I spent a delightful four days in Philadelphia over the Thanksgiving long weekend, staying with my lovely American friend Katherine and her family. When I wasn’t eating colossal amounts of home cooked food or luxuriating in the double bed that was put at my disposal, I was exploring the environs of this fascinating little city and singing that Bruce Springsteen song from the film Philadelphia in my head.
Philadelphia is like a compact version of Boston, with some lovely shops and restaurants, a cultural quarter, lots of historical buildings and museums, plenty of green space and a very relaxed, stress free atmosphere. Unfortunately I didn’t get to see a huge amount of it due to time constraints, and I was also reluctant to be outside in the cold too long as it actually was freezing and I may have forgotten my coat in my hurry to pack and leave the apartment on time to catch the train (don’t tell my mum!). However, I saw enough to know that I both like Philadelphia very much, and that I shall be coming back to see more in the summer when it is warmer, I have a better knowledge of colonial history in order to appreciate and understand the role the city has played over the centuries, and have a few dedicated days to explore at my leisure the lovely streets of red brick row houses and quaint museums.
What I did get to see was the Liberty Bell, which was a little bit of an anticlimax, especially as it turns out there is no evidence to support the common myth that the bell was rung to declare America’s independence from my dear homeland in 1776. Even so, it was very interesting to see this lump of cracked metal that has come to symbolise so much, and there was a good display of information relating to the women’s suffrage movement in America and how they cast their own Liberty Bell to highlight the hypocrisy of their situation in the 19th century. I also enjoyed looking around some of the small house museums, such as Carpenter’s Hall and Physick House, all of which have very informative staff, excellently preserved interiors and lots of information for the interested visitor on their history. I was constantly irritated, however, by my lack of knowledge of American history, and found this quite a barrier in my ability to adequately contextualise what I was reading. I need to get cracking with my huge Howard Zinn volume, and then I will be quite the expert, ready to fire out facts on American history at any given opportunity!
There are plenty of pretty churchyards and graveyards too, which, if you are a regular reader of this blog, you will know I have a particular penchant for visiting. Unfortunately the stone commonly used to make the gravestones in this region and the damp climate has caused a lot of erosion and I had trouble making out most of the inscriptions, but the ground was carpeted in beautiful Autumn leaves and the churchyards were surrounded by red brick rowhouses, and the sun was setting, and it was all beautifully atmospheric. I also learned terrible facts about how Native Americans were treated by the colonial Americans and were given smallpox blankets to infect and kill off their population, freeing up their land for use. Some Native American smallpox victims are buried in the churchyard I visited, and I felt so sad for them and all they have suffered and continue to suffer at the hands of people determined to wipe out their history, culture, language and land.
After this sadness we walked down to South Street, which, as my friend said, is like the East Village all crammed into one street. There are lots of colourful, graffiti covered buildings, interesting shops, tattoo parlours, and little cafes and restaurants, and I would definitely like to explore this neighbourhood more when I go back. We stopped at Jim’s for supposedly the best Philly Cheesesteaks in Philadelphia, and I tried my very first one. It was OK; not the best thing I’ve ever eaten but not the worst, either. The guys serving us were absolutely on the floor when I opened my mouth and declared that they wanted me to read them a bedtime story with my bee-yoo-tiful accent, which I realised I could either take as a compliment or a frightening harbinger of doom; I preferred to take the first route and nodded and smiled before snatching my cheesesteak and running for the door!
All in all it was an absolutely wonderful trip and I thoroughly enjoyed my whistlestop tour. Next time I go I want to get to the Art Museum and run up the Rocky steps, look inside the churches, wander more around the South Street neighbourhood, and soak up more of the history of the beautiful streets that ooze colonial charm. One thing I got told about was the interesting fire insurance plaques on the row houses that date from the 18th century, and though I think I have captured a few in my photographs, I didn’t really stop to look that closely, so I’ll be excited to open my eyes a little wider and take in more of the details of this beautiful little city next time I’m in town.