Saturday, February 28, 2009

Bad medicine - by Daddy J

Monument Valley sunset

Extra excitement over the past 24 hours is the addition not only of our third state (Utah) but a whole new Nation - the Navajo have had their own government since 1923 and Monument Valley is all theirs. The guidebooks are full of advice about how to behave appropriately (no staring, no photos, no booze) toward the tribesfolk all hinting at their stand-offish and inscrutable nature. 

It sounded like the perfect challenge for our intrepid young pale face. He's had passersby declaiming his cuteness at every stop, so surely he'd have even these proud people crumpling eventually?

Alas at the crucial moment our superhero's powers appear to have deserted him. A tickly cough and a bit of a temperature have left him sub-dude. Bad medicine? Perhaps. Or maybe he's just trying to tell his crazy parents to stop dragging him out of bed for those freezing dawn photo shoots.

Too Grand?

Better than the real thing, baby 
Extreme strollering

It's odd, but despite its wonder-of-the-world status, I'd never felt a particular pull to visit the Grand Canyon. I think I feared its very grandness. I'm partly talking the 277 mile length and the 10 mile width that make it one of the biggest tourist magnets around. But also the fact that its sheer immensity makes it hard to absorb as a mere visitor. Just as the Paris of Vegas is better than the real thing (see DJ's earlier blog posting), so too is the GC of coffee table books. Somehow those stupendous views need the arbitrary frame of a camera lens to become fathomable.  To this tired Mom at least. Luckily the wonders of digital photography and DJ's click-happy finger mean we have our own photo library of images to help me compute the canyon's vastness. 

This being America, I was also a bit worried that the canyon, which celebrated its 90th birthday as a national park on Thursday, might have been Disneyfied. And there was something of the national-park-as-theme-park about the place: that you could drive the length of the rim taking in the vistas from the numerous viewpoints without ever leaving your SUV made it a little like the Great Outdoors for the physically challenged. (Overheard in one car park: large American man says to equally large American wife, "Just one more in-and-out and we're done.") But for stroller toting parents, the GC was fabulous. A wide, paved pathway along the rim edge made it the perfect baby-friendly destination. Who knew? 

Friday, February 27, 2009

A Grand dawn


Down below the canyon rim 

You'd think seeing sunrise would be the one thing you could count on when travelling with a baby. But it was me who had to get Louis up this morning. He'd woken at 5.30am, had some milk, and then fallen back asleep at 5.55am, five minutes before our alarm was due to go off. I hesitated for a millisecond and then figured dawn over the Grand Canyon was probably on the don't miss list, even for an eight month old. To his credit, Louis was delighted to be up and about so early - until we got to the canyon rim that was. With snow still on the ground and ice under foot it made for - another - chilly outing for him. 

What with all that fresh air - Louis went for his inaugural hike this afternoon, (part way) down into the canyon - the poor boy was sporting the weather beaten cowboy look by this evening. Just in time for his trip into Injun territory tomorrow. 

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Nappy Valley

Hard to do justice to the big GC in photos, but here's a stab at it.

Getting our kicks

On Route 66: The Mother Road
Our wheels 
Fifties Americana

Roadtrip chic aside, it was always going to take a massive dose of Americana to get me in the driving vacation mood. Luckily our first overnight layover at Williams, AZ proved just the ticket. Williams - named after William Williams, an early 19th century explorer said to have trapped beaver in the area - lies bang on Route 66, the old Chicago to LA highway immortalised in countless Hollywood flicks. Fittingly, for a newish Mom, Route 66 is also known as the 'Mother Road'. (And 'America's Main Street'.)

These days Route 66 exists more in tourist souvenir shops than actual asphalt; the highway was superseded by the creation of a new interstate road system that bypassed towns like Williams. Happily for Williams' residents, the town earned its place in the Route 66 hall of fame by being the last to be decommissioned in 1984. 

Visit today, though, and it will feel more like 1954: many of the motels lining the curbside have kept their original neon signage. As had the diner we dragged Louis out to; with its radio dial set permanently to Elvis-esque Fifties classics I half expected the Fonz to saunter in while we were eating our dinner.  

Just as well it was out of season; Williams chockfull of tourists would be a different story. At least the passing throngs - the town lies just 60 miles from the Grand Canyon's southern rim - have thrown a lifeline to the shops along its Main Street, more than can be said about many other US towns these days. One mini moan though: for the light sleepers among you, be warned that bedding down at a motel, albeit a glamorous boutiqueised one carefully selected by DJ to make up for the horrors of Las Vegas, has one big drawback - the passing traffic can make it darn noisy.  

