Philadelphia is brimming with sounds, smells, and sights that are so different from the west coast where I currently live. Sirens blare constantly, people yell prophesies on the street, painted murals adorn many a wall, and the aromas of every food imaginable fill the air. People seem as leery of me as I am of them, until a smile is exchanged, and then they warm quickly.
At night, the streets remind me of Gotham City. Tall stone buildings with pillars and towers and carvings are lit, glowing eerily in the fog. Steam rises from the grates on the sidewalk, but through the windows, the interiors of the restaurants look cozy and inviting, filled with tables crowded with couples and friends.
I spent an afternoon in Reading Terminal Market, overwhelmed by the choices and the assault on the senses. The farmers markets on the west coast are lovely, outdoor experiences with fresh air, vegetable and fruit stands, a handful of hot food vendors, and people meandering from booth to booth. The east coast version of a farmers market is so very different, but just as wonderful.
The market is indoors, the smells are inescapable, the hot food vendors far outnumber the fruit, vegetable, spice, coffee, and tea stands, and a sea of people move quickly through, intent on their destinations. Only a few of us brave souls dared wander slowly through the crowd looking at the array of baked goods, fresh fish, and ethnic foods displayed behind glass cases.
Each person I motioned to go ahead of me in line looked vastly relieved to not have to wait for the lost tourist to make up her mind. Most smiled quickly then rattled off their order as I eavesdropped. One woman followed that same pattern, but then turned to look at me again as she waited for her food. “Is this your first time here?” she asked, softening the ‘r’ on here and extending the last vowel (which most of the rest of the country assumes is a silent ‘e’). I nodded and she proceeded to tell me the best places to eat in the market and what to order.
She inquired and I told her I was in town for an education conference. As luck would have it, she was a teacher with many years of experience, and just as many opinions and suggestions on how to fix the education system, which she was more than willing to share with no encouragement from me.
I found it amusing that she had no qualms about airing her bold opinions with someone she knew nothing about, and had I not been a person who happened to agree with much of what she said, I may have found her offensive. I didn’t, so I smiled and nodded. In retrospect, she probably would have appreciated a little dissension and a good discussion.
I took her advice about the market and tried some of her suggestions, thoroughly enjoying being an outsider looking in for a while. I saw her again as she sat with her husband, eating huge slices of pizza (the kind you really can only find on the east coast). She waved and pointed me out to her husband as I held up the bag of sweet potato fries (the best I’ve ever tasted!) to show her I did take her advice.
It was such a brief encounter, standing in line while she waited for her pizza slices and I browsed, but it made the whole experience better. Her forwardness was refreshing in this case. Maybe I wouldn’t have found her so enjoyable if I had to sit next to her for five hours on an airplane, but for the five minutes we conversed in line, she made me feel a little less like an outsider.
As I left the market, a man held the door for me and smiled as he nodded over his shoulder. “You are destined to know each other,” he said at the coincidence as his wife–my new, opinionated friend with the warm face and intent eyes–passed through the door behind me. I sincerely agreed. I contemplated asking her name as we wished each other a good day, waved, and went opposite directions on the sidewalk, but decided against it. In my mind, her name will always just be Philly.