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Thursday, December 27, 2012

"Commuting" to San Francisco

"There's no boat."

It's a sweaty mile-and-a-half run along the Embarcadero from the Golden Gate Ferry terminal to the Blue and Gold Fleet's dock. But when you've misread the schedule and the other company's last trip of the day is in fifteen minutes, you duck and weave through the crowds like Seabiscuit.

We know ferries. Twice a day, regular as the tide, my husband and walk down the gangway to join the cargo of commuters shipped across Puget Sound between our little island and Seattle. We understand slippery docks, crowding and "schedules" that can best be described like the horoscopes in the newspaper: "For entertainment purposes only."

So it seemed reasonable to spend a recent visit to San Francisco doing what came naturally: Commuting by boat from the suburbs to the city.

Sausalito is a friendly little community whose wedding-cake tiers of houses gaze coolly back at the rolls of fog that tumble through the Golden Gate to engulf San Francisco's towers. The town is served by two ferry lines, or you can cheat and ride the bus across the Golden Gate Bridge. With good timing, it's possible to take BART from San Francisco Airport to the Embarcadero, wheel your luggage a couple of blocks to the ferry terminal, hop on a boat across the bay, and walk to one of Sausalito's hotels, most of which are close to the dock.

"Home" for this trip was The Gables Inn, a cluster of wooden Victorian buildings hugging a hill. Our room was tiny and a bit dark, but homey, with a sublimely comfortable bed, incongruously huge flat-screen television and deep jetted tub. Our wing had a private entrance under a tangle of jasmine vines, opening to a quiet street lined with expensive clothing boutiques and knickknack shops.

The big city shimmered across the bay, but at first we were content to relax nearby. We hiked around Sausalito's spiraling streets, admiring the dazzling views and cantilevered mansions. We folded real-estate fliers into our pockets like lottery tickets. We strolled along the waterfront for miles in the springlike 70-degree November sun, feeling we had somehow cheated nature and skipped a season.

But eventually we had to go to the "work" of San Francisco sightseeing. So we downloaded the ferry schedules and hopped a late-morning Blue-and-Gold Line boat back to the Embarcadero.

Once in the city, we gave ourselves over to the usual tourist sights: We walked down Lombard Street, watching tourist minivans zigzag dead-slow among the hydrangeas. We hiked up Telegraph Hill and circled the Coit Tower's muscular Depression-era murals before crowding into the elevator with the wisecracking operator. At the top we squished camera-bag-to-backpack-to-fannypack in a hubbub of German, Italian, French, Chinese and Brooklyn to snap the usual tourist photos. We hiked down to North Beach and ate authentic Pittsburgh-style sausage sandwiches stuffed with French fries. We ambled down to Fisherman's Wharf, expecting only t-shirts and ice cream and human statues posing for quarters under squealing seagulls. Instead we were pleasantly surprised by a maritime museum with a collection of historic vessels from a square-rigger to a houseboat.

Generally we felt smug at our carlessness. "Imagine," I said, "all those poor souls paying to park!" Like an old hand I had done my due diligence and knew there was no ferry service on Thanksgiving Day. We stocked up on nonperishable delicacies in the Ferry Building's shops on Wednesday night.

Thanksgiving dinner was local nuts, fruit, cheese, bread and salami, balanced on a luggage stand and washed down with an excellent Napa Cabernet. Not a single underdone drumstick or dirty dish in sight.

But as we knew from our lives at home, the ferry giveth and the ferry taketh away. In addition to the sprint-inducing schedule mix-up, we had to contend with a dearth of late-night boats, making a leisurely dinner in San Francisco proper nearly impossible unless we were willing to spring for a cab across the bridge, which we weren't. Fortunately there was plenty to eat in Sausalito, and we agreed to save the urban fine-dining extravaganza for another visit.

This time we were content to gather at the city terminal each dusk. We melded in with the briefcase-bearing office workers and the kids in their "Mt Tamalpais High School Red-Tailed Hawks" backpacks. We crowded aboard the boat, plugged our smartphones into an empty outlet and browsed the Chronicle online while others ordered beer and Bloody Marys at the bar. A group ooh-ed and ahh-ed as we passed Alcatraz. Glancing up from his phone my husband nudged me and murmured "Tourists!"

Monday, October 22, 2012

Air Lines

Point a camera at the sky and leave the shutter open for a while. Delicate patterns will appear like figure skaters' tracks across a frozen pond. Parallel but distinct. Graceful sweeping turns and slashing straight lines. Staccato dots and solid bold streaks.

According to the National Air Transport Association, a quarter of a million people are airborne at any given time worldwide. It's easy to ignore the ceaseless comings and goings over our heads, but a pause to look reveals the metropolis of motion we've created in the sky. Miles above our heads, every hour of every day, there are families and business people, rich and poor, the hopeful and the disappointed. They're laughing, talking, watching movies, eating, drinking, arguing, embracing, texting, and sleeping, just like those in the cities beneath them.

The evening high-rise worker, busy populating a spreadsheet by the Caravaggio light of a laptop while the custodians bustle past the cubicles, may not notice the jetliner burning past the office window's square of sky. But 35,000 feet above, someone's doing the same, while the flight attendants collect the last of the headphones and plastic cups.

The airlines talk of interconnectedness, of stitching families and businesses closer, of tying the world together. A look into the night sky reveals how literal those notions have become. We cast a net across the world and pull it tight, trying to squeeze the planet down into something smaller and more manageable.

It's easy to decry this endless hurrying to and fro as merely evidence of a global obsession with being somewhere we're not. But I think it's about more than just getting from one dot on the map to the next. Though no one individual dwells in it for more than a a few hours at a time, humanity has built a home in the sky. We've colonized the clouds. Our jetliners, military planes and light aircraft bring commerce, government and recreation up from the world below. Our civilization races over our our heads now as surely as it stands at our feet.

And it's spectacular.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Sun to Seattle: It's Not You, It's Me.

It's the official: We've broken up.

In hindsight we should have seen it coming.

For weeks now things had been cooling off between us. Sure, the days were bright and blue. Every morning the mountains glowed pink, and every afternoon Puget Sound blossomed with sails. But we could tell there was trouble if we'd really bothered to look.

Each day you were away for a little longer. We kept finding brochures in the mail for Hawaii and Tahiti. If we asked you about it, your answer was always, "Look at those gorgeous dahlias I brought you!"

So we ignored the darkening mornings. We shivered and put on extra layers of cotton and linen, leaving the wool tied firmly in last May's dry-cleaning bags. We dodged the fattening spiders and wiped the dew off the windshield and picked blackberries after work by flashlight.

But today we woke up to find you gone. The bed's cold and the lovely naked sky has pulled on lumpy gray fleece. The furnace kicked in with a faint cough of dust and the cats burrowed further under the covers. The lawn furniture we used to enjoy together is rattling in a cold breeze that's callously flipping the pages of the gardening magazine we left outside last night. There's a rippling curtain of rain on the horizon.

It's over, without so much as a post-it note or a text message of goodbye.

We hastily fold the furniture, drag the potted lemon tree under the eaves and dig the extra blanket out of the linen closet. We look at the sky and mutter, "Sure, we'll give you space. When your phone doesn't ring, it'll be us here in Seattle. But you'll be back."

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Gimme Shelter: Lodging and dislodging on Long Island

Everything I knew about Long Island I'd learned from Billy Joel songs: Real-estate novelists dined in Italian restaurants and boys from the wrong side of the tracks longed for uptown girls. Never mind that my husband, who grew up there, seemed to fit nowhere within the Piano Man's oeuvre. I had all the information I required.

