Walkabout: Sometimes outsiders have the best view of what's so special
Flemish writer Paul Mennes spent two months in Pittsburgh this summer as part of a cultural exchange.
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When I walk in my neighborhood, I try to remind myself to see it, to really look at it, the way I might if I were just off the plane from, say, Brussels, Belgium.
In the late summer, Flemish writer Paul Mennes, a writer in residence at City of Asylum Pittsburgh, was walking my neighborhood, seeing for the first time all the things my glance glides over -- the texture of the Belgian bricks that climb Buena Vista Street, the concavity of stone under a welcome mat, the impromptu gatherings of neighbors chatting.
For the first time this summer, City of Asylum created an exchange with Passa Porta, a literary organization in Brussels. It brought Mr. Mennes here and delivered Terrance Hayes, a National Book Award poet from Pittsburgh, to Brussels.
The two men exchanged letters about their experiences, and Henry Reese, co-founder of City of Asylum Pittsburgh, shared them with the Post-Gazette. They were published Friday in a Belgian newspaper, Standaard der Letteren.
I will share parts of both letters here, but to read them in full, visit my "City Walkabout" blog.
Mr. Hayes arrived in Brussels ahead of Mr. Mennes' own departure to spend two months in Pittsburgh researching a novel. They met on what Mr. Mennes described in his letter as "an uncharacteristically sunny day for a Belgian summer. We sat at a table on a rooftop. There was white wine and a lot of good will."
Each writer anticipated that the other would be disappointed with his city.
"Just as you feared I'd find Brussels provincial, I feared you'd find Pittsburgh small and uninteresting," Mr. Hayes wrote after their meeting.
"I didn't expect much of Pittsburgh," wrote Mr. Mennes. "The city has a reputation. ... Someone described your home as 'hell without a lid.'
"North Side, my home for the next eight weeks, turned out to be amazingly green and terrifyingly friendly. During my daily walk to the grocery store I passed gardens where anyone could just walk in and out.
"As a Belgian, I made no eye contact with anyone on the street and didn't venture out without my iPod. While I was waiting for the bus perfect strangers said hello and asked me how I was. I was shocked. The earplugs didn't seem to put anyone off, in fact they just made people to speak louder."
In his response, Mr. Hayes wrote:
"Your cordial letter reminds me of Brussels's constant friendliness. I never found the city provincial though I met many who, like you, were highly self-conscious about Brussels. Many of the people I met seemed to have difficulty understanding why anyone would visit the city.
"Walking the city alone I found amazing shops of books, art, vinyl records, Tintin comics, waffles, and Manekin Pis souvenirs. It's true I was never out alone after sundown, but the July sun sets late in Brussels. As late as 10 p.m. the sky still held a faint lavender glow. As I sat writing by the window of my flat late into the night, I could hear the city's energetic bustle.
"It is not landmarks like the Palace of Justice or the Atomium or the Grand Palace that come to mind when I recall the wonders of Brussels. Instead, I think of the diverse welcoming faces I encountered again and again."
Brussels and Pittsburgh each gained a friend, and in that process a little misperception died.
North Siders feel the weight of chronically unfavorable opinion, so it's pleasing when a newcomer sees what we see every day and comes away a fan.
Most mornings I walk my dog through the community gardens. I take note of the flowers and vegetables, but after 13 years the Mexican War Streets is so familiar to me that I know which bricks wobble underfoot and whose paper will still be on the stoop at 8 a.m.
One day this summer, I was in one of two back-to-back community garden lots when I came upon a man beside a rose bush with his hands on his hips. He looked as if he had just had an epiphany.
"Do you live around here?" he asked, and I said yes. He told me he lives in Butler and was killing time while a friend was at Allegheny General Hospital.
"This is amazing," he said. "This garden is amazing."
When I continued across Veto Street and into the second block of gardens, I stopped and concentrated on being amazed. I remember that morning that the sky held a faint lavender glow.