Another quiet year at home! This summer could have meant a trip to a 50-year college reunion, but instead we spent time perfecting our housekeeping skills. This lull did provide an opportunity for some writing — here’s a link to the memoirs collected as Lockdown Lit, in case you missed them. Next year we’re hoping instead to be able to make the rail journey across Canada that we have already postponed once.

Our biggest milestone this year was Alex’s new e-bike. Until about the time she got it, we were still having most of our foodstuffs delivered; now, she does almost all our marketing by bike, visiting as many as four stores each week.

Here’s the bike on one of its first trips north along the Interurban Trail. An electric bike is a fairly sensible purchase here in Seattle, where two entirely reasonable sections of a route may be separated by a short, steep, disheartening climb. It may well be that Alex gets more exercise now that she doesn’t have to avoid the hardest parts. Her companion certainly does.

Our next step may be an electric car, if our building management is able to install charging stations as planned.  Check back next year, and have a great 2022!

Our Bumblebees

July arrived before I had seen even a dozen bumblebees; I was afraid that they were gone for good.  The blackberries had made alternate arrangements for pollination.  The vegetation installed specifically to support the bees was largely bloomed out — most notably the wild lilac, which I happen to know is their favorite thing in the whole world.

Then I began to see a few bumblebees here and there by the roadside.  And now it turns out that our rooftop garden is loaded with them. Click on the image below (or here for a high-resolution version):


These big black bees are Bombus vosnesenskii, the Yellow-Faced Bumblebee. Popular with farmers generally, they’re the champion pollinators of greenhouse tomatoes. Plus, they’re immensely fun to interact with. It’s sometimes possible to touch the luxurious fur of one that’s fully engaged with a flower, though she may wave a  middle leg or two as a warning.  They’re also approachable when their body temperature is low.  Here’s one we met walking across Clay Street:

Bumblebees don’t have the same kind of regimented homelife that honeybees have: a bumblebee won’t always make it back to the nest at the end of the day, and may be found the next morning waiting for enough warmth to get started.  The image of the bee sleeping in the palm of the hand is celebrated in popular music, but note that bees vary somewhat in their disposition.  If the bees in your neighborhood look like ours but turn out to be B. fervidis instead, you may get a different reception.

We used to see three other kinds of bumblebees in Seattle regularly.  To the right is a picture of a Black Tail Bumblebee, B. melanopygus, who was our houseguest for one night back in May of 2006.

These bees are also called orange-rumped, and this second picture, blurred by the subject’s motion, shows why.

The other two species we used to see were much more numerous: B. californicus, which is banded much like B. vosnesenskii but has a black face; and B. sitkensis, smaller, scruffier, and popular in Alsaska for getting its work done in a short growing season.  Our current environment has a different mix of flowers from our old garden, and bees are apt to specialize, so we don’t have a clear picture of how our bees are faring.  The Yellow-Faced bee is said to have edged out its local competitors through a strategy of emerging early; maybe now they’re just resting on their laurels.

A New Urban Village

On my way home from the library on Saturday I thought that I might stop by the Pike Place Market, our current source for basil.  This meant descending from Fourth Avenue to First, and I started down Seneca Street.  When I got to Second I noticed that the big construction project there was no longer fenced off.  A closer look showed that, like many recent developments, this one provides a mid-block passage.

The new building has been called variously 2 + U (for its location at Second and University) and Qualtrics Tower, for its biggest tenant. Promotional literature suggests a tower built on stilts with an urban village tucked underneath. It was also said to be rare in that it would open fully leased; apparently that’s not the same as fully occupied, because I seemed to have the building pretty much to myself on this visit. Post-pandemic, I expect to have to share.

This panorama begins and ends with a glimpse of the former Washington Mutual Tower, across Second Avenue.  Halfway through, past a squarish tree, that dark building is the Harbor Steps, where we lived during the summer of 2009.  To the right of the legacy red brick building is the Seattle Art Museum.

