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How McSteamy is doing

Some people have been wondering how McSteamy has been doing since we lost Mocha a few weeks ago. Surely he must miss her?

He must in some way, but not any that is particularly visible to us. This is just as well, as the only visible signs I can imagine would be those of depression: not grooming (or over-grooming), not eating, withdrawal. None of which he is doing, which means we don’t have to jump right into worrying about him.

The only thing I have noticed is that McSteamy and Zoë seem to be hanging out together more. They have play sessions together, and if they’re not quite cuddling together to sleep, they are at least in closer proximity these days.

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McSteamy on the rebound

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Whadaya mean, make the bed?

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They’ll be lazing on a Sunday afternoon


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Walking in the Basque Country: Part 1

Jean had this trip in mind for a while. I was less certain about it, as I knew nothing about these places—San Sebastian, Bilbao, Biarritz—which meant I had no particular desire to go there. But when I read the description of the trip on the Exodus website, it sounded pretty good. So we went ahead with booking it.

We were headed to this part of France and Spain:

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These are the main cities (or towns) there:

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Friday / Saturday

It’s tricky booking travel to these smaller European destinations from Canada. We decided to try to fly into Bilbao around the same time as the rest of the tour group (flying in from London—Exodus is a British tour company). That meant flying to Montreal initially (on Westjet) to catch an earlier evening Air France flight to Paris, from where we got another flight to Bilbao.

So it was a bit of milk run, but everything went well, basically. The “long” flight was only about six hours. Then we had to go through security again (why?) and very slow passport control (unusual for Europe), but basically everything was on time and our luggage made it through. We arrived a bit ahead of the rest of the group, but eventually met up with our tour guide, Stéphane, then the rest of the group. We totalled 11.

We were then bused to our hotel in Ascain, France, which is too small to be on the map above, but isn’t far from Biarritz. Hotel room was small but fine, and the place had a nice patio out front and the staff were all quite friendly.  They also offered a quite delicious and sustaining daily breakfast (as we knew the “typical” French breakfast of coffee and croissant would not suffice for hiking).

Dinners were not included in the tour package, but for most nights, the tour guide did a group booking for us at a local restaurant, which generally worked out well. The only ongoing issue was that the concept of “splitting the cheque” seemed foreign in these parts (in both France and Spain), so each evening ended with us all having to do math to figure out who owed what.

The highlights of our first French dinner were the really great fish soup (mussels, scampi, white fish) to start, the fries that came with our duck à l’orange, my iced nougat dessert, and that Jean’s cheese dessert was offered in the form of: Here are several slabs of delicious French cheese. Slice off as much as you want.

Sunday

Now’s the time to mention that we were really lucky with weather: Though the Basque region can be pretty rainy, we had nothing but sun all week. Particularly in the beginning, it would start out cool then warm up nicely, followed by a cool evening. Later in the week the temperature trended up, almost (but not quite) to too warm.

The first hike was described as a “gentle walk perfect for stretching out our legs”. This was a ruse, as it actually had more elevation than most of the hikes (470m), and involved climbing and descending two mountains (small mountains, but still) and a hill. Plus, it was listed as 9 km but everyone’s mileage counter (including mine, on my phone) reported it as more like 12 km.

But it was nice.

St Jean de Luz and the Bay of Biscay

Overlooking St Jean de Luz and the Bay of Biscay

We saw some animals here, in the form of wild horses named pottocks. They are small and tough and were previously used in mines. More recently, they were problems with them mating with larger horses, such that they couldn’t get enough food in the mountains to survive the winter. Now, to preserve them—and though they are still considered wild—they have “owners” who ensure they get vaccinated (and presumably try to keep the larger horses away from them).

Wild horse in the Pyrennes Mountain's of Spain

A pottock in its natural habitat

They also do some free-range farming in these mountains, notably of the Basque pigs, who do seem to be living the good life.

It’s a pig’s life

With the first walk, we found we were able to keep up with the group and didn’t have too many sore muscles the next day.

Back in Escain, they were having an annual festival. (Nice of them to time it with our visit.) Part of the involved shepherds guiding some of the pottocks down to a pasture in town, so the tourists could see them without hiking in the mountains. A bit odd, but the horses didn’t look too unhappy being on view, eating their hay. There were also farm animals display, a competition of sheep herding by those amazing border collies, and market booths set up selling food and crafts. We got some lunch items here.

