Monday 28 February 2011

Sleepless in Seattle - Part 3

As we tried to find our way across the bridge using our delightful, not fully functioning satnav, we got a bit lost. In the process, we managed to see more of the lake, a beautiful park and some really, really dodgy parts of town. The bits you don't want to see ever, much less when you're trying to decide whether to move to a place. So far there were definitely more cons than pros.

We finally found the bridge and headed over Lake Washington, stopping at Mercer Island on the way. This, we had been told, was one of THE spots to live with fab schools and a very nice area.  But all we saw was one shopping arcade and suburb after suburb after suburb. We decided to call it quits as we were in dire need of food and figured that there wasn't much more to Mercer Island than lots of houses. Nice houses admittedly, but where do all the people in those houses go when they need to pop out for a pint of milk? There didn't seem to be such a thing as a corner shop or local Chinese take-away. It was simply suburbia....for miles.

We finally entered the promised land of Bellevue. Initial impressions were underwhelming. It was a mini city with sky scrapers and a mall and lots of 'retail parks'. By retail park, I mean the kind of places you'd find on the outskirts of a British town that tend to feature a Homebase, sports shop and possibly a Matalan. You know the feeling that goes along with those places. It's not a shopping pleasure. It's a shopping chore. You're going there with the express purpose of getting something, normally not something you want to buy, but something you need to buy. So it was that feeling which seemed to permeate the place. And I was starting to realise that it was places like these that serve as the corner shop or the hub for an area.

It wasn't helped when we returned to our car, having nipped into a pizza joint for a bite to eat, to discover we had a parking ticket. Apparently  we were a 'walk off'. In other words, we'd parked in the retail park but had crossed the road and eaten at the pizza joint facing the car park, rather than going to a shop in the car park. Luckily when we came to pay for this ticket, the man on the telephone found the concept of a British credit card very complicated and he kindly cancelled the ticket. (Incidentally, good pizza.)

We then began exploring the suburbs of Bellevue. Think Desperate Housewives. Think Wisteria Lane. Think perfect houses on perfect streets, with perfect cars parked in front of perfect garages. It was surreal. And strange. Again, no corner shop. No feeling of a suburb/village centre. Do every one of these people hop in their big cars and drive to the mall to get a loaf of bread? Really?

We did see people walking, but where were they walking to? Was there a mystery destination we were yet to find? If there was, we never did find it.

So we drove around confused, simultaneously drooling over the size and marvellousness of the houses, but not quite getting it either. It all just felt a little bit Stepford Wives. There were some suburbs that were particularly gorgeous, with tiny roads winding down to the edge of the lake.  I decided that if we were to move there, then it would be one of those houses I would want and covet. But I'd have to sell several of my internal organs to afford one.

After a lot of driving we finally headed back into Bellevue to check out the mall (cool with good shops) and meet a friend for drinks. She had very kindly arranged for several of her friends to join us so that we could pick their brains as to what it is like to live there. There was me (South African), my friend (South African), my husband (British), an Irishman, an Australian and an American who had mostly lived abroad. And there were two local Americans. All there to give us their perspective.

In general the ex-pats seemed to love it, but had a hard time saying why. In short, they said that living in the US was like falling onto a squishy pillow. It's soft and easy and comforting, but not very edgy. They said life was ridiculously easy and incredibly cheap in comparison to the UK (yes, we noticed that when we filled the car and it cost just $30 as opposed to the £70 it normally costs us). And the tax rate was much lower, so financially you're far better off. And there is plenty to do in the area, like skiing and hiking and sailing. All good.

The Americans took their job, of informing us about the place, very seriously. They were lovely and very kind to give us their time and I couldn't fault them. Except that they weren't like the ex-pats. There was less swearing. Fewer hilarious jokes. Just a little more earnestness in general. Which in itself told us a lot. It is a nation of people like these that we'd be moving to.  Would we fit in?

Luckily the ex-pats told us that there are a ludicrous number of ex-pats in Seattle thanks to companies like Microsoft and Google. They even play rugby and tend to hang out and tell rude jokes, saying words like twat which apparently Americans equate to the the C word over here. Not that I'd want to move all the way to the far side of the US, just to hang out with a bunch of ex-pats. When in Rome, be Roman and all that. But it was comforting to know that we could get our fix of Britain should we need it.

In all by the end of the night, I was feeling more optimistic. They seemed a very nice bunch - all of them - and they all had good things to say about living there, despite the weather.

There was only one thing I found a bit odd about the evening. The bar we were in had the five girls in our party and possibly another 5 women in the entire place. The rest of the people there were men. Where were the women? All at home being Stepford Wives, getting the casseroles out of the cooker in readiness for the return of the man? Perhaps it was simply the location of the bar being near hotels where business men are likely to be, but it was odd nonetheless.

So by the end of a very, very tiring first day, our conclusion was: net neutral. Not for or against. Just completely undecided. If anything, more in the against column but the evening's banter had pulled it back towards neutral ground.

What followed was a sleepness night in Seattle, a few hours of coma-esque sleep followed by a jet-lag induced 3am wake up call with a waterfall of thoughts cascading through my brain. I was hoping that day 2 would give me more clarity. Because the one place I didn't want to be was sitting on a picket fence....


Iota said...

Suburbia for miles... that's like where I live. I still haven't got used to it. Yes, I do hop in my big car to go to a big supermarket, to get a pint of milk (though usually a half gallon or a gallon, actually, since the fridge is so big). Life really IS like that.

And the walking. It's exercise. They do it in the neighbourhood or the gym, because there isn't the same concept of countryside, and there aren't any big parks. (Or that's how it is round here.)

Gosh, your analysis of the evening with the difference between the expats and the Americans is just so spot on, it's scary. You're very intuitive.

It's going to be a hard decision, isn't it?

nappy valley girl said...

It's true - Americans don't walk anywhere. I live in a town with lots of corner shops and places to walk to, right round the corner - but, I have to say, not that many people walk to them. Especially when it's too hot/too cold - they much prefer their cars. I am considered quite weird for walking around town- when we first got here, one mum was surprised that my children knew about crossing roads and waiting at lights - clearly, hers never walked along the street!

I don't know what kind of bar you went to - women do go out here, but I think it tends to be to wine bars/restaurants rather than a straight 'bar' which does tend to be the haunt of blokes.

I think that if you do come here you have to just accept the differences - it is NOT the UK, and there will always be pros and cons. Weighing up the balance is the hard bit.....

laurie said...

seattle's great but i think you might want to live in the city, proper, rather than one of those suburbs. my sister lives in seattle, near the zoo, and loves it. walks everywhere. they kind of look down on people who move to bellevue.

i walk a lot (despite what nappy valley girl says) but it's true that most cities (including mine) are not built for walking; they're built for driving. mass transit sucks, too. good luck!

laurie said...

i'm also confused by the lack of women in bars... all i can think of is that it's the difference between city life and suburban life. (i live in a city, don't care for suburbs.) the city might be more to your liking.