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BACK TO AMERICA

Our May/June 2012 holiday

Contents

  • Introduction
  • Day 1: The Best Boutique Hotel In America
  • Day 2: Fort McHenry
  • Day 3: Two Museums And One Barbeque
  • Day 4: Mount Vernon And Tex-mex
  • Day 5: Great Falls And Air & Space
  • Day 6: Two Museums And Two Presidents
  • Day 7: Gettysburg
  • Day 8: Newseum
  • Day 9: From Maryland To New Jersey
  • Day 10: Ellis Island And Claire Bear
  • Day 11: Central New Jersey Shoreline
  • Day 12: Museum Of Natural History
  • Day 13: Museum Of Art And The Lees
  • Day 14: Empire State And "Jersey Boys"
  • Day 15: Ground Zero And Newark
  • Day 16: Car, Train, Car, Plane
  • Conclusion

  • INTRODUCTION

    "The greatness of America lies not in being more enlightened than any other nation, but rather in her ability to repair her faults."

    "Democracy In America" by Alexis de Tocqueville (1835 & 1840)

    For the last decade and a half, we have taken our main holidays outside the usual haunts of Europe and North America, venturing further afield to locations in Africa, Asia and South America (Australia and New Zealand are still to come). Our last holiday was in Syria where, only a couple of weeks after our departure, a protracted and bloody revolution broke out.

    So this year we decided to return to the United States, a country where we know the language, we have many friends, and they have already had their revolution. For Roger, it was his seventh visit to the States but his first since 2000 while, for Vee, it was her fourth trip to the USA but her first since 1998.

    Of course, since either of us was last in the United States, there has been the trauma of 9/11. Then, the week before our visit, the US Census Bureau revealed that last year for the first time the number of ethnic and minority births exceeded that of white births. So, in all sorts of physical and psychological ways, our return to the USA was a trip to another country.

    We timed the visit to coincide with the Queen's Diamond Jubilee here in Britain, partially because we are republicans (but not Republicans) and partly because the Bank Holiday weekend meant that Roger did not miss too many work meetings.

    For our trips, Roger usually likes to read a book about the country or region being visited and, for this holiday, he read a new book called "Time to Start Thinking: America And The Spectre Of Decline" by Edward Luce [for review click here]. For the first time on holiday, we had a computer with us and we were able to use the iPad to check e-mails and web sites, while Roger was able to write up this account of the trip as we went along.

    DAY 1: THE BEST BOUTIQUE HOTEL IN AMERICA

    On a Thursday, we flew from London's Heathrow airport to Washington's Dulles on a Virgin Atlantic Airbus A340-600 which, despite regular turbulence, went smoothly with us landing 20 minutes early after a flight of seven and a half hours. Immigration control took 40 minutes and involved us having all 10 digits fingerprinted and a photograph taken.

    For the first week of our two week trip, we were staying with our good friends Michael & Laura Grace whom we first met maybe 20 years previously when Roger was working for the main British trade union for telecommunications workers and Mike was working with the American counterpart. Laura used to be a teacher but both the Graces - like us - are now retired. We last met them briefly last year when a cruise that they were on docked for a morning in Dover on the south coast of England and, during the time together, we planned this trip to the States.

    Mike was at Dulles to meet us with his proud possession: a 2000 Chrysler Cherokee Jeep with a big V8 engine but no air conditioning. It took him just over an hour to drive us to his home where Laura was waiting for us.

    They live in a small community called Brinklow which is in Montgomery County in the state of Maryland about midway between Washington and Baltimore. Brinklow is really just a collection of homes with a common zip code because there are no shops or even a post office.

    The Graces have a fabulous house. Mike bought three acres of woodland and had the house built in 1979 and then in 2004 they had the place extended. It now occupies over 4,000 square feet with everything from a fantastic high porch for dinner to a television room with a huge drop down screen and seven speakers. There are five bedrooms, three full bathrooms and a fourth toilet, so we had a suite to ourselves. Outside there is a spacious veranda and a little artificial waterfall with a pond holding koi carp and the whole place is surrounded by beautiful tulip poplar trees.


    The best boutique hotel in America

    If somehow the land and the property could be transported to the outskirts of London where we live, the cost would be literally several million pounds. In the semi-rural environs of Maryland, the cost would 'only' be around three-quarters of a million dollars. We felt as if we were being hosted in the best boutique hotel in America and the Graces showed us wonderful hospitality.

    DAY 2: FORT McHENRY

    We took it easy for our first full day (Friday) in the States so that we could chill out and recover from the jet lag. The main event of the day was a three-hour outing to Baltimore in the Graces' Chrysler Sebring convertible.

    Our destination was a location made famous in the Anglo-American War of 1812. Mike described the conflict as "the forgotten war" for Americans since it is hardly taught in schools - the Americans were beaten by the British and they failed repeatedly to take over British Canada. For the British though, this is a totally unknown war - in effect, it was a side show of the confrontation between Britain and France from 1793 to 1815 usually called the Napoleonic Wars.

    Two years after the Americans declared war on the British, in September 1814 the British burnt down the Capitol and the White House in Washington and went on to lay siege to the town of Baltimore. All that stood between the British fleet and the townsfolk was Fort McHenry on a peninsula jutting out into the Patapsco River.

    Today Fort McHenry is a National Monument and Historic Shrine [click here] and we had an interesting time looking over the location. There is a very good slide show which explains the battle. Amazingly the British launched 1,500 bombs and 700 rockets but the toll in the fort was a mere four dead and 24 wounded. The fort held out, the flag still flew, and the British withdrew.

    What gives the battle a special resonance for the USA is that the attack was witnessed by an American called Francis Scott Key who drafted a four-verse poem about the incident which was soon being sung to the tune of "To Anacreon In Heaven" (actually a British drinking song!) and known as "The Star Spangled Banner". It took 117 years but in 1931 this song was declared the national anthem of the United States.