Group dinner was at a place that specialized in fish and seafood. Jean and I shared a very nice cold foie gras starter, with a glass of local sweet wine reminiscent of sauternes. I then had grilled hake, a local fish on many menus, while Jean tried the Basque specialty of squid cooked in squid ink. Very nice texture on that. We shared a crème brulée for dessert. This place was also the only one to help us split the bill: the waitress emerged with a calculator.

Monday

The Monday hike started with a ride to the most popular tourist destination of the area, the train station that brings you up the Rhune mountains. We also took the train up to what was probably the most spectacular hike of the trip. It was a cooler morning, and the clouds were low-lying at that point—it was very neat to be walking above them.

On top of the World

On top of the world

Pittoks (Wild Pyrenees horses) in the Moutain

More pottocks, less impressed than we were by the view

The idea was then to walk down La Rhune, and back up to the train station, take the train down, and walk back to Ascain.

This is the border between France and Spain

On the border between Spain and France, as marked by the stone

But after lunch (for lunch, by the way, we each to buy our own provisions from the local store before heading out), before starting our ascent back to the train station, someone asked about just walking all the way back from where we were. The guide agreed that it was a reasonable option, and that it saved us from having to wait around for the train. The group agreed on that approach, and we did see some interesting things on that stretch of trail.

Sheep grazing n the Pyrenees Mountains

Grazing sheep

A former hunting lodge (vulture hunting) now used by some hikers

Feral Pittok in the Basque Pyrenees

A pottock who isn’t too worried about us

At one point the group got split up, on a rocky path that were more of challenge for some (Jean and I were kind of in the middle) and ended up taking different paths down. But the guide managed to gather us all eventually.

La Rhune: group split on path down to Ascain panorama (Andrew's)

You take the high road, and I’ll take…

Our final French dinner was also nice, at Etorri. I had salad followed by squid with tomatoes and garlic, when Jean had duck and duck: foie gras then roast duck with cherries. And creme brulee for dessert (again).

Tuesday

Today was the day we moved from France to Spain, so we started with a private bus ride to Col de Sainte Ignace. The bus then carried our luggage on to our hotel in Getaria while we took a short boat ride, then walked into San Sebastian, where we caught a public bus to Getaria.

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Where we took a boat to start the walk

The trail head start included the exciting site of a public toilet (rare on this trip), so four of the women decided to take advantage. It had a system of lights we didn’t quite understand, but the door wasn’t locked, so the first one went in.

We outside then noticed that the light changed to yellow, then red, which seemed a bit ominous in itself, and then we heard this sound of whooshing water. Followed by some screaming, then B. emerging, pants unbuttoned.

“I haven’t had time to go yet!” she said. It started squirting water out all over, pointing to her speckled pant legs.

So, this was a self-cleaning system that activated after each person. Light green, you go in and do your thing, you emerge, light turns yellow, then red, and it sprays water onto the floor and seat to clean it, then green and ready for the next person. Kind of a nice system, really, for the rest of us in line. 🙂

This was one of the easier walks, which is good because the intermittent sore throat I’d noticed the past two days had evolved into nasal congestion, which meant hiking with a copious supply of TP (European hotels don’t supply Kleenex, period) for nose blowing. It did start with a quite a few stairs going up, but then was largely flat until we later descended into San Sebastian. Here we were walking on part of the famous El Camino trail, albeit its less popular (because harder—more elevation) northern end.

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Approaching San Sebastian

San Sebastian was a bigger place than most of us were expecting. We had about an hour here before needing to take the bus, so we prioritized finding a place with coffee and washroom. We followed that up with ice cream before getting the inter-city bus to Getaria.

Our hotel there, Hotel Saiaz, was one of the nicest we’ve ever stayed at in Europe: Quite spacious and interesting architecture and room design. (Including a glass door to the bathroom which looked cool, but will lead to a funny story later.) It also had a fridge, which was handy.

We walked around Getaria a bit, getting cold supplies at a pharmacy where the pharmacist spoke excellent English (not always a given in these parts) and locating the Michelin-starred restaurant Jean had read about (El Kano). Unfortunately, with the combination of a food expo in San Sebastian and the national holiday Thursday, they were all booked up for the week.