One day at the dawn of the new millennium Steve was suddenly seized by a desire to revisit his boyhood haunts. Since I'd already dragged him to all my life's key historic spots ("Look! There's the hospital in Portland where I was born!") I figured he was overdue to be indulged.

This being the pre-smartphone era, I dutifully booted up Expedia. The Northeast was sort of an amorphous muddle in my mind, the reverse of the famous New Yorker cartoon that showed the world petering out into China once you crossed the Hudson. Wasn't Boston just a suburb of New York City? Weren't all the towns embedded in a quaint matrix of New England countryside? Billy Joel notwithstanding, I pictured sunny rambles through verdant countryside dotted with white-spired villages. We'd stop for antiques and apple cider, share blueberry pie with taciturn but warm-hearted locals, and stumble upon a lovely old inn run by Bob Newhart.

Steve stopped me while the hard drive was still whirring. "We'll be there before Memorial Day," he said. "We don't need reservations. Let's be spontaneous."

Long Island in the flesh did indeed conjure up an old TV show, but not the Newhart variety. The Archie Bunker houses of Queens fled past our rental car's windows as Steve dodged and swore at a torrent of traffic. Suburbanization gradually increased as we drove east, and by midday we reached a shade-dappled town called Huntington.

After a pleasant afternoon with cousins we needed a place for the night. We wound from highway to parkway to throughway to turnpike, but nothing presented itself. A gas station attendant finally pointed us toward a blowsy two-storey structure in the middle of a vast parking lot.
If you squinted you might have gotten a vague suggestion of Colonial architecture from the brick trim and the white weathervane-crowned steeple tacked onto the roof. But if you didn't squint the overall impression was the structural equivalent of a small-town homecoming queen fallen on hard times after a couple of bum husbands, and bitter at getting laid off after the auto-parts store closed.

At reception a doughey young woman with auburn roots and glistening acne looked up from a copy of Glamour.

"A room? Everything's booked. No, I mean the whole area. Long Island's a popular place. Uh, I guess I could give you our bridal suite. It's all we have left. $300 per night." We dragged our luggage up to the second floor, suitcases banging on the worn wooden steps. Steve fumbled with the key.
Sniff, sniff.
"Do you smell smoke?" "It's nothing," my husband grunted as the key at last slid home and the door    swung open.

I am not one of those delicate sorts who swoons if someone lights a cigarette three blocks away. I grew up around smokers. My first summer job was in a late-1970s city engineering office so smogged by blue plumes coiling from the draftsmens' Kools that their loudest polyester shirts were nearly invisible on the far side of the room.
But the nicotine-saturated backdraft that poured out of the Bridal Suite would have felled Jean-Paul Sartre. The gouged, decades-old furniture, the peeling linoleum, the fly-carcass-speckled fluorescent light fixtures, all were tanned to various shades of ochre. R.J. Reynolds could have packaged and sold rolled-up swatches of the upholstery.
Without a word Steve grabbed our suitcases. We banged back down the stairs. Steve snatched back the credit card, piled me and the luggage back into the car and sped out of the parking lot in a hail of gravel.
By now it was getting dark on the Jericho Turnpike. Ahead, nearly obscured by the glare of oncoming headlights, a neon sign sputtered "Vacancy."
The quiet young woman behind the desk assured us that the motel was clean. "It used to belong to the state. Low-income housing. It was thoroughly renovated before the motel conversion."
We groped our way along a neat line of ancient bungalows illuminated by a single streetlight. Finding our unit, we opened the door. An acute stab of bleach and fluorescent lighting flashed out. Everything was indeed spotless, scrubbed raw as if by meth-addled Furies on work release. "It'll do," we said to each other, lobbing the suitcases onto a creaking twin bed. I fell asleep imagine the parkway's roar as crashing ocean surf.
Things seemed to improve the next morning. The tide of strip malls receded, revealing shoals of potato fields and islands of flowering dogwoods. Porsches and Mercedes crowded out Saturns and Subarus on the highway. We detoured into F. Scott Fitzgerald country along the North Shore, passing old mansions with white colonnades and new ones with towering arched entryways. We went for a short walk in a nature preserve filled with singing birds. We spent twenty minutes frantically brushing off the ticks we found creeping up our clothes.
As afternoon settled in we headed for the Hamptons. The week before the Memorial Day start of "the season" found the fabled enclave nearly deserted. We wandered past cypress battlements hiding mansions from commoners' gaze. Landscaping trucks rumbled by on otherwise deserted streets. We peered into the windows of closed shops, our reflections blurred by the cashmere and chintz and horsey wealth arrayed inside.
Now it was time to find another night's accommodation. "Riverhead," said Steve. "It's near here, but not snooty." We barreled back up the turnpike while darkness spread across the sky.
Just off an exit ramp a cheery chain motel beckoned. We cruised confidently into the driveway and up to reception. "I'm sorry," said the clerk. "We're completely booked. Long Island's really popular." "Is there anyplace else nearby?" I asked. The clerk winced. "There is," he said, "but I wouldn't go there."
"He just doesn't want to give his competition any credit," I said to Steve as we walked back to the car. "I'm sure it's fine."
The Greenwood Inn was set back from a secondary road in a dark grove of trees. A few lamps glowed feebly. We parked in the lightless gravel lot. A group of men lurked in a particularly dark corner. I was suddenly conscious of how the loudly the remote's chirp cut through the still air.
The reception office was suffused with a powerful smell of cooking: An oily, vaguely chickenish aroma with no obvious source. Intent on a portable television under the desk, a balding clerk in a dirty suit barely acknowledged us. "Sure," he grunted. "I'll give you our best room." In a scene straight from an old movie he took a metal key with a plastic-lozenge fob off a hook behind him. Scribbling our credit-card information on a pad, he pointed to the second storey. "Watch the stairs."
Under the lurkers' watchful gaze we unloaded our luggage and dragged it up a flight of splintered steps. The door creaked open to a room lit by a single overhead fixture. Somehow the chicken-cooking smell had intensified into the space, imbuing the air with an almost tangible greasiness. The carpet, which might have been red in some earlier decade, was a fantastic landscape of cigarette-burn craters, slashed valleys and threadbare basins. The bedsheets were merely the thinnest suggestion of tissue tucked under stained pillows. The blanket appeared to have been salvaged from the dumpster behind a medium-security prison. The floor yielded in places, spongy with dry rot. I flicked the bathroom light switch and got a lightning zap but no other illumination.
It was nearly midnight. Manhattan was a hundred miles away. We stared at each other. "Let's do this thing," said Steve. "Years from now we'll laugh about it."
Neither of us closed our eyes all night. We lay fully clothed on the bed as if our jeans and sweaters would somehow protect us from bugs and microbes. We breathed the chickeny air. We listened, tense and ready to spring into action, to the gravel crunching with nightlong comings and goings. Were those footsteps on the stairs? Was that a key scraping in the lock?
At last dawn filtered through the gray windows. We grabbed our suitcases and scrambled unshowered down the stairs. Relieved to find the rental car in one piece, we sped out of the parking lot and back onto the modern familiarity of the Long Island Expressway.
On the plane home we rubbed our sleepless sandpaper eyes and scratched at imagined bugs. The other passengers kept a respectful distance. Long Island fell away from the plane window. It was lovely; miles of forests and fields and sandy shores. Not a motel to be seen.
It's years later now, and Steve was right. I do laugh at the experience. I learned that even Billy Joel can't sum up a place in song. And that spontaneity is vastly overrated.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Beware! Mars Not at All Like the Brochure

To: TripAdvisor
From: Mars Curiosity

Based on glowing reviews posted earlier by members "Spirit" and "Opportunity" I booked a visit to Mars. "Spectacular!" they wrote. "Magnificent!" "Red."  They praised the off-roading opportunities, the lack of crowds and the long dry season. "Never a wait for a tee time," they said. "And no bugs!"

