Thursday, May 31, 2012

City of Bridges

“You know, coming home, and finding things all right, though not quite the same.”
-J.R.R. Tolkien

First View of Pittsburgh
Two weeks ago, I was seated on a threadbare, checker-patterned tram cushion while the weak Belgian rain streaked the windows as I passed the Palais Stoclet along Avenue de Tervueren. Two weeks ago, I was having Movenpick ice cream with two of my best girl friends as we passed La Bourse and I considered how the worst part of returning to America was the lack of Swiss ice cream.

For two weeks, I’ve been back on the other side of the Atlantic. This return has included typical American fare and fanfare: miniature golf, amusement parks, hot dogs, barbeques, coconut cream pie with real macaroon crust, baseball games and buffalo wings. In short, an abundance of indulgence.

And though I’m now in my own territory, though it’s my own country and a city that I’ve lost count of the number of times that I’ve visited, it felt like I was being reintroduced to American culture with enthusiasm by my Pennsylvania family, as though they were reminding me what I’ve missed. I’m surprised at how much old friends can close the gap in time between the cobblestones of the Grand Place and your ride down a rollercoaster, being just as silly as you ever were.

At Kennywood Park
One never feels so integrated into a place until one is dirty with it. After spending a day at Kennywood (Pittsburgh’s amusement park), I felt positively shellacked in the dirt and germs of its people and in this way re-Americanized. But I was also satisfyingly exhausted from the screaming and hand-holding on magnetically-powered loop-de-loops on this large-scale playground.

Kennywood is a unique amusement park, one of only two amusement parks in the world that is listed as a National Historic Place. And although the selection of diversions is largely relegated to the traditional roller coasters and arcades common throughout the nation, it was once also home to dance halls, public swimming pools, and bandstands (probably more like this when my father went there when he was six-years-old) - all of which were open, available, and designed to be accessible to the working class. Because Pittsburgh has always been a dedicated working class city.

Which means the City of Bridges (as it's called) is also host to a cast of characters that you’re both endeared by and terrified to identify with. Take for example, the man walking down Beacon in a pair of black and gold Steelers parachute pants, no shirt, sporting a pony-tailed “skullet” (you know - where they’re bald on top but with long flowing locks tied at the base of their neck) and the crowning piece: bright white neck brace propping up his head as he walks down the street smoking a cigarette. That man is most likely a good example of what we call a “Yinzer.”

Back to the Land Where Sandwiches
Are Bigger Than My Face
Yinzers are classic Pittsburgh folks, speaking a dialect that is apparently the most difficult and muddled of all the American dialects. They don’t say “did you eat yet?” – the phrase instead comes out “Jeet jet?” They don’t say “I’ll have some eggs and stuff,” they say “I’ll have eggs n’at.”

And the most puzzling of all: “yinz.” The Pittsburgh version of “y’all.” Except at least “y’all” is a contraction for “you all” and “yinz” is short for “you unz.”… Which doesn’t make any sense. And if you meet the right yinzer, it doesn’t matter how much they insist they are native speakers of English, you might not be able to make out a word.

But all Pittsburgh people are extraordinarily genuine, down-to-earth and warm. In my enthusiasm for buying a piece of Gullifty’s coconut cream pie, I left my debit card beeping in the ATM slot as I ran down the street to meet up with my friends and check the restaurant hours. I didn’t even realize my mistake, just sat there jawing over the pie options when a large-framed man in an orange shirt started waving his arms and making his way down to us.

Kennywood Sunset
“Hey,” he called after us, “you left your card. You left your card!” He waved it in the air and my friend Sakena charged up the street and retrieved it for me. This was the exact same mistake that I’d made that resulted in my previous debit card being stolen. But I was spared that particular travesty this time around by a kind and concerned Pittsburgher.

It’s a strange place with quirks lurking in unexpected places, which I’m reminded of on my first day back over lunch at the classic Primanti brothers deli. Sean, in discussion of our friend Chris’ new fixer-upper home tells me that the house includes a “Pittsburgh cellar.”

“What’s a Pittsburgh cellar?” I ask.

