Tuesday, October 30, 2012

31 Days of Places: Memories of Rt. 507.

The house I grew up in, built by my grandfather, sits on the top of a hill surrounded by trees. If you go down the hill on the gravel road, the stones crunch beneath the car tires as you break at the entrance to the main road, route 507. Turning right takes you towards town, towards school. The road veers slightly after a brief stretch, past the sports bar that changed names every few years, and then inclined again until you reached Circle Green. Circle Green was an upscale community of huge townhouses with views of the lake, a set up that didn't fit with the way most people in our town lived, but marring this high class environment was the stone building that sat on the right side of the road, across from the main entrance.

This stone building had been abandoned for as long as I could remember it, a squat, square simple thing. Moss crept over the stones and the roof; scraggly grass grew between the cracks of the square of pavement that sat in front of it, a semblance of what must have been a minuscule parking lot at some point. I had no idea what kind of business ever occupied it, if any ever had at all, but the inside was empty and gloomy, visible through a few front windows. I passed it every day of my life.

I developed a fantasy: this is where I would open my bookstore.

Looking back at it now, I know the structure was too small to ever host a bookstore; it could fit shelves for one genre at most, and a small town isn't exactly the place for a niche market. Add on top of that that it was probably never inhabitable in the condition it was in in the first place. But I pictured the mahogany checkout desk I'd have up front; the plants I would place everywhere; the cat that could curl up in the windows. I never pictured any other employees or a business plan or marketing or budgets; I just pictured that space being mine, and it being filled with books. There wasn't a bookstore in my town; clearly, there was a need waiting to be filled, and the abandoned stone building on 507 at Circle Green was going to be it.

I can't remember exactly when they tore it down. Maybe I was in middle school; maybe it was way before or after that. But one day it was gone. From what I know, that space still remains empty, nothing ever built to replace it; just that weed stricken square of pavement left on the ground, preserving the ghost of my childhood, nerdy dreams.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

31 Days of Places: Krakow.

The best surprise of my time in Europe was Krakow.

We were stopping in Krakow on our larger journey to Auschwitz, not too far away, and to say to my Polish heritage, "Hey, I went to Poland." In actuality I know nothing about my Polish heritage, but there's a bizarre American white person desire to pretend like you are close to whatever heritage it says on the books you are. Other than that, I don't know what expectations I had. I think I had none, which is perhaps why it ended up being so delightful. You have expectations about Paris, about Rome, about Amsterdam, about Dublin. Who has expectations about Krakow? The unknown can be a glorious thing.

There were a few things that were different about Krakow. It was far away, for one thing, farther than anywhere else we'd gone. It was the first place our Eurail pass didn't work on the train, a convenience we had gotten used to and which caused a bit of confusion once we crossed the border. It was also a place not many other people in our program went, which made it feel more personal to the four of us who made the trek (I think there were four of us?)--everyone went to Germany, to England. Not everyone went to Poland.

It rained the whole time we were there. While traveling in the rain is never much fun and I'm sure I wasn't thrilled at the time, the rain is now ingrained in my memory of it and it seems to fit right. The foggy grey shroud I now forever picture Krakow under only enhances my fondness for it.

The first thing I remember are the pierogis. We got into town kind of late, and once we figured out how to get from the train station to the main part of town in the dark and the rain, tired and flustered, we somehow ended up collapsing into a little pierogi restaurant on a side street. I remember it being small and warm, smelling of wood, and I immediately felt happy there, as we put down our bags and my feet started to dry.

Growing up, we had consumed box after box of Mrs. T's pierogis in our household, which we prepared in a way that somehow mashed up our Polish heritage with our Italian one, and in a way that's probably offensive to real Poles--boiled, and then covered in spaghetti sauce. Sometimes my brother was fancy enough to fry them in a pan with some onions, to which I believe the rest of us always looked to and said, "Well, that seems like way too much effort." The only variety of filling we ever consumed was potato and/or cheese. All the starches, please!

