Saturday, July 12, 2008

Staycation my Aunt Fanny, let's go somewhere

Ask a dozen people how they define vacation and chances are good you will get something like 1 to 12 different answers. Some like a week at the lake, doing whatever it is people do at lakes. For others there's nothing better than the sun/sand/disposable fiction/rum-based cocktails combination. And then there are your guide book-toting types who need to visit monuments and museums. I admit I fall into the latter category. I can do the laid back beach routine for a maximum of two days before I am itching to read some plaques or slap on the audio tour headphones. I am not capable of just lying around doing nothing - at least not when I am on vacation. If it's a weekend at home and there are eleven projects I should be doing, that's when I am very good at lying around doing nothing.

So our recent east coast adventure was right up my alley and down my street - two weeks of tramping around in our three great eastern centers of history and culture; Philadelphia, Boston and New York City.

Philadelphia is a good place to go for people who think our government can't do anything right. You will see that they are, in fact, quite good at managing tourism. In the Old City where all the history is packed in, and where the tourists pack in to see it, there is an artful use of National Park Service guides and Wackenhut contract security to manage the crowds. And if you're lucky, you get the Independence Hall spiel from a guy with a great style. Our guide (that's him in the picture) did a good job of chiding everyone for knowing so little about their own American history, for taking it all for granted. He reinforced the idea that history is not about things - buildings, statues, monuments - but is about people and ideas and choices. (He said "If you just want to see an old building come on over to my house and I'll make you some french fries." Probably should have taken him up on that offer.)

It was a little inspiring to overhear, while we were waiting in line, the conversation among a large family, at least three generations all together there. The Indian or Pakistani father was telling his children the reason we were all visiting Independence Hall, quoting dates and names and imbuing his story with a sense of how truly meaningful it was. He was likely a naturalized citizen, a person who has learned and absorbed American history as an adult rather than memorizing, regurgitating and forgetting it as a child. That's something that's usually forgotten in our constant debate about immigration - the people who come here from other countries - legal or illegal - seem to show a lot more passion about the American dream than those of us who grow up here. We don't stop to consider how lucky we all are, and how we loudly complain about a country that so many others long for.

The tour guide made it clear - history is not about old buildings, it's about people and their visions, about their passions, their convictions. That was a great message to hear at the start of our history crawl.

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