Relaxing in Minnesota

Following our epic drive in mid-June from Maine to Minnesota (after already having crossed Massachusetts, Vermont, and New Hampshire, and explored parts of western Maine for six days), Steph and I settled into a couple of weeks of relaxation with our elder daughter Hannah and family in St Paul, MN before heading back to the UK on 10 July.

My son-in-law, Michael, is – like me – a beer aficionado, and keeps a well-stocked cellar of many different beers. It’s wonderful to see how the beer culture has blossomed in the USA, no longer just Budweiser or Coors. I had opportunity to enjoy a variety of beers. Those IPAs are so good, if not a little hoppy sometimes. However, my 2018 favorite was a Czech-style pilsener, Dakota Soul from the Summit Brewing Company based in St Paul.

Relaxing in St Paul was also an opportunity catch up with some of my blogging, while Steph spent time in Hannah’s garden making sure everything was coping with the very hot weather. Notwithstanding the regular watering, we did experience a couple of quite spectacular downpours the like of which I haven’t seen for some time.

And our lively grandchildren, Callum (eight just two days ago) and Zoë (6) kept us on our toes. For one of the two weeks we stayed in St Paul, I was their summer camp chauffeur, dropping them off at the bus just after 8 am each day, and picking them up late in the afternoon. We were also ‘babysitters’ over six days and five nights. That’s the first time we’ve taken on this role; it was the first time that Hannah and Michael left the children with grandparents for more than just an overnight stay, while they celebrated their 40th birthdays with a visit to California’s Napa Valley.

Outcome? I think Callum and Zoë survived us – no permanent harm done!

There’s quite a lot of ambiguity associated with looking after someone else’s children – and they know it! Even though it was made clear to both that ‘Grandad and Grandma were in charge’, you’re often faced with situations asking yourself how Mum and Dad would react. Obviously we haven’t looked after small children for more than three decades since Hannah and Philippa were small. Although we had TV in the 1980s, there were no video games, or subscription channels like Netflix offering up a continuous menu of cartoons.

Both Hannah and Philippa had quite a large circle of friends within easy distance of home, some just a few doors away. So whenever the weather was fine – or even if it was not – one or the other would be round a friend’s house, or the friends at ours. It’s a sign of the times but ‘play dates’ have to be arranged for both Hannah’s and Philippa’s children. This is not only a reflection of busy lives for Mums and Dads, but also that no friends live next door.

We had fun with Callum and Zoë, although they might not perhaps reflect well on the occasions when I had to ‘lay down the law’. We went bike riding (they did the riding while we followed on foot), and explored the fascinating glacial potholes at the Interstate State Park 53 miles northeast from St Paul beside the St Croix River at Taylors Fall.

Afterwards we spent time at a splendid children’s playground at Stillwater. We ate out one night, went out for breakfast on the Sunday, and had a BBQ. Here are some more photos of that outing.

Grandma Mary (Michael’s mother) took the children to the Minnesota Zoo one day so Steph and I could enjoy a day at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum (here are the 2018 photos), somewhere we have visited a couple of times in the past.

Beautiful echinaceas, a typical species of the prairies

And any visit to St Paul would not be complete without checking out the Marjorie McNeely Conservatory at Como Park (map).

We’ve been going there since 2006 when it was the venue for Hannah and Michael’s wedding. The floral displays change with the seasons, and we always enjoy seeing what the gardeners have prepared for their many visitors. This summer’s display was much more subdued compared to other years.

May 2006

December 2007

July 2016

June 2017

June 2018

I would certainly recommend a visit to Como Park  if you’re ever in St Paul. There is also a small zoo and fun fair, very popular with the children.

The Mississippi River is just 50 m from Hannah’s front door, but at least 50 m below. There are some lovely walks and parks along the river, Hidden Falls Regional Park, about a mile from Hannah’s, being one of them. But the river was high this year, with flooding closing several of the walks nearby. The St Croix River at Stillwater was the highest we have ever experienced.

Beside the Mississippi at Hidden Falls Regional Park.

The St Croix River at Stillwater. That’s Wisconsin on the far (east) bank.

Finally, this commentary about relaxing in Minnesota would not be complete without mention of Hobbes, a lovely ginger rescue cat who has his moments, going from sweet and docile to full on attack mode at the drop of a feather. But over our time at Hannah and Michael’s he did begin to relax with us and, more often than not, this is how he spent much of his time.

Gardens, apples and pumpkins

For one weekend last September, I almost felt like a ‘latter-day Johnny Appleseed‘. I hadn’t seen so many apples in a long time, nor been apple picking before. Seems it’s quite a family outing sort of thing in Minnesota, towards the end of September, and especially if the weather is fine—maybe an Indian Summer day even.

