First Person / There's something about Pittsburgh

I live in L.A. now, and it's just not the same

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It’s a few days before Christmas and last night my husband and I made the five-hour flight from Los Angeles to Pittsburgh. I am in line at Starbucks. The couple in front of me is sharing holiday plans with the barista, and I am astounded. Why is the barista pretending to care what these people are doing for Christmas? Then everything becomes clear, as I suddenly remember where I am.

I am home, in Pittsburgh. And the barista isn’t pretending.

As I step up to order, I tell her how refreshing her friendly demeanor is and I actually thank her for talking to me. Where I live now, I tell her, people don’t do that. They sort of grunt at me before I order, then rush me to the other side of the counter.

My husband and I are both Pittsburgh natives and we moved to Los Angeles for our jobs. Don’t get me wrong. Southern California has its perks — warm weather year ’round, beaches, a new restaurant every week, never a dull moment; but there’s something about coming back to Pittsburgh that makes me so nostalgic.

As we cruise up Forbes into Oakland to meet old friends for lunch, my heartstrings are humming. I can see it all clearly: meeting my Mom’s old friends from Mellon Bank as a little girl, escaping to Phipps as a graduate student during the stress of finals, crawling the streets of the South Side with friends.

We hit all our favorite spots: Penn Mac in the Strip, Lulu’s in Oakland, Chaya in Squirrel Hill, and I even perform at my old open mic — the Acoustic Open stage at Club Cafe on the South Side. I am welcomed back with hugs all around. I meet at least 10 new people and could write a short blurb on each of their lives — more than I’ve learned about another person in entire months in California.

Since we moved away, I constantly devour articles about Pittsburgh. I search for them online. I share them on Facebook. I tape copies of them to my wall. I can’t get enough, and why is that?

Something palpable pulls my thoughts to Pittsburgh; something that keeps me feeling it’s where I should be, even when I’m not ready to go back.

I have conflicting feelings about it, as I’m sure many expats do. Pittsburgh is affordable, boasts a wonderful, welcoming community, beautiful parks, cool neighborhoods, museums and so on. And yet, many people, voluntarily or not, leave Pittsburgh for more opportunities, for a change, to discover a new city and a different way of life.

There are possibilities for my husband and I on the West Coast that simply don’t exist in Pittsburgh. And the longer we expatriates are gone, the more complicated it becomes to think about moving back.

Of course, in moving anywhere, some things are gained and some things are lost. When I moved to California, I started a fantastic new career, traveled to places I had never been and became accustomed to glorious weather.

What did I lose? A sense of community, that “neighborhood” vibe, deep friendships that stood the test of time and an affordable, friendly place to live.

Beyond these trade-offs, there is something about growing up in Pittsburgh that is very different from growing up someplace else. It’s not just our obsession with the city itself, with its livability. There is something about being from Pittsburgh.

Many Pittsburghers tend not to think of themselves as Appalachian, even though books have been written about Pittsburgh’s Appalachian qualities. Post-Gazette columnist Brian O’Neill wrote one of them, “The Paris of Appalachia: Pittsburgh in the Twenty-First Century.” To quote from it: “Pennsylvania has the most acreage of any state in Appalachia, with some three-quarters of our commonwealth within the realm of the federal Appalachian Regional Commission.”

I spent several summers volunteering in Eastern Kentucky, where people are attached to the land they come from. If they leave, they feel some sort of guilt they can’t quite define, and they come back.

The longer I am gone, the more I think that Pittsburgh possesses this same Appalachian characteristic. What’s the one question you get asked by family and friends more than all the others when you return for the holidays?

“So, when are you coming back?”

It’s as if we expatriates are on some grand adventure, but we will eventually come to our senses and return. It’s as if by leaving, we’ve betrayed something, even if no one accuses us of it.

Maybe it’s my grandfathers: one who worked his life in the steel mills and the other who wired many of the buildings in Pittsburgh’s iconic skyline. Maybe it’s my old job in the circulation department at the PG or meeting my uncle for beers after work. Maybe it’s leaving my family behind.

Maybe these are “Appalachian feelings.” One recent study in The Washington Post showed that Pennsylvania is still losing residents faster than it’s gaining them.

What I do know is, the conflict is there, and it comes straight to the surface each time I return to Pittsburgh.

It’s not just the Steelers or Saturday morning in the Strip that I miss. It’s something else. It’s inside of those of us who were raised in Pittsburgh. We all know what it is; we just can’t put our finger on it.

We take pride in the city but we also take pride in the strong-willed communities and the meals cooked for generations in our family kitchens. We care enough to talk to each other, to make time for each other. We work hard, and we care to listen, to learn something about the person who works next to us every day.

My cousin Eddie Rossell died suddenly this past November. He was a Pittsburgh expat and die-hard Steelers fan who spent most of his adult life in northern Virginia. He posted a comment on my wedding photo (taken in Pittsburgh, of course) a few months before his death:

“You can take the girl out of Pittsburgh, but you can’t take the Pittsburgh out of the girl.”

May that be true all the days of my life.

Sara (Harenchar) Levinson grew up in Greensburg, graduated from Carnegie Mellon University and now works for IBM in Los Angeles.

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