It was once thought that the building would open in 2019. Several projects on Second Avenue have ground on for years; but at least this one, being on the west side, didn’t interfere with the bike lane like the others.  Not to say that it was without disruption — in 2016 our rug guys, Homa Rugs, lost their store as demolition loomed.  Now, fortunately, they have a place in one of the brick buildings that remained.  Here’s what their corner looked like after it was leveled, back in 2017 (all four of the Harbor Steps towers are at least partially visible here):

2020 Wrap-up

We got off pretty easy, during this Year of the Pandemic.  Our trip to Florida was finished before travel became a concern.  Some of Alex’s work for the Washington State Medical Quality Assurance Board required physical attendance, but that part was done by January.  (Her visit to Tukwila provided an opportunity for her spouse to try indoor skydiving, as reported earlier.)

With no social or professional obligations, we figured that we would be able to eliminate almost all possibility of infection, so we started getting all our meals or groceries delivered.  We did enjoy Washington’s “fresh air and exercise” exemption, perhaps more than advisable for us vulnerable, treatment-intensive oldsters; but otherwise we were pretty strict about self-isolation.

During the times when the transmission rates were low, we enjoyed walking down to the waterfront in the evenings.  But cycling always seemed safer.  When the Cascade Bicycle Club announced that its annual Seattle-to-Portland ride would be “virtual” this year — and that one would have eighteen extra days to cover the 200-plus miles, on any chosen course — we recognized what might be our only chance to secure bragging rights for this event  The unusual format was handy in other ways — we were able to combine other errands, like plastic bag recycling.  Here’s Alex pausing to pick up a couple weeks’ worth of nearly-contactless bagels.

It’s a good thing we got our biking done — and our mask-wearing perfected, because the end of summer brought another respiratory challenge, with smoke and ash from West Coast wildfires, some of them here in Western Washington.  Outside air was “hazardous” for days on end.

Inside, it was still pretty nice.

Around the Globe

One landmark that appears often in our pictures is the Seattle P-I Globe. That’s no surprise, since it dwells between our window and the photogenic Olympic Peninsula.  How the globe got there in the first place is another matter though.

The Seattle Post-Intelligencer is the successor to Seattle’s very first newspaper, the Seattle Gazette, founded in 1863.  Eighty-five years later, the globe was created to adorn the paper’s then-new headquarters, at Sixth Avenue and Wall Street. The diameter of the globe is 30 feet, and then there’s that 18 foot eagle perched on top. The slogan “It’s in the P-I,” in red neon, still sometimes revolves around its equator.

Eventually, the P-I lost ground to its cross-park rival, the Seattle Times.  Starting in 1983 the two papers were both printed by the Times under a joint operating agreement, and so the  P-I had less need for floorspace.  They moved down toward the waterfront, taking their globe with them, and that’s why it’s in our line of sight.  Since 2009 the P-I is online only.

Here at our house we’ve been worried about losing our view of the globe.  It’s not that the thing is going anywhere — the Museum of History and Industry, which now owns it, doesn’t have any place else to put it.  But our neighborhood is strewn with one-, two- and three-story buildings that are ripe for re-development (we lost our partial view of Mt. Rainier to a big apartment building, for instance). One day a construction crane appeared near the globe, and soon a wooden structure began to rise.

But we tracked the new building down, to Warren Avenue, across First from where I think the Cascadia Tavern used to be.  It’s wedge-shaped and yellow, and full of holes on the side away from us.  We were glad to find it topped out at a visually safe height.  Its complexion is still subject to change, but I’m sure it will always be the Swiss Cheese Building to us.

Up close, the globe itself is more imposing:

Here is the globe from the other side:

Indoor skydiving

What we really want, of course, is to fly as we would in our dreams.

Waking life offers us various aspects of that experience.  Parachute jumping provides a bird’s-eye view of the earth, the brief sensation of weightlessness, and the chance to control movement through subtle gestures.  This last bit, it turns out, may be conveniently enjoyed indoors.

