The boys sat happily
devouring their fish and chips, tomato sauce smeared around
their faces like bloodied warriors. Kirstie looked up
from behind her newspaper, glanced around to check we
were alone, then leant across the table.
"Your mission, should you choose to accept it," she said
in a lowered voice, "is to get these two mucky toddlers
and this eight month pregnant woman from Seattle to New
York. You must take these train tickets, this credit card,
that large rucksack, those two small backpacks of toys
and this laptop computer."
I looked at my team of co-conspirators and wondered if
we were up to the job; we were certainly experienced travellers
but this was a different kind of job, fending for ourselves
Kirstie pushed the train tickets and credit card across
the table. "You have just fourteen days to complete this
mission, travelling only by public transport. On the way
you'll need to meet contacts in Chicago, Washington, Boston
and New York." She paused. "Do you think you can handle
It sounded like a bit of a nightmare but it was too late
to change the plan; we had to get to New York to catch
our flight home, train reservations had been made and
friends were expecting us.
"I think we'll be fine." I said, trying to be positive.
Kirstie looked pregnant and unconvinced.
Our final travel challenge
- family backpacking on a two week, five city interrailing
Lots of people had
warned us off taking toddlers to cities. "Cities are no
place for children," they'd said. Part of me agreed, after
all it was one of the reasons we moved out of London when
Matthew was born. But there was no way Kirstie and I were
going to pass up the chance to see a few iconic American
cities while in the States. Kirstie had spent years trying
to persuade me to take her to New York before children
and I'd run out of excuses. I figured it must be possible
to do something interesting with kids in the urban jungle;
we just had to figure out what and how. So we wiped ketchup
off cheeky faces, loaded packs onto backs and headed for
the station on our improbable mission; a coast to coast
railroad tour of the States taking in five big cities.
We hoped it would ease us back into the madness of normal
life after so much time in National Parks and wilderness.
First stop Chicago
and it wasn't long before we got a touch of the blues.
We were downtown outside a family friendly blues club
but it wasn't the music that got to me but the never ending
stream of questions that the city sights prompted from
"Why does it take so long to cross the road here?" asked
Matthew as we tried to head back to our hotel.
"Well, there's lots of traffic and we've got to wait for
the little man to light up before it's safe to cross."
"Why is it a silver man here and not a green man?"
"You know I don't know Matt."
"Well why does it take so long to turn silver?"
"Because there's a lot of traffic and it's very busy."
"Why are cities so busy?"
"Because lots of people live in them."
"Why do lots of people live in them?"
"That's a very good question." And one I avoided answering
as the little silver man lit up and I hauled the boys
across the road and back to bed.
Matthew and Cameron
seemed to find the city landscape, life and people just
as stimulating and entertaining as any expensive tourist
attraction. We found no shortage of new and interesting
things to look at and talk about while wandering through
historic streets, looking at unusual buildings, splashing
in public fountains, picnicking in parks, or people watching
over coffee and ice creams. These free attractions also
suited our end of trip financial predicament better than
forking out to ride to the top of a skyscraper, tour the
harbour on a boat, ride around on an open deck bus or
combine the last two on one of the amphibious 'ducks'
hustling for business on almost every corner.
Cooling off and chilling in city spaces
The boys loved the
city subways, metros, buses, trolleys, trams and taxis;
the red line, blue line, ABC line; buying tickets, carnets
and travelcards; showing them, swiping them, punching
them; clambering under stiles and over gates; journeying
underground, overground and along the ground. Once we
sussed the transit systems using them to get around was
a lot of fun, but arrivals days were always a real stress
test. No amount of advance studying of maps, fare guides
or journey planners reduced the confusion, bewilderment
and mild panic we experienced each time we tried to get
from the station to whatever cheap hotel we'd booked online
a few days earlier.
"OK boys follow me"
"Where are we going Dad?"
"To our hotel Matthew. Come on keep up."
"How do you know the way?"
