Crossed the frozen border with some very frosty American customs officials into, well, I felt like I was back in Vancouver...
24.02.2014 - 27.02.2014 8 °C
Hi there everyone
I very reluctantly got up last Monday morning (following another night out with my new Vancouverite bar friends) and headed on down to the Amtrak station for a bus trip across the border into Vancouver. Knowing me, I had forgotten my commitment to my monkey monument photo, but thankfully found two women who were more than happy to help out. I wish I had gotten their email addresses so that I could get a copy of the photos they subsequently had with me (they loved that I pretended to pick nits out of their hair). But to whomever you are, thank you ladies!
The snow was falling and therefore there wasn't much to the view out the bus window. Before I knew it, I was woken up with a jolt at the US border and told to take everything off the bus for processing. My tired, sleep-filled eyes and dishevelled hair perfectly resembled my terrible passport photo, and following a string of probing questions and a random $6 fee to help pay down the government debt, I was let into the USA! Suckers...
We had a few more hours to go to Seattle, and past some beautiful snowy landscapes. The Pacific Northwest is heavily wooded and undulating. Unfortunately I won't bother posting any photos of it here as they aren't too clear and don't do it justice. If you haven't seen it in the news, North America has been experiencing unseasonable cold snaps (thanks Canada!) bringing snow quite far south. Only a few weeks prior, snow fell in Seattle and Portland bringing these unprepared cities to an almost complete standstill, save for a few snowboarders taking to Seattle's very steep downtown streets.
The latest dumping of snow hadn't settled in Seattle and I was instead treated to a typical overcast and nipple-popping Seattle winter's day. Some very friendly gentleman stopped me in the street to help direct me to my hostel, which I took to be some friendly American hospitality. As I learned very quickly, everyone is out for a buck and sure enough, these retired veterans wanted me to buy them a sandwich. They actually walked me back to the station I had just come from and left with some pleasantries and my last ten Canadian dollars. I then jumped in a cab with a driver who managed to condense his extensive and varied life story within the 10 blocks to the hostel. He was your quintessential NOLA African-American (Christie you would have loved him!) and the very few things I could understand were followed by a deep chuckle. I laughed along too but basically had no clue what he was talking about.
I checked into the Green Tortoise Hostel which is very highly rated in America (but has NOTHING on the standard hostels of Europe). The eight bed room was occupied mostly by people attending the national writers' festival being held that week (bunch of weirdos!!!). A man from China had his laptop stolen from the common area which was quite unnerving, the poor guy losing all his files for the festival. The front door is left unlocked so anyone can walk in off the street and nab some poor unsuspecting person's belongings. On a plus side, I met two Aussies in my room who are on a similar but much smaller sojourn of the US and Canada who I'll be meeting up and staying with in Austin for SXSW (seeing as the accomm I booked through airbnb was actually a car space and therefore not ideal). Two little walking tours were run out of the hostel by Jake, a boy-next-door toothy grinned overly enthusiastic American we've all come to know and find incredibly condescending from American movies. In actual fact, he was genuine, informative, passionate and friendly, having developed the Seattle Walking Tours from his time in Europe and SE Asia.
The first tour I did was of downtown, starting just near the Pike Place Markets. Demolition of the markets was muted throughout the 20th century to make way for a car park as was the case with most historical districts. Thankfully, a little bit of foresight from Victor Steinbrueck and a petition to the city council saved the markets, to become one of Seattle's best treasures, loved by locals and tourists. Anyway, a bit on that later. As the heading suggests, I found Seattle to be very similar to Vancouver: in climate, landscape, cityscape and people. The skyline is quite impressive, with the Columbia Centre, the Smith Tower and of course, the Space Needle just some of the landmarks in the sky. However, it is the Puget Sound, Mt Rainier (a dormant volcano past its expected popping state), the Cascades and Olympic Mountain Ranges that make this area so impressive. While Seattle is very car dependent and the downtown ringed by motorways, they are doing a lot to make the centre walk and cycle friendly. There is a plan to bury the waterfront motorway (more monstrous than the Cahill Expressway at Circular Quay) and expand the pedestrian and entertainment areas on the water. What a novel idea. The waterfront area is characterised by the ferry terminal, serving the biggest ferry system in North America, as well as some seafood restaurants and tacky tourist shops. A pier serves as one of the strangest public parks I've seen, with a beautiful view of the Sound and the mountains and the skyline behind it, however so desolate of any furniture and greenery save for a table tennis table that is useless in this windy city.
