So last weekend we went to Bristol to visit ghoti's friend T. We stayed in one of those apartment-hotel places, which was big enough for all five of us, three adults and two children, with a little kitchen and a living room as well as bedrooms.
Saturday we went to the zoo, along with T's youngest, and had a completely brilliant time. Bristol seems to specialize in small primates, which is a good idea as they're really fun to watch but don't need the kind of space that more traditional big zoo animals do. So tamarinds and lorises and aye-ayes and lemurs and a bunch of small monkeys and gibbons. Also a family of gorillas, which are very cool and do have a pretty big area, both indoors and outdoors, as they aren't competing with many other big animals.
I didn't get many good photos of most of the primates; I was using my rather elderly camera's auto settings as with animals you don't have time to carefully set up a shot, and the autofocus was better at seeing the fences and random foregrounded bits of plant than the actual animals. I'm really itching for a camera with non-fiddly manual focus, but I suspect that if I found a modern one of good enough quality to have that feature, it would also have enough better software that I wouldn't need it, the auto-focus would be good enough. Honestly the optics and sensor of my little Canon Powershot are plenty good enough for my purposes, it's mainly the software that is outdated compared to what you can do with modern equipment. I did better with the penguins, at least in part because they aren't behind glass or a wire fence. And penguins are awesome photogenic. So anyway, here are the handful of shots that are not completely irredeemable:
We spent the evening hanging out with T and her husband and her younger two children and some other friends of theirs. There were enough children that they mostly entertained eachother, allowing the adults to chat about boring adult things, like debating my contention that Firefly is let down by having just a bit too much of Joss Whedon's Id evident.
Sunday was T's birthday and we had a really nice lunch party at a Mexican restaurant. They had lots of information about how their cuisine is authentically Mexican and not "Tex-mex" or US style Mexican. They deal with big groups by offering a set menu, with dishes shared between pairs. This combined slightly badly with the number of special dietary requirements, veggie, gluten free, dairy free, etc, but food-wise they managed very well with the diets, even if the organization was imperfect. And extremely nice cocktails.
The party was organized in what I think of as an American style (or at least I've read about it in American contexts but not experienced it much before) with a separate table for the kids and entertainers who organized activities for the children and supervised them eating. It did allow the adults to have a relaxed meal and talk to eachother, which worked especially well as the party combined several different social groups. But it felt a bit strange, I'm used to mixed generation events. And I think it was hard on some of the children to be dumped into a crowd of other kids they didn't necessarily know, and without the support of their parents.
Then we walked back to the station; I thought we had almost too much time but I underestimated how long it takes to walk with two tired small children. Andreas, who had spent most of the weekend not quite coping with being away from home and routine, and not really letting me approach him or talk to him at all, decided he wanted me to carry him when he got too tired to walk. So I said I'd carry him on my shoulders because I reckoned I couldn't walk a mile with a three-year-old in my arms, and in fact he fell asleep on my head. And for the 20 minutes we had left to grab a coffee before catching the train, he was back to being pretty cheerful and affectionate towards me.
This weekend, they all came to visit me in Keele, with Benedict as well as he's now finished his GCSEs. And it was a real treat to have my friends come to me so that I didn't have to travel at all. There's no way I could host five people in my tiny flat, so they all stayed in a hotel in town. We took the day off on Friday and went to Alton Towers. I like theme parks but only a little bit, I generally don't make a positive effort to visit them, unless I happen to be invited by friends. So I hadn't been to Alton Towers before, even though it's really famous and really quite local to me. Anyway it was a really successful trip; on a grey but mostly not actually raining schoolday, the park wasn't too crowded, so we got to spend most of the time having fun and relatively little time queueing.
I like rollercoasters and fast rides, but I don't like big rollercoasters where a lot of the point is to terrify you, especially if they have a lot of dropping from a height. So I carefully calibrated what was going to be fast enough to be fun without being so scary that it was more of an ordeal than a pleasure, and ended up picking Sonic Spinball, a medium-sized coaster where the cars rotate as you go round. That was definitely the right level of scary for me; I nearly chickened out when we were in the queue, partly because it looks more scary when you're standing underneath it. I was glad that the cars rotate, meaning that every rider does some of the steep, fast bits backwards, but they don't exactly spin, I never felt dizzy. I thought about Air which involves being suspended from the track so that you're effectively prone, and decided that was probably too scary for me. And apart from that I went on a flume ride and a runaway train ride, both of which I enjoyed a lot with no feeling of mortal terror at all. And some kids' rides with the little ones, and the excellent pirate ships which just go sedately round a track but which have water cannons so you can shoot the riders in the other ships.
