Monday, June 30, 2008

Tuesday 3 June: Seattle – Gone Shoppin'

Today was the first day of Catherine's conference. I dutifully stayed back in the hotel and tidied the room. Chores done, I went for a wander. I had a greasy but pleasant breakfast sandwich at a pseudo-Italian snack bar. It wasn't really Italian as it didn't even have its own coffee. I had to go next door to a branch of Seattle's Best Coffee. And thank Java I did. I ordered a medium latte. I was expecting something the size of a thimble like you would get in Italy but instead got something that was the size of a car you would get in Italy. It was delicious, so I drank it all. A few minutes later I was buzzing in that healthy way too much caffeine gives you.

I had decided today was for shopping. I was partly walking/hiking shoes so first tried the near-by Army Surplus store. It was a great place for ex-army boots, Israeli gasmasks and camouflage bikinis. (I almost but didn't ask if they had any of the latter in Catherine's size. They seemed to be for display purposes only) Then I moved on to REI, outdoor recreation specialists. Their flagship store was on the other side of town. It seemed like a good walk. I figured if you can't walk (or wheel) to the hiking boot store, you shouldn't be allowed in.

I was unusually in a shopping mood. The mood doesn't take me often. I expect it was the influence of being in the US, where shopping is the number 3 national pastime after watching TV and eating. (Shooting sprees are down to 5 this year.) I bought walking shoes, a laptop case and even considered a moose backpack (as a gift you understand). I also nearly bought some wildlife puppets because they were so expressive and would be great for a puppet show. What stopped me was the question, "when the hell am I going to have time to put on a puppet show?"

I walked back the slightly longer way nearer the space needle. The space needle is easily the most distinct building in Seattle. It looks exactly like a space needle. Or a UFO on a launch post. Or that strange pattern on the side of the Frazier logo.

Seattle has an abundance of street people. They are certainly more visible than in other cities. But they are not threatening. In fact they seem entirely genial.

When nearly home, I was rewarded with an overly friendly decaf mocha from Tully's, another Seattle coffee chain. I swabbed it down with a sugar-rush apple thing. Not only were the staff super friendly, but even the young high dude who appeared at the door, waved and mouthed "hi, how ya doing?" to me. Once in, he asked a random question of the staff and called "leave her alone, dude" to someone on the phone as he left. Another hippy-cum-street person who left later said "hi" also to me as if he knew me. Maybe I have a double in Seattle living on the street. This would explain why I was acknowledged elaborately by at least one other person. It could also be explained by the fact that Seattle is the route into the US for heroin.

My next quest was to find a replacement power adaptor for Cath's laptop. Hers being sat on her desk back in Amsterdam. Here I will cut a long story short and simply say "nada." People in Seattle are very helpful. There are even people who are hired to stand on street corners and help you out with directions. So when someone tried to tell me where Barnes and Noble was, I gladly added my name to his list of helpees (which helps them be paid) and my country. As I told him was from London, he made me put this down as my country. It didn't matter that as he gave me two possible routes (or rowts) I got confused and failed to locate the shop.

That night we took another taxi to International Town (formerly Niptown, Chinkville and Oriental Express Freeway, according to the poster shop) and dined at the Shanghai Garden, I believe it was. It was very pleasant and the pepper squid had an unexpected kick to it.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Monday 2 June: Portland; Seattle, Washington – How to Walk

Another night where we slept from something like 10pm to 5:30 am. This sort of thing is only possible for us through jetlag and living with people who keep similar hours naturally, of their own volition. It meant it was easy to catch an 8:30 train.

American train carriers assume that their passengers have never stepped on a train before. In fact some of their instructions suggest their passengers have ever even dressed themselves. They explained several times how to walk on a train, how to get on and off and even said things like "If it is not your stop, please do not get off the train." A lot of this was done by a man with an overly dramatic voice of the type usually reserved for security announcements.

The train snaked its way through the countryside stopping at various places including the presumptuously-named Centralia. It's not quite clear what it as in the centre of. The bit the train station is in is a dump, but it can only be presumed a place with a name like Centralia has a nice bit. The train didn't stop at Kent, which looked nicer and had a much better name being where I was born and the name of the greatest Swedish band ever.

As is the common practice on so many forms of transport, headphones were available for those who were so bored they needed to watch the selected movie. The choices for these things tend towards family. It happens that watching these movies is actually improved by not having the sound as well. I watched and actively avoided the sound to something called Fools Gold with something called Mathew MacGonehew (?) in it.

After a few short hours, we arrived in Seattle and nabbed a taxi to our airport as we'd heard public transport in Seattle was not to be relied upon.

