Sunday, July 3, 2011

Philadelphia: The City of First's

Today was our first day completely dedicated to tourism. We met in the lobby at about 10:00 AM to go to breakfast. The four of us walked to a small diner about ten minutes away from our hotel. While we ate we discussed our plans for the day. We decided to take a bus tour and see the sights of central Philadelphia. Because this city is so large, we had to take a trolley from the campus and then connect to the subway to reach our destination. I had never given much thought to how big this sprawling city actually is, but our experiences with public transportation today made me realize it. From breakfast, we immediately headed for the trolley system.

The trolley system is basically Penn’s personal subway. There are several stops around campus where you can board a trolley and they connect to a few different subway terminals. The trolley is all underground, and frankly a little creepy. You walk down a few flights of stairs and you walk onto a dimly lit platform, which was actually smaller than one of the hallways at my high school and littered with a comparable amount of trash as well. The trolley is aptly named though, because it looks almost exactly like other public trams on the outside. It is similar to the cable cars of San Francisco. On the inside, however, it’s like a bus. You pay at the front when you enter, the seating is very similar, and you pull a cord hanging overhead to request a stop. It was interesting to see the product of several ideas of public transportation coming together into one convenient way to get around. Despite the system’s small flaws, this is another plus one for Penn in my book because accessing bustling center city Philly is cheap and easy.

After our first bout with public transportation, which lasted about twenty minutes, we were thrust into what felt like a completely different city from where we had been before. The buildings surrounding us were gigantic, there were a lot more people than I was used to seeing around the other areas of Philly, and things were a lot more fast-paced. The sun was especially bright because the light was being reflected off of all the windows in the buildings. I was very sorry I still hadn’t bought a pair of sunglasses. We walked around to get our bearings on what was around us. We stumbled upon the Ben Franklin Bridge, which looked like a blue version of the Bay Bridge back home, as well as caught a glimpse of the waterfront area. We quickly moved on to go find where the tour busses congregated. Once we found the stop, we bought our tickets and waited for the next bus so we could get some seats on the upper deck. The tour was very thorough with the locations it took us to. We drove all around center city Philly and saw at least twenty different landmarks, ranging from the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art that Sylvester Stallone ran up in Rocky to the Pennsylvania State Penitentiary, where Al Capone served his time in prison. Our tour guide, Chris, did an excellent job with the history of Philadelphia. He had a wealth of knowledge about the city and was even able to infuse some of his own personal stories in with the history. His comments were very witty and his guidance was captivating. There were often times when I wouldn’t stop to take a picture because I was listening to what he had to say about a particular landmark. It was a nice tradeoff though. I thoroughly enjoyed our tour today and learned a lot about my temporary home as well.

After we disembarked from the bus, we walked to an Italian restaurant that we had passed on the way to the bus stop earlier that day. We enjoyed some excellent food (I had pesto penne pasta) and discussed what our favorite sights on the tour were. I particularly enjoyed the Chinatown portion of the tour, especially seeing the humongous arch that was a given to the US by China (which can be seen below). That arch does not have a single screw, nut, or bolt on it. It was actually assembled by sliding the wood pieces together like a puzzle. I found it fascinating that something so large, ornate, and beautiful could be put together in such a way and still be stable.

After lunch we agreed to take the scenic route back to the subway. We took a very long detour through the historical living spaces of center city Philly. We watched horse-drawn carriages pull families along the stone paved road and got to see some apartment buildings that were very old. Again, the architecture in this area was mainly composed of red brick buildings with an occasional stone built home or church. We also passed the graveyard where Ben Franklin is actually buried. We had learned earlier that people leave pennies on his tomb because he coined (no pun intended) the phrase “a penny saved is a penny earned.” This very long walk was our first extensive encounter with the humidity of the east coast. The heat had not been too much of a problem until today, but it was noticeably muggy on our walk, even though the weather forecast in the hotel lobby said there would be thunderstorms today.

