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.