Final Post

Which destination was your favorite and why? What about that destination was distinctly “Pittsburgh” to you? Also, many people believe that traveling changes you in unique ways. If our travels this semester have changed you, or changed your way of seeing Pittsburgh, please say something about that.

I had so much fun this semester in travel writing. I don’t know if I could choose one place that seemed more special than the rest, but I loved the City of Asylum tour. Getting to listen about the amazing work the nonprofit does was astounding to me, and I want to volunteer eventually! Pittsburgh was built by hard work and is still run by those with the same work ethic today, and I believe that City of Asylum embodies that message to a “t.”

I feel that traveling this semester did change me. I met new people and became closer with those I already knew! I wish I could take it again next semester and the semester after that–bonding with a group of people and exploring an amazing city I didn’t realize I knew so little about was something I couldn’t get from any other class. Plus, I learned some cool tricks that will help my writing career long after the class is over 🙂

City of Asylum

My last trek out to Pittsburgh ended on a note of sweet and sour. I arrived to the Alphabet Reading Garden, not yet in bloom, and greeted the tour guide who would shed light on the amazing work the City of Asylum Pittsburgh has been doing for endangered writers since 2004.

I walked the perimeter of the far wall as other members of my group began to arrive. Carved into the tiles were letters from alphabets all around the world, and I ran my fingers across the cool surface tracing the outline of an ü and an ø and a δ. The tour guide explained that the garden had build in place of a jazz building, contributing a place of quiet reflection in the neighborhood. It has a plant, shrub, or tree of every letter of the English alphabet from A-Z.

Once everyone had arrived, our tour guide led us from the garden to a street of colorful houses called “House Publications.” Each visible side of these houses was a beautiful masterpiece of art that represented the writers-in-residence.

From City of Asylum’s Website
Left to right: House Poem, Winged House, Pittsburgh-Burma House, Jazz House

Each of these houses originally acted as a residence for writers who were forced to leave their home countries for their writings, deemed too controversial or dangerous. The first house on the street, called “House Poem,” was written and then painted by author Huang Xiang.

Taken from City of Asylum’s Website

Huang Xiang was a writer persecuted in China for his published works. He was imprisoned and tortured numerous times, fleeing to the United States with his wife to escape and start a better life. Xiang resided in 408 Sampsonia Way between 2004 and 2006, recovering from his traumatic experiences and allowing his poetry, a special form where he uses his body to express his poems, to be expressed freely. Watch Xiang’s beautiful, gut-wrenching poetry expressed in this video published by City of Asylum:

Though paling greatly in comparison to the horrors Xiang witnessed in China for expressing his thoughts, I can feel a kinship with him. As a non-conformist, specifically in religion, I often find myself receiving backlash when speaking about my beliefs, and a particular push (sometimes a violent one) from my own family. It seems that groups of people who have a solid system of values and beliefs often will do anything to protect them, even if it means harming those that think differently.

Writers, artists, and religious practitioners alike should not be made to suffer because of what they stand for. I find myself overwhelmed by Xiang’s story of overcoming such adversity. Is this something I can apply to my own life and the way I view my own hardships? Yes.

I think I will volunteer at the City of Asylum one day, once I’m on my feet and live a little closer. I could use some time learning from these wonderful, amazing writers.

The Carnegie Art Museum

Despite living in Pennsylvania for three years, I had never been to the incline. It was raining when I visited with a group of friends, and we took care not to slip on the worn wooden stairs leading up to the entrance.

Our group crowded the shoebox entrance and we filed into a line like first graders on the way to lunch, waiting our turn to board the rickety incline. The ride up was met with jokes about what might happen if we were stuck in the car, which made the woman sitting next to me go very, very pale.

Thankfully, the end result was worth it. It was still drizzling as we looked down at the city below us, still an awesome sight. I imagined what the Pittsburgh skyline would have meant to the workers who built it, and suddenly I felt pride for a city I really had no ties to except for living on its outskirts.

The history of the incline and the city itself was somehow made tangible the longer I spent looking out from the top. How was this still running after 140 years? I suppose it’s a testament to the drive and the determination behind the hands that brought it to life, carving their monument into the side of the mountain.

Our next stop as a group was The Carnegie Art Museum, yet another place in Pittsburgh I’d never been to.

There were so many different kinds of art, I didn’t know where to start. Our group broke into smaller troupes and I followed along with my friends, giggling about naked statues and joking with each other about the possibility if one of the guards was really following us or not. (They weren’t.)

Spending the day with friends and having a blast was refreshing. I felt like I was back in my element, exploring the floors and getting lost on purpose.

