When my husband and I moved back to Philly after 24 years elsewhere, it wasn’t really by choice. I mean it was—in that no one forced us to move—but Philly wasn’t a place either of us ever thought we’d live again. We were used to living in a suburban setting—having some air around us and a bit of separation from neighbors. But our mothers were doing poorly and we felt like being near them was the right thing to do. So we moved.
Shortly after coming back here, I went to a farewell party for a new friend who had had enough of city living and was moving on to greener pastures (literally!). He had prepared a monologue for the occasion, and in his remarks he said this: “The second you open your front door in the morning, Philly smacks you in the face.” There were some chuckles from the crowd, and more than a few groans. We all had to agree this was true. Examples that instantly run through my mind include construction noise, public urination, incessant dog barking, blatant littering, people yelling conversations to each other from twenty feet away instead of walking ten feet to meet in the middle in order to speak in civilized tones. I could go on and on, but you probably get my drift.
We’ve been lucky enough these last few years to get a break or two each summer at the Jersey Shore. It’s amazing what three or four days by the ocean can do for my emotional well-being. But my husband started a new job last month and it isn’t likely that he’ll be able to take any time off for a while, so we’re creatively finding ways to give our city-frayed nerves a break, even if we can’t take a real vacation.
Last Sunday we employed one of our “pretend we’re on vacation” tactics. There’s a restaurant nearby with authentic-looking, lodge-like, rustic décor—there’s even a moose head hanging above a river rock fireplace. When we’re there, it’s easy to imagine ourselves back in Alaska where we lived for many years. I feel like I breathe better when we’re there. And the menu is filled with fantastic barbeque—the kind we used to enjoy during the years we spent in Oklahoma. An hour and a half at this restaurant makes me feel like I’ve escaped the city for a week, and I leave feeling refreshed.
Sometimes the art of the stay-at-home vacation is as simple as taking advantage of what you’re given. This morning as I’m writing, it is 55 degrees and overcast—in the best kind of way. Sleeping last night was wonderful: it poured rain, and cool breezes swept through our upstairs. When I woke up, I didn’t feel like I was in a city row-home, but instead, I felt like I was in a house at the seashore. I decided to go with the feeling, and all morning I’ve enjoyed the illusion. My brain knows where I really am, but my heart is banking this lovely morning as a vacation day. The city will probably be hot and sticky again in a day or so, but I’ll be carrying a bit of this respite with me, so the heat won’t oppress me.
In an effort to bloom where I’m planted, I’ve embraced the South Philly tradition of putting seasonal decorations in our front window, which easily plays into my vacation-at-home efforts. This week I installed an ocean-themed display; it will stay in place for the summer and it is my favorite! Two vintage oars make an arch above a sail boat, a sea bird, a life preserver, shells and a rocking whale with moving eyes that scan the street. I also hung a nautical flag on a pole outside our upstairs window. I feel my blood pressure drop when I look at all of this and I get enthusiastic remarks from people passing by. One of my neighbors says he looks at the front of my house every morning as he steps out his front door and it makes him feel happy.
My hope is that when people see the window, and the flag waving in the breeze, they’ll feel as if they’ve been taken on a momentary vacation—that they’ll feel cooler and calmer and better able to cope with another city summer day. I hope they’ll feel Philly’s embrace instead of her smack in the face. I have to admit, when I first put the ocean window together a few years ago, I did it for selfish reasons. I did it to make myself feel that I’d been transported to a sweeter place—and it does that for me. But I quickly realized that one of the most satisfying side-benefits of vacationing at home is that it feels so good to take other people with me.