I found myself with a free day in nearby Tukwila, home of the Seattle location of iFLY, one of about fifty of their vertical wind tunnels wordwide.  It happens that even unlikely-looking humans can be made to levitate, and can begin to acquire some skills right away.  (Some restrictions apply:  they ask about history of heart trouble, back injuries or shoulder dislocations.  You see me wearing one white glove because I was unable to remove a ring from that hand.  They are understandably wary of debris in their 140 m.p.h. slipstream.)

There’s much of the magic of soaring, and without the encumbrance of an aircraft.  It’s inspiring just to watch the instructors, like Josh, the guy in the red suit above, who flies as well as any animated superhero.  The International Bodyflight Association has videos showing you how it’s done.  And by the way, some of the other thrills of jumping can be added back in.  Any flight can include a quick trip up to the top of the tunnel.  And virtual reality can take the flyer to popular skydiving sites, or for a wingsuit ride.

Baltic Seascapes


Helsinki harbor

Home turf of the Hanseatic League, later the heart of a Swedish empire, for decades a sort of liquid Iron Curtain; why not spend a couple weeks on the Baltic Sea? We combined this idea with a Backroads bicycle trip that included passage aboard an innovative new ship.

We first spent some time on our own in Stockholm, as previously reported; that entry includes a link to an account of our visits to a couple of Baltic islands that gave us our first closeup look at this inland sea.

The Baltic is different in several ways from other large bodies of water. On its surface, especially toward the north and east, it’s composed of fresh water bound for the ocean. At its Danish outlet, there’s salty water flowing in underneath, mixing only slowly with the brackish water above. The Baltic isn’t big enough to have significant tides of its own, and is protected from the tides of the Atlantic. One other big difference from, say, the Mediterranean, is the northerly location. During some winters the Baltic freezes over from end to end. We were careful to confine our visit to the month of August.

Unreasonably good weather allowed us to enjoy a lot of scenery.  The picture at the top of the page is a look aft as we enter the harbor at Helsinki, our first stop after leaving Stockholm.  It’s a great place for cycling, with waterside paths through birch forests.

The panorama below is from our ship’s berth in St. Petersburg.  A craft our size is welcome right in the midst of things.  That’s the gold dome of St. Isaac’s Cathedral on the right, and just this side of the second bridge that’s the garden of the Winter Palace.

Our ship’s location, right there on the English Embankment, wasn’t the advantage that one might have supposed, though.  These days, travelers from many nations, including the U.S., aren’t allowed ashore unless they have a guide or a special visa, obtained in advance.  We contented ourselves this time with guided outings (and memories from our visit by train in May of 2000).

So biking in St. Petersburg was done with a local company, and using their little folding commuter bikes.  (Alex and I managed to snag bicycles with bigger wheels, but weren’t any the happier for it.)

Divided into small groups and given tiny bicycles, a Backroads tour is still likely to block a thoroughfare. Here we gawk at St. Isaac’s. The big sculpture in the background is a wedding bouquet — the happy couple pose at left.


The need to use local bicycles points out another interesting thing about the trip. Our concept of the Backroads bike tour dates back to our first outing, in 1995, in the Gulf Islands.  We envision two bright young leaders, one riding herd while the other drives a van along the route, providing water, snacks, repair service and perhaps the occasional lift when desired.  Every couple of days a bus materializes to move the entire group from one general location to the next.

On that first trip there happened to be only five guests.  Later we would see a dozen, then two dozen, and eventually, on the Baltic cruise, forty.  This has led to some big changes — one consequence being the difficulty of picking out “your” bicycle from among the fleet.  (This task is eased only slightly by the fact that there are now more kinds of bicycles.)

But on this voyage, several factors meant that guests, vehicles, bicycles and some of the staff progressed along the course in different supply chains.  Sometimes the bikes traveled by land or ferry and met us in port; other times, they had no choice but to gain passage with us.  Support staff changed with changing venues.  The relationship between steamship line and tour company is a new one (and the ship is itself brand-new):  a method for crating up the bikes had to be invented, shortly before the first customers arrived.  The logistics went off amazingly well.  (Ours was the “return” section of the ship’s maiden cruise from Copenhagen — the various bike routes had already been run once, but in reverse order.)

