By: | Post date: October 24, 2009 | Comments: 3 Comments
Posted in categories: Countries

I don’t have much to say about Seattle, because my allotted time there was spent in profuse geek-out mode with Diana and Pierre, whom I thank profusely for their hospitality and good humour. When I grow up, I’d love to be them: in a house groaning with books, with papers on the boil and an anecdote always ready, with an affectionate and non-allergenic cat, in a cosy sprawling house perched by a park in an orgy of greenery and damp timber cheer. And fresh-baked apple pie. I have a sneaking suspicion that’s not where I’ll end up if I ever grow up, but at least I have a reference point to aspire to now.

Orgy of greenery and damp timber cheer. That’s Seattle. A pity I didn’t get to wander around it now, but it’s wasn’t the day for it anyway: I wandered for ten minutes in the autumn wind, and got a maple leaf in the face for my trouble. That, and a reminder of my acrophobia as a forest layered itself in glorious 3-D from the park bridge next door, its depths and deciduous dappling impossible to capture on pixels. So I didn’t even bother.

But the damp timber makes sense here, even as I look down on the dry timber of my home suburb. There’s something about the varied colours of the houses, and their gabling right out of Brothers Grimm, and the luxurious green of their temperate rainforest backdrop, that makes it all coherent.

I was in good cheer enough, I even engaged the convivial van driver in conversation. (He made it clear I didn’t have any other option.) We are a reserved people, we Australians; we don’t think so, because we compare ourselves to the British, but from the vantage point of Americans we’re indistinguishable. My tram-bound colleagues of the inner city assert to me it is not so in their tram routes, and they have wonderful conversations on the tram. Some of them don’t even involve junkies. This data point does not fit my thesis, so I’ll make like a Chomskian linguist and ignore it.

So when an Australian is in an American vehicle of group transport, and the friendly and open-hearted locals seek to engage them in conversation, the reserved and laconic Australian tries to Back Away From The Crazy, because no, we don’t want to share. But like I say, Seattle had softened me up enough that I humoured the friendly and open-hearted locals.

I see how you could pick up that way.

The trip to and fro was the standard series of misadventures: the Super Shuttle in Redwood City forgot I existed (there’s $20 prepaid I’m not going to see again), the shuttle services get you to the airport an hour before you have any business there (’cause they don’t want the liability), the airports look and feel like something out of Central Asia, only with vending machines selling e-Book readers.

There’s several things that make American airports tortuous. The ongoing farce of Security Theatre is up there, but it’s only one. In truth, it’s not the pointlessness and officiousness of Security Theatre that are the annoyance; they’re old hat now, and I got my Semtex joke at an airport out of my system before September 11 anyway. It’s the understaffing of the Security Theatre staff: the procedures are no more invasive or drawn out than in Australia, but the queues are three times as long, because anything involving the public sector in Seppoland is inefficient.

(Anything involving mass service, in fact: Greyhound buses are not state-owned, they just don’t have a market driver to do a good job. And unlike the socialist rest of the world, here it’s No Market Driver, No Service.)

But it’s several things beyond that. The dim lighting of airports, which was just as much a bad-mood–setter in 1999 as it is in 2009. The obligation to pay $20 extra for putting a suitcase on a plan, and the invitations at the counter to pay extra for legroom, food, water, video. It’s intended as user-pays exercise of choice; it comes across as extortion. I got a bag checker asking how it was in Australia, where we do not (yet) do any of that on Qantas, we just pay more upfront; and he wistfully sighed “those days are long gone here.”

And never again BLT. You’d think I’d have learned my lesson from the Sofitel “mini”-burger, but that’s the classic definition of insanity: keep trying, hoping next time it’ll be better.

No matter. Seattle, orgy of greenery and damp timber cheer. Thank you for existing.

Even if the Melbourne W-class trams are currently off the waterway tracks. Bring ’em back, good burghers of Seattle. The tourists love that kind of thing. Next best thing to actually having a functioning tram system.


  • John Cowan says:

    No, it was subtextual (which may mean it was in my own head). Not to be a spoilerator, Chase has a Big Secret, and he won't tell Cameron, who's hurt by it. He dodges, evades, says there's nothing wrong in approved American male fashion, but when she presses him, instead of an angry outburst, we get dead silence and the Big Freeze-Out. Watching all this, I immediately thought "How Australian — we never will really understand them." It's one of those shocking moments for committed internationalists (not to say cosmopolites) when a cultural divide suddenly turns into the Valles Marineris. (And then CUT to House spouting medical mumbo-jumbo, or whatever.)

    As for you, Nick, you don't seem Australian, even to the accent which grows more British as time goes by, even if you continue to eschew low back vowels. Instead, you are a Western European from some unspecified country, not quite to be identified with any already known to me or the maps, but still definitively from that part of the world and no other. I must admit I don't know if that makes you deeply rooted or totally rootless.

  • opoudjis says:

    Thank you for insightful link. So if I think of Americans as Italians (positive politeness culture), all will be well. Actually it won't, because these reactions are visceral enough to take a long time to tune out; but I had not made the link between effusiveness and positive politeness, and I should have.

    (I don't think Greeks are as big on compliments, but they're huge on other aspects of positive politeness—like resenting someone saying "thank you", because it's a distance marker.)

    I just found out Chase and Cameron were even married by being here; we're behind on televised House as usual, and I watch hardly any TV anyway. So they go into the intercultural dynamics? Huh. I'm impressed. I don't see how they got together in the first place, but I guess I can find out on Television Without Pity or something.

    I'd ask you which side I am an exception on, John, but that'd be fishing for compliments. 🙂 Yes, my persona is effusive by Australian standards, but a lot of it is shtick…

  • John Cowan says:

    We are a reserved people, we Australians; we don't think so, because we compare ourselves to the British, but from the vantage point of Americans we're indistinguishable.

    Noooo, I wouldn't say that. Australians (I except you yourself, Nick) appear to us friendly, outgoing, and quite American despite the weird accent. It's only when we expect to be able to dig a little deeper emotionally that we suddenly discover the Great Freeze-Out that tells us "Back off and stay backed off". (I must admit I had this insight while watching Chase and Cameron on a recent episode of House, but I was able to think of earlier, slighly more real-life incidents tending to confirm this.)

    Anyhow, see this Lynneguist post on solidarity cultures vs. deference cultures; Australians seem to be the second working hard to be the first, or some such thing.

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