Seattle is the birthplace of Grunge. And Microsoft. Our hotel was far from Grunge, being a water-front 5-star hotel in which Catherine was attending a conference. I was being a conference husband. But also soaking up the information to be found there as a future employee of Catherine's growing empire. I think I'll be on the janitor and kitchen maintenance team, that way Catherine can force me to clean, tidy and wash dishes.

We dumped our bags and checked out the facilities. No trouser press, but an iron and board. We were offered a balcony and took it because you would wouldn't you. However we never once went out on it as (a) the weather was nearly always drizzly and (b) it was about the size of one chair, had we had a chair suitable to be taken out there. It would have felt cramped with both of us standing out there.

After this, we wandered around the famous Pike Market area. It's more grunge. It's a little bit hippy, a little bit earthy, and a little bit touristy. There are many craft stalls and stores. We checked out the belly dancing section in one. Catherine claims she would like to belly dance, if only she had a belly. It's also difficult as all of the outfits are made for women with chests that would be dangerous in a built-up area. We stopped in a popular poster and vintage magazine store. There were many posters from olden days, particularly wartime when it was fine to call the Japanese "Japs." There were posters from forgotten movies with titles something like "Revenge of the Creepies" and "They Returned From a Place Beyond the Known Frontier." There were also old magazines such as Life and Time from lives and times long since past. My favourite was a copy of Life with a picture of Rock Hudson in 1950s swimwear that stated "Hollywood's most handsome bachelor." You know I don't think he ever did marry.

Outside a small Starbucks a group of what appeared to be street people sang a spiritual a cappella style to much appreciation. It was very pleasing on the ears and made you think that maybe there is something in this old religion thing after all and that it's not true the Devil has the best music.

We had lunch in a middle-eastern café, so it told us, and had middle-eastern wraps, so they told us. American is the place to find the world's cuisine converted into wraps. After this we went luggage shopping for many, many hours. It was a long time to spend in a shop only to come away with a box on wheels. We followed this with a well deserved decaffeinated homochino. Well that's what I had. Catherine went back and looked in Macy's for more boxes on wheels.

Seattle features a lot of French restaurants. And more surprisingly, a lot of French written on the signs of such and similar shops. Perhaps because of their proximity to Canada. Or maybe Seattle was originally called Seattlé? (Ed: Actually Seattle was named after Chief Sealth a local, well, chief.)

That evening we took a taxi to a desolated area to the Vietnamese area. Saigon circa 1968 was less depressing than the particular area we arrived in. But around corners were several restaurants. We walked into one that intrigued us called the Tamarind Tree. It was a sort of nouveau Vietnamese mixed grill. The food was good, but more reinterpreted Vietnamese than the real deal we had been hoping for. But it was certainly busy and well designed if that's what you want from a restaurant.

Sunday 1 June: Portland, Oregon – Bridge Trouble

We had arrived under a blaze of sunshine that was still in evidence the following day. However, we were assured this was not typical Oregon weather and by the third day it was back to its usual wet and cloudy self. Some people began talk that we had been tokens of good fortune for the weather. Now it had turned bad again I hoped that they would not use this as an excuse to put us in a huge wicker manikin and burn it. But fortunately folks round here are not really like that.

For breakfast we went to a place called Old Wives' Tales and met some friends of our hosts. It's the kind of restaurant that caters especially for families with kids (although they do have kid-free rooms for the rest of us). We sat in the main area next to the kids playroom because our party had a small, engaging child with it (adopted from Ethiopia, birthplace of coffee). The speciality of the restaurant seemed to be scrambled eggs, which were done very well and with the wide range of optional extras you expect with American meals.

It was as our child was coming out of the playroom that another, much bigger kid pushed him over. Because he could. The mother of the big bully, horrified, immediately picked him up and tried to reason with him, but he seemed to be less regretful that pleased with the maternal attention. But our little feller wasn't hurt, just surprised and was soon comforted enough to go back to crayoning the chairs and laughing and funny faces. The only bad side to the restaurant was cunningly pre-deducting a tip, but leaving a gap for you to add another without realising the first had been taken.

After we said goodbye to the family (grand parents, mother and aforementioned littl'un) we headed over to the mother of our hostess who we visited briefly the day before. This was a longer stay and it was nice to hear stories behind some of the evocative pictures of times long ago. One in particular was of her whole family taken just before she headed off to Seattle at the early stages of WWII told a great story even without her narrative. It was the kind of picture that starts a movie.

Next stop was REI which has everything you could possibly want for the outdoor life. We went initially so that Cath could replace her sturdy water bottle that she had constantly praised since I'd known her. Apparently in her absence, toxic chemicals had been revealed in the construction and now there was a whole new variety with them. I looked at shoes.