Big mistake. I'm here here to tell you Mars is not as advertised.

First, there was the promised "pillow menu" at arrival that "Spirit" raved about so effusively. Never materialized. Instead I was left dangling for ages when I got here, hanging around while I waited for someone to acknowledge my presence.

Second, I don't know where "Opportunity" found that "party atmosphere," but it's nowhere near me. This place is totally dead from an activities standpoint. I can't even surf the Internet; the wi-fi's so abysmally slow that I haven't been able to download a single cat picture.

Third, while I like to think of myself as an unfussy sort of traveler I cannot ignore the deplorable standards set by housekeeping. Dust everywhere. I've called the front desk about it repeatedly, but nothing's been done. There's no way I'm leaving a tip.

Speaking of the front desk, I've never encountered one so rude. They have the unmitigated gall to ask ME to do things for THEM! "Look around." "Take pictures." "Send us an email." Honestly, you'd think they'd never been here! Phoned-in service like that is absolutely unacceptable in a five-star resort.

But the last straw is the swim-up bar. Evidently it's been closed for eons.

All in all, cannot recommend.

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

The Four Seasons: Seattle's Cool

Here in Seattle we like cool.  Not the finger-snapping, head-bobbing, dark-sunglasses kind. The contemplative gray weather, subdued clothing and any-car-color-but-red kind.  We believe in elegance over flash, doing over bragging, and pocket protectors over gold chains.  A special occasion calls for a microbrew by the fire with friends on a rainy night, not Cristal on a sundrenched Malibu cliff with helicopters clattering overhead.

Which is why the Four Seasons Seattle is perfect.  It's everything a celebration-minded local could want, and everthing a luxury-minded tourist needs for a glimpse into our character.

Rising in a discreet block of stone and glass at the south end of the Pike Place Market, the Four Seasons does not dominate Seattle's skyline. Instead its shape echoes that of the Seattle Art Museum directly across the street. The hotel's location makes it possible to step directly out of the foyer to two of Seattle's major attractions.

That foyer pays homage to the location - housing a museum-worthy collection of works by promininent Northwest artists. But in keeping with Seattle style, the art never calls attention to itself.  You'll notice it when you look for it. Maybe while you're sitting by the sleek modern gas fireplace or headed to the hotel's ART Restaurant for dinner. There, behind a ceiling-high screen of stored Northwest wines a mix of locals and hotel guests are silhoutted against the shimmering bay. Servers glide back and forth lofting plates of Pike Place Market delicacies transformed into colorful arrangements like culinary versions of the bouquets sold by the market's flower vendors.

For our first visit to a Four Seasons hotel, my husband and I stayed in the least-expensive room we could book. Even so we found the level of luxury bordering on alarming. Twice-daily service, a pre-filled ice bucket and a view of ferries and freighters sliding across a section of Elliott Bay were some of the surprises. Also remarkable for a luxury hotel was the complimentary wi-fi. 

Best of all was the bathroom - a palace of warm brown marble with a separate room for every purpose.  Between the dual-headed shower and the bathtub big enough for snorkeling I would have begun to look like a Shar Pei puppy if I had remained much longer.

Not unexpectedly there was no in-room coffeemaker. We briefly toyed with the idea of pulling on jeans and sweaters to walk to the Market, but decided that we hadn't distilled an eternity of long work hours and late meetings into a night at the Four Seasons to do what we could do any other day.  So we called room service. The coffee setup arrived to the minute of  when it was promised, and another staffer arrived later unbidden to whisk away the empty dishes. 

For a luxury visit to Seattle it would be hard to top the Four Seasons.While the rest of the country broils, the Four Seasons is as cool and collected as a Seattle summer.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Nickeled and Dimed

On July 18 the New York Times ran an article on the pros and cons of "cafeteria" pricing for coach airfares. You know, those beguiling palm-fringed ads for cheap flights that morph, by the time you've "chosen" to pay for "extras" like checked (or in some cases carry-on) baggage, water and toilet paper, into less-alluring deals.

This fee structure has been lauded for giving customers the freedom to choose only those services for which they want to pay. It's hard to fault that argument, and perhaps I'm just revealing myself to be a dinosaur (maybe pterodactyl is a better metaphor) by my struggle to abandon the notion that little comforts and amenities like pillows, blankets and luggage transport are as inherent and non-negotiable a part of the flying experience as jet fuel and landing gear.

I now imagine Michael O'Leary, CEO of the legendarily "no-frills" Ryanair, thinking "Hmmm, jet fuel. Perhaps the flight attendants should pass the hat up and down the aisles a few times before takeoff. If enough passengers kick in, the pilot will fire up BOTH engines!"

But I digress.

The Times article noted that in a recent poll of air travelers 16 percent of respondents said they would pay extra to be first off the plane.

I'd pay extra to be first off the bus, or first in line at the discount lingerie bin at the start of Nordstrom's half-yearly sale, but that doesn't mean it's right. The problem with the airlines' ever-growing list of fee-based "amenities" is that they further separate the "haves" from the "have-nots."

Of course air travel itself is hardly one of life's necessities, and the world has far more pressing problems than whether Delta should charge for blankets. Airlines, like ocean liners, have a long and glorious tradition of charging extra for services. It's always been possible to pay double or triple the coach fare for the privilege of turning left when boarding the plane, to swill Champagne in an airborne BarcaLounger while the masses behind the curtain jostle for the armrests.

But the coach experience used to shared equally by all. The thrifty business traveler, the young family and the backpacking student had the same chances at a window or aisle seat, overhead bin space, exit-row legroom and boarding priority. Some flights you won,some you lost. But everyone was in the same boat, or plane.

Today, with the opportunity to buy your way ahead of fellow slightly-less-flush coach passengers, the creeping class-stratification of American life is reaching into Economy. Travel, even its vicissitudes, should be something that brings people together. An airfare policy encouraging cash competition for basic amenities at the expense of one's seatmate, seems like abandonment of a fundamental business commitment to provide a quality experience for all customers.

Now if you'll excuse me, I'm going to spread my leathery wings and turn my long, pointed head back home.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Rendezvous With a Shadow

Hidden under a thick pack ice of clouds for much of the year, the Pacific Northwest might not seem the ideal place for amateur astronomy. Weeks can pass without a break in the roiling mass of gray. But such conditions breed a certain combination of patience and optimism ideal for one particular aspect of the science: Eclipse-chasing.

A map of impending solar eclipses shows curving brushstrokes across the earth's surface:

These lines mark the path traced by the pinpoint tip of the moon's shadow, sweeping along the ground as the planet rotates.

If the sun, moon and earth had perfectly flat, circular orbits like CDs lying on a cosmic coffee table we'd have a total solar eclipse at the earth's equator every new moon and a total lunar eclipse every full moon. But contrary to the neat diagrams I studied in the World Book Encyclopedia when I was a kid, the orbits of all the planets and moons in the solar system are elliptical, and tipped at angles like a Calder mobile. (Also, protons and electrons are not, I've since learned, little spheres with pluses and minuses stamped on them as they were depicted in the Encyclopedia. But I still can't help thinking of them that way). The upshot of of all this cosmic complexity is that unless you are willing to stand very still in the same spot for about 400 years, you must travel if you want to see a solar eclipse.