But in this pierogi joint--I know there's a name for this--pierogiera? That's probably just the Italian-Polish jumbling again--the pierogis were small, they were perfectly fried, and they were full of more fillings I had ever dreamed of. And covering them with spaghetti sauce really would have been atrocious, because these things were more than perfectly tasty enough on their own. They were divine. And lord, were they cheap. This was also one of the only countries we visited, along with the Czech Republic, which hadn't been taken over by the Euro at this point and the prices of these pierogis blew my mind. I paid around $20 for some mac and cheese in London; I paid $5 or less for these pierogis in Krakow. The pierogis were better.

I liked this pierogi place so much that I ached to go back to it the next day--I would have eaten there for lunch AND dinner!--but Sam insisted that, only being in each city for a day or two at most, we had to take advantage and eat at as many diverse restaurants as we could in each place. This was a logical argument, and one that she won. But if I ever find my way to Krakow again--and I'd really like to--tiny, warm, welcoming pierogi place, I will find you again.

My other favorite memory of the city were the sculptures in the main square. There were these disembodies statues that were missing limbs, or missing heads, or their whole body.

Some of them were angels; they were all completely disorienting, and disturbing, and beautiful. I sort of feel like the more Eastern you go into Europe, the less scared they are of showcasing all their weird shit when it comes to art. And bless them for it. I'm sure I saw more statues in Europe than I can remember, but without a doubt, I remember these the best.

The most famous tourist attraction in Krakow is Wawel Castle.

We went, and I'm sure it was neat. But to be honest, I had almost forgotten about it until I started looking through pictures. When I think of Krakow, after I revel in the memory of those pierogis, I think of those statues in the square, so piercing, so absolutely wonderful. It was a gorgeous, fascinating place--even in the rain.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

31 Days of Places: Washington, DC.

As the youngest, I watched my brother and sister leave home before me, subconsciously absorbing their examples. While I'd taken the various trips to New York City and Philly, the first city I really felt like I "knew," or that I at least felt a meaningful impact of, was Washington, DC. It's where my sister lived for many years, followed by my brother as well. Don't get me wrong, I'm still a tourist in DC, but there's something different about visiting a place where someone you love lives. They know the places to go. They know which restaurants are best. You walk around trying to see it not just through your eyes alone, but through theirs, trying to absorb the daily life they lead without you.

My mom and I would take the occasional weekend trips to DC throughout high school, a five hour drive from our house, and they were my favorite things. I've still never been to another city like DC, one so vividly divided: the DC of The Government, of The Tourist, of The Monuments. Then there's the DC where, you know, people live.

Both sides always seemed wonderfully overwhelming and fascinating to me. I've been to a lot of the major cities in America now, and population wise, Washington DC pales in comparison to a lot of them. But a lot of the neighborhoods, a lot of the landmarks in DC, the streets, still seem bigger in my memory, some more majestic, some more gritty, all dramatic. 

Part of me believes this is just because I view it through my heightened memory of this being The Place Where My Sister Lived, my cosmopolitan, smart, loud and quick-witted sister, where she fit in and where, as a high school kid, I still did not. A lot of the things I did for the first time in Washington, DC I'd go on to do every day in the other places I'd soon live, but they were all things I couldn't do when the weekend came to an end and we went back to Northeast Pennsylvania. This is not to slam Northeast Pennsylvania--I really have a lot of love in my heart for it and I don't mean to sound condescending--it's just that the lack of any of these things there made them even more exciting. Eating thai food. Going to museums. Hearing different languages on every street corner.

Thai Iced Tea.

All the restaurants we went to always stuck with me, from Ben's Chili Bowl to that barbecue place that had the five different kinds of barbecue sauce on the table. We went to Cosi, which isn't exciting to me now, but ten years ago, a place where you could MAKE S'MORES AT YOUR TABLE? Um, yes please! And that place that both my brother and sister took me to once that had the group unisex bathrooms. I had never even heard of Ethiopian restaurants before. That huge ass Cheesecake Factory in that huge ass fancy mall. Et cetera. And her apartments seemed so sophisticated--this part is still true. My sister's apartments will always be more sophisticated than mine.

