Yes, I know this is ridiculously long, look it’s for me and my mother, not for you, you can skip over it.
Thursday, August 16
On Thursday, we bade a tearful farewell to Chicago (well, I was tearful, the others seemed to bear up fine) and had a relatively pain free journey to New York and a dull wait in JFK before catching our 50 minute flight to Burlington, Vermont. We went to Vermont to see my school friend J and her American (exotic!) husband P and their two children. P was waiting to meet us at the airport and this announced the beginning of the Rolls Royce service that they put on for the duration of our stay.
I have been in Burlington three times now which makes it the place in America I have visited most. I love it. A friend of mine has a theory that when people go on holidays they like places to be like home. Certainly Burlington is a lot like Cork only smaller and American. After Chicago, Vermont seemed very rural and pleasantly so. Our friends live in a lovely big house (very big when you consider that nine of us fitted there comfortably) within easy walking distance of the town centre. I fell in love with their house and I covet it. It was built in the 1920s and it has colonial ambitions including a sweeping staircase over three floors (even the staircase to the basement was mildly sweeping). They have more space than they really know what to do with. As well as our bedroom, we had a guest sitting room; a lovely sunny room overlooking the garden. And there is a huge attic bedroom upstairs that they haven’t bothered to do anything with as they don’t need it. Their four sofas are almost unnoticeable in this enormous house and they need lots more furniture. They have beautiful wooden floors everywhere and the bathrooms all have the gorgeous original tiling. It is a wonderful place to live and it was pretty good to visit too.
On arrival, we gave J the full page article about her first cousin the Pulitzer prize winner which we had carefully saved from the Irish Times earlier in the month. “You think I haven’t been sent this already?” she asked in astonishment. J comes from an extraordinarily talented family. Her mother is one of six, five sisters and a brother and they all were very clever and sporty and have very clever and interesting children. Frankly, I think the Pulitzer prize winner should abandon the journalism and write a bit about her own family. I always felt that J becoming a consultant heart surgeon in her early 30s was an amazing achievement but with the maths geniuses and the millionaire businesswoman and so on among the crop of cousins, it’s hard work to come out on top. Though if the Pulitzer prize winner becomes secretary of state eventually she will definitely win the cousin one upmanship game. J was driving down to NY at the end of the month to watch the tennis with her mother and various aunts arriving from Ireland and they were all going to stay with her aunt (the prize winner’s mother) and J was determinedly reading herself up on all relevant issues to keep her end up over dinner conversations.
Friday August 17
Once our children had finished torturing our hosts’ young children and tossing their toys around the house (it’s hard to mess up a big house we discovered) we walked into town a 15 minute journey unless you are accompanied by a grumpy four year old who can make it last 50 minutes. The weather was lovely, unseasonably cool but not overcast. I love the clapboard houses in Burlington and the views over the lake as you walk in. We passed the house where Calvin Coolidge married his wife (is Calvin Coolidge Vermont’s only president? No Dorothy Parker type quips please). When we finally got into town we sat in the first café we came to and the Princess demanded snails. How we laughed; you can’t get snails in America! Which just shows what we know because there were snails on the menu there and in another local establishment as well. The Princess chewed smugly through six.
Then, on the pedestrian main street, we picked up an Obama 08 bumper sticker from a crowded table. I told the faithful I would put it on our car but now Mr. Waffle says I can only put it on with blu-tack as they reduce cars’ resale value. Still, he gave them 5 dollars which will doubtless see Obama elected. A sole Republican sat alone and unloved trying to get signatures for Mr. Giuliani. It was obviously not the day that all the rural Republican Vermonters hit town and the tattooed, hippie townsfolk didn’t seem to think much of Mr. Republican. We went on to the local supermarket which was very right on and had loads of lovely local produce and where I was made to feel very guilty of taking a plastic bag instead of a paper one. Shades of home. It was great. Mind you, J&P do a lot of their shopping there and I can see why they may be the only people on the planet who have a larger weekly shopping bill than we do. All that delicious, local, organic food isn’t cheap.
