Sunday, June 25, 2006

Innocents Abroad

So I just wrapped up my first week of vacation for 2006. Because we've sunk so much money in our old house this year, we won't be taking any traveling vacations. Which leaves the other two kinds of vacation: "day-trip" vacations and "handyman" vacations.

This was a bit of both. I'm glad to say that by Saturday night I had crossed off every single item on my "to-do" list. That's because I wrote the list Saturday night. I recommend this policy. It gives you a great ego-building sense of accomplishment. And helps you overlook the two burned-out lightbulbs you lived with all week and which, despite being ignored for 7 days, somehow have not healed themselves.

Wednesday we took a day trip to the historic sites in Philadelphia. I'd felt guilty because I've never taken my son, now 15, to see them. And I haven't been down there since we took our German exchange students in to see the sites when I was 15.

So, we were overdue. The first mistake was driving in. I usually take the train down. Even at 10 a.m. we had to fight stop-and-go traffic all the way down the Schuylkill Expressway.

We parked near Chinatown and walked down to 6th and Market and my son said, "Oh, I've been here before, with my [accelerated learning] class." Great. Must have made a real impression.

Our first stop was the Liberty Bell, which is in a new home since I last saw it. I remember reading some of the discussions around this. The Parks Service discovered the site of the new pavilion would be on the grounds of the slave quarters of the original presidential home, and it decided to incorporate that into the story told in the exhibit.

It seemed fair at the time; even though the idea that there were slaves in Philadelphia, or that Washington was a slaveowner, hardly seemed to me to be as earth-shattering as some people thought.

But now, in the post-9/11 world, you don't get into the exhibit without passing through "security." Which means a half-hour wait in line, then dumping your pockets into a plastic bin, and passing through a sort of Third World airport metal detector. Parents have to hoist their strollers up onto the conveyor belt.

They don't make you take your shoes off, like they do at airports, but you have to take your belt off. If you pass, you then get to hold your pants up with one hand while you try to grab your wallet, cell phone, car keys, change, and belt with the other.

Note to self: If going to the Liberty Bell again, wear tighter pants.

After that, you get the slavery. They've laid it on a little thick. It's not just about the Washington slaves (whose eventual emancipation wasn't mentioned that I saw, but there was a big bit on one who ran away), but it's about the entire Liberty Bell being a "symbol of liberties denied." And it goes on and on. This piles on to the (legitimate) account of the appropriation of the bell as a symbol by the Abolitionists.

By the time you get to the part of the exhibit that tells of the bell's cross-country tour in the '20s, when millions turned out to see it, you wonder what all the fuss was about.

And at the end, when you finally see the bell itself, it looks small, over-varnished, chipped, and you wonder if Homeland Security hasn't got the real one squirreled away somewhere for safety and this is a replica. Hell, you wonder if they scanned your cell phone while it was in that machine. You wonder what was the point. Where's the Liberty? Why did this inert hunk of broken metal once matter?

We tried Indenendence Hall next, but now it turns put you have to get tickets back at the visitor's center to even enter the building. So rather than backtrack all the way to do that, we went next door to the Second Bank of the U.S. building. I love the story of the war between Biddle and Jackson, but there's not much left of the bank other than Strickland's severely beautiful neo-classical exterior.

Inside was a gallery of paintings from Peale's museum, which was good entertainment for an hour. Then we walked down through Old City. At Christ Church we saw the most memorable sight of the trip: a tombstone dated 1714 with the first name "Jaems" clearly visible beneath the "James" that was carved overtop of it. I can just imagine the Pythonesque scene that lay behind that artifact.

By then we were ready for lunch so we circled up to Chinatown. Again, it had been years since I was there, and I recognized none of the restaurant names until I hit one that I remembered as being highly touted. When we sat down and got the menu, I saw I was right: voted Best in Philadelphia three years running -- 1977 to 1979.

No commendations after the Carter Administration except a dust-coated Mobil Travel Guide 2-star rating plaque dated 1991. The only people in there besides the owners and us were noontime winos who slipped in to buy 40-ounces of Bud.

Then we went back to get our Independence Hall tickets, but by this time they had given out their quota for the day. So, no more history for us.

And I still have two vacation weeks left!