But while I know that my exaggerated high school perceptions play a part in my feelings about DC, a big part of me thinks that's just how it is. In a lot of ways, there are things about DC that ARE bigger than anywhere else. I've ridden on a lot of subway systems, but absolutely nothing feels like you have suddenly jumped right into space than the DC Metro. And the sprawling Smithsonian Institutes? Please, those aren't just "museums." The Holocaust Museum? Not a museum, an all-day, life-altering experience. The last time I was "in DC" was for the briefest second last fall mainly to hop on a train to the airport, but Union Station STILL made me feel awestruck.


And a lot of those streets on the other side of DC, the side where the people live, they ARE unique in themselves, too; they do contain more grit and diversity than a lot of the Oh-So-White places I've chosen to live; the architecture is its own impressive thing. I still haven't seen streets like the ones full of those rounded pastel colored townhouses.

In the end, I feel that my sister's emotions about DC after living there for many, many years are mixed. Apparently, it can also be a town full of arrogant douchebags. (Seat of the government? No way!) But overall, as a place to visit, I feel DC is underrated. It's seen as this tourist destination that you flock to as a kid or as a grown-up nerd, but no one ever lists it in the same breath as Chicago or Boston or Seattle or whatnot. And they should. And when my sister disclosed to me recently that she and her soon-to-be-husband may be moving back to it, maybe, a little part of me cheered. Because I want excuses to visit it for a long time. And my sister always knows the best restaurants.

Friday, October 12, 2012

31 Days of Places: The Pacific Northwest; Rainy season.

It rained in Portland today for the first time since June. That's not an exaggeration, since Kathy renewed my long-dead subscription to The Oregonian for my birthday, so I'm now a semi-informed citizen again and it tells me these things. We haven't had a significant rainfall since June. That is a long time. While this has been a particularly long dry spell, it's not that unusual. 

Growing up on the East Coast, you associate West Coast cities with One Specific Fact. There are gay people in San Francisco. There are movie stars in LA. There's a lot of rain in Portland and Seattle. That's it! Geography knowledge BOOM.

This is slightly deceiving though, since for a good portion of the year here, it actually hardly rains at all. It's sort of all or nothing with the Pacific Northwest, which is a cycle that still throws me for a bit of a loop. There are two seasons: rain, and no rain. 

For instance, while summer is the typical gardening season in Normalville (Normalville being places which are not here), and people do engage in plenty of it here--this is a bad example because people really do live for the gardening--by the end of August or September, all the flowers have shriveled and everyone's yards look like this:

Our "yard;" ie., strange patch of grass in front of our apartment. 
Thank goodness for alienesque weeds, right?

Except for the fools who waste water on their artificial lawns all summer long like idiots, everyone else's is this lovely pale dead color. And then it's the middle of winter or early spring, when things are normally brown and frozen in Normalville, that the world is bursting with green. Because by that point here, of course, it's never stopped raining.

The rain today means a few things: all of the barely-hanging-on plants of the world rejoice, and I get to bust out Toby's raincoat. And believe me, he looks quite handsome in his raincoat. 

While the outside world has been drifting into fall for a while now, and my birthday has come and gone so I know time is moving forward, there's been something about the consistently lovely and dry weather up until today that dulled my brain and made these last few months slurry together. But suddenly when it rained today, it was like I could actually hear a snap inside my personal atmosphere that yelled CHANGE! I ran around the house closing storm windows; I felt rather cheery about the gloom and started planning out in my head how I could squeeze in more reading time through the next few months, more snuggling in my bed time. I turned on the heat for the first time. I had a rash urge to watch Christmas movies even though I have a strict no-Christmas-movies-until-after-Thanksgiving rule. I felt ready to rock this nesting, hibernating season! In other words, I went a bit batty. Because goodness knows, in no time, the rain will have seeped its misery into everything and I will look back and want to smack the giddy girl of today.

