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DECEMBER 2008


Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow...
You might think that being our third Seattle winter and all, we would be a little more blasé about snow. But nothing prepared us for the huge dump that blanketed Seattle one night, more than anything we had ever seen here before. We awoke to find our world transformed, where the road outside our house was not even visible for a layer of snow several inches deep. It's sort of obvious when you think about it, but we had a new appreciation of why the stuff on top of cakes is called "icing"! (or "frosting" in US-speak).

As the snow continued to fall throughout the day, we rugged up and went out to enjoy the winter wonderland (yes it's a cliché, but it's true). We trudged around, made snowmen, watched kids tobogganing down the street and even saw people skiing along footpaths.

The following day we left Seattle for our annual Australian pilgrammage. We were fortunate that the snow had stopped falling by then, and the airport was functioning back to normal (well at least for a day or so). Flying out of Seattle was an unexpected highlight, as we were able to view the snow-covered city from the air, and then as we rose above the clouds into the sunlight we were treated to a view of Mt Rainier peeking above the cloudline. It was a truly memorable take-off.


The annual pilgramage...
Once again we spent a very enjoyable Christmas and New Year period with friends and family in Australia. Besides catching up with everyone and revisiting old haunts, it was great to see what's changed around Melbourne during the past year. Of course, we also absorbed as much as possible of that wonderful warm weather and Australian sun (as well as a lot of ice cream for Michael).

It was a very interesting visit this time from the perspective of our response to Melbourne. We found that slipping back into old ways things took just a fraction longer (eg. using a Melway, familiarity with roads), and we noticed various features of the streets and landscape that we had previously taken for granted. Evidently, after almost 2½ years in the US, our sense of "normal" has been somewhat re-calibrated. At the same time, we also experienced a sense of renewed attachment to Melbourne. But don't read too much into any of this - it's purely an observation!



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NOVEMBER 2008

New York, New York
Michelle headed to New York City for a 4-day weekend with her sister Elaine and brother-in-law Scott. Having been to NYC before, there was no urgency to rush around and see all the "sights", and it was just fun to wander around and take in the city. Central Park was very beautiful in early November with all of the trees in the midst of changing colour. Other highlights included seeing "Wicked" the musical on Broadway (finally!), visiting the Statue of Liberty (which we didn't get to do last time we were there), catching up with friends who also happened to be passing through New York at the same time, and going shopping together (as sisters do).


Mexico
Over Thanksgiving we took a 9-day trip to Mexico, spending a few days in Mexico City and and few days in two nearby towns called Taxco and Tepotzlan. We found Mexico to be colourful and vibrant, and always busy and bustling with people. We were struck by how European it felt - of course we knew that Mexico was colonised by Spain, but somehow we hadn't really expected the Spanish influence to be so pervasive.

We enjoyed a mixture of modern art and sculpture, picturesque vistas and interesting architectures. Getting around with our shamefully poor tourist Spanish, we found people to be very friendly and helpful. It was actually both interesting and refreshing that while we were obviously tourists, people naturally expected us to be able to speak Spanish when we approached them, (unlike other places that we've travelled), although they were very accommodating when they realized that we didn't!

Highlights included:
  • Aztec ruins just out of Mexico City, from the first millenium, including two large impressive pyramids
  • Making our way up to local high points in all three locations for great views
  • Some caves that we visited. Not just any caves - think aeroplane hangar-scale caverns, with huge rock formations, that continued for about 3km.
  • The evening entertainment for the local festival in Taxco - the main square was filled with hundreds of people, all just out having fun in the middle of the week
  • Seeing a show of traditional Mexican dancing, full of vibrant costumes, lively music and energetic dancing
  • Attending a night of Mexican wrestling - quite an acrobatic spectacle
  • Being approached by a group of teenage girls who wanted to interview us for their English language homework
  • Going for a ride in a Mexican gondola around some canals on a weekend.The locals were out in force enjoying the sunshine with parties and picnics, along with people selling all sorts of things (food, trinkets, plants) and entertainment (bands, xylophones, singers).
  • Walking out of the airport to find a cheap nearby hotel for the night when our flight back home was postponed to the following day. We walked out in a random direction, and fortunately came across some very helpful shopkeepers who, despite our lack of linguistic skills, gave us directions and a handrawn map to a motel within walking distance.