    At the conclusion of the audio visual presentation at Fort McHenry, the screen rises to reveal a long window overlooking the fort with a flag mast flying the stars and stripes as it would have looked in 1814 (there were 15 stripes although by then there were actually 18 states). The soundtrack plays a rousing rendition of "The Star Spangled Banner" and all visitors stand in pride and gaze at the fluttering flag.


    The origin of America's flag

    Most of the visitors were local schoolchildren and Roger befriended a group of girls aged nine (fourth graders in American terms). They were so intrigued by his accent. He asked them if they had ever travelled outside the United States and one girl proudly declared that she had. When asked where she had visited, she offered "California". Roger then explained that once America had been part of the British Empire but left the Empire after a war. He asked if they knew which war. The one answer offered was "World War Two".

    DAY 3: TWO MUSEUMS AND ONE BARBEQUE

    It was Saturday and in the United States the start of Memorial Day weekend. In America, Memorial Day is the equivalent to Remembrance Sunday in Britain - a day to commemorate those who have died in the service of the country. But, for reasons of season and culture, most Americans treat this as essentially a social occasion - the start of the summer and the opportunity for a major barbecue. Mike and Laura had organised just such a barbecue for that evening and, while they put together the final arrangements, Roger and Vee went off for a trip into Washington.

    Laura drove us the 20-25 minute ride to the nearest Metro station which is Glenmont at the north-west end of the red line. Whereas the British might designate a spot as 'dropping off only', the romantic Americans call such a location 'kiss and ride'.


    Where we were dropped off

    We travelled into town on the metro a total of 10 stops as far as Judiciary Square. Here there is a memorial to fallen police personnel which was decorated with wreaths and notes from family members and we observed the first of the bikers who make up a phenomenon known as 'Rolling Thunder' which is held each memorial Day weekend.


    Memorial in Judiciary Square

    In hot sunshine, we walked the short distance to the Mall to take in a couple of museums that we had not visited before.

    First was the Museum of the American Indian [click here], the 18th of the amazing collection of Smithsonian Institution museums which was only opened in 2004. Visitors start on the fourth floor with a 13 minute audio visual presentation called "Who We Are" before examining sections portraying the culture and traditions of native north, central and southern Americans. An abiding impression is how green and ecological was the American Indian, seeing all of nature as something to be treasured and venerated and with which to live in harmony and balance.

    The second place we visited was the nearby Hershhorn Museum [click here] which displays modern and contemporary art and sculpture. There was an impressive exhibition called "Suprasensorial: Experiments In Light, Color And Space".

    We returned to Mike and Laura in Brinklow for a traditional American-style barbecue as part of the Memorial Day weekend running from around 5.30-10 pm. The Graces had invited five other couples so that there were 14 of us in all and it was a wonderful evening of political and religious discussion ranging from the re-election prospects of President Barack Obama to the religious beliefs of Republican candidate Mitt Romney.

    Outside we started with wet and dry ribs and then moving inside we ate delicious smoked pork and smoked chicken with a variety of salad dishes.


    Vee tucks into Mike's cooking

    DAY 4: MOUNT VERNON AND TEX-MEX

    Sunday was another blazing hot day and - like Fort McHenry - a visit to an historic site concerning the American Revolution which we had not visited before: Mount Vernon, the home of George Washington. In the convertible again, it was a drive of about an hour and a quarter along beautifully scenic parkways.

    Mount Vernon [click here] is located in Virginia by the banks of the Potomac River and was Washington's home from 1754 until his death in 1799 - a period of 45 years during which he increasingly expanded and refurbished it. The visit to the site always begins with the viewing of a film called "We Fight To Be Free" which focuses on the critical battle of Christmas Eve 1776 when the Continental Army was close to collapse but Washington won an unexpected and unlikely victory against the Hessian troops fighting for the British at Trenton [click here]. Then we viewed the house itself which is a delightful building that has been beautifully restored.


    George Washington's home of Mount Vernon

    Besides the house and gardens, there is an incredible amount to see because of the addition in 2006 of a huge centre presenting a series of tableaux of the life of Washington and especially his role as military leader and first president of the new republic. They even have his dentures there - when he became president he only had one tooth left - and among the many things we learned was that when he died he owned a total of 316 slaves (who were soon freed by his widow).

    There are more audio visual presentations, most notably one featuring fake fog and snow and so-called rumble seats. This time the focus is on the Battle for Boston [click here]. Roger and Vee wondered if Mike and Laura were trying to humiliate their British guests because, in all the presentations at Fort McHenry and Mount Vernon, the British are represented as pompous, silly and cruel - which they probably were. By contrast, the representations of Washington portray him as an epitome of bravery, wisdom and virtue.

    Leaving Mount Vernon after a visit of some five hours, we drove into Washington to catch a few monuments before an early dinner with friends. Driving past the Washington Monument (closed since an earthquake the previous year) and the Jefferson Memorial on the tidal basin, we stopped to walk around the extensive Franklin Roosevelt Memorial which has sections for each of his four terms as president - a record length of office which these days is constitutionally impossible. Meanwhile we saw lots and lots of motor bikers who had just finished participating in the Memorial Day weekend event known as "Rolling Thunder"[click here].


    Roger with unemployed workers
    at the Roosevelt Memorial

    Vee with the President's dog
    at the Roosevelt Memorial

    Finally we went to one of the best tex-mex food restaurants in Washington, a place called "Lauriol Plaza" [click here], located on 18th Street near DuPont Circle, where we teamed up with old friends Morty & Florence Bahr. Morty was President of the Communication Workers of America from 1985 to 2005 and Roger first met him around three decades ago through his work for the equivalent union in the UK. Morty and Florence are a remarkable couple, now in their mid 80s but looking so much younger, about to celebrate 67 years of marriage, with two children, four grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren. He is such a remarkable fund of fascinating stories involving many political, business and labour figures.