The rain of the Northwest is strange. It hardly ever downpours in a torrential way; although the rain today was pretty serious. There's only thunder or lightning once in a blue moon; it's always a cold rain. More often than not, it's not so much a constant rain as a constant drizzle, a constant greyness. And this greyness seeps into your bones after a while.

I've never doubted that seasonal affective disorder is a real thing for many people. I wouldn't say I'm affected to the point of a disorder, but after five years of living here, I can't deny that the long, grey winter affects me somehow. While winter drags on for even longer on the East Coast, at least snow livens things up, is different, seems exciting. While I know a lot of people who don't necessarily get amped about snow, I would prefer it any day to the neverending grey.

And so my knowledge that I would one day soon be not so excited about the rain like I was today wasn't even necessarily like a funny-but-unavoidable fact, one of those things that you groan about but bear it. It felt fraught with a certain anxiety. The last two winters in particular have been tough for me. I can't recollect for certain how the winters before that went, but for the past two years between the months of December and April, things have been rough, for a multitude of different reasons. And maybe it just sounds like an excuse to explain my mopeyness, but I feel that that endless grey must have exacerbated them. And while I'll hopefully not have to worry about those different reasons this year, part of me can't help but worry that the grey will suck me in again, will do its job of highlighting all the negative thoughts and burying the good ones.

So I'm trying to make a pledge to myself, on this first day of rain, to like myself this winter. To hold on to my self-esteem until the sun shines again. To funnel the grey into reading and writing, to catching up on TV and movies, and nothing else. I'm going to work and save as much money as possible. I'm going to try to get back into cooking. I'm going to be boring, but happy. 

Of course, if we could control these things, then SAD would never even be an issue, but I'm just telling myself and you, Blogger, that this year, I'm going to do my damndest to try.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

31 Days of Places: The Columbia River Gorge.

When people visit Oregon, there are a lot of favorite places that I never tire of bringing people to again and again. Of all those places, there is no doubt that the most repetitive is the Columbia River Gorge. We have brought so many people to Multnomah Falls that I've started a collection of photographs of people whose picture I've taken in the same exact spot, year after year. I've returned on my own countless other times, gone on a number of hikes and seen things even more spectacular than what you can see from the highway. And I never get sick of it. From Portland to Hood River, everything about the Columbia River Gorge is my heart.

Yet two of the visits I remember best are two of the earliest ones. (Like I said in another post, coming first often counts more than you realize.) The first time I ever drove through the Columbia River Gorge, we were nearing the end of our cross country trip here in 2007. And I'm almost certain it caused a fight. While driving across the country is an amazing thing, it's also a tiring thing. It's a thing of not having a regular bed for many nights, of so many hours on the road that your eyes glaze over. I imagine it could be even more trying when you have me as a companion: over-ambitious over-planner extraordinaire. We were so close to Portland. We were almost there. So tired, and so close to the waiting arms of our friend Zoe, whose apartment we would crash in until we found our own, so close to something resembling stability. Thirty miles away close, after days and days of plotting out our mileage by the hundreds. Most sane people would have probably wanted to just plunge on, as I believe Kathy wanted to. But no. There were these waterfalls I had read about. I wanted to see the waterfalls. I'd learn about the Missoula floods later, all the secrets this landscape holds, but at this point, all I knew were that waterfalls were good. 

This is a difference that will probably persist until the day we die: Kathy is a person who knows her limits, who knows when to stop and rest. This is not a fault. I have trouble with limits. Trouble recognizing them; trouble listening to them. (I'm the only one who's allowed to admit this. Try to call me on it, I will feel pout-y and boxed in. Limits? Psh, life is short.)

So we saw the waterfalls. To be honest, I don't think they blew my mind. I had already seen Chicago and the Black Hills and Yellowstone. My capacity to absorb was weak. I was tired. My limits shrugged. You win some, lose some.

But the first time the Columbia River Gorge really mattered was a few months later. My dad was the first to come West, late that October, and we headed out on the Historic Columbia River Gorge Highway. It was the fall, is what did it. The fall makes everything magical. The light is right. And while the range of color here can never surpass the East Coast, ever, there's still something about the yellows and oranges that's very lovely, and it fringed everything that day.


