The Fire of Phoenixville, PA

There’s something a tad awkward about seeing your cousin when you grew up not really all that close with your cousins. I’m 30 now, and I’ve known my cousin since I was a small child, but I could probably count the number of times I actually remember being around her on both hands. And most of that number is from the early days of family Thanksgivings, before everyone with my last name seemed to find some belief which demanded we never see anyone ever again (for some of the younger relatives it was religion; for some of the older ones, it was dementia).

But over the recent years I’ve met my cousin again, almost now as if for the first time. The few moments we’ve had the chance to spend with one another—now as independent pseudo-adults—have led to those wonderful little moments when you realize a person you thought you know, you don’t know, and that the person who they really are has more than a few things in common with you. We both love to read and write, we both love sappy movies, and it turns out she even works at a bookstore, something which was once an early aspiration of my own.

I’m assuming (and I want to stress the assumption part) that this little revelation of mine is something people in close families feel on a regular basis. Just recently I was a guest at a friend’s family dinner for a cousin’s 21st birthday. Everyone sat around a table and joked and chided one another – reminding aunts and uncles, cousins and siblings, about fun family times, about who each person once was and who they have become. And honestly, they looked like aliens to me. “You know your cousins?” was my reaction. “I didn’t think anyone really did that…”

Still, I was pretty reluctant to accept her invitation as a place to stay in Philadelphia as I made my way south of New York. It’s not that I was concerned that she wouldn’t be who I thought she was; it was the concern that she might discover me to be someone else. My joy in being the ever-forlorn-cynic in every situation often seems to turn strangers off to me – and I assume that my long-lasting friends have learned to see it for the facade that I hope it is – and here was a stranger who happened to be family. The last thing I wanted to do was expose myself as the curmudgeon I figure most people think I am.

More honestly, I wanted beyond all else to not say anything so cynical that she might think I was criticizing her or the things she likes to do. Because she’s family, and if I was going to try and be nice to anyone, it should probably be to family.

Open-air market in Philadelphia, PA

I got to Philly late because, well, me. Luckily, she was still up and happy to see me. I was actually born in Philly but aside from that I really don’t know anything about it. It turns out my cousin lives in the oh-so-generously titled “up-and-coming” area of South Philly. I say “oh-so-generously” because any place that has a street dedicated to coffee shops, boutique restaurants, and yoga studios doesn’t really count as “up-and-coming” to me but much more of “tall-and-overtaken.” Not that this really matters, I mean, it’s just a phrase, but I suppose the vague range “up-and-coming” actually conveys can range from “this area is awful and dangerous but at least it’s cheap” to “this area was once filled with an ethno-centricity we considered vaguely threatening but we’ve priced them way the hell out of here.” South Philly seems – to me, I’ll stress – closer to the latter but still affordable enough for some.

I’ll take this moment to refer everyone back to earlier sentence of “the ever-forlorn-cynic.” And you thought I was joking.

But enough of my nagging, Philly is gorgeous. While I didn’t totally understand how it was ok for people to just park in the middle of the street, South Philly had a sensitivity to it. My cousin took me on a beautiful walk through the whole city and I couldn’t get over how nice everyone was. Philadelphia is known as “the city of brotherly love” and I could see why. Probably to a fault, actually, since every store we stopped in, every coffee shop we took a moment to look into, I had to stop and talk to everyone. “Who are you?” I’d ask. “Why are you being so nice to me? Do you always smile like that?” And they do! Everyone does always smile like that! Weird!

And so went the majority of the time I spent with my cousin: she tried to show me her favorite bookstores, her favorite areas, her favorite things about a city she loved, while I ran away from her, talked to everyone else but her, and, more often than not, got lost.

I know that this is my own personal problem. Hell, the reason I left New York was because I couldn’t figure out how to mesh with my community. I just feel so awkward, like the niceties of introduction are much more familiar to me than the intimacies of sustaining a relationship. I know how to be nice to a stranger; I don’t necessarily know how to take care of a friend. I don’t really know how to open up to a community at all, to share my doubts and fears with people who might potentially criticize me for them even though the other option is they might sympathize and let me in.

A three-story wooden phoneix lights up as it returns to ashes.

But then there was the Firebird Festival. I suppose before talking about the Firebird Festival it’s important to give my little cousin a ton of credit on something very, very specific. Aside from being one of the sweetest, most loving people I know, aside from being an incredibly hard worker and dedicated manger to her own employees, and aside from being so emotionally in-tune with herself it puts Dr. Phil to shame, aside from all of that my cousin is one of the most well-read people of all time. Specifically, she is a fantasy geek. Her apartment is stacked from floor to ceiling with books. Everything from Kushiel's Legacy to The Dark Jewels Trilogy, Game of Thrones to Song of the Lioness. Not only has she read it all, but she’s read most a few times . She keeps an index in Excel of all the books she owns and separates it by genre, author, and series. This girl, she’s amazing.