    The food was terrific. Vee had something called "Camorones Rellenon" which was three broiled jumbo shrimp stuffed with crabmeat, while Roger chose something called "Masitas de Puerto" which was Cuban-style morsels of pork marinated in criolin sauce roasted in Sevillas' bitter orange.

    On the drive back to Brinklow, there was a sudden and heavy thunderstorm with forked lightning - a phenomenon quite common in the Washington area in the hot and humid summer months. The problem was that we were driving in the convertible with the roof down, so a hasty reconfiguration was necessary.

    DAY 5: GREAT FALLS AND AIR & SPACE

    In the USA, today (Monday) was a public holiday (Memorial Day). The plan was to finish the day in Great Falls, Virginia visiting old friends but we also wanted to see the falls themselves and take in a new museum. So we started by driving over to the Maryland side of Great Falls [click here], a journey of around an hour. Again it was really, really hot.

    The falls are located towards the southern end of the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal which was constructed between 1828 and 1850 and based on the Potomac River. At this point, the river narrows considerably which creates a noisy series of falls in which there are half a dozen or so deaths a year. It is a delightfully picturesque setting and the views from the overlook of the crashing water and attendant herons are very stimulating.


    The Great Falls from the Maryland side

    After an hour at the falls, we drove on to our next destination: a new (2003) branch of the National Air and Space Museum located next to Dulles Airport and a companion to the much older, main museum on the Mall in Washington. The official name of the building is the snappily-termed Steven F Udvar-Hazy Center [click here] - it is named after an aviation businessman who donated an unbelievable $60 million to the project There is a magnificent collection of aircraft displayed in a huge, huge hanger in a way that allows both views from walkways above many of the larger craft and from floor level.

    The highlights of this large and fascinating collection are: But there are many more great aircraft ranging from the Hawker Hurricane IIC (the aircraft flown by Vee's father when he was a World War Two night intruder ace) and the Grumman F-14A Tomcat (the aircraft flown by Tom Cruise's character in the film "Top Gun").


    Vee with a Hawker Hurricane IIC

    The aircraft that dropped the first atomic bomb


    The Space Shuttle "Enterprise"

    Finally we drove the short distance from the museum to the town of Great Falls in Virginia where we were all visiting a friend of Roger and Vee from 1982. Jon Shames was then a student at Colgate University who spent a semester in London and he has since had a successful career as an accountant with Ernst & Young where he is now a partner. He is married to Virginia and they have three kids Alyssa, Zach and Sami. We met them all at their beautiful home and had a delicious meal on the veranda: grilled slices of chicken, roasted peppers & various salad dishes followed by blueberry pie, fresh fruit salad & ice cream.

    The journey home from Great Falls to Brinklow involved a few wrong moves and subsequent rapid manoeuvres which Mike termed "dipsy doodles" but caused Roger, in the front passenger seat, to convert to Christianity on several occasions. Back at the house, we were greeted by the incredibly loud and constant calls of tree frogs in the little wood surrounding the house.

    DAY 6: TWO MUSEUMS AND TWO PRESIDENTS

    On Tuesday, Vee decided that she would like a rest day while Roger still wanted to hit the museums, so Laura and Vee drove Roger to the metro at Glenmont and he went into DC alone while they visited nearby Brookside Gardens and returned to Brinklow.

    The short car journey to the metro was broken to visit a delightful store located by the main cross road in a little town called Ashton. It is called "The Cricket Book Shop" [click here], so Roger and Vee immediately thought of the sport cricket and wondered why any American store would have such a name, but cricket in this case refers to the little animal and on the outside of the shop there is a cute painting of a cricket reading a book. The place was established 42 years ago by Mary Jo Wilson and is still in family hands but it no longer specialises in books and is more of a general gift shop. We bought a few little presents and a tie featuring books.


    The book-loving cricket

    Down in Washington, it was another very, very hot day - around 90F. But most of the time Roger was in one of two museums. First was the main branch of the National Air & Space Museum [click here] on the Mall. This is the most visited museum in the world and Roger's favourite on the globe. He had been there many times before so it was a case of looking at the most special exhibits once more and taking in some new things.

    In a sense, the prize exhibit is "The Flyer", the craft in which the Wright brothers made the first heavier than air flight in history in 1903. When Roger first visited Washington in 1970, this hung in the entrance to the Smithsonian Institution; then, when the National Air and Space Museum was opened in 1976, it joined a few other very special aircraft and hung from the ceiling in the atrium; since 2003 - the centenary of the famous first flight - it has had a gallery all to itself.

    Other aircraft to be seen once more included:

    All these famous aircraft always hang in the entrance hall to the museum but a new addition is SpaceShipOne. Other changes Roger noticed were a small section devoted to famous black fliers including the Second World War "Red Tails" and a new section of unmanned aerial vehicles otherwise known as drones.


    "Spirit of St Louis" and Bell X-1
    with (below) SpaceShipOne

    The fastest ever jet aircraft,
    the North American X-15

    On visits to the Air & Space Museum, Roger always likes to take in an IMAX film and on this occasion managed to catch two. The first was "To Fly!" which was the first ever IMAX production offered by the museum. Roger had seen it several times before but it still made the skin on his face tingle. The other film was "Air Racers 3D" which is an account of the annual event at Reno, Nevada which is billed a the fastest race in the world.

    The second museum which Roger visited was another favourite that he had visited several times previously: the National Museum of American History [click here] on the other side of the Mall. On arrival at the museum, he sought some information from an attendant with whom he fell into conversation. Stephen Mambu is from Sierra Leone and plans to run for the presidency of his country in 2017 as the candidate of the opposition National Republic Party. The people one meets.