The perfect drive.

As we drove, I felt the calmness in the pit of my belly that lets me know I am truly happy and where I am meant to be. The Columbia River Gorge, which I've tried to wax poetic about at many points before in various places and failed miserably at every time, is always where I'm meant to be. But especially, particularly, most wondrously, in the fall.

31 Days of Places: John's Italian Restaurant; Greentown.

Growing up as a small kid, Friday nights were spent at my dad's house, watching TGIF and waking up in the morning for Pop Tarts. As an older kid, the sleeping over faded away but I still always met my dad for dinner at least once a week. As we lived in a small town, the options of places to eat for dinner were few, and we made the rounds to all of them again and again. But one of my absolute favorite ones was John's Italian Restaurant.

John's Italian Restaurant was on Route 507 right next to the on-ramp to Interstate 84. Head West to Scranton; East to Port Jervis, or continue on 507 under it to the netherworld of Newfoundland and beyond. Right next to a big gas station, it was one of those generic restaurants frequented by truckers. And us. It was a big restaurant, big enough to have one of those boards with table numbers lit up hanging on the wall, unused but still there. It was separated into three rooms. You walked through the door into the first one, past the gumball machines and newspaper stands in the entrance, past a hall holding a claw drop and some pinball machines, and you'd wait by the counter that housed all the cakes and pies and desserts. The kitchen was behind. The room on the opposite end of the building had tables under huge curved windows that were full of condensation in the winter. We normally sat in the room in the middle. The decor was plain: gold vinyl flooring, red booths, red backed chairs, generic Italian paintings on the wall, the odd tropical houseplant. There was a coffee station for the waitresses against one wall in the middle room; pots of regular and decaf on the burners at all times; stacks and stacks of white coffee creamers in little ceramic bowls; extra silverwear sets wrapped up in napkins.

There were better restaurant choices, closer to town, more personal settings, but I liked coming to John's Italian Restaurant for one reason: the ziti. Like all these big restaurants, I'm sure the menu was also huge, but I got the same, exact, astoundingly boring thing every single time: ziti with red sauce. Not even a damn meatball or two. Nothing special about the ziti, nothing special about the sauce, other than it tasted perfect and I wanted it all the time. I'd pour endless grated parmesan from those ubiquitous globular shakers, and I would eat every last drop. It became sort of a joke, the way repetitive, reliable things become jokes. "Well, guess Jill's going to get the ziti." These jokes are never actually that funny but they are always good jokes because they remind you of the solidity, the roots of your life that allow you to be so hilariously predictable. You're lucky to be predictable.

Sometimes it was just my dad and me, sometimes whatever sibling(s) was around, although as I was the last to leave home as the youngest, I tend to remember the times that were Just Me the clearest. But the best times were when Grandma or Aunt Anita were able to come, too, which was most of the time. Maybe even sometimes a cousin, Jodi or Jenn, if they were in town. A childhood where your extended family was not a part of your life every week is a childhood I don't understand and one I pity. Aunt Anita was such a good talker that there was never a struggle to make conversation; you wouldn't even have to say a thing. I could just listen to her talk about whatever she wanted to talk about and eat my ziti and it was best.

The other thing about these restaurants that were close to the Interstate was that they were frequently open late for the truckers, and in a small town, not much is open late, so you take what you can get, you and the truckers on Saturday nights. I remember going to John's Italian Restaurant once or twice on the way back from a trip to Scranton in high school, with my friend Jenna or a few other people, sitting around and eating bread and drinking coffee even though I never normally drank coffee. We always sat in the first room, closest to the door, those times. It was fun, but it always felt sort of weird anytime I was there without my dad, without the ziti.

I tried to Google John's Italian Restaurant before I wrote this, but as with a lot of Google searches involving things from my hometown, it wasn't an entirely fruitful search. I found a website which may be of the right restaurant--it has the right area code and there can't be that many John's Italian Restaurants in Greentown, Pennsylvania--but the pictures on it showed a much more sophisticated-looking place, full of tables made of fancier wood and booths sheathed in darker colors and it just didn't seem right. I hope it hasn't changed. I would be really depressed if John's Italian Restaurant was a fancy place now.