Pittsburgh Cellar
“Well,” Sean elaborates and spreads his hands, a trilling edge of excitement to his voice the way there always is when he’s explaining local history, “well, it’s a totally bare, undeveloped basement, that looks like it’s a cell. It’s low ceilinged with what we call a ‘Pittsburgh Toilet’ at its center; no walls, no privacy, just hanging out there in the basement.  Sometimes there's a shower nozzle. Just standing there in the middle.”

The image of a center stage, un-concealed toilet strikes me as both creepy and embarrassing.

It turns out (like so many things in the old Steel City) that this is a vestige of industrial times. The former coal miners and steel workers, apparently, when they’d come in from the mills back in the day often entered through the basement to clean the day off of them instead of tracking the dirt and grime through the house – they washed up and went to the bathroom first thing when they get home and emerged upstairs as the clean fathers of the house. So, many older houses in Pittsburgh have this feature – a grimy, de-industrializing area still standing there in the center of their basements.

I take another bite of my Primanti Brothers sandwich (a sandwich bigger than my mouth) and smile. “Ah, Pittsburgh. Ah, America.”

Pittsburgh Skyline from PNC Park
But really, what it comes down to, when I’m thinking about my love for Pittsburgh - what makes me happy to be there - it’s about something more elusive and unexpected. Something that you don't notice, but instead realize. Something that was best exemplified on this most recent trip during my first trip to PNC Park to watch a Pirates-Mets game.

There we were, enjoying incredibly overpriced and fatty food as well as beers before, during, and after the game. And although I’m a Red Sox fan in my heart, I can’t help but shift my allegiance for a game as I make my way into the disturbingly empty stadium. Nothing matches Fenway as a cathedral to baseball, but I immediately loved PNC, because it offers one of the best seats to watch the sun go down as you view the Pittsburgh skyline. The Pirates also offer some ridiculous and silly pageantry, including four people dressed as pierogies that raced around the field between innings and a call from Kiera Knightley on the big screen saying that the Pirates should not go down without a fight before the final inning.

And, if you’re not familiar, the Pirates are one of the oldest teams in baseball. Overall, the Pirates have won five World Series and lost two (most of those victories dated to a very long time ago). And after some success in the early 90s (making the NLCS three straight years), the Pirates have now tracked 19 consecutive losing seasons to date, the longest in North American professional sports history.

Pirates at Work
And yet the fans that were there watching the Pirates lose on that weeknight, leaned forward in an intense conspiracy of hope - applauded loudly for each run, standing when 
Andrew McCutchen split a bat and shot forward towards first, and resigned themselves to each out, waiting for the turn that never came. And then we all departed the stadium for the bar for conciliatory, hopeful drinks where we told ourselves the things the consistently thwarted tell themselves, "there's always the next game, the next season. Next time will be different." We smile grimly at each other and decide to believe in spite of everything that's come before. 

I don't know how you stay a Pirates fan after all this time, but it made me realize that there is an opportunity here in Pittsburgh for a tutorial on hope.

Some of the most difficult and worthy things in our life require unreasonable, even unfeasible hope - whether it's the idea that romantic love is possible or the belief that your book might someday see publication - sometimes we have to believe, cheer ourselves on in spite of repeated defeat. If after nineteen years you can still enjoy the process of watching a team try and fail, you can sustain the unreasonable and exquisite belief that anything is possible. 

First View of Seattle After Five Months
And Pittsburgh is a city that does that repeatedly, a failed industrial city always re-inventing itself, trying and always lagging. And the people that I know there are some of the most fervent and loving optimists I know - which is a quality so undervalued these days, it's worth my fierce defense. It makes me think that it's one of the best ways to return to America. 

I say that I’ve returned to America, but I wouldn’t say that I’ve returned home. Or I have, but it is no fixed point right now - it's just a continuing rotation of people to say "hello" and "goodbye" to. And in this way, travel continues. 

