So, I started writing this on Friday, January 20th, 2017, from my studio in Seville, Spain. I’m part way through my Glasgow write-up (which I started in November, back in Edinburgh, and weirdly just ignored ever since), and I fully intend to go back and finish that. But I wanted to sync my blog with where I actually am now, to recapture some of the immediacy of my experiences that the early blogs have. And, also, to not make the entries have to cover weeks of time and seem like insurmountable challenges.
Plus, it’s a good way to ignore Twitter, which is weirdly dark today for some reason.
So, for a quick catch-up: it’s been a few months since my last entry, on Dublin, which I wrote at the end of my month in Glasgow (which was 8/27-9/27). I was in Edinburgh for 6 weeks after that, left there on November 7th to head back to the US (via Dublin and New York, 5 days apiece, because plane fares from Dublin to JFK were super cheap). I was in LA until Jan 4th, staying with Mark and Jane (and, amongst other thing, playing the newly rereleased Skyrim game, and the Fallout Shelter iPad game), and then staying in New York with Brandon and Sallie until the 9th, and then spent a week in Philadelphia, where I went largely because of nonstop cheap fares between Philly and Madrid, Spain. So, on Monday the 16th, I flew to Madrid, arrived Tuesday morning, took a train down to Seville near the southern coast, and will be here for a month. Then Barcelona for a month, and then back to Edinburgh for 2 months more.
I quite liked Glasgow — more on that in the Glasgow Catch Up post — but Edinburgh is cementing its place as possibly my favorite city anywhere. Mind you, there are plenty of places I haven’t seen yet that I might equally enjoy — I still haven’t been to Vancouver, Toronto, Boston, Berlin, or anywhere in New Zealand — but Edinburgh is perhaps the first place ever in my life that I’ve thought, “This would be the perfect place to live.”
I’ve been considering getting a place there to use as a base 6 months out of the year, and travel the other 6 (while renting it out on Airbnb in my absence). That also might be a better balance of stability and travel than I have right now. I’m currently on my own a little more than is optimal. Having a place where I could build some connections, maybe join a hiking club or an anime group or something, or at least establish a favorite pub where everybody knows my name… that would be nice. I’ve looked a bit, in my 6 weeks there, but haven’t quite found anything that suits my needs; so I’ll go back there in the spring and look some more. I’ll try to find a place to rent (or possibly buy though that’s harder, with all my cash in long-term investments). The idea being that I could stay 6 months out of each year in a town that I *really* like, and travel the other 6. If I can find an Edinburgh place that works during the 2 months of my return, I’ll stay there for 6 months total and schedule other places like Berlin and Amsterdam and Oslo around it. If I can’t, I’ll let it go as not-meant-to-be, go spend more time in those other places, and just head back out somewhere else for 2018. Probably either my North America tour, or New Zealand.
Anyway, that’s where I am. And, since my travel year starts when I leave the home of the last of my holiday-visit friends, that means it starts with my Philly trip, on January 9th.
Monday, January 9th – Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
So, after 5 entirely pleasant days visiting Brandon and Sallie, a bit north of New York City, Brandon dropped me off at the train station on his way to work and my travel year began again. (It’s not as though I mean them to be my jumping off point each year. But the first year, it just made scheduling sense to have them as the last friends I checked in on, as I made the rounds before starting my new, nomadic life. And the last two years, I’ve been going to Europe, and they’re the closest.)
The train ride down was fairly straightforward. 7:14 train, an hour to get to Grand Central Station, take the short shuttle subway east-to-west to get to Penn Station, and catch the 10:52 Amtrak train from Penn Station to the 30th Street station in Philly, arriving at about 12:15. The check-in for my Airbnb place was 4pm, so I had some time to kill once I got there, but I found a restaurant in the station, had a beer and a burger, and hung out reading until about 3:30, so it was entirely pleasant. The train station was a decent enough place, with that old, northeast-US public building architecture that ranges between solid/lofty/grand and cavernous/worn. This place was sort of in-between; I’d love to show a picture of it, but this is all I seem to have:
A quick map of central Philly (the part I care about, at least) is probably in order here:
I had intended to walk from the station to the Airbnb; Google predicted about a 25 minute walk. But the temperature was about 23°, there was snow on the ground, and the two times I tried to leave the station I couldn’t find the pedestrian river crossing. (“There’s a river of pedestrians you have to cross? That’s crazy!” Shut up, you. You’re interrupting.) It turns out, I was looking just a little too far north; I should have gone south to Market street. Or something. Whatever. After two tries, I decided it was just too damn cold, and walked to the long line of taxis instead. It was a short trip, so I overtipped the driver, but I didn’t have to worry about freezing my hands (my light gloves are way too light for 23°), or slipping on snow and ice and breaking a hip. Or, more importantly, my gaming laptop.
