Thursday, April 2, 2009
We spent four days last week in Richmond, Virginia, where I was attending the annual meeting of the American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies (ASECS!). Since Richmond is a relatively easy driving distance from where we live, Tim and N. came along. It was a luxury for me to have them there, though it was a lot of work for Tim, as the jobs of figuring out the city, what to do, and where to eat fell entirely to him while I attended panels and hobnobbed with other dix-huitièmistes. I’ve learned that the key to having an enjoyable academic conference experience is not to attend every session, but to choose panels selectively and be sure to get out of the conference hotel to see the sights; having Tim and N. there forced me to adhere to this.
We’d never been to Richmond despite it being one of the major landmarks on our regular drives up I-95 to D.C. to visit my parents. Now that I’ve been there, I want to learn much more about its history, and I am sure that eventually we will now that we’ve been alerted to it by this visit. It struck us as a strange and fascinating city, and seemed much more Northern than we’d expected, much more akin to Newark or Trenton than to Raleigh, for example.
Tim and N. went to the Children’s Museum of Richmond, the Science Museum of Virginia, the Virginia Aviation Museum, and Maymont Park, a historic house. One afternoon all three of us toured the Virginia State Capitol, designed by Jefferson. Normally we don’t like to be so destination/activity-oriented, but it rained most of our visit, so Tim and N. were driven indoors and couldn’t do as much walking and urban exploring as they would have liked. I’m not convinced that children’s and science museums offer as much explicit learning as they often claim to, but that’s not why we go to them. N. had fun (despite the throngs of screaming school groups), and that was the main goal for us. He really enjoyed the Aviation Museum, which apparently specialized in WWI planes. It amuses me to list to myself the traditional school subjects that his passion for transportation leads to; in this case, starting to understand the physics of flight, how machines work, the history of ideas such as flight, the history of events such as the world wars, the design of objects, etc. But this all arises naturally in the course of looking at and talking about the planes rather than being explicitly taught.
N. is very attentive to the features of buildings, so he is especially engaged by the architecture of urban environments where there are so many striking buildings. There were many gorgeous abandoned Deco buildings near our hotel that caught his eye as we walked to lunch. He loved the soaring rotunda of the Jeffersonian Capitol, especially because it is not visible from the outside. He had asked why there wasn’t a dome as we approached the building (all those trips to D.C. having created the impression that a dome is an indispensible feature of a Capitol), so we were all pleasantly surprised to see that there was one after all, and we admired its loftiness (picture above). N. always enjoys house museums, and at the Maymont House he was especially interested in the kitchen. Even in the car, N. is not a passive passenger but works hard to put together a mental map of the places we go. So, he always pointed out Old City Hall (which seemed to be his favorite building in Richmond) when we drove past it, he was excited by the grand three-story houses on Monument Avenue, and he called out “brownstone!” every time we passed one, because that term was new to him.
As exciting and fun as all these experiences were, one of the highlights of the trip for N. was a quiet hour and a half spent at a coffee shop with his dad. They took a break from the noisy crowd at the Children’s Museum and sat together in a cozy spot on a drizzling day, talking things over, reconnecting to their more usual mode of being in their quiet life at home. Subsequently, every time we passed that coffee shop, N. would point it out to me and tell me how nice it was inside, how lovely the big red lamps were.