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Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Architectural Musings I

Last week was exciting for my friends back east who experienced both an earthquake and a hurricane, with subsequent flooding and power outages. I'm reliably informed they had the plague of locusts last year. Let's hope September will be less exciting.

Before we moved here, I had trouble imagining the built environment. I knew it would be different from London, certainly.  It's a young city, a mere babe by European standards (no Roman ruins), yet older than Miami where I grew up.  Following the terrible fire of 1889,  when the entire business district burned down, the city was rebuilt in brick.  But that's not what you see when you look at Seattle from the water today.  The skyline bristles with shiny glass and steel sky scrapers.  

There was a housing boom in the early part of the twentieth century and the neighbourhoods around the edges of the city are full of bungalows and similar small homes built in the 1910s and 1920s, often placed high atop hills with views that are breathtaking, sometimes literally.

Typical Seattle Bungalow atop Queen Anne
Some have been lovingly restored, with gleaming wooden floors and glowing stained glass accents.  Others have been gutted and unsympathetically expanded and updated to suit modern living styles, utterly ruining the character of the original design.  We saw examples of both types while house hunting.  The restored houses were lovely, but just wouldn't suit us. The modernised ones were just plain awful, awkward, impractical, ugly.  There must be some good renovation / extension jobs out there, but we didn't see any of them. So we ended up with a condo with a logical layout and a great view, even if it is a little bland.

Folly or lighthouse?

Along the way, we've spotted a few quirky buildings.  Like this one in Ballard, reminiscent of a lighthouse. It faces Ray's and the water.  There must be an interesting story there.

Or this adorable confection, squeezed between two condos near the beach in Alki (West Seattle) that looks a like something from the Garden Gnome Reserve only more so.
Beach house for garden gnomes

Once in a while we spot a little bit of 'Old Blighty'.  In this case, a red phone box outside a fish and chips establishment.  However, the observant among you will have noticed from the photos, Seattle enjoys a wee bit more sunshine here in August than London. But don't tell anyone or we'll be overrun with British tourists.
Red phone box and chippy

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Something's Fishy

Did I mention Seattle was a fishy place?

They are mighty fond of their fish here, especially the salmon. The locals eat salmon burgers, salmon sausages, smoked, grilled, and poached salmon, for breakfast, lunch and dinner.  I haven't looked for salmon ice cream, but it wouldn't surprise me to find it here.

On one of our periodic explorations we visited the fish ladder. A very forward thinking member of the Army Corps of Engineers, Hiram Chittenden devised a watery staircase to help salmon return to their spawning grounds despite the locks in the Ship Canal. It's built into the side of the locks, with a viewing area so popular that tour busses stop here.  While we were down below watching the fish through the glass, a few locals were salivating at the thought of one of these big silvery beauties on their plates. One, a former fisherman said "I used to catch these, but now when I go to the supermarket, I can't bring myself to buy it except as an rare treat".  From the point of view of someone who spent a lot of time in the opposite corner of the country, salmon prices in the Pacific Northwest seem quite reasonable. But there are different types of salmon, and what we were watching was a  Chinook, one of the tastiest.

Above ground, the locks are especially entertaining on a sunny Sunday morning when it is full of pleasure boats wedging themselves in tightly for the ride down to Puget Sound. 

On the opposite bank from the fish ladder is a visitor's center and botanical garden, and some of the original poured-concrete architecture with fishy details (there are small bronze fish around the base of the globe). 

From there we continued along the Burke Gillman trail (it vanishes in Ballard and begins again closer to Puget Sound) to Golden Gardens park.  A beach within easy cycling distance from home, will wonders never cease? It's noting like the salty bathwater of Biscayne Bay from my childhood, but it's still a beach.

Along the way we spotted Ray's, a restaurant that features seafood (of course) and the diners have breathtaking views of the water and the Olympic mountain range in the background.

Out front is a colourful fish-shaped bike rack.  Some sculptural bike racks are next to useless, especially for odd sized bikes, but this one works pretty well. Our little Bromptons nestled in the slots perfectly.

It's time to sign off for now, I need to go fix dinner. . .  fish, of course!
Salmon Waves by Paul Sorey

Tuesday, August 16, 2011


They say the basics for survival include food, shelter and water.  We've been making some headway in those departments.

For various reasons, we don't eat a lot of processed foods, and that generally means a lot of hands on cooking, which we both enjoy.  Procuring edibles is half the fun.  I don't mean shuffling through the local supermarket trying not to run over any toes with an over-laden trolly full of packaged industrial food-like substances.  Farmers markets, small producers, that's where the real food is. During the summer there are several farmer's markets in the Seattle area. The biggest we've found is the wonderful, year round, Ballard Farmers' Market.