The Airbnb building is in a reasonably upscale neighborhood: the buildings are all kind of worn brownstone tenement types, but the cars parked on the street tended toward the mid-to-high range, it’s super close the the famed Philadelphia Museum of Art (in the large park, a few blocks west), and there’s a giant Whole Foods a few blocks southeast of my place.
If I understand correctly, the building owner runs a pub/restaurant on the ground floor, and rents out the rooms in the building above; the guy running the Airbnb listing (which is here, btw) was not the owner. My room was on the second floor, a little studio that mostly resembles the pictures in the listing, except that there was a free-standing, open frame closety thing set up between the two windows, and that tall, bar-style table and stools was placed in front of the window next to the bathroom (on the right). There was also a small cabinet with a microwave, coffeemaker, and toaster between the frig and the TV.
Oh, also different from the pictures is that it was freezing inside. Well, in truth it was 50°, but, still, that’s rather colder than one normally likes indoors. I knew it was 50° because there was a heater thermostat on the wall, locked away in a clear case, that showed it was 50° and claimed that it was shooting for 70°. I knew it was running, because I could hear it in the closet, a muffled hammering like a small power generator. It turns out, that heater was for the whole building. It wasn’t a deafening noise, but it did permeate the room and you’d have had to deliberately talk over it. (I sent the host a message asking if there was a way to turn it off, and he said it was for the whole building and the owner didn’t allow adjustment.)
Fortunately, it was just muffled enough, and regular enough, that I could sleep through it, and I had to, because it ran continuously until late morning the next day. By that time, the outside weather was warming enough that the chill air pouring off the windows became not quite as chill. Also, I’d been running a small space heater continuously, and running the electric stove during my waking hours, and between all of that we got it up to 70° and the heater cut off.
Unfortunately, all that dried out the air so much that my sinuses kicked in as if I was in an LA Santa Anna. The same problem I’d had in LA a few weeks before, with headaches and feeling generally ill, which I’d cleared up with a Netti pot running water through my sinuses, hit all over again. It had started a little in New York — northern heaters really dry out the air, for some reason — but hadn’t bothered me too much then. But here? Full on sick, all over again. So, I went to a nearby CVS and bought one of the little Netti-pot-equivalent squeeze bottles and a bunch of the powder, and started irrigating again. And boiling water in a couple of pots on the stove. Between that and the building heater turning off and mostly staying off, I got over it in a couple of days. But Tuesday was pretty much a loss; I was not in a mood to go anywhere except out to Whole Foods for food. Or even think too hard. Mostly, it was just the computer, Fallout Shelter, and reading, all very low energy.
So, I was not enchanted with this place. A cute enough studio, in a good location, but not someplace you want to be in really cold weather. Which was basically how I phrased the review, after I left. (There were other oddnesses. There was one blanket, and it was too thin for that temperature; but there were a surprising number of towels, so I piled them up on the bed and was warm enough. There were little hotel-sized shampoo+conditioner bottles, and hotel soap, but the hotel soaps were these little Howard-Johnson-grade wafers that wore out fast or cracked and fell in half; I made do, but they were a nuisance. There was a nice set of pots and pans, but no cooking utensils. And for eating, there was a set of steak knives, but only one fork, and one dinner knife, and no spoon. It was… a weird set of equipment choices.)
Wednesday, January 11th
By mid-day Wednesday, I was feeling close enough to decent that the need to get out overrode my lingering malaise. So I got a salad and juice at Whole Foods and ate it there (while eyeing the pub longingly), and then continued on to the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
The grand steps leading up to the museum were made famous in the movie Rocky, because he ran up and down them for aerobic conditioning while exciting music played. Philly seems to have taken this movie to heart, and erected a statue of the Rocky character at the base of the museum, just visible in the photo above if you look under the “C-1” sign and across the street.