That's the thing, though, with leaving your hometown. You forget it's a place that doesn't exist merely for your nostalgia. It changes, and you have no right to fault it.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

31 Days of Places: Providence.

When I was in college, pre-Kathy in my particularly angsty days, one of my favorite things was a solo trip on the commuter rail.

The commuter rail that spread out from Boston was a glorious thing, a system that should exist everywhere: for a cheap price, often little more than a subway ticket, you could hop on over to North Station or South Station and have a sweet ride out of the city, a simple and easy escape. And it was so organized; there was just the one system, run by the MBTA, trains stamped with the T against a dark purple circle, no need for transfers, just get on and go south, west, north. I took a lot of commuter rail trips with other people; a lot with Sam, and a few with Kathy, too, later, and others. But when I got the chance, I liked to pick a spot on the map and head out alone, for all the reasons I always like to do things alone: to clear my headspace, to see someplace new, and to take pictures.

One of these solo trips spread to another state, albeit the tiniest one: Rhode Island. I visited Providence again later with Sam to check out the zoo--as briefly mentioned in Koln, we had a thing about exploring zoos in random cities--but I like the pictures I took on my solo trip the best. I remember it being overcast, which was appropriate for the film I had in my camera, 100 speed. When you want good, crisp pictures, when you want to capture action, the higher the speed the better--800, 1600 if you're super fancy. 400 is generally the standard for whatever. But 100 is perfect for an overcast day, for low light, for moody black and white emo shots: The grain is the thing. Of course, none of this really matters these days with digital, but, it still matters to me.

When you leave the train station--as all I ever knew of the cities I traveled by commuter rail to were what I could walk to on foot from the train station and still return in time for a decent train back to Boston from--you see this beautifully manicured canal with a lovely backdrop of buildings and a pleasantly cobbled walkway.

I feel like this happens a lot in cities: this one new, perfectly manicured spot. It's entirely enjoyable, yet entirely disjointed from the rest of the roots and bones of the old town. Once I left it, the streets seemed to wander in a somewhat haphazard fashion, and many of them had the slightly dilapidated feel that a lot of New England towns have. It fills me with this feeling that's simultaneously on the edge of depression and on the edge of comfort. It feels like so many of these towns are aching for an uplift, like the streets are just a tad too empty and a tad too shifty, stuck a decade or two behind. But at the same time that's their charm, and there's something wonderfully blue collar about it all. And all of it is perfect for 100 speed film.

Traveling places with a companion, or several, is of course always much more fun. There always comes a point in these solo journeys that I feel a stab of anxiety, or loneliness, or just a desire to be back on familiar ground. 

But still, the need to hop on a train, or jump in a car, or just head out on foot, by myself--with film--just for a short jaunt--will never leave me.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

31 Days of Place: The Dom; Koln.

I visited a lot of cathedrals in Europe, to the point where they started to blend together towards the end. Gothic arches, marble floors, stained glass, history and awe, yeah, yeah, I miss home.

But for some reason, the one I always remember the most is the first one I saw. Actually, scratch that "for some reason;" this isn't that mysterious; it makes sense. Sometimes coming first does matter. Coming first has greater sticking ability in my slippery mind. Sorry, Notre Dame. I remember the Dom a million times better than you.

And the stairs!

The Dom resides in Koln (Cologne) Germany, a town so close to the place we lived across the border in the Netherlands that it seemed like the first logical trip to take after we settled into the continent: easy, quick trip, but we could still say we knocked another country off our list! And what a perfect choice from the start: the train station couldn't be beat, and I love a good train station.

