Stockholm’s City Hall: Vikings, Italians, and Looming Pseudo-Medusas

Stockholm's city hall's exterior from the street, with EU flag

Stockholm’s city hall (Stadshuset to locals) looked like a staid brick building as I approached it, walking carefully along the icy sidewalk and hoping for a cafe where I could get second breakfast. (I was in luck there. Thanks, Sweden.) I like seeing millennium-old skeletons and grand history and all of that, but I also have a love of the everyday when I travel.* That includes municipal buildings, so I didn’t need to know about any grandeur in Stadshuset for it to be worth putting on my list for my time in Stockholm.

Looking toward the water from Stockholm's city hall courtyard

Walk through an arched doorway, and you find yourself within a wide courtyard. There are cobblestones under that snow. Beyond the arches you see here, there’s a green space (well, white when I was there) that meets the water, allowing you a wide view of Gamla Stan and Södermalm.

Looking down into Stockholm's city hall's Blue Room

The tour (100 SEK, or about $11 at this writing – typical for museums and tours, I found) starts in the Blue Hall, which you may know as the place where the Nobel Prize banquet is held each year. Oh, only that. It’s a wide space, but the tour guide took a little glee in telling us how each guest gets only 50 cm of dining space – except for those being honored and the royal family, who get a palatial 60 cm. It is snuggly for sure.

When we were there, it was just… quiet, that lovely exaggerated hush from people being respectful in a high-ceilinged room. Oh, and why is a clearly brick-walled room called the Blue Hall? The architect’s original idea was the glaze the walls blue, but the brick (deliberately aged to make it seem like a more ancient space than it is) was pretty enough that the glaze idea went, but the name stayed.

The building has a few mid-process switcheroos like that.

Looking up from within Stockholm's city hall's Blue Room

This room is meant to evoke an Italian palazzo. I dig it.

Arched ceiling in the tower of Stockholm's city hall

From there, we ascended the stairs that Nobel Prize winners descend on the night of their banquet. We paused in the middle of the building’s tower, which is open for more detailed tours in the winter. These are the thousand arches (and, uh, one balloon).

Rådssalen ceiling

Next was the Rådssalen, where the city council gathers. Just take a second and compare this to the Blue Hall. I feel like the architect went for beauty and variety at the risk of that certain staid awe we like in our public buildings, but managed all of them anyway.

Rådssalen ceiling detail

The ceiling was inspired by Viking architecture, and I did very much wish I could lie down and stare up at it, maybe with a fire nearby. I don’t think about nesting much these days, but I did bookmark this in my head for if I ever own my own place and can do what I like with the ceilings and walls.

Oval Room at Stockholm's city hall

After that, we walked through the Oval Room, which is closed on Saturdays so Stockholm residents can get married in it. It’s lined in centuries-old Belgian-made tapestries, and it just feels lovely and warm in there. It’s up there, I think, with San Francisco’s City Hall and a pink Elvis-driven Cadillac in Vegas so far as rad places to celebrate your union.

Gold Room at Stockholm's City HallThe finale of the tour (and this is saying something for a tour that started with oh just the room where the Nobel bloody Banquet is held) was the Golden Hall, made of millions of tiles and about 10 kg of gold, sandwiched ever so thinly between tiny panes of clear glass. The post-banquet ball is held here, but I feel like even that scintillating company would pale a bit next to the very vivid tales going on in the enclaves and on the walls.

Stockholm city hall mosaic detail

There are the Greek and Roman references that seem to pop up throughout the older Swedish decorative arts. (They’re frequent at the Vasamuseet, for instance.)

Stockholm city hall mosaic detail

Yeah, this is familiar enough. (Excuse the pictures: art made for imposing and impressing doesn’t translate very well from a 5’8″ perspective, but I love these enough that I don’t care. They reminded me wonderfully of the art in Seattle’s Greek Orthodox church – surprisingly human and cartoony, considering the contexts.)

Eric XII and a woman with surprising spheres

But then it gets into local stories. I wish there was a tour that just told the tales being depicted on the walls. The tour guide gave some pretty great highlights, but then there’s this little scene. I’m not saying I’ve never taken the position of the woman in the back, but never in the presence of some grey-blue demon fellow with a pointed tongue.

Well, not yet.

Funeral procession detail in the Gold Room at Stockholm's City Hall

This one echoed a long illustrated scroll I saw at the Royal Armory. Humans have always loved a good funeral, I suppose.

Queen of Lake Mälaren in the Gold Room at Stockholm's City Hall

At the end of the room, the Queen of Lake Mälaren looks benevolently (and, let’s face it, a little dubiously) upon us. She was controversial, apparently – her hair too Medusa-like, her looks insufficiently dishy. I think her expression is perfect – how else should you look if you find yourself the caretaker of a city while holding a scepter and wearing a see-through shirt that turns your boobs blue? “Yeah, well, this is today, isn’t it? Right then. Better get to keeping this city from being smudged off the earth.”

Here’s a little more about some of the symbols and stories going on in this wonderful, wonderful space.

Bye, Gold Room!

And then it was time to go.

We descended the stairs back into the Blue Hall. I couldn’t quite keep my gaze on the star on the wall, too afraid was I of tumbling down the marble stairs and landing in the pile of performance fabrics that I’ve been since arriving in Stockholm on Saturday. That’s a thing with going from California to Sweden in February: it’s very easy to completely stop trusting your feet, as the ground very much has its own agenda.

