25 April 2014

Philadelphia Frolic

Sometimes the world moves a little faster than I can keep up.  For example, it's difficult to believe that it's already been a week since I was several states away and traipsing around Philadelphia.  In that short time, the Spousal Unit has been to Boston and back for yet another job interview (which didn't pan out, so no Amazon.com discounts for me. ::sadness::), and I have accomplished pretty much nothing other than to contract a very inconveniently-timed head cold and sore throat which may well impact my ability to sing in my choral society's concert some 11 days from now.  Ah, well...Murphy's Law, I suppose.

In spite of the ups and downs of the intervening week, I still managed to have a wonderful time in Philadelphia, at least the little bit of it which I saw.  My day started with a shower in the swish bathroom of the Ritz, during which I partook of the lovely-smelling "designer" toiletries, the aromas of which were somewhat mitigated by an overly-bleached towel that smelled vaguely of burnt biscuits.

Mmmmm...burnt-smelling towels.  Tasty!

While the Unit was leaving to head out for a breakfast meeting, my breakfast arrived via room service.  I love the idea of room service, though I'm usually far too cheap to splurge on it.  Still, when someone else is footing one's travel and lodging bills, it's a little easier to justify--at least till one sees the 20% forced gratuity and $5 delivery charge (because it's such an arduous journey up the elevator from the kitchen) and is reminded precisely why one rarely orders room service.  At any rate, the food was decent and I enjoyed it for the most part; in fact I was largely full by the time room service sent up the basket of pastries they'd forgotten.  Room Service thoughtfully packaged them in a to-go box, however, and placed them in a blue Ritz-Carlton shopping bag complete with plastic utensils and napkins.  Spiffy.

On my way out of the hotel, I stopped at the business center to print a voucher for a double-decker bus tour around town, one of those "hop on and off" jobs that gives you more flexibility for sight-seeing.  For the privilege, I was charged $6.99 for 15 minutes of computer time, of which I used approximately 2.  It's one thing to charge for internet in the room, but in the lobby/business center?  Seriously??  Why is it that the more expensive a hotel is, the more they charge you for the little things?  That seems counter-intuitive to me, but then I suppose most of the people who can afford such hotels just expense-account everything and so rarely feel the pinch.  Meanwhile, I feel the pinch...great lobster claws of pinch.  Either that or I've just lived with a tightwad for far too long.  On the plus side, guests are allowed to print off boarding passes for free...how generous.

I started my tour of the city by heading first to Christ Church, figuring since it was the farthest out I could start there and work my way back into the middle of town.  So naturally I got a cabbie who didn't know where Christ Church was.  Not that this deficit stopped him from heading out onto the streets and leaving me to look up the address en route, at which point he realized he was heading in the opposite direction and had to turn around; I was charged for the privilege.  Whoops.

Christ Church was lovely, I have to say.  Not in the sense of the architecturally astounding gothic churches all over Europe, perhaps, but it still had an elegant simplicity all its own.  Originally I'd just intended to visit the church, but because I'd gotten a later start than planned my visit occurred not long before the Good Friday service was to begin.  So I decided to attend. After all, it's not every day that one gets to observe Good Friday in an edifice so fraught with history.  Not only did several of the Founding Fathers (including Franklin and Washington) regularly worship there, but it essentially became the first Episcopal church in the United States after breaking with the Church of England during the Revolutionary War.  Not that I'm Episcopal, mind you, but the girlie did attend an Episcopal school for 14 years, so there was a certain degree of continuity in spending part of my day at this particular church.

Christ Church, Philadelphia

I had just enough time between my initial visit and the start of service to walk down to Christ Church's burial ground in which Benjamin Franklin, the ubiquitous Philadelphian, is interred.  The cemetery itself isn't terribly big, but houses several signers of the Declaration of Independence as well as a few other notable Philadelphians from the Revolutionary War era.  I was intrigued that Franklin's grave was covered with pennies (and a few other coins), It seems people throw pennies because of his famous saying, "A penny saved is a penny earned."  Though most of the burial ground is enclosed by a brick wall, there is an open iron fence panel right next to Franklin's grave through which passers-by can also lob their monetary projectiles.  Ben's grave garners around $4,000 in pennies annually which are contributed to the Preservation Trust.  It amuses me to think that somewhere Franklin is laughing his bifocals off because people are not actually saving their pennies by flinging them at his grave, yet he still is earning them. As I overhead one person say, "A penny tossed is a penny lost."  Something tells me good old Ben was the sort of man to appreciate the irony.

