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Saturday, January 2, 2016


Happy New Year. あけましておめでとうございます. 新年快樂. С Новым годом!

In any language, here's hoping this year will be a good one for you. But hold off just yet in welcoming in the Year of the Monkey - that doesn't kick off until February 8, according to the lunar calendar. You still have a few more weeks of the Goat left.

A new year has begun, and a winter vacation is soon coming to an end. As there were no classes held at FSI during the week between Christmas and New Year's Day, students had the option of taking annual leave or adhering to a self-studying program at home. The idea of spending several hours a day working on Russian didn't sound very appealing, so I opted to use some of my vacation time to relax and chill out (even if the weather itself hasn't been very chilly). Actually, I have been setting aside 1½-2 hours every day to review grammar rules and vocabulary, and to my great surprise, so far I've stuck to that schedule. But at least I've been doing so on my terms, and therefore haven't had to submit any work to the language tsars and tsarinas for their condemnation review. The rest of the time has been used in trying to catch up on some personal business and just lazing about at home. These past few days haven't been spent entirely indoors, however, and what follows are some of the things I've been doing over the break:

The day after Christmas (aka Boxing Day for my friends and acquaintances in the Commonwealth) we drove to the National Harbor, by the Potomac River in Prince George's County, Maryland. Despite its name, the harbor is not a part of the National Park System, nor does it have any historical connections that I'm aware of. Rather, it's a multi-use development consisting of condos, a convention center, hotels, restaurants and shops. There's even some public art, in the form of The Awakening, a 70 foot (21 meters)-long statue of a struggling giant embedded in the sand:

We spent our time there having lunch and doing some window shopping...:

...but the impetus for visiting the National Harbor was that it's the site of a Build-A-Bear Workshop. My daughter wanted to use some of her Christmas cash reserves to make her own reindeer. Mission accomplished:

Amber and I took advantage of the unseasonably warm temperatures and sunny skies to go for a bike road along part of the W&OD Trail

The weather was also cooperative when the two of us (my wife preferred to stay indoors) went to see the Winter Walk of Lights at the Meadowlark Botanical Gardens last Sunday. It rained heavily on the drive over there and and on the trip back home, but stopped pouring while we walked around the gardens, taking in the light decorations. Amber even got to try her hand at roasting (or is it toasting?) marshmallows over an open fire, then using them to make s'mores, part of the ongoing Americanization of my born-and-raised in-Taiwan offspring:

While the staycation has been nice, I had to get out of this area at least once during the break, so on Wednesday the three of us made the hour-long drive down I-95 to Fredericksburg, Virginia, site of a bloody battle during the American Civil War. Nearly 19,000 soldiers on both sides were either killed or wounded during a series of futile Union attacks on well-fortified Confederate positions during four days of fighting in mid-December 1862. The Fredericksburg Battlefied Visitors Center does an excellent job presenting what transpired before, during and after the battle:

After the visitor center, we took a walk along the Sunken Road trail, where some of the fiercest fighting took place. The misty weather that day set an appropriate mood:

The Innis House survived the battle, but was riddled with bullets. Though most of the outdoor panels were subsequently replaced, leaving only a few bullet holes visible, the interior walls were retained and showed just how fierce the fighting had been. Unfortunately, I couldn't get a good photo of the inside from the outside:

The large brick house known as Brompton also survived the battle. It's now a private residence for the president of the University of Mary Washington:

This is the view Confederate soldiers had looking down at the Innis House, as they mowed down the advancing columns of Union troops:

The trail loops back to a fitting conclusion at the Fredericksburg National Cemetery, where the remains of more than 15,000 Federal soldiers are interred. Fewer than 3000 of them were positively identified before burial:

Crows are associated with death in many cultures:

In addition to its Civil War connections, Fredericksburg's history is also tied in with the American Revolution, as it was an important port and trading center during the colonial days. The downtown area makes for a pleasant stroll, but the first thing we did there was to have lunch, where I opted for crayfish étouffée:

The Fredericksburg Area Museum, housed in the 1816 town hall building, is closed until further notice, but the downtown business district, with its many antique shops, still makes for a nice walk:

The highlight for both Amber and me was a visit to the Rising Sun Tavern on Caroline Street. Built by George Washington's younger brother Charles in 1760, it operated as a tavern/inn from 1792 to 1827, and in that incarnation has been restored and presented as a living history museum. A guide gave an extremely interesting overview of life in Fredericksburg during that period, with its class distinctions and segregation of the sexes, and focusing on what people ate and drank, how they paid for it etc. My daughter and I both came away from the museum glad we didn't live during those days, when everybody drank alcohol or tea because the water was too filthy, when you only bathed once a year (during the summer) and, if you were a woman staying at the tavern, you answered nature's call by sitting on a chair with a hole in the center (and a chamber pot underneath) and thus did your business in full view of everyone else in the room, much as you would today in a prison cell (men got to use outhouses). It's a wonder anybody survived at all during those days, much less procreated:

Yesterday I drove with Amber to Politics & Prose, one of Washington, D.C.'s most noted independent bookstores, where we both spent more of our Christmas money (in my case, on Japan and the Shackles of the Past by R. Taggart Murphy and Japan Restored by Clyde Prestowitz). After lunch and on the way home, I took my daughter to see the Marine Corps Memorial, aka the Iwo Jima Statue. Amber was impressed by the famous image, as well as of the view of the Capitol Building, Washington Monument, Smithsonian Castle and Lincoln Memorial across the Potomac in the distance (the Jefferson Memorial can also be seen from some angles):

To the south is the Netherlands Carillon, a 130 foot (40 meters)-high bell tower dedicated to the liberation of the Netherlands from Germany in 1945. Sadly, the monument is showing signs of rust and decay these days:

Finally, and fittingly, the two of us walked to downtown Falls Church last night (my wife prefers to stay home much of the time these days) to take in Watch Night, the city's annual New Year's Eve celebration. Amber had a great time, especially after meeting one of her classmates on Broad Street. It was a fun way to close out the old year...:

...especially when you have your own light sabre. I think I was able to convince her to join me in seeing The Force Awakens.




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