Boys, baristas and burgers


When you move to a new city, your senses are heightened. You notice that everything feels ‘new’, because your body is picking up on the subtle differences between that place and your previous home.

The salt air here in Seattle is brinier than in Sydney, more pungent. On sunny days, the sky seems bluer here too, perhaps because it contrasts so starkly with the usual grey. The people here are friendlier, especially those who work in stores, “Are you finding everything okay?’.

This heightened awareness, however, does not last. Through a series of simple little acceptances, small snippets of knowing, a place starts to feel like home. The novelty of charming details dissipates, as do the annoying differences (‘I have to pay when someone sends ME an SMS?!’).

Instead those details become part of a fabric called ‘home’. The appreciation may remain, but we come to know those details as the norm. We stop saying, ‘Back home in Sydney…’ and think of the new place as home.

Seattle is now home.

I have started looking after two little boys, aged three and five, once a week. Mostly, our time together is fun, or at least fine. They paint, and play endlessly at a game that I can only describe as ‘not much of anything at all’, but includes lots of running, and uttering of unintelligible words. I even made muffins with the little one, who delighted in cracking an egg for the first time all by himself.

These boys love to stop and smell the flowers, and I mean that literally. Yesterday, a three block walk to the bus took 15 minutes, because they stopped at nearly every garden to smell and admire the flowers. Sweet – a little annoying after 13 minutes – but mostly, sweet.

When I first met them, I was charmed by their strong American accents; it is generally cute to hear any child speak in an accent other than your own. ‘Oh, their R’s are so pronounced – how darling!’

However, that novelty was quickly forgotten yesterday when the oldest one ‘chucked a tanty’ (threw a huge tantrum, for my North American readers). There is nothing cute about a tantrum in an American accent. There is nothing cute about a five year old screaming anything in any accent. (We made up – me and the five year old. Although, I am a forgiver, not a forgetter.)

The boys at Seattle Center

Yep, Seattle is home.

I have a new local coffee shop now. I thought that it would be Uptown Espresso, which I discovered on a visit here last year, and for a while it was. Their coffee is good, and they are only three blocks away.

They were usurped, however, when I happened upon the smooth smell of well-made coffee wafting from the door of Cafe Lladro, a few blocks further from my home.

Jackpot! Their coffee is great. ‘A double tall non-fat latte, no foam, extra hot,’ has replaced ‘tall, skinny flat white’, and is just as good as Pavel used to make back in Sydney. I never thought I would say that about a cafe in the same city that birthed Starbucks, but I am happy to proven wrong about this particular previous gripe. And I would be remiss not to mention that their friendly efficient service is the icing on the cake. Great coffee and good service. Nice.

Oh yeah, Seattle is home.

Last Friday night there was an impromptu gathering of friends at the loft of Lars and Anya, or ‘Larzenanya’, as they have come to be called. Lars promised us a ‘$25 Hamburger’ – not because that is what they cost to make, but because that is what he could charge in a restaurant. It was a big call.

We arrived to gracious hellos, the pouring of drinks, and burger order forms. In: blue cheese, special sauce, onions, or a combo of these. On: Swiss cheese, Cheddar cheese, or Mozzarella? Done: well, medium-well, medium, medium-rare, or rare. Wow. Not sure on the math, but I approximate at least 1500 permutations of burgers with those options.

Lars manned the grill with confidence and flair. Anya, ever the charming hostess, ran front of house like a pro. Ben, long time avoider of red meat, signed on for the ride.

When my burger was done, I added my fixings, and savored the anticipation. Onions in, and Swiss cheese on a medium-rare burger with barbecue sauce, ketchup and mustard.

Phenomenal. I was delighted by every bite, and judging from the lull in conversation throughout the room, so was everyone else, including my mostly-vegetarian boyfriend.

This month Seattle Magazine has readers voting on the best burgers in Seattle. I would argue heavily that the Larzananya’s Burger should win.

For sure, Seattle is definitely home.

I have said before that Ben and I do not know what the future holds for us both professionally, so therefore do not know where work will take us in the coming years. For this reason, we are truly savoring all the little things about Seattle that make it home.

It’s natural beauty takes my breath away. The wonderful friendship we continue to make, make my heart full. That I am picking up some work outside of home is a blessing (no matter the little ‘moment’s that come with child-minding).