Heirloom tomatoes, homemade pies, handmade cheeses, berries, peaches, greens and root vegetables, flowers, fish just off the boat (or out of the smoker, sold by the skipper himself), Walla Walla onions, fresh bread, the list is endless, seasonal and mouthwatering. There's a constant supply of street musicians, including a one man band (accordion, cornet, and percussion), a jazz band and some student violinists raising money for their school orchestra. It's easy cycling distance for us, so I expect we'll be regulars.

After several days of house hunting with the ever-resourceful Suzy, we have found a place that meets our requirements.  Cycling distance to D.'s office, not up a lung-busting hill, reasonable size, but not too big, a place to store a tandem (besides under the bed)
A tandem that fits under the bed, or in the two suitcases it's towing.

a functional kitchen, on a quiet road, with a nice view, and bedroom ceiling high enough to accommodate our four poster bed.  The only place it fails is the bedroom.  We will have to do without the canopy in order to squeeze the bed in up under the eaves. On the other hand it has a Murphy bed, something I've always wanted since seeing one on a rerun of  I Love Lucy (can't find that online, but this is pretty silly). It also comes with two car parking spaces, not that we have a car.

We should be closing on 16 September, it could have been earlier, but the owner requested the later date and our shipment won't arrive for a further week. To contrast with the home buying process in the UK, we accepted an offer on our place in London in late June.  Both buyer and seller want to expedite the process, cash buyer, no chain.  Closing date?  Only the solicitors have any idea, and they're not saying.  The general consensus from friends who have bought recently in the UK is that it usually takes several months, and that's without any complications.

No shortage of that around here:
Lake Union
This is the view from the balcony of our prospective new home.  The mountains in the far distance are the Cascades, the strange protuberances in the nearer distance on the left is a former gasworks, now Gasworks Park. In amongst the houseboats on the lower left is the one made famous in Sleepless in Seattle.  True, the view doesn't have to be this nice, but it will be such a pleasure to look at something other than the building site that's been below our balcony for the past nine years.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Snapshots of (mostly) sunny Seattle

The great thing about cameras in cell phones is they tend to be right there when you see something you want to photograph.  
"OW!" - he must have hiked up the hill too

The not so great thing is the picture quality.  Especially on a sunny day when you're wearing polarized sunglasses and can't see what you're aiming at! 
There be dragons!
The International District is infested with them!

So bear with me, eventually we'll haul out the big Nikon out and take some better shots.  But for now. . .

Seattle is a hilly place, hillier even than Rome or Sheffield.  Or at least the hills seem steeper. They loom up out of the landscape in a threatening manner when you're on a heavily laden, folding bike, or carrying groceries home.  I am reminded of my brief foray to San Francisco, though it's not quite that hilly!

Just walking about the neighborhood (Queen Anne) I am constantly reminded of the undulating landscape.   The advantage of hills of course, is the view once you've made it up.  
Looking down towards the Ship Canal

Seattle is also a very watery place.  Boats and ships of all shapes and sizes from kayaks and even tiny paddleboards to ocean going vessels ply the local waters.  We spent a sunny evening watching the water traffic on the Ship Canal, while the Fremont Bridge was going up and down, and enjoying the variety of watercraft that passed by. 

D. is lucky, his office has an excellent view of the Ship Canal, and the Burke-Gilman trail that runs beside it.  
The Burke Gilman trail from D.'s desk

Just east of the Fremont Bridge along the canal is the soaring Aurora Bridge (also known as the George Washington Memorial Bridge).  It's probably nicer to look at than drive on, as it's prone to traffic jams.  
Aurora Bridge, from the Fremont side

Heading west from Fremont is the Ballard Bridge, not the nicest bridge to cycle over, as the pedestrian/cycle area is small and sprinkled with shards of broken glass, but you get a good view of the shipyards and fishing boats in Salmon Bay.
The Ballard Bridge, from Queen Anne
Seattle is also musical place, right now, I can hear the plink-plunk of a banjo down the street, and I hear tell of all sorts of sessions, open bands, dances and other entertainments. . . except in August.  We had been forewarned, but it seems strange that everyone ups sticks in August and goes elsewhere (especially when the weather is so nice here at the moment).  Never mind, it will give us a little time to adapt and get oriented before they all come back.  Maybe by then we won't look so obviously dazed and confused (I've lost count of the number of nice people who have asked if I was lost or needed help finding something!).
Still a little out of synch with the local time, but getting up at dawn has its advantages.  The disadvantage is the undeniable urge to fall asleep right after supper.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