FYI, walking up those stairs feels weirdly like a counter-cultural protest: all the tourists run up them and look excited when they get to the top. And I’m thinking: yeah, that’s great lady (or buddy). Do it 50 more times, and maybe it will be a proper homage to the movie. Doing it once is just a way of saying, “Hey, look! I’m not technically disabled!” (No slight intended to those who are technically disabled. I’m just saying.)
When I arrived, there was a crew in the process of taking down the Christmas tree that must have been placed there earlier. I looked at some of the surrounding architecture, including a nice — what would you call it, a gable? — decorated with Greek gods in color.
I went inside, bought a ticket, and was directed to coat check to check my backpack — a thing that always annoys me a little. What, are they afraid I’m going to stuff a painting into it? I used the time in the short coat check line to take pretty much everything out of my backpack and put it in the pockets of my jacket, before handing it to the coat check guy, feeling very much like I was sticking it to The Man.
And, from there, I started wandering.
I saw that they had a wing of Asian Art, and headed straight for it. Unfortunately, I still had to go through some other, intrinsically less interesting rooms.
Finally, I got to the Asian Art wing, which is really quite impressive. For example, one room has an entire Japanese tea house (where they occasionally have real tea ceremonies), guest house, and Buddhist temple built into it.
There were other cool things, like Buddhist and Taoist statues, Persian swords and armor, and the like. But, alas, all good things must come to an end, and I left that section and headed into medieval European art. And you know what that means:
Let’s be super clear: I am in no way intending to mock the story that — for want of a better word — “inspired” this piece. But could the artist not show even a hint of maternal/filial affection, or happiness with the state of things? Here’s what I get from this painting: “Even the happiest part of our religion is dreary and unpleasant. Good luck avoiding Hell.” I’m just saying, they could be doing better.
And, what collection of medieval Christian art would be complete without at least one Annunciation featuring a Mary who is clearly having none of it:
Moving on, there were rooms of medieval arms and armor:
Finally, one more Madonna and Child from today’s trip:
By this time, it was getting close to 5pm, so I retrieved my backpack, repacked it, and headed over to Whole Foods for to pick up a salad and call it a day. The museum ticket was good for two days, and there was plenty I hadn’t seen yet, so I figured I might as well come back on Thursday, and maybe walk the surrounding park a bit more. And, as it turns out, I was right.
Thursday, January 12th
I spent the morning on e-mail, Twitter, meditation, yoga, miscellaneous stuff, and headed out towards the museum after lunch. This time, a slightly different route treated me to some new views:
Today, after once again emptying my backpack into my jacket pockets and checking it, I headed into the Modern Art wing of the museum. Rather against my better judgement, truth be told, but you never know: I might find something impressive and inspiring.
Leaving the Modern Art wing, I quickly came to more palatable fare.
I saw many other pieces in the museum, but they were generally pretty standard European fare: more Christian art (often dubious); landscapes with idyllic Grecian ruins; portraits of overdressed and doubtless overflattered noblemen/women. It was all well and good, but you know the sort of thing I’m talking about. There’s little need to reproduce it here.
Afterwards, I collected my backpack and wandered north through the riverside park — which would have been lovely if not for the major roads and freeways passing around and through it for — as far as I can tell — its entire length. I gave it about 45 minutes, and then got tired of listening to traffic and headed back in the general direction of Whole Foods, passing through slightly different neighborhoods this time — the highlight of which was passing a building that’s now condominiums but used to be a beer brewery. I’d show pictures… but it’s really just a standard-looking apartment building with a sign out front announcement its formerly beery nature.
One thing I noticed, as I walked around on the various days of my stay: Philadelphia does not seem terribly interested in Walk lights at street crossings. I might have seen a couple during my visit, but mostly there were just traffic lights, and pedestrians were supposed to figure it out. There were even traffic lights used when only walk signals would have made sense, sometimes facing away from the traffic on one-way streets. Go figure.
Anyway, that was the day.
(FYI, there was a Rodin Museum nearby, but it was closed this month for renovations. I’d love to include an appropriate image of someone looking a bit sad and pensive over the closure, but nothing comes to mind. Ah well, moving on.)
Friday, January 13th
Friday was the now usual mucking-about in the morning with email and Twitter and Fallout Shelter and yoga and meditation. Then, after lunch again, I walked east across the city to a movie theater about a block east of Independence Hall, at the lower right of the map above, where I planned to watch the movie A Monster Calls. I’d been looking forward to it ever since I’d seen the trailers, months ago, and only a few days before I’d realized that it was out in theaters, and I had this one week in Philly to see it before I left for Europe and it was relegated to later Amazon or Netflix viewing. So, I looked up where it was playing, and the time (1:40pm) and headed off.
