Pittsburgh might seem an odd place to visit over the holidays, especially given that we have no family there, but visit Pittsburgh (or Pittspoop, as the Beaner calls it, not because he didn't like it, but because "poop" is the funniest word in the world to him right now) is exactly what we did for the last weekend of our holiday break. Why? Well, several reasons: (1) Al's very good friends Craig & Nico and their three kids were there visiting family for the week, and we wanted to see them; (2) Al was born in Pittsburgh and lived there until the age of 5, and he wanted to show me some of the things he remembered from his childhood; (3) I'd never seen it; and (4) why not?
I think I can say unequivocally that Pittsburgh is not a city I'd dream of moving to, but that's not at all to say that I didn't have a fun time while there. If I could live in the Pittsburgh Children's Museum, I might reconsider. (More on that in a minute.) I'm realizing as I write this that after using the word "unequivocally", this post is going to be all about the buts and althoughs. For example, one of the things that keeps me from wanting to live in Pittsburgh is that it's too cold, although we enjoyed winter temps in the 40s during our stay, and I think it might even have gotten up to 50 on our first day there (of course, it was raining cats and dogs). See what I mean? One overt and one implied "although" in a single sentence!
Two more things that put Pittsburgh in the "I Think Not" category before I move on to the highlights of our stay: (1) Smoking. It was everywhere. So everywhere that I forgot to actually photograph the smokers for my new a dying breed set. Perhaps because they're NOT a dying breed in Pittsburgh? Anyway, I was so taken aback that not only were people allowed to smoke in restaurants, but in many cases there wasn't even a non-smoking section, that I could only gape and cough and feel slightly nauseated (and once, turn around and walk out). (2) In the downtown area where we were staying, at least, everything closed early. There were CVS stores everywhere, but they all closed at 5pm or 6pm (and only the 24-hour store in Oakland had a machine that could make a photo CD in-store). None of the stores, including Macy's and Saks Fifth Avenue, opened until 12pm on Sunday. One of the things I love about living smack in the middle of a city is that you can walk anywhere, anytime, and get what you need or want. That wasn't true in the part of Pittsburgh we were in.
OK, now for the good stuff. The Children's Museum of Pittsburgh puts our Please Touch to SHAME. I honestly don't remember what the Boston Children's Museum was really like from my childhood—I only have vague sensory memories of it being large, and of loving it—but this, THIS is what I think of when I think "children's museum". Our Please Touch membership was due to expire on December 31 anyway, so when I renewed this year I opted for the Super Six package, which gives us reciprocal entry rights to tons of other children's museums around the country. I figure we'll do a Grand Tour of children's museums and compare them all.
The Pittsburgh museum was attractive to us because of its standing Garage Workshop exhibit, which we figured the Beaner would like. Honestly, though, the rest of the museum was so cool that it took us a while to even get him back to the Garage Workshop (though once we did, he didn't want to leave). We spent a wonderful three hours there, and would have stayed longer if we didn't have a date to meet Craig & Nico at Schenley Park.
It felt like I took (and posted to Flickr) a ton of photos from the museum, but I'm realizing that there's so much that I missed. I'd go back to Pittsburgh JUST to go to the Children's Museum (regardless of whether I took any more photos :).
We had gone to Schenley Park on Friday after our arrival to meet up with Craig & Nico, but since it was pouring rain, we didn't go ice skating as planned (or even really get out of the car). An attempt to visit the dinosaur exhibit at the Museum of Natural History also failed due to the weather (and the holiday—it was mobbed, and tickets were sold out), and we had some problems with our GPS, which disagreed with Craig on how to get to Vincent's Pizza. On Saturday our GPS was still as flaky as ever, but the weather was better, and a second attempt at skating outdoors at Schenley Park was successful. I was so happy to skate that I didn't get out my camera while on the ice, though, and the 1/4 lap I did with the Beaner was too strenuous to allow for picture-taking anyway. He insisted that he could skate by himself (I'm sure because Craig & Nico's two older children, who are 6 and almost 4, could), all evidence to the contrary. The muscles in my back and arms were burning by the time we made it that 1/4 lap and back, and my patience was a bit thin. I hadn't really noticed how loud the music was until the Beaner fell down right in front of the speakers and I couldn't hear whatever it was he was trying to tell me (turns out it was "I'M DONE!"). I got a few more laps to myself, however, and then we quit and went to play on the swings.
