Pittsburgh is about 5 hours due West of Diane’s place, and we had a fairly uneventful drive across the state. Loomis spent some of the time peeping over our shoulders (mostly when we slowed down or changed direction) and the rest sleeping on his bed in the back of the car. We stopped to get diesel a an hour or so in, and I picked up some Junior Mints for the drive. After another short stop at a rest stop (and a fast-food experience) we started to approach Pittsburgh. The most striking thing about Pittsburgh for me was how much it was really very like Newcastle and the North East of England. The city of Pittsburgh is situated on at the confluence of the Monongahela and Allegheny Rivers, which become the Ohio, and the riverbanks have a lot of industry, such as glass, steel and coke and coal. It wasn’t clear how much of it was still in use, but the cokeworks were certainly working and the smell was unmistakeable. Josh doesn’t live in central Pittsburgh, but in Glassport, which was named after the glass industry which used to thrive there. As such, I didn’t see much of the city proper until later.
On our first morning we all went for a walk with Loomis and explored a trail near Josh’s place. There was a little frost on the ground, and Loomis enjoyed exploring this new place – he even found a deer to chase. When going out to the woods Loomis wears a neon orange vest to distinguish him from a bouncing deer, just in case any hunting is going on. We went off to the zoo which was very good value for money and practically deserted due to the time of year. There were plenty of animals, with the stars of the show for me being the African elephants and the gorillas – there was a baby gorilla too which was very cute. Other highlights included the play area and the farm zone, which featured a llama with an incredible underbite. The best part of the zoo for me was definitely the aquarium. There were a LOT of exhibits, and many things I hadn’t seen before including a black sea anemone with a round eyeball on top. Further research has revealed that the eyeball is NOT an eyeball at all…
The next day conditions were finally right for some mountain biking, and I wanted to explore the Strip District which is the place to go in Pittsburgh for food and food-related things. The District is located close to the river and the old rail depot, and so was the first place to receive new supplies from around the country. The drive to Pittsburgh took about half an hour (and showed some great views of the skyscrapers) and we got to the Strip District via downtown Pittsburgh. Once Diane and Josh had dropped me off, I spent about four hours just walking up and down that one street as there was so much to be seen (and tasted!). The first place I went into was a fish market, and I sampled some almost-still-wriggling tuna sashimi, which was absolutely delicious. The market was for retail and wholesale, though at this late stage in the morning it was mainly home cooks who were picking up their fish and crustaceans. At the back of the market were about twenty enormous tanks filled with lobster, snow crabs and fish all creeping and swimming around. This was definitely a cut-price aquarium for some as parents brought their children to look at the various creatures swimming about, before the fishmongers scooped them out to be sold. You can’t get fresher than that. I popped into a couple more shops – including one selling every possible form of kitchen gadget you could imagine – I found a small pottery squished in amongst all the food shops. After speaking to the lady at the desk (a potter herself) she explained that the pottery was co-owned and run by five different artists who had all clubbed together to purchase the shop and equip it with everything it needed. There were certainly five different styles of work on display, and after a tour and a chat with the artists I took home a small blue pot which had a thumbprint in the side – it’s hard to describe but essentially one side looks like a standard pot and the other resembles a doughnut with a dimple instead of a hole. The pot is glazed with a mixture of shiny blue and also a soda glaze which left a metallic (steel-like!) sheen.
Another highlight for me was the confectioner, Mon Aimee. They were clearly gearing up for the holiday season and took the shop-design approach of lots and lots of glass jars with colourful sweeties around the edges and tables piled high with goodies in the middle of the shop. As in all of the other shops I was greeted by the staff, and was immediately drawn to the malted milk balls. These are basically Maltesers with an extra layer of flavoured white chocolate around the edge. They end up being about the size of a 2p piece, and come in every colour.
There were also many, many delis (like Macaroni Co.) and grocery shops to get lost in and I was happy to while away the few hours until it was time for lunch. We all went to Primanti Brothers for lunch, and had enormous sandwiches, which had a generous amount of coleslaw – one thing there is no shortage of in Pittsburgh is cabbage. There are lots of different communities in Pittsburgh, and one of the most obvious influences on the city cuisine-wise is Polish. Most of the Pittsburgh classics are adaptations of Polish cuisine, such as Pierogies and Halushki, not to mention Polish sausages.