I write this on a train to Malmö, where I’ll catch a second train to Copenhagen. I like it here so far. I’m not sure if it’s the secondhand Scandinavian exposure I had in my 11 years in Seattle or residual goodwill from my trip two years ago (!). Those two trips bookended a period of some of the greatest upheaval I’ve experienced in my life so far, so I can’t help but wonder what’s waiting for me when I get back to Oakland next week.

In the meantime: sensible design, a culture of beautiful collaboration, and awe at other people’s mythologies.

*A highlight of yesterday: seeing how cool Stockholm recycling is, with bonus laundry scheduling mechanism. More on that another day.

Boring Postcard Pictures of Lake Merritt, or Discomfort with Comfort

Oakland's Lake Merritt in January

I have a few recurring photo subjects these days. The Bay Bridge is one, of course, elusive as ever but a pleasure to keep trying to capture. Another is Lake Merritt. At night, it’s like a live impressionist masterpiece. During the day, it’s… well, it’s what I told people about when they got nervous on my behalf when I’d tell them I was planning on continuing to live in Oakland.

“Let me tell you about the lake,” I’d say. “It’s surrounded by joggers. And yuppies. And families that just arrived or have probably been here for a decade or two. It’s absolutely terrifying. You’re right to stay away.”

Today, the sun was shining, and the sky was perfect and blue with punctuating fluffy clouds. The lake was in an un-stinky mood, covered with dozens of people sculling and canoeing and otherwise acting in ways that seem very un-January to me. I shed my light scarf shortly after I left the house. By the time I hit Lake Merritt’s northwest edge, I was a bit too warm and squinting because I’ve misplaced my sunglasses and have yet to replace them.

lake-merritt-postcard-3

This is not a new discomfort. I’ve lived in a place other people found enviable, all white sand and endless sun and such. Unchallenging conditions, I scoffed. What, don’t you like seasons? Is it super hard to put on a coat a few months a year? Your life must be hard.

And then it made sense for me to move here. The Bay Area doesn’t lack weather, but Oakland gets less of it than San Francisco, and I hear that even San Francisco isn’t San Francisco anymore in that respect. El Niño helped me ease in a bit – cold mixed with unrelenting rain still feels like home today.

And then there are days like today.

lake-merritt-postcard-3

Endless and perfect at precisely the time we should all be feeling mildly oppressed by the weather.

I get asked a bit less these days about how I’m settling in, how the switch in locations after my long relationship with Seattle is going.

I have a lot of thoughts on that, but I know the question most people are asking. So I give the shorter answer: “Overall, pretty good, but the weather might be something that doesn’t work for me, in the end. We’ll see.”

“Oh,” the person says, if they’re far away. “Yeah, I heard San Francisco weather could be pretty cold and gloomy.”

“No,” I return. “It’s… nice. Sunny, all the time. I miss my sweaters. I miss hunching against wet gusts of wind, and grey days for weeks at a time. I liked that. I might have been the only one.”

This seems to be hard for a lot of people to understand. I assure them that I’m not joking, but I don’t think they believe me.

I wonder: will I convert to this way of being, where weather is so gentle that cars and tombstones survive uneroded for decades on end? Will I relax into such gentle living?

And will a week and a half in Scandinavia at one of the hardest points of winter settle things for me just a little?

We shall see.

Current Delights, in Honor of a Gently Surly Week

The Cathedral Building in downtown Oakland

The ornate and varied architecture of downtown Oakland

Beginning to type and feeling my brain purr, going back to the thing that I am meant to do, above and around all else

Beer in the fridge, stocked by me, meant for me

Friends who reach out; the options of yes and no, both given joyfully

A fluffy cat, patient as I pick a little dread out from under his infinitely sweet chin

The awareness of being in another first act

Midwestern Nice used for the power of good

An unread shelf, unpacked after months, shining and new and alluring

Casting my own future as I pick lodgings for my next trip

A two-block walk to buy hair dye

The cheap cheese-end bin at the grocery store

Seeing my work attached to an icon on my phone, a real thing someone could someday use

That our knowledge of love and its strangeness and ways deepens for all of the rest of our days

Purple soup

My quickening breath, my capable body, the elliptical after a long absence

Reassuring wildly worthy people of my unmeasurably massive belief in them and all their dreams

Needing to buy more tea and planning an entire anticipated outing to do just that

A quick tongue at the right time

A sincere tongue when quickness isn’t the order of the day

A friend’s trust when I most need to support someone I love

The last Christmas fudge

Abundant teachers and the promise that I’ll someday join their ranks

My French teacher’s gleeful, pragmatic sadism

The particular intoxication of fighting a sleeping pill before plunging, willingly, beneath its wooly grey waves

That place where software engineering touches the older layers of the miracle of long-distance communication

Cats in bed, an unbounded morning, rain against the window

Realizing I forgot my untouched beer for several minutes, the spell of writing enough for a bit

Seeing the feast waiting where famine once was; seeing past an irritable moment to remember, again, fresh each time, that I have everything I need, plus things I haven’t even dreamed of needing yet

That even in the dark, the dim, the damp, my weirdly stalwart heart (sometimes labeled my stupid, persistent heart) lies shining, waiting for me to catch up, because oh, the fun we are going to have this year

Last Spring, in an Alternate Reality in Ravenna

Japanese Maples in Ravenna in Seattle

Last winter, I knew something had to change. I’d been unsuccessfully looking for a new job for a year. I’d earned my certificate in user-centered design from the University of Washington but was unable to use it much in my current job. I’d even grown distant from my beloved Capitol Hill after a decade. I was aging out, sure, but the neighborhood had changed in well-documented ways. Even when I was 21, I wouldn’t have been happy to live in this weird new place full of high-concept, high-budget restaurants and sidewalks crowded with groups of vaguely malevolent people who triggered something deep in my lizard brain. When I first arrived in 2004, I’d rejoiced in particular at the the residents – throngs of beautiful, interesting people who I felt an often wordless kinship with. Minus that, I began to feel distant from everyone around me, and – worse – relieved when I made it through yet another crowd of dickheads to the safety of my own apartment once again.