When the Beaner was done swinging and sliding and running around with sticks, we drove over to Al's old neighborhood to look at the house he used to live in. There was a deer munching away at some low bushes in the neighbor's back yard; Al thought it was fake until it moved its head. As we continued down the street to make a U-turn, I said, "now THAT one down there is fake..." just as it, too, turned its head. You can forgive us for our mistakes, given that many yards still had holiday decorations in them, and these guys looked like nothing so much as reindeer (minus the antlers, of course; they were does).
The Beaner fell asleep in the car and missed both the house viewing and the deer, but we didn't mind much because we knew he'd be up later than usual (WAY later, as it turned out) that night. Why? WE HAD AWESOME SEATS AT THE PENGUINS-SABRES GAME, that's why. And when I say "awesome", I mean Row A on the glass, 3 seats over from the penalty box awesome. (Actually, we only had two of these; we had a third seat in equally-awesome section B22, where Al sat for the first period. He said you could see the whole game really well from there, but I forgot to ask him for his ticket when he left with the Beaner before me, so I only saw the game from THE GLASS.) Al joined me in Row A for the second period because there was plenty of room for the Beaner to either sit on our laps or stand in front of us, and he seemed to enjoy both the freedom and the attention of both of his parents. (He said, "I want to go back to the hotel" shortly after the first photo below was taken—i.e., about 3 minutes into the game—but I managed to bribe him into staying with some mini M&Ms brought from home specifically for this purpose, and with tales of the TWO Zambonis that would clear the ice between periods.)
Al and the Beaner took the car back to the hotel (which was like .5 mile away) after the second period, and I was free to try to shoot photos around the linesman for most of the third. Al called with about 9 or 10 minutes to go with the details of the room service menu, and I put in my requests. I left the game with about 3 minutes to go and the Pens up 1-0, made the easy walk back to the hotel, and arrived just ahead of the room service cart. Al, the Beaner, and I had a picnic of fish and scallops and gumbo and fruit, and then at 11pm (!) we finally told the Beaner it was time to go to bed. What a day!
On Sunday we slept in (thank you, black-out curtains) and then drove over to the Strip District to check out the Italian shops and a fish market that Al thought he remembered from his childhood (which turned out to be Wholey's). We got some biscotti and a scone from Enrico's, a "junior" fish sandwich from Wholey's to share (since we were meeting Craig & Nico for lunch at a fish place in about 90 minutes anyway, we saved the baked goods for later and called the fish sandwich breakfast). Sadly, many of the shops were closed because it was Sunday, but it was still nice to walk around and take some photos.
From the Strip District we drove over to the Southworks (I think that's what it was called), a shopping area that reminded me a bit of some of the box store-outdoor mall amalgamations I've seen in San Jose, CA and Exton, PA, among other places. We were a few minutes early for lunch, so we walked over to what turned out to be a fabulous independent bookstore called Joseph-Beth. We bought one book before lunch and then returned afterwards to pick out a couple more, along with some games. This was my favorite stop after the Children's Museum, firstly because I love being surrounded by books, and the space these books were in was amazing, and secondly because it afforded us some nice moments interacting with the Beaner.
We were rather lazy for the remainder of the day on Sunday, and because the room service food was pretty decent (and fairly inexpensive, too), we had another room service picnic for dinner. I got to spend a lot of time reading, the Beaner and Al played on the floor with his new Block Buddies game (a big hit), and when Al needed a break (and wanted to watch football), the Beaner watched a little Calliou on the DVD player. It was lovely and restful (a good thing, since all of us had colds).