West of st. Petersburg

From St. Petersburg, past Krohnshtadt and Kotkin Island, land trails off gradually

To the Baltic tourist, much will seem familiar.  Some architecture looks picturesque, but mostly just because it’s older.  Restaurants offer lots of seafood, but none of it seems alien.  There’s the possibility of hearing a Finnic language spoken (we skipped Uralic Latvia and Lithuania) but Slavic and North Germanic prevail, and English is now accepted everywhere.

The end of August, from the world’s longest wooden pier, in Sopot, near Gdansk.

There could be a mild surprise in store for bird watchers who have not been to northern or eastern Europe before.  Crows here act the same, and they sound the same, but they look different.  They’re best described as gray with black wings and heads. 

They’re the hooded crow (Corvus cornix), the first crow named by Linnaeus.  We don’t have good pictures because the adults are too wary to get within cellphone camera range.  The young ones are naive (we were able to feed one in Tallinn) but they start out dark all over and so do not display the color difference well.  All baby crows have blue eyes, but these are startlingly pale.

You’d have to look closely, but the picture below actually shows a ship approaching a navigation light.  As intimate a sea as the Baltic is, it’s still vast enough to make humans look insignificant.

Between St. Petersburg and Tallinn

Our cruise ended in Copenhagen.  This is what you’d like your bike path to look like!  Half of the city’s workforce commutes by bicycle, so when it snows, the bike paths are cleared first.  Our ship is docked just on the other side of the building to the right.

Cruise ships have put  on a lot of weight in recent years.  But, wait!  What if, instead of trying to shoehorn a small city into a floating island, you took a yacht and scaled it up a bit?  Le Dumont d’Urville is the newest of the dozen ships owned by the French line Ponant, and one of four its size named for explorers.  (Jules Dumont d’Urville mapped much of the coast of Australia, and gave Micronesia and Melanesia their names.  And Adelie Land, in Antarctica, after his wife.  And thus the penguins also.)

The Norwegian Bliss, which ties up in our Seattle neighborhood every weekend during the summer, carries over 4,000 passengers, and has a five-hole golf course and a go-kart track.  With 92 cabins, Le Dumont d’Urville expects to carry about 170.  Its ice-strengthened hull is less than 60 feet wide and, better yet, draws only 15 feet, meaning access to a lot more of the world’s shoreline.  The deck around the little plunge pool at the stern folds out cleverly to launch Zodiacs or kayaks.  By the way, chow is another matter that can be confidently entrusted to the French.

One last look at our ship — it’s the tiny white blip in the exact center of this photograph.


It would be irresistible, if only for its visual appeal, like the set of a period movie — Stockholm has backdrops for nearly any era you like, since its buildings go back to the 13th Century. We settled in at the Grand Hotel (1874).  That’s the one with the flags in the panorama below — the Royal Palace is on our right hand just out of frame.

Another way to think about architecture is to mosey down to ArkDes, Sweden’s National Center for Architecture and Design, to the left of that three-masted ship, where we found a big exhibit of architectural models, in an inventive space. Skeppsholmen, the island it’s on, is littered with museums, so we looked at some other art as well.

It’s not just the waterfront that has these staid edifices.  We walked up to the observatory atop Vasastan and, though we saw some modern commercial buildings along the way, it was obvious that plenty of charm remains.  Here’s a view to the southeast, I think:  

Sometimes our wanderings were food-directed.  We ate at two places on tourist-dense old-town Gamla Stan, first a cozy little bar and then at Under Kastanjen (shown below), named for that big chestnut tree, basically a bakery with extra seating — though less seating than befits its popularity with locals and visitors combined.  There’s a sort of a bar downstairs, and, on its optional gluten-free menu, both the traditional meatballs (with the traditional lingonberries) and the fika-worthy oat-and-cocoa balls.

Other wonderful meals depended more on chance.  We stumbled upon a sweet little neighborhood creperie in Sodermalm when the one we were planning on decided to change its opening time.  We ended up at Oaxen Krog on Djurgården because that’s where we also ran out of steam while exploring that fabled island.

