Following on from the last post I’ve decided to write about the time I went to Philadelphia because some readers (ok, it was just the one person) failed to comprehend how the City of Brotherly Love could ever hold a greater place in anyone’s heart than the City of Light. This should hopefully explain why Philly outscores Paris…in my world at least.
The lasting affection I have for Philadelphia can be explained by two very straight forward reasons. The first is that this was the place Kim and I began a six week road trip across America, which in turn led to a nine-month world tour and the second reason I’ll explain in pt.2 because otherwise this will become one very long, rambling post. The question that inevitably arose when revealing the starting point to our world tour was “Why Philadelphia?” Some people failed to comprehend why we had seemingly bypassed New York, Boston or the Magic Kingdom as the beginning stage of our journey, but the reasoning was simple. I didn’t want to revisit places I’d already been on this tour of the States and more importantly, as this was a journey to discover the monuments, legends and myths of America, I felt it only right to begin at the beginning. And the beginning had to be where the Declaration of Independence was written, signed and first publicly read, initiating the birth of modern America. After explaining this most people would stare blankly, and if Kim were nearby throw compassionate looks her way. “Well, you’ll be certain to eat well in America at least” was the customary response. As an aside I would add that I also wanted to run up the Rocky Steps, which generally met with much approval and a why-didn’t-you-say-so-in-the-first-place kind of look.
This being the start of the trip – when it was easy to deceive yourself that money was of little concern – we booked a couple of nights in the Thomas Bond House B&B. The TBH – as I never called it but I’m trying to cut back on unnecessary wordage, I think it’s going well so far – has been restored to look as it would back in the 18th century so period furniture and colonial vibes abound. It also proudly boasts of being the only lodgings located inside America’s most historic square mile, or Independence National Historical Park to give it the proper title, and is a short walk to the main historical sites of Independence Hall, the Liberty Bell Center and the National Constitution Center. As we hit the streets of Philadelphia for the first time we both sensed a strange transformation take over us. It was whilst walking down Chestnut Street that the uncontrollable urge to start humming Bruce Springseen’s classic track about these same streets could be contained no more.
“That must be Independence Hall. La la la la la.“
“And there’s Liberty Bell. La la la la la.”
“Let’s take a walk down 5th Street. Streets of Philadelphia La la la la la la.”
We conversed like this for the rest of our time in Philly (to use local parlance), which drew a few odd looks and was even a bit annoying after the first hour, but I seriously don’t think there’s any way around it other than having a lobotomy.
First up on the historyfest was Independence Hall, scene of the signing of the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776 and where the US Constitution was first drafted in 1787. America as we now know it began in this very place, even if they still had the small matter of sending the British packing before independence could be fully attained. You have to join a guided tour to view inside the Hall and the history lesson inevitably focused upon a bit of Brit-bashing, or more specifically, slagging the English. I wouldn’t want to portray myself as overly sensitive to this sort of thing but travelling the world for any English man or woman will at some stage incorporate negative press. You have to expect this sort of thing. You can’t just go around trying to conquer most of the world bringing civilization and cricket with you and expect a great big thank you can you? I’m only joking of course – imperialism is so 19th century.
The magnitude of the events that unfolded inside this building are simply too great to make such modest surroundings worthy of the occasion. It was here that wise men argued and debated the exact content of documents that shaped a fledgling nation; the likes of which not seen since Magna Carta. As noble a document as the Declaration of Independence clearly is, there are one or two things that demand closer inspection. It was Thomas Jefferson, the third President of the United States, who drafted the Declaration and committed to print the immortal words “We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men are created equal”. It’s a hell of a mission statement for any time, never mind the late eighteenth century in a land gradually being taken from its original inhabitants, so there is no shame to be felt at failing to meet such lofty aspirations. Yet I can’t help thinking that it was never likely to get off the ground when Jefferson, a man who publicly considered slavery immoral and spoke out in favour of its abolishment, owned almost two hundred slaves himself. To add insult to such hypocritical injury it now appears likely, after years of study, commissions and DNA testing, that Jefferson fathered children with Sally Hemings, one of many black slaves in his home at Monticello. Clearly a practice he once labelled as an “abominable crime” had its upsides. This was not to be the first time that the issue of race and America’s inability to fulfil those promises of the Founding Fathers would arise during our time in the States.
Besides the odd bold proclamation that was doomed to failure before it began, the majority of the Declaration is taken up with a good old fashioned rant at the King of Great Britain. The list of crimes attributed to George III leave no doubt that British involvement in America could only continue for so long. But it is worth mentioning that the eventual defeat of British forces was in no small part due to the influence of the French, whose stock was much higher in Philadelphia in those times than it is now as we would later discover. The end result of all this for Britain was that they looked elsewhere to colonise, trade and send people they didn’t like. Just think, without those rebellious Yankees we may never have had The Ashes, chicken tikka masala or Stefan Dennis.
The Liberty Bell, just across the way from Independence Hall, is of such national importance that you have to pass through rigorous airport-style security to enter. Such inconveniences have become all too familiar for those of us in the western world, a small price to pay for ensuring our safety. Or so you would think. Yet for one family from the East Midlands this was an unnecessary hassle. While queuing to get in I heard the first English voices since landing. It was a family all with Shane Meadows accents hailing from somewhere near Derby I suspected after seeing the dad’s elegant Derby County FC arm tattoo. To the ranger who was idly minding his own business by the exhibits they may as well have just dropped in from Dagestan for all the sense they were making. The mother seemed particularly perturbed by the high security and raised the point with him.
