Two important dates

September holds two important dates. One, which shall live in infamy, is the anniversary (the 9th this year) of the 9/11 attacks, of course, in New York but crucially for us also in D.C.

America remembers (click to enlarge) We marked this September 11th by making a trip to the Memorial at the site of the Pentagon attack, opened only two years ago. It was a strange sensation to look back across the highway at the tall buildings of Crystal City, where we lived with John for three months in the back part of 2009.

Unlike at Ground Zero, where there is nothing left to help visualise what actually happened that fateful day, only a relatively small part of the sprawling, low-rise Pentagon was destroyed, and the section has since been fully rebuilt. The memorial helps visitors to understand what happened by incorporating metal lines which show the direction from which the plane flew into the building.

In the memorial (click to enlarge) The design is pregnant with symbolism, with a line heading towards the building for each year of birth of one or more of the 184 victims. Along these are arranged a kind of ‘flying’ memorial bench for each person who died. Those that face away from the building represent those killed inside the Pentagon, and those that face towards it indicate the people who died on Flight 77.

The most deeply affecting were the several children who perished on the plane, separated from the other victims by a couple of decades of empty space.

I don’t really know what to add, but it felt important to me to be there that day. I can imagine having a similar experience before too long on top of the new WTC1, where I stood back in 1994.
Then 15th September, in what will hopefully be a positive moment for the USA (I flatter myself ;-)) is a year to the day since Karen & I stepped out into a balmy evening at Dulles Airport for the first time, starting our American adventure.

Well, we’ve certainly had some major setbacks in this first year, which do overshadow it to some extent – our baby that wasn’t, and then the financial burden that accompanied it (God bless the NHS!).

Still, looking back I can’t help but think we have a lot to be grateful for – the love and support of my ‘family-in-law’ ;-), employment x 2 from some unexpected sources (France and Slovakia), a fabulous two month stay in Slovakia, a lovely apartment, actual summer (!!), and a fascinating land to explore in our *new wheels* :-D

As for the fascinating land part, I’m really enjoying whenever we get to go and explore, but then looking back, every day has been an exploration of sorts. I will continue Mr Cooke’s legacy! You guys are on notice – the British reinvasion of Virginia has begun!

For any readers who we’ve gathered since our arrival, you can look back on the beginning of this great journey by clicking here.

We celebrated the occasion by inviting some new friends from GraceChurch of Alexandria out for fish & chips (what else?!) at an Irish ‘chipper’ in Old Town (close enough, I guess!). We had a fun time, and the food wasn’t bad either. I guess our national dish is just one of those inimitable foods – you can cook battered fish and some kind of chips anywhere on earth, but it never quite adds up to
fish & chips!

Here’s to a great second year in the USA,

August recap

August was a nice and varied month. We spent ten days in New Mexico seeing Karen’s Mom and Dad, attending her ten year high school reunion, and then had a couple of days relaxation in Taos, to the north of the state. With holidays at a premium, this was really only made possible by both of our jobs being so mobile.

Karen & Mom in Taos A classic case was when we got stuck overnight in the airport in Minneapolis, Minnesota (see map) due a combination of mechanical failure and a major electrical storm, which also made it impossible for our intended pilot to make it in on another flight.

Minneapolis, MN We had intended to work the following day, though that was looking impossible with literally no sleep. In any case, with four hours to kill, we decided to set up shop in McDonalds and at least try and get some work done. I was even able to translate a one sentence request on my iPhone e-mail while waiting on the plane!

Sorry to be such a gloater to my dear afflicted audience in the UK, but the weather throughout August has continued to be great. In fact, I can now say without a doubt that I’ve never owned so many shorts in my life. I haven’t worn jeans since about April! At the same time, conditions continue to be extremely humid, and I’m half looking forward to the cold weather. New Mexico was certainly a welcome respite for us!

Bone dry - the Rio Grande gorge One unusual part of living in our subtropical Virginia climate is that you see some weird and wonderful insect life. One of the more attractive examples I saw for the first time recently was fireflies, a naturally luminescent flying beetle which come out at dusk.

In the last ten days, we’ve both bought a new car – WAHOO! – and I’ve taken and passed the necessary tests to obtain my Virginia driver’s license. I really wish I’d lived here when I was 17, taking all those driving lessons, spending untold money, and failing twice! I suppose you might argue that it was pretty elementary and superficial here (only five minutes long), but on the other hand the strictness of the test in the UK has become pretty ridiculous, as I’m sure my brother will happily tell you!