Djurgården earned its name as the royal game preserve, and today is a kind of in-city destination resort, with a couple of marinas, half a dozen museums, an amusement park, a school, and big wooded or open spaces with a web of footpaths popular among joggers.  Private residences!  A riding academy!  It was close enough to walk from our hotel — but not so close as to walk back, so we took the water taxi that leaves from the dock right next to the ABBA museum.

A bonus!  Right after our arrival on the island, I was inspired to film this three-minute-long fable of resoluteness, redemption, and the perils of modern living, “The Commons.”

We did not limit ourselves to strolling and dining.  We went paddling out in the islands, a trip described in our kayak blog, Sea Creatures.  We took the tour of the Royal Apartments, like any good tourists, and the Treasury.  It had not occurred to me that the first time any noble is welcomed at Court, a new batch of splendid insignia and regalia needs to be created, which, over the centuries, can really accumulate.

Back when we first started traveling, I would send postcards to my colleagues in the States to share with them various visions of municipal employment in other parts of the world.  While laboring in a refurbished department store or a future car dealership, they might be treated to a picture of the Hôtel de Ville in Paris or the Mirabell Palace in Salzburg, or Seville’s Ayuntamiento.

Here in that same spirit is a look at Stockholm’s Town Hall. It’s basically a big brick building, like the old offices above the fire station in Spokane.  But on a somewhat grander scale.  And a little closer to the water.  Oh, and, the Nobel Banquet is given here annually, after presentation of the awards for literature and the sciences.

When we finally left Stockholm, it was only to to join a cruise that would take us around the Baltic Sea, with stops for daily bicycling. A farewell to the Grand Hotel!  (Where, by the way, the Nobel Banquet was held until 1930.)


Our Time in Iceland

Iceland’s appeal starts with its geology — it’s the only spot where, with dry feet, you can see the meeting of the North Atlantic Plate and the Eurasian Plate — or rather, see their parting. This rift in the earth’s crust offers active volcanoes, and geothermal heat for communal bathing or radical environmentalism; plus a beautifully stark and frequently changing landscape.

It’s a landscape that’s closely linked to a twelve-hundred-year human history, recorded from the very beginning with gossip-column granularity in the Old Norse sagas and other works. They describe the early days of a crowd-sourced DIY justice system and what is now the world’s longest-running parliament. For a lapsed medievalist and sometime student of jurisprudence, this stuff is catnip.

Reykjavik’s working harbor includes museums and a modern concert hall.

There’s even more to recommend the country though. It’s one of those places where people go to watch for the Northern Lights, for example. Icelandair promotes the island as the ideal stopover on any transatlantic journey. The growth of tourism means that good food and accommodations are easy to find — though they may be pricey.  After all, most things that don’t contain wool, fish, or lava need to be brought in from far away.

Thus, traditional fare is somewhat idiosyncratic. We were offered whale. And foal!  And — puffin!  We declined all of these, on the basis of either sympathy or scarcity. It’s worth noting that the small, stalwart Iceland horses, their bloodlines traced as carefully as those of the Vikings, are thought by some to be about twice as numerous as really necessary, perhaps because others join us in refusing to dine at their expense.

One surprising example of local plenty is the tomatoes grown at Friðheimar. The big indoor farm there uses geothermal heat for energy, cold well water for irrigation, and, at any one time, hundreds of workers brought in from the Netherlands.

In white cardboard boxes. Because they’re bumblebees!  The bees, the yards-tall columnar plants, and soup-slurping tourists cheerfully share a one-and-a-quarter-acre greenhouse. Cucumbers are grown there as well and, I suspect, basil.  And those sturdy little horses, right next door.

We can’t claim to have toured the island thoroughly. We had some of our bike stuff with us though, on our way to a different trip, and we rode around the capital with Reykjavik Bike Tours.  On another day, they took us with some mountain bikes out to the Westman Isles, site of one of the earliest human occupations (and the first visit by a foreign scholar).

