I have found myself in some of the coolest places this semester. What is it about getting away, whether to a nearby art museum, an organic farm, or an inviting lake, that immediately calms us? My mind and body are engaged in all sorts of different ways in different places — it’s varying degrees of feeling alive, I think. There is something compelling about wading out into the world, even if it’s just the next town over. Let me return to the theme of my blog for a second, and tell you about something I’ve been wondering about lately.
What is it to know, to really know, a place? So many of us are from large, important cities – or the outskirts of them – and while some of us know these cities inside out, others have never really explored them. Is that okay? Do we have a responsibility to know our hometowns inside and out, or to be able to play tour guide to visitors who come stay with us? It’s interesting, too, when I think about how so many people I know who travel often and travel far don’t know their way around where they claim they are from. My friend Matt, for example, is from the suburbs of Pittsburgh, but claims that being from the suburbs “tempers the lens” through which he views the city he’s from. He knows Pittsburgh’s basics, but never seems to know quite “enough.” Another friend, Tosh, was born and raised in San Diego, but recently confessed that this past summer was the first time he ever ventured into downtown S.D.
As somewhat of a nomad myself, I understand this sort of lack of knowing. But I can’t help to wonder what it is like to be an expert on a city, a town, even a street – to feel that sort of hometown pride that goes along with growing up or planting roots in a certain, lovely place.
Tonight, I got a glimpse of an answer. And at the same time, I realized that one of the best ways to get to know a city or a new place is through its modes of transportation. Cable cars in San Francisco (preferably en route to the Golden Gate on the night of your 18th birthday); rusty trains in Sri Lanka; or cabs through Pittsburgh, like the one I took earlier this evening. I was with some friends on our way back from a Mediterranean restaurant in Squirrel Hill (hands down one of the top ten restaurants I’ve ever been to) to our hotel at the Point; our cab driver’s name was Fred Bodolowski. Fred Bodolowski happens to be wicked smart and knows more about Pittsburgh than anyone else I know knows about their city. He quickly learned we were out-of-towners, and settled right in. He told us about Pittsburgh’s big businesses, industries, medical facilities, affordable living options, and great education opportunities. He bragged about the number of townships and the underestimated population. “Fred,” I asked at one point, “what made Pittsburgh be voted ‘Most Livable City’ in the 1980’s and again in 2007?” Before answering, but before missing a beat, our Steelers-hat-adorning cabbie began listing off the publications around the world that have voted Pittsburgh one of the best cities to live in. In some ways, throughout this entire ride, it felt like I was asking someone to explain why or how they were in love – and does anyone in the world have the same answer for that question? Can that kind of special affinity ever be really explained? But somewhere along the way, Fred rambled his way to the heart of the matter. As he sped past the Bluff, I suddenly had déjà vu of driving into those very lights, listening to stories from an enamored expert of a remarkable city. Fred told us he owned a house on the other side of town, then asked us if we wanted to play Cash Cab, then subsequently began quizzing us on the world’s deepest points below sea level. I sat back and listened to this man love, love, love on his city until we arrived at the Fort Pitt bridge – I had found the person-expert-place I had been wondering about.
So, why all this wondering about place and what’s around me? Maybe it’s because I am about to have to leave Elon, but lately, I have enjoyed getting out of the so-called “Elon bubble” and exploring different parts of the town of Elon itself, the city of Burlington, and parts of further away Greensboro. Places like Clay and Nancy’s organic farm of Burlington – Redbud Farm – where Jesse and I bought the fixings for a fresh, Friday night dinner (their just-picked arugula was spicy and, honestly, sensational; the carrots were light orange and wrinkly and so full of flavor; and Jesse actually picked our bok choy straight out of the ground!) Or First Friday in Greensboro, where friends and I went to check out fun art galleries and listen to live music. One of the galleries was owned by a lovely Hungarian woman who was delightful to speak with – we commiserated about missing Europe, mostly, and I got to say “köszönöm” (for the first time since I was 16 and last in Hungary) on my way out :)
So, thoughts continue. I’m currently working on a creative nonfiction essay dealing with place (to put it generally), which is what has me ruminating on a lot of this. I think I will always be somewhat obsessed with place, and curious about how people come to know and love different places. Mostly, though, I think I’ll just have to continue trying to soak up people like Fred and his stories everywhere I go.