Seattle, WA – Monday 29th August
Minimal cloud and a glorious mid 20s Celsius has got to be the perfect weather for visiting a city. The buildings look that little bit shinier in the sun, and it’s easier to walk a city without working up a sweat. This morning we join a market experience walking tour. Just before the tour starts at 9.30am we sneak into a joint called Piroshky Piroshky Bakery. Unsurprisingly we order a couple of piroshky. These are hot pastries filled with all manner of meat or vegetables and even sweet fillings. I choose the sauerkraut, cabbage and onion while Steve chooses the beef and cheese. Still warm from the oven, these take the edge of our hunger while we wait for Jake and his waving flag.
With a ‘pay as you feel’ policy, these walking tours could be a real hit or miss from an operating point of view but Jake has the personality to make it work. Knowledgeable and incredibly personable, he is a great touch point for visitors to Seattle. Green and white flag turning to and fro, Seattle Free Walking Tours, Jake draws a range of people hovering awkwardly at the meeting spot. Also in the park by Pike Place Market’s north entrance is a group protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline. Under the guard of two tall totem poles, a group of Native Americans with bullhorns in hand, are addressing a small crowd that has gathered. Between the accent and the distortion, I’m having trouble understanding what is being said. Large banners give some context. NO PIPELINE, NODAPL, WATER PROTECTORS, RED WARRIOR, KEEP IT IN THE GROUND, WATER IS LIFE, I STAND WITH STANDING ROCK.
Reaching into a small grey backpack, a clipboard is produced. Smiling and chatting, he repeats our names as he checks us off his list.
‘Hi there. You here for the walking tour?’ His eyes light up as they connect with mine.
Implicitly I volunteer, ‘I’m Amanda. This is Steve.’
‘Amanda and Steve? Steve and Amanda. I’m Jake. Where you guys from?’
‘Oh yeah, where in Australia?’ he asks sounding genuinely curious.
‘Melbourne,’ Steve answers rather ironically as he was born in England and lived in Western Australia for 13 years.
‘No, Mel-bun,’ I correct him.
‘Mell-bunnn’ he repeats confidently. ‘My wife and I were there a few years back. BC, before children. Great city. Fabulous food from memory.’
From this accurate concise comment he turns to face the couple who’ve appeared at our left with the same appealing smile. Steve and I stand abandoned not knowing what to do next. A few moments later we step aside, look around the park and at our feet.
‘So what’s the plan after this?’ I ask knowing his almighty spreadsheet holds many possibilities.
‘I don’t know. What do you feel like?
How can I know what I will feel like in a couple of hours? I’m not really sure what I feel like now. There’s a a freedom in not being responsible for planning a holiday. Steve has added every attraction he’s even slightly curious in visiting as a gold star on his google maps. Those attractions that are more insistent have made it as an entry on the daily spreadsheet. To have a question thrown at me as to what I want to do is at once an opportunity and a pressure.
‘Well, I’m still hungry so if we don’t pick up anything on the tour, how about we go for second breakfast,’ I venture.
From his pocket in an instant appears his phone. I don’t have an American SIM card for my phone so I’m reliant upon free wifi and it appears we are just outside the market’s range.
‘Just around the corner is Biscuit Bitch,’ he says enthusiastically. ‘It’s supposed to be one of the best biscuit places in America. Real southern style biscuits even though we are in the Pacific Northwest.’
I’m simultaneously impressed and not surprised that he has this information so readily available.
I’m happy to be lead to new places and even happier not to have spent the hours researching it.
Slowly more people are gathering around are tour leader. Rainproof jackets on, cameras slung around necks, day packs on back and phones in hand. Seattle feels as though it could rain or burst into sunshine at any moment. From this elevated position, we look past the working port, over the Puget Sound to a snow-covered Mt. Rainier in the distance. Seattle rises sharply from the waterline of Puget Sound. Even though city planners tried to tame its hills early on, the incline of some streets challenges visitors and no doubt keeps local brake companies in business. As in San Francisco, some streets require cars park with wheels turned into the curb.
‘Welcome everyone from around the States and around the world,’ Jake says in a raised projected voice . ‘Let’s move a little closer to the market entrance so you can all hear me better.’ Dutifully we follow our leader. The protestor’s speech fades as we cross the chaotic intersection and try to avoid the shoppers emerging from the market. A short explanation later, Jake leads us down into the multilevel labyrinth that is Pike Place Market. Like markets all over the world, a loose organisation of stalls exist based on type and historic precedence. No matter how we try, it’s hard not to be in the way of the genuine market shoppers.
One of our fist stops on the tour is a fish stall that is renowned for fish tossing Wild Atlantic salmon. Originally as a gimmick, these hefty beauties are tossed gracefully over the counter to the shrieks of delight from tourists. Clad in rubber orange overalls and gumboots repeatedly shouting orders to each other, the fishmongers occasionally lob a fake fish into the gathering audience. Underneath a sign that reads Caution – Low flying fish on thick beds of ice lay mounds of Halibut, King Salmon, Wild Alaskan Coho Salmon, jumbo Gulf prawns, Black Cod, oysters, mussels, squid, Dungeness crab and King Crab legs bigger than my arm. Amongst the rows of own brand condiments stands their recipe book – In the Kitchen with the Pike Place Fish Guys – 100 recipes and tips from the world famous crew of Pike Place Fish. Happy to stand near the back avoiding audience participation, as the group moves on I linger running my eyes over new species of fish creating a seafood banquet in my head.
