Thursday, July 20, 2006

Philadelphia is Phun

If they call it the City of Brotherly Love, why didn't any of that rub off on the brothers who live in my house? We have just returned from our week in Philadelphia. As is our usual, we packed hours of adventures into each day.

We arrived last Monday, and my SIL (who lives in Cherry Hill, NJ and happened to be dropping her daughter off at the same time) picked us up. We drove into the city and checked into the Sofitel Philadelphia, which was trés français but in a great location. My brother drove in to meet us for dinner. This was the first time I’d seen him since his heart attack last year. He’s a little grayer and a lot thinner, but he’s doing well.

The next day we got up early to make it down to the Independence National Park Visitors Center by 8:30 a.m. We had 9:00 reservations to tour Independence Hall. We were in the first tour of the day. We learned all about the Continental Congresses and the state and local governments that met in those cluster of buildings. It was a living, fascinating American history lesson. From there we went on to the new Liberty Bell pavilion, a fancy new structure with dozens of displays leading up to the bell itself. Wild Thing and Moose immediately ran up to see the bell, while Wizard, WineGuy, and I read all the other stuff. The new pavilion is impressive outside and in. It situates the bell with a Kodak view of Independence Hall behind it; a huge improvement over the old, discolored plexiglas box they used to have. We went back to the Visitors Center to watch a couple of videos about the signing of the Declaration of Independence and life during the Revolutionary War. Afterwards, we had lunch at a deli in the Old City. After lunch we went back to the Visitors Center to pick up Junior Park Ranger packets for each of the boys. They had to find three of five relics listed and complete a few activities. Our Junior Ranger excursion took us down to Franklin Court, a collection of homes and a museum commemorating the life of that old kite-flyer, Benjamin Franklin. The boys really enjoyed finding their artifacts, getting their packets stamped and learning about Ben. We bought a couple of post cards and sent them from the oldest post office in the USA. We saw a live demonstration of an “armonica,” a musical glass instrument invented by Franklin. Our first day was far from over. We wandered over to the National Museum of American Jewish History at one of the oldest synagogues in the country. We listened to a short lecture on the history of the congregation, but we didn’t see much museum b/c it’s undergoing an expansion. From there we trudged over to Betsy Ross’s house. It’s a tiny dollhouse of a place, almost like a rabbit warren. We then relaxed in the garden while the boys enjoyed storytelling presented by the “Once Upon A Nation” project. We finished the day, as we would nearly every other day, in Chinatown at some dive with fabulous food. Dessert each night was fresh fruit smoothies with black tapioca pearls. Let me tell you, my boys love bubble tea! Somehow we all managed to get some sleep packed into the same room.

Day Two brought us back downtown for a tour of the U.S. Mint. That was a great disappointment for two reasons: first, we had to go in 2 groups b/c you can’t take cameras or cell phones in (so someone had to watch my purse). Second, the manufacturing process is less than 1/3 of the tour; the rest is descriptions of national medals, special coins and such. We stopped off at the old Christ Church cemetery afterwards to throw pennies on Ben Franklin’s grave for good luck. You know, “A penny saved is a penny earned.” Our primary destination for the day was the new National Constitution Center, which is getting rave reviews. It was founded and is run by a private foundation, and (to Neil and me) it was a snore. Too many computer displays, kitschy little shows, video feeds, multimedia presentations about the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. Nowhere was there a copy of the document for a person to view. The whole experience was insipid and overwhelming. It completely failed to convey the importance, longevity and gravitas of the American Constitution. I hated it. We salvaged the day by enjoying old-fashioned root beer floats at a new ice-cream shop, Franklin Fountain on lower Market Street. Since the afternoon was still young, we trekked down to Penn’s Landing and took a refreshing ferry boat ride over to Camden, NJ. One wouldn’t normally make Camden a tourist destination, but in this case, the Adventure Aquarium was the draw. We saw lots of beautiful fish and a few smelly penguins. The boys really liked the shark tank and the octopus, but the hippos were my favorite. We caught the last ferry back to Philly and caught a bus back to Chinatown for dinner. This night we had a delicious dinner at a Burmese restaurant.