“What’s wer’all the se-cure-tee?”
“I’m sorry ma’am?” The perplexed look on the rangers face while trying to maintain a smile was worth the admission fee alone.
“The se-cure-tee. T’is it real n’sry? Takes ages to gerrin’ wiv the kiddies.”
No response as the ranger tried in vain to decipher what he had just heard.
“The se-cuuuurree-tee. You know, the x-rays.”
“Ah the security.” A look of relief crossed the ranger’s face as the question became clearer. Kind of. “Well ma’am we have had security concerns in the past so I’m afraid it is necessary to keep our visitors and attraction safe.”
“It’s very inconvenient like.”
“I’m sorry about that ma’am, but your safety is our top priority.”
“Well, I don’t understand. S’only a bell.”
And with that she walked off, leaving behind a man whose head had just been messed with in a manner he had probably never previously known or is unlikely to ever know again. Personally, I admired this frank assessment of one of America’s most visited attractions, but felt certain my compatriot didn’t fully appreciate its symbolism. Not that this stopped the whole family – including nana in her mobility scooter striking an uncanny resemblance to the prune-like grandmother in the TV show ‘Benidorm’ – having several dozen pictures taken alongside it. The Liberty Bell is of course much more than a bell. How many bells do you know that go on a national rail tour so that the rest of the country get their chance to witness it first hand? Initially the Liberty Bell rang out to announce victories in the Revolutionary War, but it later became a symbol of the anti-slavery movement, poignantly referred to in Martin Luther King’s ‘I Have a Dream’ speech and heralded by Nelson Mandela for its eternal association with democracy. Still, it will take more than a universal icon of freedom to impress some of the fine people of Derbyshire. I imagine they live by the maxim; seen one bell, seen them all.
With time drawing in on the end of the working day we decided to do the one thing I’m always so eager to mock others for doing. We took the open-top double-decker tourist bus. In my defence we had an hour to burn at the end of the day and Philadelphia is a very spread out city so I was willing to abandon my principles this one time. You won’t get me in one of those duck boats though…It ended up being a private tour as we were all alone. Our guide, Mike, despite being sat right next to us, insisted on speaking through his microphone, which was my personal highlight of the tour.
“OVER ON YOUR LEFT AND MY RIGHT YOU CAN SEE CITY HALL.”
It was like being in the front row of a concert. Mike would continue his well-honed commentary and when out of sight of any notable locations drop the mic and chat with us about where we were from and how long we had in America. When we told him it was our very first day of a world tour he became very excited to the point where he nearly missed his lines.
“So how long do you guys have in South America? I always wanted to go to…AND ON YOUR RIGHT AND MY LEFT YOU HAVE THE FRANKLIN INSTITUTE SCIENCE MUSEUM.”
You had to admire the man’s professionalism.
Our hotel was handily placed for the congregation of bars and restaurants around 2nd Street and despite this being mid-October it was still warm enough to try some pavement drinking. I was keen to try out some new beer, so when asked what I would like by our waiter I gave my standard reply of “something local”. As a self-confessed real ale lover and CAMRA card owner to boot – despite not being excessively overweight, consumed by unkempt facial hair and in need of some personal hygiene tips (well, not that anyone has been brave/cruel/honest enough to tell me) – I was getting a bit giddy at getting my lips around some of the ever-increasing number of excellent US craft beers. I definitely didn’t want to be drinking any Bud/Coors/Molson rubbish that we get pedalled in the UK so freely. I’d seriously prefer a pint of tramp’s backwash to having to drink Budweiser again. What I got was a drink by the name of Yuengling and despite always aiming to drink without prejudice I had a sneaky feeling it would be just another bland, tasteless mass-produced North American gas-fest. A more wrong man on the streets of Philadelphia you would not have seen since Randolph and Mortimer Duke decided it would be a good idea to reverse the lifestyles of the characters of Eddie Murphy and Dan Aykroyd in Trading Places. Yuengling, with its rich amber colour and crisp, dry finish, is a perfect drop for a warm evening in the city and I liked it a lot; five pints liked it in fact. As I would later discover Yuengling is freely available throughout Pennsylvania and the drink of choice for Philly sports fans. It is also America’s oldest brewery, forming in 1829, which would suggest I should have heard of it before then, but the reason I hadn’t may have something to do with the fact they don’t export and have no plans to do so, unfortunately. Indeed they only currently distribute within America to 13 states. The Beer Police will probably pour scorn over my fondness for Yuengling as it’s not officially a craft beer and they dare to brew more than 24 bottles a year, but it has the mentality of a microbrewer and a taste that makes it a perfect session beer so as NWA once sang, fuck tha beer police. It also only cost $2 pint and seeing as the last time I set foot in Paris I was paying close to 10 Euros for a pint of Europiss I think that’s another notch in Philadelphia’s favour.
In Pt.2 I’ll provide the second reason why Philadelphia rocks. And it’s not Hall & Oates…