The land of flannel and chai

Leave the flannel; take the Birkenstocks.

So I told myself, standing over my already-overstuffed weekend bag at 3:00 a.m. on a recent Thursday morning.  It felt…wrong, not to take a flannel to Seattle.  But so my gut told me – leave the flannel, throw in the Birkenstocks.  So I did just that.  It was hard – flannel was such an integral part of my image of Seattle, of the Pacific Northwest in general, growing up (and discovering MTV) in the 90s.

I don’t remember if I even saw much actual flannel the last time I was out here, though.  The last time I went to Seattle, I was 17, in the midst of college searching and campus visiting.  I was more focused on the excitement of campuses so far away from the east coast, the chill Pacific Northwest vibe – and, it turned out, the discovery of chai lattes.

“Well, it’s a much different city than it was back then too,” a friend told me, a friend who had just moved out to Seattle a month earlier.  I didn’t know what to expect, not really.  I remembered Pike Place market; I remembered the Fremont Troll; I remembered the mountains and the water; I remembered college campuses, in Washington and Oregon.  And I remembered chai lattes.

I made it to Seattle with little hubbub.  (Random travel tip of the day: When connecting in Houston on a redeye flight, there are many very decent breakfast options; look for the pizza joint, somewhere in the shopping area between the E and C gates, with the breakfast Stromboli – which are huge, greasy, and fantastic; every bite is perfectly, evenly full of sausage, egg, and gooey melted cheese.)  The first thing I noticed – although I had been somewhat mentally prepared – was the heat; Seattle was in the grips of an unseasonable heatwave, exacerbated by haze coming down from the Canadian wildfires.

My first stop was to be Pike Place.  Once I parked, my feet seemed to remember where to go – they seemed to remember the steep downhill block down into the market proper.  The stalls up and down the main hall – the sudden olfactory assault of of fresh flowers and fresh fish; the king crab claws, the whole halibuts, the bouquets of fresh cut flowers on display and in shoppers’ bags; these were all where my faded memory told me they should be.  The jewelers, tchotchke-hawkers, and leather sellers were all there.  And downstairs – the stores selling (and re-selling) anything under the sun, the bookshops, the tiny restaurants; the labyrinthine halls were almost as easy to get turned around in as the tightest alleys in the medina behind Jemaa el-Fnaa.

I knew I would need some late lunch (my meal schedule was 3 hours ahead of me, after all); my ear suddenly caught a wisp of Mandarin to my right.  And lo, I found my lunch spot – Pike Place Chinese, a tiny almost-dive, with several Chinese families lunching in the tiny booths.  I went in, sat in the back by a window (with a view of the piers and the ferris wheel), and ordered my beef noodles in semi-halting Chinese.  The steaming pile of wide rice noodles, with the seared beef and crispy chives were exactly what the doctor ordered.

Thus fortified, I continued my wanderings – past more shops; past more coffee houses and fish restaurants; past the street musicians entertaining those in line to peek in the “original Starbucks” (which I ultimately refused to wait on line for; we’d stopped in on our last trip, and I doubted it had really changed all that much, other than the much larger throngs of tourists than I remembered).  I opted instead for the French bakery/cafe a few doors down, Panier – the one with the baskets of fresh (or at least fresh-looking) baguettes, standing upright; the one with the rows of glistening sugary pastries behind the glass counter.  Armed with a cafe au lait and a couple of macarons for later, I made my way out of Pike Place and onward to my motel just outside of town.

The next day, Friday, I had some choices to make.  I knew I wanted to see “more” of Seattle than I remembered seeing the last time around, and I had two full days bookending the wedding (of a different friend) that brought me to town.  So, once again armed with Google Maps (and a combination of Google Trips, Atlas Obscura, and Trip Advisor), I made my way down to Pioneer Square to go on Bill Speidel’s Underground Tour (but there are evidently many others to choose from).  Our tour guide, Shane – caught somewhere between stand-up comic and possible Elvis impersonator – began by regaling us with stories of Seattle’s founding, building, and rebuilding (with a few…sewage jokes along the way).  The tour only lasted just over an hour, which seemed to fly by, and not onerously; but by the end of it, my body, still vaguely on east coast time, figured it was just about lunchtime.  I distracted myself with more coffee and meandering around Pioneer Square, until Google gave me a suggestion I couldn’t resist – a restaurant called Biscuit Bitch, with a location around the corner, specializing in variations of biscuits and gravy (I went with the Smokin’ Hot Bitch – biscuits and gravy with cheese, a Louisiana Hot Link, and jalapenos – and did not remotely regret it…although my arteries might have).  I justified my excessive lunch by walking back down to the waterfront, back up past the piers (and the ferris wheel) to Pike Place (and through a delightful antique shop, several flights of stairs down from the market itself), and then back over to Pioneer Square to collect my rental car from its garage.  A fine walk, but decidedly more crowded as the city welcomed more weekend tourists (and prepared for Seafair events that weekend, I would later discover).

