I live in Seattle now, on the top-left corner of the contiguous United States. It’s 4,159 miles from Limerick, says Google, which is a long way from home to end up living under the same shifting grey skies. When I first moved here three years ago, people offered advice on how to get through the dark, wet winters. Rub Vitamin D cream on the backs of your knees. Get Alaska Airlines deals on February flights to Hawaii. Buy a happy lamp. Go skiing at the weekend. Tanning booths—no, really.
I smiled and ignored them. Hadn’t I lived on dark, wet little islands until I was 25? Like most new arrivals, I was busy trying to learn a new job and make a home. That first year I barely left the city, and every day, or so it seemed, Seattle piddled rain like a small, anxious grey dog.
I had to give up my motorbike and learn to drive a car, badly, and I developed a terror of hydroplaning when I changed freeway lanes. As we headed for our 90th consecutive day of rain, my colleagues would insist that New York’s total average annual rainfall was actually higher. I’d bite back bitter answers about preferring to dance under few traffic-stopping New York rainstorms rather than slop through six months of Seattle drizzle sucking the latent heat out of my soul and bones.
By March, I was catatonic with seasonal depression, crying in the bathroom and blaming Seattle for all my failures ever. I felt like a Safeway carrot, buried for months and then misted every 15 minutes.
I was resurrected by a sunny summer—second time lucky. Seasoned now, I took myself to the mountains to learn to ski, badly. I swallowed the odd dose of Vitamin D, but abandoned the happy lamp. I’ve still never been to Hawaii, but these days I’m the one occasionally helping newer arrivals to learn to love Seattle. I know enough to avoid citing comparative average annual rainfall statistics.
Seattle is smart and introverted city, settled by Norwegian loggers, aerospace engineers, and computer scientists. (This population has lovely aspects, but pandas could teach us how to mate.) Dark, wet winters turn Seattleites toward reading and music, coffee and pot. Our bars and bookstores are good. In the summer we lay down stores of cheerfulness, when there’s dancing and bike polo in the streets.
The city is draped between mountains, lakes, and seas that draw many out of doors (though rarely me), zipped in fleece and Gore-Tex. Outdoors is a parallel world—you go “into nature,” properly outfitted for your boating, kayaking, hiking, camping, and skiing. REI started here.
In fact, Seattle has always been a town of canny outfitters, moving here to profit from booms elsewhere. John Nordstrom made Klondike money without ever working his own gold claim, and his store still ships fancy boots to gold diggers around the country. Jeff Bezos has taken 15 years of friendly Wall Street money and spent it dispatching enough Amazon boxes to fill all our new houses. Microsoft made the world organize our computer files in imaginary folders on imaginary desktops, and Starbucks convinced us to put real paper cups of coffee next to them.
How does Seattle spend this money? For all its drive and frontier history, this is a city of Un-American Activities. We hired Rem Koolhaas to design the Seattle Public Library. We just bought a Spurs player to give the passionate Sounders fans some [football][soccer] moves worth cheering. We worship local food and wine. Rich people gave money to campaigns to legalize marijuana and equalize marriage. We have brilliant medical researchers, a good state university, and not-bad buses. This may be why Seattle is a comfortable berth for this middle-aged white lady from northern Europe, despite—or because of—the social reserve that dejected newcomers from other parts of the US call Seattle Freeze.
Seattle knows we’re stiff compared to Portlandia down the road, and staid compared to the Pacific Rim glamour of Vancouver three hours north. We fret, in an almost Canadian way, about whether we’re recognized as world-class at this or that. (“America’s Second-Most Literate City!” the local magazines will blurt.) We know it’s 20 years since Seattle last was cool, and keep checking whether it’s time for a grunge revival yet. (When 71-year-old Paul McCartney played Seattle in July, I sat behind Nirvana. Dave Grohl dandled sweet daughters, looking like any Caspar Babypants daddy.) These days, Macklemore is our great white hope.
But here’s something I’ve come to love about Seattle. All kinds of extraordinary people still show up here, long after the gold rush. They visit, because, rare among cities, we actually read their books, pay to hear their music, or want to hear how they’re changing the world. They move here altogether, because they think it’s sane and civilized, they want fresh air, or their sweetheart got a job that makes them hopeful. And these autotelic, funny, stylish, book-reading, science-loving, art-making humans sit up at the bars of our restaurants to eat their dinners and chat with the stranger next to them.
In San Francisco or New York, those same people might have to look busy, sought-after and fabulous, just like everyone else. They might scan the room for better options, check in for the next party, promise coffee four weeks out. Here, the options aren’t endless and it’s okay to be eager. A stranger might actually chat, glad to find a kindred spirit. As transplants, you can roll your eyes about Seattle: the earnestness, the awkward glass art, the rain, the romance-famine. You can compare it to the last city that still holds your heart. You can band together, thawing out from the polite Seattle Freeze. The streets yield more fun with a playmate or a partner in crime.
And then you make another friend. And another. And another. And one day, maybe a bright evening in July or August, when the sun is still high at half past eight and the park is full of people eating street food picnics, you realize your little tribe has formed, and Seattle—endearing, dorky, emerald city—broke all that ice for you.