By the time I’ve crossed the street and caught up with the rest of the group at a stall in the greengrocers section, I’m just in time for a slice of new season apple that tastes of lemonade. Dark purple grapes, yellow/green round grapes that taste like cotton candy, stone fruit bigger than my fist, berries, figs, tropical fruit, bags of rainbow of new potatoes and garlands of chillies and garlic drying overhead.
We avoid the growing line outside the original Starbucks location, as people who should know better queue for a coffee that surely tastes just as average as the ones from the cafes that surround it. I can’t even bring myself to take a photo of it. Not incidentally, I experienced a perverse joy in the initial failure of Starbucks to gain a foothold in Australia. Coffee culture had anchored itself in Australia with the European post-war immigration wave. Espresso machines soon began to make their way into Australian cafes and restaurants. We buy coffee from our local independent café, not an international corporation. If you don’t like the flavour profile of the bean at your local café, you can walk the next block over. Like McDonalds, Starbucks success was based upon a predictable formula regardless of geographical location.
America is an incredibly patriotic nation, occasionally prone to global blindness.
The globalisation of American culture from hip-hop music to clothing, food and drink worlds are no different. Tex-mex tacos are easily found on every food truck corner of Australia’s major cities. Shopping centres host chain stores familiar to US citizens as the muzak playing over the public sound system. It may understandable that when Americans travel they get confused where America ends and other countries begin.
Before leaving the market we sneak in a couple of mini maple and bacon donuts, hot from the fryer at Daily Dozen Doughnut Company but it’s not enough to assuage our hunger so it’s up the hill we climb towards Biscuit Bitch. Rounding the corner, I think I’ve spied the place while Steve has paused to check the location.
‘It should be just up here on the right,’ he says without looking up.
‘Where that massive queue is then,’ I say pointing ahead.
Head up, ‘Ah,yep. That’d be it.’
He walks closer for a better look and I move to the edge of the footpath. It is mid-morning so really it’s no surprise that the joint is pumping. It’s a small store and the queue hosts twice as many people as there are customers inside.
‘I did see a biscuit place inside the market when I went to the bathroom if you want to try that place,’ I offer.
‘What’s it called?’ he asks phone in hand still.
‘I don’t know. Let’s just go.’ I turn go back the way we came, Steve trailing behind trying to look up our new destination online.
Turns out Honest Biscuits, in a quiet corner of the bustling market, produce a very decent Dungeness crab and cheddar biscuit sandwich. Teamed with an IPA from Pike Brewing IPA, our hunger and mission for good biscuits were satisfied in one hit. A crunchy outside and fluffy middle, the biscuit sandwich has chucks of local crab meat under melted slabs of cheddar from Beecher’s cheese stall also in the market. Sprinkle of spring onion on top and happy days are here. We perch on bar stools overlooking the atrium to enjoy a few moments resting the feet and enjoying the relative quiet.
Peace is a thing that can be hard to find when travelling. By its very nature, travelling usually involves close contact with other people. I’m an urban traveller not a wilderness traveller. I enjoy the bustle of cities and the excitement of their hectic environment. Balance must be present though in some quiet moments. I find journal keeping is one of those things helps me find that equilibrium. Art galleries, museums also help. Ideally, I prefer to head out in the mornings and walk the streets finding new places along the way. In the afternoons, I like to retire to my abode for a few quiet hours, reflecting and writing before heading out again for the evening. Of course, travelling with a partner doesn’t always mean things are ideal.
Feeling at risk of overdoing art museums, I suggest to Steve that we skip the Seattle Art Museum and visit the Aquarium instead. I’m glad we do. The Seattle Aquarium is located right on the waterfront, a short walk down a few flights of stairs from the market. The waterfront is a mix of wide board walk, kitschy seafood cafes, buskers, public art installations, ferry terminal and the Seattle Aquarium. Stepping past prams and wayward small children, we pay the admission fee and collect a map. Just inside the entrance is a large foyer with a six metre high cantilevered glass wall onto an enormous tank at one end.
‘This would make an impressive function space,’ I say to no one in particular. Behind the thick glass water surges steadily in and out, mimicking the waves of Puget Sound. Kelp sways, fish dart around the coral and eels poke their heads out from rock crevices.
‘I think we are the only ones here without kids,’ Steve notes. I nod, thankful. Hoards of children are running around and I’m exhausted trying to avoid them underfoot. We head past the interactive exhibits complete with kids tormenting sea cucumbers, the tubular jellyfish tanks, and out back to the where the aquarium and sea waters overlap. There’s a 360 degree underwater concrete and glass dome that juts into the bay. Here we sit for a few minutes, the only visitors listening to the gentle sounds of waves on glass, the odd harbour seal frolicking amongst large kelp forests. Sunlight streams through the clear waters, lending the room an eerie blue-green light. Rockfish, sturgeon and more dart their sleek silvery bodies past the windows.
We make our way along past the outside tanks and find my favourite exhibit – the sea otters. Yes, they swim a repeated loop like so many animals enclosed in zoo exhibits but I find them irresistibly cute. #ottersarethenewcats I banish all concerns about the ethics of zoos and keeping animals in captivity which is one of the reasons I often struggle with aquariums and zoos. Almost seemingly as a reward, we are fortunate enough to witness the otters during a special grown-ups only cuddle time. Quickly we see parents directing the kids’ attention onwards to the next exhibit.