I knew well before I moved here that I could happily live in Seattle. And now I do.


A hot cuppa

In Australia (and England, and a few other countries steeped in the Imperialist love of hot tea), any bad situation can be helped, if not fixed, by a nice, hot ‘cuppa’. In fact, it is a common response when a friend bemoans their dilemma to say,”I’ll put the kettle on.” Things start to look up when there is a big mug of tea in your hand.

The term ‘cuppa’ comes from the lazy way we antipodeans say ‘cup of tea’. We say ‘cuppa tea’, and because we shorten as much of our language as possible, over the years it has become ‘cuppa’. I have known since childhood that hot tea is a cure-all, but it was only last year when I learned why tea is such a therapeutic beverage. I knew all about the antioxidants (I don’t live under a rock), but the ‘at ease’ feeling that tea elicits is due to an amino acid called L-Theanine. Tetley tea launched an advertising campaign in 2008 highlighting L-theanine, and on their site have this to say:

Tetley is a natural source of theanine
Since ancient times it has been said that drinking tea brings relaxation. Scientists are now studying the effects of theanine and it is believed that although theanine creates a feeling of relaxation, it doesn’t shut down the brain. So it allows you to be relaxed yet alert at the same time.

Relaxed, yet alert. And isn’t that how you want to feel when your life is in crisis? I should say that I am drinking tea as I write this, and even though I am not in crisis, I do feel relaxed and alert.

I got to thinking about tea a couple of days ago when Ben and I went to a favorite coffee shop close to home (yes, I appreciate the irony). As we walked to the coffee shop in the rain, we passed by two homeless men sitting under an awning, each bundled up against the cold and the wet. I barely glanced at them, but as we stood in line to order our ‘cuppa mud’ (as the sign in Caffe Ladro says), I couldn’t get the men out of my head. I was about to enjoy sitting in the warmth with my best friend drinking a hot cuppa, and they weren’t.

I ordered 2 extra coffees and a couple of giant cookies, and put together a little tray for each of them. I left the coffee shop, and walked quickly through the rain to where they were. “Here,” I said handing them the coffee, “this is for you.” The surprise and then gratitude on their faces broke my heart a little. I walked back to the coffee shop, brushing tears away. As I sat drinking my coffee, my thoughts kept returning to the homeless men.

When I moved here three months ago I was hyper aware of the indigent population, but it soon became ‘normal’ to walk past and not look directly at a homeless person. It bothers me when I do that, though. Every time.

When I go to the supermarket, there is almost always a homeless person standing outside selling Real Change, which is a newspaper dedicated to social change. It sells for $1, and not too long after moving here, I started avoiding the sellers and walking straight past them into the store. For the sake of $1. I’ve stopped doing that. When I go to the store now, I carry the $1 in my pocket, walk up and say ‘hello’, and look the person in the eye. It is a brief exchange, and they are always thankful, but it is mostly selfish on my my part.

You see, I am still job hunting, while I work part-time for my mother. Money is tight at the moment, and I dip into savings more than I would care to, but I am more fortunate than most. I have a beautiful home, I have a bright future and I have love in my life. I can also afford a cuppa at my local coffee shop, so I can certainly spare a dollar once in a while. Those small exchanges I have through the week with people far less fortunate than me remind me to keep my head out of my bottom, and stay positive.

And when the knock-backs sometimes get too much for me, I put the kettle on and sit down with a nice, hot cuppa. It helps, really it does.

Seattle is the Home of Starbucks

I am naïve. No, really, I am. Until I was on my way to Seattle, where I am for the most of January 2008, I did not know that Starbucks was born here. I have subsequently walked past the flagship store – twice – and it looks very nice, but today I actually went into the Starbucks closest to where I am staying. And in Seattle, that is close, because you cannot swing a dead squirrel in Seattle without hitting a Starbucks.

Before I go any further, I must clarify two things: one is that I am a coffee snob. I like my coffee made by a qualified person – a barrista – with freshly ground, well-selected beans that are hand tamped, and brewed through a machine that is cleaned frequently to avoid that burnt taste. I like my milk to be heated to the perfect temperature, not overly frothy, not scorched, and not lukewarm. I am the Goldilocks of coffee lovers. I am painfully fussy and have returned more coffees than I have had hot dinners. Okay, an exaggeration, but only slightly. I have some favourite places in Sydney where I will drive out of my way to drink the coffee, and they take care. As a result, their coffees are hot, creamy and smooth. They look like bowls of liquid caramel, which is why ‘cappuccino’ is a colour; coffee should not look like grey dishwater.