Foreclosure Ground Zero

Louis at the wheel 

Amid the bright lights of the Strip, it's easy to forget that these days Nevada holds another claim to fame besides being home to Las Vegas: Nevada is the epicentre of the sub-prime crisis that triggered the economic meltdown now gripping the world. 

We had barely to pull out of the rental car parking lot to see evidence of the foreclosure crisis. Massive signs invited you to a Las Vegas foreclosed homes auction that very weekend, while boarded up windows and carless driveways on estate after estate told their own story. 

We, too, got a taste of the trials and tribulations of foreclosed America. Our quest for a Wholefoods went awry after the branch we were searching for on a strip mall in the exurbs turned out to have shut up shop long ago. (We could have settled for a Wal-Mart but how would we have squared that with our DC arugula-munching liberal class souls? Especially as we drove past a couple of placard-bearing protesters decrying Wal-Mart's labour standards.) 

Had Louis not been mid mini-meltdown we might have popped in to check out Tesco's Fresh & Easy chain as I'd have been interested to see it. Next time. 

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

On the road

First pitstop - Chloride, AZ

(Note the look: roadtrip chic! As team stylist, I thought we'd better look the part for our first day on the road. Louis was even complimented on his attire by a genuine rancher who got chatting to us, well, to Louis, as DJ swigged an obligatory roadside Coke. He (the rancher) even gave us some classic lines on hearing we were on vacation from Washington. "DC. That's the armpit of the world. There are rattlesnakes out here I'd consider more honorable than the folks in DC." He even managed a dig at the BBC's pro-Palestinian bias. )

Viva Las Vegas - by Daddy J



So it turns out Vegas is the perfect destination for the travel snob. Who knew? You'da thunk that the tacky replicas of the world's wonders would repel the seasoned Grand Tourist, but no. Instead they work like a sort of traveller's IQ test. While others gawp at a vague Parisian theme, your intellectual snob can knowingly clock the mini Musee D'Orsay. Ah yes, he says, the Doge's Palace, I remember it well.

Better than that it turns out the ersatz versions are even better than the real thing. The walk from the Arc de Triomphe to the Eiffel Tower is a mere 50 metres. The Venetian canals smell of cinnamon. And the toilets in Paris are clean and spacious and have seats. More than that, they are hilarious - hidden speakers pipe classic chat up lines ("Is that an eclair in your pocket?; If you were a McDonald's sandwich you'd be a McSexy!") and their French translations. Beat that po-faced Parisians! America rules!

Our very own Vegas Baby

Louis and the slots at the Bellagio

So it turns out that Vegas, USA's party capital, is perfect for babies. Think about it: Sin City never sleeps, and neither do they. Elvis could have written Viva Las Vegas especially for the under-ones with lyrics like: "How I wish that there were more than 24 hours in the day; even if there were 40 more I wouldn't sleep a minute away." Trust Louis to take his words literally. 

Never mind. It meant we were rubbing shoulders with the most dedicated of gamblers come 8 o'clock the next morning. By lunchtime we'd already had a whistlestop tour of the world - Las Vegas style. Paris? Check. New York? Check. Venice, Lake Como and Ancient Rome? Check, check, check. We lingered among the gondoliers at the Venetian so that Louis could catch a show. He loved the backflipping Harlequin and the opera singers in St Mark's Square and they loved him, rather unconventionally coming over to congratulate him on his cuteness after they'd finished performing. 

To be honest, seeing Vegas with a baby probably beat seeing Vegas without one. Having Louis in tow meant we could skip all the Vegas nonsense we didn't fancy. Like walking down the Strip swigging sugary Margaritas from a replica Eiffel Tower, or gambling away our night's hotel budget on the one-arm bandits. Just as well considering I've never even mastered playing a slot machine let alone any other casino games. We didn't even have to splash out on any of the over priced Vegas shows. Then again, with Louis we didn't need to. Walking around with him was like walking around with our own one-baby show: I reckon we could have charged good money every time he treated someone to one of his special new waves or his new crinkly smiles. 

Vegas verse

A young traveller's arrival in Vegas
With doubts does relentlessly plague us.
A five-state motorised ramble
Seems like a bit of a gamble
When Lord knows his father's no Magus.

Friday, February 20, 2009

The Starbucks conundrum

Back when he was easily pleased *

Thank goodness for Peter Mandelson. With one swift expletive-laden outburst, Britain's business secretary has cleared up the Starbucks conundrum that has been bugging me ever since we arrived in the States - the conundrum being whether or not to stoop to a Starbucks' mocha-frappa-cino (or whatever nonsense they sell in the name of coffee). For now that the UK is officially at war with the bully boy of the coffee shop world, I can resume my one-Mom boycott of the tussle-haired green siren. 