On the third day, Mom and Dad decreed it was time for a little culture. We started the day over at City Hall. We got tickets for the first tower tour of the morning. We had to wend our way up escalators, stairs and elevators into the very heart of this beautiful, old — but poorly maintained — municipal building. Rode the teeny tiny elevator up to the 40th story, to an observation deck just below William Penn’s statue. It was electrifying looking up at Mr. Penn’s hand maybe 10 feet away. What goes up must come down, so we retraced our steps back to the ground floor. Back on terra firma, we walked over to have “breakfast” at Reading Terminal Market. The boys enjoyed lots of Amish delights like homemade chicken pot pie, apple dumplings, and handmade pretzels for breakfast. Dessert was ice cream from Bassett’s. Stuffed to the gills, we walked back over to the bus stop and found our way out to the Philadelphia Museum of Art. We climbed the famous steps (cue “Rocky” music). The boys didn’t quite understand their parents’ fascination with the steps and the footprints, but they pretended just fine. Wild Thing was the star of the day as he remembered paintings and artists he learned about in Pre-K two years ago. We were so proud of how well he identified works by Matisse, Picasso, and his favorite, Van Gogh. Wizard was bored out of his brain and made everyone else suffer for it. He and Moose fought the whole day. We cut the afternoon short — although we wanted to go to the dinosaur and Please Touch Museums – and spent it sulking in the hotel room until the boys behaved better. Once they settled down we ventured back to Chinatown again for some Indonesian food. Predictably, Moose and WT loved the authentic satay!

The next day’s museum adventure was far more successful: The Franklin Institute. We entered the museum as it opened and stayed the whole day! The boys loved it. WT's favorite exhibits were the medical ones: the big heart, the operating table, the MRI of a cadaver. Moose went through the Big Heart and got scared by the lights and sounds. Wizard liked Isaac Newton’s loft (all about gravity) and the “old-fashioned” cartoons in the animation exhibit. They really were classics from my and WineGuy's youth in the 1960s: Top Cat, Snagglepuss, Yogi Bear, Jonny Quest, Wacky Racers, Penelope Pitstop, The Jetsons. I still think they’re so much better than the computer-generated Japanese imports that are so popular today. Our day’s adventure continued after the museum closed. We navigated our way down to South Philly (took 2 buses) for cheesesteaks. What would a trip to Philadelphia be without sampling Geno’s and Pat’s Steaks. Wizard preferred Geno’s drier sandwiches, while his father and I preferred Pat’s sloppier versions. WT and Moose were less than impressed with the fare and gobbled up all the French Fries (excuse me, “Freedom Fries” at Geno’s). Sunset was approaching, and South Philly isn’t the neighborhood it used to be, so we hoofed it back to the bus stop and wended our way back to the hotel. We found an ice cream parlor close by. The boys got their first taste of Italian water ices and loved them.

Saturday was our last full day in Philadelphia. Wild Thing had been dying to see the medical museum, so we started the day at the Mütter Museum of medical oddities. The boys and their father enjoyed a tour of “goiters in jars” (as the tourbook put it), while I waited in the lobby. They each picked out some disgusting trinket at the museum store. It was all too gross for me. Afterwards, we re-visited our earlier forays to the city, when Wizard was an infant, so we went back to our favorite dim sum restaurant. Unfortunately, it turned out not to be as good as it used to, but the boys were wide-eyed at the carts of delicacies rolling by and the crowds of Asian families having lunch. Another bus ride took us over to the banks of the Schuylkill River and the Fitler Park neighborhood. We finally had reservations on the “Secrets of the Schuylkill” boat tour. The boys ran and played in a wonderful treasure of a park on the banks of the river. Sadly, the thunder and lightning came out to play, too. We were afraid of being on the water in such bad weather, so we canceled. Dashed up and down to the bus stop and got a little wet. Spent the rest of the afternoon drying out and watching a Disney movie on TV.

On the last morning, Wine Guy took the boys for breakfast around the corner while I packed 4 suitcases, 3 backpacks, 1 duffel bag, and 1 carryon. They brought me back some bagels and then we were off on our final adventure of the trip: the trip to the airport. We looked like a bunch of hobos rolling and schlepping our bags the few blocks to the Regional Rail station. We found the right train and had a quick and smooth ride to the airport. Checked the bags, went through security, waited a while and got on the plane. Landed, got the car and the bags and drove home to a quiet house. The cats were still boarding at the vet’s. It was too hot upstairs and down to unpack, so the boys and I jumped in the pool to cool off.

Adventures are exciting, but it’s bliss to be home. Next stop: Boston in early August.

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