travelogue: Seattle, WA

I have no idea where this will lead us, but I have a definite feeling it will be a place both wonderful and strange.
– Dale Cooper in Twin Peaks

(warning: very picture-heavy post ahead)

When I announced to some of my American acquaintances that I would be traveling up to Seattle for a couple of days before leaving for my holiday trip, a couple of them frowned and asked “What is it with you and the Pacific Northwest? First Portland and now Seattle? Why don’t you just go somewhere else? The East Coast, maybe?”

The easy and pretty honest answer would be “I just can’t be bothered to endure a flight that’s longer than two hours – in the US, that does not leave me that many alternatives –, especially not before an 11-hour flight to Europe in less than a week”. With about a week of time to kill between the end of the quarter and my flight back home, I was looking for a small trip to a place that would take about 3 or 4 days, that wouldn’t leave me excessively tired (it did end up leaving me tired anyway) and that would take me away from California.

So, Seattle. Here is a list of clichés and pop culture stories about this place: it’s the ultimate inspiration for the name of this blog (that incredibly lame Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan film Sleepless in Seattle, anyone?… no?…). It’s the fastest-growing city in the United States, with its shifting downtown landscape and exponential growth (plenty of new skyscrapers are being built, and more and more tech companies are moving in – San Francisco, part 2?). It’s the city of grunge (my angsty 14 year-old self rejoices) – Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, Foo Fighters and the like, as well as the birthplace for Jimi Hendrix. It’s a rainy city – though I lucked out and did not get that much rain! -, an excuse to get gloves and scarves and a beanie and finally be able to use them. It’s a city that comes as a breath of fresh air after a busy quarter, a fresh place that could almost feel like any other city back home if it weren’t for the skyscrapers and the architecture that immediately reminds you of just where you are.

My first couple of days were spent wandering around, going up to Kerry Park to get that well-known view over the city (I took advantage of the only fully sunny day to do it), walking around downtown and checking out all the tourist traps (as one has to, anyway), marveling at the apparent calm of the city life and the lack of insane traffic (though this could be only a fleeting impression), enjoying plenty of hot chocolate and dumplings (not together). Lately, during my travels, I have the strangest feeling – it seems as if every place that I visit does not feel like America, or this construction of this place that I still have in my head and that I’m struggling to get rid of. This could easily be a city in any other part of the world – and so the question keeps coming back, the one that defines this blog, this experience, my life here: just what makes America?

Downtown skyscrapers as seen from the Freeway Park
Quick lunch break in a restaurant by Pioneer Square
Colourful, pop culture clichés in Post Alley, right next to the way too overrated and a little bit too yucky
Afternoon traffic in Capitol Hill

Immigrants. Patriotism. “Graditude”. Unity in diversity. Hopes for a better reality. Search for freedom & prosperity. Cultures & “ethnisities”. Coming together.

These were some of the answers to the question I asked above that I found written on the wall of the Wing Luke Museum in the International District (ID), or Chinatown, of Seattle. I wrote them here just as they were written, anonymous answers to one of the greatest questions in a country going through very troubled times.

For three nights I slept at a small hostel in a building at the entrance of the ID, right by the main gate and just a couple of doors down from a delicious bakery where I spent a good portion of my budget on cakes – and the place is called A Piece of Cake! How sweet (!) is that? – and Uwajimaya, where I also spent way too much money on snacks and Pocky. Just up the road for a couple of minutes, I ran into an early-morning, frenetic ping-pong match in small plaza where an older couple would take turns challenging a young man. People would occasionally walk by and watch, some would strike up a conversation and I was also eventually asked to join (and I refused, because my athletic and ping-pong skills were no match to theirs).

I walked around, peeking into the local shops, chatting briefly with the locals. I learned that Seattle’s International District is actually composed of several little neighbourhoods – Chinatown, Japantown, Little Saigon -, though the division that these names once carried has become blurrier and blurrier with time (if not practically inexistent). I listened to very summarized versions of the area’s history – it would be futile of me to try and reproduce them within this post, I wouldn’t do them justice. I keep going back to the tired comments that I have been making throughout several posts on this blog, perhaps searching for an unexistent identity (or perhaps searching for my own identity in this place) but I am more and more convinced that it is in places, areas, neighbourhoods like these, that I find the genuine soul of a country where its landscape – be it geophysical, demographic, political, social – is permanently shifting. I have not been to a lot of different places yet, but I am eager to – I don’t want my experience of this country to be limited to its urban settings and its cosmopolitan life.

I also probably ate my own weight in dumplings at one point, but that’s a whole other story (and it’s not that pretty).

Early morning ping-pong match in the ID
Resisting the urge to enter the local shops in ID
Next door to my hostel, a lovely (and delicious) bakery in the ID

On Saturday the day started off with a small trip for breakfast in West Seattle at Easy Street Records – April, an old acquaintance of mine, with whom I had exchanged messages several years ago when we were part of the same online writing community, was really nice to drive me up there. We explored the record shop, had a lovely breakfast – breakfast burrito, anyone? Can you tell I’m slowly being converted? – and some coffee.

On a whim, and to much of my excitement, we decided to drive up to North Bend, WA, one of the several towns in the state of Washington where David Lynch had filmed Twin Peaks in the early 90s. It’s about a 30-minute drive from Seattle, getting away from the urban landscape of Seattle and towards the rural areas of the Pacific Northwest – areas that are inevitably expanding and changing as Seattle also shifts, bringing new people and technological development into more isolated areas. This area was mostly known for its lumber industries and sawmills – something which is obviously portrayed in Twin Peaks – and, as April told me, some of these areas have slowly become deindustrialized (a lot of the sawmills and industries started to close down) and are preparing to serve the tech industries that are flourishing in the biggest city in the state and all the others that surround it.

I am fascinated by the landscape of the Pacific Northwest. I wonder how Lynch’s films may have contributed to this. I walk around North Bend and I tell April how I feel like I had been there before, like none of this space felt new to me, or surprising, but more of a confirmation attained through films and pop culture. I took the classic fan girl photo of a mural that depicted the first shot of the show’s credits (the original sign at the original location has been taken down) and had lunch at the Double R diner (it’s real name is Twede’s Cafe, in case you might consider going there one day). We didn’t have any cherry pie or damn fine coffee, just some ordinary lunch in a side-of-the-road diner, another image of America much cherished thanks to years of watching American films.

That may well have been the one the best parts of this trip – not merely because of the place itself, and the apparent symbolism and history it carries, but also for the company – thank you so much, April! -, for the scenic car ride, for allowing me to see the beauty past the urban frontiers.

Easy Street Records, where delicious food and incredible music come together
Empty street in North Bend, WA, or those perfect Lynchian vibes
The interior of the Double R Diner (in real life it’s called Twede’s Cafe), recently remodeled to look like it was back in the Twin Peaks days
No damn fine coffee or cherry pie, but this was just as good!

I’ve set a very unrealistic goal for myself: throughout these two years that I’m living here, I want to visit all 50 states. Which means one thing: 3 down, 47 to go!

Now that I’m back in San Francisco, recovering from this intense trip and from the quarter that has just finished and preparing for going back home in just two days, a moment of appreciation of all of this is due (after all, it is Christmas – whatever that means, anyway). I’ve been incredibly lucky to be able to have this experience – to be in this country, to be studying at Stanford, to be traveling and seeing all of these different places -, even if it is a lot of hard work most of the time and even if I do miss home a lot and sometimes struggle with certain degrees of culture shock.

This will be my last trip in the US in 2017. Here’s to a 2018 full of new experiences and new places!

View of Seattle from Kerry Park, another cliché we have all come to know and love

– Inês

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