Clearly, it was time to make a move.

I’d seen a fair amount of Seattle, but, like a lot of carless Capitol Hill residents, I largely stayed within its dense borders. If I was going to pick a new home, I was going to have to do some research. My friend Rico was similarly disenchanted with our neighborhood, and he’d been considering a return to Ravenna, where he’d lived several years before. My knowledge of the area was mostly from going through it on the bus, or tracing ever so close to its borders at Cafe Racer. We set a date to explore – late March, last year, in another life. The air was brisk and misty, the sky was overcast, and I was excited to set out to find part of the next chapter of my life.

A bridge in Seattle's Ravenna neighborhood

Here’s one thing I didn’t know: Ravenna has a sizable park running through it, big enough that you can submerge yourself in the woods and lose the neighborhood around you. We started our outing walking on gently muddy trails, surrounded by hikers and joggers and those rugged Northwest dogs, all clad in enough layers of water-repellant fabric that the mist and chill didn’t seem to affect them. We went deeper and deeper into a valley, beneath a towering overpass, past streams, and up and down stairs. One thing I’ve always loved about Seattle is the municipal stairs its Pacific Rim terrain requires. It’s a thing I love about San Francisco and Oakland too – someone looked at one steep hill or another and decided to create a project to make walking hither and thither just a little bit easier.

More Japanese Maples

We climbed out and found ourselves among the Arts & Crafts homes that fill so many Seattle neighborhoods, especially in its northern neighborhoods. Tasteful, muted colors, and those yards full of just-off-of-regional plants that are common enough to read as belonging now. Tiers of tight-budded flowers, dense ivy, spiky and vibrant Japanese maples. I don’t know that I’ll ever have the patience (or, let’s be honest, the interest) to have a yard like that myself, but these just-this-side-of-overgrown yards were an early thing I loved about the city, in my first proper wanders in 2005, when I worked in Fremont. Lavender that loomed over cracked sidewalks, hydrangeas so big and lush they could’ve been transplanted from Jurassic Park. The mist and gentle weather creates mild-mannered people and absolutely gargantuan plant life – ferns and blackberry bushes alike that could take over the city in minutes if they ever got ambitious.

Seeing people roll with this lushness was like an invitation in when I arrived. Rather than fighting what grew almost unbidden, they encouraged it in pleasing directions. An early sign of a place I’d take root in myself for more than a decade.

Street kitty in Ravenna

Rico was right. Ravenna was beautiful – all these tranquil houses and quiet streets. The street cats surprised me most of all. People would sometimes ask me if I ever let my cats outside. I’d look at them for a long moment and then remind them that I lived on 12th Avenue. Letting cats outside in my part of the neighborhood would have been almost an act of neglect and certainly an act of stupidity. But in Ravenna, we saw cats every few blocks. One stalked us past several houses, winding in and out of bushes and staying just out of reach while keeping pace with us. More of them, though, approached us, flashing collars and oozing certainty. This was their place. They would accept your fealty, though, now that you mention it.

That a place this gentle shared the technical boundaries of my city was a bigger surprise than it should have been, considering this expedition took place within just a few months of my tenth anniversary of becoming a Seattlelite.

Dinosaurs on a mailbox in Ravenna

Best of all was that people were still weird up north. They didn’t give up on being goofy city people just because they were able to get a whole address all to themselves. A friend had moved from our shared building into a house in Northgate not long before this day; it had gotten me to thinking. I’d been considering leaving Capitol Hill since I’d started considering working toward a more permanent living situation. In late 2012, I took a first-time homebuyers’ class; while I didn’t end up buying anything, it was the first inspiration to consider what neighborhood I saw myself in for the next phase of my life. I didn’t want children and had no particular ambition to get married, but in my housing and neighborhood, I wanted something that fit better and would continue to for some time. Was the next logical step Queen Anne? Ravenna? A cheaper edge of Fremont? Going full Ballard and never seeing most of my friends again?

The plan was originally to go on a series of these jaunts, to walk around and study the people and surroundings, to spend a few hours in an imitation of a typical Saturday afternoon. Did I feel welcome? Was it a pleasant walk to the grocery store? Would I get bored? I knew no other neighborhood would have Capitol Hill’s wonderful, weird density, but I have the good luck to find beauty and intrigue in even relatively ordinary places. And I was getting pretty tired of sirens.

I was going to see Fremont and upper Queen Anne. Columbia City. Beacon Hill, Pioneer Square, the Central District. Points east and north and south, to see what I’d missed, to see where I could see myself.

Then I got into Hackbright, and everything began to tilt about 90 degrees.

I left Seattle for the first time on June 29. I returned in early October to pack up and move in two of the densest, most stressful weeks of my life. I returned once more last month to see Dina Martina. The city felt strange – I told friends that it felt like having dinner with an ex too soon after a breakup. It didn’t feel like home, but as Oakland also wasn’t home yet, it just emphasized my straddling state. I was glad to see friends and Pike Place in full holiday regalia, but otherwise, it was too soon and too strange.