"The Youth of the Middle East rise up for basic freedoms.The Youth of London rise up for a HD ready 42" Plasma TV"

As Dorothy says in the Wizard of Oz , "We're not in Kansas any more Toto".  Some day I will have to visit Kansas.  But right now Seattle is occupying our attention.  Not completely, because our beloved London is currently being ransacked by greedy, ignorant mobs of thugs bent on nothing but destruction and self gratification. The heading for this post is a tweet from Lulu Rose, who aptly sums up the sad situation in London. Our old neighbourhood is completely untouched so far, which only goes to show that living in an area with nothing but coffee shops and sandwich joints has some advantages after all. I worry about all my friends and colleagues, some living in the worst affected areas.  All reporting back safe, for now.

Back to Seattle, settling in and getting our bearings. We've hardly been in the central part of the city.  A brief foray on Friday to get my phone set up with a US number, and lunch in the International District with friends from Maryland.  The rest of the time has been spent within a couple miles radius of the Google office, trying to find a place to live that isn't on top of a hill, has enough of the right kind of space, but is not too big. Our London apartment was a marvel of spatial efficiency, as yet unmatched by anything we've seen.

 Yesterday I spent the afternoon running errands in Ballard and Fremont (flat, near the ship canal) on my little Brompton, amusing bank tellers, receptionists and shop keepers with the folding and unfolding.  I finished up at the vast emporium known as Fred Meyer. As the lad at the checkout said, 'we're like Wallmart only better because the employees here are well treated".  It was so big, I got lost, several times, and began to wonder if I would ever find my way back out.  Ironically, for a place the size of Rhode Island, right next to the Burke Gilman trail (now there's a real cycle super-highway), they only had one tiny cycle rack!

Last night we met some friendly local morris dancers, who take advantage of the beautiful summer's evenings to meet in Gasworks Park.  I ended up in the set as a place holder (I didn't run into anyone, but was generally on the wrong foot) and my feet and legs really missed those lovely sprung dance floors at Cecil Sharp House. We headed back to our encampment on the hill as the sun was setting over Puget Sound.  The ship canal looked especially lovely, reflecting the pink and salmon coloured clouds. The exercise must have done us some good, we slept through until six am this morning!

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Aliens ate my brains

Jet lag makes you stupid.  It's almost as if some evil aliens came and sucked out your brains.  The intellect is impaired, speech becomes slurred, and coordination is utterly lacking. You are a mere shell of your former self. Luckily, the condition is neither fatal, nor permanent.

Because we're wide awake in the pre-dawn hours, we've been taking advantage of the quiet of the morning to explore the area.  Saturday, we decided to have breakfast at the Bay Café in the Fisherman's Terminal.  After scrambling around trying to find safe passage through the maze of busy roads and industrial areas,

we arrived at the advertised opening time of 6:30 only to find another similarly mis-informed group waiting hungrily outside.  The cafe doesn't open until 7 on Saturday, despite what the website says.  The food was worth the wait (if you like fish), and the charming staff did their best to drown us in coffee (I'm not used to the concept of the bottomless cup!).

We strolled along the waterfront, and looked at the nets and fishing boats, a family of ducklings, and the local amenities (Fishermen's Union, HazMat training facility, Seafood wholesalers, net sheds).

Surprised to find so many lawyers offices in a fishing port. Not far from the café is the memorial to fishermen lost at sea, with floral tributes around the base.  Fishing is the most dangerous occupation in the United States, twice as dangerous as mining, but you rarely hear about the loss of lives at sea unless it's a passenger ship. Perhaps it's because I'm a Coastguardsman's daughter, but I found the memorial very moving.
Fishermen's memorial, bronze plaques bear the names of those lost at sea.

The main part of the day was spent driving around with Suzy, our real estate agent. She gave us a tour of potential neighbourhoods, and began to get an idea of what we want.  Cycling distance to D.'s office without having to go up and down steep hills, not too huge, but the right dimensions for our furniture, and space to store a tandem without disassembling it.  A lot of the modern places we saw had great kitchens, wonderful views, and odd-shaped rooms with sloping ceilings. Our first stop is always the bedroom, because if the four poster won't fit, there's no point in looking further.  In retrospect, buying a hand-made, solid oak, 7+ ft tall bed when we knew we were going to move to England (and eventually back) was probably not the most sensible thing to do.  On the other hand, the movers have yet to destroy it, unlike its predecessor which was converted to kindling.

It's a glorious warm sunny day today, and I long to be out on the back of the tandem, but it's in a container waiting to be loaded on board a ship, and we've got more potential housing to look at; in other words, duty calls. . .