Our dinner this night, as it would be the case each night, was booked for 8:30, as the Spanish don’t think anyone should eat their final meal of the day any earlier than that. I started with white asparagus, since Spanish main courses don’t include any sides—just whatever protein you order. (Jean nevertheless had foie gras again.) The asparagus was very good—fresh and flavored with olive oil. We then both had the sea bass, which was nice. I ordered a peach dessert which turned out to be… canned peaches. (Seriously?) Jean did better with the rice pudding.

Spanish menus also don’t routinely include wines by the glass so we got a bottle of Rioja. (At least the wine is fairly cheap.) It was good, but we weren’t able to finish it.


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Meet the cats

I have a posse of three who haven’t had much blog time to date.

Zoë

Zoë has been with us the longest. Jean saw her at a pet store—not one of those stores that sells kittens and puppies, one of those that displays rescue cats up for adoption—and couldn’t resist. He called me.

“I’m at Pet Value, want to adopt this cat,” he said.

“So she’s black calico?” I answered.

Jean, confused: “So you’ve seen her too?”

No Jean, I hadn’t seen her too. I just knew that Jean had been missing our black calico, Bob, who’d passed away some months before.

Zoë indeed resembled Bob very much; in older pictures, it’s hard to tell which cat is which. And she shares Bob’s graceful elegance of movement.

But she’s her own cat. Her big round eyes give her an air of constant inquisitiveness; when awake, she always seems to be fascinated by something. The background she was rescued from was a house overcrowded with cats; she’s never really lost her interest in sneaking around, scrounging around for food, though now it’s just for fun and not survival. And if she does get mouth on something good, she stills goes to hide in the corner to eat it, though the other cats have no interest in trying to steal it from her—they don’t even like “people” food.

She’s the shyest of the bunch and is not exactly a lap cat. But she enjoys being pet in particular places: up on window sills, in the bathroom (as long as she’s the only cat in there), and on us, as long we have a blanket barrier. She also has a daily ritual of joining us for meals at breakfast, on her own stool, content to hang with us whether or not she gets any treats.

McSteamy

McSteamy was picked out of a “catalog” of rescue cats. We were “shopping” because Romey, a stray who’d adopted us years before (and remains our sweetest cat ever) had passed, leaving us with just Zoë. McSteamy was gorgeous, a blue-eyed tabby-Siamese cross.

A handsome fellow

Unfortunately, he was also terrified of us.

It was nothing personal. His foster owner said he’d also been scared of her at first, but had gotten over it, and now she adored him. I was skeptical, but Jean was taken in, so we brought him home and put him in a room for an adaptation period, during which he scrambled under furniture every time we entered. But, once safely “hidden” away he did let us pet him, and would eventually sneak out a bit more.

One day, not long after he’d been allowed out of the one room, some commotion gave him a big fright. He ran up three flights of stairs, jumped on a bed, then crashed through a screened, second-floor window. He through the back yard, beyond the fence, and out to hide with the gophers in the wooded berm.

The cat rescue organization was very helpful in dealing with this crisis. They lent us a trap, told us to put as close to the window he’d escaped from as possible, and to wait. Again I was skeptical, but darned if McSteamy didn’t make his way into that trap around 2:00 in the morning.

Once back in the house and release, McSteamy decided we were the best people ever. And he has never really stopped thinking that. His fear of us was gone for good.

Frankly, I shudder to think what kind of experience he’d had before ending up at the shelter where the cat rescue organization got him, because now this is one of the friendliest, most relaxed cats I’ve ever encountered.

McSteamy’s stressful life

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He’s the first to visit “strangers” to the house. If there’s a commotion, he’ll amble over to see what it’s about. He not only accepts attention now; he demands it. With insistent meowing, when necessary (whereas he was a basically silent cat at first).

And yes, he was named after the character in Grey’s Anat0my, a show we watched at the time. Most people find the name a hoot…

Mocha

Mocha was adopted at the same time as McSteamy, but by the same method as Zoë: She was the featured rescue cat at Pet Value. In the store, she seemed the friendliest, most cuddly cat ever. Once we got her home, she proceeded to hide from us behind and underneath furniture, for months. Devious!