When I drove into Oakland in October and when my plane began to descend in December from those two strange trips to my former sanctuary, I cried both times, so relieved was I to get back to the dinosaur cranes and the twinkling lights of Lake Merritt. Was it being glad to leave the past behind, or was it relief to return to the place that I could now assume would be my next home? Either way, when you cry at the mechanisms of a shipping yard, there are some major emotional forces afoot.

I write this from my home just north of downtown. There’s now a much, much bigger area to explore to see what might end up being the right place for me, a hunt that continues and will until the shifting sands of the last several months finally still themselves. But for now, there are no sirens, and I live among people who are just looking to live their lives, not to find the perfect setting and situation for their next Instagram picture. We’re not trying to be legendary. We’re just getting where we need to be.

The Incomparable Unknowns and the Potential of the Indefinite

The cranes of Oakland's harbor, magnificent sunset behind

One weeknight in late summer, I found myself on the Embarcadero BART platform with two Hackbright friends. It was rush hour, so the platform was crowded, but we were leisurely and chatted as we waited. I gazed past them periodically; while I knew time was passing, you wouldn’t know from the times to arrival listed on the sign. 12 minutes; 13 minutes; 12 minutes. At least five passed before I explained why I was gazing past them instead of making normal, meaningful eye contact. By then, the platform was almost full. By then, we looked up what was going on: equipment failure, a major delay.

Hackbright was an incredibly stressful period, and that day was no exception. But somehow, in the epicenter of it, we found ourselves with one of those moments of grace – a major inconvenience was transformed into adventure by way of a perfectly matched ferry schedule. We crossed the station, ducking through confused commuters, hoping they’d catch on just late enough for us to be able to get to the boat ahead of the East Bay-bound hordes. And so we did, catching a ferry precisely at the beginning of sunset. The three of us, uncertain and tired and operating in slightly different states of at least mild freaking out, climbed to the top of the boat and to the benches at its stern. We gazed in grateful awe as the sky cycled through nature’s most stunning gradients, as the city retreated and first the bridges and then the cranes became perfect silhouettes. The air was gentle, and we fell quiet, stunned at our good fortune, at this perfect moment when we all needed it so badly.

My only regret was that I only had my phone rather than my proper camera. It doesn’t matter, though: look at that. When people ask me for recommendations of what to do here, this is the only suggestion I get mildly persistent about. I don’t have the words right yet, because it’s hard to get across a sense of awe. Words are my superpower, but I can only hint at what was going on that evening, what we all needed so badly, what the earth gave us.

***

I got home late last night, coming from a comedy show in the Castro, delayed by a closed Muni. I’m tired and I have a cold, the kind that makes the elements, even the mild ones to be had in a San Francisco January, feel a bit like the lash, all angry membranes and breezes that cut to the bone. I walked to 16th and Mission and got to the platform just as my train arrived – another small bit of grace on a long day. I walked home on deserted Oakland streets. I realized that, despite a pretty decent if somewhat long day, I was a little melancholy. In the last year, year-plus, this has pointed at something. Sadness and anger were sometimes my compass, pointing at things that didn’t function the way they needed to, telling me where I should next focus my energy.

Tonight, I sensed it, and my attention snapped to it. Is it that I’ll want to move to San Francisco when my Oakland lease is up toward the end of the year? I wondered. Do I wish I were going home to another person? Is the difficulty of my job a bad difficulty? 

The answers are, in order, I have no idea, not really, and absolutely and completely the opposite of that. In the face of some mild sadness, I was fishing for reasons, and with uncommonly bad aim.

Because this was an ordinary melancholy. I was thirsty, my feet hurt after walking about 15,000 steps (per my phone), and the back of my throat had that slightly raw feeling following a couple days of a running nose.

My sadness has nothing to tell me except go to bed. 

If I could do celebratory cartwheels, I would.

***

I texted my best friend as I waited in the long line that snaked away from the theater and around the corner. When I’m tired and sick, I get touchy and ungenerous about other people. My usual delight in eavesdropping turns into pissy judgment – faces look ugly when you’re alone. Surrounded by fellow nerds, I was deeply not feeling it, swaying slightly on my feet and occasionally wiping my nose with a napkin filched from a coffee shop.

“When I was tired and felt shitty last night, I thought, ‘I am tired, but I am not sad.’ Such a difference from the second half of last year. It is such a contrast that it feels mildly like being on drugs,” I typed with one thumb, the other hand occupied by coffee.

And it startles me, even now, during ordinary things. I drink coffee, I read on public transportation, I cut a striking figure in my matron-of-the-arts coat. And all of them feel like dancing right now, the way even ordinary walking does for a few exhilarating seconds after you set down a heavy load.

***

I begrudge the dark right now in a way I usually don’t. I’m typically all about winter – I like mulled wine and hot cider and endless cups of tea. I look better in cold-weather clothes. But the dark means that work takes up all of my wandering time for five-sevenths of the week. When I leave work, it’s the opaque dark of deep winter, which means a walk to the Castro or a park or through the unexplored parts of the Mission would just net me a squinty tour of some doorways, walking past other people huddled in the relative cold.

I want to explore my cities so badly right now, but my exploration depends on some daylight. Instead, here in these post-Solstice days, I can only plot and dream, imagine the great sojourns I’ll take when the time changes back in my favor. Instead, I admire the gated doorways of the Mission and the stunning houses of Oakland and the murals and street art that color both cities in a way that just makes me swoon. Swathed in darkness lies my future, my new favorite restaurant and the patisserie I’ll come to adore, the perfect oyster happy hour and the most reliable source of sour beers. Friends I will make and people who will assume roles of great importance in my life in the coming months. This beach at sunset, this stairway hike on a perfect spring afternoon. I am hungry, but now, it’s not the sharp appetite of starvation, where you gorge yourself on the first thing you find. This waits, impatient but measured. This can plan. This anticipates.

