Philadelphia and Pretzels
I finished Sarel, my voluntary service in the IDF and then rented an apartment in the centre of Tel Aviv for a month with a girl friend from Philadelphia who I met last year also on Sarel. The plan was to get to know Tel Aviv better, play with the idea of making Alyah (which means emigrating to Israel or literally ‘going home’) and more realistically, test how I liked living in an apartment instead of a house. I enjoyed our apartment and loved Tel Aviv even more than before, whilst realising that for me going to live there, whilst not impossible would certainly be challenging. Take me back 40 years and I’d be there like a shot!
What I didn’t expect was to repeat a similar experience two weeks after my return this time in America. My plan had been to be home for Xmas then start 2016 on a semi-silent Buddhist retreat in the depths of the English countryside in Pocklington. As the saying goes, we make plans and God laughs!
I could write an awful lot about coincidences here! I read all the Celestine Prophecy books years ago, where in story form James Redfield had me believe that there is no such thing as a coincidence, that life is just a giant jigsaw and whilst we are busy trying to slot the pieces of the puzzle of our lives together to create the picture of how we would like it to look, the Universe knows all along what the picture on the lid looks like! The Buddha doesn’t believe in coincidence either because everything that happens is karma, just cause and effect, and I believe that too, simply because it makes perfect sense. The Jews say ‘beshert’ which is much the same thing, it means meant, or meant to be. So when it turned out that I was going to Philadelphia instead of Pocklington I accepted it as just another twist of fate in the roller coaster of my slightly crazy life!
Just to underline all of that, one of my most favourite authors Paulo Coelho put this quote on Facebook in the same week (well alright it wasn’t him directly!)
Philadelphia was never on my ‘bucket list’, the places I want to see before I depart this particular life but hey ho, diversions and spontaneity and surprises are fun and besides I made a promise to myself 15 years ago that “I would show the world that life is a glamorous and glorious adventure” which was a good pledge since I have had some amazing adventures as a result!
I think Philadelphia gets left off most people’s bucket list. America means many things to many people but as far as I can tell the cities on most Europeans wish list to see in America are New York, Washington, LA (meaning Hollywood and Beverly Hills), San Francisco, Miami and perhaps New Orleans. I have been to America many times without ever giving Philadelphia a thought. Yet surprisingly I think I liked it the best city I have visited in America so far.
I was there to bring in the New Year with the obligatory city fireworks but I never saw them from the 45th floor of a skyscraper before which was stunning and I spent the first morning of 2016 watching a unique Philadelphia New Year tradition, the Mummers Parade which is 116 years old and sees 10,000 men, women and children from more than 40 organised clubs parade down Broad Street trailing glitter, feathers and fun, a wonderful carnival start to the year!
Philadelphia is a mini, more manageable New York, less frantic, without the sirens and with a lot to offer. I knew that it had once been America’s capital city and is crucial for American history, so in the old part of the city with its grand buildings and wide roads is Independence Hall where George Washington signed the Declaration of Independence and next door is Congress Hall with its original desks where the US constitution was debated. It’s great to visit in winter and have an almost private tour given by one of the patriotic volunteers. Here one can see the room where Abraham Lincoln debated with his fellow congressman and several grand committee rooms, two with wonderful portraits of Marie Antoinette and Louis XV1 who were very ready to see Great Britain lose one of its greatest colonies! When she posed for her portrait I expect she didn’t know her head was going to end up affixed to a pike and carried through Paris. “Let them eat cake” was perhaps not the wisest phrase!
Further along the road is one of America’s greatest treasures the Liberty Bell. It’s a big bell with a big crack in it but the small modern museum where it is housed takes one on an illustrated journey until the foreign visitor (me!) is suitably awed to actually see the real thing close up and of course have the obligatory photo taken. Ding dong!
Also on the sightseeing list was a prison, the Eastern State Penitentiary. A very large and very cold and rather creepy prison, almost in ruins but with a surprising eerie beauty and fascinating history. Al Capone ‘lived’ here for a while and in true gangster style was able to furnish his cell very comfortably indeed…..
It was the first prison built like a wheel, it’s ‘spokes’ housing long rows of cells with vaulted ceilings and surprisingly each with its own toilet and pipes showing that this prison, designed not to punish but to inspire penitence in its inmates, had running water and central heating before the White House. Can you imagine if Wormwood Scrubs had better facilities than Buckingham Palace! Each prisoner served between 2 and 10 years in solitary confinement for his own good they thought. They definitely got that one wrong!
But onto happier days and The Philadelphia Art Museum, one of the best I have seen anywhere, crammed with old masters, a wonderful collection of impressionists, sculptures and modern art. Rather bizarrely there is a statue of Rocky outside this very grand building, of course Sylvester Stallone is a famous native of Philly. I came away from the Art Museum wishing I could have a yearly pass like my friends and go to all their exhibits and regular Friday night arty farty soirées!
There seem to be a lot of museums in Philly and I saw two more, the National Museum of American Jewish History, a record of the rich Jewish history of Philadelphia and the very weird Mutter Museum. Now if you are squeamish or of an overly sensitive disposition, the Mutter is not for you, because as it says of itself, it is “disturbingly informative.” They weren’t kidding! There are way too many pickled conjoined twins for instance, poor little things floating in huge jars. Doctor Mutter also had in his collection over 2000 swallowed objects and best of all part of Einstein’s brain. Turns out he was so brilliant not because he had a big brain or extra bits, but instead a bit missing. The lobes weren’t quite separated as ours are (I’m assuming here that you aren’t a genius!) which somehow made reasoning stuff out easy for him. I’m not a genius either so that is more or less what I understood from viewing a bit of his grey matter!
Museums apart, the city has wonderful shopping. All one could ever need I think and best of all, walkable and who doesn’t want to do a little shopping in America! Getting around is so easy. There are buses and taxis of course and also an underground system plus high speed trains out of the city. The streets are named after trees in one direction and numbers the other so even someone like me with roughly the sense of direction of an amoeba could work out where Walnut and 18th was!
As for food… Wow! I lunched in delis on huge sandwiches and had superb appetisers with lots of lovely wine overlooking the beautiful fairy-lit Rittenhouse Square and ate great food in French, Italian and Asian restaurants and falafel as good as in Tel Aviv. Of course taking home what you leave is perfectly normal here, no excuses needed about dogs! It was fun to go to the movies too, in a tiny city centre cinema called the Roxy that had a fifties vibe, much nicer than a huge multi-screen although they have those too. They also have grand theatres and ballet and opera and concerts, all the culture and entertainment one could ever need.
I learned a little about American politics on this visit with the elections looming, and had the doubtful privilege of seeing The Donald (Trump) on the TV news every day. God help us, is all I can say! And I didn’t miss out on America’s obsession with football either, although the huge guys playing with their Dynasty shoulder pads and cycling helmets bear no resemblance whatsoever to Wayne Rooney!
What I took away with me most from my too brief visit was the warmth and friendliness of Philly people. Of course I was so lucky to be with friends and then to meet their wonderfully kind and hospitable family and friends who were so warm and welcoming. But I spent a little time alone in the city too and everywhere I went people could not have been nicer or more friendly.
Things I missed were the Barnes Museum and trying a famous Philly Cheesesteak sandwich. I think it contains something that was once a cow so not for me! I was introduced to delicious carrot pudding instead which isn’t a pudding at all and came away with the recipe.
Philadelphia has an authenticity which some cities whose focus is tourism lack. it’s a classy city with lots to do and see and I can’t wait to go back. My unexpected trip was simply wonderful and I’m very content to continue allowing the Universe to solve my jigsaw!