Through their time of joint fear in the “adaptation room”, McSteamy and Mocha formed a bond that persists to this day. They often cuddle and sleep together, which always looks adorable and bit funny, because Mocha is an unusually tiny cat, and McSteamy is… not.

Fury Kid's looking cute

At any rate, Mocha did eventually warm to us as well—especially Jean, whom she loves to climb up and all over when he’s at the computer. “Too intense, Mocha!” is a common refrain. And she’s decided I’m OK, too. Especially that I’m not off on canoe or business trips as often as Jean; Mocha has to get her petting somewhere.

Though much calmer than on first adoption, she remains a bit nervous and jumpy, especially when it comes to eating. Her backstory: likely a pet that got out when she went into a heat. She and her kittens were rescued from someone’s backyard. (She and all our cats are now neutered, of course.) But the “rescue” likely involved getting trapped in a box when she snuck out to eat, and she apparently fears that might happen again.

Mocha!

But mostly she seems happy with her lot


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How to make a Canadian quilt

In honour of Canada Day, I just installed the Canadian English Dictionary extension for Firefox, so now WordPress doesn’t mark “honour” with a “u” as a typo. Yay!

I also spent some time (badly) photographing possibly the most Canadian item I own: A red and white quilt signed by various Canadian celebrities. My mother won it in a museum fundraiser back in 1997, and I recently inherited it.

Since 1997, some of the signatures have faded, and some of the “celebrities” have become obscure. But a number remain fun to look over.

Mr. Dressup signature and image

Aw, Mr. Dressup!

Jann Arden, Pamela Lee sigzantures

So Pamela Anderson was still married to Tommy Lee in ’97. And an interesting juxtaposition beside Jann Arden’s drawing (yes, that angel is naked. As angels are.).

Pamela Wallin and Jean Chretien signatures

Speaking of Pamelas and juxtapositions, Pamela Wallin was then just a TV journalist, not a disgraced Conservative Senator. The modest signature below hers is that of the Prime Minister of the day, Liberal Jean Chrétien.

Shania Twain, Stompin Tom, and Michelle Wright signatures

Stompin’ Tom was still was us in 1997, and Shania Twain is still with us today. Not sure what’s up with Michelle Wright these days…

Lynn Johson signature

And this one is just lovely

A few more items in Canada’s tapestry:

Google logo, Canada Day

Google’s logo today

Songza’s curated Canada Day playlists.

Raccoon on deck

A recent deck visitor

Trout, spinach, and roseRaspberries, strawberries, and dessert

Some fine local food.

Happy July 1, everyone! Canada flag


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Toronto in pictures

Our annual “weekend in Toronto in winter because Jean has a conference” wasn’t terribly eventful—we drove back before da big storm really hit—but it did provide some photographic opportunities.

We visited the very crowded, kind of expensive, but still pretty neat Ripley’s Aquarium.

Ripley's Aquarium, Toronto, Ontario

The big draw seemed to be sharks swimming overhead.

Ripley's Aquarium, Toronto, Ontario

But there were other interesting critters, too

Ripley's Aquarium, Toronto, Ontario

Hello moray

We had some trouble getting dinner reservations Saturday due to (I assume) Winterlicious being on. But we managed to get in at Frank, at the AGO. Jean had their Winterlicious items while I ordered from the main menu.

Frank's at the Art Gallery of Ontario

This was the mussel appetizer.

I had a roasted squash salad. For mains, we each had a tuna entree, but prepared different ways—both good.

Frank's at the Art Gallery of Ontario

This was the Winterlicious entree.

For wine, we had a bottle of a Spanish white, an albarino, that was on special. Quite nice, and appeared to be low in alcohol.

For dessert, Jean’s had rum raisin crème brulée. Yum.

Frank's at the Art Gallery of Ontario

I had the Tres Leches Cake—not too shaby, either.

For January, the weather wasn’t too bad. It was partly sunny on Saturday, and not that cold, especially when not in the wind. So we did do some walking around, and Jean took some photos.

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Toronto City Hall

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Skating rink at Nathan Phillips Square

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View from our hotel

Sunday we had some delicious dim sum (no photos), then visited the Douglas Coupland exhibit at the ROM. It was more to my taste than Jean’s. Therefore, you must now prepare for a precipitous decline in photo quality, because the following ones are mine.