Franklin's grave has freckles.
Benjamin and Deborah...still earning interest.

After walking the burial ground, I headed back towards Christ Church for the service, stopping along the way to purchase $5 souvenir shirts.  I made my way back into the sanctuary and found a seat.  Later I learned that there are small bronze plaques marking where the more famous congregants sat; had I noticed them earlier I would have made a point of sitting in Betsy Ross' seat because there would be something delightfully transcendent about two seamstresses attending service in the same church, separated only by 220 years or so.  Ah, well...another time perhaps.

After the first hour (!), the minister took a break to inform us that the next part of the service would entail carrying a large wooden cross around the neighborhood to the locations of some particularly violent battles/incidents as a reminder to bring peace to the world and to carry it with you.  While I appreciated the sentiment and while I could probably stand to have a lot of my natural irreverence pounded out of me by attending a lengthier service, I didn't want to spare that much time in an already-limited day of sight-seeing so instead I hopped on one of the tour buses passing by and rode it to the Independence Visitor's center to see if I could get in to see the big attractions--Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell.

Independence Hall

As it turns out, both attractions are free, though you have to get a timed ticket to tour Independence Hall and they generally run out early.  They had already gone by the time I got to the visitor's center, but I figured I'd still ask about the Liberty Bell.  The park ranger looked around furtively, then asked me how many people were with me; when I said it "just me," he handed me a ticket for the 2:00 tour starting in half an hour and told me to "go now."  I thanked him and headed across the mall to get my bag groped by security staff who apparently had to make sure I wasn't bringing any napalm or sticky jam or leaky pens into the historical site.  Once suitably secure, I sat on a bench outside the Hall and munched on my hotel pastries while waiting for my tour to start.

After polishing off a last bite of croissant in line, we were taken to a holding tank lecture room and were introduced to our park ranger/tour guide.  We chatted for a bit about historical things, and then he showed us an original painting of the signing of the Constitution, dated 1785.  The ranger informed us that he "knew we were serious about history" because we signed up for the 2:00 tour and because the "4:30 (last) tour group is just a bunch of shoppers."  Tour guides with a good sense of humor are always a plus.

Signing of the Constitution

First we were shown the Supreme Court Room and told how King George III's coat of arms had been ripped off the wall at the outset of war and later replaced by the Pennsylvania coat of arms.  While there, I met a lovely couple from Brighton, England who were visiting friends in the city.  After chatting a bit, I couldn't help asking them if it was weird hearing and seeing about their history from the other side.  They agreed it was rather surreal; I imagine it would be.

The Supreme Court Room

Next, we went across the hall to the Assembly Room, where both the Declaration of Independence and the US Constitution were signed and ratified.  In front was a table on which sat the silver inkwell used to sign both documents; on another table was an original copy of Thomas Paine's Common Sense.  On the one hand, you could feel the weight of history in the room; on the other, it still secretly felt like you were in part of a movie set as though the surroundings were not entirely real.  We were shown out the back of the building past stairs leading up to the other rooms and offices we were not permitted to see, including the bell/clock tower which once housed the Liberty Bell.  The tour took all of around 15-20 minutes; the Hall was much smaller than I expected, as so many Colonial buildings are.

The Assembly Room

When I left Independence Hall and went to get in line for the Liberty Bell, I saw a large group of people across the mall, one of whom was playing guitar and singing over a loudspeaker, "Raise our wages to 15, to 15...we cannot survive on 7.25, raise our wages to 15!"  Overhearing a political demonstration on the day one visits the American birthplace of political demonstrations seems rather apropos, don't you think?

Philadelphia Protestors

The line to see the Liberty Bell took longer than the entire tour of Independence Hall, which still wasn't all that bad as lines go, though that didn't stop a teen behind me from complaining to his mother about the long line and how it was "just a bell" and how he didn't see what the "big deal" was.  I couldn't resist turning to him and asking, "So you're saying the bell is not all it's cracked up to be?"  His mom sniggered and told him "she got you!"  Even the boy had to smirk sheepishly.  Mission accomplished.

One queue, two queue, red queue, blue queue...