But even getting to the right place at the right time is no guarantee. As any Northwesterner can attest, the weather can ruin the most carefully-laid plans. Imagine waiting months or years and traveling thousands of miles, only to have the appointed time come and go with the entire event hidden from view. It takes a certain strength of both spirit and wallet to keep trying, especially when all you have to show for the experience is photos. Unlike the big game hunter's house with its walls of glassy-eyed animal heads, the eclipse-chaser's home and hard drive are filled with Eye of Sauron-like images of black centers surrounded with flaming rays.

photo: Luc Viatour

Each is equally important to the stalker who bagged it, although in the case of the eclipse-chaser no animals lost any major body parts.

Determining how heroic an effort to make to watch a solar eclipse involves an equation of location congeniality (Honolulu or Mogadishu?), likihood of cooperative weather (San Diego in August, or London in February?) and practicality (Orlando or Easter Island?). Nature supplies an additional factor: Is the eclipse "total" or "annular?"

Because the moon's orbit isn't circular, its distance from earth varies slightly. The difference is not usually noticeable, but it creates two kinds of solar eclipses. When the moon is close to to earth at eclipse time it looms large enough in the sky to completely cover the sun's disk, creating the famous spectacle of a visible corona laced with raging fountains of fiery prominences.

When the moon is further away, it's small enough in the sky to allow a rind of the sun to show around its edges. This "annular" type of solar eclipse is much less of a spectacle, because if even a smidgen of the sun's disk is visible it's so bright that it completely overwhelms the corona.

Totality is the white-tie state dinner of celestial happenings, drawing important scientists, committed amateurs with imposing equipment, and vain celebrities in Learjets. Annularity is more of a local backyard barbecue; a few friends gathered around their telescopes for burgers and beer.

On May 20 of this year one of the brush lines on the map crossed through a swath of countryside in southern Oregon, 500 miles from my home. It was an annular affair, beneath the notice of the elite of the eclipse-chasing world, but worth a day's drive to me.

I needed a long head start on the moon's shadow, since it was traveling approximately ten times as fast as I was. The rain was unrelenting when I left, but I was trusting a forecast that claimed better weather awaited in Ashland. By noon, while I was on Interstate 5 south of Portland, jockeying for position through heavy traffic and clouds of semi-truck spray, the shadow hit the ground in Japan. Observers in Tokyo snapped pictures of the ghostly ring over their city's skies as the shadow began to slice across the Pacific at a thousand miles per hour.

An hour later, as the shadow swung over the Aleutian Islands and starting its turn south toward Oregon, the clouds began to break up and the air warmed. I accelerated over the final stretches of freeway, past columns of circling hawks teetering upwards on the bubbles of almost visibly hot air mushrooming from the lion-colored hills.

Sweating and glancing at my watch, I roared off at the Ashland exit and sped though town to the science museum where Twitter had promised the local astronomy club had set up public viewing stations.

Sure enough the parking lot was filling rapidly with parents who lofted their children onto their shoulders and or held their tugging hands. A line snaked into the museum building for free solar-viewing glasses.

One of the advantages of a solar eclipse is that it is easily seen via projection from a telescope onto a screen. So I had the good fortune to be able to crowd with the children around one projected image after another, watching the spectacle progress.

The shadow duly arrived about a half hour after I did, and the moon began to cross the face of the sun.

The bite got slowly bigger, as wisps of cloud drifted in front of the spectacle.

Soon the sun was nearly gone. The air cooled noticeably, and birds began to sing as though it was dusk.

Finally, the "ends" of the "crescent sun" joined into a ring.

People of all ages crowded around. I realized this was the first "Social Media" eclipse, live-tweeted around the world.

But plenty of people were just as happy to enjoy the spectacle in a more time-honored way:

The next solar eclipse in the Northwest will be the Big Event, totality in 2017. I hope to be there.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Bali Dining - Fire and Spice

Rice terraces, Ubud

 Indonesia’s thousand-mile string of islands arcs across the globe like a sword slung from the earth’s equator.   Near the bottom of the curve, at the confluence of the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea, sits Bali.  A Hindu island in a Moslem archipelago, Bali has been washed for centuries by waves of cultures from China, Southeast Asia, and India. In the 1500s the Portuguese and Dutch arrived, the latter ruling Bali and the rest of Indonesia until World War II.  And in the age of the jetliner came visitors and expats from Europe, North America and Australia.

All of these influences can be seen in today’s Balinese cuisine. Curry from South Asia, cassava and chiles brought by the Dutch and Portuguese from their South American colonies, snake bean and bok choy cabbage from China, and French and Italian dishes from the modern global village.

Traditional Balinese cuisine is based on rice harvested from the luminous green staircase terraces that dot the island.  Flocks of brown ducks waddle through the paddies, eating insect pests and fertilizing the fields until they wind up on the table.  Lacking the Moslem prohibition against pork, the Balinese raise the art of roast pig to perfection.  Local people favor small, simple roadside restaurants called warung.

Many visitors stay in large international hotels such as the Intercontinental on Jimbaran Bay. In an effort to make guests from everywhere in the world feel welcome, this hotel’s restaurants offer a staggering array of cuisine, from Italian to Japanese.  The breakfast buffet in particular is a world on a steam table.  I bypassed fragrant heaps fried eggs, sausage and warm pastries to try my first Japanese-style cold-noodle-and pickle breakfast when we arrived on the island.  But I was also introduced to Indonesian specialties like bubur injin, a tapioca-like mixture of charcoal-black rice and palm sugar.  At another hotel, the Oberoi, we dined on glistening fresh sushi and French chocolates.  Both were first-rate, but the Balinese Chardonnay bore a remarkable resemblance to Pine-Sol, grapes being one of the few fruits that fail to thrive in Bali’s tropical climate.  Much better were the platters of local snakefruit.  Its scaly skin feels exactly like that of a garter snake caught by a child, but its crunchy sweet pulp is distilled essence of equatorial sun.

Restaurant at the Bali Oberoi, Seminyak
We soon grew anxious to move beyond the hotel scene and eat in a real Balinese warung. One of the most famous is Ubud’s Ibu Oka, where locals and visitors start lining up early outside the old wooden hall for the 11:00 AM opening.  Inside, staff are slathering the final coconut-milk bastings on four suckling pigs that have been stuffed with spices and roasting on spits since four in the morning.  Once the doors open the throng pushes inside and crowds up to the battered teak tables. The staff take shouted orders and bring heaping plates of steamed rice and slabs of butter-soft meat, each topped with a tile of roasted pork skin lacquered to a deep cinnabar color and shattering like porcine peanut brittle.

Warung Ibu Oka, Ubud
But our best experience of Balinese dining was the simplest of all. Just down the beach from the Intercontinental’s sleek restaurants is a row of ramshackle fish warung. Every afternoon a savory aroma of coconut-husk smoke drifted through the frangipani trees surrounding the hotel’s swim-up bar.  We resisted temptation for a few days, put off by the whizzing traffic on the road to these restaurants and the noisy aggressive touts accosting any potential customer who made eye contact.  But eventually we succumbed, picking one of the warung at random.  For the equivalent of $15 total, we were escorted to a rickety candlelit table in the sand just above the quietly lapping waves of the Indian Ocean.  The waiter brought platters of freshly-caught grilled fish, heaps of rice, and frosty mugs of beer.  Local children laughed and darted between the tables, touts waved at tourists down the beach, and the Southern Hemisphere stars came out. We dug our toes into the warm sand, sipped our beer, and soaked up a truly Balinese experience.
View toward seafood warung from Bali Intercontinental

Monday, April 16, 2012

Moving Through Hong Kong

In the 1960 movie “The World of Suzie Wong,” William Holden approaches Hong Kong on a scenic Star Ferry ride across sampan-littered Victoria Harbor.   Fifty years later my husband and I were sealed inside a gleaming, nearly-deserted bullet train whose windows revealed only black tunnel walls racing by.  Our progress from Chap Lap Kok airport to Central Station was marked by the progressive illumination of an arc of  blue lights on an electronic signboard. The only sound came from a flat-panel screen displaying stock reports and gold-future prices with narration alternating between Cantonese, English and Russian.

