Lot of people find New York great. I found it depressing. Streets of Philadelphia helped me get my smile back. I spent some time in the prison and even more time at the food market. It was end of March 2015.
This was my first journey to the USA. I was not exactly eager on getting to know the place where its candidate for president, whose ex and current wifes are immigrants, holds hate speech against immigrants, he was not yet that active by that time anyway. The reason for my visit was again practical – cheap flight tickets. I told myself I should visit the place I judge so often quite negatively. I must say I lost my neutral feelings upon arrival at the JFK airport in NY and started thinking positively again when I stepped out of the bus in Philadelphia. Of course, judging such a huge country after having visited just three towns, is completely stupid, especially one of them being New York, which is different from the rest like Philadelphia cheese from butter. Anyway, I felt that living in NY or Washington can be nice only if you have a lot of money. The food I saw at local supermarkets was something you don´t want to know what is made of. Wouldn´t be able to guess it anyway. And stuff that looked like normal European food was too expensive. That is why this article will be about streets of Philadelphia.
Lots of airports and planes
There was one condition that made the ticket so cheap – combination of flights. Prague – London – New York and back Washington (actually Baltimore) – New York – London – Berlin. You might find cheaper tickets sometimes and even direct flights but this combination made it more interesting allowing us even a one day visit to London. The planes were really modern and quite luxurious as I usually travel with low cost airlines. Offer on snacks and alcohol was unlimited.
There was just one a bit scary flight on a tiny plane for about 50 people. You could feel every gust of wind, I thought we would die. It was Washington to NY and the airport was actually quite interesting. It was for domestic flights only and you could tell it also from the appearance of the passengers. I had never seen so many American rednecks in my life! Arrival at the Heathrow airport after this, was quite a nice shock. We suddenly found ourselves in a departure hall full of much more interesting and pleasant mixture of people. I don´t want to say by this that Europe is full of damn intellectuals but there is more diversity. And we don´t take fingerprints from everybody who comes to visit us but that´s a different story.
US travel basics
Times of going to the embassy and queueing for visa are fortunately long gone. The Czech republic is on the list of countries whose citizens just need a biometric passport, must fill in an online application called ESTA and pay a 14 dollar fee. Than just get a suitcase big enough as you will probably want to do some shopping (letś hope the dollar will drop again) and a charger adapter. American sockets are not foreigners friendly and will not pair with your plugs. Violence is futile. Flight is long and it is recommended to get drunk before/on it to be able to fall asleep.
We used buses and trains to move between cities. Each of you has probably heard of the Greyhound buses. They are legendary, known from films and music videos. And also pretty disgusting. They lied to us in those films. Everything is dirty, rubbish on the floor, seats battered, at least it had wi-fi. Well, everybody who has a job, has a car here, only losers use public transport. However, tickets can be purchased online as we did already from home and it took just two hours from the Big Apple to Philly. The train was better, the silver couches of Amtrak were as expected. There is just one tricky thing about them – you can´t purchase tickets on the spot, you must get them in advance. We bought them simply online one day before our journey.
Philadelphia, a place where you can live a nice life
March does is not really a month filled with green and flowers in bloom. Mainly gray colours of New York and its inhabitants caused me a slight depression and I was really counting hours to get out of there. Philly caused me a sudden positive mood swing. There is a China town, third biggest in the US just opposite the bus station. Almost no tourists and the town looked guite clean. A break with obligatory sugar bomb doughnut at Dunkin Donuts followed as my co-travellers loved it. There they started muttering something about going back being grumpy cause they found this town too small and boring. After that we set off to meet our hosts at a pub which I can´t find anymore. It was a nice pub with good food and something tells me that it was Irish and that you won´t probably make a mistake trying any of other Irish pubs in the town. There are lot of them here which is probably caused by the fact that Philadelphia has the second largest Irish American population in the country, and it is the largest ethnic group in the city, making up 14.2% of the population.
Eliška found for us accommodation via couchsurfing at a house of 3 young people. They were living in a nice part of the town which was full of terraced houses looking almost English. It was their first couchsurfing time and they had no clue what we actually needed so there was lack of blankets and things were sort of makeshift. Not exactly luxurious sleeping conditions were outweighted by their priceless hospitality. I had a unique opportunity to enjoy most of their effort to show their guests how they live and what to do here egoistically myself, because my friends stopped fussing around and simply bought early morning tickets for a one day trip back to NY. I promised not to tell but it came out anyway. Well…
On our first night in the town, our hosts invited us to join them to see a travesti show at their favourite bar. I went, my friends stayed at home. It was a nice bar, this sort of event was rather an exception there. And guess what! I can´t find it anymore, as we went there by car and I don´t know its name. I just know they served Angry Orchard cider which I liked. I am sorry. To make up for it here is a link to a sort of places I started liking recently – rooftop bars. Choose the style you like. You can walk around the town centre at night safely as far as I can tell. Compared to Brooklyn for example. I am a town person, so my point of view might be different from people who live i na village. A friend of mine is scared of going from the main train station in Prague through the park at night or later afternoon in the winter…It really depends.