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    OCTOBER 2008

    Yosemite National Park
    We went for a multi-day hike in Yosemite National Park in California one weekend. We spent three days hiking in great weather with perfectly blue sunny skies and cold starry nights. The views and the rock formations were really quite spectacular and all in all it was quite a refreshing trip. Some highlights (or maybe lowlights depending on your view) included:
    • Michael seeing a bear pawing at our food locker - ironically at the general accommodation area where we stayed the first night, not when we were actually out in the "wilderness".
    • Climbing from 4000 feet to 8000 feet altitude in one day (phew!) We really noticed the effect of the altitude change - everything took just that little bit more energy.
    • Camping out in the wilderness all alone - just our little campsite with no one else around. It was romantic, exhilarating and just a tad unnerving all at the same time.
    • Enjoying a beautiful sunset over dinner when we camped out on a rocky outcrop with a view over the valley.
    • Moving our tent to a somewhat more sheltered campsite in the dark after we had gone to bed and wind started to blow through the aforesaid rocky outcrop
         



    Fort Worden State Park
    When we visited Port Townsend last year, we discovered Fort Worden - a former army barracks that has been turned into a state park with acccommodation and recreation. It's very popular, so we made a booking well in advance and finally returned this month with a large group of friends to occupy the dormitory building for the weekend. It was a great setting with a beach and lighthouse nearby, and the grounds of the park were lovely with all of the trees turning colour at the time. Of course it helped that we had great weather as well! We also had fun one afternoon exploring several sets of of former gun bunkers around the park - fairly intact and replete with great views and dark tunnels to explore.


    Halloween Bonza Bash
    As on two previous occasions, we went to a Bonza Bash - a super big party, held by two Australian Microsofties, open to all comers. Generally the Bonza Bash is an annual event held earlier in the year, but well, Halloween provided a suitable excuse for another party. The theme was a Masquerade Ball and/or dress up in costume. So dress up we all did and we danced the night away!

     


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    September 2008

    Return to Vancouver
    We took advantage of another sunny weekend and headed up to Vancouver again. Once again we took our bikes and spent quite a bit of time cycling around town. We explored some more of the city, revisited some spots and much like the Vancouverians (Vancouverites?) seem to, generally just enjoyed being out in the sun!


    Mount Pilchuk
    Another fine weekend saw us heading up a landmark mountain in not far away from Seattle - Mount Pilchuk. A reasonably large group of us headed up the mountain on a gorgeously clear day. After a little scramble at the top we had great visibility and views of nearby and distant mountain ranges, and even downtown Seattle very faintly in the far distance.

       


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    August 2008

    Mount Rainier and Hood River
    When Michael's parents came to visit, we went on a four-day trip, first to Mount Rainier and then Hood River in Oregon.

    Our trip to Mount Rainier was quite a contrast to our previous month's visit when much of our time was spent in rain and much of the mountain was still covered in snow. This time the weather, although not perfect, was much better. Most strikingly, a lot of the snow had melted, and we were able to go for a walk on the upper trails of the day-hiking areas. The summer wildflowers were also out, and we enjoyed great views out over the valley and across to other mountain ranges. Patches of not-yet-melted snow also added to the scenery and we enjoyed an impressive view of one of the glaciers. It was really quite spectacular - so much so that Michael rated it as one of his best hiking highlights, not just here around Seattle, but for ever! We were struck and a little bemused by the fact that we were hiking at altitudes higher than Mount Kosciuszko (it just goes to show how flat Australia is!)

    Hood River is located just south of the Columbia River that forms the border with Washington. Hood River is a very popular place for kite boarders and wind surfers, and the multitude of people on the water against the backdrop of the Columbia Gorge was an impressive sight. We also managed a bike ride along the river, and then headed to Portland, stopping at several waterfalls along the way.

       




    Oregon Coast drive
    We headed down to Oregon again over a long weekend, this time for a drive along the coast. It was another terrific trip - with rugged shoreline, scenic viewpoints and lovely beaches with fine, white sand (fairly uncommon in this part of the world).

    We visited some sand dunes along the coast and went quad-biking in one of the designated areas. There seems to be quite a culture around the dune biking, with lots of people camping nearby and out among the dunes and spending their summer days biking up and down the dune hills.
    You could also call it the trip of lighthouses, as we visited several lighthouses along the way. This included the coast's tallest lighthouse, Oregon's shortest lighthouse, a retired lighthouse that was built as part of the keeper's house and a lighthouse that is apparently one of the most photographed in the US (you can't tell in the photo but it did have a pretty cool location).

           

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    July 2008

    Camping at Mount Rainier
    Taking advantage of the fact that July 4 fell on a Friday this year, we took off for a camping trip with a large group of Australian friends to Mount Rainier, the local behemoth that is 4392 metres (or 14410 feet) high - that's almost twice the height of Mount Kosciuszko. Located about 2-3 hours' drive away, Mount Rainier is strikingly visible from Seattle on sunny days and is an impressive sight.