I’m still breathing. I’m alive.

P.S. Friend of Deviation Obligatoire Christina wrote about as good a summary of this blog as you are ever likely to see – it’s gratifying to be so well understood from an endeavor that can be as occasionally gloriously nebulous as this one. Go for the incredibly kind words; stay for the beautiful, shiningly honest writing and wisdom. Two of the Smarty Mommies are officially favorites of mine; the third isn’t possibly only because we have not met.

The Meaning of Travel in More Ordinary Days

One of so many long, beautiful staircases in Montmartre

When the great shift has finished, and I’m left with a blank slate of a life and the quietest quiet I’ve known for months or maybe even years, my mind goes to Paris (and hopes the rest of me will follow).

I imagine a lot of us are there now, in some way, mentally if not physically – even if we had a trip planned. Reading that article, I realized something: if finances and responsibilities allowed, I’d be on a flight there tomorrow.

That’s kind of always true, but especially true right now.

My days as I progress into this next part of my life are marked by these kinds of realizations. It feels like luxury, after this long summer-into-fall, to be able to have the thought I would go to Paris tomorrow if I could and have it be something other than a clawing attempt at escaping necessarily hard days. I am gradually becoming a regular person again. Now that I’m moving past being completely tangled up in job searching, moving, and healing from some real heartbreak, I have sufficient brain and heart to have flights of fancy again. It feels good.

And so a dormant part of me is awakening – the part that thrills to finding how far my stash of airline and travel points will take me, or the part that feels a little frisson of excitement when I see how many airlines fly from SFO and OAK to such wonderful places. I could take one flight and end up in Dubai or Australia or Amsterdam or – well, Stockholm. Thanks to a staggering sale and the well-timed tip of a dear friend, I will be taking advantage of that one myself come February. (My somewhat curious decision to go to Scandinavia in February is not without precedent in my life, of course.) In the last week, I’ve thought or talked about going to not just Paris, but also Peru. Washington, DC. (I’ve never been. I know, it’s hella weird.) Stinson Beach. Los Angeles. Mexico City. Rome.

The power got reconnected, and the lights are coming back on in the house.

I didn’t stop thinking of traveling during the extremely stressful weeks between July and, oh, a couple weeks ago. It just had a different timbre: what if I just went to Paris and didn’t tell anyone and just didn’t come back, what would that be like, would that fix stuff? the little voice that comes from somewhere in my lizard brain said. What if you just put some underwear and a toothbrush in a little bag and went to SFO with that empty credit card and just blew this popsicle stand, huh? 

This isn’t a sign of real fear; this is a game I, veteran of a certain kind of anxiety, play with myself to find the truth in negative feelings. I feel bad right now. Ok, self, that’s fine. Is it the kind of bad we should just wade through? What if we picked up and went back to Seattle right now? Would that fix it? But I like learning programming. But I know that relationship needed to end, even though it hurts like hell. But I’m not willing to go back to that old paradigm of communication, just because it would seem easier in the moment. Cool, brain. Let’s just keep on learning. Stretching. Trying. Packing. Moving. Keep on going.

It’s been a theme of my life to be reminded, over and over again, until perhaps I really learn it, that the thousand small actions matter so much more than the one big one. It stayed with me this time. Just pack one more box. Just meet one more friend to say goodbye. One more phone call to arrange one more part of moving across multiple states.

One more, and one more, and a thousand more, and now I am really, honestly here. I signed a lease for an apartment last week, and it set off a series of events in my brain that I didn’t even realize were waiting to happen. I am good and here, and I see Oakland now as if I am seeing it anew all over again. The world has stopped being something to pass through, elbows tucked in and moving as fast as I can. Once again, for the first time in a while, life is a banquet.

And my god, but I am hungrier than a boxer at the end of the main event.

To refine this a little bit, to prevent myself from doing the travel equivalent of raiding the Hungry Man shelf at Safeway, I’m going to go back through my rather wonderful archive of travel pictures and tell you stories I’ve been sitting on for a year or more. The room to think again also means, for me, the room to write. Let’s go back to Paris and Rennes and Berlin and Amsterdam and Tokyo and Victoria and take the long way to Oakland, San Francisco, and all the points present and future.

See you in a few days. Meet you in Montmartre?

Goodbye, Seattle. I Love You, Seattle.

The weirdly much-heralded Capitol Hill mystery Coke machine

“Seattle is where I’ve spent basically all of my functional adulthood” is how I usually state it, so people could understand how the last five and then seven and then ten and now nearly eleven years have been spent and what it’s meant. It’s one thing to say “nearly eleven years”; it’s another to say that it’s where I’ve chosen to spend all of my time since I was able to choose.

I moved to Seattle in November 2004, when I was 21. Then, Seattle was a respite; I was moving away from an area fundamentally unsuitable for me, even worse in ways than the cultural mismatch that were my high school years in the Midwest. Make no mistake: I was fleeing. I had my car, one houseplant, and a backseat and trunk full of things I hoped would matter once I got there. I just wanted to dig in roots somewhere and finally be able to relax among people who, while not just like me (for that is boring), would be better aligned in some key philosophical ways.

