Visiting Seattle, Seattle Art Museum, Chinese Porcelain

We’ve been blessed with a good winter this year — it hasn’t rained much. (Of course, I would be writing this on a rainy day.) In fact, we’ve had a lot of sun, though it has been fairly chilly. Yes, I realize that chilly here is warm compared to the rest of Canada right now. What can I say — I’m a wimp.

But even with all that good weather, Vancouver can get a little boring, especially if you don’t get out a lot. This was our problem — we hadn’t really gone anywhere except for the island in the past three months. So Allison and I decided it was time to visit Seattle again. A good road trip was just what we needed.

We got up relatively early on Saturday (which for me, is before 9:00am) and got ready to leave. By 9:09, we were fuelled up and heading south on Burrard for our adventure of the day. We arrived at the border in short time, and breezed through, as usual. It was a good thing we weren’t coming from Seattle to Vancouver, though — the lineup looked about an hour in length.

It was a good day for the drive — the sun was bright and the sky was (mostly) clear. We could see Mt. Baker quite easily. It’s a very imposing mountain, especially when you know that it’s two hours away, and the ones just across the Burrard Inlet look the same height. It’s huge … just like its sister mountain, Mt. Rainier. Both are dormant volcanos … just like Mount St. Helen’s was dormant.

We found ourselves in downtown Seattle just after 12:00, just in time for lunch. We drove around attempting to find inexpensive parking (by inexpensive, we were looking for anything that charged less than US$7 an hour. Seattle is expensive.

We eventually ended up at the lot Allison and her friend had once used when visiting Seattle. It has a US$5 special that lets you park for up to 10 hours. It’s not the most convenient location, but considering that there’s no lot attendant, no pavement, and nothing really nearby, it’s fairly reasonable.

Actually, there is one thing nearby — an elevator. It takes you up to what used to be a causeway from “upper” Seattle to the piers on the waterfront. When the piers closed down, the causeway was mostly destroyed. Part of it remained, and the city (assumedly it was them) put in an elevator to let you down to the harbourfront. At the top, it let you out two blocks from Pike Place Market. Convenient, non?

The first order of business was lunch. We had seen a mexican restaurant while searching for parking, but we were interested in a chili place at the south end of the market. It took a while to get there (about half the population of Washington State was crammed into the three blocks that make up the market area), and we were disappointed when we arrived. It seems that the owner/operator had been made an Honorary Member of the Coronary Bypass Association, and was enjoying an extended stay in the Swedish Hospital.

Yeah, you’re probably thinking what we thought — he was in Sweden, the reason he wasn’t here to run the store, right? Well, it wasn’t until our little attempt to get lost in Seattle that we found the Swedish Hospital. It’s one of the hospitals in Seattle. Why “Swedish”? It was started in Seattle by a pair of Swedes back at the turn of the century. It’s now one of the largest hospitals in the state.

Anyway, back to the story…

Finding there would be no chili that day, we went out in search of our mysterious Mexican restaurant. Luckily, it wasn’t hard — Taco Del Mar. It was a kind of fancy Taco Bell, without all the choices. But I was in the mood for a burrito, and that seemed to be their speciality. I got the jumbo spicy beef (which was their smallest burrito — I don’t know why they called it “jumbo”). Allison got the super burrito (the same as the jumbo, except it had guacamole).

Kinda bland, not nearly as tasty as the burritos we had at some rinky-dinky little taco stand in Anaheim, but filling. At least we wouldn’t starve for the rest of the day. And the service was outstandingly pleasant for a fast-food joint. A definite thumbs up, if just for the service alone.

Afterwards, we opted to try something we hadn’t done before — go to the Seattle Art Museum. Allison had been craving some intellectual input lately, and I thought a visit to the museum would be a good idea. The last time we were in Seattle, they were exhibiting Frank Lloyd Wright’s designs. This time, it was the History of Porcelain. Okay, maybe not the most riveting of subjects, but interesting nonetheless.

The Chinese first started producing the fine porcelain we all know in the 10th Century CE (AD, for those of you not familiar with the Common Era system). However, they had developed the materials and techniques around 3200 BCE … a lot earlier than most people would have thought. In fact, the only thing that kept them from making good porcelain back then was a lack of heat. Porcelain needs temperatures of about 1,300 C to become porcelain … otherwise, you just get earthenware. Not as strong, and not as nice.

There were some amazing specimens. Utterly beautiful in design, completely perfect in shape and colour. The designs on them intricate and delicate. Then you read the tag, and find that the bowl, or plate, or water jug you are looking at predates Chris Columbus’ little sojourn to North America by a hundred years.

The exhibit was arranged so that you walked in a loop, starting with the “birth” of porcelain, and ending with its “end”. (No, we haven’t disposed of porcelain, just that porcelain is now a pottery technique, not a commodity considered more valuable than precious metals.) The exhibit tells how until the 17th and 18th centuries, most of the porcelain came from China. But after a couple of wars, the technique finally leaked to Japan and Korea, and the supply increased. It wasn’t until the 17th century that Europe began to tinker with the techniques and come up with its own porcelain.

After our tour of expensive pottery, we ventured to an exhibit of native art. A lot of it was Australian, and actually fairly difficult to look at (the pictures were a bit on the psychedelic side). We didn’t stay long, and opted for the more typical parts of an art museum: Ancient Mediterranean (e.g. Roman, Greek, Egyptian), the 17th century masters, 18th century art, 19th century Americana, and 20th century moderne, including photographs and a set of prints by Liechtenstein.