    Unfortunately, after 2-3 weeks of lovely sunshine, that particular weekend the weather took a turn for the worse, so it turned out to be a rather damp and overcast trip. Furthermore, due to a cold Spring this year, some areas still had a lot of snow that had not yet melted and many of the walking trails were inaccessible. Nevertheless, we managed a variety of interesting walks - along rivers to impressive waterfalls, across snow-covered fields and on the first day the weather clouds parted just long enough for us to actually see the mountain emerge as we reached the viewpoint, and it truly was a very cool sight!



       






    Vancouver, Canada
    We headed north over the border to Vancouver one fine weekend. As has become our habit, we spent a day exploring on bicycle. We enjoyed riding through the large urban Stanley Park, then headed along the local waterway, taking in the sights around the city. Vancouver is quite a scenic city with rivers, beaches and impressive skylines and views.

    Vancouver's residents seem to enjoy the outdoors in good weather - the beaches and parks were full of people having picnics and barbeques, playing beach volleyball, swimming and generally hanging out. We were also fortunate to visit on a weekend with an annual fireworks festival. It seems like most of the city comes out for the fireworks (well, it felt that way anyway) - and with long stretches of beach filled with people, not to mention the almighty mass tramping down the streets after the fireworks, the crowds were as much as sight as the fireworks themselves!

    We also headed up Grouse Mountain - a local ski resort in winter, only 20 minutes drive out of town. In summer it's a great place for hikes and fine views on a clear day.






    Microsoft volleyball competition
    We attended the annual Microsoft company picnic and participated in the volleyball competition with a group of Aussie friends. After a slow start and a few close matches, we manage to prevail and actually won the whole competition! Of course, it wasn't quite the Olympics, and Well, OK - it was only the Bronze grade (Level 3 of 3), but we were still pretty happy with ourselves. (If you're familiar with how innately untalented Michelle has historically been at sports, you'll appreciate the excitement!)

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    June 2008

    Summer arrives...finally
    After weeks of dreary grey, cold and rainy weather that had everybody complaining and bemoaning the wretched Spring, half-way through the month the weather finally started to turn for the better. We have to admit, living in Seattle has given us a whole new appreciation of good weather!

    While Michael was away in the UK (see below) for the first perfect Seattle summer weekend, Michelle enjoyed a fabulous day of white water rafting with Jo, Rod and Angie, followed by a fun day of showing off Seattle at its best to our friends Gail and Tom who flew in for a brief visit.

    A couple of weeks later saw our friend Gareth arriving in town, and with more fine weather we have been out canoeing and day hiking. Our day hike turned out to be a little different from what we anticipated. Although it was a hot day, we hiked up in the mountains to an alpine lake where much of the winter snow has not yet melted, and we found ourselves slipping and sliding across the snow to the lake, which was still largely frozen. It was both quite spectacular and a little surreal all at the same time!






    Michael's visit to England
    Michael went away to the UK for work for a little over a week. Working in Cambridge, he was able to catch up with (and was generously hosted by) Bianca and Denny, and then spent his second weekend in York with Nghi and Chris. He enjoyed many a visit to British pubs and Indian restaurants, plenty of cycling around Cambridge, some hit-and-miss English weather, and generally wished we were living in the UK instead of Seattle.
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    May 2008

    Chicago
    Ahh...Chicago, fabulous Chicago...known for skyscrapers, pizza and architecture, and we were not disappointed. We had a great time and came to the conclusion that architecture is to Chicago what ruins are to Rome - there are so many examples many less "significant" but nevertheless interesting sights may not rate a mention as tourist highlights, but rather just pop up randomly around almost every corner (or so it seems).

    We explored the city on foot and bicycle, and also rode a local institution - the train that rattles its way around downtown, known as the "El" ("L" for "Loop" - while Melbourne's Loop is underground, Chicago's is overground). We enjoyed the impressive and diverse streetscape of buildings as well as the open and engaging civic spaces. Chicago also boasts many interesting pieces of public art that are both captivating and quirky.

    We learned for ourselves why Chicago is also known as the "Windy City" when a storm blew in on our final day. We noticed some rubbish bins in the street holding umbrellas - at first we thought they might be courtesy umbrellas available for public use (as is often seen in Seattle), but closer inspection revealed that they were actually all broken - we honestly saw about three rubbish bins within 20 metres all full of dead umbrellas!

    "Cloudgate", or as it is commonly known, the "Bean".
    (What can we say - we just love the bean!)


    Victoria (Vancouver Island, Canada)
    We headed to a Canadian city called Victoria for a long weekend with our friends Rod and Jo. (For those unfamiliar with the geography: Victoria is a city located on Vancouver Island in the very west of Canada, not to be confused Vancouver city. Just to make things even more confusing, there is another city on the island called Sidney - that's what you get with former British colonies, eh?).