    The museum houses "The Star Banged Banner" that featured at the Battle of Fort McHenry, the location of which we had visited a couple of days previously, and since 2007 - the centenary of its acquisition by the museum - it has had a special display section of its own. It is a huge flag but not quite as large as it was originally as, since the battle at Fort McHenry, one of the stars and several sections around the edges were cut out as souvenirs.

    Roger spent most of his time in this museum looking around a large section titled "The Price Of Freedom: Americans At War". In fact, Americans have spent a long time at war including the French and Indian War, the War of Independence, the 1812 war with the British, the Civil War, the First World War, the Second World War, Korea, Vietnam, the first Iraq war, the invasion of Afghanistan, and the second Iraq war. So there was a lot to see and a lot to learn. Clearly the recent invasion of Iraq is a sensitive issue since the display explained the cause simply as "because of concerns over Saddam Hussein's regime". No mention of weapons of mass destruction here.

    Early evening, Vee travelled into Washington to join Roger because they had another dinner appointment. The venue was a downtown restaurant called "Art and Soul" [click here] at 415 New Jersey Avenue NW. Our companions were Morty & Florence Bahr - whom we had seen two evenings before - and Morty's successor as President of the Communications Workers of America in 2005: Larry Cohen.

    We have know Larry as long as we have known Morty (around three decades) and, on our last joint visit to the USA, stayed with Larry for a while in his then home in Frenchtown, New Jersey. Larry's seven years as President have been very tough years for the American labour movements which is now down to around 12% of the overall workforce (34% of the public sector but only 7% in the private sector).

    He was worried about the outcome of the forthcoming Wisconsin recall of the Republican Governor in June [a week later the Republican held off the challenge] and even more worried about the outcome of the forthcoming US Presidential election in November. The food was as good as the conversation. Roger had ham wrapped Virginian rabbit followed by Mississippi mud cake and Vee had brown butter roasted skate followed by golden lemon poppy pound cake. As we talked and ate, we had one of those Washington evening thunderstorms when the rain absolutely crashed down.

    DAY 7: GETTYSBURG

    Roger and Vee had never been to a civil war battlefield on their previous trips to the States and Mike and Laura suggested a day trip to Gettysburg National Military Park [click here]. So we spent the whole of Wednesday visiting the battle site which is about an hour and half's drive due north, just over the state line in Pennsylvania.

    Mike is incredibly knowledgeable on the American Civil War (as well as American history and American politics and much else beside), so he gave us an introductory briefing to ensure that we would know who were the good guys and who were the bad guys. The Union was those Northern states - the Yankees - that opposed slavery and fought often in navy blue uniforms, while the Confederacy was those Southern states - the rebels - that wanted to retain slavery and usually fought in grey uniforms.

    As Mike put it, the significance of the war could be represented in a change of language. Before the war, people would say that "the United States are ..."; after the war, they would comment "the United States is ..."

    The battle of Gettysburg [click here] was a decisive conflict of 1-3 July 1863. The Union forces of around 94,000 were led by General George G Meade and constituted the Army of the Potomac, while the Confederate forces of about 72,000 were led by General Robert E Lee and were the known as the Army of Northern Virginia. The number of killed, wounded, captured and missing was around 46,000 - roughly 23,000 on each side - making it the bloodiest engagement of the entire war.


    Roger & Vee with Abraham Lincoln
    outside the Gettysburg Visitors Center

    Mike had borrowed from a friend a CD which we played in the car and presented an audio tour of the 16 main locations in an 18-mile tour of the battlefield. This was a detailed account of the ebb and flow of the battle as first the Confederates almost gained the day before the Union finally won the conflict.

    The crucial incident was something called Pickett's Charge [click here] when 12,500 Confederates were launched at the Union lines and nearly half of them did not return to their own lines. The battle of Gettysburg is generally seen as the turning point of the civil war and its fame was underlined by the famous Gettysburg Address by Abraham Lincoln four and a half months later.

    Half way round, we stopped at a picnic area where Mike and Laura unpacked food and cold drinks and we spotted a woodpecker with the marvellous name yellow-bellied sapsucker. At the end of the tour, we went to the museum shop where Roger bought a book on the Civil War by Bruce Catton and Mike bought him a novel set at the battle of Gettysburg ("The Killer Angels" by Michael Shaara).

    DAY 8: NEWSEUM

    Thursday was our last day with Mike and Laura and in fact we left them at home to go into Washington where we spent the whole day (five hours) in a museum that we have never visited before. It was only in 2008 that the Newseum [click here] opened at its present site on the famous Pennsylvania Avenue. Whereas most of the museums in Washington are owned by the Smithsonian Institution and entry is free, the Newseum is privately owned and entrance is expensive: $22 or £ 14.50. But it is a wonderful place - informative, provocative, interactive and dedicated to free speech.

    On the outside of the building is a huge sculpture setting out the text of the First Amendment to the US Constitution which protects fee speech. Visitors to the museum are encouraged to start in the basement concourse where there is short introductory film and some concrete slabs from the Berlin Wall. Then one is invited to travel to the top floor (Level 6) where the terrace provides a grand view of the east end of Pennsylvania Avenue and the Capitol.


    Roger & Vee with Capitol in background

    We viewed two sections on Level 6. First there is something called the Front Pages Gallery which every day presents that day's front page for a newspaper in each of the 50 states plus others from around the world including our own British newspaper the "Guardian". The second section was particular to the time of our visit which was a presidential election year. It was called "Every Four Years" and showed how media coverage of presidential election campaigns has changed over the years with the present importance of the Internet and social media.