Farewell, Pittsburgh - thanks for reintroducing me to my country.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Returning Home

“Once you have traveled, the voyage never ends, but is played out over and over again in the quietest chambers. The mind can never break off from the journey.”
Pat Conroy

Monday, May 14, 2012

Cities Like Me

Who says that you have to choose
between a night out and writing?
On Friday night, just as the sun was going down after an abnormally bright Brussels day, I cut up a baguette in a kitchen with three other women. I had on a dress that I had purchased in a shop along the main square in Gibraltar. We were talking about cooking, kitchens, the way our mothers prepared meals. I looked over at A, who is almost always on her way to or just finishing with another smile, who at that particular moment was glowering down at the hand mixer that was refusing to work as she made homemade Mascarpone for this going away party. L deftly held a knife and taught me how to peel oranges in the Spanish fashion as we assembled a fruit salad. R was already through with the entire bunch of bananas and arranging nearly 40 Euros worth of cheese, which I couldn’t wait to consume after I had finished doing L’s hair.

No matter where you are, there is nothing like being in a kitchen with a group of laughing women in the hour before a party. Especially a farewell party where you can already feel the loneliness of living very far from people that you’ve come to love. 
Farewell Party

But that has been the feel of things since Wednesday when I finished typing the final words of this first draft of my manuscript.

It feels like the last few weeks before graduation. When everything takes on the sheen of anticipated nostalgia; the way my heels tangle with the cobblestone, the throaty, whole-mouth sound of French down the bar from me, the snap of the market tents folding up in the afternoon, the grassy dry taste of a cider served in a champagne glass. All of it now marked by the ticking clocked I’ve abandoned wearing.

View from the Party
In five months, I have visited eight countries, enough so that the TravBuddy widget tells me that I have now seen 9% of the world. I have written about 80,000 words of a strange work of fiction, more than 100,000 words of journal entries, I shudder to think how many pounds I’ve put on, so we’ll leave that number out of it for now. And then we can reflect on how inadequate those numbers are. On how there is no measure for the feel of a dress flapping in Mediterranean wind under Mediterranean sun or what the rain sounds like while writing on the top floor of a four story apartment in the south of England.

I have liked (or let’s not be coy here, I’ve loved) the cities and people that I’ve met over the course of this journey intensely, and each of them in their own fashion, caressing quirks and failings in particular – because somehow these are the things that make me love something. I’ve loved them as a tourist loves anything – with a wet, eager wonder at the newness, sometimes pleasantly daunted by the strangeness. And I’ve also loved myself a little more, maybe hated myself, too.

Take, for instance, the day I sat in front of the computer to work on my book and composed, instead, self-applauding emails to you all day talking about how well it was all going in order to make it true. Take the day I vomited in the middle of a French-speaking grocery store in front of some very kind and bewildered Belgians (yeah, ask me about that story sometime). Take, for example, that comatose day I stalled out on Chapter 8 while I considered the sudden death of my friend (very far away) and the range of beautiful work that he left behind because he put paint to canvas with such dedication.

Central Station Farewells
Not every day is the day you’re following your dream, sometimes you’re a graceless house guest, a washed-up tourist, or a talentless hack faking it in order to survive the afternoon. And if I wrote you an email on one of those days and told you how beautiful everything was, how good I felt, how the book was progressing, perhaps including an Oscar Wilde quote as though I were worthy of sharing an industry with him, it wasn’t exactly untrue, but it might not have been what you were picturing. I’ve fabricated a few things for you from time to time in order to to make them true for myself and in order to make it through the final pages. Which I have now.

But I swear that every day, even the days that I failed were the best days of my life because I had something to live up to even if it was just the view of the stately illuminated spire of the Grand Place here in a city that has become my home: Brussels.

Promotional Art Car Instrument... Thing
Yesterday afternoon, before putting my friend John on a train back to Paris, a group of us toured through two museums, intermittently punctuated with about five different café stops. Along the way, there were two artfully wounded cars that were smoking, painted, and dilapidated and rigged to make music when you interacted with them. There were oblique references to some parade that will take place later this week after I’m gone, but the connection that these musical wrecked cars have to it is unclear. But people, including us, were still stopping to watch and play the cars without the need for an invitation or explanation.

These are the things that make me smile as L and A set to rehearsing some sort of spontaneous and makeshift song on the car and I sigh to myself, “Ah, Belgium.”

