Seattle is the largest city in the Pacific Northwest region of North America. Perched on a narrow stretch of land between Puget Sound and Lake Washington, it’s south of the U.S. border with Canada, but somehow further north than Toronto. It’s famous for being the home base of companies like Boeing, and the birthplace of the grunge music movement.
Temperature-wise, Seattle’s cool. After a summer in mid-Missouri of average temps starting in the upper 90s and often overflowing into triple digits, sixties and seventies feel luxurious and fall-like. So much so that our first morning, when we leave the hotel wearing lightweight summery threads, we end up going back. I change into long pants, and Jesus grabs a jacket. No matter that our hotel is crowded with tourists reveling in their goose bumps in sleeveless tops and shorts: we’re slightly chilled even in our jackets and jeans.
I smile wryly as I reflect on just what that means about me: my Midwestern childhood and young adulthood have finally given way to Mediterranean influences, at least when it comes to temperature sensibility. This is far from shocking, after eight years in Barcelona where winter temperatures never fall below freezing, but little old ladies still strut about the better neighborhoods swathed in mink and fox-fur.
Downtown Seattle is quiet late Monday morning. There are no traffic jams or crowds of commuters on foot sucking on one last cigarette before work outside coffee shops. The only people loitering about are the beggars on street corners. And as I’ve learned from my big city existence in Spain, some are actually homeless and needy, but still others are making a decent living. How to tell the difference? For the most part, for me it hinges on how well dressed and clean they are. The people that beg for a living tend to be better groomed than the homeless guy that sleeps outdoors wrapped around his bottle of whisky.
But it never gets easier, ignoring another human being, especially not for small-town Middle-Americans brought up to smile, make good eye contact, be polite and lend a helping hand. Sadly, with time and experience, you adjust, learn if you give to everyone, you can’t afford necessities like food, a metro pass, or most importantly for caffeine addicts like myself, coffee.
And coffee is something I covet in Seattle, where Starbucks first appeared on the scene. Let Howard Schultz, the Starbucks CEO, say what he will about being inspired by Italian cafés and their ilk, in Spain, Starbucks is one of the few places I’ve found where you can hang out for hours on the merits of a single coffee purchase without being hassled to buy more or eventually kicked out. Which makes their coffee, at three times the price of a coffee in any other bar, almost worth it and explains the perennial presence of teens and tweens in any given Barcelona Starbucks.
There’s a massive line outside the original Pike Place Market Starbucks, but the crowd doesn’t seem to mind the wait. An old time band keeps them entertained, singing and strumming on stringed instruments while one band member dances around, scraping the washboard strapped around his middle. Jesus films it all, zooming in on the washboard, an exotic instrument in Spain.
A Seattle institution, Pike Place Market is a winding multi-level labyrinth of vendors selling everything from fresh fruit and vegetables to banjos made out of cigar boxes. The fish market is a stop on every tourist’s itinerary and clouds of visitors cluster around waiting for the fishmongers to sing and toss fish sold to each other across the stand in a ritual that was originally a time-saving effort, but continues to bring in the masses.
Since open markets are on my itinerary everywhere I go, the only area that truly tempts me is a long narrow stretch crowded with fresh flowers for sale at ridiculously low prices. Clusters of chrysanthemum and roses, charming bouquets in sunny shades, I want them all, and have absolutely nowhere to put them. This is my mother, the green-thumb’s fault, of course she would point the finger at my Grandma Ciolli and her mother, the women that inspired her love of plants. Because I was raised to adore growing things, encouraged to pick iris and lilies from the garden for display in the house, fresh flowers are hard to resist. But I stay strong and satisfy myself with a few snapshots.
A half hour walk later, at the Seattle Center, clusters of tourists mill about. Children hang and swing like monkeys from large outdoor sculptures. Families wait in line to zoom to the top of the Space Needle and peer out across an overcast sky for views of the city.
Nearby, I point out the Experience Music Project Museum, a shining metal building that curves and ripples into the surprising shapes people have come to expect from its famous architect, Frank Gehry, the great mind behind well-known structures like Bilbao’s Guggenheim Museum, and Prague’s Dancing House. While the museum is dedicated to pop music, pop culture, and science fiction, all interesting things, the weather is gorgeous so we skip it and walk towards the coast.
We’re still a ways from the coast when I see the arching red sculpture. I smile at Jesus. “What do you want to bet me that’s an Alexander Calder?” He just shakes his head, unwilling to take the odds, since Calder is one of my favorite artists. It turns out to be Calder’s “Eagle,” the symbol used to indicate the Olympic Sculpture Park on our city map. In its privileged location overlooking the Puget Sound and the Olympic Mountains, the Olympic Sculpture Park is full of surprises: Roxy Paine’s strikingly lifelike silver tree; Oldenburg and van Bruggen’s strangely humorous large-scale sculpture of a type-writer eraser; Suvero’s “Bunyon’s Chess,” resembling the elegantly, if somewhat precariously rearranged ruins of a shipwreck. I can’t control my grin as I wander from sculpture to sculpture, an ocean breeze ruffling my hair as I follow a walking path to some seating with views of the water.
I settle in to sit back and enjoy the view with my water bottle and a package of jalapeño almonds. Jesus films and I watch as just off the coast, para-sailers soar through the sky on brightly colored fabric wings. Small motorized boats tug and tow them along until they begin to drift downwards, slowly descending from pales skies towards the deeper blues of what I can only imagine is ice-cold water, but eventually landing safe and dry, back on the boat.
And I wonder: If what goes up, must go down, how can we ever separate flying high (success!) and falling back to earth (failure)?
But maybe that’s a question best saved for a rainy day, spent pondering deeper meanings and life’s great questions over a fragrant cup of coffee. It’s a (relatively) sunny day in Rain City, and I for one, have every intention of making the most of it.