The next stop was the only other neighborhood I actually remembered: Fremont.  I made a beeline for the Fremont Troll, the landmark I remembered well from our last visit (and, in fact, is one of only three photos of urban Seattle that made it into that year’s scrapbook once I got home).  It was – much like Pike Place on this particular Friday afternoon – much more crowded than it had been in my memory, but it allowed a few minutes’ reprieve sitting off to the side while I waited for the crowds to part long enough to take an unobscured photo.  Once I had my proof-of-visit, I meandered back down the hill to re-explore this neighborhood I remembered with some fondness – I found a favorite black jacket here once – I ended up walking past the Lenin statue, past the Fremont Rocket, past several very cool shops (including a used bookstore, Ophelia’s Books, that had more Paul Bowles than I’ve seen in a used bookstore in a long time).  Eventually the heat got to me and I went to get my fourth (or fifth?) coffee of the day at the Fremont Roasting Company, where I sat on their massive front porch to wait for my friend to get off work and meet me for dinner.  We meandered a bit more and landed on a random Thai restaurant, where we caught up over cold sodas and spicy peanut sauce.  We eventually made our way back to her apartment, over in Bellevue, and had a bit of a look around (a bit more…suburban, a bit more Bethesda, than any of my downtown wanderings) before I wandered back to my motel for the evening.

The next day – Saturday – was my other friend’s wedding day.  Rather than fight Saturday traffic on Route 5, I stuck it out in the suburbs and found myself over in Edmonds, a small suburb on Puget Sound, and made my way straight over to the Edmonds Marina Beach Park – where, for the first time in 72 hours, I almost regretted not bringing that flannel after all.  I sat and watched the kayakers, watched the dogs playing in the sound, watched people bring their Saturday picnics.  (My one friend quipped, “I love how you find the beach no matter where you go.”)  With several hours still to kill before my other friend’s wedding, I followed Google’s suggestion and went over to the Cascadia Art Museum – an unobtrusive little place in a strip mall, but with a fascinating impressionist exhibit currently on – but which still did not kill quite enough time.  So on I went.

I meandered into downtown Edmonds to find more coffee, and happened upon Walnut Street Coffee, a friendly and bustling little place.  The thing was, I was already sufficiently caffeinated, but also wanted to sit for a minute; but my indecision was assuaged when I realized I had not yet had my chai latte.  And so I sat with my chai latte and watched the Saturday morning crowd filter in and out for a while before pushing off once more to follow my feet through downtown Edmonds and through their Saturday morning farmer’s market (where I finally found the perfect necklace for the wedding – a small, copper Eiffel Tower on a delicate copper chain-link chain).  I was ready for my friend’s wedding (an American friend I made in Paris, who had already married her French husband, in France, and was indulging her American family who couldn’t make that trek.  A great time was had by all, until the sun finally wore me out and called it a day).

So, then, what to do with my last day?  My flight out was the midnight redeye on Sunday night; I had already indulged in my nostalgia in Pike Place and Fremont, and I had already seen new things in Pioneer Square and Edmonds.  I threw everything into my rental car, made my way back downtown, and made may way – once again at Google’s suggestion (I trusted Google on food, after Thurman’s in Columbus) – over to a place called the 5-Point Cafe, somewhere on the border between Seattle Central and Belltown – a true dive, a place full of characters, a place full of regulars – just the place I needed to be.  I sat at the bar, and had their Corned Beef Benedict and several cups of coffee, and then pushed on – back down to the waterfront, by way of the Olympic Sculpture Garden (a fantastic place for Sunday afternoon sitting), and then back up to Seattle Center.

It was too hazy to justify going up the Space Needle – the one real touristy thing I still hadn’t done.  So instead, I wandered into the Museum of Pop Culture – an expensive stop, but absolutely worth it (especially the Bowie by Mick Rock exhibit, if not the air conditioning to escape the heat).  With several hours still to kill, I walked back through Belltown back to Pike Place…and, it turned out, my nostalgia hadn’t finished with me; I walked (quite accidentally) right past the Ace Hotel where we had stayed 17 years prior.  My friend eventually made her way downtown, and we meandered over to Capitol Hill.  But my time in Seattle eventually came to an end, and I made my way south to SeaTac, and east to the other Washington.

It was not a mistake to leave the flannel and take the Birkenstocks – it was (generally) too warm for a flannel, and Seattle was – as my friend had forewarned me – not the same city as it had been.  It might not have even been the same city, back then, that I had built it up to be in my media-infused, escape-the-east-coast teenage brain.  But it is still Seattle – laid-back, full of things to see, food to eat, and some of the friendliest people I’d encountered in a while; and full of chai tea (…even if I only had the one this time).

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