We were taken around some of Jake's favourite haunts and educated on the generous happy hour(s) on offer, stretching between 3pm and midnight, with the 'unhappy' hours between 7pm and 9pm. Word of warning: whereas in Australia you can save money by buying take-out rather than sitting at a table, happy hour meals are NOT eligible for take-out. Special shout-out to the douchebag bar tender who didn't tell me this and charged me full price on a shitty burger and oily chips. No tip for him or for the less than understanding maitre'd. Anyway, some other cool aspects of the city were the underground tunnels and basements, remnants of the original sidewalks and shopfronts when the city was raised one storey to overcome the tide of the Sound. "I don't like the level of this city, let's raise it one storey!" They are mostly just basements now, in some cases converted to bars and cafes, but formally housed less savoury individuals and their various trades. Skylights in the sidewalks provide light to these areas and are the purple glass squares found all over. Skid Row, the infamous sections of cities known for their scummy, tawdry and scammy, is named after Yesler Street, which is where the loggers would send their wares 'skidding' down to the docks. Like any timber or mining town in the good old days, the high male to female ratio (14:1) brought brothels, saloons and general nogooders. Pioneer Park and the surrounding district, to the south of downtown, is similar to Gastown in Vancouver however I wouldn't recommend going down at night unless you were going to the stadiums (go Seahawks woo!) or to the infamous 88 keys piano dueling bar (no I didn't go, but I know there are some in San Fran which I shall check out).
Pike Place Market was the second tour also conducted by Jake and explored the fascinating food and history of this very special place. The original Starbucks (originally called Pequod, with numerous Moby Dick references) resides here, still with manual coffee presses and the boobilicious siren as its symbol (calling innocent people to their death?). It wasn't so busy the day I went, but I don't drink coffee so wasn't fussed. They have fish throwers who, well, throw fish, an efficient way in which to get stock from the docks up to the shop. They've got fruiterers, delis, homewares, puppet makers (lets call them Giupettos), button shops, and all other sorts. Some other cool points are the fact that the temporary stalls must be manned at least two days a week by the producer, and only wears made by the stall may be sold, harking back to the markets original use. Oh if only Paddy's was as useful! To help fund the restoration of the main market building, locals were asked to purchase a tile. The two photos I have are from Bill Gates III and the Heaven's Gate suicide group, the date being that of Haley's Comet. Probably my favourite part of the whole markets is something you can't buy or take from (well you can, but its not recommended) but which you are encouraged to contribute to: the Gum Wall. The story goes, that people entering the Market Theatre (now famous for stand up comedy) were told to spit out their gum so as to avoid gum being stuck to the bottom of chairs and the floors. So some geniuses started sticking it to the walls with a penny for a tip. As the homeless started taking the pennies, the wall was left with gum, and the tradition has stuck ever since (puntastic!).
Speaking of homelessness, Seattle seems to be a real drawcard for the homeless and desperate. It may have something to do with Seattle's liberal politics (legalising gay marriage and marijuana last year), but every street corner seems to have beggars and prostitutes, concentrated around the markets. While some of them can be really funny (one sign said "Bitch please" which I know Tim, CJ, Paul and Sonya will appreciate) it was really confronting. You can't help but feel incredibly sorry for these people, particularly with the cold weather bearing down most of the time, but if you were to help everyone you'd end up right where they are. In my next blog about Portland I'll mention this story about some homeless people taking over an empty lot in the old town that is drawing a lot of rancour from the city but helping address their plight.
Now for the fun stuff! I very fortunately met Sean in Vancouver while he had some time off from the Navy for his birthday, and met up with him for his real birthday the night I arrived. After some complementary beer in his hotel lobby (great idea), Sean, his mate Brandon and myself set off for a night of drinks and mischief. We hit up Rachel's for some Moscow mule's using their signature ginger beer (delish, I had the blood orange flavour) before scooting on up to Capital Hill. Side note, it doesn't seem like there are very strict requirements for toilets in restaurants and bars, as I found out when nature called and I had to dash into a swanky hotel and casually avoid the reception. We had dinner at Paquito's, a Mexican restaurant that shames anything I've had in Australia. My meal looked like two hamburgers in a soup but man was it good, as were the drinks! Then we all toddled off to a few bars whose names I don't remember, where every bartender told me how sexy my accent was in hopeful exchange for a tip, which I of course obliged (nothing about my face or personality though, shallow pricks). I engaged in some banter with Sean and Brandon about American politics, giving them an outsiders perspective that for the most part they did not find at all enlightening or enlightened. Then we moved onto all kinds of banter that surrounded me as an Australian drinking them under the table. And I will say that I did the country proud, those piss weak Yanks can get back to their buds (all true). Oh, they play miniature shuffleboard in bars there! Its like curling, highlarious!