With its jumble islands, waterways and mountains Hong Kong can be challenging to navigate. Fortunately there are a wide variety of public transportation options, and my husband and I made good use of almost every one of them during a week in and around the city.  We had read prior to our trip about the “Octopus Card” pass, valid on eight types of public transportation (hence the name; eight also happens to be a lucky number in Chinese culture) and we planned to pick on up at our first opportunity.

We stepped out of downtown Hong Kong’s Central Station into the hot mist of a drizzly subtropical night. An attendant escorted us to the head of a long line of waiting taxis and piled our luggage into the trunk.  Our driver glanced at my crumpled Expedia hotel reservation printout and sped off through the slick streets. 

Bleary from a 14-hour flight from Vancouver, BC we gazed out of the cab’s rain-spotted windows at our first glimpse of Asia.  I had read plenty about the mighty forest of neon-lit skyscrapers that comprises this city of seven million, but nothing could compare to seeing it for the first time with my own eyes.  As the cab dodged and wove on the “wrong” side of streets that since the 1950s had never known darkness, the dazzling kaleidoscope made me feel much more than a day away from home.

Our hotel, the Lanson Place, was located in the Causeway Bay district.  Central enough to be neon-y and skyscraper-y and unmistakably Hong Kong, the neighborhood is nevertheless far enough from some of the major tourist sights to necessitate public transportation. 

The next morning we made our way through twisting streets jammed with underwear markets, sidewalk displays of whole crabs wrapped in banana leaves, backpack-toting kids in school uniforms and business people in sharply-cut suits.  After getting lost several times (“turn right at the Starbucks” isn’t good advice when there are two of them within three blocks of your hotel) we finally made it to the subway station.  Inside, we found Octopus card machines with English instructions.  You insert money (cash or credit card) in the amount you want, and out pops the card.  From then on, you just tap or swipe it at a reader for any form of transport.  A display will shows the amount remaining.  To add more money, just insert the card in a vending machine and repeat the process used to purchase it.

The MTR, Hong Kong’s immaculate, air-conditioned subway system, gets crowded at rush hour with commuters (including a surprising number of Westerners) reading the South China Morning Post on their iphones on their way to banking jobs.  Most of the stations are located in immense, shiny multistory shopping malls filled with luxury goods like Ralph Lauren, Prada and Gucci.  We enjoyed the window shopping and air conditioning, but after a while the sense of being hermetically sealed from the outdoors became too much and we ventured back out onto the streets.

Central Hong Kong is a maze of skybridges and overpasses, a sort of concrete Habitrail lined with potted bougainvillea.  It was confusing at first but there are small signs in English and we quickly found our way around. 

Our favorite neighborhood was the Mid Levels, a steep warren of streets crisscrossed by escalators and packed with tiny restaurants and shops.  We wandered from skybridge to escalator to stairs and back again, scaling a cliff face of wine bars, pubs, dressmakers and noodle shops.  Old buildings moldered away behind the neon, with banyan tree roots cracking through the pavement. One surprise was the Sunday takeover of the skybridges by thousands of Indonesian housekeepers. Sitting on pieces of cardboard spread on the walkways, they whiled away their afternoon off in large groups chatting, drinking tea and combing each others’ long black hair. 

One morning we decided to try one of the historic double-decker trams we had been watching from our hotel window far above. Tapping our Octopus cards at the driver’s station we climbed a narrow strairway to the upper deck.  With the decades-old signs sweeping by at eye level we could see that the neon tubes had been replaced by rows of LEDs. The bus lurched and swayed, making our ride in the wooden crow’s nest less than comfortable.

We postponed our trip up Victoria Peak for several days while we waited for Hong Kong’s notoriously hazy skies to clear. On the day the South China Morning Post finally declared the weather would cooperate, we joined crowds for the rattling Peak Tram ride up the vertiginous slope.  Banana leaves slapped the windows as the funicular creaked higher and higher. The skyscrapers disappeared into the still-swirling mist while the summit remained out of sight even as we reached the station.

The tram’s terminus was, unsurprisingly, a sleek shopping mall.  I take a back seat to no one as a shopper, but on this occasion nature had more allure than Armani and we opted instead for the Peak Trail. This paved, level path circles the top of the mountain through a subtropical jungle of ferns, vines and towering ficus trees.  Butterflies and jewel-toned dragonflies wafted by in the breeze.  The clouds parted as scheduled to reveal an undulating vista of white skyscrapers bristling between green forest and blue sea, with the gray, still misty mountains of mainland China receding into the distance.  Huge hawks skimmed between the buildings and swooped down to snatch fish from the bustling bay.  Placards every few hundred yards helpfully identified birds, trees and insects and reminded visitors that “It is an offense to pick the fruit.”  In the clearing distance the South China Sea was dotted with freighters waiting to enter the harbor.

Enticed by the sea view, the next day we boarded a ferry for the peaceful, car-free island of Lamma.  Our Octopus cards bought us a roughly hourlong scenic cruise through a warm sea churned by thickets of sampans, barges and high-speed catamarans loaded with Macau-bound gamblers.  Fleets of laughing schoolchildren darted about the deck while tourists snapped photos of receding cityscape.

Near the end of our trip we boarded a Star Ferry for the trip back across Victoria Harbor after an evening in Kowloon. By then we’d learned the locals’ trick of simply holding our wallets up to the reader, which could scan our Octopus cards through the leather.  Imagining William Holden and Nancy Kwan sitting on the same battered wooden bench half a century ago, I smiled at the thought of how much, and yet how little, Hong Kong had changed.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

On the Aventine

There are oranges outside my window.

And yellows and golds. And cypresses and date palms.

Even the deepest nine-hour jet lag yields to the tinkling sounds of tiny birds and a shaft of spring sunlight falling across open luggage and scattered clothes.
Waking up after a night's journey halfway around the world can be disorienting. But to open your eyes in a room in the Hotel San Anselmo is to know you're in Rome.

Near the crest of the Aventine Hill, the San Anselmo is set in a peaceful neighborhood of quiet palazzos, elegant apartments and ancient churches. Down the street are parks with sweeping views of the Eternal City's domes, spires and jagged ruins.

The hotel's decor is a playful modern nod to the city's Baroque heritage, with striped canopies over the windows and inlaid marble bathroom floors. A blast from the dual-head shower followed by a warm towel from the heated racks is steadying enough for a trip down to the airy, orchid-filled breakfast room for the buffet of hot and cold items, included in the hotel's rates. The San Anselmo often hosts managers and consultants with business in the international agencies headquartered in Rome. The morning tables are occupied by serious-looking professionals logged in to the hotel's complimentary wi-fi, flicking intently away at smartphone screens.

There is no restaurant, but the barman is always happy to whip up a toasted panino and pour a glass of prosecco for you to enjoy in an overstuffed chair in the lounge. Or if you'd rather sit on the terrace with a cappucino while reading La Repubblica under the grapevines, you have only to ask.