I’m going to leap ahead very slightly and report that the movie was not at all what I expected it to be. It *looked* to me like one of those urban fantasy, supernatural intruding on real life, kid meets a powerful spirit guardian and gains magical powers to solve his real-world problems sorts of stories, where I would want to see it alone because I’d probably end up crying because the magical elements resonated so strongly. And I did end up crying. But it wasn’t really that kind of movie at all. It was built around a kid dealing with the tough hand he’d been dealt, and trying to come to terms with it — not a light, exciting, fantasy romp but instead a much darker story, and more real. Though, at the same time, my first impression may not have been that far off. It’s hard to say, without revealing things. But it was a really terrific movie, and I can absolutely recommend it.
Along the way, I passed some pretty cool stuff, as is the custom on such walks.
Looking at these places, it came to me that this was a really good place to be visiting, at this turbulent time in our national politics. With literal fascists being appointed to high office, under a leader who, at best, gives no appearance of caring for the principles of these documents or even for making a consistent set of statements (much less the loftier goal of speaking some viewpoint of a truth), visiting the foundation of our democracy and meditating more on the principles established here seemed particularly apt. But I had a movie to get to. So, later, democratic principles!
So, movie watched and enjoyed, and post-movie emotional sniffles concealed from the humans around me, I left the theater and briefly considered stopping in to see these sites. But it was late in the afternoon, I had longish walk back in chilly weather, and I thought it might be better to not be rushed through the exhibits, and be able to walk home while the sun was still up. So I did, down Chestnut Street, which like many of the surrounding blocks is chock full of shops and restaurants and semi-official buildings and seems like a lovely place to stroll and shop on a warm spring afternoon. I, myself, set a very brisk pace to stay warm, pausing only to catch Pokemon and occasionally take pictures of interesting and historic sites.
You can, if you like, reproduce my walk with considerably less exertion, by going to the Google Maps street view and stepping your way east. If you cross a river, you’ve gone too far.
I stopped by Whole Foods again, but this time I bought a salad bar box and a small cheesecake, went to their indoor pub, ordered something dark, and had dinner there. Don’t recall the beer’s name, but it was quite good, and I felt suitably fortified afterwards.
Saturday, January 14th
Nothing of significance. Really. I don’t think I left the studio. I was scheduled to play ESO with Mum and Sarah from 1-3 my time, and that was sufficiently in-the-middle-of-my-day that trying to compact anything around the sides of it just seemed like too much work. (I’d originally thought I’d try to see the University of Philadelphia campus and surrounding area sometime on this visit, but it didn’t happen. With Philly as a central airport hub, I’m likely to get other chances, so next time, I guess.) So, Twitter, reading, yoga, meditation, YouTube, etc. That sort of thing.
Sunday, January 15th
The day I’d had earmarked to visit Constitution Hall. Normally, you have to get tickets — which are free, but you’re advised to reserve them on the website — but during the 2 or 3 coldest months the crowds are lower and they don’t use them. So, around 9:30 I had a fortifying snack of Icelandic Skyr, and headed out.
BTW, looking at that photo, I just noticed that I ate it a day past its sell-by date. No harm done. (Maybe that Icelandic bacteria is hardier than normal? Or less so? I’m not sure which would be better, when you’re talking about eating expired food.)
Along the way, I saw the usual sights:
And, by around 11:30, I arrived:
The Wikipedia page has much of this building’s history, and links to the people, events, and documents related to it. My group’s tour guide was a member of the National Park Service, and may well have been a Shakespearean actor in a former life. A stout fellow in maybe his late 40s, with a seriously booming voice, he led us first to the state court room.
I can’t say this strongly enough: these are the founding sites of the American Myth, the stories that we are told as children, taught in schools, read in books, watched in movie theaters. There’s a power that you feel, when you’re in the presence of your cultural myths, a sense of something so much bigger than yourself. And, in the case of these particular American Myths, it’s a solely positive myth and therefore that much more awe-inspiring. If you were British and went to visit the crown jewels, or Buckingham Palace, or the Magna Carta… they’re complicated. The authority of a King, or the symbol of a group of nobles taking power back for themselves, is a mixed symbol, that may or may not move you in different and possibly conflicting ways. Rome’s Colosseum is a pivotal symbol of Italian history, as is the Vatican, but there’s both good and harm in them for an Italian. Most cultural edifices grew up organically, over long periods, and have a lot of mixed associations.
