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Home Planet

Archive for November 2013

Travel: Pittsburgh and The Rubber Duck Project

  By coincidence, I arrived in Pittsburgh just about the same time a big yellow duck sailed in. A very big duck. The Rubber Duck Project, created by Dutch artist Florentijn Hofman, has been in Asia, Europe, South America and Australia, but Pittsburgh—beating out bigger cities like San Francisco— was the duck’s first North American stop. During its three-week stay more than 1 million people trekked down to the waterfront to see the 4-story tall, 30-foot wide floating art (Pittsburgh’s version of Hofmann’s duck was specifically sized to fit under the city’s bridges.) They posed for photos—even in the rain—and bought yellow duck souvenirs. They spent time and money in the city.

   This was my first visit to Pittsburgh and it surprised me in many ways. Oh, I knew the city had long ago left its smoky industrial past behind as it climbed out of the crash of the US steel market in the 1970s and 80s. I didn’t expect smokestacks but, to be honest, I think I was expecting a tired urban area with more of the past than the future in it. Shame on me.

   Pittsburgh was built where the Allegheny and the Monongahela Rivers meet to form the Ohio River.  It’s an old city with a lot of history, but unlike so many old river cities whose waterways were long ago given over to industry and transportation and have yet to be reclaimed or are only now moving in that direction, Pittsburgh embraces the water. Spanned by 496 bridges, busy with dinner cruises and Duck Tours (the WWII floating truck variety) the rivers dominate the center of the city. Adjacent to the site of Fort Pitt, is Point State Park an urban waterfront park and trail.  And the two professional sports teams, the Steelers and the Pirates, play in waterside stadiums. Metro Pittsburgh is livable, walkable and the downtown area is vibrant and alive with new construction. The 90 neighborhoods that make up the city are each unique. The food, from the city’s signature sandwiches topped with fries and cole slaw to upscale farm-to-table fare, was delicious. 

   I’m late to the Pittsburgh party. National Geographic Traveler named the city one of the top places to visit in 2012, the Today Show picked it as a top travel destination for 2013, and an internationally known artist, who had his choice of prime ports, picked it as the best place to introduce his floating art installation. I added it to my own short list of places I’d be tempted to pull up stakes and move to.

   Hofman has said the idea behind his big rubber duck is to remind everyone of the simple joys of childhood.  The Rubber Duck Project can’t appear anywhere else for three months and its next stop is a secret, but Pittsburgh, a place built around water and a city with a sense of fun, was the perfect spot to introduce his giant smiling bathtub toy to North America. 

 

Cheryl-Anne Millsap is a travel writer whose audio essays can be heard on Spokane Public Radio and on public radio stations across the country. She is the author of ‘Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons’ and can be reached at catmillsap@gmail.com

Travel: Normandy American Cemetery at Omaha Beach

   We walked through the gates of the Normandy American Cemetery overlooking Omaha Beach just as the staff raised the twin American Flags that fly on the tall poles at the edge of green lawn dotted with rows of white marble crosses stretching as far as the eye can see. It was still early but I was surprised by the number of people that were already there. Some had come to find a particular name, others to pay their respects to lives lost, each to mark a dark moment in the modern world’s history.  

 

   At the visitor’s center I sat down on a bench to watch a film with short biographies of some of those killed during the Battle of Normandy. A man who looked to be in his 80s, or even older, was seated on the bench beside me. 

 

   Absorbed by the film, by the stories of the lives of ordinary people cut short by a brutal war, I’d forgotten I wasn’t alone until I heard a sound from the man seated next to me. It was the soft shuddering sound of a breath that could have become a sob. An involuntary cry that had been quickly covered. Surprised, I glanced over at him and then quickly looked away.  He didn’t move, his eyes remained locked on the screen, and he did not make another sound. The movie ended and I saw him reach up to wipe his hand across his eyes. 

 

   We both stood to move on. He rose slowly, stiffly, leaning on a cane as he walked from the room, I stayed behind to gather my thoughts. I have no idea if the man was a veteran of the Normandy landings. I suppose it’s possible. We lose so many WWII veterans each day but a few are still healthy enough to make the pilgrimage to Normandy.

 

   The man could have been a boy at the time, just old enough to enlist, and one of the thousands who waded into hell that day. Or he might have lost someone, a father, a brother, an uncle or cousin, and watching the movie brought back the pain of the loss. I’ll never know. But the man beside me in the darkened room, a man who caught his breath on a sob, reminded me that battles may end but pain comes and goes as it pleases. And time means nothing when the right trigger is pulled.

 

 

   War seems to be a more casual thing these days. Looking around me at airports, at the grocery store, at the mall, I see men and women in uniform every day. We’re quick to thank them for service and then move on. I know of some who served and returned to pick up their lives and go on and others who came home to find they no longer fit as comfortably into the lives they’d shed. Too many never make it home at all.

 

   Tomorrow is Veterans Day and I can’t shake the image of more than 9,000 stark white crosses on a hillside overlooking the sea. 

 

   I keep hearing the sound of an old man trying not to cry.

 

 

Cheryl-Anne Millsap is a travel writer whose audio essays can be heard on Spokane Public Radio and on public radio stations across the country. She is the author of ‘Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons’ and can be reached at catmillsap@gmail.com

 
 

An Independent Life on Bainbridge Island

When he isn’t traveling for work, my son, the boy who was always busy with some kind of project, lives with a beautiful, intelligent girl in small cottage on a beautiful island just a short ferry ride from Seattle. He is not my boy anymore. He is a man who has made a unique and interesting life for himself.

He’s about to leave for another assignment in India, so we drove over to Seattle and took the ferry to Bainbridge Island to spend a few days with him. The island is especially beautiful this time of year, more like a village in New England than a small town on Puget Sound. I’d never been there before and October is the perfect time to see Bainbridge Island for the first time. The hardwood trees were showing their fall colors and the air was cool and crisp. There were pumpkins everywhere.

As it happens, one of my son’s closest childhood friends is also on the island now, on his own adventure with his own beautiful and intelligent girl, and he joined us for dinner one night at the local pub. We spent the evening together, laughing and recalling things that had happened in the neighborhood when they were growing up.  Listening to them talk about their old friends and where they’ve all ended up. I thought about the group of boys who were in and out of my house and backyard and how fortunate they are that their lives are still threaded together by this shared history and their common interests. I thought about how fortunate we are to be here to see them now.

As a parent, it’s always interesting to get a peek into the lives of our adult children. The children we cared for, worried about and whose futures we daydreamed about and fretted over, usually, one way or another, seem to find their footing on their own.  Just as we did.  I could not have imagined the life my son lives now, his path has been the one he has made for himself. The parents of his friends feel the same way, I know. And somewhere at the beginning of that path are the choices we all made as parents—the wise decisions and clumsy mistakes.  We did the best we could but we were amateurs, just feeling our way.

I left my son and his girl with a hug at the ferry, grateful for the time we’d had with them. And, as always, I filled his pockets with a mother’s silent and invisible blessings. Charms to keep him safe on the road, his road, as he makes his way to the future.

 

 

Cheryl-Anne Millsap is a travel writer whose audio essays can be heard on Spokane Public Radio and on public radio stations across the country. She is the author of ‘Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons’ and can be reached at catmillsap@gmail.com

 

 

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About this blog

Cheryl-Anne Millsap's Home Planet column appears each week in the Wednesday "Pinch" supplement. Cheryl-Anne is a regular contributor to Spokane Public Radio and her essays can be heard on Public Radio stations across the country. She is the author of "Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons."

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