Service at the San Anselmo is flawless. The staff are pleasant and efficient and graciously see to it that guests' needs are met. From a 3:00 AM wake-up to numerous phone calls and considerable time wrangling with an airline when I mistakenly thought I had left a pair of glasses on the plane, nothing was ever a problem.

And who needs a hotel restaurant when you are a few blocks' walk down a curving cobblestoned street from some of Rome's best dining? At the foot of the Aventine Hill, across the jumbled traffic of the Via Marmorata, lies the Testaccio neighborhood. Historically the site of the city's butchers, it's still the place to go to sample Rome's traditional snout-to-tail cuisine.

Testaccio is also home to the famous Volpetti deli, a jewelry shop of the finest delicacies the Italian peninsula can provide, from meats and cheeses to pastas, wines, and a densely sweet, espresso-colored balsamic vinegar the clerks will insist you taste.

Next to the deli is Volpetti Piu, a tavola calda where servers dish up ample helpings of roast chicken, octopus salad, stuffed zuccini blossoms and rice balls for patrons in a plain, fluorescent-lit space. Tourists and Roman families crowd the tables, sipping hearty house wine and discussing the day's events between forkfuls of steaming fresh lasagne and stuffed tomatoes.

The Aventine Hill is only a Metro stop or two from Rome's most iconic tourist sights. But after a day of noise, crowds, fake gladiators outside the Colosseum, spilled gelato and cultural overload, there's no more peaceful place to retire. Climb wearily out of the Piramide metro stop. Walk past the ancient Aurelian Walls and the pyramid-shaped tomb of imperial official Caius Cestus (like you, a tourist, who had his burial place modeled on those of the Pharaohs after a visit to Egypt). Head up the cobbled street, past the giggling schoolchildren and the yellow mimosa branches trailing over the stone walls. Wander on to the crest of the hill, past the discreet polished brass placard marking the Egyptian Embassy to the Holy See. Across the street is a plain wall, with a few tourists standing around, their black-leather-jacket-clad taxi drivers chatting near their idling vehicles waiting a few yards down the street. Approach the ancient door to see what the other visitors are bending down to view. The door, perpetually locked, has a keyhole that perfectly frames a view of Saint Peter's dome hovering serenely over the gardens of the Knights of Malta.

The other tourists get back into their taxis, leaving the neighborhood to silence and the singing birds. But you'll be lucky enough to walk a block back to the San Anselmo.

Hotel San Anselmo
Piazza San Anselmo 2
00153 Rome, Italy

Room with terrace, Hotel San Anselmo.

Bathroom, Hotel San Anselmo

Breakfast Room, Hotel San Anselmo

Outdoor Lounge, Hotel San Anselmo

Park with a View of Rome, Aventine Hill

Volpetti Piu

Keyhole view, Palace of the Knights of Malta, Aventine Hill (Wikipedia, all other photos by author.


Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Business Time

For the March edition of "Across the Cafe Table, asked contributors to describe exceptionally good or bad airline experiences.

When you're sealed into an aluminum tube with a few hundred assorted strangers, then hurled through the air for half a day and a night, you look for what creature comforts you can find.

So we arrived at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport five hours before our flight to London. We dressed "respectfully" and wore our best "We're great passengers and will be lovely to the flight attendants" smiles. All in the hope of persuading the British Airways gods to switch our assigned seats in the middle of the plane to my favorite spot in the last row.

Scoff all you want, but due to the 747's tapering fuselage the row in the plane's posterior consists of only two seats rather than the usual three. Plus there are opportunities to get up, stand and stretch while you peer through the emergency exit's porthole at the Greenland landscape creeping by seven miles below your feet. These amenities more than make up for the pungent aroma of Eau de Lavatory suffusing the space.

Sea-Tac is not Heathrow. No surging, 24/7 mobs of dashiki- and sari-clad passengers racing down the corridors to catch the next flight to Jakarta or Jo'burg. Here in my quiet corner of the world it's intermittent queues of the fleece-ed and fanny-packed headed for Disneyland or Dulles. Between spikes in activity there are long stretches of fluorescent-lit quiet.

It was during one of those peaceful intervals that I marched up to the BA counter, drew myself up to my full five-foot-two, cleared my throat like a seasoned world traveler, and asked if we could move from our assigned seats in the middle of the plane to the back row.

"I'll do better than that," said the bored-looking agent, snatching our tickets out of our hands. While he clicked away on a computer whose screen I couldn't see, I wondered what could possibly be better than the last row. A cone of silence banning crying babies and garrulous fellow passengers? A lifetime supply of British Airways socks? Free drinks?

The agent handed us new boarding passes, then stepped aside. I studied the slips of paper but couldn't see anything distinctive about them other than a possible error in our seat numbers. "That agent clearly screwed up" I said, handing the passes to my husband. The son of a Pan Am flight engineer, he's my guiding light in all matters aeronautic. "I'm going to ask him to reprint these," I said to Steve. Instead of nodding, my better half picked up our passports, grabbed my elbow and hustled me away. "It's business class!" he whispered into my ear. "Act casual and head for the gate!"

Business Class! The mythical land behind the curtain! For reasons known only to himself, the gate agent had granted us admission to the Oz in the front of the plane.

To turn left when boarding a plane is to travel back in time. To enter the old photos in saturated colors, with smiling flight attendants carving slices of prime rib for smartly-dressed, delighted-looking customers. To relax in comfortable seats. To have fine food, china and wine in the jet stream. It's what air travel was when I was an excited child dressed in my Sunday best and clutching my mother's gloved hand as we boarded an Air France 707 for my first trip to Europe.

But Business Class is also represents a less fortunate aspect of the past.
In 1950 a Pan Am round trip flight between New York and Frankfurt was $745. That's equivalent to approximately $5000 in today's money, a fairly typical modern Business Class airfare. The front of the plane is a throwback to a time when flying was only for the privileged few.

And now, thanks to a capricious agent, Steve and I were among them. I did my best to act nonchalant, graciously accepting the Champagne from what appeared to be our personal flight attendant and settling in to a "seat" that seemed more like one of those Japanese capsule hotels. We had plenty of storage, personal entertainment systems, soft bedding, and of course seats that slid at the touch of a button into any position from "bolt upright" to "Eames Recliner" to "fainting couch" to "flat bed."

Then there was the food. After selecting from an array of wines, we had the cheese course, the steak, the fresh salad, more wine, the pastries, the truffles and a nightcap. Hoping the "real" Business Class passengers wouldn't notice, I stuffed the menu into my carryon bag as a souvenir, behind the ziplocks of granola and gummi worms I had brought in anticipation of a more ordinary flight.

Did I sleep? Not a wink. Determined to savor every morsel and moment, every proffered hot towel and glass of fresh-squeezed orange juice, I undoubtedly arrived in London more tired (and with more indigestion) than most of the economy-class passengers.

The experience ruined me forever, of course. Like an opium addict "chasing the dragon" I have scrimped and saved for the opportunity to fly in the front of the plane another time or two.

Some might call Business Class travel a needless extravagance. I call it a memory I'll carry forever.

Location:Front of the plane

Sunday, March 4, 2012

No Place Like Rome

I'm crushed.

Pressing into my right side is a teenaged girl wearing skintight jeans and a tee-shirt reading "Number One Super Wyoming Swimming Club." On my left, a squat matron in an expensive camelhair suit. Both are gabbing away loudly on cellphones and have hair hennaed to the color of a new penny.