We spent the afternoon back at the house playing with the family dog. I had been a little worried about Drexel who has been J’s dog for years and years. He is a large black mongrel who used to be very jumpy. My children are scared of dogs. I needn’t have worried, age has calmed him and the children loved him and he is now used to the kind of abuse that small children like to inflict on dogs. It makes me more determined than ever that we must get a pet. It was wonderful to see the Princess overcoming her fear of dogs and throwing balls and rolling in the grass with this dog who was somewhat larger than she was. The boys were somewhat less brave, Daniel working himself up to patting Drexel occasionally but Michael always losing his nerve at the last moment. But the great thing was that they were transfixed by him. They would stand on the porch looking at him in awe, too fascinated to walk away but too scared to go any closer. Meanwhile, I lay in the hammock. Every morning their first words were Drex, Drex, doggy. Fantastic.
Saturday, August 18
Alas, J was on call for the weekend but P was not so we were all able to go to Shelburne Farms with the children. This was an excellent expedition. I was struck by how successfully elements which I have come across many, many times before were combined. Mind you, the farm buildings are quite spectacular. As we all drove out there in the hay wagon, the Princess thought it was a fairy castle. It was “created in 1886 by William Seward and Lila Vanderbilt Webb as a model agricultural estate” and guess where the money for that venture came from. It was essentially a petting farm but it was really well done. There were beautiful, friendly American teenagers everywhere to introduce you to the animals and show you how and where to pat them and tell you about them and their habits. There were little tractors to ride around in for the youngest children. The animals were all clearly well cared for and seemed happy with the attention. The children could look for eggs in the hen coop. The Princess with her new found courage around animals milked a very patient cow. And then we all had a picnic lunch at the little tables outside. It was perfect in every way for small children and pretty good fun for the adults too.
In the afternoon, the Princess and I skipped into town on our own and the Princess climbed every rock on Church Street (these are put there to torture the parents of small children). We were working our way up to the Ben and Jerry’s outlet at the top of Church Street where we were encouraged to support Ben & Jerry’s and buy local. Not a slogan that they can use in Singapore, I suspect. However, the Princess was distracted by a crepe seller and would not be persuaded away from her chocolate crepe; still that was buying local too, I suppose and we did meet some other locals. One of them was an all-American man with his wife and three daughters. We got chatting and it turned out that he was French but his family had moved to Tennessee when he was 12. Very odd. He attempted to speak to the Princess in French but she was having none of it; she turned against French in America, see, the problems of la francophonie are, in fact, all caused by American imperialism.
We went home by taxi because I couldn’t quite face carrying the Princess all the way back. The taxi driver picked up another fare as well, a couple of Quebecois down for a bit of shopping. I was surprised how poor their English was and how readily they lapsed into French with us. As the Princess maintained a mutinous murmur of “no French”, “no French” for the duration of the trip home, they must have felt that all their linguistic issues had been brought South of the border. The taxi driver was somewhat confused by the linguistic regime and the Princess’s imperious instruction that he bring her to North State Street between Ohio and Grand.
That night, Mr. Waffle and I went out to dinner and our kind hosts babysat and town was full of Quebecois. We went to a bistro. What with the Belgian style cooking and décor and everyone speaking French, it was like a home from home. Our waitress explained that there were a lot of Canadians because the Canadian dollar is strong. Nope, the American dollar is weak, admit it. Though, mind you, my credit card bill is still hefty. Alas.
Sunday, August 19
The next day we actually made it to Ben & Jerry’s and then let all five children disport themselves in the fountain at the top of Church Street. After this excitement, the afternoon spent by the side of the country club pool could only be a disappointment. Our friends are members of two (!) country clubs, one for tennis and one for golf. If only they weren’t both doctors working weekends and 12 hour days, they might get to use them. We decided that we would make it our mission to help them get value for their membership – though J was able to join us for the afternoon as, very considerately, no one had a heart attack. There was a great kiddie pool and all of the children loved it. I did have some concerns about the lifeguard who was watching out for our well being. She was one of the seemingly inexhaustible supply of pretty American teenagers available. Unfortunately, she did have a broken foot which made me feel that she might not be able to limp down from her post in time to save any of us from drowning.
Since J&P were going to give us their enormous car for the week – apparently, they don’t use it much because it’s environmentally unfriendly and they like to walk to work (I think it might be a bad buy) – it was decided that I would test drive it home. That was alarming. It was huge and automatic. For the first time in our entire acquaintance J manifested a twinge of irritation. “You’re going too fast and you’re too close to the cars on this side”. That was after I had forgotten that automatic cars only need one foot to stop and the screeching to a halt and tossing around all the children in the back was probably unnecessary. Certainly 7 people looked at me balefully from their various seats in the car and 5 of them started to whimper. But, you’ll be pleased to hear, I mastered it – well, we’re all still alive, aren’t we?