Eventually I got through the line and saw the official Liberty Bell; again, I was both intrigued and not entirely convinced it was real.  When you go to places in Europe, you can feel the age and sense of history imbued in places and things; it surrounds you like an aura and is almost absorbed into your very skin.  That's not always true here.  Perhaps it's because we are so young yet as a country, or perhaps it's because we live and breathe sky-rises and iPhones and All-You-Can-Eat platters and so somehow have lost the sense of gravitas and awe we should still have for our own history.  I don't know.  But seeing a giant bell, however famous, cordoned off with little more than a seatbelt takes away some of that due reverence and makes it look a little more like a paper-maché movie prop than it probably should.  Don't get me wrong--it was still cool, just not perhaps in the way I expected.  Those pesky expectations...so hard to manage against reality.

Your crack is showing.

After seeing the Liberty Bell, I realized I had just enough time to hop on one of the buses and do the last full tour of the city before they shut down for the day, so rather than waste my ticket I blew off the Constitution Center and headed toward the buses.  The bus tour turned out to be perhaps my favorite part of the day because it enabled me to see more of the city than I would otherwise have been able and because the guide told us all sorts of stories that made the city come alive.  One of my favorites was about the "Busybody," yet another creation of Benjamin Franklin's.  As we drove through Society Hill, the guide pointed out several odd contraptions on the sides of the old row houses which she called "busybodies."  Though they looked a little like weird antennae, they are actually a set of mirrors constructed to face towards a window so that when someone downstairs was knocking on the door, you could look at the busybody like a periscope and have it reflect who was at the door to your upstairs window.  That way, you could tell if it was the tax man or your mother-in-law or whomever, and so knew when to avoid answering the door.  Leave it to Franklin to invent the world's first peephole to get out of paying taxes.

The world's only useful busybody.

We drove past the Chinese Friendship Gate in Chinatown, the "Rocky Steps" at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Love sculpture in Love Park, Elfreth's Alley (the country's oldest residential street), a statue of Joan of Arc nicknamed "Joanie on the Pony" (which still makes me giggle), sculptures of a giant clothespin and a three-way plug, and a street lined with international flags representing growing populations from those countries in the city, plus many other things.  It was a great way to see a lot of the city fairly quickly, and I learned many interesting things in my 90-minute tour.

Elfreth's Alley

"Joanie on the Pony"

The "Rocky" steps in front of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Robert Indiana's famous LOVE sculpture.

When the tour ended I walked back to the hotel for a quick shower and tidy up before we went out to dinner with one of Drexel's professors and his wife. Constantine and his wife Amelie proved to be a very charming Greek couple who regaled us with stories about her work in Morocco, how nobody's moussaka is as good as Mama's, and of life in Philadelphia.  The Unit smirked at my animated discussion with Constantine over whether or not the Blues should have lyrics or just be instrumental (he was for solely instrumental; I posited that part of what makes music the Blues is the oral tradition from which it originates...so yes, vocals).  We spent a lively and highly enjoyable three hours with them before they walked us back to our hotel.

Estia Greek Restaurant

Upon arriving at our room, I discovered that during our absence someone had come in to perform a "turn down" service.  Rather than just leaving chocolates and turning down the bedding, however, our curtains had also been drawn, my towel had been straightened out on the shower door to dry better, and clothes/items I had strewn on the bed in my pre-dinner rush to get ready had been relocated to a chair, presumably so as not to detract from the whole turn-down effect.  Meanwhile, the hangers from the Unit's suit were missing completely.  I find it a bit disconcerting that such a swish hotel would take anyone's belongings, even something so mundane as hangers, and dispose of them entirely.  If I'm honest, that made me twitch a bit; the thoroughness of our turn-down service bordered on the creepy. Then again, we also found out at dinner that University guests are normally housed in a nearby Sheraton, but it happened to be booked for our trip...hence the Ritz.  Is slightly creepy okay if opulence is involved?  Hmmmm...

Saturday morning we packed up and checked out.  While waiting for the private car the University had arranged to take us to the airport, we saw a parade of some sort going down the street in front of our hotel.  One of the staff said it was an Indian wedding, but we missed most of the parade except for some guy dressed in bright and festive clothing and riding a horse around the corner.  Clearly it's all go at the Ritz.  We had a quick drive back to the airport with a very nice and chatty driver named Wayne, then an uneventful flight home.

I have to say, I really enjoyed visiting the city.  No matter what ultimately happens on the job front, at least I got to do the touristy thing and see historical sites I'd probably never bother with as a resident, because you tend to figure they're always there, so there's no rush to visit.  That's what happened when we lived in Memphis, anyway.  I lived there around 20 years and never once saw Graceland or the Lorraine Motel.  History is always there, regardless...and Philadelphia is a vibrant city alive with arts and culture and festivals galore.

Fingers crossed.

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