Seated in front of me is an older gentleman in a gray fedora and black leather jacket, reading Corrriere Delllo Sport. A few feet away a man plays the accordion loudly to the accompaniment of recorded rhythm section reverberating from a boom box, while his son needles the passengers with a paper cup. A young man in aviators, with fiercely gelled hair and a Chinese jean jacket, always seems suspiciously close to the passengers' wallets.

All of us are sealed into an un-air conditioned subway car whose exterior is so saturated with graffiti that from a distance it resembles a Persian carpet. Peeking over the teenager's shoulder I see crumbling buildings whizzing past the grimy windows, their facades flaking away in a hundred shades of ochre.

I could not be happier.

Rome is not for everyone. When travelers dismiss the Eternal City as dusty, noisy and chaotic I don't jump to correct them. But I love it for precisely those qualities. It's been this way for 2500 years and I hope it will be for another two and a half millennia.

There's no city in Europe whose fabric is more suffused by the passage of time. Construction is foiled by archaeology folded over on itself. The 18th-century palazzo could be demolished, but what of the medieval church floor of sinuous "Cosmati" stonework beneath it? Or the granite Imperial Roman column bases below the church? Better to just shrug and leave it all.

Modern bank inside ruins of Temple of Hadrian

Every time the snarl of a passing motorbike jerks me awake just as I drift off to sleep, my annoyance is softened by the knowledge that ancient Romans were equally plagued by nightly street noise. In an effort to reduce traffic congestion (another problem that has persisted for millennia) vehicles were banned from the imperial city between sunrise and about 4:00PM. As a result, nights were filled with the clanging of hooves and wheels on the cobblestones.

In the first century AD the satirist Juvenal wrote: "The movement of heavy wagons through narrow streets, the oaths of cattle-drovers would break the sleep of a deaf man... we are pressed by a huge mob shoving... now we are smashed by a beam, now biffed by a barrel. Our legs are thick with mud, our feet are crushed by a soldier's hobnail boot... Newly mended shirts are torn again... a wagon carries a long pine; they swing and threaten you."

Rome has always been crowded with visitors. The locals have been looking askance at badly-dressed tourists since Gauls first arrived from the provinces ("Imagine, Octavia, they wear trousers, of all things! A complete fashion disaster!") In the Middle Ages and the Renaissance pilgrims thronged to the churches as they do today. And merchants from Africa and Asia did as busy a trade in Augustus' day as in Berlusconi's.

Rome is no doubt dusty. Winds blow across the Mediterranean from the Sahara in summer, coating the statues, churches and Fiats with a fine powder and occasionally, dead locusts. But whenever I sneeze or wipe my brow I remember that every breath of air contains a few molecules of ancient marble from statues and monuments ever so slowly melting like the gelato being sold beneath them.

There's no place in the world I feel as much a small part of an endless historical parade as the Eternal City. As I negotiate the crowds, noise and jumble of culture high and low, I constantly feel the invisible presence of a hundred earlier generations, and I'm comforted by them.

Time to go, my train's pulling up to the Aurelian Walls.

See you at the Forum.

Location:On Linea "B"

Thursday, March 1, 2012


The term "steerage" originated in the age of sailing ships. The lowest-paying passengers were relegated to the bowels of the vessel, where cables connecting the wheel to the rudder were strung. This cabin class served my Irish ancestors perfectly well on their emigration to America. No onboard wi-fi or amenity kits, but plenty of legroom and complimentary beer.

Generations later, the genetic hardiness that served my forbears so well has attenuated to the point that I would probably come down with scurvy while the ship was still within sight of the Irish coast. The only residual toughness I possess is sharp elbows at the baggage carrousel.

I'm particularly bothered by an ailment unknown in the 19th century: Jet Lag. Say what you will about weeks of gruel, seasickness and lice-ridden bunks, when my great-great-great-grandparents finally stepped off the gangway in New York harbor they weren't nudging each other and saying, "No wonder I'm exhausted, it's 3:00 AM at home."

Sleep on a plane is an elusive goal for me unless I'm lucky enough to turn left when boarding. Nature has blessed me with many gifts, but drifting peacefully off to the Land of Nod in an upright position is not one of them. I've learned over the years that the best way to cope with adversity is to appreciate whatever aspects of the situation you can. My ancestors got through the gales, icebergs and rumored sea monsters by playing music, making friends onboard and savoring dreams of a new life in America.

Me, I look out the window.

In the age of the aisle seat I'm a holdout for the other end of the row. Laying my cheek against the cool glass I watch as we vault over the snowy Rockies to the Canadian Midwest, where ordered fields gradually give way to a Jackson Pollack pattern of intricate frozen muskeg lakes from horizon to horizon. Flying against the Earth's turn brings dusk up with startling speed. The clouds quickly turn pink and the planet's shadow looms like a wall. We plunge through and are enveloped by stars that shine unblinking in the thin atmosphere.

The flight attendants clatter by with gelatinous food. I'm simultaneously numb and aching, my feet are swollen and my eyes sandpapery. But outside, a faint veil of aurora is beginning to coalesce across the Greenland Icecap. I watch the spectral ribbon of light rippling across the sky until an orange smear of dawn grows ahead of us over the Hebrides.

In the front of the plane behind a discreet curtain the Business Class passengers have slept peacefully through the entire show. Of course I'd be happy to be one of them, to be free of the aches and pains, sipping fine wines and eating substances actually recognizable as food. But the view from steerage is something I've truly come to appreciate.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Flower Show

By February winter's starting to get tired of itself. Night no longer presses down as firmly as it did in January, letting the gloom lift a little around the edges of the mornings and evenings. On Saturday mornings shafts of sunlight illuminate the cobwebs that have been invisibly accumulating on the light fixtures since October, along with gently drifting motes of ambient cat hair. Slugs are awake and busy chewing off the emerging daffodils as fast as they sprout.

So it's only right that we Seattleites should start to stir as well. Daylight in the garden reveals winter weeds growing with the unkillable tenacity of a horror movie villain, and that rake (or, if you live in a rural area, that 1981 Oldsmobile) that's been missing since Veterans' Day.

The sap's flowing, the birds are trying out a few scratchy notes of half-remembered songs, and Seattle girds for gardening season.

For five days every February tons of rocks and soil are trucked in to the Washington State Convention Center in Seattle for the Northwest Flower and Garden Show. The concrete floors, usually covered with legions of lawyers and CPAs wearing "Hello, my name is..." tags are covered instead with mulch and filled with tulips, hyacinths and flowering crabapples forced into early bloom.

Every year I tank up on coffee and Zyrtec, grab my camera and a big shopping bag and head downtown. At the Convention Center I fall in with the army of my fellow middle-aged ladies. The escalators hoist our bodies, which by now are designed more for comfort than speed, up to the show floors.

I wander around the crowded display gardens, trying vainly to snap photos devoid of my fellow show-goers' elbows and posteriors. Eventually, though, I succumb to the siren song of retail.

Like those who claim to read Playboy for the articles, I and many other garden show attendees profess to be there to get ideas. But the real lure is swag. The garden show is the only place at which the newest varieties of orchids, dahlia tubers, rhododendrons and lily bulbs are all available at once. I load up on dahlia tubers, hoping as always that my husband will not mistake them for potatoes while they're waiting in the vegetable crisper for warmer weather.

Then there are orchids. I've grown them for many years, hiding the rather ugly plants in the guest bedroom like an embarrassing secret fetish until they bloom and can be brought out into polite society. The flower show brings a kaleidoscope of vendors from around the country, particularly Hawaii.