So there we go, I’m finally in possession the official common form of US ID – no more reason to confuse all those poor checkout workers and bouncers with my weird and wonderful driving licence and its strangely-formatted dates! (though it is a good laugh ;-)

Just after I passed, we had a fun ole time trying to reach Karen’s brother John at a downtown Arlington restaurant. The exit (junction) we chose was just south of the Pentagon, and the signage is just appalling. We went round and round in a loop three times, attempting to find a particular road. Finally, we just had to cut our losses and go home!

Strangely the GPS on the iPhone wasn’t much use, and several people later informed me that the Department Of Defense uses some kind of scrambling equipment to stop it being too accurate in such a sensitive location. I wonder if they are worried about being invaded by the Taliban in their SUVs :-)

OK, well that was our month. We’d love to hear from you!

Mark & Karen xx

No labo(u)r for the wicked!

i95 Dear all,

As I write this, we are speeding our way down I-95 on our first trip on our own set of wheels. Yep! We have finally joined the great American automotive tradition after an at times difficult and frustrating nine months on foot.

We’ve certainly survived; provided you live in an urban centre, you can get by OK walking to a couple of stores. Our neighbourhood of Landmark is certainly good for that. Still, such trips can mean an hour of heavy-laden walking, and God forbid if you want to pop around various spots on one trip! In the end, it all adds up to not a whole lot of fun, so we decided to take the plunge:

Our new Nissan Almera
With that, today we’re starting our ‘self-powered’ exploration of this extraordinarily diverse nation. I feel, in a way, like I’ve joined the club or something. It’s at once a cliché and the truth that Americans stand out for their ‘can-do’ spirit, and to me a prime example is how they think nothing of driving many hundreds or even thousands of miles. We in England are sometimes a bit hemmed in by our island mentality (and a little bit of water, of course!).

Our first trip is south about 100 miles for a bank holiday (Labor Day) day trip to Richmond, Virginia, our state capital city. This will also be our first trip into “the South” since we arrived, which is as big a deal over here as the North/South rivalry in the UK. Geographically, we live in the south (south of the Mason-Dixon line), though culturally and politically Northern Virginia is very much part of the North, identifying more with Washington, D.C., over the river.

We’re getting nearby now, so I’ll let you know our impressions later.
Well, we had a fun afternoon. Top of the list was the Capitol Building of the State of Virginia, the main part of which was finished in 1788, making it far older than the rebuilt US Capitol in D.C (sorry for that one guys!). This is where the state’s bicameral state government sits, with an upper and lower chamber (Senate and House) that works very similarly to the national congress in Washington.

The Virginia State Capitol We were impressed with the great guided tour we received, which actually lasted longer and was more in-depth than the one in D.C. back in May. Afterwards, they just left us to our own devices and told us we could look around as long as the building remained open. In Washington, we were pretty much route-marched around the building. I suspect though that a lot of this added security has come as a direct result of 9/11 – sad times.

After that, we walked to the James River, named after James I, as is Jamestown (the first colony). There you can see the remains of several bridges destroyed as the confederate forces beat a hasty retreat south from Richmond, their capital, in the civil war.

Click for a version that's much easier to see!
I know little of this defining episode in US history, especially as I’m starting from scratch with the Revolutionary War (the War of Independence, as we call it), but I’m looking forward to visiting some of the many battle sites in future with a certain parent who I think will appreciate it!
 Us in Richmond
Finally we topped off the day with some homemade ice cream in the city’s historic Carytown district – and what a topping it was!

Mark & Karen xx

A ray of light

Hey everyone,

Good news this week – we could do with some of that. This little bundle of joy is Lucy!

Curiosity We adopted her at the end of June, and she divides her blessed day between running around the house at about a thousand miles an hour and sleeping like a little angel in our laps.

In fact, we were enjoying having her so much that we now have a second, by the name of Ricky (see below).
 Visit to the doctor Karen had several as a kid and has been desperate ever since – through years of apartments that didn’t allow it – to have another, so she is catatonic ;-)

I’ve never had or really wanted a pet before, though cats really are a whole lot of fun. The only problem is concentrating while they run around my desk. I’m now using cat-assisted translation!

Our cat siblings seem to be mostly getting on well, except for a few brother-sister tiffs. I guess Lucy is just taking a little while to get used to a new friend after having free reign for three weeks.

Anyway, time to sign off. Hope everyone is enjoying some summer sun, wherever you may be.

Mark, Karen, Lucy & Ricky x

A difficult month

Dear all,

As many of you will no doubt be aware,this month we received some very sad news. At our second pregnancy checkup, back in June, Doctors were unable to find the baby’s heartbeat, which is normally possible at that stage.