We returned to the market, and walked through it again in the opposite direction. (This was when we learned the fate of the chili shop’s owner.) Like Vancouver’s Granville Island, the contents of Pike Place Market change fairly regularly, which makes finding some things fairly difficult. All depends on your needs, I guess. Anyway, we wandered around a bit before ending up at a small park overlooking the harbour. There, we sat on the grass, warmed ourselves in the sun, and watched the world walk by.

After a while, we hit upon the idea of touring around Seattle. While Allison had been through other portions of the city before, I had only been in the downtown core. I wanted to see the rest of it. We returned to the car, and drove our way into the heart of the city … after I missed a turn and ended up in a different area. We were attempting to find Capitol Hill on our own. There were no signs, no hints, and we had no map. It makes for an interesting adventure.

We drove around in seemingly endless loops (you have to understand that we weren’t really heading in any particular direction), eventually finding ourselves next to the convention centre. We headed east from there, soon finding ourselves at the Edward Nordstrom Medical Tower. This was when we found Seattle University and the Swedish Hospital. We headed south for a little ways until we opted to turn into one of the neighbourhoods — First Hill.

First Hill is so named because it was one of Seattle’s first neighbourhoods. Thus, it is also one of the oldest … and it certainly looks that way. Most of the homes are run-down and/or boarded up. The neighbourhood is mostly poor. It’s sad, really, because with a little money, most of the homes would look much better.

We soon found ourselves on 23rd Ave., turning north. We still didn’t know where Capitol Hill was, and it was time for us to find out. We popped into an AM/PM and picked up two Cokes and a map of Seattle. The map had all the information we wanted. Much to our surprise, we were not only in the right area, we weren’t far away from Capitol Hill. Another kilometre or so north on 23rd, and we were there.

Capitol Hill looks like the kind of neighbourhood you see in Hollywood movies — nice, large homes on moderately-sized lots in a very nice area. Basically, a rich area. We drove up and down Capitol Hill’s streets, gaping at the homes, very much wishing that we could afford one.

We soon left, on our second search of the day. Now, this quest definitely shows off our geekhood — we wanted to find Microsoft. I had a minor fascination with seeing what this company was actually like. One of the world’s most powerful companies, and all I’d ever actually seen was a small picture of one of its buildings (which, it turns out, is the recruiting building).

We headed north on 23rd Ave. (which turns into 24th), and looked for off-ramp for Highway 520 East. We missed it, and ended up heading directly into the University of Washington. I was reminded very soon after of the long debates on USENET about who should own the uw.* hierarchy — the University of Washington, or the University of Waterloo. Several other UW schools tried to get into the debate, but we shut them out pretty quickly.

The university is quite large, and has a nice campus. The buildings are old (or at least look old), much like the Ivy League schools back east. One of them is the Mary Gates building, named after Bill Gates’ late mother, who was also a schoolteacher, UW regent, and a chair of United Way International. I guess Billy gets his goodwill from his mom.

Finding our way to Highway 520, we headed for Redmond. We really had no exact idea where we were going, other than Redmond. We didn’t have directions, we didn’t know where in Redmond Microsoft lay, and our map didn’t show roads any smaller than the major highways.

Arriving in Redmond about 30 minutes later, we proceeded to search. Redmond has two things: Industrial parks populated almost entirely by high-tech companies, and townhouses. There are a few actual houses, but the domicile of preference seems to be the higher-density models. It fits with the youngish population, I suppose.

We drove around the city, covering the north, east, and west sides before finally stopping at a gas station for assistance. The clerk gave me a strange look, and with a straight face provided me directions. She probably added “geek” or “weirdo” as I left.

Microsoft probably moved to Redmond because it needed space. A lot of space. A huge amount of space. The campus (and it really is a campus) is larger than most (if not all) Canadian universities. It’s not just huge, it’s freakin’ huge. There are at least 50 buildings scattered about the area, covering every portion of the company. It’s impressive.

The scary part is that there is no construction going on at Microsoft. All the buildings are complete. And full. This includes a conference centre, dormitories (large ones, about 20 storeys each), research labs, and separate offices for the Internet portions of the company. It’s frightening, just plain frightening. You actually have to wonder why the FTC hasn’t broken the company up yet.

After our little tour, we returned to the highway, and headed our way home. The trip back was as uneventful as the trip down, and without the sun blinding our every movement. A couple of hours later, we arrived at the Cloverdale Truck crossing, and made our way back into Canada. Then we were off to find dinner.

Originally, we were heading for the Langley crossing, which would have put us near the Sammy J. Peppers in Langley (or Surrey … one of the two). But we were a fair distance from it. So instead, we went to find the Sammy J. Peppers in Coquitlam. Along with the rest of the Lower Mainland.

Luckily, we got there as the crowd was beginning to die down. We indulged ourselves in a nice meal, and prepared to retire to home with a good movie — Steve Martin’s “Bowfinger”.

Sunday was our lazy day. We got up late, we didn’t move fast or far. Although we did for a long walk, eventually ending up at Urban Fare to get fixin’s for dinner. A fairly relaxing day.

I’m glad we took the time to do all this — this week is going to be rough. I’ve got a small mountain of work that should probably kick into full gear by mid-afternoon today. Then I get to lock myself away until Friday, when the drafts are due. All supposed to be done by Tuesday. That’s my drop-dead date.

I hate deadlines.