But I’m getting a little ahead of myself.

Steph and I flew to the USA on 10 September to spend almost three weeks with our daughter Hannah, son-in-law Michael, and grandchildren Callum and Zoë in St Paul, Minnesota. And we still can’t believe how lucky we were with the weather this vacation. Almost every day for the entirety of our stay (including a side trip to Chicago), the weather was bright and sunny, hot even with days often in the low 80sF.

The first weekend in St Paul, Hannah and Michael took us to the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum (part of the University of Minnesota), around 23 miles due east of Minneapolis-St Paul International Airport, along I-494 W and MN-5 W. There are miles and miles of roads and trails to explore, but with two small children of 5 and 3 in tow, we limited our visit to a walk through the various glades and gardens close to the arboretum’s Oswald Visitor Center (map).

Hannah and Michael had taken Callum and Zoë to the arboretum on 4 July, when there was an impressive display of Lego sculptures around the gardens.

On the Sunday of our second weekend in St Paul, we met up with Hannah and Michael’s lovely friends, Katie and Chris and their daughters Nora and Annie, to go apple picking at a farm in the valley of the St Croix River (that joins the mighty Mississippi just five miles south), about 30 miles southeast from their home in the Highland district of St Paul. Thanks to Katie for several of the photos below.

The Whistling Well Farm offers several apple varieties for picking, as well as pumpkins and pot chrysanthemums for sale, and chickens to feed.

It’s a great place for the children to explore, and to get thoroughly wet. There was a heavy dew!

Having ‘exhausted’ possibilities at Whistling Well Farms, we journeyed just a couple of miles west to Afton Apple Orchard, to take a trailer ride around the orchards and pumpkin fields.

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What a lovely way to enjoy the company of family, especially grandchildren.


L to R: Hannah, Zoë, Michael, Callum, Steph and me.




It’s the Pinoy in me . . .

Yesterday, Steph and I arrived in St Paul, Minnesota to spend almost three weeks with our elder daughter, Hannah, husband Michael and their children Callum (aged 5) and Zoë (3). It was a long 12 hour journey from Birmingham (BHX) to the Twin Cities (MSP) via Amsterdam (AMS), although an hour less on the transatlantic flight than scheduled.

We flew with Delta, but with the BHX-AMS sector operated by KLM, Delta’s Skyteam partner. Fortunately there were no ticketing problems this time as we’d had experienced on a couple of occasions. Then, the Delta online system had somehow filed Steph’s middle name as ‘Clair’ not ‘Claire’. And knowing how these errors can sometimes lead to check in issues I had attempted to resolve this ahead of travelling. Delta’s ticketing and reservations in Europe are handled by Air France (KLM’s parent company). Not only does the AF online system not ‘talk’ to the Delta one, but by the time we traveled (this was a couple of years ago), it had ‘lost’ her reservation. When we went to check in at BHX, the ticketing agent could only issue boarding passes to AMS, and although he could see our next sector AMS-MSP, he couldn’t access them. We had a nightmare transfer in Amsterdam and almost missed our connection. Even though KLM assured us that everything had been resolved, it took a phone call of almost 90 minutes in the USA directly to Delta to have everything finally resolved for our return.

So you can imagine my concern and trepidation a couple of days ago when I checked in online, and being transferred to the KLM website, received a message that the system was unable to issue boarding passes because ‘of an issue concerning one or more members of your group’.

‘Uh oh,’ I thought, ‘here we go again’, even though all the information about our tickets and reservations was 100% accurate in the Delta system. We were advised to print our boarding passes at one of the self service kiosks at BHX the following day.

We arrived to the airport in good time.  It’s a bit of a long-winded process to access the self service system, and the outcome was that it still denied us our boarding passes. We had to pick them up at the counter. When I asked if there was any issue concerning our reservations, the agent told me there wasn’t. She then gave us just two boarding passes, and my heart sank. I thought we were going to have sort our onward flights in AMS, and we only had just over 90 minutes to connect. Fortunately there was no problem. Both flights had been printed on a single boarding pass—a new one for me.

Now I wonder if the issue was that I had flagged, at the time of booking our tickets, that Steph is ‘hard of hearing’. I now recall the counter staff at BHX mentioning this, and perhaps the system was alerted that we needed ‘extra assistance’. But the advisory message when we checked in was much more cryptic than that, and given our previous experiences, I had just imagined something more complicated or serious. It will be interesting to see if the same happens on the return journey at the end of the month when our first flight will be with Delta, only transferring to KLM for the AMS-BHX leg of the journey.