I spent the next day with Sean wandering around the city, walking up to the Space Needle and the home of the 1962 World's Fair. Avoiding the silly cost to go to the observation deck, we walked around and looked at the Experience Music Project building designed by Frank Gehry (of Guggenheim Bilbao and UTS' crumbled bag fame). I didn't go inside, but the exterior is just stunning. Again, my photos don't do it justice but they're below regardless. There is a museum beside it dedicated to Chihuly who is a glass artist (that it appears most Seattleites don't particularly like). There were more from his art school exhibited in the Seattle Art Museum which was for the most part pretty wanky but you can still appreciate the craftsmenship. We then checked out the Olympic Sculpture Park (Emma Finnegan you'll appreciate this, if you've bothered to read this). Emma and I went to a talk at UNSW hosted by the architects of this project, and while at face value it doesn't seem so significant, it really is an engineering genius. It was built over the Alaskan Way, a busy motorway, as well as a busy railroad, and occupies formerly contaminated land. Overcoming all that, the park is a really tranquil space with enormous modern artwork and open space, a cafe and beautiful views over the Sound and out to Mt Rainier. Sean unfortunately had to head home and I didn't see him for the rest of my time in Seattle.
My last day in Seattle was pretty quiet, which involved checking out the Seattle Art Museum which was, so so. The highlight was an exhibition about the plight of a town in Pennsylvania polluted by a steel mill and the steady decline in population and health of its residents, and a more whimsical installation of cars flying through the air. I also had some pretty average food, and then decided to head out to Neighbours, a gay club up at Capital Hill. Thank god I did! I met two amazing women, Eileen and Megan. These women took me under their wing, introduced me to some more fantastic people and, well, we had a ball! Eileen and Megan are two of my favourite people I've met on this trip and it is such a shame I left Seattle the next day. But who knows, I might hopefully see them soon! I also had the pleasure of meeting two You-Dub (University of Washington) students, Michael from farmland Washington (so many cliches brought out) and Louise from Sweden who is one of the most incidentally well travelled people I've met, but sadly without a strong Swedish accent. These youngens were down in the underage section, away from the evils of alcohol. But I couldn't resist a dance with them following Louise's less than subtle attempts at getting Michael to come and say hi to me. It was the poor boy's first time in a gay club (picture Gumby, dancing in slow motion on hot coals). After a bit of a snog, then an argument with the bartender who informed me that water is not free at the bar (!!!!????) we left and went to IHOP for a breakfast that was made all the better for our classic African American waiter who seated us in the "Vee-AYE-Pee" section and told us to "come all back, yu-huh!". For some unknown reason, it was decided that I accompany Louise and Michael back to you-dub and introduce Michael to the wonderful comedic genius of Flying High. Unfortunately the movie wasn't available so we snuggled in his single dorm room bed for the night instead (oh memories of uni!).
I then had the pleasure of heading back to the hostel to quickly pack my gear and head out for a coffee with Charles, a true die-hard Aussie fan I met on that most innocent and innocuous of gay social network sites. Charles came to visit in Portland that weekend for a romping good time, stay tuned!
Other random things to remember: pot smoke everywhere! Free view of the city from the Starbucks on the 40th floor of the Columbia Centre. Petra Franklin has lived in the gorgeous penthouse of the Smith Tower and has done for over 20 years. Seattle is named after the local Chieftan whose actual name is Chief Si'ahl, who tried cooperating with the pioneers only to of course be screwed over incredibly like all other native American tribes - "Now is the end of living and the beginning of surviving". Great bread from Piroshki Piroshki, delish!
And that kidlets is where I will leave you. I am playing catch ups with the blog at the moment so Portlandia adventures will come soon. In summation, while it is commonly understood that Seattle is a funny word, it is a great city with a beautiful environment, great food and nightlife, generally friendly and hospitable people, a liberal agenda which of course is always a win (poke, Sean) and you can't forget the Space Needle. I mean, I wish every city had a Space Needle. Like Vancouver, its a city I could see myself living in one day. Next up, Portlandia! Ciao x
P.S. I'm remembering how difficult it is to meet all these great people while traveling, then having the next little adventure tearing you away. Sean sent me the sweetest message, saying if I lived in Seattle he'd ask me out as much as he could. You're so sweet Sean and, even though you're a Republican, I'd have said yes every time. I know you've read right to the bottom, so just letting you know, I feel more than a little sad having left Seattle and you behind. Well if only things were different.