Culture, arts and a decent collection of intestines
Before telling you how I stuffed my stomach with tasty pastrami and bought a handbag, it is time for something less superficial. As the rest of our group left for the place where noone would get me again, I was free to decide what to do on the following day. Essential sights in the centre can be reached by foot. I headed for the river where there is a nice footpath leading downtown. As you walk you can see a lot of high quality streetart, my favourite were the whales. There is also Seaport Museum by the river and you can explore one ship and one submarine there. Unfortunately, there was no time left for it. When we were leaving we saw at least docks at the edge of the town with ten huge marine ships.
Then still in the morning I visited a house full of curiosities, collection of bones, fetuses, brains and an exposition about the Civil War – Mütter Museum. If you like strange things, you will appreciate it. It was interesting for me to learn that more soldiers would die not because of their injuries but of illnesses caused by bad hygiene and absence of toilets on the battlefield. After that was time for something more poetic and I went to the Magic Gardens, which is a crossover of a garden and a statue. A yard filled with mosaic and different accessories and shapes from the ground up to the walls. This piece of art spreads on neighbouring buildings and is created by concrete, shards, tiles and who knows what else. So much art that it made me hungry. Sorry.
Early in the morning, as everyone was still asleep we set off, me and my hosts, to get some food for the evening BBQ from the Italian Market. The market is a street full of fresh vegetables, Italian delicatessen and bread. You will also find here traditional butchers´. Our mission was successful and it was clear there is a lot of good food to look forward to in the evening. But what now?
Well, just a stonethrow from the bus station in the centre stands an impressive market hall Reading Terminal Market. It is stuffed with stalls, cafés, fast food restaurants and it will help you forget all the clichés about American food. Simple is beautiful, let´s describe it that way. You can gorge on divine pastrami, delicious pizza, fresh fruit and vegetables, tempting cupcakes, pretzels, coffee, seafood, cheese, cakes, hot dogs, oysters…whatever you desire. It was actually quite frustrating as I knew I would not be able to try everything due to limited stomach capacity. So I spent like half an hour wandering around and deciding. The pastrami was an excellent choice although I was not able to finish it. If you fancy Chinese food, China Town is just 5 minute walk from here.
Up the stairs and round the town
Having filled your stomach, you might appreciate some walk. There are quite some shops in the centre, one department store with cheap handbags and clothes is straight next to the market, there are even thrift shops here. You will not get lost, orientation in the centre is simple, several shopping streets, city hall and museums. Philly is rich in museums and galleries like cabbage in vitamin C but there is a particular one that attracts even the biggest cultural ignorants. Well, I mean if you don´t consider watching action movies culture. Everybody is interested in just one statue and stairs leading to this museum, only few enter it. Rocky used to run them up and down in the movie, that´s why.
In prison for a few hours
We did not get loccked up, I just thought a misleading headline might attract more readers, it works with tabloids at least… Moreover there are animals included! Eastern State Penitentionary is situated some ten minutes walk from the famous stairs. I never trusted myself I could learn to pronounce and use this word but here you go.
The former star shaped prison was inspiration to architects of many other buildings with the same purpose around the world. You get headphones by the entrance but you are free to go almost wherever you like around the place, listening to explanation narrated by Steve Buscemi. Expect to spend about two hours here, it can also be longer that depends on you. There is also a cell where Al Capone was once staying ij. I would not exactly call it „was inprisoned“. The penitentionary had also first central heating and was very modern for its time.
They had one more special inmate here apart from Al Capone. One black dog served here his life sentence. This is what you get if you are stupid enough to eat the cat of major´s wife. Talking about cats, you might spot a small plate on the wall in the souvenir shop dedicated to the memory of a man who would feed local cats his whole life until he retired. The cats live here on their free will.
Well, I would say that Philly showed me that nice and pleasant Americans with general knowledge of the world around them exist. They liked their town and one of them told me he had lived in NY but living there means just earning money for your rent. Philadelphia is a town where you can live a nice life.