After our walk, we returned to the subway tunnels. It was actually relieving to be down there because it was slightly cooler underground and there were big fans bolted to some of the columns. We returned to the hotel for a couple of hours so we could shower and get a quick rest before leaving for dinner. After I cleaned up and got settled back in, I downloaded a program called Dropbox that was sent to us by one of the administrators of our program. This is how we will be given some reading that will help us with the guest lecturers that have been picked to speak for the program. At first glance it is a series of articles, but I have not had a chance to look at them yet because it took a very long time just to download them over the hotel wifi. At about 8:00 we left the hotel to go to dinner.

We ate at a more up-scale Italian restaurant very close to our hotel. It was actually right next to the Penn Student Store. We enjoyed a lovely dinner in the nearly empty restaurant. Our host and waiter were both from Italy and had very thick Italian accents. It was fun to talk with them, mostly because they had nothing but wonderful things to say about California. After another great meal, we returned to our hotel for the night.

Tomorrow we will finally be moving in to Penn! I am very anxious to see if they will honor our (mine and Brian’s) requests to be roommates. I cannot wait to start my program Tuesday and I look forward to a hopefully painless check-in tomorrow. Until then, I’m signing off.

Real life Red Coats!

The Ben Franklin Bridge

Betsy Ross' house, with an American flag outside. Interesting...

The aforementioned arch from China

The second biggest Hard Rock Cafe guitar in the world.

Philadelphia City Hall

The Philadelphia Museum of Art (aka the Rocky steps).

It's all too Phun to make Puns about Philly

Today was our day to go out and tour Philadelphia to go get to know the city that we’ll be spending the next month in. We all enjoyed sleeping in a little bit, but we still did a lot during the day. We met downstairs in the hotel’s lobby and walked a few blocks looking for a restaurant. We unanimously agreed to eat breakfast at a classic American diner that looked straight out of the 50’s. I enjoyed the abundance of shiny chrome surfaces reflecting the slightly overcast morning light. I ordered an omelet with hash browns on the side, and within a couple of minutes I was savoring the delicious mix of eggs and potatoes in my mouth. After breakfast, we decided in lieu of a taxi to try out Philadelphia’s subway system. We found a subway station only a block or so away from the restaurant, and after some brief confusion on how to pay our fare and which train line to ride, we rode the subway downtown. The subway station that we exited our train at was located close to the restaurant we ate at last night. Although we already had our hearts set on a double-decker bus tour like the one we had in Washington, D.C. we decided to walk around the downtown area first. We took in a nice view of the Ben Franklin Bridge and Alex, Julia and Mr. Miranda enjoyed some frozen yogurt.

Our stroll downtown with the Franklin Bridge in the background

Soon, we walked over to the starting point for the tourist buses, and although there was one that still had room on the first floor, we decided to wait for the next bus so that we could ride on top. Our wait was definitely worth it because we got to enjoy great views of Philadelphia as well as the company of our tour guide. Our tour guide was great because he knew tons about Philadelphia, but also had a great sense of humor and was therefore very entertaining. Though there were literally dozens of cool things to see, I enjoyed seeing city hall again, as well as all of the places that Ben Franklin was involved with. We saw the firehouse Franklin founded the place where he allegedly discovered electricity, where the constitutional convention was held, and the university he founded-the University of Pennsylvania-. I’m looking forward to visiting the Franklin Institute which is a hands-on museum that set the bar for similar museums. One last fun thing that we saw on our tour was the Philadelphia Museum of Art which is famous for the shot in Rocky where Rocky runs up the steps.

Philadelphia City Hall


One area we lacked foresight in was forgetting to bring enough water with us on the bus. I brought one small bottle, and in the intense heat, it was gone in about 10 minutes. Therefore, as soon as we got off the bus, we headed straight to the nearest restaurant and ordered a round of ice water and soda. Our waiter was friendly, and we realized it was getting near lunchtime, so we decided to try out the restaurant’s lunch. I had an excellent dish of pasta with pesto sauce on it.

The cold soda in front of me took precedence over everything else at the time

Julia behind Art School gates

We decided to head back to the hotel for a little break from the heat and humidity. The air-conditioned room and soft bed were a little too comfortable, and soon I fell asleep for a couple of hours. Once I woke up, I was disoriented because I never nap during the day, so I thought it was already the 4th of July and that we needed to move in in a few hours. Alex got me back on track, and I soon adjusted to the fact that it was 7 P.M. not 7 A.M. Soon enough, we decided to head out for dinner. Even coming from the San Francisco Bay Area, I was impressed at the variety and density of restaurants in the area. Because Mr. Miranda had been letting us choose where to eat for the last couple of days, and knowing that he’s into food, we pushed him to decide where we should eat. He picked an Italian place that was only a few blocks away from our hotel. We were awarded for our faith in his restaurant choosing abilities, because the restaurant was excellent. While I was busy enjoying some bread and olive oil, I forgot that I had had pasta only a few hours earlier, and I ordered the cappellini pasta.

Exploring the City

This morning was a very relaxing one (mostly because we got to sleep in until 10:00). On our walk to a nearby restaurant I was surprised at how hot and humid the weather continued to be despite forecasts of possible thunderstorms (which were fortunately inaccurate).

After a lovely omelet, we familiarized ourselves with the public transportation that is available in Philly. Although at first rather confused, we got the hang of the SEPTA/trolley system by the end of the day. It's quite convenient and although the heat makes the low-cellinged stations slightly uncomfortable and the trains suffer from the same unsanitary and crowded conditions as nearly every city's public transportation, it is not much worse than BART or AC transit. The important thing is that it got the job done and we were at the heart of the city soon enough.

Once there, we took another open-top bus tour. This one, I have to say, was far more entertaining than the one we took on Friday. The tour guide was a real person (as opposed to the CD recording that played for us in D.C.) and he was very enthusiastic. On our tour we went past the US Mint (were coins and medals of honor are produced), Betsy Ross' house, Love Park, Logan circle, the Liberty Bell, countless museums, and Chinatown. Although we did not get off at any of the sites to look at them a little more closely, many of the museums and landmarks we passed are on the UPenn calender as optional outings so I am looking forward to taking advantage of that as much as possible.

Our tour guide told us an overwhelming number of interesting facts about the city from its founding as a colony to the last time their baseball game won the world series. One of the most interesting facts to me, personally was that more people walk and bike to work in Philadelphia than any other city in the United States.

Another particularly appealing aspect of Philly is its the amazing amount of public art and murals that are scattered around the city. According to our guide, there is an ordinance in place that requires a certain percentage of the budget of every city project to be dedicated exclusively to the arts. This results in a number of interesting statues and beautiful paintings that more than make up for the trash and graffiti that builds up on some of the main streets. They give Philly a very unique vibe.

After our tour, we set out on foot to explore for ourselves a little. We walked around Old City and saw the site where Benjamin Franklin's house once stood. We also walked past a street from colonial times that holds the record for longest continually inhabited street in the US. We ran into a couple historical re-enactment actors dressed in colonial clothing, some of them in the traditional red-coat uniform of British soldiers. It was entertaining to say the least.

Once we had gotten out fill of Philly and chowed down on some delicious Italian food, we took the trolley back to our hotel (but not before buying some UPenn garb at the bookstore). Today, because of the few extra hours of sleep this morning, instead of napping, I used the few hours of spare time we had before dinner to check out the treadmills in the fitness room and look over some of the reading material we were given for our first week of Penn. I was planning on simply skimming a few articles, but I found it very interesting and ended up reading all the way through a coupe of them. I learned a lot about light waves and vision and the parts that I didn't understand just got me more excited to learn more about it. I genuinely think I am going to have as much fun in the labs and classrooms than I will exploring the city, which is extremely exciting.