The second thing I must clarify is a popular misconception about North Americans. Americans do like Starbucks. Well, many of them do, but on the whole Americans are not as obsessed as their northern cousins. Canadians LOVE Starbucks, like it is a form of communion, or something. In Seattle there are Starbucks stores dotted all over the city, but they are in competition with Seattle’s Best Coffee (I have yet to see if they are right, but I am beginning to think that is a weak mantle to wear), Tully’s and the Cherry Street Coffee House chains. In Calgary and Vancouver there is literally a Starbucks on every corner; every third person walking down the street carries a green cardboard cup.

Back in Seattle, today, I approached my local Starbucks with trepidation, because let’s face it, I know their coffee is not good. BUT, I was 20 minutes early for an appointment, so I decided to give them a chance to prove me wrong. I waited in line for approximately 8 seconds, and my order was taken by not one, but two employees behind the counter. A good start to the whole experience.  Now, I have been ordering coffees in North America long enough to know that a ‘flat white’, which is what I order at home, does not translate, so instead I asked for a small skim latte, no foam. No problem, I am understood and I pay the US$2.78. I do not have to wait long for my coffee, as the line formed behind me after I came in.

I am given a rather large cup, lid on, and when I take the lid off to add my sugar I am staring at anaemic froth. Confusion must have crossed my face, because the woman who made the coffee asks me if it okay. “I just get a little confused ordering coffee here,” I say with my best Aussie accent, “Is this a small?” She says it is a ‘tall’ – which is the smallest coffee on the menu board, but there is a smaller cup available. She is kind when she tells me to order a ‘short’ latte in future. Oh, how silly of me.  I wasn’t misheard, a ‘small’ is a ‘tall’. I look at the foam, “And if I don’t want any foam on my latte?” I am not being a smart ass, but there is an inch of foam staring at me. She is even nicer when she remakes the whole thing into a ‘short’ cup, but to be refunded the 33c difference between the coffee I ordered and the first coffee they made, required a manager and my signature.

At last my skim flat white – a Starbucks short skinny latte, no foam – is ready. I take the lid off, add my sugar, and taste. It is so weak, and the coffee flavour so bitter I add more sugar and sprinkle some chocolate on it. I stir it again, and take another sip. Lukewarm, and grey. Nope, can’t do it. I should have just thrown my two dollars in the bin, because that is where the coffee ends up after three sips. I truly wonder how they can mess it up – how can the coffee be burnt first thing in the morning? Surely they clean the machines at least once at the end of the day?

I peeked behind the counter to watch them make the coffee; it is all automated. They do not grind the beans as they use them, they do not tamp the grinds they need for each coffee, the system is automated. A machine makes the coffee; there is no other human input beyond the pressing of a button. And having tasted the result of one shot in the smallest cup they offer, the machine must be set to ‘weak’.  I realised it is no wonder that so many people add a flavouring to their Starbucks coffee.  It is so it tastes like something worth consuming.  It is a shame, really, because there must be staff behind that counter who love coffee and want to make something great.

This was not my first Starbucks coffee; I have had it before, several times. And each time I hope to be pleasantly surprised; today was no exception. I just wasn’t, and life is too short to drink bad coffee. It is too short for other things too, like finishing boring books, but that’s a whole other discussion. I still plan to go to the flagship store at the Pike Place Markets. I am curious now, to see if they have barristas or automation.

One last thing: I had coffee at a Cherry Street Coffee House the other day – on Cherry Street, so perhaps the flagship store of that chain – and it was good. I will go back before I leave the city.

Okay, and just one more last thing: Caffe Artigiano is a small chain of coffee houses in Vancouver, and their coffee is outstanding. They can actually claim to have the best baristas in Canada from 2003-2006 (Canadian Barista Championship) AND they can make a flat white to cry for (although it is called a ‘latte, no foam’). I had one 6 days ago and the sweet, smooth memory lives on.