Not so with Independence Hall. America has not always lived up to the ideals laid out here, and those ideals themselves were not complete at the time. But they were perhaps the first coherent statement of the rights of mankind to be crafted into the founding of a nation. We can debate aspects of their meaning and interpretation, and how to update them as our civilization matures, but the defining story of the American identity was established here, a nation “conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”[*] This is where that seed was planted, the seed that grew into who we are as a people, and if you come from our culture and believe in these principles, it would be hard to visit this place and be unmoved.
Our country has always had challenges to overcome, both within and without. And there are always those who seek to deny or diminish the freedoms that were established here and those freedoms that have grown up from these initial principles. People who want to restrict freedom of speech (because they fear unfamiliar or disagreeable viewpoints, or they want to suppress dissent), or freedom of religion (because of heresy or fear of extremist minorities), or they wish to govern by personal preference, or the desire for money or power or attention, or simply by unquestioned fiat. But, in the end, this clear, defining, foundational statement of values and principles — of government deriving its authority from the governed and in the interests of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness — is such a matter of national identity and shared Myth that there are always those who will strive to retain and extend its promise. And that gets us through times of strife and corruption and past (sometimes too slowly but still inexorably) our national errors and failings. We are not a perfect nation, but we share an ideal of perfection, and from that shared ideal progress comes, despite all trials and obstacles.
I ended up in Philly almost by accident. But it was a good time to be here, and I’m grateful that I was.
The brief tour ended in this second room, and I offered my compliments to the guide, as I passed him, for an exceptional presentation. Leaving the building, there were a couple of adjacent buildings, which hardly anybody went to; they did the tour, and then took off. But the other buildings were definitely worth the visit. The first that I went to was a ground floor space holding some historical documents in protectively dim lighting, such as this one:
And, in the building next door:
There were National Park Service attendants in these other buildings also, though they weren’t as much tour guides. I noticed they had standard brief statements explaining the rooms, and then simply answered questions when asked. I have to say, I was very impressed with everybody in the NPS here. They were unfailingly upbeat (but not in your face about it), friendly, and informative, and seemed able to give the same spiel over and over again to new tourists without losing any of its freshness. It was a vital service, and they performed it admirably.
After this, I went across to the Liberty Bell building, across the street to the north. This was a long, low building with an entrance (and security screening) on one end, the bell on the other, and a series of exhibits all along the way, dedicated to the association of the Liberty Bell with the freedom and civil rights of Americans throughout the nation’s existence. Starting with this sign on a windowed block next to the entrance line, before you even got in the door:
A great point of significance, as described here and in the Wikipedia article about the bell, is that it only exists as a symbol of American freedom and ideals because of the abolition movement. I think most people have a vague concept of the bell as having been rung to announce the signing of the Declaration, or perhaps to warn the city of British attacks, and maybe the famous crack in it came from British bullets or canonfire. Nope on all counts. It used to hang in the Independence Hall tower, there’s a line from Leviticus on the bell about liberty, and the abolitionists seized on those things, made it their symbol, and gave it a name. And once you give a historical artifact a mythic name like that, it becomes a part of the broader Myth. I had to wonder, while I was walking through, if all of this gives visiting racists pause. Do they get upset at the “contamination” of something they regarded as a national symbol that should be independent of <viewpoints they don’t agree with>? Do they glower past the exhibits until they get to the bell, view it, and leave resentfully? Or do any of them take that message of “Liberty for All” away with them, and reconsider? I can only hope for the latter.
There were many pictures of minority groups (or, in the case of women, a majority group) fighting for freedom and civil liberties, sometimes on their own and sometimes in direct association with the bell.
There was an exhibit about the Women’s Liberty Bell, created by the suffragists:
And, the exhibit’s final message:
And that, I think, will be that. This was my last full day in Philadelphia, I checked out the next morning at around 10:30, walked 25 minutes to a subway (in a surprisingly clean and well organized subway nexus), and rode it around 40 minutes to the airport to catch my 6:50pm flight. A bit of a wait in a warm, arid, airport, but there was WiFi and meditation and reading to be had, so no biggie.
Next entry: Seville! (Coming soon, to a blog near you.)