"I don't, your mum does."
"Have you been to Washington before mum?"
"Then how do you know the way?"
"I don't Matt but look there's a ticket machine over there."
"OK so where are we going?"
"Dad says we're going to our hotel."
"No I mean which station?"
"We're at the station Mum."
"No what Mum needs to know is which station the hotel
is near. I'll go look at the map. Matthew you stay here
with mum. And you Cameron."
"Cameron, stay here with me and pick up your backpack
before someone trips over it."
"Because it's rush hour and it's very busy."
"Why is it busy Mummy?"
"Because it's a city. Matthew will explain."
"OK Kirstie, the hotel's a few blocks from McPherson Square
"It doesn't matter, it's all zone fares. I've just got
to figure out if kids need tickets."
"Look they can crawl under the gate. Just get two adults."
"OK two adults. That's two dollars seventy. Have you got
"No only $20 bills."
"Damn, this machine only takes coins. We'll have to go
queue at the office."
"Or shall we just go and get a cab?"
Public transport - the way to go; a cheap attraction and
a fun way to see the sights, once the initial stress has
Enjoying cities didn't
always cost a lot. Once we'd had enough of wandering around,
hopping on and off buses and supping coffee in Starbucks,
there were plenty of other free attractions to keep us
"Hey boys how do you fancy The Smithsonian National Museum
of American History, The National Air and Space Museum,
The Museum of American Financial History, The NYPD Police
"Yesssssss. Museums. Let's go."
I don't know if it's normal for toddlers, but our two
just loved running around these enormous spaces, looking,
listening, pointing, poking, talking and fighting about
all manner of exhibits. Our visits were subject to only
two conditions; one, that Matthew always pushed the buttons
first, and two, that we didn't stay in one section for
more than a few minutes.
Cities are extraordinary
places, chaotic multi dimensional jumbles of citizens
and concrete, dense tangles of collectively woven social
and physical, visible and invisible webs. You don't need
to travel to see the world, for cities like New York are
worlds in miniature. If you want you can see a little
bit of China, Korea, Mexico, Puerto Rico, Italy, Greece,
Poland and Ireland in a day; you can see evidence of man's
abilities to create, organise, worship, love, hate, win,
lose and destroy in an afternoon. The barrage of sights,
sounds, smells, tastes and textures is stimulating and
sapping, exciting and overwhelming. Places like these
have as much capacity to shock, depress, delight and inspire
as anything else we saw on our journey around the globe.
There is no shortage of things to do, the bigger problem
is one of too much choice.
"Well, we could go
to Wall Street, Ellis Island, Central Park, Greenwich
Village, Broadway, Empire State, Madame Tussauds, United
Nations, Police Museum, Jewish Museum , Little Italy or
Rockefeller, to name a few. What do you think? We need
to make a decision."
"How about a coffee or ice cream?"
"Much better idea."
And it often was better to do nothing, to decide not to
decide anything, and instead enjoy the buzz around us.
So we tapped along to the impro jazz of a Chicago busker
making music from garbage cans. We had a long lazy lunchtime
in Washington, sampling foods from around the world in
a cheap and cheerful deli-café. We hung out at Boston
Harbour shooting plastic cups skywards on a playful fountain.
We chilled in Times Square watching Buzz and Woody doing
circuits of the Toys R Us ferris wheel. And in all the
hustle and bustle, doing less was a lot more fun.
"So what did you
think of all those cities then?" I asked the boys as we
sat in a dingy hotel room in New York City waiting for
Kirstie to return from the doctors with her 'fit to fly'
"Good," said Matthew giving me a big thumbs up. "Except
Seattle, it really stinked of coffee and that place that
stank of fish."
"Liked them," said Cameron sticking one finger up, his
personal sign of approval. "Liked Clifford, JJ and Scooby,
that white house and the movie with those funny glasses
that made things come out at you."
As usual I had little idea what they were talking about
but was glad they liked it.