At last! A place in the U.S. that’s not for us!
My wife and I lived in Olympia, Washington for two years when she was assigned to work with the state’s public health department. There were other cities available to her – in California, New Mexico, and somewhere in the Midwest – but we chose Olympia, knowing in advance that it had the sort of rainy, dreary, soul-crushing climate that might wring the very last milligram of joy from your being. But for us? No problem! It would be something new and different, we would make new friends, and we’d thrill to the dramatic landscape of the Pacific Northwest whenever the sun was out, usually for a few weeks in July or August.
Olympia! Named for the mount of the Gods, or else after the Olympic Mountains! Home of Oly Beer, defunct since 2003! That irrepressible cutup Kurt Cobain and Nirvana lived here! The Fleetwoods (you know, the “Come Softly to Me” group) went to school and got their start here! And, it’s the state capital, with a big dome and everything!
We were psyched!
*Sigh*. What we didn’t anticipate was Olympia’s “vibe,” or what I like to call, ever so deftly, its psychosocial landscape. People – how they think and feel, what their moods are – do inform (nay, overwhelm) a sense of place, and we soon discovered that the culture here was listing heavily toward the schoolmarmish side, meaning: strict. In a dour, downcast, prepare-to-be-scolded-by-complete-strangers kind of way.
Example: one sunny summer day, we were driving our old Jeep with the top down towing our little 14′ runabout back home from an outing in Puget Sound, when another car pulled up next to us at a stoplight and the driver called out to us without cracking a smile: “You people are having entirely too much fun!”
Pleased by his jocularity, I offered him an appreciative smile, but it was not returned. Could he have been serious, making a comment like that? Apparently. Should fun in Olympia, precious as it was, be so assiduously husbanded and doled out in such discreet teaspoons?
Or maybe he was “being funny,” but couldn’t show it because his smile muscles had atrophied.
Another time, we went to one of our favorite seafood restaurants on the waterfront with my cousin from Seattle, her husband, and their teenage son, a high school football lineman. We took a booth in the bar area. We ordered wine for the adults and a Coke for Bobby.
“I’m sorry,” said the waitress dourly, “the child can’t be here with you in the bar area.”
The child was seventeen and bigger than anyone else at the table. “Should he wait in the car?” I asked.
“He needs to be in the non-bar area. Unless you’re all having Cokes and not wine.”
No chance of that. I looked around and saw that the restaurant had only one other table occupied.
“Bobby,” I asked, “do you want to go sit at one of those non-bar area tables and we’ll catch up with you later?”
“No,” he said.
From their faces, I saw that my wife and cousins were encouraging me to handle this all by myself. “What if he hides under his raincoat and scrunches up next to the wall?”
“I’m sorry, sir, that’s the rule.”
“Can we all move to the non-bar area and order wine?”
“Yes, of course. But children need to be twenty feet from the bar area.”
We all got up and moved to a table that seemed to be in the non bar-area, but that was only, as it happened, about fourteen feet away.
I asked, “Where exactly is the boundary of the bar area?”
“It’s generally over there,” she said, waving her arm ambiguously at some booths and tables near the bar.
Eventually we straightened it out, sitting at a table as far from the bar area as possible, and had an enjoyable meal that was soured only by the tyranny of rules and the insistent rain spewing all over the deck and tables outdoors. (Note: the restaurant in question burned to the ground last year. Also note: some of the foregoing conversation may not be exactly how it went).
One more Olympianism for now: Driving is surprisingly dangerous in a state that worships safety, owing mostly to people’s fanatical groveling at the altar of Excessive Caution. Cars frequently slam on the brakes for pedestrians who are still several long steps away from even imagining themselves entering a crosswalk, and you’re at risk of rear-ending them – the cars I mean – because it makes no sense whatsoever that they’ve stopped on a busy street for pedestrians who may be flirting with the notion of a stroll across the street at some indeterminate point in the future.
Okay, Olympia’s where I was incapacitated for three months after rupturing my Achilles playing softball, so I’m cranky about it for other reasons. Maybe that’s it.
While recovering from my Achilles rupture, I got back into photography with my old Nikon F. Photos above are “street photos” of total strangers at Olympia’s annual summertime Lakefair – one of its more genial events.
I want to return to Olympia another time with more Heroic Tales of Risk Avoidance and Memorable Feats of Caution, but I’m desperate to jump half way around the world to Italy, where it’s mostly sunny year ’round, people have a ball, and families of four or five jam themselves together, all helmetless (including toddlers!), on disintegrating Vespa scooters and slalom through Italy’s notoriously chaotic street traffic without a care in the world.
Italians know how to have fun without helmets, and boy can they cook!
Tuscan Lamb with Parsley (Agnello in Salsa)
This recipe is rustic Italian cooking at its best, and as usual makes excellent use of the holy trinity of Italian staples – garlic, olive oil, and tomatoes. It’s clean and pure, with no folderol, and has wonderful flavor with a hint of peppery bite.
It’s best for two people, so multiply the ingredients if you’re having company.
• 2 lbs. of lamb, preferably from the leg, cut into stew-sized pieces
• 2 ozs. olive oil
• 3-4 garlic cloves, minced
• 2 tbsp. chopped fresh parsley
• 1 dried red serrano or red jalapeno pepper, diced with no seeds (I say “red” because it adds color to this dish; I say “no seeds” because you will regret it otherwise)
• 1 large sprig fresh rosemary – about 2 tbsp.
• salt and pepper
• 1/2 cup white wine
• 1 lb. diced fresh tomato, or 1 can diced tomatoes, drained
In a casserole or large skillet, sauté the garlic, parsley, chili pepper and rosemary in olive oil till softened. Add the chunks of lamb, a dash of salt and pepper to taste, and brown the meat on medium, adding a little wine. Sprinkle with more wine as it cooks. After a few minutes, raise the heat to evaporate the wine. Add the tomatoes, and cook on low for about 10 mins. uncovered and about another 10-15 mins covered. If there’s too much moisture, and in my experience there always is, drain most of it while cooking. Test the lamb for tenderness and keep cooking as needed until the lamb chunks are soft and juicy.
Since this is a Tuscan favorite, we serve it with a good Chianti and a side salad.