Friday, August 5, 2011

The Eagle has landed

OK, so it's not a flight to the moon, but for us, at least, this was something of a giant leap.

It was nearly an uneventful journey.  The only real excitement we had occurred the night before.  Halfway to the restaurant, D. realised the bag containing the bike locks and my handbag was not on the front of his bike where it should have been. It contained all my identification (including my passport), my phone and all my bank/credit cards. Not something you want to loose, ever, but especially not on the eve of an international flight.  Did he leave it on the street outside the hotel, in the lobby, or in our room?  After pedalling the distance between Clerkenwell Green and City Road in record time, he found it safely in the room.  Phew.   I think that was the closest I've ever been to a heart attack.

Thursday dawned wet, and got wetter.  By the time we had loaded up the van with our baggage, it was coming down in sheets.  We spent the inevitable airport waiting time perusing online links to prospective apartments in the Seattle area.  Saw some incredibly slick, modern, high tech, soulless places.  I hope we can find something with a bit of character.  The idea is to live within a few miles of  Google's Fremont office so D. can continue to cycle to work.  But distance as the crow flies is deceptive.  There is quite a lot of vertical relief, which is why so many apartments boast of lake and or mountain views. I wonder how long the 6 speed Bromptons will hold out against the attractions of a gazillion speed hybrid with disc brakes, or even, (gasp) electric assist.

Arriving at Sea-Tac from Heathrow terminal 5 was like travelling backwards in time. One of the security people at baggage reclaim said  it was designed in the 1960s and is in serious need of updating.  We experienced this first hand as a 747's load of luggage quickly overwhelmed the baggage handling system.  Cases were piled four deep, and all but the tallest folks risked getting dragged onto the carousel if they tried to reach for bags at the top.   At one point the baggage chute clogged up entirely and it all ground to a halt.
The shuttle van people asked us what happened to the other two people in our party. I explained they were invisible, but their luggage was all too real. There's a two bag limit per passenger, so for extra bags, you pay for extra seats. I felt as if we were traveling with the Seven Champions' Bert and his twin sister.
As we left the airport the van's radio was played "Big Old Jet Airliner", oddly appropriate to our situation. I felt bad for the driver hoisting all those heavy bags in and out of the van, but he did it with good grace and a ready smile.  So far everyone we've met here has been very friendly.

After dragging our bags upstairs into the temporary apartment (basic, but blissfully quiet), we went out to explore. We're staying in a residential area that is on the fringe of a rather industrial area.  Not the best place for shopping on foot. The landlady gave us directions to the nearest supermarket, and told us there were a couple places to eat around there as well.  Up hill we went, and then down.  I am so glad we have strong legs from cycling!

As soon as we caught site of the local eateries we were overcome with hunger.  The choices were an empty teriyaki place, a pizza joint, an empty Cantonese restaurant and Red Mill Burgers, which was packed with happy diners.  D. really wanted a burger, but I doubted they would have anything for the non-meat eater.  Happily, I was wrong;  not one, but three enticing veggie burgers with all sorts of flavourful trimmings.  Maybe not the healthiest option, but somehow very appropriate on our first night of repatriation. Thus fortified we braved arctic blast of air conditioning in the supermarket (hard to tell the difference between the chiller cabinets and the ambient air temperature).   We had to pick up at least enough supplies for breakfast along with some basics like toilet paper and soap while not weighing ourselves down too much because it was all uphill from there. The combination of exhaustion (we'd been up for nearly 23 hours by then), and the confusion of a large, unknown supermarket undergoing refurbishment made for a surreal shopping experience. After climbing back up the hill and unpacking the perishables, we collapsed in a heap at 9:30 pm. This, of course, is counterbalanced with being wide awake at 4:30 am, but we'll get over that soon enough.

A new day, a new city, and (eventually) new phone numbers await as soon as places open for business!

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Oh the dust!

One likes to think the place is fairly clean, but in London at least the dust is insidious. Behind every piece of furniture, under every bookcase, it's lurking out of sight, lying in wait.  So, if you can't see it, what's the problem?  Once the furniture is moved and the shelves are emptied,  the dust pounces, launching itself into the air where it hang-glides until landing on some unsuspecting human.  This is a problem when you have a dust allergy.  Dust allergies are an occupational hazard in the library world, mine has gotten worse over the years. So you see, my cowardly retreat to the climate controlled, relatively dust-free environs of the British Library are actually an attempt at self preservation during the packing and moving. Really!