This year we opted to purchase Delta Comfort+™ seats, at £60 each both ways. They’re just Economy seats, with slightly more recline, but a valuable four extra inches of legroom. You wouldn’t credit just how much more comfortable that made the journey. Plus free booze! So I did enjoy a few Bombay Sapphires and tonic to keep me going on the long stretch. I think the flight attendants were also just that bit friendlier to us in the Comfort+ seats.

So what’s all this got to do with the Pinoy in me. We were met at MSP by Hannah and Michael and two very excited grandchildren. And early in the evening I posted a couple of selfies with Callum and Zoë on my Facebook page.

And I had mentioned that I was beginning my ‘apostolic duties’. To a non-Filipino, it must sound like I’ve found religion or the like. But no. It’s a term to describe being a good grandparent. Because the Filipino for grandchild is ‘apo’. And here I am in the two photos with my American ‘apos’, being very ‘apostolic’. And enjoying every minute of it.

My good friends Bing Villegas and Fides Bernardo (who devised and directed the IRRI 50th anniversary shows in 2009) commented on my Pinoy connections. No wonder really, since I spent almost 19 years in that lovely country.


And now there are four . . .

I’m a very proud granddad. I’ve written elsewhere in my blog about grandparenthood.

I’ve been retired now for almost three and a half years, having left IRRI in the Philippines at the end of April 2010. And since then, Steph and I have become grandparents to four grandchildren!

Hannah and Michael live in St. Paul, Minnesota, and Philippa and Andi live in Newcastle upon Tyne in the UK, so we don’t get many opportunities to see everyone. But there’s always Skype, and an online chat each week.

Please meet the grandchildren:

Callum Andrew (Hannah’s first) was born in August 2010.

Then Elvis Dexter (Phil’s first) came along in September 2011.

Then it was the turn of Zoë Isobel in May 2012, a sister for Callum.

And just a few days ago, we welcomed Felix Sylvester, a brother for Elvis.

What a delight they all are. This year we’ve had a great visit to the USA and a holiday with Hannah, Michael, Callum and Zoë in Oregon. Then in July we had to look after Elvis for a few days. We haven’t met Felix yet – that’s a joy in store.

An apo in the Northeast

A couple of weeks ago our daughter Philippa asked us if we could babysit grandson (= ‘apo’, Tagalog for grandchild) Elvis Dexter for a couple of nights while she and Andi attended a wedding. They live in Newcastle upon Tyne in the northeast of England, 225 miles north of where we live.

I can’t deny that Steph and I were a little apprehensive. It’s one thing babysitting while parents are out for the evening. It’s quite another being left completely responsible for a small child. After all, we haven’t had that sort of practice for more than 30 years.

We needn’t have concerned ourselves. Young Elvis was a delight to look after. Having been introduced to his nursery ‘teachers’ on the Monday afternoon, we went along with Philippa when Elvis attended nursery early on the following morning. It was then up to us to collect him in the afternoon, give him his evening meal, bath-time, play, stories and bed.

Once down for the night (around 19:30) we didn’t hear a peep out of him. In fact, on the second morning, I had to wake him up to get ready to head off to nursery!

As you can see from the slideshow, he also enjoyed himself.

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It will be interesting to see how he reacts when his baby brother/sister comes along in about five to six weeks time.

Fulfilling our apostolic duties in the USA

Steph and I flew to the US at the beginning of June to spend some time with Hannah and Michael, and grandchildren Callum (almost three) and Zoë (one in early May). We enjoyed three wonderful weeks over there, marred only by the fact that we all came down with nasty coughs and colds (courtesy of day care virus diversity from Callum and Zoë) which certainly took the edge off our holiday.

We all traveled to Oregon to spend a week at the beach – at Oceanside, some 100 miles or so west of Portland. It was great playing with Callum and Zoë, and they seemed to have enjoyed the beach and ocean, and having Grandma and Granddad’s attention almost constantly for the week we were in Oregon. During our visits to St Paul, Callum and Zoë are at day care every day from early morning until late afternoon, Monday to Friday, so we only get to see them at breakfast and dinner, and over the weekend.

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It was fantastic to see how they had developed since we were last in the USA in June 2012. Zoë was only a few weeks old then. Now she’s walking, trying some first words: ‘Mama’, ‘Dada’, ‘Hi’, really developing a great personality. But she can be very stubborn. In this short video you can see one of the games we played.

Callum is no longer a toddler, so-to-speak. His language has come on leaps and bounds, and it was fascinating to see him reasoning things for himself.

All in all, a great three weeks.

Grandparenting duties . . .