(In case you missed it, Mandelson hit out at the Starbucks' chairman, Howard Schultz, after he wrote the British economy off as a basket case on national TV. An irate Mandy, never one for mincing his words, later told a group of British hacks: "Why should I have this guy running down the country? Who the fuck is he? How the hell are they [Starbucks] doing?")

In the UK, the case against Starbucks is cut and dried. Their coffee is lousy and I don't like the way they do business. Hence I avoid their stores. Over here, though, and the waters are a little muddy - a bit like Starbucks' coffee. For starters, its ubiquity - I can think of five within a short stroll of our apartment - can make it hard to avoid, especially for a new Mom desperate for a caffeine shot. Many a time has the call of the green siren proved simply too strong for my sleep-deprived resolve to withstand. Then there's the added complication that even Starbucks' coffee starts to taste pretty good compared with the rest of the dishwater that gets brewed up Stateside. Even the (cafe) creme of the coffee shop chains tend to serve ropy "drip" coffee. 

You have to blame Louis, though, for the real reason why I have succumbed to a Starbucks in my time. Back in the day, when he was but a little baby, he was in love with the Starbucks' lady. I jest not: one glimpse of her flowing locks and he was all smiles. An iced venti frappawhotsit became worth its weight in gold when it cheered him up. Sorry Mandy.

*In the old Blue Peter parlance, that's one I took earlier. 

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Vegas, baby, Vegas!

Route planning

Pity Las Vegas. America's party capital was already hurting from a collapse in visitors before President Obama went and stuck his oar in. Now Sin City is reverberating not to the sound of slot machines but emails pinging back and forth from executives canceling upcoming junkets. The reason? His eminence, the President, has decreed that companies shouldn't squander their cash on boondoggle trips to Las Vegas, especially not ones being funded by Joe Sixpack. 

"You can't go take a trip to Las Vegas, or go down to the Superbowl on the taxpayer's dime," Obama said this week, referring to the banks busy squandering cash from their recent bailouts on cushy breaks. His comments have enraged Las Vegas mayor, Oscar Goodman, who reckons people aren't visiting his city because "the president doesn't want them to". Goldman Sachs (recipient of a $10bn bailout) and Wells Fargo ($25bn bailout) have both pulled the plug on planned trips, compounding the misery caused by 30,000 room cancellations in January and a 11 per cent plunge in visitors in December. 

But help is at hand for the embattled city. Enter Louis, a one-man stimulus package, whose rampant consumerism is single handedly keeping America afloat. (Witness his recent NYC shopping binge.) Our young newspup is planning a two-week roadtrip to the Southwest, kicking off in Las Vegas in defiance of President Obama (his first signs of rebellion: should his Mom be worried?). With the pick of the Strip's hotel rooms, should he stay in a faux Egyptian pyramid or a Disneyfied version of Venice? 

From Vegas, it's on to the Grand Canyon, Monument Valley and Santa Fe. DJ has carefully plotted the trip to take in four states, bumping Louis' state count up to nine, one for each month he'll have been alive by the time he's done. Babieswhobrunch will be taking to the road too, so watch this space for a daily update on Louis' take on Americana at its finest. 

If Obama gets wind of the trip, someone tell him to relax: it isn't US taxpayers' money Louis plans to burn but BBC licence fee payers'. 

Friday, February 13, 2009

Louis takes Manhattan

The Standard hotel 
Louis, his crib and the ESB
Peekaboo bathtime
Actually, who needs a crib?

Manhattan? With a seven month old? Were we nuts? Possibly, but having the Big Apple just three hours away by train was too tantalising to ignore. Granted we could have attempted a slightly more baby-friendly weekend than splurging on The Standard, the new Andre Balazs hotel in the Meatpacking District, but, hey, that might have been dull.

Besides, what's a diaper budget for if not for blowing on a hot new hotel? Especially one dubbed "intimidatingly modish" by Vanity Fair. How better for new parents to kid themselves that having a kid doesn't have to mean not having a life? 

We were excited to see The Standard because it takes the big glass box style of architecture that has become DJ's post-Chicago passion to the next level. Plus it straddles the High Line, an elevated railway line, defunct since 1980, being given a new lease of life from this spring as a park. Our room was amazing. On the shoebox side, to be fair, but brilliantly designed to squeeze in everything including a "peekaboo" bath and shower. (Q: How many other guests actually played peekaboo in their's?) There was even room for Louis' crib, a minimalist grey number. (Although he decided the bed was more comfortable....)