If you look at the next image through the camera of your cell phone, they’ll look quite different than they do with the naked eye. It’s really weird. (And if you actually take the cell phone picture, you lose the effect.)

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I don’t know what you do if you’re looking at this post on your cell phone.

The exhibit was very pop art-like. One set of paintings was of QR codes that bring up phrases like “Sworn to fun, loyal to none” and “I wait and I wait and I wait for God to appear”, that you can then text to your friends to confuse them. Another was a large installation of found objects, arranged to represent the four quadrants of the brain, and the cerebellum.

The following photos might help you judge how interested you might find all this. How many of these coloured squares do you want to read?

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I read them all.


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Running around Seattle, seeing stuff

While we did take some time to stop and eat, meet with friends, read, and relax while in Seattle, this post will focus on the activities we managed to pack in.

The initial weather forecast for Seattle wasn’t that great, but after we got there (in the rain), made it to our hotel, had a snack, and were ready to head to explore, it had become very nice and sunny. Our hotel was right by the famous Space Needle, so we decided to take the opportunity to go up that right away, while the weather was cooperative.

While at, we also bought a City Pass, which gave us access to four other sights along with Needle, saving you about half the cost in entry fees, if you visit them all.

You do get some nice views of Seattle from the Space Needle:

View of Seattle from the Space Needle

But overall, the experience is a bit underwhelming. They have some interactive displays of other Seattle sites up there, so we virtually checked out the Pike Street Market area, but overall there isn’t that much to do. I think the CN Tower and Empire State Building were somehow more impressive.

Though it must be said that the Space Needle involves much less rigmarole getting up there (at least in October)!

We had some time before dinner, so we also walked far enough to get an actual view of the Pike Street Market, and some of the waterfront. Seattle looked very pretty:

Seattle at dusk

Thursday was supposed to be cloudy, but Thursday didn’t get the memo, apparently, and instead was beautiful and sunny all day. So we focused on outdoor activities.

We started at the Olympic Sculpture Park. It wasn’t quite what we had pictured in our minds, which more of a traditional park, only with city art installed in it. It had more concrete barriers and paths than we were expecting, and wasn’t that large.

Olympic Sculpture Park in Seattle

But it did contain some rather interesting art:

This guy's got a big head... 40 ft in fact!

And a very cool fountain:

Seattle fountain

Our City Pass included a one-hour Seattle Harbor cruise, so we walked to the waterfront next to get tickets for that. We had lunch in the Pike Street market area, and on the way to the restaurant we happened by the famous bubblegum wall (where that walls are full of designs in gum). It’s both interesting and gross.

The cruise was quite informative. We got a bit of a history of the pier and of some of the buildings viewed from shore, like the hotel where people could fish outside their window, and the office building that met the city height limits without losing any floors, by giving all tenants low ceilings. And we learned about some of the tourist sites, like Space Needle, built for a World’s Fair, and the ferris wheel, a more recent addition.

Setting Sail for Seattle

Seattle skyline

We got a closeup view of the boat loading operations, whose cranes look a bit mysterious from the shore:

Cranning to the see the stars in Seattle Harbour

We also got an excellent view of Mount Rainier—unlike when we were actually there!

Mount Rainier in the background

Mount Rainier in the background [This wouldn’t have been my photo selection for this, but Jean did the selecting…]

We also saw some sea lions. And the tour guide talked about the Seattle weather, noting that the annual amount of rain there is less than many other American cities—such as Honolulu! But it’s just that those cities tend to get heavy rainfalls during a short season, whereas Seattle has a very long season of light rain.

Once off the boat, we walked to the Pioneer District, which is the oldest part of Seattle. We noticed that it was more run down than the other parts of the city we’d been in, with more homeless and litter. It was fine during the day, but I wouldn’t want to be there at night!

While there, however, we did take the Underground Tour, which was fascinating! (Though low on pictures.) It was funny, because on the way there, I was asking Jean, “Which city was it that they raised the whole level of by adding dirt, or something?” And he looked at me like I had two heads, as he had never heard of such a thing.