However, the Library does close from time to time, and they discourage camping out in the reading rooms. So, what to do in the evening, when the apartment is full of airborne dust, there's no television, no phone, hardly anywhere to sit, and not much more than a box of cereal and a few crackers in the cupboard.  Why, go to the circus, of course. Le Cirque Invisible to be precise. It was quirky, funny, and delightful. Sort of Monty Python meets Cirque du Soleil, on a very small scale (two people, and a small menagerie which included the biggest white Belgian rabbit I've ever seen). 

Jean-Baptiste Thiérrée performed magic tricks, and silly stunts in the style of Sam Bartlett and Victoria Chaplin transformed herself into all sorts of magical creatures and machines.  One of my favourite segments involved the two of them and lots of bicycle parts reassembled in fascinating ways.  Some actual bicycles too, including a tandem with a skeleton in the back seat.  Must try that with ours.

The Southbank Centre was itself something of a circus.  It's a popular place on warm summer evenings, with lots of open air cafes, live performances at outdoor venues and a riverside promenade.  Plus the ever popular summertime treat "Appearing Rooms".
About half a dozen kids in swimsuits were dashing in and out among the moving walls of water and giggling.  The London Eye (giant Ferris wheel) looming in the background adds to the carnival atmosphere.

This year they also added a little garden and sandy beach along the promenade, complete with beach huts further up river.
A very enjoyable way to avoid the dust storm at home. Tonight we're out for a final farewell dinner in the newly refurbished former Midland Grand Hotel designed by Sir George Gilbert Scott. Fittingly, this Victorian brick confection was the first building I ever laid eyes on in London.  But we're not sleeping there, we've booked a much cheaper hotel near to our apartment, so we can meet the van driver in the morning and load the (at last count) nine (!!!!) pieces of luggage into his vehicle.
This is probably the last post from this side of the pond.  Next stop, Seattle!

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Report from the home front

They are wrapping and loading.  Kitchen is disappearing.  Living room is disappearing.  Phone is dead.  We had a glitch on the internet, but then it came back.  I am ready with the Nexus if it gets turned off.
Shelves are being disassembled, but not the desk yet. . . 
It almost sounds as if my dearest is about to disappear into a black hole. I lost count of how many people were in there wrapping and carrying. I hope he doesn't sit still for too long, he might get swept up in the chaos and lodged in the shipping container for the next eight weeks.


There I was, in the pre-dawn hours, wondering if my slippers will send the luggage over the weight limit and pondering a name for this blog.  So many phrases are euphemisms, and everything I could think of was taken! So while the other half was cooking breakfast (featuring fridge-clearing potato pancakes made with horseradish and anchovies - tasted better than it sounds) I was sitting at my laptop searching for a phrase that was memorable, easy to say, and pertinent to the subject of this blog.  I looked down and saw one of my home made labels Do Not Pack.   Ta Da!

Which brings me to the subject at hand. We are relocating from London (England) to Seattle (Washington). The other side of the planet, more or less.  I have just calculated that this is my seventh international move (all of them intercontinental, we do nothing by halves) and D.'s ninth. They never get any easier, but this time we've been stationary for nine years, and stuff accumulates.  Boy, does it ever.  The past month has been spent cleaning out, recycling, freecycling, and hauling shopping trolley loads of clothes, books and other small items to the charity boxes. This is not a move across town, or even to the other end of the country. Sadly, it costs more to ship most things than it would to replace them.  Then there's the voltage problem.  When we donated a practically brand new DVD and flat screen television to EFDSS we had to explain to the incredulous recipients that we can't take it with us, it won't work over there.

But some things we can, and will take with us, like our lovely Brompton folding bikes. Absolutely the best Christmas present I've ever been given. These clever little bikes have been our main transportation for the past few years. They pack into flight cases and go into the hold of the airplane. That is, if they don't get stuck in a box.

So far, mine has been safely chained up elsewhere, out of the reach of the packers and their bubble wrap, while I've been researching 18th century dance music at the British Library.  My brave companion volunteered to stay home with the packers, allowing me to escape from the maelstrom.  There's nothing like trying to get work done while dodging cascading cardboard and sidestepping slithering stacks of paper. Entropy in action, as it were.

If anyone still thinks that computers make our lives easier, consider this: about half our luggage is electronics (including three laptops, half of a file server and various backup devices). Another quarter is bike paraphernalia (locks, tools and helmets (the latter mandatory at our destination)).  Of the clothes, I think a goodly portion is weather-related.  The amount of luggage is frightening, considering we did a ten day cycle trip across Austria with one cabin bag each. A man with a van will help transport it all to the airport, despite my brother's half-serious suggestion we use a stretch limo.

We like to think we're well organized, and have everything under control, but in those pre-dawn hours of this morning, it became apparent that we have no idea when our Internet connection is due to be switched off.  So my next installment may be delayed!