Louis lapped it all up, from his cribside view of the Empire State Building and Saturday night dinner out at BLT Burger in Greenwich Village, to drinks in a Meatpacking wine bar on Sunday and a late lunch on Monday at Pastis, his first stab at sharing "proper food" - Mommy's salad nicoise. He even came away with new togs: some needlecord overalls ("dungarees" in English) and sleeveless puffy gilet from a Eurochic children's shop. In fact, the only negative in his eyes was the temperature, several eye-watering degrees below freezing, which meant he couldn't check out the swings in the Bleecker Street playground. Next time. Provided we win the lottery first. 

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Pulp crucifiction - by Daddy J

Another snobby Euro thing I've been trying to resist - laughing at Americans for being so darn weird. But this was too good an opportunity to miss. Our route back to Orlando airport from Daytona Beach passed right by one of Florida's most exotic theme parks: the Holyland Experience. 

The park holds crucifictions twice daily (we caught the 12.45 showing) and we were able to snatch a few minutes with the Messiah himself after his resurrection.  Turns out he's a genial Canadian called Les who really does look a lot like Jesus. 

On the way there we were as full of quips and one-liners as you'd expect a couple of Brits raised on Monty Python to be, but as so frequently in America, the people we met were disarmingly charming and so passionate about their work (in the case of the actors) and their leisure (the devout tourists) that I started to feel a little sheepish. 

It's not just a Christian thing, on our travels we've met people with similarly strong convictions about Barack Obama, the right to carry a gun, or the inherent virtue of the free market. The point is that Americans just really believe in, well, stuff generally. It seems to me that, beyond the football terrace, the default British attitude is to smirk and take the piss so as not be caught failing after trying too hard. Americans irrespective of politics, religion or ethnicity seem to me to be quite different. Earnest, hard-working, and possessed of some whacky beliefs they are easy to lampoon, but the can-do spirit is not just some kind of national myth in my experience but something real and worthy of admiration.

Daytona - by Daddy J

To Florida for the start of the NASCAR season. These trips out into the "real" America are always anticipated with a mixture of excitement at the adventures in store and trepidation at the cuisine. In general I have no (pickup) truck with Europeans who are snobbish about American culture, but when it comes to feedin' outside the big cities I have decided after exhaustive research that snobbery is the only rational response. 

Visiting the racetrack in Daytona was final confirmation of this - the place is a mecca for racefans and a magnet for the zillions of bucks poured into one of the most reliable ad markets in America: beer-swilling NASCAR man. But there is nowhere to eat. Poor old Juan Pablo Montoya. We spoke to the Colombian driving ace about his transfer from the glamorous world of Formula One. This time last year he would have been quaffing champagne and oysters quayside in Monaco. Daytona has a beachfront promenade of sorts, but the dinner options didnt go much beyond hashbrowns and eggs-over-easy at the (really not very) International House of Pancakes.

(To hear the package we did for Today press here and scroll down to the 08.23 slot.)

Thursday, February 5, 2009

White House Yogi

"Let me just adjust you"
Final relaxation - aka Relaxation! Finally!

Turns out Louis isn't the only high-flying Washingtonian to seek refuge in shavasana when he needs to de-stress. In another top political scoop, babieswhobrunch can reveal that when it all gets a little too much for the top man in the West Wing then he, too, will reach for his yoga mat. 

Yup, unlikely as it sounds Rahm 'Rahmbo' Emmanuel, Obama's brass-balled chief-of-staff is a yoga devotee. Hardly something you'd expect of a man likened to a pit bull by his former employer, Bill Clinton. I imagine Rahmbo prefers to keep his inner yogi under wraps for fear that images of him chanting "Om" might ruin his reputation as one of Washington's sharpest political operators. It's a bit like suggesting Don Corleone was a keen knitter. 

As for whether there might be something in those images of "Ombama"  after all, well, watch this space. BWB has heard that the President is not adverse to the idea of a few sun salutations. Rahmbo is trying to find Obama a window for some classes with his personal Washington guru. Given how beautiful she is, I'd warrant Michelle will also develop a sudden interest in yoga were that to happen. 

Talking of yoga, now that Louis finds downward dog a doddle, he's graduated from the babies' class to the crawlers'. You can find him of a Friday chanting with his chums or, as the picture above shows, helping one of the other Moms with her poses. If Obama does take up yoga Louis could always give him a few tips.