    In a sense, Level 5 is the heart of the museum since it sets out a 500 year history of how news has been presented to the citizenry, starting with the impact of the printing press and concluding with the falling readership of daily newspapers. There are lots and lots of actual newspapers carrying headlines relating to all sorts of historic events from the sinking of the "Titanic" to the first man on the moon, from the attack on Pearl Harbor to the resignation of Richard Nixon.

    Level 4 has a particularly poignant section devoted to the news coverage of 9/11. One whole wall is devoted to the front covers of newspapers around the world reporting on the attack on the World Trade Center and other locations. Key exhibits are the remains of the television antenna from the top of the North Tower, a section of masonry from the part of the Pentagon hit by the third aircraft, and a section of Flight 93 that came down in Pennsylvania.


    How the British "Mirror"
    newspaper reported 9/11

    Remains of the TV antenna
    from the North Tower

    Also on this floor is the First Amendment Gallery which highlights the five freedoms guaranteed to every US citizen by the First Amendment to the Constitution: speech, press, assembly, petition, and religion.

    Level 3 contains the World Press Freedom Map which colour codes each nation in terms of the degree of press freedom as determined each year - it was very up-to-date - by Freedom House [click here]. Another section on the floor is dedicated to those journalists who have been killed in the course of their professional duty. Still another section gives a narrative account of the news as delivered by radio, television and the Internet respectively.

    We had to miss out Level 2 other than the suspended Bell JetRanger helicopter used for news coverage. This floor has sections titled First Dogs (presidents and their canines) and Ethics Center. On Level 1, we only had time to view the "I-Witness" 4-D experience and one of the museum shops. There was just too much to see in one day and it was wonderful to find a museum that celebrates press freedom so comprehensively and boldly.

    Since it was our last evening with Mike & Laura, we took them out for dinner to one of their favourite local restaurants: "Peppino's" at Burtonsville where Roger and Mike debated the American and European concepts of free speech [for a summary of their arguments, click here]. We came home for dessert and coffee and watched several episodes of "The Jon Stewart Show" on the huge television in the Graces' sitting room.

    DAY 9: FROM MARYLAND TO NEW JERSEY

    After a week in Maryland outside Washington, it was time to move on for a week in New Jersey outside New York. So, on Friday morning, Mike drove us to the nearest Amtrak station at Baltimore/Washington International (BWI) and we took the train to Metropark in NJ, a journey of just two and a quarter hours. The weather was rather cooler in Maryland and British-like in New Jersey (mid 70sF).

    We were met by our friend Suzan Cole whom we first knew in 1988 when she did a teacher exchange with a London education unit where Vee was working as an administrator. She is still working as an elementary school teacher and such a lively and gorgeously eccentric person who can talk for the USA (favourite phrase: "Oh, my gosh!").

    In Suzan's Honda Civic, it is a 40 minute drive to Long Branch [click here] where we had stayed with her twice before. Long Branch is a town of some 30,000 located by the Atlantic coast in Monmouth County and famous as the summer retreat of no less than seven US Presidents and the birth place of Bruce Springstein. Suzan's house is located literally next to the railway track and minutes from the railway station, so a constant feature of staying there is the evocative hooting, ringing and chugging of arriving and departing trains.

    Suzan's home is magical. She lives alone but travels extensively and every wall, every surface, every corner of the house is covered with exotic objects purchased or collected from her trips to over 50 countries. Also she has a cockatiel named Rosco who whistles very loudly and almost constantly.

    After catching up with news, we went out for dinner to a neighbourhood restaurant serving traditional American food. "Zachary's" in West Long Branch has a rectangular bar surrounded by bays for eaters and the room has no less than nine high definition television screens positioned so that everyone can see at least one to catch the latest ball game. Roger and Vee both had delicious 10 oz burgers served with steak fries. For dessert, we drove over to Dunkin' Donuts since, as the first Friday in June, it was National Doughnut Day [click here]- no, we didn't know that before either. Burger and donut - how American can you get?!?

    DAY 10: ELLIS ISLAND AND CLAIRE BEAR

    American is a land of immigrants and more immigrants to the United States - something like two-thirds in the early part of the 20th century - passed through Ellis Island than any other facility, so this is an iconic place to visit and Suzan was able to spend Saturday with us going over there. Since Long Branch is in New Jersey, we approached the island from the NJ side of the Hudson River and took the ferry from Liberty State Park.

    The three of us visited Ellis Island in 1998 but this time there were many differences. Above all, the skyline of Manhattan Island, so dramatic from the New Jersey shoreline, no longer features the dominating twin towers of the World Trade Center. Instead the uncompleted One World Trade Center - previously known as Freedom Tower - has the commanding presence. Also, as one approaches the ferry departure point, one comes across a corridor of steel carrying the names of all the New Jersey victims of 9/11.


    Vee & Roger at Liberty State Park
    with Manhattan skyline behind them
    - the Twin Towers now gone
    and One World Trade Center rising

    Ellis Island [click here] itself opened as an immigration processing facility in 1892 and by 1924 had seen 12 million through its doors. On one day (17 April 1907), it welcomed (or in an average of 2% of cases not) 11,747. It closed in 1954 and reopened as a museum in 1990. Around 100 million Americans have some family connection with Ellis Island and there is something called the American Immigrant Wall of Honor outside the building which has an incredible 600,000 names inscribed on its panels.

    The museum is a fascinating insight into the modern history of the USA. We started by attending a short talk by one of the staff followed by a half hour film entitled "Island Of Hope, Island Of Tears" narrated by the actor Gene Hackman. A new and very extensive exhibition of more than 30 galleries is entitled "Journeys: The Peopling Of America 1550-1890" which opened just months before our visit. A further exhibition covering the period 1948 to the present is due to open in the spring of 2013.