We nipped back for a quick change and a quicker spot to eat because we had a date with a ship. The Willamette River was the seed from which Portland grew and a medium cruise liner makes regular trips and gives commentary to those hardy enough to stay on the top deck. Those not hardy enough, and large of pocket enough to have dinner on the lower deck, get to listen to a moonlighting pianist.

The first bit of excitement was that we had to go under the Hawthorne Bridge. This 1910 steel construction uses 19th Century over-engineering to lift up a whole section of the bridge, vertically using massive pulleys. It's quite impressive. It's named after the founder of a loony bin, I mean hospital for the mentally in need of treatment.

We passed idyllic dwellings by the water, mansions in the undergrowth and islands with 2000 beavers. Beavers, apparently, pair-bond and remain faithful. If the female should die, the remaining otter mourns. He stops looking after himself and lets his hair go to pot. For two weeks. Then he's back out on the waterfront whistling at any beaver beaver that goes his way. Our guide gave us lots of such information including which bird was the national bird of Portland. It was news to all of us that a city could have a national bird. I guess it's the same logic that only one country plays in the baseball "World Series." National Bird was of course a 1974 British sex comedy.

Along the way we passed several dragon boats. These are long rowing boats painted like dragons and were preparing for a dragon boat race which comes later in the Rose Festival proceedings. At the far reaches of the ride, the boat turned in a deep part of the river formed by an ancient volcano crater. We figured because of the Rose Festival and the extra people in town that the boat would be packed. In fact it was not very full at all, which was nice. At times we had the top deck to ourselves. Apart from the crew, that is. The crew featured the usual array of members: the bearded captain who always had a drink in his hand, the female pilot, the photographer (who takes your picture as you board and then sells you a copy later) and the souvenir shop clerk. Just like in the old days.

The real fun and games happened towards the end as we again approached the Hawthorne Bridge. We waited, waited some more, then started turning circles in the water. Eventually we heard the bridge was stuck. It wouldn't go up and the barriers wouldn't come up to allow the cars to cross again. After a lot more spinning, the ship pulled over to the side and we got off at the marina.

While Patrick raced off with one of the daughters, to take her to hand in a job application, Joyce, Catherine and I took the scenic route near the tall, sail ships in town for the festival (cover-charge), along side the kid-filled fun park (cover-charge) and through the closing Saturday arts market that opens on Sunday as well (cost: one skirt). Then we crossed the impressive two-level Steel Bridge with its complex, independent raising for the lower and upper decks.
Soon, on the other side of the river, we were met by Patrick. We walked through the homeless area (or free, improvised campsite, depending on your point of view) and picked up our car. After more great, home-cooked, vegetarian fare for dinner, Cath and I walked around the area. It's a great hilly, wooded suburban area and you look down the hill onto a wonderful foresty spread. Again we fell asleep quickly aided by jetlag and Cath being a little bit ill. We dreamt whilst Hollywood burned.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Saturday 31 May: Portland, Oregon – Falls and Roses

We woke up early and were treated to oatmeal. Yes treated. It was great. You know when you're getting old when your body starts craving healthy things. After that, we skipped out early for a long sojourn in Powell's bookshop The car park for Powell's is an adventure in itself. A steep, single-lane ramp for traffic arrives at the top to a sudden curve. Signs warn you to flash your lights and honk your horn before you get to the curve. Failure to do so could result in a nasty little crash right at the top of said steep curve. Dents and scratches along the wall testify to some badly-judged turns.

The area we passed through before had once been warehouses. But as with cities the world over, the former warehouse and dock districts – once the busiest areas, then later the most run-down and undesirable – have been revamped and turned into high-class dwellings and fancy restaurants. The unliveable becomes the most desirable.

We wandered for a while around the farmer's market: an area of crafts and healthy-eating stalls. And many had samples, and it's very easy to shamelessly pick bits from each stall, as long as you look like you might buy, and especially, as in our case, you do actually buy some things once in a while.

The area round the market was filled with churches. Now this isn't a revelation for a country that is pretty much filled with churches. But what was interesting was the variety. Not just in building design but in denomination. There were a few new churches oddly in the style of the older European churches. Some religions like bold and brash buildings, some prefer modest. The Korean Christian Church was a lot bigger than I would have thought such a church would need to be, and a lot more European in design than I would have expected. The 'Old Church' was of the old American wooden design. "Old" meaning dating from 1882. As Catherine pointed out, in Europe, this would be called the New Church.

Because it is important to be visible in a land of advertising, Americans often come up with some great names for shops and businesses, as well as coming up with some terrible puns. The doggy day-care centre called Virginia Woof tends towards the former.