And then dominating the skyline, one of the first things you see: the Dom. It wasn't just the first cathedral I saw; it was one of the first things in general I saw in Europe, and no wonder it sticks in the memory. It took my breath away. So looming, so intricate, so dark. There were too many details, too many towers to even comprehend. While other cathedrals I'd meet later on seemed almost shiny in their clean bright stone, the Dom was sort of dirty in the best of ways: I remember the outside appearing like a kaleidoscope of varying shades of soot. This only seems right with these structures: they should look old. They should look intimidating. The religion they often housed was.

I can't remember the details of the interior. What I remember is that Sam, Kerri, and I climbed to the top of one of the towers you could walk up, and it was over 600 steps. Or something. At least. Or was it 800? It was a lot. I am clearly feeling resistant to Googling any factual information so I can present my shoddy memory instead. It was the beginning of a series of walking-up-towers-with-lots-of-stairs, but none felt as epic or as much of a real accomplishment as the Dom. The stairs, as with most stairs in towers, were of the spiral variety, the kind that give me vertigo almost immediately, causing me to grip the handrails until my knuckles are white out of a dizzy anxious fear. The spiral would pass windows, as in the top picture here, proving that the cafe tables on the street were indeed getting tinier and tinier. The room at the top was full of graffiti. I love graffiti. We paused before the descent, where the vertigo really kicks in, making landing back on solid ground feel like the real accomplishment. Anytime I get amped for a big staircase even now, a small part of my brain cheers for the memory of the Dom.

There were other things that made Koln memorable: I remember walking over a bridge--also a favorite pastime of mine--and there was a chocolate factory involved. And beer. Basically not much more is required for bliss. So many street vendors selling cologne in tiny glass bottles of turquoise and gold; Sam talking with German boys by the river; and of course, our trip to the zoo. But the Dom is the crown jewel. The Dom is what I want to see again.

I should note that as this is my first entry about Europe--and there will probably be many this month, and I'm already over feeling pretentious about it, so deal--I busted out my journal and my scrapbooks from the trip before opening up this blog post, all ready to cringe but secretly love the over-sentimental words I wrote about the Dom and the city of Koln. Turns out my first entry in my journal isn't until we had already returned from the city. I wrote sitting the next day in a chair outside our bedroom and talked about a mosquito flying around my head and how I didn't get a good night's sleep because we ate too much pizza upon our return.

So. Yeah. That also sounds like me.

I also talked about how Sam, Kerri, and I sat down and planned out the rest of the trips we wanted to take; our goal was to visit 10 countries, which, as I wrote, "made my head hurt." We did. Including the Netherlands, in fact, all in all I visited 11.

Boom. Almost 10 years later, just really beginning to count my blessings.

[And yes, I will make up for the days I missed this week while I was horribly sick, somehow.]

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

31 Days of Places: Los Angeles.

Once, when I was in high school, I went to Los Angeles for the day.

I can't remember if we left from Philly or New York, our two closest airport options to my hometown. It's two or three hours to each, and then a five hour flight to Southern California. We must have done two red eyes. It was the first time I'd been on such long flights; I remember my back hurting and scribbling in my journal when I wasn't staring out the window or anxiously half sleeping. 

We had a family friend who worked for United; they got special deals on flights each month but you had to use them before the end of the month. One month, they hadn't used them, and offered them to us. My dad and I took them. We could go anywhere in the US we wanted. We had exactly a day to use them. We chose Los Angeles.

I had never been to the West Coast before, but at this point had already listened to enough of the Mamas & the Papas to know the California yearning in my East Coast soul. My first sighting of a palm tree felt unreal. The sky was perfectly, cloudlessly blue. The thing I remember most, stupidly, is our rental car. Looking back now, I know it was just some crappy Chevy, but all I knew then was that it was wonderfully shiny red and it felt like the only logical car to drive in California. I was full of a teenager's-ideas-of-LA cliches.

We somehow crammed in all the most touristy LA things. We went to Rodeo Drive. We went to Venice Beach. It was the first time I had seen mountains behind an ocean horizon. It was the first time I had seen so many freaks with piercings and dyed hair and tattoos outside of New York, in a place that was warm. I felt giddy and free. We drove around windy roads in Beverly Hills where all the mansions were hidden behind huge fences, but it felt fun anyway. We saw stars on the sidewalk. And then we went home.