    The Great Hall on level 2 is where the immigrants would line up for checking. The large semi-circular windows and a big American flag hanging from each side add to the sense of awe that must have been felt by those tired and anxious immigrants from lands where they had suffered persecution or deprivation.


    The Great Hall at Ellis Island

    Side window in the Great Hall

    The ferry back from Elis Island to Liberty State Park circles and then stops at Liberty Island, the site of the famous Statute of Liberty [click here]. The statue was designed by the Frenchman Auguste Bartholdi and dedicated in 1886 when the island was called Bedloe's Island (it was renamed in 1956). The statue was renovated for the centennial celebrations in 1986 and closed to visitors for three years after the 9/11 attack. Roger and Vee took son Richard to the crown of the statute when he was eight in 1984 but this time we contented ourselves with a view from the ferry.


    Iconic Statute of Liberty

    Suzan has two off-spring and we spent the evening with the family of one of them. Suzan's daughter Shaana is a special needs teacher who lives in Wall Township with husband Kevin and daughter Claire (just eight). Claire is incredibly outgoing and fluent and she and Roger had fun reading to each other alternate chapters of a book about a hamster called Humphrey. Then the six of us went out for a meal at a local restaurant called "Mossuto's". Back at the home briefly, Claire entertained us with her cartwheels.

    DAY 11: CENTRAL NEW JERSEY SHORELINE

    It was Sunday so that Suzan was able to spend another day driving us around and we decided to take a trip south along the central New Jersey shoreline. We were out around seven hours. At first the weather was perfect - warm but not too hot - but later there was rain and even isolated thunderstorms. If one drives due south from from Long Branch hugging the Atlantic coast, one reaches a very thin, 20-mile spit of land called the Barnegat Peninsula that finishes up as Island Beach State Park, so our plan was to take a leisurely drive down there, observing the various townships along the way.

    This is a really pretty corner of the United States and Roger and Vee loved looking at the local housing. By British standards, all the homes are new and large and set in spacious land. The most common style is clapboard in pastel colours with a porch and a veranda. The largest houses often have pillars like a Roman or Grecian residence of old and often the front of the house is decorated with flowers and sports an American flag.

    In the course of the day, we made three main stops.

    First at nearby Asbury Park [click here], we found that the "Garden State Equality Walk 2012" was in progress with gays, lesbians and transgenders marching on foot or riding on floats. It was such a loud and colourful and outrageous display with a great atmosphere of fun and joy. Some of the gays wore tight leather outfits and sported a lot of flesh, while some of the lesbian couples wore pink sashes with their two names on the front and the length of their relationship on the back.


    Gay pride in Asbury Park

    Our second stop was at Ocean Grove [click here] which has a Main Avenue full of delightful gift shops and smart eateries. We bought some presents for relatives and friends and we had a light lunch and drinks (Vee and Suzan had iced coffee) at the "Barbaric Bean Cafe". A short distance from Main Street is a square surrounded by trees called Auditorium Park. In the centre is the Grand Auditorium where organ recitals are held and on the west and north sides of the square during the summer months (like now) are luxury tents where people enjoy being by the ocean.


    Vee & Suzan awaiting lunch in Ocean Grove

    The strip of land leading to the Island Beach State Park [click here] is only a couple of streets wide with water on both sides and the grandest houses have waterways and boats outside them. By now, there was some heavy rain and we could see some thunderstorms ahead, but we ploughed on.

    Even though officially summer had started, it was really quiet with very few people in evidence, so we felt as if we were at the end of the world. Having travelled all that way to the park, we were denied entry by an attendant who offered the highly original excuse of "lightning on the beach". So our third and final stop was just outside the park at a cafe called "Ebby" where we all had drinks and Roger had an ice cream sandwich (ice cream between two cookies).


    Roger enjoying his first ice cream sandwich

    DAY 12: MUSEUM OF NATURAL HISTORY

    It was Monday and all change. Suzan was back at work, so we were on our own, and the weather was much cooler and very wet. As we were now dependent on public transport, we took the train from Long Branch to Penn Station in New York City - a journey of over an hour and half but the chance to do some reading. As the rain was so heavy, we decided that it would have to be a museum day and took a cab to the Natural History Museum on the Upper West Side by Central Park.

    One of the fascinating features of New York City is the varied background of the yellow cab drivers. On this ride, our driver was from Madagascar and he told us that he needs to work 10-12 hours a day to look after his family. He was working uptown on the day of 9/11 and saw the second plane hit the tower. The chaos was so great that it took him seven hours to reach home: "It was some day that day ... Everything stood still ... Then the panic set in".

    We visited the American Museum of Natural History [click here] on our last American trip in 1998 but, in 2000, they opened a major extension called the Rose Center for Earth and Space so, in our five or so hours at the museum, we concentrated on the contents of the Rose Center and took in just a few bits of the original museum.

    The Rose Center features that we viewed were: Fundamentalist Christians would have a real problem with the Rose Center because all the exhibits are predicated on a cosmos created in a Big Bang over 13 billion years ago.


    Roger looks for aliens on planet New York

    The other features of the museum that we managed to take in were:

    We could have spent many more hours in this fascinating museum but we had to take the train back to Long Branch. The evening was enlivened by two utterly different but very American occurrences.

    First, we watched live on television an address by President Barack Obama at a fundraising event at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York City. He was incredibly fluent and charismatic and it seemed to us unthinkable that he could not be elected in November. Only in divided America could such an appealing leader have to fight so hard to be re-elected.

    Second, loud, low-flying helicopters zoomed above us and explosions came from near by. It was not the 'Ride of the Valkyries' sequence from "Apocalypse Now" but it was a US military exercise because earlier in the evening we had an automated telephone call warning us of the event and asking us not to call the local police. Only in paranoid America could such a military operation be necessary in such a small community.

