After picking me up in Lawrenceville, Val and Michael transport me to their home in the Greenfield neighborhood not far from PItt and Carnegie Mellon. I immediately sense something special about Val and know that we’re going to get along well.
Born in the Italian Alps and having studied and worked in Germany, Val imports a zesty European attitude to life. Right from the hand shake I feel her energy and enthusiasm. In fact, she is the most enthusiastic person about my journey, even more than me.
After she found out about my story via social media, she fave bombed my tweets and Instagram posts, leaving supportive comments everywhere. That's one way to get my attention. Then she sent a private message asking if I needed a place to stay. That's an even better way! I can tell she's an avid reader of this Road Report because on the ride to her house she asks in-depth questions about episodes I described weeks ago.
Not only that, but I’m welcomed inside with a fresh roll of paper towels (which New Yorkers shamefully don’t stock enough of) and protein bars, which get me through the day until dinner. Most touching of all is a styrofoam cube of inspiration that I still carry with me (it's almost weightless!).
She and Michael get to work cooking a pasta and zucchini dinner (pictured above is a delicious breakfast). I unpack on the pull-out sofa where a pitcher of water with lemon and mint sits on the side table. Is there any detail she hasn’t thought of?
Valentina already knows my story. Now it’s time to find out how she started bike tours in Pittsburgh coming from an art background in Europe.
“When I was 28 I was living in Germany with everything I needed: a well-paying job, decent apartment, good life and good friends,” she says. “But I was single for several years and felt my life wasn’t going anywhere.”
That year she realized she was “on the wrong track.” She subleased her apartment and quit her job working for a private art collector in Munich who owned more than 10,000 works. Part of the collection is housed in a private house and public museum.
Val dreamed of living in an English-speaking country, so she applied for a dance program in NYC and got a visa. Next came the dreaded apartment hunt. On Craigslist she quickly found a place in the East Village and moved in that weekend. One of her housemates, Michael, would become her future husband.
However, first she had to return to Germany because the visa expired.
“I went back to my old job and walked into the same trap, but I needed the money. I was going to limit myself working there for a certain time period until I could find a solution,” she said.
“Michael and I tried Berlin together for one year. I had another job with a bossy boss and it was horrible. I was at a dead end in Berlin. I was fed up with sitting in front of a stupid screen working on projects that weren’t contributing to anything. I wanted to do something I care about.”
This frustration sounds very familiar to 33-year-old me in a windowless office in New York.
She got on an idea “that came from above” to move to Michael's native Pittsburgh and start bike tours. Bike the Burgh is the first company of its kind in Steel City.
“I thought, there is nothing to lose, only to gain, so I flew from Berlin to DC. Packing up and shipping myself to the United States was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. I was leaving everything behind... I cried a lot.”
Val moved in April 2014, and things got off to a rough start. Michael's car broke down on the drive to Pittsburgh.
Michael is the landlord of several houses around the city, including the one where they were staying that burned down due to a careless tenant and her pet rabbit. (Speculation is that the rabbit got loose and knocked a candle into a curtain.) The couple found out upon returning home late that evening and finding the place a charred ruin. Few items were salvageable.
“We were going to move permanently into that house. I’m actually happy it burned down because I never liked it,” Val said smiling.
Val led an experimental architectural tour of Pittsburgh’s North Side during Bike Fest 2014 and had a good turn out. During the winter she researched the city, watched documentaries and learned how to start a business.
“I have to say that the U.S. is a great country to start up things. It’s less regulated and easier. I would not have done this in Germany.”
Bike the Burgh launched in the beginning of summer and is now gaining momentum.
“Here I am super happy,” Val says beaming at me through her glasses. “I am more proud of Pittsburgh than some people who are born here. This is my new home.”
Our dinner plates are picked clean. I’m rotating the styrofoam cube in my hand and land on daily challenge. This little memento means so much to me, and gives me strength to continue in hopes of meeting other people across America as wonderful as Val.
She’s a tough act to follow, I think, but am quickly proved wrong. The hills climbing out of Pittsburgh and climbing into West Virginia are the toughest of all.