Friday, March 18, 2011

Field trip in the Emerald City

There was no school today so Junior invited a friend to spend the day with him. Even though both boys would have been perfectly happy to stay at home (no doubt spending a considerable amount of time on electronics), I offered to go on a field trip. Les Tweens looked a bit perplexed: "A field trip? In this weather?" I guess I could see their point. Low 50s' and drizzle, drizzle, drizzle; "le crachin", as it was called when I lived in Northern France with my family. "Cracher" means "to spit" in French, so when I was a kid, I used to imagine someone, up in the sky, spitting down on us-- not a pretty picture. The thing is, if you don't go out when it rains in Seattle, you never leave your house, and as my mom used to say to us: "You are not made of sugar. You will not dissolve in the rain. Allez, dehors! (Go outside!)"

I planned a fun trip for Les Tweens, and it had to be by the water because after living inland for over 10 years, I like to go by the seashore every chance I get, rain or shine. So, after 11:00am, we all piled up in Tonks, my lovely little car, with Le Dog, Hailey, extra jackets, shoes, towels (just in case...) Felix Le Chat would have liked to go, but he decided to stay home and chase moles instead... A bientôt, Felix!

Hailey and Les Tweens before their most excellent adventure

First, we had to leave the Eastside and drive across Lake Washington into Seattle. That's always a fun thing to do with a couple of kids sitting in the back of the car. The Evergreen Point Bridge (a.k.a. the "520 Bridge" to most locals), was inaugurated in 1963. Boasting 7,500 feet (2,300 meters), it is one of the world's longest floating bridges. On a pretty day, the view from the bridge is breathtaking: boats bobbing on shimmering water, Mount Rainier and the snow-capped Olympic Mountains in the distance. Take a look:

Problem: the bridge is old, very old, and tired too. It has been accident-prone for many years and patched up overtime. An engineer friend of mine once told me: "This bridge is the opposite of the Eiffel Tower. Good engineering vs. bad engineering" (his version was more... ahem... colorful, as I recall). Both are still standing, but in the case of the 520 bridge, for how long? Everyone fears the next big storm or an earthquake might be the final straw. The State of Washington has finally decided to replace the 520 bridge and in order to finance the costly endeavor, it will become a toll bridge this spring. Today, Les Tweens were probably hoping for this:

Dommage. It did not happen. The water was calm on both sides as the car wipers sang their little song: "swish-swish-swish". Once we had crossed the bridge, we still had to drive across another lake (Lake Union), and we finally reached the Northern neighborhoods of Seattle. No GPS needed. If you keep driving West in this city, you eventually reach the water.

While the boys were waiting in the car (I hoped they weren't busy destroying it!) I stopped at a local Boulangerie in the Wallingford neighborhood. The place has been there for ever and many people had mentioned it to me. I had to check it out. It is a raggedy little bakery that does not catch the eye or make much of an impression, but I enjoyed meeting the owner, Mr. Xon D. Luong. We had a little chat and he told me his story: He came from South Vietnam (a former French colony) some 25 years ago and he remembers learning French in school in the mid 1950's. He learned his trade with his parents (both bakers) and his younger brother. I bought a baguette, and for Les Tweens, two pains au chocolat. I loved Mr Luong's smile!

2200 N. 45th street - Seattle, WA 98103

Mr. Luong: "52 Years Experience in French Baking"
Our first stop was a local institution and a popular tourist attraction: The  Hiram M. Chittenden Locks. I like going there several times a year because 1. it involves boats 2. it's one of the best shows in Seattle 3.  it is free.

My old engineer friend would agree that if the team that built the locks in 1917 had been in charge of executing the 520 bridge, the State of Washington would not have to worry about replacing the current structure right now! This is an amazing complex. First, the Ballard Locks (as they are known) are a link between the Puget Sound (salt water), and the Ship Canal (fresh water), that connects Lake Washington and Lake Union. Both lakes sit 22 feet above sea level! The Ballard Lock system is  capably operated by the US Army Corps of Engineers. Because our family has been fortunate enough to own boats during 9 of our 15 years in this area, we have often used the Locks. It can be a stressful experience in the summer when the engineers cram both the large and the small locks full of vessels of varying sizes. Tensions run high and it is not unusual to witness arguments on a passing boat.

Husband: "Bow line is too tight. Release the bow line, NOW!!!
Wife: "I got it! I got it!"
Husband: "*%&$#@!!! The BOW line, not the stern line!!!" 
Wife (getting flustered and still trying to help): "I can't!!! It's stuck!!!"
Ballard Locks engineer (bending over to help the wife): "You're doing fine, Miss. Sir, you might want to bring it down a notch!"

I am telling you: it is the best show in town! 

A few sailboats wait patiently for the engineers
 to bring the fresh water level down
Once the fresh water level has been lowered,
 the large Lock opens (notice how low
 this sailboat now sits in the water)
One by one, the boats leave the Locks
 and head towards the Puget Sound (salt water)

Once you have had enough fun watching the boats, it is time to walk across the spillway to another local curiosity: the Fish Ladder. Does it surprise anyone that this city of tree-huggers (and I say this with great affection) would go out of their way to help the local fish, namely salmon, travel more easily between fresh and salt water and navigate the Locks? It is a really cool show for adults and kids alike. 

Les Tweens look very small on the spillway between the Locks and the Fish Ladder

The Fish Ladder was empty today... The next "wave" starts in May when  young salmon make their way out to sea.

Not a Sockeye, Coho, Steelhead in sight...
We did not see any salmon. We saw a few sailboats. Not a bad visit all in all, in spite of the rain and cold. Les Tweens got a chance to stretch their legs before lunch in the beautiful Carl S. English Jr. botanical garden, past the visitor's center. I was amazed none of them landed in the soggy grass, especially after they started playing tag!

This is the US: It is allowed to step on the grass!

The gang was getting hungry. Not to worry. Another institution sits right outside the Locks  complex.

We enjoyed delicious fish and chips (I picked fresh clams in a white wine broth with herbs).

We realized that poor Hailey was still waiting patiently in the car. It was time to go back outside to enjoy some fresh air... Shilshole Beach was our next stop. But wait... was there going to be a problem?

Mais non! I decided that some rules are more... ahem... flexible than others. There were fewer than 20 people on the beach. Surely, these kind souls would not mind sharing some of it with a (well-behaved) canine?

Voilà, happy Tweens, happy dog!
Let's just say that for the next hour or so, it did not matter that the rain was still coming down; that the wind was blowing our hats away; that Shilshole beach has more pebbles than sand. For the next hour or so, we all had f.u.n.! 

A bientôt!

"And I leave the children the long, long days to be merry
 in a thousand ways, and the Night,
and the trail of the Milky Way to wonder at"

Williston Fish, "A Last Will", 1898

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Bonjour! I love hearing from you, my readers. To quote a fellow blogger, my friend Owen, "Comments are the icing on blogcake... Comments are the UFO in the twilight sky bearing news from other planets... Comments are raspberry vinegar in salad dressing... Comments are the cool balm of after-sun moisturizing lotion... Comments are the moment the band comes back out onstage to play an encore... Comments are the gleam in the eye across the room in a smoky bar... Comments are the rainbow after the rainstorm..." Merci for your comments! French Girl in Seattle