    DAY 13: MUSEUM OF ART AND THE LEES

    It was mostly dry but still quite overcast on Tuesday, so we decided to make it another museum day in New York City. This time, our yellow cab driver was a devout Muslim from Sierra Leone and we spoke to him about the British intervention which brought the civil war there to an end: "I was there throughout the war ... I was just lucky to survive".

    Our destination was the Metropolitan Museum of Art [click here] - popularly known simply as the Met - on the Upper East Side hard by Central Park. Again this is a museum that we have visited before but again there is just so much to see and enjoy. In fact, the whole museum covers two million square metres and contains over two million objects. It is not just a collection of fine paintings and indeed, on this visit, we hardly looked at the paintings.

    First, we toured the rooms titled "Art Of The Arab Lands: Turkey, Iran, Central Asia, And Later South Asia". We love Islamic work and have visited most of the countries from which the exhibits were drawn. Second, we took a guided tour of some of the museum highlights. It was only one hour and focussed on just half a dozen sculptures and paintings but it was so informative and insightful.

    Third, we explored the rooms devoted to Egyptian Art. The Temple of Dendur [click here] - which takes up a whole wing - was being set up for a reception (lucky people) and there is something very special about viewing objects 3,000-3,500 years old. Finally we visited one of the museum stores and made a few purchases. So we were at the Met for around four hours.


    African sculpture

    Chinese sculpture

    In London, one of our dearest friends is Eric Lee, a New Yorker who has spent long periods living in Israel and then Britain. His brother Marty and sister-in-law Marcia - whom we had met once in London - live in New York and we spent this evening with them. They live in a huge complex of some 600 attractive apartments located in the Upper West Side overlooking the Hudson River - the sort of place that would set you back around a million dollars. Their particular apartment was once owned by the champion boxer Rocky Marciano.

    Vee - who loves animals - was delighted to find that Marty and Marcia have a huge, white fluffy dog called Gracie who is half poodle and half golden retriever (making her a goldendoodle). For his part, Roger was pleased to find that Marty makes a mean blood orange martini and that both Marty and Marcia were very happy to talk politics with him. They are both former teachers who are very liberal and they are in anguish about the current state of American politics: "Americans hate the federal goverment ... We have a totally dysfunctional government ... Americans don't want to hear facts".


    Marcia, Marty & Vee on apartment rooftop

    Half poodle. half golden retriever, all Gracie

    For dinner, they took us to a favourite haunt of their's a short walk away past typical brownstone Manhattan buildings. The Italian restaurant was called " 'Cesca" [click here] and the food was excellent. Roger had slow roasted Long Island duck, while Vee chose grilled organic salmon. We would love to have stayed for dessert and more stimulating conversation but at the end of a great evening we had a train to catch back to Long Branch.

    DAY 14: EMPIRE STATE AND "JERSEY BOYS"

    Suzan took Wednesday off work so that she could join us for a day in New York City. Once we reached Penn Station, we stopped at a place that had become Roger and Vee's favourite starting point in the city: "Zaro's Bakery". We Brits had our respective favourite bagels: cinnamon & raisin for Roger and sesame seed with cream cheese for Vee. Then Suzan went off alone to find some theatre tickets and do a little shopping.

    Since the weather was the brightest for several days, we walked over to the Empire State Building [click here] for the highest views of the city now that the World Trade Center no longer exists. We had been there before but the views are so great that it was worth an extra visit. The Empire State was opened in 1931 and the Art Deco building is currently in the process of a $550 million refurbishment.


    The famous Empire State Building

    We bought two senior tickets for $20 each and took one elevator to the 80th floor and another to the 86th floor where an open air observation deck provides fabulous views of Manhattan. Then we paid another $17 a piece to ride up to the 102nd floor where there is a much smaller and enclosed observation deck with even grander views. Visibility was apparently around 15 miles.


    View towards Central Park

    View towards Chrysler Building

    We jumped in a cab to meet Suzan at Times Square. She had obtained tickets for a Broadway show so we rushed several blocks to August Wilson Theatre (sic) where we were just in time for the 2 pm matinee performance of "Jersey Boys" [click here]. The tickets were not cheap: even with 40% off for use on the day, the seats were $60 (about £ 40) each.


    Broadway's August Wilson Theatre

    But it is an excellent show which in 2006 won the Tony Award for Best Musical. It tells the story of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons and, in our performance, Russell Fischer took the lead role. Part or whole of no less than 34 songs are featured and we three knew many of them from our teenage days.

    After the show, we wandered through Times Square and down Broadway savouring the New York atmosphere. You see some crazy things on the streets of the city and in our case these included a man dressed up as Spider Man, a man with large rats running over his head and shoulders, and two women shoplifters with their hands handcuffed behind their backs being bustled into a police car.

    We had a quick look around "Macy's" department store and then ate some dinner at a "TGI Friday" before eventually returning to Long Branch for 9.40 pm after being out almost 12 hours.

    DAY 15: GROUND ZERO AND NEWARK

    It was our last day (Thursday) visiting New York and, as usual, at Penn Station we started with some refreshment. In "Zaro's Bakery", there were no cinnamon & raisin bagels left for Roger so he had the delightfully-named raisin walnut chubbie. We got talking to a staff member on a break. Sunita had a father from India and a mother from Guiana. She worked at the bakery from 6 am to 2 pm and then went to college for the afternoon and evening, so that she normally has only four hours sleep a night.

    On our final day in New York, we wanted to visit Ground Zero and took a cab down there in the hottest weather of our time in the city.