In school later that week, I was able to say the bizarre sentence: "So I went to LA on Tuesday." Or whatever day it was. I expected everyone to be so thrilled about what a strange thing that was. I had been around palm trees! Palm trees! I had seen the Pacific Ocean! Most weeks, the most exciting thing to happen to any of us was a trip to the movie theater in Scranton. But no one seemed to care. Maybe they didn't believe me, or maybe my bragging was just annoying. Probably the latter.

But I was able to hold it inside. I had seen oceans with mountains behind them, and my world already felt bigger. I'd return to LA several times, later, when I was more grown up, and I'd go through lots of Southern California emotions, good and bad, but nothing felt as magical as that day. Because I had a dad who was as crazy as I was, who thought that going to LA for a day would make a good story to talk about later. And it did. It always will be.

31 Days of Places: Pittsburgh.

This weekend was brief, like most trips are, and the time we spent in actual downtown Pittsburgh even briefer. A few hours, maybe. The time it takes to actually get to know a city, to know its bones and for its ghosts to always roam your brain no matter where you are, that amount of time makes every place special, every place unique. But I've found that in the brief moments, I've been to enough places now that each place, at first glance, simply seems like a puzzle of places I've been before. 

 Pittsburgh rests between the merging of two rivers, the Allegheny and the Monongahela, which join to create one with a much less interesting name: the Ohio. Accordingly, it's a city of many bridges, including remarkable shiny yellow ones. When I see them, I think of another city of many bridges: Portland. When we wander into little Italian markets in an authentic-seeming area of town called the Strip, I think of other little markets in other authentic-seeming areas of town in other cities in the Northeast: Boston, New York, Philly. They are the kind of markets you can't find on the West Coast.

The first thing that comes to mind when walking around Pittsburgh is, "Holy crap, people really like the Steelers." We pass a Hispanic market, two workers sitting under an awning selling churros and fresh tortillas in the rain, a "Si Se Puede Steelers" Terrible Towel hanging over the side of the table. It feels comforting and familiar in the way that towns that are defined by a single sports team are, at least the ones that I've known: the Red Sox in Boston. The Tarheels in Chapel Hill.

We stay at a Spring Hill Suites still technically in Pittsburgh, but just on the other side of the Monongahela. The decor inside is exactly like the last Spring Hill Suites I stayed in, which I realize was in Bend, Oregon. Memories of being in the high desert with my dad come back to me as we take a jet-lagged nap and the rain continues outside, surrounded by hills and trees, some starting to turn in fall color, so different from that last dry landscape of red dirt and scraggly trees of Bend. We eat at a German style beer hall restaurant, where I get a dunkel, a "dark" beer that tastes the closest to the dark beers I had in Europe, that seem so different from the dark beers of America. I feel closer to Europe in this beer hall than I have in a long time, even if it's manufactured, even if everything is just costumes.

The majority of the rest of the weekend is spent on either a farm or driving along stretches of suburban strip malls, the combination of which made up my childhood, which was spent on the opposite side of this same state. In fact, even though my hometown is many hours away, and there are notable differences between the two sides of the state, the scenery and the curving roads seem almost exactly the same. The green everywhere is the same, the trees are the same, even the names of things sounds the same. We could be on the way to my grandparents' old house, on the way to Woodloch. On the way to the airport on the last day, the GPS takes us a sort of strange route which passes through a small town, slightly dilapidated, slightly stuck in the past, yet bearing a certain kind of dreary charm. It could be Allentown, it could be Scranton, and I feel weirdly connected to it.

In the end, all of these comparisons are unjust to the place itself. They represent not a place but the memories that a place triggered. Pittsburgh is its own town that exists outside of those connections it fueled in my brain.

What it most truly is is the hometown of a very dear friend. And hometowns of dear friends, even if I don't ever know them in a personal, just way, will always be important marks on the map. Because we should all strive to know our friends well, and we are all made up from the places we are from.