Which is to say that I walked around Capitol Hill in the wake of the 2004 election, saw paired jack-o-lanterns carved to say “Fuck” and “Bush” on a porch, and thought that probably we were all going to get along ok.

It took me a few months to make friends, but then they came, first through craigslist and temping, and then through full-time coworkers and connecting to other established social circles. In the way of these things, I met one person, then two and three, and across a few years, something like a proper network of people came together, real and important enough that I would sometimes wonder what it would take to draw me away. I assumed it would happen eventually; I told my family back east that I didn’t expect to die in Seattle. But my family is fairly long-lived, for the most part, so I was allowing myself a lot of time to figure things out.

After settling in some, I became uncommonly stationary for someone in their early-to-mid-twenties. The city became, for a time, a place of convalescence and slow, responsible growth. I settled into a cozy relationship and got a full-time job that could become a career. I had used the energy some college students and new graduates get to use to backpack across Europe to instead find a home. Instead of a Eurail pass, I’d paid for gas to Seattle, catapulting across the country with $4,000 in savings and a strangely steady trust in myself. That expenditure of energy done and survived, I dug in. After a year, I was able to trust that this was real, as permanent as I wanted it to be. I hung pictures in the apartment and established traditions. I relished the ordinary because, for the first time, the ordinary felt ok. It matched me. Art and movies and wandering the city, being in love and relaxing into grooves I’d never had the luxury to enjoy. A quiet home with a door I could close, friends close by, and fascinating people on the street. It was exactly what I needed.

For a while, of course. The career-type job grew stifling; I began to learn more about what I needed socially and romantically. And the city became a Petri dish. I met new people and pursued and displayed a new part of my identity more prominently than before, digging hard and focused on becoming a cartoonist. Not for money or fame – anyone who commits to that kind of work with a specific goal of traditional definitions of success is a fool. I wanted another way to tell my stories. It felt daring and important, and I began to know another side of the city. Now I made the art sometimes, and admired that of my friends at others, and I found another part of Seattle that had been there all along. The city was a place to try and explore and, ultimately, fail in a way.

For the first time, I began to see reasons that another city might work better. Somewhere bigger, for one – that became alluring. Bigger and more varied, where people socialize differently. Somewhere that there isn’t a chronically closed social condition named after the city. Friends elsewhere (or at least from elsewhere) swore it was indeed different in other places. A mid-tier city is an easy target, though. If you’re not satisfied in some way, it’s easy enough to attribute it to the number of people, the cultural drain as the most talented are siphoned off by bigger markets, the relative newness of the place. There’s always a reasonable place to point a finger if you’re dissatisfied. But that’s only a legitimate move if you’re willing to examine your culpability in your own situation.

“All of my functional adulthood” began to seem like a limitation rather than a point of pride. And my relative steadiness began to feel like it might be fostering decay rather than good, strong roots.

It was around then that I began to travel, making up for the relative lack of it in my twenties. To Paris, to Iceland, to Amsterdam and Belgium and Germany and Japan. And, in each of them, I could see how I might exist there.* Magically multilingual, I would dress this way and live in this neighborhood, having a deeply satisfying and unspecified career, eating all the cheese/beer/tulip bulbs/whatnot, and living the beautiful life, full of truths and insights a domestic life couldn’t support.

In time, those imaginings became inspiration rather than torment. Fortunately, I don’t get the sharp emotional hangovers after trips that I once did. Instead, I took the advice of a couple of very sharp friends: bring something into your regular life from your travels and start planning the next trip as soon as you get home. And I tried. French wine and better beer and thoughts of a bicycle-centered life, yes, but also looking at my city differently, seeing both its shortcomings and where it shone brighter and taller than the rest of the American urban archipelago. Seattle’s nature and beauty, its manageable scale, its distinctive history. Travel let me love home more too.

In the meantime, I considered what it would take to get an EU visa by living in Berlin for a while and if I wanted to move toward it. What companies I might work for that would get me into Amsterdam. If I’d live in Reykjavik or Budapest or Mumbai for a job – or if I would take a job just to live in those places.

All the while, though, I stayed dreaming in Capitol Hill, wondering in a new and pointed way what leads an adult to change cities for reasons short of a great international leap toward adventure, leaving behind established friend groups, good (or at least good-enough) jobs, and beloved haunts. Jobs, usually. Having kids and changing priorities. Saying the hell with it and following someone they loved and having a bit of adventure. But, since my life didn’t contain any of these situations, these reasons all seemed flimsy and slight, and I couldn’t quite understand it. I did keep trying. I could tell it held a truth.

Then, this spring, I was accepted to a programming school in San Francisco. I was able to live with my friend in Oakland for the duration (and a little extra). Before I left, another friend asked me what I thought the chance was of me moving there.

“Well,” I said, “considering the industry and the connections I’ll make, but also my complete lack of intentions to do so… let’s say 30 percent.”

Across the summer, I waited to see if that percentage changed. It bobbed up at a very fine comics reading, at wrestling, as I sat on a bench in South Beach to admire the haze-cloaked Bay Bridge. It sunk at the sharp, harsh economic disparities and my unshakeable sense of the parallels between the Bay Area now and France just before the revolution. Mostly, I concentrated on school and tried to learn everything I could, aiming to get that software engineer job I’d come to so covet. Conclusions could come later.

And in the end, it was a job that tipped the balance, in the way of these things.

