A Philadelphia pit stop, and a trip down memory lane

Coming back to Philadelphia for the first time in 17-odd years was something Zev had been looking forward to for a long time.

He spent most of his childhood in Philadelphia, until moving to New Zealand in 2000. Since then, he hasn't really been back.

After a white knuckle drive from New York, getting used to driving on the wrong side of the car, on the wrong side of the road, we arrived to our first port of call in Philadelphia: Zev's childhood best friend Sammy's parents' apartment.

The Eisners

We weren't even out of the car before Zev was enveloped in an enthusiastic hug. Bonnie (Sammy's mum) was arriving home as we pulled in, and she was as excited to see Zev as he was to see her. To our delight, she was walking a gorgeous labradoodle named Ollie, who was to become our firm friend over the next few days.

Bonnie welcomed us into their beautiful apartment overlooking Rittenhouse Square, while we (well her and Zev really!) spent some time catching up. Eventually, Zev was itching to go check out the neighbourhood, so we headed out.

Reliving childhood

The first stop on the trip down memory lane was Zev's old house: 1911 Spruce St. Even the short walk from Rittenhouse Square to Spruce St had Zev ooohing and aaahhhing every few feet. It was pretty cool to get to see the area in which he grew up.

Although we didn't get to go inside, even seeing the house I've heard so much about from the outside was pretty cool. Zev reminisced about the keyhole shaped door to his bedroom, and all his childhood cats as we wandered around the surrounding streets, and we found our way down to Zev's old school, The Philadelphia School. Apparently, it has grown since Zev's time, but it was still recognisable as the place where he spent MANY hours as a kid.

The next stop was Taney Park, where Zev played baseball as a kid. Even as we walked through, there was a new generation of kids playing in the same park. From there, we made our way back to Rittenhouse Square. As we walked, Zev talked a lot about how much his perception of the city was changing. When he was younger, the route we'd just walked was his whole world, and it seemed HUGE. Now, we'd walked the whole thing in about half an hour!

Back in Rittenhouse Square, we wandered around the nearby shopping district, and passed by my first group of religious protesters, which was interesting. We passed them a few times, and each subsequent time we passed, more and more counter-protesters had gathered. THe final time we passed the counter-protesters had also got hold of a megaphone, and a hilarious yell-off was taking place. Sadly, the whole spectacle ended when it started raining. Apparently "spreading the word of God" is a weather dependent activity.

Soaking in some American History

We spent the next day taking in some of the historic sights of Philadelphia. Coming from a British colony, American history is not something I studied at school, so I had a lot to learn!

Independence Hall

We started with a (free) tour of Independence Hall, where both the Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution were debated and adopted. It was also the original home of the Liberty Bell (see below), which has now been moved.

  • Background on the Declaration of Independence:

By the time the Declaration was signed in 1776, the Thirteen Colonies (as USA was known at the time) had been at war with Great Britain for more than a year. The most pressing issue seems to have been taxation - the British believed that they were entitled to tax the colonies to cover the cost of keeping them in the British Empire; the Thirteen Colonies believed that they should not be taxed, as they received no direct representation in British parliament.

With most of the country in favour of full independence from Britain, a group of men from the American Continental Congress penned a formal statement of the colonists' expectations and demands to be sent to King George III. A little over a year later, when their demands remained unmet, the Declaration of Independence was written and adopted.

  • Background on the United States Constitution:

The United States Constitution is the supreme law of the United States. Drafted in 1787 and ratified in 1788, the Constitution originally contained seven articles, and has been amended 27 times.

The Constitution has three main functions: creating a national government, consisting of a legislative, an executive, and a judicial branch, with a system of checks and balances; dividing power between the government and the states; and protecting various liberties of American citizens.

Liberty Bell

The Liberty Bell is an iconic symbol of American freedom. Named the Liberty Bell in honour of its inscription, "Proclaim liberty throughout all the land, unto all the inhabitants thereof." The bell acquired its distinctive crack on its fist ringing - although it was recast twice, there were ongoing issues with it. The final expansion of the crack, rendering it unringable, occurred on Washington's birthday in 1846.

The bell achieved its iconic status when adopted by abolitionists as a symbol for their movement. In fact, it was abolitionists who named it the 'Liberty Bell'.

City Hall

On our way home, we also wandered through the stunning Philadelphia City Hall. Between 1894 and 1908, the City Hall was the tallest habitable building in the world, at 167m tall. The centre of the building is a public square, and the surrounding areas are cool public spaces.

Disc golfing at Sedgley Woods

The next day, we caught up with a friend from New Zealand who is completing part of his PhD in Philadelphia. Much to Zev's delight, Ben took us out to play disc golf (well, Zev played, I chased squirrels and chipmunks). Although we only planned to spend half a day playing, by the time we finished up and got a late lunch, the day had flown by, so we headed straight home to get ready for dinner.

Dinner at Double Knot

That night, we headed out for dinner with the Eisners. Bonnie's husband Jay had come home from a work trip, and their youngest son Dave also joined us. We ate like kings at a fantastic Asian fusion restaurant named Double Knot. The food just kept on coming, and every bite was more delicious than the last. Of particular note was the duck bao bun - a definite highlight.

