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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.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Eternal City

It happens to everyone who visits Rome.  As unavoidable as diesel fumes, grafitti and long lines outside the Vatican Museum. As cliched as the costumed "gladiators" loitering around the Colosseum. And as predictable as the appearance of bunches of chrome-yellow mimosa blossoms in the Campo de Fiori flower market each spring.

I'm speaking, of course, of the moment the tourist succumbs to the temptation to imagine being magically transported back in time to Ancient Rome.

It's impossible to predict what might trigger the feeling.  It might be the first vista of the Forum in slanting yellow afternoon light.  It might be the musty air of the catacombs, where every breath contains a molecule or two that once belonged to a living citizen of the Empire.  Or it might be a stumble on the Appian Way, when the visitor looks down to see a Nike stuck in a deep rut carved by chariot wheels.

Whatever the source, the reaction is always the same.  The traveler loosens the sweaty wallet deathgrip just a tad. The voices of tour guides, family and companions fade.  Eyes squint to block out the Fiats and the Banana Republic stores. 

Just for a second, the marble columns and crooked cobblestones stand straight and new.  The fleece jacket becomes an itchy wool toga.  And the hubbub of unintelligible voices all around are speaking Latin, classical Greek and Aramaic instead of German, Japanese and English.  Ancient Rome comes fleetingly alive.

Then a Vigili Fuocco firetruck's siren howls by on the way to the scene of a car accident or a long lunch, and the spell is broken. But once it's happened, the visitor will never see the Eternal City in quite the same way again.  There's always a lingering sense that behind every mouldering ancient brick and chipped column flute, a living past is lurking, waiting for another oppotunity to emerge.

My parents lived in Rome for 11 years in the 1980s and '90s. I had the fantastic good luck to be able to visit them many times while they were there, and to return with them frequently for visits after they moved back to the United States.  I will be traveling to Rome with my mother in March and intend to write about that trip in this blog.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Japanese Currents

I live in a world inspired by a place I've never seen.

When I was little I used to stand on the beach holding my mother's hand. She told me how the Japanese Current carries glass floats to our Pacific Northwest shores decades after storms tear them loose from fishing nets thousands of miles away. We decorated our house in the little coastal town the same way everyone did, by hanging those glass floats from the eaves.

Here in Seattle our older neignborhoods are peppered with low-slung wooden 1950s and 60s homes. Their long overhanging eaves are adorned not with floats but with chains conducting our copious rain into artificial streams of moss-covered pebbles. Stone lanterns gather lichen under cedar trees. And no courtyard is complete without a twisting maple tree flaming red in the fall.

In spring the city erupts into clouds of pink-and-white cherry blossoms. And in summer people wander through the Japanese Garden in the Aboretum, posing for pictures among the groves of purple irises.

So it's natural that I would want to visit Japan, the source and inspiration for all this beauty. Seattle's large and influential Japanese community has a long and not always happy history, but there's no denying that their artistic sensibility has been an extraordinary gift to our city. I want to visit the cities, temples and gardens that were the inspiration for my surroundings here on the other side of the Pacific Ocean.  I have put off the visit for many years due to the high cost, but I hope not to have to wait too much longer.

On the beach I would squint at the horizon and imagine I could see Japan faintly in the distance. It was really nothing more than the shadow of a distant cloud, but my imagination filled it with pagodas, castles and torii gates. I dream of the day when those things are really before me.

This post is part The Travel Belles' regular "Across the Cafe Table" discussion, at