    We started at the Episcopal St Paul's Chapel [click here] which acted as a haven for both the rescue workers at 9/11 and the family and friends of those killed in the attack during the months and years that followed. The church was consecrated in 1776 and attended by George Washington when he became the first president in 1789 and it is the oldest public building in continuous use in Manhattan. Today the chapel houses a fascinating and moving exhibit entitled "Unwavering Spirit: Hope and Healing At Ground Zero".

    To visit Ground Zero currently, one has to obtain (free) entrance tickets from the 9/11 Memorial Preview Site a few blocks away in Vesey Street. Here there are exhibits narrating the disaster and a shop selling related items. At Ground Zero itself, security is tight and there is the usual baggage check, probably because the location is still a huge construction site for the six buildings that will eventually constitute the redeveloped WTC location including One World Trade Center that will rise to 1,776 feet (compared to 1,360 feet for the Twin Towers), making it the tallest building in the United States.


    The progress of One World Trade Center
    at the time of our visit
    - note memorial pool below

    The National September 11 Memorial site [click here] opened on the 10th anniversary of the attacks, just nine months before our visit. It consists of two huge pools set in the footprints of the original towers with 30 foot waterfalls - the largest in North America - cascading into the empty spaces and then into a square void in the centre. The names of the 2,983 men, women and children who died in the attacks of both 11 September 2001 and 26 February 1993 are inscribed in bronze parapets around the two pools. A museum is under construction at the site but was not competed at the time of our visit.


    Roger & Vee at Ground Zero

    National September 11 Memorial

    We visited the original World Trade Center several times in the past and ascended the 110 floors for spectacular views and, in spite of all the news footage of the collapse of the Twin Towers, it was so strange to find them gone without trace and the two pools catch the sense of emptiness at the beating heart of Manhattan today.

    From Ground Zero, we walked east to the South Street Seaport complex [click here]. This is very touristy but there are grand views of Brooklyn Bridge plus air conditioned access to cheap coffee. Later we wandered up to City Hall Park which is surrounded by various municipal buildings including of course City Hall itself.

    At the end the day,we took a cab back to Penn Station passing through some of the most well-known districts of Manhattan: TrBeCa (Triangle Below Canal Street), SoHo (South of Houston Street), Greenwich Village, Chelsea. We had already met one of Suzan's off-spring and it was now time to meet the other. For this, we had to take the train from Penn Station in New York City to Penn Station in Newark (how confusing to have two railway stations with the same name so close to one another). Here we teamed up with Suzan who led us to the restaurant for our gathering.

    Suzan's son - whom we had met on our last stay 12 years ago - is called Cole. He is big and dark and expansive in manner so, since he also has an Italian-American father, one could be forgiven for thinking of him as a character from "The Sopranos". His partner is a sweet Brazilian called Silvia and we were celebrating her obtaining her 10 year green card. We met in the Portuguese quarter of Newark and ate at a Brazilian restaurant called "Boi Na Brasa" [click here]. Cole recommended the speciality of the house and Roger and Vee at least were happy to go along with the idea.

    The 'dish' was called "Picanha Rodizio". After eating as much as one wanted from a salad bar, the meal began in earnest with the arrival of various vegetables followed by repeated visits from waiters with skewers of different cuts of different roast meats. Customers of Rodizio can eat as much as they wish and the waiters just keep coming and coming until you beg them to stop. In the case of both Roger and Vee, this was after seven selections of meal but, in the case of Cole, the feast went on for a incredible eleven and a half options. Yes, this is America where two-thirds of the population is over-weight but, as a one time treat, it was amazing and delicious.

    DAY 16: CAR, TRAIN, CAR, PLANE

    We had found that flying to and from the same destination in the United States was the cheapest option, so we had to return to Washington today (Friday). Suzan drove us to Metropark in New Jersey where we took a train to BWI in Maryland. Mike Grace was there to meet us and drove us to Laura and their home in Brinklow where we had a light lunch and picked up the items we had left behind.

    Then Mike drove us in brilliant sunshine to Dulles. At the airport, Roger found himself in conversation with three members of the Teamsters union who were protesting at the appalling labour practices of Republic Airways which flies commuter and regional routes for the big US airlines.

    Our Virgin Atlantic flight on another Airbus A340-600 was an overnight journey of just under seven hours and we landed at London's Heathrow airport on a chilly morning at 6.30 am local time.

    Back home, there were a couple of surprises for Roger. He found that the Transportation Security Administration of the US Department of Homeland Security had forced open his suitcase at Dulles for a random search - a neat illustration of the trade-off between liberty and security. Also he learned that he had won the lottery - all of £ 10 which will go towards our next holiday.

    CONCLUSION

    This was a very different holiday from many of our recent ones. Instead of travelling in an organised group and staying in hotels, we travelled independently and stayed with friends throughout. We were immensely grateful to Mike & Laura Grace and Suzan Cole for their fantastic hospitality.

    On no less than seven occasions we had dinner with other friends and we took every opportunity to talk to cab drivers and others, so we met quite a few Americans and had lots of interesting chats about history, politics and culture.

    It was a very varied trip which included historical locations like Fort McHenry and Gettysburg, iconic sites like Mount Vernon and the Empire State Building, the unique spot that is Ground Zero, no less than nine museums, and even a Broadway show. And some great food.

    Compared to our previous visit together to the United States 14 years ago, the main difference was that 9/11 had happened, leading to a heightened sense of security. Meanwhile the United States has become even more diverse and the country now has a black president.

    Compared to our last visit, most newspapers are (much) thinner and many Americans are (even) fatter - presenting intellectual and physical challenges respectively.

    The USA still has enormous strengths and great resilience but, as the book "Time To Start Thinking" makes abundantly clear, it now faces many serious economic, social and political challenges and in the medium term its continued pre-eminence as the greatest global power can no longer be taken for granted.

    It was a brilliant holiday and we will not take so long to return to the USA for our next trip.


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