After tests, it was revealed that there was actually no baby, we had fallen victim to a incredibly rare condition (1 in 1000) known as a molar pregnancy. What this means in essence is that the fertilised egg contains no genetic material, and that the placenta grows pathologically and out of control.

Looking back on it, I can remember what an unspeakable shock it all was – I mean who even knew that such a thing existed?! To have gone through three months of pregnancy only to have all hopes, joys and expectations removed at a stroke has been terribly hard – especially on Karen, I know.

Karen underwent a procedure to remove it a month ago today, and I’m very relieved to say is recovering as expected.

We’d just like to take this chance to thank everyone for being so supportive and sympathetic as we grappled with the whys and wherefores of this whole bizarre turn of events.

Sadly, on top of this ordeal, we are also under advice not to try again for a whole year while they monitor Karen’s health. We’re both obviously desperately disappointed, but of course her wellbeing is number one, and we’re looking forward to the day when we will again have happy news to share with you all.

Mark & Karen xx

May-time madness

May has been a busy and fun month, with the family descending on us for their first trip to see us in our new surroundings. With that, it was finally time to hit some of the major sights that we’d been saving up since September. I guess we managed to make it through pretty much the whole shopping list: the Jefferson and Lincoln Memorials, a tour of the Capitol Building, going up the Washington Monument (the obelisk), a couple of the major museums – Air and Space for Dad and Natural History for Peter, and last but not least, the White House (only from outside this time).

Click to enlarge I have to say that I’m in a very privileged location to be have all this on my doorstep. There’s a lot of history here, and my knowledge is sorely lacking. It seems the British educational establishment is still fighting to brush this whole ‘unfortunate episode’ under the carpet.. Here we are visiting Mount Vernon, the home of George Washington.

Click to enlarge Thankfully we also had enough time to chill some and show them the more relaxing, mundane side of life here. In many ways, this is my favourite part of being here – weird road layouts, the products in the supermarkets, lots of ‘culinary discovery’!

One of these activities was to plant our little balcony garden, which so far counts a flowering gardenia bush, fledgling tomato plant with one green tomato, and some delicious home-grown basil and mint. It’s the small things that really make the difference…

Click to enlarge We only left the area once for a day excursion to the Shenandoah National Park, famous for its Skyline Drive – a road which wends its way along the crest of the Blue Ridge Mountains in the West of the state at heights of up to 3680 ft. It was very picturesque in the sun, and we were even lucky enough to see a couple of black bears (thankfully from in the car!) and half a dozen deer.

Click to enlarge In all, I drove over 300 miles that day. Still, I find I’m enjoying driving on the wrong ;-) side of the road. The hardest part so far has been getting used to automatics. I find my left foot gets jealous at being left out, though it’s slowly getting used to retirement! We’ll certainly miss the hire car. Life without one here is hard – as me and Peter discovered when we were refused service attempting to walk through a McDonalds drive-thru late at night!

In all seriousness though, it’s great being able to go out at a moment’s notice or just see where the wind takes you. Walking over a motorway junction to get somewhere is not fun!

The highlight of the holiday was Mum’s 60th birthday and Mum & Dad’s 36th wedding anniversary, which we celebrated with a nighttime dinner cruise on the Potomac River – verrray swish!!

Click to enlargeClick to enlarge Actually, sorry to upstage you Mum, but perhaps the biggest thing was that WE’RE HAVING A BABY!! The lucky boy/girl will be arriving on the scene in early January, and Mom-&-Dad-to-be are very happy. There – how’s that for a big ending?!

Mark & Karen xx

Summertime in Virginia

Here in Virginia, it is now summertime with a vengeance, and its certainly a far cry from my 27 years’ experience of how changeable and frankly useless summer in the UK can be!

Summer in Virginia is a very sunny and consistent experience, for a good 3-4 months, by all accounts (I’ve yet to live through an entire one), with highs in the upper 20s and beyond and lows not a whole lot lower. This is punctuated every week or less by a hyper-intense rainstorm, the like of which I’ve only ever seen in England a couple of times, with amazing thunder and lightning displays.

You definitely don’t want to be caught under one of these things, though I’ve taken to standing out on our new balcony admiring these spectacles while still under cover.

The downside to this good weather, seen all over the USA, is the potential for extremes. Thankfully this area doesn’t suffer from hurricanes or tornadoes – our particular evil is the humidity, which is often enough to make a pasty Englishman wilt after 20 paces!

I used to think the American penchant for air conditioning was very extravagant and excessive, but when it comes to a climate like this, then you certainly begin to understand. It’s even worse if you have no car and have to walk to get anywhere!

Wherever you are, I hope you enjoy your summer.

All the best,


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