In September, I’d decided not to decide until October, giving myself the grace and freedom to pretend there was a viable alternative to moving to the Bay Area. But I was a new software engineer from a nontraditional background, and there’s nowhere that compares for establishing yourself. I fought it, and I resented the lack of options at times, silly though it was. But in the end, my fears of purgatory and leaping without a place to land vanished: I had the extraordinary good fortune to receive a job offer at an exciting company, and suddenly my decision to move could be made based on reality and not desperate hopes. I didn’t have to gamble.

By then, Seattle was a safe fallback and had been for some time. I kept my Seattle apartment while I was in the Bay Area so I could have choices when I was through.** So that, in at least one place, I would not have to reestablish life from scratch. In hard times, I could picture my beautiful studio and its period molding and cat tree and bookshelves, and know that, no matter what, it was waiting.

In early October, I took the art off the walls, boxed up the books, and put my life into a series of cardboard boxes. I felt a chapter closing, and I had the great pleasure of visiting with most of the people most important to me, each visit feeling like an excited, melancholy benediction. We will miss you. You’re going to do great. I have chosen to believe. I have put my faith in myself in the trust of those who love me for the duration of this necessary, turbulent period. They’ve done so well by me.

And I invite them all to visit me in Oakland. I hope they do.

Yes, Oakland. I could technically afford to live in San Francisco, if I put less of a priority on having privacy or a stove. But Oakland, in all its vibrant struggling and active conversation, all its hurt and beauty, has been the place that’s spoken to me. I want to be there and get to try in a way I haven’t had to in Seattle in a long time, if ever. I want to have unexpected conversations with people who aren’t just like me. I want to support important things in a place where so much crucial political change has either been born or fostered. I want to be real.

Seattle is a gentle place, mostly. It’s angrier in the last few years in the wake of Amazon, sure. But it’s also a place where I’ve gone to parties and talked to politically active liberal people who I am quite certain have no conservative people in their lives at all. People are polite and distant, and it’s easy to live unchallenged unless you try to do otherwise.

Seattle became a place for me to crouch and wait as I figured things out. I went to user-centered design school, I pushed and thrashed in my unsatisfying career until I began to, at long last, get what I wanted and needed. I learned and honed, and I realized that, while I could see perhaps committing to Seattle for the long term, I would not be happy doing so without giving myself the gift of contrast. We’d gotten together when I was so young, and I needed to see another way of being before I could settle down with any confidence.

I did not intend to move to the Bay Area, but I did need something else. And there it was, in all ways sensible and not.

Oakland is a place to try in a way I never have. San Francisco is the major international city I’ve never had. And both contain so many ways for me to learn and fly and flounder, probably all at once sometimes. And, in the way of me, I can’t say no.

Seattle, I love you. I love you, Seattle. And you may be where I quit my wandering days, if I indeed do such a thing, someday cultivating a home while still prizing a nearby international airport.

But I can’t be sure until I’ve tasted something else. I might have some realizations, or I might never come back.

I’ll let you know.

Until then: to Oakland, to San Francisco, to the horizon, and beyond.

 

*Well, maybe not Belgium.

**Or, on bad days, to ask myself if I wanted to turn tail and go home. I never did.

Artifice Can Scour Your Soul ’til It Shines Like New

When a simulacrum of Rome shines from across the street and compact, artificial Venice is next door, what persists from the reality I left behind a few days ago is given a renewed heft. If it can keep being heard over the sound of slot machines and background music and the excited hum of thousands of strangers, it must be real. It must be heard.

Heart mural on Las Vegas's Fremont Street

In Las Vegas, I look at the people around me and quickly account for how we are different. This isn’t much of a departure from my usual MO, but it’s heightened here.

They are happy. They are bro packs, intent and at least dimly malevolent, toothy predators in striped, collared shirts, sheep’s clothing. Bachelorette parties and sash-wearing birthday girls, three and five and nine and twelve of them, staggered and staggering across the sidewalk and the casino corridor. People who take the opportunity of being in Las Vegas as a chance to dress like they are somehow acquainted with sex work, or at least a distinctly 70s-flavored version of swinging, all cleavage and embroidered denim jackets with rhinestones and everything short or tight or lavishly embellished or all three. Families with small children, everyone drinking sweet, brightly colored slush of different proofs from strangely similar vessels. They are here to cut loose and see shows and run wild and let their hair down and have what happens here stay here. They want to quote The Hangover and eat a thick steak or a shrimp cocktail and let their woohooooooos echo down the street like thin, waving, fluorescent ribbons, dancing in the sky, evidence that they lived and lived it up and had fun with their boys/girls/various people in their lives.

I take pictures of intersecting architectural lines and contrasts that make me laugh, trying to capture what I noticed at even half the potency it had in person. I try to figure out the stories of the people walking by me. I take pictures of myself reflected in doors and windows, wondering if what’s inside of me is visible on my face. The set of my face is a little melancholy even on ordinary days, though, so I can’t tell if today is different.

It would be inaccurate to say that I have a love of over-the-top artifice, but it’s fair to say that I find it absolutely fascinating. I have seen enough marketing plans and mood boards to be able to get a sense of the feeling a hotel or restaurant is trying to give, the thesis or phrase that powered their plans visible in this lushly striped wallpaper or that ornately cast fake column. This is, of course, a state that makes actually experiencing what the creators intended impossible. But I am an observer, and I feel at least somewhat outside of things most of the time. In Las Vegas, it goes into overdrive; I feel like the child in the crowd in The Emperor’s New Clothes, except I’ve long since learned what happens to that child, telling truth to power. Her sticky remains get washed away with the next rainy day.

