, we ate here, since LW and I met in Honduras and we miss the food!!!  Technically, the food was not Honduran but El Salvador is darn close, shares a border even, and we did have tamarind juice, fried platano, and some delicious pupusas.


We also ate again at the brunch paradise, Bread and Chocolate, amazing food and a beautiful day to eat outside!  There’s LW in a rare pic!


And back to Chinatown

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I’m not sure why I don’t have many pics of LW, but here is Lincoln in Cleverly’s hat!!  Thanks, guys!  Maybe see you in Haiti next time!!


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!


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.



Washington, DC, March 2012

I thought I had DC figured out.  We would camp to save money, take public transportation to avoid parking, and go crazy in all those free museums.  Well.  We did camp, and we did go to museums.  We also got a fat speeding ticket from driving after a day wrestling with the bus/subway system.  There are probably travel guides I should have consulted prior to leaving for this trip.  Unfortunately, I travel like I cook, which is to say I eschew others’ advice, follow my whims and opt for adventure- rather than seeking experienced wisdom- with varied results.

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Our campsite at Cherry Hill Park and its climbing tree


I looked into and rejected the state park system.  Cunningham Falls State Park, for instance, looks lovely but is 75 minutes from DC.  That’s quite a commute to the Washington monument. Other state park options, while worthwhile destinations I’m sure, looked equidistant from our nation’s capital.  I looked into two private campgrounds based on proximity to our destination- Cherry Hill Park “The Closest Campground to Washington DC!” and Duncan’s Family Campground – and chose the former since it was a shorter drive for us from home and there were some worrisome comments on tripadvisor about the latter. This article came out two months after our trip and mentions a few other options that might be worth a look.

Cherry Hill Park was acceptable.  Its main drawback is its unfortunate adjacency to a major freeway.  It reminds me of Elwood Blues from the Blues Brothers and his railroad apartment – “how often do the trains go by?” “So often you won’t notice it”. I love that movie.

Hey, you sleaze, my bed!  Jake and Elwood in Elwood’s apartment next to the train.

So we slept with tractor-trailers going by all night.  On the plus side, the March weather was warm and we had no rain.  Also, there were very few occupants at the tent area so the kids could run around freely.  I think whatever you do, recognize that camping and urban travel are not an ideal pair, the camping is more expensive and less woodsy, and transportation will always be an issue. I do maintain, however, that even with the traffic ticket we probably saved money compared to staying in a hotel.  Or at least I tell myself that we did.


Cherry Hill Park boasts a bus stop on the 83 line.  We rode this bus to the subway and transferred once to get to the Mall. This took a little longer (over an hour) and cost more (six tickets adds up!  I think round trip it was close to $40) than I had hoped and we decided to drive the next day.  The park is about 14 miles from the city and driving takes an estimated 30 minutes, but there are always extra challenges like traffic, parking, and confusing streets.  I have a deep love of public transportation, and the DC Metro is clean and has beautifully designed stations but with our numbers and the energetic twins it really was nice to drive after giving the Metro a good try.


The museums

Mr. Fantastic and I are suckers for any type of museum.  Even before having kids, we would tromp around any palatial building or decrepit shack to view anything on display.  We had both been to the DC Mall separately as kids and went several times together before and after having Fiercely.  So we drag the kids to museums regularly, but DC of course is a paradise of museums.  And it can be overwhelming.  One limiting factor is time.  Most museums are open 10-5, which becomes restrictive when you factor in transportation and breaks for meals or rest, both crucial since you are walking long distances with ticking time bombs of need kids.  On the upside, you just can’t go wrong with these places.  Each museum is large, fascinating, welcoming, free, and has clean bathrooms.  We started at the US Botanic Garden with its glorious Conservatory bursting with lush vegetation from every continent.  This was a joy to walk through and the kids felt like they were exploring a jungle.  We saw cacao trees!

Botanic Garden

We also went to The Museum of the American Indian, which had excellent child-friendly interactive exhibits.  We found 2 museums a day to be enough. The second day we went to the old standbys the National Museum of American History and the Air and Space Museum.  Cleverly loved photographing the exhibit on the dresses of the First Ladies and we all loved climbing into the space shuttle and seeing the other aircraft at Air and Space.  In between we hung out on the lawn admiring the cherry trees.

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a first lady dress; Fiercely, Cleverly, Truly and me in front of a cherry tree; Poppa worn out on the lawn. 

We discussed going to the Spy museum which sounds way cool, but they charge for admission and you have to drive there.  Another Mall museum we did make it to was the Natural History Museum.  As a former Biology teacher and forever Bio-nerd, this was my favorite but the kids were not as impressed and it made for frustrating attempts at reading information at the exhibits.  Frankly, the kids outnumber us 2:1 so we try to take their opinions into account within reason.  I got outvoted and we went out on the Mall for a while.

The ticket and my attempt to get out of it

We didn’t find out about this until weeks later.  We were not stopped, rather we received a photo of our car and a citation for speeding on a day in March that corresponded with this trip.  What a dirty trick – these folks must have something to do with the spy museum, maybe we should have gone there. Or maybe we should have taken the damn Metro again.  As it turned out, we had to pay $150 to some faceless, unfeeling entity despite my best efforts.  I sent a letter to the DC traffic gods.  I described our all-American trip with our four children and worked the heterosexual middle class white family angle.  I sounded positively wholesome.  I emphasized how we tried to stay in budget (We camped for god sakes! We brought peanut butter sandwiches for lunch!!) and how we wanted to share our nation’s treasures with the younger generation.  I could hear the star-spangled banner in the background as I crafted my prose.  I enclosed a picture of the kids.  I used an American flag stamp. I crossed my fingers and hoped for at least a reduction in the fine, which seemed large, especially because Poppa remembered an unfair speed trap where we had probably been photographed. This letter-writing method got me out of a traffic ticket in Maryland once and I figured it was worth a try.  But readers, I am sad to say that time went by and I felt hopeful, but my hope was unfounded.  Maybe they debated our case but maybe the beaurocracy in DC moves slowly at every level.  Over a year went by.  Then one day we got an official-looking letter in the mail from the Washington, DC area.  It said nothing about my excellent letter or my adorable kids or our heartwarming patriotism.  What it did say is that we owed them $150.  We paid it and said at least we didn’t pay for an expensive hotel room.  Oh well.  I like to think our money went to those really great museums.