Seattle by the Sea


The English writer J B Priestly once said that he knew two words of American slang — swell and lousy — and while swell was lousy, lousy was swell. Comparing things is often like that — there are good aspects, and bad, and they’re easy to confuse with one another. We moved to Seattle from Cape Town six months ago and we still struggle with the comparison.

Let’s talk about the good things first.

You can drop your guard. When the phone rings, it isn’t ADT. You see people leave their handbags and wallets in plain sight, and nothing happens. Bicycles lie around on a porch, and continue to lie around. Deliveries are left on the steps. When something goes bump in the night, it’s just that. In most neighbourhoods there are small community libraries by the side of the road, comprising a glass box on a pole, filled with books to which you can add and from which you can take at will.

Driving is a pleasure. People do what they ought to do. There are no taxis pushing in. No one drives up your ass. No one flashes and honks, at least not in Seattle. You don’t spend your time wishing for super powers. As a pedestrian, though, you seem to actually have super powers. If you merely look like you might be thinking of crossing the road, even away from a traffic light, cars stop and their drivers wave you along with a smile. No one gets angry…at least in Seattle.

The mail works. Letters arrive the day after they were sent. The man from UPS comes and fetches the Amazon order you didn’t like, and away it goes for free.

Amazon orders arrive—the same day, or the next, or, if things are really bad, the day after that.

Grocery stores are open 24/7. You can buy wine and beer at these shops, all the time. There’s never a silly cage around the wine. There’s a huge variety of vegetables, especially Asian ones. There are more cheeses than you can name. There is craft beer everywhere. At the checkout, you can scan your own stuff and go. At Amazon Go you can walk right in, take what you want and walk right out — no scanning.

You can use your credit card to buy almost anything, anywhere. At restaurants, you don’t have to worry that someone will skim your card. They don’t bring a machine to your table. They take your card away, like they did in the good old days, and whatever tip you add they charge later, after you’re gone. Somehow you’re never cheated.

Electric sockets are fantastic. They’re compact and unobtrusive. Two-point appliances plug into the same holes as earthed ones. The prongs are such that they stay in the wall, and they honour polarity. You never have to bend anything or jiggle it. Being on 110V sucks, but plugging into it is great.

In and around the city there are statues and parks everywhere. There are mountains, even though they’re far away. There are plenty of wineries. Many of them have good wines, but only a few are great.

There is a sense that you live in a city of beginnings. Companies all along the alphabet have been founded here — Amazon, Boeing, Costco, through to Microsoft and Nordstrom, Starbucks and Zillow.

In the winter, you can ski. The internet is fast, the power stays on, the buses run and no one burns anything. There’s litter, but people pick it up. Recycling is done everywhere, and it’s easy.

Now for the bad.

There’s Trump. In Seattle, Trump is a problem that’s far away, like something you’ve hit with your car, a thing that’s happened out there beyond the bumper — oops, fender. Besides, the man can read large numbers and that seems to be a good start.

There are homeless people like you’ve never seen anywhere else. Seattle is where they make them. I’m sure there’s a factory somewhere, perhaps a little south of the city. The homeless sleep in tents under the highways. Some of those tents have a deck chair out front and a satellite dish.

Measurements are Imperial, but not entirely — somehow they’ve messed that up too. Dates are written incorrectly. Most devices show am/pm times and do not have the option to show time in a 24-hour format. Even worse, 5:15 pm is shown as 05:15 pm.

There’s sugar in the food, especially in bread. You cannot tell how fatty anything is, despite a lengthy list of statistics on the container, mandated by the FDA. Instead of stating that the food is 33% fat, it would say that the fat content is 9% of your *daily requirement, if you eat 1½ servings. No one can figure out what that means. It’s what happens when you litigate freedom.

Words are screwed up. While some are better — truck and sidewalk and fall are better than lorry and pavement and autumn — some are just different. A bumper is a fender, a bonnet is a hood and a tap is a faucet. More often the American words are outright wrong. A scone with a slice of cheese and an egg inside is called a biscuit. I pointed out to my colleagues that biscuit meant twice-cooked, but they just smiled and shook their heads. That’s a cookie, they said. A jersey is called a sweater and what you’d sweat in is called a jersey. What is clearly a smooth jam is called jelly. Jelly is called jello. A bill is a bank note — to get the bill you have to ask for the invoice or the check. What’s obviously a sissy hybrid of rugby is called football, even though kicking mostly happens when a special kicker is called onto the field to do the kicking. The word route is pronounced to rhyme with out. Everywhere else, route pronounced to rhyme with out is spelled rout and is what the English did to the French at Agincourt, or what a pig does to a truffle.

Banking sucks. People still write checks. You have to send checks. You get checks. There is no way to easily transfer money to another account unless it’s your own account, and even then you have to first prove that it is. You can wire money, but that costs a lot and often cuts a check in the background. When you transfer money from your savings account into your credit card, at the same bank, it takes a week to show up.

The food is inferior, especially in restaurants. Restaurant interiors look molded because custom-made furniture and fittings are too expensive to bother with.

The coffee isn’t great.

It rains, but not as much as people think.

Rent and property prices are astronomical and the city is growing too fast. There’s construction everywhere.

There are many bodies of water — the lakes and the Sound — but none of them is the SEA.


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