Special thanks to the guard who took this picture for us!

Yellow Springs

Over Spring Break, I found myself in the small city of Yellow Springs, Ohio. It’s a good drive from Pittsburgh–about four hours–and is home to over 50 different small businesses that creates a welcoming atmosphere.

I drove my girlfriend, Marie, and her roommate, Robin, 20 minutes from their apartment and spent the breezy, warm day in the village. We made our way up and down every street, stopping into every shoebox-sized store that caught their eye.

Taken from Dark Star Books’ Website

The first place we stopped in was Dark Star Books, located on Xenia Avenue. Their selection ranged from Shakespeare to Sartre, comics and manga, even board games, shirts, and mugs… and that’s just scratching the surface. It’s also famous for their in-store mascot Mr. Eko, a domestic shorthair cat that “has been on a diet recently,” according to the store’s attendant.

A Postcard featuring Mr. Eko

Marie and Robin fawned over the cat in the front of the store as I snuck off to the back to peruse the aisles. Unfortunately, their science & technology section was lacking that day, comprised of three copies of Walter Isaacson’s “Steve Jobs” memoir, a handful of outdated BASIC programming manuals, and a picture book from National Geographic. Their science fiction section more than made up for it though, and Marie had to pry my hands off of a too-expensive Isaac Asimov collection.

Our next stop was The Winds Cafe & Bakery, which was decided after much grumbling about being hungry.

The Winds offered a cozy atmosphere while keeping an upscale vibe. Art created by local artists adorned the walls, and wooden dividers separated the tables for a little privacy. The three of us ordered a different dish from the limited menu: a fresh hot tea and “Organic Sandwich Version II” for Robin, iced tea and a Spanish Bocadillo for Marie, and a mocha coffee and a grilled flat-iron steak with Maitre’d Butter for myself. All of us were more than satisfied, and we took our time debating on the last place we would visit for the day.

Finally deciding on a store, we hopped across the street to House of Ravenwood, a pagan metaphysical shop that sells what seems like everything under the sun.

Taken from House of Ravenwood’s Website

We weren’t able to spend long in the dimly lit shop, but I enjoyed every moment of it. I didn’t see many pieces for the Ásatrú or Kemetic pantheons or anything new to add to my shrine at home, but that doesn’t mean there was a lack of variety.

Most of the items being sold were attuned toward Wiccan paganism, as well as tarot cards and crystals. There were some statues and pieces of jewelry that caught my eye, but I decided to hold onto my wallet.

We were only able to spend a few hours in Yellow Springs, but I can’t wait to go back.

Art in Westmoreland

As a pagan, regardless of which branch you are or pantheon you respect, nature plays a huge part in your spirituality. Our holidays revolve around aspects of nature such as solstices and celebrating the seasons.

One of the parts of the Westmoreland Art Museum I love the most are the pieces of art that depict nature in any form. There are paintings of forests and lakes and the coast by the ocean, sculptures of birds, Fraktur pieces with leaves and berries and sometimes animals.

My favorite room in the museum features an entire wall of paintings dedicated to nature, offsetting the opposite wall’s adornment of local Pittsburghian steel mill history. I love the dichotomy in this room, the raw power of American industrialization and the beauty of the Earth that gave birth to it.

Hanging in another room lies my favorite painting: “Silver Thread Falls, Pennsylvania” painted in 1874 by James Brade Sword. It’s a ginormous window (60 x 48 in.) into a tranquil forest scene that works to draw in the viewer and capture them for however long it takes to realize the window is really just a painting. I feel at peace even as I feel watched by the couple next to me who’s talking about which spot they should eat at for lunch: Chinese or Italian. I assume they chose Italian; knowing the expansive Italian population in Greensburg, chances were higher for spaghetti rather than lo mein.

Honestly, the museum building feels so clinical to me, especially for an art museum. But the works of art inside are organic, fresh, and down-to-earth, without any big names or fame to distract from the rawness of the piece.

As I descended the stairs of the museum from that trip, I realized that I hadn’t been to any of the places the paintings inside depicted. I make it my goal to find Silver Thread Falls and visit it some time (it’s about four hours from the Westmoreland). I also make it my goal to return again to the museum.

Maxo Vanka

I find myself, once again, with feet planted firmly on the creaking floors of a church. I’m doing my best to scan its current audience, finding art and history enthusiasts rather than the expected religious crowd. It seems like this group is here for one thing: the murals that adorn the walls of the St. Nicholas Croatian Catholic Church in Millvale. I’m okay with that.

