Saturday, October 13, 2012

Bellingham, Washington - a town that can laugh at itself

Really, what would you call a person from Bellingham? A Bellinghamite?  Bellinghamian?  Bellinghammer?  Bellinghamese?

Nope, we call ourselves Bellinghamsters.

This town of some 80,000 people (plus Richard and myself, so now 80,002) also calls itself the "city of subdued excitement."

I'm not sure what that means.  There isn't enough excitement to go around, so our excitement is shared and thus subdued?  We get quietly excited?  We get very excited about subdued things?  (My brothers think the excitement is subdued by various, ummmm, local products shall we say.  This is, after all, Washington.  The GREEN state.)

Our family moved here when I was 14, an age traumatic in itself.  While I didn't lose many of my East Coast ways, I did adopt many West Coast thoughts - environmentalism, recycling, living green, all that.  I became bi-coastal.

So for me, it made sense that Richard and I would spend time in Bellingham before we headed to Seattle where we'll fly off to New Zealand.  We need US driver's licenses to open US bank accounts - the USVI isn't good enough.  We need those same driver's licenses to obtain international driving permits.  We need to take care of some medical issues, deal with finances, re-pack our luggage, store extra items, and basically set up life so that we can spend an extended period of time overseas, just travelling.

And Bellingham, being a small town, is an easier place to do all these things, rather than in a larger town or in a city.  Richard, cynical and jaded New Yorker and anti-bureaucrat that he is, was amazed by the friendliness and cheerfulness of the staff at the Department of Motor Vehicles - we were greeted by smiles and helpful people who were interested in why we moved from the Virgin Islands, and how different our licenses looked, and did we qualify for an easy transfer or what.

Thus we are here, in my old part-time hometown.  It really is a town with a tongue-in-cheek sense of humor.  Where unisex bathrooms in a restaurant become a play on words.  I just had to take photos of these bathroom doors!)  Where you can go to a burger restaurant and have the option of a burger in a bowl or lettuce wrap, or even an elk burger.  Where flowers bloom in October and the leaves turn bright red and orange and yellow against a backdrop of dark green - where it stays green all winter, even without the leaves of the deciduous trees.  We are the EVERGREEN state, you know. 

This is a university
town, full of college students, who have the usual political conversations and "what are you doing over the weekend" conversations - but there are also snippets of conversation such as "well you can match them up if you change the tempo" and "I'll call later, I'm welding a sculpture today."  A college campus with a regionally famous outdoor sculpture collection (including sculpture by Serra, Noguchi, Goldsworthy, to name a few) - and my personal favorite, the "Man Who Used to Trap Mountain Lions," the hunter sitting with the cougar on his lap, both of them drunk and singing to the moon.

My father's house - the home I lived in during high school, and visited while in college and grad school and then all the years I've lived elsewhere - is just below the college campus, on a hill sloping down to the bay.  There are lovely views of the bay (part of Puget Sound), the Canadian Cascades to the north, beautiful sunsets all summer.  We even see the docks and all the freighters that import and export goods, summer sailing races and regattas, and once a lost orca swimming around.

This is a lovely town, full of iconoclasts who grow artichokes and don't eat them.  Houses are painted neutral grey and environmentally friendly green and cheerful-in-the-winter red or turquoise.  Gardens overflow with flowers and produce.  People get grumpy if the sun shines for too many days in a row.  Streets run at oblique angles to each other where the original four (or five?) small towns merged - and no one thinks anything of switching from one grid to another, or streets that disappear and then reappear on the other side of a hill or park.

The big news in the paper is that a local cupcake bakery won first prize on the TV show "Cupcake Wars" season opener.  Richard and I actually had cupcakes there, but didn't know this was becoming a nationally famous cupcakery.  (He had the all-dark chocolate, which looked wonderful.  I had the miniature dark chocolate with bourbon glazed walnuts and bourbon cream cheese frosting, and the miniature red velvet with cream cheese frosting.  And yes, they were all incredibly delicious.  Just one more reason Bellingham should be on your map of places to visit - TV show winning phenomenal cupcakes.

Plus the Alaskan ferry leaves from Bellingham.  And there's a private "ferry" to Victoria, Canada - which takes detours if orca whales have been sighted.  Being Bellinghamsters, we'd rather watch orcas play than arrive on time in Victoria.  Deer wander down off the hill behind the university and stroll among students, cross roads nonchalantly, nibble flowers, and drink from birdbaths.  Racoons peer into windows, squirrels steal nuts and flower bulbs, and the occasional opossum ends up in someone's basement (ours).

And for me there's that element of sentimentalism and nostalgia, when I walk familiar roads and see houses of neighbors, friends, schoolmates, or run into people I recognize from high school - despite the forty years that have worn and reshaped our faces and bodies.  There are so many memories embedded in this town, memories that Richard doesn't see, because to him this is just a place that he visits when he's with me.  He doesn't have an off-and-on forty-plus year history here - that's in New York, where he can walk around and share stories and experiences from every block or park or restaurant or cafe or building.  But for me, I see myself as a teen walking with friends, cutting school, getting rides home with a teacher, saving lilacs and rhododendron from bulldozers, swimming in the college fountain, researching synthetic dyes for advanced chemistry - four important years of my life are here in this neighborhood, in these houses, on these streets.

Even though I grew up in New York, I came of age here in Bellingham.  Where I learned that quirky sense of humor that is displayed in this town of Bellinghamsters.  Where I wrote a term paper on the feasibility of recycling pick up (which the head of sanitation scoffed at when I interviewed him), and now it has been a reality for ten or fifteen years.   Where there's a coffee shop (or coffee drive-thru) at every block, and the sky is blue, and leaves are still green and flowers still blooming in October, when the afternoon light shines golden and we don't think about the rainy months to follow.

But the rain has arrived, today, with a vengeance, and reminded me why I no longer live in western Washington.  And why we're heading south to New Zealand for the winter (or more accurately, their summer).  This can be a dark and grey and wet and dreary place in the late autumn, winter, and through much of the spring.  Until summer, when the flowers bloom and people smile and that subdued excitement peaks.

We are officially Bellinghamsters.  And maybe just a little proud of it.


  1. Ha !! The bathrooms are funny! I found another site with photos of the same bathroom doors. I should start using my blog here in googleland. Need to fiddle with how to upload photos from my phone since that's basically my camera. I could post all the bathrooms in Ireland (I really really like Irish bathrooms, at least the ladies rooms!! CLEAN and no peeking around the stall doors, for most of the places.).

  2. I love the bathroom doors - and Phebe you really can write.

    I visited Washington State once (we eastern seaboarders always say "state") and New Zealand never. But if I do, I'll know where to pee...