Day 28 & 29: New Castle, DE and Philadelphia, PA

Day 28: Sunday 9th April

Bill Bryson’s book, The Lost Continent, in which he drives around the USA trying to find his idealised version of small-town American life, served as some of the inspiration for our road trip (despite having being written in the late 1980s). Of Delaware, he says the following:

Delaware may well be the most obscure of all the American states. I once met a girl from Delaware and couldn’t think of a single thing to say to her. I said, “So you come from Delaware? Gosh. Wow.” And she moved quickly onto someone more verbally dextrous, and also better looking. For a while it troubled me that I could live in America for twenty years, have the benefit of an expensive education and not know anything at all about one of the fifty states. I went around asking people if they had ever heard Delaware mentioned on television or seen a story pertaining to it in the newspaper or read a novel set there and they’d say, “You know, I don’t think I ever have,” and then they’d look kind of troubled too.  

I determined that I would read up on Delaware so that next time I met a girl from there I could say something droll and apposite and she might go to bed with me. But I could find almost nothing written about Delaware anywhere. Even the entry in the Encyclopaedia Brittanica was only about two paragraphs long and finished in the middle of a sentence, as I recall. And the funny thing was that as I drove across Delaware now I could feel it vanishing in my memory as I went, like those children’s drawing slates on which you erase the picture by lifting up the transparent sheet. It was as if a giant sheet were being lifted up behind me as I drove, expunging the experience as it unfolded. Looking back now, I can just vaguely recall some semi-industrial landscape and some signs for Washington.

We wanted to find out for ourselves whether Delaware was actually this boring, so we set out to try researching things to do there. At first, I thought I’d found some pretty cool things, but the “white cliffs of Dover, Delaware” turned out to be a parody post. Eventually, a friend suggested New Castle, a historic town that was meant to be very cute. We decided to stop over on our way to New Jersey so we could give it a go.

Van Dyke Armory
Pretty cool…

We parked the car on a random street and walked around a little. We saw a nice insurance office in a former armory, and wandered down towards the seafront. There was a pier, but it was closed off for some reason. As the chilly sea breeze blew in our hair, we walked along the seafront, through a park with children and families playing. Unlike the British Newcastle, I didn’t see any orange women in tiny skirts braving their way through the cold, though. We wandered around a few streets, and they were mostly just residential. Some buildings were supposedly historic, but you know, as we walked around I already found myself forgetting what I had seen….

Sea_3
Not bad, not bad.

Perhaps it was the power of suggestion from Bill Bryson. Perhaps Delaware is actually where some aliens have set up, and we actually saw unspeakable wonders or horrors but had our memories erased, just like every other person who passes through. Perhaps Delaware really is just that bland and unmemorable. Sorry, Delaware. I’m sure you’re a lovely place to live in. (Anna: We heard there’s no sales tax in Delaware. Maybe that’s it’s selling point.)

We were actually staying in New Jersey, with a friend who we knew from back in Prague, so we arrived in time for a lovely dinner and spent the evening catching up.

Day 29: Monday 10th April

Independence hall 2
Independence Hall. Ooh..

When America first won its independence, Philadelphia was chosen to be the temporary capital (from 1790-1800), and it continued to be the country’s financial and cultural centre for some time thereafter. Independence Hall in Philadelphia is where the Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution were debated and adopted. Visiting Independence Hall is free, but from March to December you need a timed ticket, for which you have to turn up first thing on the day and hope they don’t give them all away by the time you get there – although it’s $1.50 to reserve in advance here. You may be surprised to know that we were not that organised, so we didn’t go – but we did look at it and say “ooh” and take obligatory photos from the outside.

You can still go into the visitor’s centre, where you can learn about the history of the city and try on some “Colonial” costumes:

Colonial Costumes

It sometimes feels a little weird to be a British person walking around a country that celebrates its freedom from your people, and when you’re at a place called Independence Hall you can become especially shy about letting your accent slip out. I’m sure they get tons of Brits every year, so I was probably just being silly. Besides, I’m Welsh, and we fought for independence from the English for centuries before America was even a twinkle in its forefathers’ eye.

One of the things we’d been told we needed to see in Philadelphia was the Magic Gardens, a 3000 square foot mosaic space/art project created by a guy called Isaiah Zagar, who has created mosaic art in a few spaces within the city. He started in 1994, working on vacant lots near his studio. After erecting a massive fence to protect the area, he spent years sculpting multi-layer walls out of objects that he found. In 2002, the owner of this land discovered Zagar’s art and tried to sell the land, calling for the work to be dismantled. The community rallied to support him, and after a two-year legal battle,  his creation was recognised and incorporated as a nonprofit organisation. Today, the Philadelphia Magic Gardens offer mosaic workshops, guided tours, community outreach programmes and educational programming. The mosaic is mostly made from old crockery, bottles and random assorted things that would normally count as junk. We went on a bit of a crazy photo-taking spree:

It was $10 to get in, but hey – looks pretty cool, doesn’t it?

We didn’t do much else in Philly apart from wander around and look for food. I found a place called Mac Mart, where you could customise your Mac ‘n’ Cheese with a variety of meats, sauces and crunchy bits. Our friend got a cheesesteak from Cleavers next door. Cheesesteak – basically a baguette with thin slices of steak and some cheese (probably plastic cheese) – is apparently the one “must-eat” thing in Philly, as it’s famous for it. We found out that Philadelphia Cream Cheese doesn’t really have much to do with the city, sadly. Anyway, all the food was pretty lovely!Cheesesteak and Mac n cheese

Finally, we managed to meet up with another friend I knew from back in Prague, and we headed to Brü Craft & Wurst for some beers. It was German-style and had a happy hour of $4 draft beers, where I had a lovely wheat beer. We were able to sit outside as the sun set, before heading back to New Jersey on the train (just $3 to get into the city, by the way)!

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