It was a novel experience going to a theme park with young children; the theme park obviously expect it, there's plenty of stuff aimed at kids including a whole area themed on children's TV shows. And really, Judith at 6 was braver than me for most of the medium-scary rides and small rollercoasters I was prepared to try. But it's really intense, the whole thing, there's pretty much no way to get away from the crowds and the noise, and you can't really do things at your own pace at all, you decide you want to do something and then you go and queue for half an hour, and there's no easy way to either change your mind or do the thing you want to do right now. So it felt like the whole day was really hard on Andreas, especially. But actually quite stressy for the adults too, not only cos dealing with unhappy children when you're committed to being in the same not quite comfortable environment all day is itself stressful.
We ended up getting back about an hour later than we'd hoped, mainly because getting out of the park and onto the road took forever. We had allowed for that, just not enough. So I missed my Hebrew teaching, but did get back in time for the Friday night service. I was really pleased that cjwatson and ghoti wanted to come along, especially as it was their first time in a synagogue. After that we went for dinner at Furama palace, where service was very pleasant but really slow, and we ended up eating rather later than would have been ideal after a long and tiring day.
So we made sure that Saturday was much more relaxed, with basically no time pressure, and that was glorious. Everybody got up late, and we congregated in my flat (where six people just about physically fit, if they don't try to move around too much) and took a while to actually get moving. Eventually we made it to the monkey forest to look at the Barbary macaques, adorable tailless monkeys who live in more or less natural conditions in a big enclosed park, they're not like zoo animals even though it is set up for the public to mingle with them. June is their breeding season so there were lots of tiny babies just a few weeks old, who are ridiculously cute. The area with the monkeys is a long way away from the shops and café and toilets, which makes sense but again was a bit tricky with young children. Because it's not a zoo, it's beautifully unpressured. When the kids got impatient we could easily move on and look at "other monkeys", and when they wanted to stop and look, or even just stop and play for a bit, we could do that without getting in other people's way. In fact we ended up spending a very pleasant half hour just sitting by the stream in the less crowded part of the area, less crowded both with human visitors and monkey residents as it's mainly one or two older monkeys who mostly stay at the tops of trees.
And we came back to Keele and played on the bit of grass outside the flat and ate takeaway pizza and had time and energy for a game of Smash Up later in the evening. My dining table folds out to be just about big enough for a gaming table for six, with just about enough space around it for people to sit. Smash Up is an excellent game, it's somewhat like a child-friendly version of Magic, and definitely interesting and strategic enough for adults too.
Sunday we went to church at St Dominic's in Stone, because ghoti has some connections there. It's a very pretty church, Victorian but light and airy, magnificent without being oppressive. I was pretty lost, really, especially since they have a system of two different prayer books with a bunch of assorted cards and leaflets supplementing even that. cjwatson was being super-helpful in showing me where we were up to, but at the same time Judith was being very very cuddly as well as asking me a lot of questions about church-related things. Some of them I just didn't know the answer, some had complicated answers that weren't very suitable for whispering to a curious child while trying not to disrupt the service, such as why it says INRI on the crucifix, especially since Judith is starting to associate "the Jews" with me. Also when we did the sign of peace I realized that my ultimate boss was sitting right behind me, and he did a complete double take to see his well known to be Jewish colleague in church. But generally it was a very nice weekend as interfaith exchange goes.
We had lunch in Weatherspoons because it was easy and we didn't want to make the mistake of spending ages looking for a better place when we were already hungry. Lots of interesting conversation about Christian history, so my education is advancing gradually. And we came back to Keele to play in the pretty bit of the grounds behind the hall for a little while before my friends got on the road.
So two really lovely weekends, which have done a lot to make me feel relaxed and connected and good. I think I never really imagined my life as containing entire weekends planned around "family" activities, in the sense of family that means adults with children. So I'm doing quite a lot of assimilating of new experiences and building new skills, and it hasn't all quite melded together in my mind into something I can articulate usefully.
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