As promised, Patrick brought us to the Rose Garden, a peaceful, well-arranged collection of rose bushes and other shrubbery and treery. In there we found the plaques with the names of each year's Rose Queen, picked as part of the Rose Festival that was actually occurring in the city as we were speaking. The blank space in the photo is for 2007. We were assuming the girl for 2007 will be added after she stops being queen next week, and has not been omitted due to scandal. We rode the free shuttle bus up to the Japanese garden, saw it had an entrance fee and as we were getting through the afternoon at a rate of knots anyway, we simply rode the free shuttle bus back down again.

After popping in briefly on Joyce's mother (Joyce is Cath's cousin somehow in case you're wondering), we headed on for Multnomah Falls. It's a very impressive shoot of water that falls out over a sheer cliff, bounces off rocks on the way down to crash onto the pool and then over another fall (or autumn as its called in England). It falls 620 feet and is the second-tallest year-round waterfall in the US, they say. Because of a breeze there was a fine spray of water coming off the waterfall. Not unpleasant at all. A path snakes its way up the hillside to the top of the waterfall and beyond and is rather popular with walkers. On the way up, there is another waterfall, much, much smaller. In any other location, we would have stopped and marvelled at the beauty of this wonderful natural phenomenon. But placed here, it was just, well, whatever.

Around Portland is a mountainous landscape. Nearby is Mount Hood, with its large white peak, if I remember correctly, the only mountain to be within a US city limits. Also nearby is Mount Saint Helens, which noticeably has no peak. Older readers might remember that this came off in 1980, when it unexpectedly erupted killing 57 varieties of people.

The Portland area is also full of Lewis and Clarke sites. Those of you who happened to read of our earlier trips to the US, will recall that at a couple of places there was talk of Messrs Lewis and Clarke, most notably Harpers Ferry. So no doubt you recall that these two plucky pioneers mapped out the fledgling United States by crossing it. Only recently have people bothered to point out that they didn't just do it alone, they had considerable help from real locals, most noticeably their guide: a young, heavily pregnant and later nursing girl.

We got half way up to the top of the waterfall before we had to head back. We had a date with 18 teen princesses. That's right. Originally Catherine and I had planned to go and see an impro show. But when we arrived we found that it coincided with the big parade that was part of the famous Portland Rose Festival. Voted the best festival in the world, no less. Not sure who by and for what reason, but we didn't argue with this. Added to the fact that one of the 18 high-school girls elected as the Rose Princesses was a cousin of Catherine's meant the event was unmissable.

We were invited (as select members of the family) to a reception in the Art Institute. Because of expected crowds in the centre of town, we parked some way away in a mall and got the Max (tram) to the area we wanted. After exploring the area of the Art Museum, we headed over to the Art Institute. There 18 girls of an impressionable age were assembled with friends and family. The girls were dressed in identical jeans, Princess T-shirts supplied by Ikea and tiaras. Because the photos of the princesses had been displayed on the front page of the local newspaper which we had perused, the girls were already familiar to us in a way that made me want to go and ask for their autographs. After general mingling, the girls lined up to perform their ditty. This was a dance routine followed by a line-up in which they introduced themselves, gave us some information about their educational plans and then advertised some aspect of the Rose Festival. It really gave you a feel for their personalities and helped you speculate about which one would be chosen and inaugurated as the Rose Queen next week. As Cath pointed out, being stuck with 18 teen princesses in a swimwear exhibit was another thing to cross off my to-do list.

After the reception, we rushed over to have probably the quickest Thai meal in history. Then it was time for the parade. We had to at least wait for the princess float which we already knew was 87th. The streets were lined several people thick, but as many were sitting, we could still see pretty well. I had never seen a live high-school marching band before that time. I hope never to see one again. I have had my fill. It seems every third item was a marching band. One of which seemed to be the longest marching band ever. It had front and rear cheerleaders and side water-feeders. It went on and on playing the music all marching bands play: Louie Louie and Louie Louie. Actually they played something else, but it all sounds the same played by a marching band.

A vast improvement on the marching band concept is syncopated drumming. This is a marching band of drummers who play many drums interweaved creating highly complex rhythms. It's loud and boisterous.

Where we were standing was the first bend of the parade. It was a narrow 90 degree turn on a route lined with people. Some of the huge trucks filled with waving people looked like they would barely get round the corner without crushing a few forelyers, but they always made it admirably.

Eventually entrant 87 arrived, a float adorned by 18 princesses. We waved and cheered, although our princess happened to be on the other side of the float. Which was fine as her mother was on the other side of the street.

Heading back, the Max was maxed out, packed to the gills with people. Reports of fights breaking out on earlier trams came to us, but ours was relatively calm with the worst danger a student who was in danger of puking.