On the street parallel to Penn Avenue (the main one in the Strip District) there was a contemporary art/craft space which had been recommended to me at the pottery. It contained studio space – including open studio space – and a shop and gallery. Predictably the work was priced very highly throughout, but the exhibition was very interesting. It was called Enough Violence and had been put together by many different artists using various media such as video, found objects and painting. The weirdest things were definitely the necklace made from gun triggers and the menorah made from guns (complete with candles in the barrels). Everyone there was very welcoming and only too happy to show me around and tell me more about the exhibits.
The next day we went to the National Aviary which was an excellent experience. It was only about 8 quid to get in and it had three main rooms. We went to the feeding in the tropical room first and fed half-grapes to the huge tropical birds that were stalking around the floor, and then were given mealworms to hold up for the smaller, faster birds to perch on our hands and eat. The worms were in a bit of a hurry to leap off our hands and crawl around on the floor, but the birds hoovered them all up very easily. Then we went to the wetlands area which had pelicans and spoonbills as well as some ducks and some Inca Terns which were full of personality. There was a feeding in that room too, which featured a lot of swooping and catching by the Inca Terns. We also visited the grasslands room which featured two African Grey Parrots who would speak, but were very shy about it unless you were about 10 feet away. The sign next to them suggested training them to say “Go Steelers!” or “Go Pirates!” to cheer on the football and baseball teams. The next day Diane and Josh went mountain biking in the morning while I went to the supermarket with Josh’s mam. The the fruit and veg in American supermarkets for the most part seems both bigger and more regular than at home – very odd. We picked up a few things for dinner and when we got back I made Eve’s pudding and ice cream. We also watched a couple of DVDs about Pittsburgh and the various neighbourhoods. The weather wasn’t very nice so we were happy to have a quiet afternoon and evening in.
On Sunday I went to the South Side, another area of Pittsburgh which seems to be being regenerated, much like Newcastle’s quayside. This area had a lot of more modern shops (think big and airy) as well as a few places to eat like The Cheesecake Factory and a Hofbrauhaus. While Diane and Josh went mountain biking and wore out Loomis I took a walk towards downtown and poked my head in the shops that were open. Once again everyone was very friendly. There weren’t many chain shops and I think that really made a difference to the area – everyone working there seemed to care about the business they were working at. There were also lots of murals in the South Side, just as I had seen in the Strip District. On the DVD we had watched they mentioned that the city had commissioned local artists to make these, and that many of the faces seen on the murals were actual Pittsburghers. We picked up an orange bandana for Loomis as he had managed to leave his vest somewhere in the woods. Then we went to the Hofbrauhaus. We had a starter platter and a main course platter between the three of us, and it was more than enough. The sausages were especially delicious, and apparently the beer was good too. Back at the house we used the outdoor hot tub which sent us practically to sleep, before watching the Doctor Who special and eating malted milk balls. Good combination. Loomis had been particularly interested in why we were all sitting in a giant water bowl, but after sticking his chin over the side a few times concluded it was more fun to chase his own tail for a bit.
Monday took us to the Carnegie Science Center which had four floors of exhibits. My favourite was the robot exhibit, which had lots of robots you could give tasks to. One built drawings on a grid of ball bearings, one “sang”, but the best one was the one you could play air hockey against – I’m not sure if it was even possible to beat it it was so fast. The building is right next to the river and the USS Requin (a submarine) is parked there as a permanent exhibit. You can walk the full length of the sub and press all the buttons and switches to your heart’s content. They also had a sports section where you could practice rock climbing, balancing, shooting hoops wearing glasses that distorted your vision…
There were many warnings on TV and radio about snow causing problems with travel in Pennsylvania before Thanksgiving, so we decided to leave a day early for Diane’s and avoid the last-minute rush on Wednesday. We woke up to three inches of snow in Pittsburgh, and Loomis was absolutely thrilled with it, bouncing around even when he’d been walked for an hour. He rode in Josh’s car while Diane had me for company. Although it was wet, there was little snow once we got out of hilly Pittsburgh and so we made very good time coming back.