The Barnes Foundation

The following morning, we packed ourselves up and said our goodbyes to Bonnie, Jay and Ollie. Our first stop for the day was the Barnes Foundation.

The Barnes was founded in 1922 by Albert Barnes, who made his fortune by co-developing a silver antiseptic compound. The foundation owns more than 4000 objects, including over 900 paintings, with an estimated worth of over $25 billion. 

No photos from the Barnes Foundation, so here's a photo of Zev making friends with a tubby cat from a nearby bookstore

In 2006, the collection was moved from its original location in Merion, to Philadelphia. Despite the new home, all efforts were made to retain the the layout of the art, which had been hung according to Barnes' wishes.

We spent a couple of hours in the museum, marvelling at all the incredible art on display. 181 Renoirs, 69 Cezannes, 59 Matisses, 46 Picassos, and the list goes on...

The Franklin Institute

After a quick stop for lunch, we headed to the Franklin Institute for the afternoon. The Franklin Institute is a fantastic science museum which also happens to be where Zev had his Bar Mitzvah! 

We had a great afternoon playing with all the exhibits alongside the multitudes of kids on school trips. We played in a giant heart, shocked each other with static electricity, and even got a private viewing of 'Asteroid: Mission Extreme' in the Planetarium.

The Kovachevs

With our museum levels topped up, we headed to our next hosts: Tiho and Ludmilla. Zev's parents helped Tiho, Ludmilla and their children emigrate to the United States from Bulgaria in the 90s, and they've remained firm friends ever since.

As usual, we received a fantastically warm welcome. Within an hour of arriving, we were in the backyard with drinks in hand, enjoying a delicious and enormous Bulgarian meal. Tiho and Ludmilla were hilarious, and we spent the evening in stitches as they reminisced about the good old days with Zev's parents.

Lunch with Jin

The meals with family friends just kept coming! The next day, we caught up with another family friend of Zev's parents, Jin, and heard all about how her son has just been selected to play percussion in the Beijing Philharmonic Orchestra - how cool! In a fortuitous coincidence, she let us know that her brother Zhikai, who lives in Colorado, would be in Washington DC at the same time as us. That worked out perfectly, because we weren't sure if we were going to have time to get to Colorado to see him.

Our first professional ultimate frisbee game

In yet another fortuitous coincidence, our friend Ben (who took us disc golfing) also happens to be playing in a professional ultimate frisbee league, and we happened to be in town for a home game!

The atmosphere at the game was pretty cool - it seemed like most of the people there were frisbee players or their friends and family, but there were a few people in the crowd who seemed like they were just there to see what it was all about.

The Philadelphia Phoenix secured a solid victory, and we got to see a game that loosely resembled the sport we play at home. Rule changes to make the game more spectator and camera friendly meant that there were some distinct differences from the way we play at home, but nonetheless, it was really fun to watch some high level ultimate, and it left Zev, in particular, itching to play.

When the opportunity came up to play in a pick up game the following day, Zev was more than happy to join in!

Eastern State Penitentiary

Although thoroughly exhausted from his frisbee game, Zev agreed to head out with me to the Eastern State Penitentiary the next afternoon. We were super excited to find that they have audio tours, and that they were narrated by none other than Steve Buscemi!

Eastern State Penitentiary was one of the first prisons to institute separate incarceration. Active from 1829 to 1971, at its completion, the building was the largest and most expensive public structure ever built in the United States.

Designed by John Haviland, the separation of inmates from contact with other humans was intended to encourage self reflection and penitence (hence 'penitentiary'). The system of solitary confinement eventually ended due to overcrowding in the prisons. From 1930 onwards, it operated as a congregate prison.

While the history of the prison was interesting, by far the most profound and impacting section of the museum was dedicated to modern prisons. A sobering and eye opening exhibition details the prison system in America, the country with the highest rate of incarceration in the world by far. If you're interested, check out the fantastic documentary 13th for more insights.

Dinner with Kamen

Our last night in Philadelphia was another fantastic Bulgarian meal, this time with Tiho and Ludmilla's son, Kamen. Since he's only a couple of years older than Zev, they spent the night takling about growing up together in Philadelphia and spending summers at Long Beach Island. With 17-odd years of catching up to do, there was plenty to talk about!

The Mutter Museum and Reading Terminal Market

After a crazy week catching up with folks left, right and centre, we were sad to hit the road again the next morning. Regardless, we loaded up the car and headed off.

On our way out of town, we managed to find time for a couple of quick stops. The first, not so interesting - opening a bank account. It did give Zev time for one FINAL catch up though, this time with Roseanne, his parent's book keeper. She was kind enough to help him with the painful task of opening an account without residency. With her help, it was a breeze!

Since it was only a short drive to DC, we decided to squeeze in one last tourist attraction: The Mutter Museum. Priding itself on being 'disturbingly informative', this museum of medical oddities was a fascinating collection of biological specimens. From skulls to mega-colons, this place has it all...

Our last stop before hitting the road was lunch at the nearby Reading Terminal Market. A fantastic indoor market filled with all sorts of delicious goodies, it was hard to decide where to eat! Luckily Kamen had given us a recommendation, so we tucked in to some tasty sandwiches before starting our drive to DC!

Lots of love,
S & Z