A few months back I posted a short piece about what it felt like to be a Grandad. Well, the past few weeks have been quite Grandad busy, as we visited Philippa and Andi and Dexter in Newcastle upon Tyne in mid-May for four days, followed by a two week visit to Hannah and Michael in St Paul, Minnesota, and to see Callum (now 22 months) and meet Zoë Isobel who was born on 8 May. We’d last been in the US in May 2011. Seeing our grandchildren grow and develop is such a joy.

Phil and Dexter came to visit just before Christmas. And how Dexter has grown in the intervening months – such a happy chappy. He’s full of smiles and chatter, all unintelligible.

Now almost nine months, it looks like he’ll by-pass the crawling stage as all he wants to do is be upright, and loves being held in the standing position. Time will tell.

On the Sunday of our visit we took a trip up the Northumbrian coast to Dunstanburgh Castle. Safely strapped to Andi’s back, Dexter seemed to enjoy himself.

But when we arrived back in Craster to enjoy a pub lunch in the garden overlooking the North Sea, that’s when the fun started. Dexter was on my knee, and to keep him amused I began to softly pat the table top. Very soon he was joining in, and really chuckling away – as this video shows.

And as this photo shows, young Dexter gets on well with his Grandad.

We hadn’t seen Callum since May 2011, when he was about nine months, and barely crawling. What a difference a year makes.

Now he’s a real little boy, full of giggles and exploring the world. It’s amazing to see him absorbing so much information – like a sponge his dad Michael says. His vocabulary grows each day – although there’s also a lot of chatter that I guess only he understands. And I inducted Callum into the Ministry of Silly Walks (of Monty Python fame) – it was great to watch him copy what I was doing.

And I had the delight of introducing him – via YouTube – to Sesame Street and Elmo. We had a great time enjoying the various clips together. This was one of his favorite videos.

Callum loves books, and enjoyed both Steph and I reading to him, and for him to tell us all the names, or make the sounds of the animals and other things he saw.

Zoë was just four weeks old when we arrived in St Paul at the beginning of June. What a cutie, with a lovely dimple when she smiles. In the first few days we thought how much she looked like Callum at the same age, but over the two weeks of our stay, we began to see other differences. She’s also doing well, and beginning to take an interest in everything around her. Hopefully her sleep pattern will stabilize soon, and Hannah and Michael will enjoy unbroken sleep – for a few hours at least.

We look forward to watching Callum, Dexter, and Zoë growing up – it will a fascinating time.

On being a Grandad . . .

I’m not a very tolerant person. And I’m certainly not a very patient one, either. Hannah and Philippa will tell you that, as well as the folks I worked with at IRRI.

Neither am I a particularly little person person – frankly I’ve never been much into the small child thing, except my own of course. I’m not sure I was a very good father when Hannah and Philippa were growing up. During the 1980s, when I was working at the University of Birmingham, I think I focused rather too much on work and not enough on family. Maybe that is not such an uncommon thing. But looking back on those years, I do regret not dedicating more time to the girls than I did.

I was also a bit of a disciplinarian. There was definitely a line in the sand . . .  So it’s come as a bit of a surprise to me to realize just how much I love and enjoy being a Grandad.

When we visited Hannah and Michael in September 2010 and met young Callum Andrew for the first time, it was a LONG time since I’d held a baby. And I think I took to it like a duck to water. One thing though, I don’t do nappies/diapers.

As we have watched Callum grow, seen his personality develop, and all the skills he is developing, it’s such a wonder and joy. Callum and me have a great time playing peek-a-boo, and this continues even on Skype. He has such a welcoming smile – the whole screen lights up. Now that he’s walking, his personality has blossomed, and it seems he’s into everything. I can see that Callum and I are going to be big buddies, and we look forward to visiting again later this year.

Now, Philippa and Andi’s little boy, Elvis Dexter, was born only 4 months ago, and we met him just a couple of weeks later, and then again just before Christmas. What a difference two months can make. It’s really fun taking over for a while, having him snuggle down and go to sleep in my arms. He looks like he’s going to be a tall and slender boy, and we look forward to seeing him growing up.

Our first grand-daughter, Zoe Isobel was born at 00:21 local time on 8 May 2012 in Minneapolis-St Paul, Minnesota. She’s a little sweetie, and it’s fascinating to see her grow and interact with Callum.

Grandadhood has already brought special times to retirement. But it is just a pity that the grandchildren are not closer to home. Hurrah for the Internet and Skype!

July 2015 update:
Here we are in July and Callum will soon be 5 and starting school in September. Zoë was 3 last May. Elvis will be 4 at the end of September, and his younger brother, Felix, will be 2 on 1 September. Here are a couple of latest photos.

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Elvis&Felix July 2015