What a thrill, on that excursion also, to hear the story of Njals Saga retold by our guide, though in somewhat abbreviated form, virtually within sight of Njall’s home at Bergþórshvoll and Gunnar’s at Hlíðarendi.  All but perhaps the oldest Icelanders speak perfect English, by the way, thanks in part to American Forces Television, which arrived in 1951.

On that same outing we visited the town of Eyrarbakki, once a bustling port but now, after the consolidation of the fishing industry elsewhere, mostly a monument to an earlier lifestyle.  It’s the location of the country’s largest prison too, currently home to some of the bankers who helped to precipitate the 2008 financial collapse.  I was moved to observe that Americans, who value deceit more highly, gave their bankers bonuses instead of sentences.

Icelanders are proud of their past, and are good-natured about their tourist-intensive present.  The future is uncertain but they’re in a better position than people in a lot of other places, with a seemingly limitless source of clean energy.

The effects of a warming climate can be seen within their borders, but the causes lie mostly without.  Glaciers currently cover about 11 percent of Iceland; in 2014, the first one of them was downgraded to a snowfield:  it’s no longer thick enough to flow as ice.  In August, while we were there, the former glacier was commemorated with a bronze plaque. The text is “A letter to the future:”

. . . In the next 200 years all our glaciers are expected to follow the same path. This monument is to acknowledge that we know what is happening and what needs to be done. Only you know if we did it.

Of course one of the things that may need to be done, is a lot less air travel.  With Greta Thunberg sailing, instead of flying, to the U.S. at about the same time, we were beginning to notice some flygskam.  We’re hoping to do more rail travel in the future.  I feel lucky that Iceland is one of the places that we got to visit.

Back to the subject of bumblebees, here’s one we found at work near Reykjavik’s city hall.  I thought at first that it might be one of the guest-workers who had been out-placed, but the gray abdomen suggests that it is Bombus hypnorum, the New Garden Bumblebee, arrived this century from mainland Europe.  The bumblebee of agriculture is B. terrestris,  the Buff-Tailed Bumblebee, which sports a second ginger stripe and a fascinating sociology.  I think we saw some of them on a later part of our trip, in Sweden.

Another Metamorphosis

I wasn’t sure I would ever drive through the new Downtown Tunnel.  Our home lies part-way along its route, meaning that we would ordinarily have to backtrack to get to either portal.  Our kayak, though, dwells at Salmon Bay, well to the north; so a trip to any of the beaches in the south part of Puget Sound may conveniently include motoring through the tunnel with the boat on top — at least until the toll kicks in, some time later this summer.

The birth of the tunnel is linked to the demise of the Alaskan Way Viaduct, and that process has a ways to go yet.  Some parts are still standing, while others are completely gone:  the effect is like the isolated buttes that persisted during the street regrades a century ago.  The legacy section in this first picture survives because of its involvement with the Columbia Street pedestrian walkway from downtown to the ferry docks (which are themselves being made-over, as the seawall recently has been).  The land that the remnant stands on did not exist when the Denny Party arrived; it was later made from fill.

Fill is now the destiny of the viaduct itself.  When it was decided that the rubble would be placed in the now-empty Battery Street Tunnel, I imagined that trucks would busy themselves backing in and dumping their loads in the darkness.  But no, the choice was made to funnel the debris in from the top.  I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised to see those long trucks rumbling by our house.

I caught up with one of the trucks between Fourth and Fifth Avenues. To the pedestrian, it was always the grates in the sidewalk that marked the underground path of Highway 99 — but the narrower openings in the middle of the roadway are, naturally, where the dust goes in. The truck pulls up next to a big metal quarter-pipe-like trough, a spray of water materializes to suppress airborne particulates, and the hopper of the truck lurches sideways to dump its load into the old tunnel below the street.  There’s a video here of such a truck dumping its load, a block away between Third and Fourth Avenues.

Below is my mid-80s picture of the Viaduct from near the Pike Place Market, heading south toward the unsuspecting Kingdome (itself reduced to rubble in 2000) and then veering around to the right: