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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.