Brussels (Belgium on the whole, really) in spite of the important role that it plays on the continent, despite its history and personality will never be a destination European city. People end up in Brussels mostly and it makes a case for itself and you either embrace it or you move on. Brussels offers itself, nothing more.

12th Century Belgian Painting
that proves Gay Pride Celebrations
have long been the norm
Think about it: Rome, London, Paris. These cities need not introduce themselves, their presence is anticipated, felt, announced on every corner, their personality is well-known from the get-go – they offer you an idea and they are delivered to you. Brussels, on the other hand is another thing entirely – as an international melting pot without an inherited definition – a young country even by American standards (whose independence was not recognized until 1839) – Belgium simply shows up and is itself, and gives you the strangest hidden corners, both new and old, at odds with itself, and very, very quirky. You don’t expect anything from Belgium, you discover it and because it didn’t arrive with a preconceived notion attached to it, your time with it can be entirely yours, something you make for yourself from a buffet of Belgian artifacts.

Beer, chocolate, fries, mussels, lace and comic books. These are the traditional Belgian associations. Godiva chocolate, the Smurfs, even some of our finest diamonds - these high and low delights emerged from gray, complicated cities.

Brussels Basilica of the Sacred Heart
Which is something that I love about it: its delight and its sincerity, its lack of perceived notions, association, or affectation. You have to want what Brussels has to offer to love it, which is a strange assortment of personal collisions: the butcher that chased my friend down the street when he forgot his wallet, the Belgian punks spilling beer on themselves, threatening to piss on the Metro and then holding the door open for an old woman, an impassioned defense from any citizen on the ninth art: comic books (reminding you of the indignation of incredibly gifted and fit girls who would knock you out were you to suggest that cheerleading isn’t a sport – of course it is). But it’s also the strange Atomium on the skyline (built for the World’s Fair in 1958), the smoking car band promotions on the street, the green art deco Basilica (which my friend L remarked was such a strange, sci-fi stylized church, it looked as though Star Wars fans or Rocky Horror Picture enthusiasts might be more comfortable holding conventions there than the world’s Catholic faithful who might come here to marvel at one of the ten largest Catholic edifices in the world), it’s the sun-glassed young Green who’s shouting poetry in French and Dutch during Brussels' Gay Pride celebration, it’s the old couple at the local market that stops to listen to the live brass band interpretation of David Bowie’s “Heroes.” It doesn’t make sense, and it isn’t always sophisticated – but it might just offer you more than you expected. It is allowed to be unusual, to contradict and redefine itself. Which is its problem. And its grace. And sort of the challenge for everyone I know.

Or maybe I’m just coming to the end of things. Maybe I’m just observant in that acute way that you’re only capable of when you’re in grief or joy.

Random Statue on the Way to the Basilica
I like Brussels, because it reminds me of me: unassuming, awkward, a little weird, a fusion of all of the best of the people that it has met, sometimes gloomy, but overall on the verge of laughter at all times.  You have to get to know it to like it and it offers you what you weren’t looking for instead of what you expected to find.

Which is a trend that I think will continue in the coming months.

And, if social media is the new platform for life updates and if blogs are the accepted channel for personal press releases, I should say now that when I return to the states that I am not staying in Seattle. I’ve been offered a position in San Francisco, which I am taking and I will be moving there in mid-July. 

I’m thirty, I wrote a strange book, I have a suitcase full of chocolate and shoes and beyond that, nothing is really certain.

Which means that things remain to be discovered and the boundaries of self-discovery are really only restricted to the borders of your heart, which, if you want it to, takes in quite a lot of territory.

The farewell party thrown by my friends on Friday night was a small affair by some standards, but it had all of the earmarks of a good time – an overflowing food table, dancing, an array of Belgian beers, and a great view.  And so maybe the moment you leave home for another city is a bigger departure than you had anticipated and maybe all love and all travel are just a series of cycling greetings and farewells, but it’s worth the hardships if it means you end up raising a glass with your favorite French family or dancing to Adele at three in the morning while overlooking the city skyline with your friends.

And so this is what it feels like to finish a book and come home.