Maxo Vanka was a Croatian immigrant famous for his artistic talents who was commissioned by Father Albert Zagar, the church’s priest, in 1937. Between April and June of that year, Vanka painted the inside of St. Nicholas depicting the trials of war, Capitalism, and the hardships of immigrant workers, all with Croatian overtones. It’s the only church anywhere in the world with Vanka’s work–nicknamed “Pittsburgh’s Sistine Chapel.”

As I walk in, I’m greeted by a kind man who’s dressed corporate-office-style [explain organic] hired to give guided tours of the artworks, but I prefer to explore the place on my own. I drop $10 into the donations box and take a seat in one of the pews. The well-dressed curator is talking about Vanka’s work ethic of completing the first 12 murals in a span of eight weeks. I’m taking in the feeling of the old worn varnish of the pew under my palm, and he speaks of Vanka’s need to escape the horrors of World War Two. I’m staring at Mati 1941, the mural toward the back of the church. I keep coming back to it in particular.

Vanka had intended the mural to depict his motherland, Croatia, crucified by the atrocities of war. At the bottom left is a branch sporting lush green leaves, a symbol of new life and hope for the country. She’s crying tears of blood, she herself wounded by the suffering of her people. Because the very nature of art is interpretation, I find something reminiscent here of the Old Norse Hávamál, specifically Óðinn’s acquisition of the runes from the cosmic tree Yggdrasil.

Left: "Odin Hanging on the World-Tree" by Franz Stassen
Right: "Mati 1941" by Maxo Vanka

In the Poetic Edda, it’s written that Óðinn hung himself from Yggdrasil for nine days and nine nights, piercing himself with his own spear and refusing food or water. Nine (or 3 x 3) is a sacred number for the Norse. In doing so he gains the knowledge of the Runes, a powerful force that was or is the very fabric of reality. In a sense, words create reality, not the other way around. He sacrificed to achieve his goals, not letting anything–including death–stand in his way.

I get that vibe from Vanka, too. Despite the grueling hours it took to create these works of art, Vanka persevered. He left the ethnic community a gift that would outlast himself, and I feel honored to have experienced it.

Strip District

Photo by Lily Banse on Unsplash

The first thing that piques my attention visiting the Strip District was the pigeons.

I see the oddest things in the most normal places; eccentric people among the average; eclectic collections in mundane functional spaces. This trip I just happened to see pigeons, and it makes me laugh out loud.

Among the stress of traffic jams and streets so packed I have to scrunch in my shoulders–I have a wider frame–I nearly miss my turn to cross the intersection because I can’t stop watching these damn birds. They’re darting in and out just in front of two lanes of cars revving to meet the green light once it changes from red, certainly without any regard for the hungry creatures wrestling each other Darwin-style for the bread someone’s thrown them.

I am a person that is easily amused by nature. When I was a kid growing up in Detroit I would play in the dirt by the side of the house, plucking up worms to play with or befriending spiders and pill bugs. I’d sit for hours, fascinated by the sycamore trees and the hostas and the stars at night.

But my location–Detroit–wasn’t exactly a tree-hugger’s paradise. On one side of the street were oak and elm and maple trees, and on the other was grey dirt and gravel and cracked pavement. This created a juxtaposition that I find ironic but necessary–and I see this everywhere I go.

And like that I’ve crossed the street on my own journey to the hill with St. Patrick Church at the top, overlooking the Strip below. I’ve forgotten all about the pigeons on a quest to nab a beakful of bread and their daring escapade in the street. I’m in a church, the perfume of incense and snuffed candles overwhelming in the dimly lit space with thin, worn red carpet beneath my feet.

I feel claustrophobic. I feel judged, just like the “flying rats” who were playing in the street. Though pigeons are beautiful animals with their feathers of purple and green and every shade of grey and their gentle coos soft enough to put a baby to sleep, they are considered disgusting.

It makes me think how wild it is that we don’t always appreciate what we have on Earth, turning our faces to a higher power and forgetting to look back, forgetting to reflect on one’s own person except on Sundays. I’m staring at an offering box for those who light the candles, and then I’m staring at a haphazardly placed damaged cardboard box of cheap candles imported from China right next to it.

My friends are speaking next to me about how they want to climb the stairs, but don’t want to be judged by the others in the group. This is the opposite of what I am feeling, but ironic just the same.

I’m glad to breathe the fresh air when I step out of the building. I can hear bubbling conversations from the people walking both sides of the street, the shouting of vendors who are shivering in their coats and the accordion player outside the fish market bringing a little cheer just for the sake of bringing a little cheer. I like the accordion player.