Tuesday, November 23, 2010

victoria and seattle

Note from Seattle and Victoria, B.C.

Mary Ann Caws

Lots of rain, more mist in Victoria British Columbia, oddly bracing. Some things are always here, like ultra-oldecolonial proper beyond belief Empress Hotel, known for its Bengal Lounge (“turn right at the elephant” serves as direction) and its afternoon tea service. (The ultimate irony of discussing anything postcolonial in such a colonial setting is gorgeously obvious.)

People come to Victoria often for the Gardens which are everywhere: the famed Butchart Gardens, just outside the city, the Crystal Gardens, just across from the bus station, and the Undersea Gardens, at the port. Right across from the Empress Hotel, the Royal British Columbia Museum is about as spacious and informative as any historical museum could possibly be. Hall after hall displays treasures from the First Nation peoples, the tribes and totems and ways of living. Every time it seems to me still more impressive, still larger, with its dioramas and dark places. Outside is a traditional longhouse, with a skyscraper of a totem pole and a face looking out onto the road. When the surrealists came over to North America during World War II (“Surrealism in Exile,” as in Martica Sawin’s book on the topic), some of them went up to the West Coast of Canada and explored the territories of the Salish, Saanich, and other tribes.  The artist heroine of Victoria (and the reason I first came to Victoria and Vancouver) is Emily Carr, a superb painter of First Nation tribal art and the great forests and lakes of the Pacific Northwest. Her writing, both quirky and brilliant, is a discovery to make if one hasn’t already come across it, and her life with her various animals: her pet rat, her monkey she kept with her at all times, and various other creatures, is – to put it very mildly – unusual. At an advanced age, she set forth in a sort of van called The Elephant, to set up her easel and create. In front of the Empress, she remains in bronze, monkey and all, and one should salute her as one passes.

Lots of happening things happened here this November, in conjunction with the annual conference of the Modernist Studies Association. Here’s one of the happenings: one evening, in a small theatre space called “Open Space Gallery,” a genius actress also a scholar participant in the meetings (author of Archaelogy and  Modernism),  Sasha Colby performed as H.D. in  an extract of a full theatre piece about H.D., in which she played all the roles: H.D. young with Ezra Pound, H.D. later, with Freud, H.D. elderly, cramped over. It was an electric performance, and moving to tears. There was also probably the first performance of a play by Mina Loy, The Pamperers, discovered in a 1920 issue of The Dial, and then reprinted in 1996 in the Performing Arts Journal. Other evenings, there were salons at Emily Carr’s house, one discussing her work and another, that of Joyce.

Victoria is full of places to have oysters from Fanny Bay, which  are, in my view, best consumed just like that, although they are offered often fried  and dusted with Panko  (those Japanese bread crumbs for fish) and even in an Oyster Burger. There is always the rightly-named The Oyster, and there is, even better,  my favorite place for hanging out, Bartholomew’s, serving local beer from Granville Island, off Vancouver, and all sorts of lightly-priced fresh foods, spinach salad being a superb choice. It features dim lighting and a general laid-back manner, and does the Wharfside Seafood Grill, with a view right on the harbour and prices right up there with the view. Ships in the harbour, and at night, the Parliament Building lit up in profile, lights on the trees, the whole kit and caboodle.

Walking is just as delightful in Dickensian Victoria. Fort Street is bordered with gas lamps, in clusters of three, and a very (seriously) old world feeling. I arrived there this time on Remembrance Day, and the place around the Parliament Building was packed with sober-faced persons, all red-flower wearing (poppies, like Flanders Field? I couldn’t tell), complete with prayers and songs and canon fire from the water. I felt very pagan, making my way to the Queen Victoria Hotel, where my stay was included in a Victoria Clipper package, a return voyage between Victoria and Seattle.

One of the multiple advantages of anything going on in Victoria is that you can arrive there by those boats, all red and blue and white, where on the almost three hour crossing, you are served whatever you like from almonds to hot water for tea and coffee, endlessly refilled. In the daylight, you can stand on deck and see the water spinning by; in darker times, you can sit back and do whatever you do. Just being on a boat seems something of a miracle if you like in New York City.

When you go back to Seattle, from wherever you are, you find such a relaxed place, with a mindset totally unlike that of New York. Even the Seattle Art Museum (I love the initials SAM, makes you feel at home) is a joy – now at the moment, it has a Picasso show, made from the holdings of the Picasso Museum in Paris, being remodelled.When I was sitting at my very, very favorite restaurant in Seattle, at Pike’s Market (“turn left at the pig,” whose hoof prints are all over the sidewalk), called Matt’s in the Market, on the very top floor, I heard the story. I always sit at the bar, above which is a large sign:Counter Intelligence, one of those places you don’t have to take a book or paper to read. You can just sit and be happy. So I was sitting and being happy in the sunbeam streaming through the large interestingly-shaped windows. Having steamed clams in a broth with chives and leeks was a total joy. A waiter rushed over with hot  bread to dunk up the bottom of the bowl in, and a glass of the local brew (Pike’s, of course), and the proprietor told me the Picasso-Seattle story. The exhibition is truly magnificent, with some of the very best pieces displayed, and an instructive audioguide with comments on the paintings by Chuck Close, Pepe Carmel, and Anne Baldessari from the Picasso Museum in Paris.

 I exuded my joy at re-being here in Seattle and here at Matt’s and told him  I was coming back to lecture on the Picasso exhibition next month, etc., and he  told me about his favorite place in New York: Mary’s Fish Camp in the West Village, and then he said: “You know why we got the Picasso?” “Nope,” I said, all ears; “Well, the director of the museum flew over to the Picasso Museum and said we’d love to have a Picasso exhibit. And so we do.”  Picasso always gets people to talking – when MOMA in New York was being remodeled, the joke was they had a very few “Picasso-free” rooms..When I mention that to my friends, they never even giggle.

So, in Seattle, you can walk and walk along  Elliot’s Bay, for ages, visit the very large Aquarium, or sample some of the extraordinarily-complicated dishes here and there, at theDahlia Lounge (appetizers with this on that,) or the Purple CafĂ© (here, all sorts of local cheese, all served with very long and very crisp homemade crackers and fig jam, perhaps with a glass of Washington State Riesling they recommend, and here you can look up at the immensely high stair full of bottles reaching up several floors. All the white wines from Okenagan Valley I tried on this and my last visits were superb.

What a memory: on a leisurely trip by bus around Vancouver Island,  I first tried them at the Long Beach Lodge, a wonderfully relaxed place with a long bare beach and a high room from which you can look out upon it, having whatever glass of wine or ale you might prefer. Again, the white wines (especially remarkable), worked with whatever I was having (even the remarkable pizza, of fig and the local equivalent of prosciutto –consumed in a large leather chair by the fire – of which I took the remainders back to my room to heat on the fireplace and have on the beach for my next lunch.

To return to Seattle, as I hope often to do, is deeply desirable. What with Pike’s Place Market and the free bus along the road by the Bay and the walkability of the place, if you don’t mind ups and downs, and – well, everything, Seattle is truly lovable. Lest it be thought that I ONLY care about eating and drinking, let me point out that you have only to find somewhere to sit and stare at Elliott Bay to be convinced how lovable is this city. Groups  of young people on the streetcorners seem unthreatening,  the bookstore owners seem truly involved in what you might like to read or see, the less expensive hotels are delighted to have you, while the more expensive ones (like the Kimpton Chain) love to offer you all sorts of wines to cheer up your evening. At the Hotel Monaco, a quirky red-oriented place, you are offered a goldfish in a bowl to keep you company, in case you miss your pet. Very endearing, like all of Seattle.

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