A Philly Thanksgiving

The past two years, my Thanksgiving routine has been rushing from a 12:20 class on Wednesday to the airport, and flying home to North Carolina to join my immediate family. On Thanksgiving morning, we would often do a Turkey Trot (one year I won my age group, and consequently a pumpkin pie) before traveling to South Carolina to be with my mom’s sister and her family. I like to think it was the appropriate amount of family; enough to feel special without starting to feel stifling. And instead of Black Friday shopping, my sister and I would try to arrange a brunch with friends from home or a hike along the Blue Ridge Parkway.

For whatever reason, most likely my family’s persistent tendency to delay booking airplane tickets, this year was the first year I didn’t spend Thanksgiving at home. Instead, my mom suggested we rent an AirBnb in Philadelphia, and eat Thanksgiving dinner with my uncle and cousins in Wilmington, Delaware. And so, while I just drove 30 minutes into the city, my sister and parents each traveled nine hours to Fishtown, a Philly neighborhood that my Chem professor appropriately described as cool and hipster (we later went on to talk about craft beers, so needless to say he is a pretty cool man himself).

I was both excited and nervous to present “my city” to my family. I don’t get into the city enough, and my two main excursions this semester involved attending Philly Restaurant Week at R2L, and getting my cartilage pierced on South Street, neither of which constitute the touristy-but-not-overly-so activities to which you might take your parents. I believe I spent most of Wednesday night doing research on TripAdvisor, which seems like a shameful thing to do for what should arguably be your hometown, but it nonetheless gave me a starting point.

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Reunited with my twin sister, Emma!

Thursday morning I ran with my mom, a pretty rare occurrence even when we were living together. We looked up a running route, all sidewalks, that went about two miles from our apartment to Penn’s Landing. We got some pictures along the piers of the Delaware, and had a borderline gossip-y conversation about my romantic life. While it wasn’t the most scenic run I’ve been on, it was pleasant, and enough to validate the extravagant Thanksgiving dinner I enjoyed later that night in Delaware.

Friday began similar to the day before: with a run around Fishtown. This time, I decided to pursue a street that led me to the Benjamin Franklin bridge, a huge highway paralleled by a precarious-seeming pedestrian path. I swallowed my fear and made it halfway to New Jersey, probably a good 100 yards above the Delaware River, and got some pictures of the classic Philadelphia cityscape. And I even though I may have been nervous, I recognized the comfort I find in the anonymity of cities: of being small in a place with a world of possibilities.

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My view from the pedestrian path along the Ben Franklin bridge.

In the afternoon, we decided to visit the Mutter museum, a museum of medical oddities that promised to make us “disturbingly informed.” Unfortunately, my sister ended up a little left out of the decision-making, and was not prepared for the fetuses-in-jars aesthetic we walked into. I think she eventually warmed to it, however, or at least was assuaged by the surprisingly adorable stuffed brain and heart she and I each got from the gift shop. Even I, as a vaguely pre-med student, was not entirely comfortable with the bizarre anatomy on display. But it was certainly a memorable experience, and it made for a good story at dinner with the extended family on South Street, at an upscale southern restaurant managed by my cousin’s girlfriend. For the second night in a row, what I ate was entirely too indulgent.

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My stuffed brain and free(!) tote bag from the Mutter museum.

On Saturday, my mom and sister were finally able to run in the scenic location they had looked for in Philadelphia. I had been excited to show them the trails at Wissahickon that we run during the cross-country season, but instead we ended up traveling somewhere new for all of us: the Schuylkill River Trail. Since I’m from the mountains, I will never understand why urban northerners insist upon calling paved pedestrian paths “trails,” but it was nonetheless a beautiful place to run. We parked at the Art Museum and ran north along the river, only completing a small portion of the path before we needed to turn around. Emma and I stopped to take lots of pictures (some forced “candid” ones I’m not the most proud of), and I remember feeling energized by the number of people I saw who were also on a Saturday morning long run, a solo bike ride, or a family stroll.

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The Schuylkill River on the left, with the “trail” on the right. It took me forever to learn to pronounce “Schuylkill,” and I still can’t spell it without autocorrect.

Saturday evening, our last night in the city, was the one I had put the most work into planning. For the past two winters, my freshman year hallmates and I have gone into the city to ice skate in City Hall at night. Dilworth Park is beautifully decorated with Christmas lights, as are the tents of the local vendors that make up the Christmas Village, and when you look up, you notice the  incredible contrast between the small, illuminated hub and the huge skyscrapers that surround it.

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Swarthmore got a shout out in Christmas Village for donating some plants to the garden!

Emma loves ice skating almost as much as she loves Christmas lights, so I knew if I were to somehow win over her rural-college heart in Philadelphia, it would be by skating in City Hall. Neither of us are particularly skilled, but neither of us fell. We held hands while attempting to skate backwards, dodged little kids who were better skaters than we were, and tried to take selfies at “top speed” (a pretty leisurely lap around the rink if we are being honest). That night was also one of the first times during the trip that I got to talk to my sister one-on-one, without the filter we might use with our parents. Maybe I’m just a sucker for the Christmas spirit or whatever, but it felt pretty intimate.

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Skating in City Hall.
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A nice woman saw Emma and I taking embarrassing selfies and offered to take our picture. It turned out pretty well!

Back in our Airbnb that last night in Philadelphia, Emma and I watched Broad City in an effort to fend off the melancholia I get at the end of any trip home. It’s not just the saying goodbye to my family that is hard, but the uneasy feeling that I’ve already said goodbye to a lot of what I think of as home or as childhood. It sounds existential and self-indulgent, but I think Emma gets it too; we don’t like reminders of time passing because it forces us to acknowledge that we can never go back. And I know, objectively, that I wasn’t even necessarily happier three or five or ten years ago, but for whatever reason, I’m saddened anyway.

Philadelphia Staycation, or whatever I decide to call it, may have helped affirm in me that trite concept that home is not a place. Or maybe it is, but it is never one place. I think of my home as Asheville, North Carolina, but I’m increasingly reaching a point where it is also Swarthmore, and as an extension, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. I’m sure if I stopped and thought about it, in staying here I missed the Asheville Turkey Trot and the Blue Ridge Mountains and brunch with my friends from high school. But I did okay without them, too. I spent four days with the people I love, discovering a city that I become increasingly attached to every day.

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A surprisingly kind sentiment I found while running on the Ben Franklin bridge.

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