Our departure from San Francisco was taken via one of the most scary taxi journeys I have ever endured.
“Whatever you do, do not get a cab,” a friend messaged me – after our taxi ride to the airport. “They will try to kill you.”
The driver seemed benign enough, when he knocked on our front door to pick us up. He helpfully loaded our luggage into the boot. And then he rattled through the city at a terrifying speed, weaving through the traffic, changing lanes apparently without checking his mirrors, overtaking, undertaking, not once braking. I mean, there must have been junctions and traffic lights but I don’t remember them. They whizzed past at the speed of light.
As we pulled into the airport, the radio announced the shooting at Santa Fe High School in Texas that morning. Son and I glanced at one another. When we disembarked from the taxi, and began breathing normally again, the driver unloaded our luggage and called to the children: “Hey, guys. Stay with your mom, okay? Stay with your mom.” It struck me that American parents must constantly live with an extra degree of fear for their children.
Our plane to Seattle was delayed by a few hours, so we planted ourselves at a table and each plugged into our tablets. There’s no need for conversation when you’re spending two weeks constantly in one another’s company. We had said pretty much all that needed to be said – although son often found it necessary to explain to me types of aeroplane engine and speeds of the latest performance cars. I’m still practising how to appear as though I’m listening but not actually.
As we finally boarded the plane, I asked husband our seat numbers. “1A & B, and 2A & B,” he replied. I nodded and walked onto the plane. Wait. Here are seats 1 and 2. At the front of the, admittedly relatively small, aircraft.
“Are these our seats?” I asked, entirely unconvinced.
“Erm, yes,” said husband. “We seem to have had an upgrade.” It turns out that husband had received an email from the flight company a couple of weeks earlier, apologising for a change in the schedule. Husband had scanned the alterations, but seen only a seat change, so thought nothing of it – until we were actually on the plane, standing right at the front, and he realised the significance of the seat change. Quite why the company had upgraded a family of four, with young children as an added bonus, is a mystery. Since it is well beyond the realms of our finances to ever book business or first class seats ourselves, we said nothing more and sucked up the extra legroom, big comfy leather seats and endless top-ups of sparkling wine.
An hour and a half of undeserved and unnecessary opulence later, we arrived in Seattle, and hopped on the Link light rail straight to Columbia City, the ‘burbs in which we would be staying for five nights.
Our AirBnB apartment was a mere five minutes’ walk from the train station. I have thought long, hard and often about how to describe this area, but am not sure I’ll ever be able to manage it with any justice. According to an acquaintance of husband who lives in the area, it used to be a rundown part of the city’s outskirts, home to ethnic minorities and Seattle’s less wealthy citizens. But the past 10 or 20 years has seen gentrification on a sort of Shoreditch scale, with bohemian, arty, white-collar types moving in, and the area’s older homes restored. There are also a number of more than half decent restaurants, a cinema, and one particular secondhand clothes store I would have happily spent days in, if it wasn’t for the fact that my favourite items of clothing were two sizes too small and made me want to cry.
So. There are good restaurants. There are decent boutique shops. There are well maintained clapboard houses with gloriously colourful gardens. Oh, and not forgetting the world’s greatest grocery store, which sold the best delicatessen salads. (If I lived near that store, I would never cook again.) But.
Maybe it was the main road and train line just down the way that led into Seattle city centre, lending a sense of a forgotten hinterland. Maybe it was the occasional unattractiveness of some of the buildings. Maybe it was me trying to compare it with San Francisco. Maybe it just wasn’t what I expected. But I honestly didn’t feel immediately warmed to the place.
The apartment, on the other hand, was delightfully kooky and of a more than decent size, with its own lush and vibrant yard and a gate straight out into a small local grassy park area. It was pretty delightful.
That evening we ate at Super Six, which apparently served up Hawaiian fusion food, including pupus, which obviously had me and son in fits. I am a convert to Hawaiian fusion food, though whether I’ll find that in Scotland is hard to say.
The day after our arrival, husband took the children off to play with acquaintance’s son, and tour the local playparks. I settled for a day of laundry (pah), and a walk around the area to get a feel for the place. What I felt was nothing special – the area seemed slightly grey, lacking a real community flavour (though this feeling subsided through the week, as I noticed folks greeting and chatting to one another on the streets and in the shops.)
That night, we were taken to Alki Beach Park for dinner in a very noisy Mexican restaurant, El Chupacabra.The place was absolutely buzzing, with both conversation and reverb from the music played at top volume. My nachos were perfectly adequate – it was the atmosphere of the place, embodied by the waitress with turquoise hair and lipstick, that really commended the venue. This was clearly the place to be on a Saturday night – the beach front was also a swarm of parties of young folk, barbecuing their tea and dancing to their own beats. Thanks to the view across the bay to the Seattle skyline I had the Frasier theme tune on repeat in my head.
On Sunday, husband set off for a conference – the reason we were all in the US to start with. Children and I rode the brilliant light rail into Seattle (and noticed that in a tunnel between Mount Baker and Beacon Hill stations there appeared to be large playing cards flashing up along the wall), then hopped on a bus to the Pacific Science Center, a great resource for families, full of interactive exhibits explaining how the world and everything in it works. The Tropical Butterfly House, which daughter had been fairly persistent about visiting, was small but wonderful, with butterflies and moths of all varieties, sizes and colours flitting throughout the hotly humid glasshouse. While daughter soon regretted her persistence, as the butterflies’ nearby fluttering began to unnerve her, it turned out I was basically a butterfly whisperer, as two beautiful specimens landed on me and wouldn’t leave. I walked through the space carefully protecting them from other visitors brushing by me.
“Are you wearing perfume?” asked the staff member at the exit. “That’s usually why they get attracted to people.” Aw – they thought I was a flower! He gently removed them with a pair of tweezers and ushered us out before they could land on me again.
Other exhibits included the Willard Smith Planetarium (in which we enjoyed a lesson on Pluto from a delightfully vague and absent-minded lecturer); an awesome Virtual Reality Microtheater, with 360˚ views under the sea, which was all very Ready Player One and blew my mind; a corridor of “losers” such as JK Rowling, Emily Dickinson and Mary Leaskey (in other words, people who have struggled through failure and adversity before succeeding on a massive scale (we’re back to “iteration” here)); and a musical instrument section, where children could play a piano, a giant guitar and some bells, experimenting with different sounds (inexplicably there is no link to this section on the Center’s own website, so I can’t go into any technical detail).
All of which kept us very well amused until we grew tired with starvation and needed to bail out for dinner. (There’s a theme developing here. Daughter and I especially are prone to hanger and at the mercy of our appetites.)
We headed back to our apartment, and the PCC grocery store, where the children chose their own forms of sustenance (involving chicken wings and pasta), and I bought what amounted to a crate of salad from the deli. Is salad endlessly healthy? Or does there come a point where even quinoa and beans are fattening?
When husband arrived home from the conference, he mentioned a Kiwi he had met there, who, when he learned of the location of husband’s office, said, “I worked in Edinburgh for a while. But I lived outside the city, in a lovely little town called N— B—.”
It really is a small world.