But, joyfully unavoidable: I also love lights and neon and glittering strands of crystal drops and unlikely spaces made with conscious opulence. Vegas is for me too, in that way.

These days, though, I walk through an intersection of real and intended. What was once meant to be, among other things, a trip to introduce my significant other to my family is instead a family trip where I have the luxury of a room to myself and the unparalleled sting of one fewer person to text before takeoff and after landing.* I had thoughts and loose plans around what it would be like to mix these two parts of my life that had never touched; instead, I’ve been largely content to go along with my family’s ideas, offering suggestions to bolster their plans more than my own specific ideas. I don’t have many specific ideas right now; I came here feeling almost startled after finding myself sitting on a plane somewhere over the desert, trying to count the steps that led me from my immersive school to seat 8C. For the last three months, I’ve been buried in semi-relocating and then learning and then trying to find a job, all processes that have been at least somewhat frantic, a constant race against a certain idea of self dissolution. I have been absorbed in computer science, heartbreak, and a growing likelihood of real relocation. As such, I had researched no restaurants or attractions. I made no loose itineraries. And, without the usual preamble of thinkery, anticipation, and research I usually go through before a trip, I felt dumped headlong into it.

Really, though, that’s how I feel about most of my life right now. A little startled, a little groggy, and another sprint to try to adjust just enough to get the most out of what I’m doing.

Circus Circus door; faux-surly author

It’s a time of triage, of unpredictable levels of energy and feeling. And it happened that I ended up in one of the weirder places on earth just as I’ve started to feel like I might be happy again someday, with a life gathered in one place, me, my cats, and my stuff all under one roof with a good yearlong lease ahead of us. Sometimes, I can kind of see it.

In this trip, I’ve eaten speakeasy pizza. I bought art from a vending machine. I’ve seen Cirque du Soleil twice.** I’ve drank regrettable slush. I roamed, drunk and alone, through the back hallways of Circus Circus. I walked past a street full of different bands covering different decades of American pop music, all just a half block from each other. I’ve visited multiple make-believe versions of multiple great cities, gazed at gondolas and passed a Colosseum and strolled imaginary, indoor versions of New York streets. And the only money I lost to a machine was when I tried to buy stamps and only succeeded in losing eight quarters.

My regular life right now is about making large decisions. I think often of steering a large ship, something so big that there’s a pregnant pause between spinning the wheel and seeing the bow turn against the horizon. Where shall I be, and what shall I be, and who shall I be with, and what shall I do, and what shall things look like in three and six and twelve months?***  Switching to questions like “Do we want another buffet meal?” and “Do we see the show with the naked people or the acrobatics?” and “Do you think we can fit Hoover Dam and the Neon Museum in one day?”**** are a nice change.

Which I guess is what traveling is for: contrast of a most heightened kind, departure and a return that one hopes brings perspective. Now: to find out what that perspective will be.

*Nothing shows you the stark reality of your life like realizing how many or how few people you have to text from a runway. It’s a quick, sharp accounting like nothing else I’ve ever experienced. Whenever it shifts, I end up breathless the first and second time.

**My second-biggest goal for this trip, despite the lack of planning. Seeing more Cirque du Soleil is always a goal of mine. The actual goal of this trip: hanging out with my family. It’s rare that I get to lure them west, that I get to make the easy trip, and it was even better than I thought it would be.

***Your guess may be as good as mine. Maybe it’s better, because maybe you have a better ability to be fanciful than I do right now.

****No. Or we didn’t, anyway, because we like to actually relax on our vacations.

Where Berlin Meets the Pacific Northwest (and has coffee)

Flat whites and fruit tart at St. Oberholz in Berlin

Paris is a place I long for, but Berlin is a place I can more reasonably see myself ending up. To me, it’s like Seattle meets Olympia meets any beautiful, beleaguered city in Europe, which means it combines several things I like very much with a financial feasibility that’s hard for an American to find in a European city.

Let me explain.

In Berlin’s friendliness toward tech and startups, its beautifully and quirkily shod young people, and its abundant coffee shops, I see Seattle.

In its often cash-only economy, its abundant and generous public art, and its stunning parks, I see Olympia (or any college town, really – I originally wrote “Bellingham” up there).

And in its long and difficult history, its resilience, and its centuries of beauty and struggle, I see Europe. It’s something that no American city can possibly have, and it’s something I admire very much.

So it was funny to be in the mood for a coffee and inadvertently end up enjoying flat whites and a fruit tart at the most Seattle-ly place I saw in Europe.*

Saint Oberholz is one of many startup-friendly establishments in Berlin. (You could argue that Berlin itself, or Germany as a whole, is a startup-friendly establishment. And win.) They self-publish a guide to making your own damn Berlin startup, in fact.

I ended up there about a week into my November trip to Europe. And it was there that I realized, surrounded by blue-faced zombies staring into laptops, delicately picking my way across trailing power cords, that I felt more at home there than I had in the previous several days.

I’m still figuring out whether that speaks well of it or not.

Also up in the air: whether I should dedicate my scanty spare time to learning French or German. Feel free to make your case to me in person if you have an opinion on it.

 

*And that includes the Microsoft store in Berlin – though I later found out that it wasn’t officially sanctioned by Microsoft! I was in an off-brand, third-party Microsoft store in bloody Germany that mimicked the branding perfectly – down to the cheery “Hello!” someone called out in relatively unaccented English when we walked in. The only reason I know it wasn’t officially sanctioned is because, several months later, I had a conversation at a party with someone who has worked in opening stores like that for the last several years – and Germany is an untapped market. Huh.