Best of all are the non-plant items. The show has a "midway" area with touts hawking the latest and greatest combination slug bait/aphid spray/deer repellent. But it's the quirky handmade items I like best. Who doesn't need a moss purse?

Or perhaps a unique garden ornament?

The show's over now. I've got new orchids, lily bulbs, and a nifty weeding fork. My feet are worn down to little stubs from hours of tramping through the display gardens and retail booths.

My husband's volunteered to make dinner tonight. I just hope those aren't dahlia tubers bubbling away on the stove top.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Discouraging Words of Wisdom

This month's "Across the Cafe Table" question asks how I choose a hotel. My answer: Bad reviews.

In this age of instant opinions, when anyone can post to TripAdvisor while waiting in the checkout line, it's hard to know what to trust. It's tempting for unscrupulous hotel managers to write their own reviews or pay others to do so. When I see an endless string of "Loved it, it's perfect!" I tend to get suspicious.

Certainly I'm not booking the place with the bullet holes, the whimsical electricity supply or the faucet water with the unusual color and texture. Or the one whose thin walls admit enough entertaining sounds from the adjacent room to compensate for the non-functioning television.

But the occasional "Room service was slow" or "pool wasn't warm enough" is a sign of authenticity. A few gripes mixed in with the glow are the salt on the carmel, the dash of vermouth in the gin, and reason enough to book.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Bella Figura

It's often said that a journey of ten thousand miles begins with a single step. But when that first step is onto a muddy gravel road near Seattle and the last one is onto a polished marble terrace in Rome, it's hard to know what shoes to pack.

Most Americans put comfort ahead of style when traveling. Generally that's not a bad idea. After all, who cares if that sleek, Gucci-clad Italian woman is laughing behind her immense sunglasses and copy of Corriere Della Sera at your Universal Studios Orlando sweatshirt and fanny pack (not to mention your actual fanny)? It's not as though the two of you are ever going to see each other again. And she didn't spend twelve hours yesterday squeezed between an obese actuary from Delaware and operatically screaming baby to get to that sunlit piazza this morning.

But when your mother is a glamorous retiree who spent eleven years working in Rome and the two of you are off to the Eternal City for a week visiting her former colleagues, all of whom have known you since you showed up in suitcase-squashed shoulder pads for your first visit, comfort must take a back seat. Way back, in those smelly rows near the lavatories. Going to Rome without a complete set of the most elegant clothes I can afford would create permanent social scarring.

Plus, it's fun. As my mother remarked when she arrived back here after retiring, Seattle's "not an open-toed shoe kind of town." Northwesterners would sneer just as enthusiastically behind our Revos and copies of Outside magazine at Ms. Corriere Della Sera if she ever set a Prada-shod foot here. Day after day, we wear our traditional native dress: Fleece, jeans and sensible shoes, all in colors found only in the dankest recesses of nature.

Visiting another culture, especially Italy, is a chance to play dress-up. To try on the identity that goes with the clothes. No Italian is ever going to think for one nanosecond that I'm a fellow countrywoman. But sitting in that sunlit piazza in my big sunglasses and (knockoff) Gucci is as much a sample of the Italian experience as the espresso I'm drinking.

I just need enough room in my suitcase for the gravel-road shoes.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Off Season

Most of the tourists who flood into our dark-green corner of the world every year arrive in summer. On the surface that choice makes sense. Who wouldn't want to see Seattle in July, when Mount Rainier glistens like a mammoth scoop of Ben & Jerry's Vanilla against a sky the color of forget-me-nots?

But summer's a tiny part of a Northwesterner's world. Anyone wanting to know us well would be advised to visit in some other season. Fortunately, that's easy to do.
Last year KOMO meteorologist Scott Sistek calculated that Seattle experienced precisely 55 hours and 23 minutes of "summer," defined as time during which temperatures reached at least 80 degrees.

And glorious hours they were: No bugs, no humidity, no thunderstorms. Just endless blue skies over shimmering snowcapped mountains, surrounding a Puget Sound dotted with sailboats and cruise ship hauling cargoes of tourists to Alaska.

But when you've only got 55 hours you need to make them count. That expensive sea kayak/barbecue/yacht/Orcas Island cabin needs to justify its garage space/moorage/mortgage. Sit under a tree sipping lemonade and reading a book? That's crazy; you could blow a quarter of your summer on the first three chapters of "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo." No, it's go, go, go while the sun shines.

But winter's different. There's time enough to linger over a microbrew in a pub while you try to convince your friends you really did see Bigfoot in the Goat Rocks Wilderness last summer, and your friends counter that it was a hallucination brought on by the sleep deprivation due to trying to squeeze a summer's worth of activity into 55 hours.

There's time enough to nurse a latte for hours in Starbucks while you finish writing the code for Level Four of Monsters and Mermaids. Time enough to calculate those 787 wing loads one more time.

And time enough to write blog entries because it's raining too hard to go out into the garden to spread slug bait.

Every minute of our summer is worth savoring. But winter makes us who we really are.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Under the Weather

In addition to malaria, lost luggage and accidentally ordering stewed warthog due to language barriers in foreign restaurants, one risk travel writers run is taking one's home city for granted.

Generally, winter in Seattle is an uninterrupted parade of steel-wool skies and wet-dog drizzle. It's not warm enough for "Hello from the beach, wish you were here" pictures, and not cold enough for "I threw a cup of hot coffee into the street and it froze before it hit the ground" emails. Day after day, it's 40 degrees and raining lightly.

But sometimes the Northwest's weather seems to notice that we're getting complacent. Taking things a little for granted. Spending too much time flirting with flashy cruise brochures. In moments such as those, Mother Nature decides to give us disrespectful citizens of Puget Sound a good slap across the posterior.

Last weekend began so well. There was a sunset that looked like it had been conjured up by Walt Disney after a three-day bender in Tijuana:

Sure, it was on Friday the 13th, but who's superstitious?

Then it got cold. A smattering of snow moved through. "Pshaw," scoffs the Seattleite. "This eighth-of-an-inch is why God invented studded snow tires!"
But some of the squalls had a distinctly angry look about them:

Still, the week started off dry and everyone trudged back to the office. Yeah, the weatherman was going on about some sort of incipient snowmageddon, but we've all heard that before, haven't we? It's always going to be a dump of the white stuff that would impress Buffalo, until the appointed day comes and goes with nothing more remarkable than a record dew point in Yelm.

Not this time. After toying with us on Tuesday, winter let fly with a monumental outpouring of snow. Two inches. Four inches. Six inches. In southern Puget Sound a foot or more. Life skidded to an abrupt halt. Seattle's hills became sledding runs. Home Depot sold out of salt and shovels. The roads were littered with abandoned tire chains, Subarus and Metro buses. By the end of the day Seattle accumulated more snow than Vancouver got over the course of the entire 2010 Olympics.

Then the freezing rain started. Our neighbors to the south in Portland are well accustomed to this phenomenon and never let an ice storm get between them and the hippest new couscous/kimchee/fondue-fusion food truck. But geography has dealt Puget Sound a different hand and made that type of weather extremely rare here. Trees snapped, power lines came down, and before you could say "Why the @#% didn't I get new flashlight batteries" a quarter of a million people had lost power. In 30-degree temperatures.

Our sturdy Puget Sound Energy crews have been working around the clock for two days now, and most service has been restored. It's warmed back into the 40s and the snow is nearly gone, save for the 15-foot-high gray piles in the Thriftway parking lot.

I've silently promised the TV meteorologist that I will try to pay attention next time a storm is forecast. But I have been sneaking looks at the cruise brochures again.