And so of course she happens to have friends in the Dagorhir community. Of course they dress up in medieval garb and learn how to fight with swords and shields, and of course they would be attending the annual Firebird Festival in Phoenixville, Pennsylvania.

I personally had no idea what we were doing. My cousin had explained it repeatedly but I’m often deliberately obtuse about things and because I have a hard time keeping in my head things which were told to me anything more than an hour ago. But somehow I ended up in the car being driven out of Philly to find myself in the quaint and pastoral town of Phoenixville.

Imagine if David Lynch was sane and just made movies about how great living in the ’50s was. That’s Phoenixville.

If I had been deliberately getting lost before, I was now doing it at breakneck speed. I don’t think that my cousin and I were in Phoenixville for more than ten minutes before I ducked away to take photos and stare at the incredible people.

I say incredible people because this was the beginning of the Firebird Festival. Apparently Phoenixville suffered from a long bout of “ain’t nobody want to be here-itis” but that started to turn around and in 2004 they decided to celebrate their brilliant recovery with the Firebird Festival. The festival itself is small, but incredible. The whole town comes out to march in a parade to a three-story tall phoenix made of wood. Then they burn it.

It’s awesome.

But then I met her friends and they. were. so. cool. Dressed in fur cloaks and gambesons, carrying swords and horn flasks, they seemed to appear out of thin air as a large group of marauders. One guy even had little metal hoops he used to pull his beard into a point. I swear to god this was like all of the sudden being transported into Narnia.

It turns out these were these legions of Barenheim, a certain sect of LARPers. LARPers, for those who are like me and may also have no idea what that could possibly mean, are “live action role playing” players. It’s kind of like paintball meets historical military reenactment meets Dungeon and Dragons. Dagorhir, unlike other LARP games, seems to be specifically about the more formal fighting and strategies of history as opposed to other LARP games which have more to do with magical play.

I spent the actual bird-burning part of the Firebird Festival running around taking pictures and getting lost (again), but of all the people attending, the Barenheimians stood out as regal and proud in the flame-licked night.

I talked to a few of them. I wanted to know everything I could. I wanted to know what the game was, how they played and, more specifically who they were. A few of them, consequently, sat with me for an interview. All the while my cousin stood calmly to the side, letting me burn myself out while she chatted with her own friends in the group.

A Dagorhir player gets ready for the parade.

The festival ends with the fire, and as people started heading to their cars we got invited to join the group for “after-festival drinks.” To be honest, I expected a castle. Like, really, I thought we were going to some kind of hall with a round table we would all sit around and drink out of goblets or something. But instead, I found myself in a somewhat messy house, the kind of house which says “please make yourself comfortable,” the kind where you wouldn’t want to sit on the floor as a guest but you would sleep there comfortably any day as a friend.

The living room itself was large yet crammed full of combat gear from every era: épées and crossbows, automatic airsoft rifles and pieces of other such weaponry seemingly ready to be put together again in new creative ways. There were shelves on the walls piled high with Tom Clancy novels and fantasy books, more weapons and board games stacked on top of those.

People poured in. They sat around the room and filled it to capacity. And then, the strangest thing happened. They started to relax. The costumes began to be peeled back and the conversation shifted from their epic battles into the end-of-day campfire tales people discuss about the minutiae of any fun activity. They pulled out some bottles of beer (and I think two different wheels of cheese and crackers got consumed – actually, I’m sure of it, I think sharp cheddar and smoked gouda), and just relaxed.

And that’s when my cousin caught my eye. She had been there the whole time, still chatting and quietly observing, and she caught my eye and smiled as if to tell me that she had been waiting for me to make the realization I was only just getting to: these were not heroes and warlords, just as Philadelphia was not now some faux version of the hip-yet-dangerous city it used to be. This was real. This was now. This was honest.

The party ended slowly. Some people drifted to sleep where they were sitting, others got up and said goodbye. I left when my cousin suggested and we drove quietly back to Philly in her car.

“Did you have a good time?” she asked. And I didn’t really know what to say. I had had an incredible time. I had gotten to see a fantasy so real that I believed it completely. And then I got to peek behind the curtain and see that even though the fantasy wasn’t the reality, the reality was just as good – if not better. I don’t know how my cousin found the patience to wait for me to come to this realization but bless her soul for that patience.

For my last day or so in Philly, I spent my time trying to see who she really is. We watched some of her favorite movies, like Inside Out (“I’m not crying, you’re crying”) and How to Train Your Dragon, and we talked about things in our lives. It’s hard for me to look past the “hello” moment of a relationship, it’s hard for me to sit down and see what people do when they’re doing their routine. But this was a good start.  

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