Well, Seattle is that city! It’s still a pretty hilly place, but back in the day, it was even more hilly, and the lowlands had problems with flooding and issues with a lot of stuff—like raw sewage—flowing down and pooling where people were trying to live. So when the whole of downtown Seattle burnt down, they decided to tackle this problem by moving some earth down off the top of the hills, making those less steep, and raising the lowlands, actually pushing the water line back.

Sounds a bit crazy, but was actually a good idea that worked well. Only problem is that to complete the whole project was to take a good 10 years. And Seattle businessmen did not feel they could wait that long to rebuild.

So they didn’t. They rebuilt immediately, but with the intent that their second floor would eventually be the main floor, and that the first floor would be underground.

On the Underground tour, apart from learning about all this (and more), you tour the old sidewalks and lower levels of buildings, still located underneath the modern sidewalks and main doorways above.

It’s a very interesting tour, all day presented with a lot of humor—highly recommended if you ever visit Seattle.

This had made for a lot of walking in a day, so on the way back we took the light rail, then the monorail—an almost absurdly short ride, but it’s cool. (We later learned it was built for the World Fair, and just never expanded from that.) And on the way back to our hotel, we found a new path through Space Needle Park, featuring another neat fountain:

Seattle Fountain

Friday offered up some of that famous Seattle light rain we’d been hearing about, so we decided it would be museum day.

We started at the Pacific Science Centre (City Pass!), whose special exhibit was the science behind Ripley’s Believe or Not. We were surprised to see a Government of Ontario logo on the way in; turns out the exhibit was developed at Science North in Sudbury! It was a good exhibit—fun and interesting.

And we visited the butterfly room.

Butterfly, Pacific Science Center

One of these types of butterflies landed on me and refused to depart. It had to be shooed away by an attendant.

Our City Pass had included an Imax movie, so we saw Sharks 3D! It was very well done, really, presenting the efforts to better understand great white sharks and encourage their protection.

The next stop was the Chihuly Museum (where we also had lunch). He does incredibly beautiful work in glass. Some of it was featured in indoor galleries, other pieces outside in a garden.

Chihuly Glass Floats

Chihuly in Seattle
Our final museum du jour was the Seattle Aquarium. (This is a true research aquarium—no dolphins doing tricks here.) While not the most impressive aquarium we’ve ever visited—it was a bit small—we did enjoy seeing the tropical fish, their good collection of sea birds, and the various types of otters. You’ve got to love otters! It was also interesting to learn that animals here aren’t necessarily stuck for life; where possible, they get released and replaced with new ones (who are later released, too).

Here's Nemo

Nemo!

Rainy Saturday morning, we polished off our City Pass with a visit to the EMP (experimental music projects) museum. As predicted in advance, I found it much more interesting than Jean, so we have very few photos!

It had special exhibits on:

  • Horror movies
  • Icons of science fiction
  • Jimi Hendrix in London
  • Nirvana: Bringing punk to the masses
  • The art of the music video
This one is totally for Cathy !

Mr Pointy from Buffy the Vampire Slayer – part of the horror movie exhibit, and our only photo from the EMP

Unlike Jean, I found something of interest in each exhibit, though the music video one was probably my favorite, Interesting to see some of the more recent innovations in that art form (interactive, 3D, remixing, fan versions)—along with the more familiar history—as I really don’t keep up with music videos anymore! I also spent a bit of time in the room where you experiment with the keyboards (and many other instruments), learning how to play along with famous songs and such. Fun, though I didn’t much time.

The afternoon cleared up, so we visited the Capitol Hill neighborhood. It’s characterized by a lot of interesting shops—bookstore / cafe that specializes in technical and science books (from science fiction to heavy computer programming); music stores highlighting all types of music, not just the most popular—that sort of thing. There’s also a Jimi Hendrix statue there, and Broadway St, features some dance steps on the side walk.

(But I don’t have pictures to prove any of that…)

I think we got a lot in, including a lot of walking! Despite all that, we missed a few items on the list:

  • Doing a wine tasting and bringing some Washington or Oregon wine home (weren’t in the mood when we walked by the place)
  • Visiting the Museum of Flight (too far; closer to the airport)
  • Visiting the Seattle Museum of Art (ran out of time)
  • Taking a culinary tour (just going to restaurants won out)

I guess there’s always next time…