Since we were leaving on Monday afternoon, we packed most of our stuff up on Sunday night before going to bed, and then put the remaining items in our bags on Monday morning. We checked out of the hotel around 11am or so and convinced the GPS that we really did want to go see the Monongahela Incline and not just drive around in circles all day. (My job is to pay attention to the initial route the GPS suggests, and then to keep us basically heading in that direction as the GPS recalculates the route ad nauseum and tries to send us all over Hell's half-acre. Usually after we've made the third or fourth turn at my direction, it gets back on track and follows *us*.)
After a brief but exciting trip up a very steep hill and several minutes spent admiring the amazing view of the city from the observation deck, we took the Incline back down, retrieved our car, and went over to the Strip District again to get another scone for Al and have lunch at the original Primanti Bros. The latter was one of those places that didn't have a non-smoking section; you seated yourself, and you smoked if you wanted to.
I'd actually gotten Al a sandwich at another Primanti Bros. location fairly close to our hotel before the hockey game on Saturday night (that's when I discovered that all the drug stores in the area closed at 5pm or 6pm); when I called to tell him I'd found it and to ask what he wanted, he said, "they have a famous sandwich with french fries and cole slaw on it. I want that." I replied that *all* the sandwiches had french fries and cole slaw on them, so I just got him the first thing on the menu, which at that location was the Deluxe Double Egg and Cheese. It turned out to have no meat, only eggs and cheese (and fries and cole slaw), which isn't quite what Al had in mind.
So after looking at the menu at the Strip District Primanti Bros., he asked the waitress, "what's your most popular sandwich?" Waitress: "The cheese steak." Al: "But it says on the menu 'No. 2 seller'." Waitress: "Number 1 is beer." Al then inquired whether they had any hamburger-like items, the waitress said no, and there was some negotiation over soda water and cheese and a pickle. We got a side of fried eggs for the Beaner because nothing else on the menu was going to work for him (the sandwiches were just too big). The cheese steak actually turned out to be more like a hamburger than a Philly cheese steak, so I think Al got what he wanted. I got the Jumbo Fish and Cheese, which was fine (the fries and cole slaw were the best part), but it was nothing compared to the sublimely fresh fish sandwich at Wholey's.
We finished just in time to get some cash, pick up the last-minute scone and biscotti, and head to the airport, where Al and the Beaner got to pose with one of Al's childhood heros before forgetting the news and going shopping, as we were urged to do on the tram.
All in all, a really nice trip. It was great to spend so much quality time together as a family, to see Craig & Nico and their kids, to do things that the Beaner wanted to do (rather than just dragging him around on our errands, as we often do—though Al realized that most of his childhood memories of Pittsburgh involved being dragged around on *his* parents' errands, especially his memories of the Strip District).
The other thing that I loved about Pittsburgh? It's a really short plane ride away. We were only up at cruising altitude for about 10 mintues before we began our descent (I think the total flying time was about 50 minutes), so the Beaner didn't get bored. In both directions we spent most of the flight going over the safety information card, which the Beaner found fascinating. He's now obsessed with the red circle with a slash through it, "which means NO". He had lots of questions about the life jackets, and why the plane was in the water, and why there was a red circle with a slash through it over a suitcase. I explained about leaving carry-on luggage behind in case of an emergency evacuation, about how you have to brace for an emergency landing, how to inflate one's life vest and use the seat cushion for floatation, and how and when oxygen masks might appear. He was very interested, but didn't seem at all worried about the possibility of a crash landing. He studied the symbols and correctly identified the one for no smoking. He wanted to know why the baby's life jacket had a light on it, and why one method of jumping onto the inflatable slide was OK while the other was not ("you need to slide down quickly so everyone can get off and away from the plane," I said, "and jumping onto the slide propels you down faster." I don't know if that's the reason, but it's what I've always assumed; I figured it'd also prevent you from getting your feet tangled under you.)
We arrived home in time for a quick dinner, a bath, a few games, and an early bedtime, and we had the luxury of one more day off (which we shared with the Beaner's friend M and her family so the Beaner would have someone to play with while the grownups chilled out) before returning to work and school. It was a nice cap to a lovely holiday week, and it made me look forward to our next family trip!