    We visited Victoria briefly last year, and it was very pleasant to return and enjoy its busy harbour again. This time we took our bicycles with us for a couple of days' riding. We also took some time to visit the Buchart Gardens, which are well-known (as far as gardens go) cultivated gardens developed in the early 1900's. Being Spring it was a great time to visit - one of the most impressive gardens was one set in the site of an old quarry. Our second day of riding took us out to a lighthouse and historic military fort which was still in remarkably good conditon, probably due to the fact that it was still used until after World War II.






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    April 2008

    Portland, Oregon
    We took a train south one weekend to visit the city of Portland in the neighbouring state of Oregon. A classic north-west American city, Portland is a little smaller than Seattle (the locals tend to view that as a good thing). The downtown area has a greener and better planned streetscape, and has also retained many of the older more European-style buildings (well, by American standards anyway!) Here's what we got up to:

  • Strolled and cycled along the downtown riverfront with its many bridges (at least half a dozen all within sight of each other)


  • Continued our bike ride through a green belt and various suburbs, then alongside the mighty Columbia river which forms the border with Washington State. With stunning weather, we had great views of the mountains surrounding Portland.


  • Visited the local Pittock Mansion that was built by a media tycoon in the early 1900's atop a hill overlooking the city with great views. We also explored some of the city gardens.




  • Tulip festival and Bellingham
    A couple of weeks later we headed in the opposite direction - north of Seattle for the annual tulip festival, a very popular attraction in Spring. The tulips only bloom for a few weeks, so the crowds and traffic that descend upon what is most likely usually a quiet farming community are quite something to be seen. traffic aside, the tulip fields themselves are quite a remarkable sight - solid blocks of bold, vibrant colours, with rows upon rows of tulips, and we enjoyed an impressive backdrop of snow-capped mountains in the distance since the weather was particularly good that day. We also amused ourselves for a good 10 minutes or so with an old dilapidated school bus in one of the fields (we don't think it's gone anywhere for a long time...)

       

    We then drove a little further north to spend the night in a town called Bellingham, less than an hour's drive from the Canadian border. We enjoyed the quiet charms of Bellingham, strolled along its impressive boardwalk, explored its sprawling arboretum (nature park), then drove back to Seattle via the scenic and quaintly named "Chuckanut Drive".




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    March 2008

    San Diego
    We spent a long weekend in San Diego, joined by Michelle's brother Ernie and niece Claire. San Diego was a fun place to visit with the downtown area and many of the local sights all being sufficiently compact to walk around comfortably. We explored quite a few different areas of town and found plenty that we wouldn't mind returning to see again! Our highlights from this weekend include:
    • A bike ride along the ocean front north of San Diego which took us through a well-to-do neighbourhood and then along to beaches with seal colonies.
    • Visiting Legoland just outside of San Diego (for Michelle) and a ride around a peninsula (for Michael)
    • The U.S.S. Midway - a decommissioned naval aircraft carrier, now a museum
    • Balboa Park - a very large urban park which encompasses the zoo, several museums and gardens
    • Stumbling upon a St. Patrick's Day parade and festival - replete with floats, horses and period costumes, local beauty pageant winners, small dogs in Irish waistcoats, Irish and US flags, and a beer garden - in true US style, this festival seems to have been adopted, adapted and celebrated here with great gusto.
    • San Diego Zoo - one of the most famous and best in the USA (if not the world), and indeed it did not disappoint. One of the highlights here are the giant pandas, but the grounds and animal environments themselves are also generally impressive
    Just reviewing the list above, we managed to fit in quite a lot!


       



    Springing into Spring
    After the long grey winter, it is always very pleasant when Spring starts creeping into Seattle. We were caught off guard the last weekend of March, however - in a sudden cold snap we found ourselves blanketed in unseasonal snow, and dinner at our friends' house became an impromptu slumber party.

    Having moved into our new house less than 6 months ago, we have been enjoying the experience of unexpected discoveries related to the changing seasons. We have noticed birds chirping around our neighbourhood, and happily for us, the plants that we planted in January in our little yard space have started to sprout and we have fun observing which of the already existing plants are still very much alive (not so obvious in the winter).

    We also encountered a mystery in the form of a strange noise that we started hearing occasionally. Unlike any other sound we have heard before, it has the following characteristics:
  • a harsh, guttural sound, almost like metal grating on metal
  • occuring in short, sharp 5-second bursts, separated by intervals of about 10 seconds,anywhere between 1 to 6 times in a row
  • occuring in the early mornings, but not necessarily every day or at the same time each occasion
  • it also sounded like it might be reverberating through some infrastructure - perhaps our converted gas fireplace, or pipes.


  • Some possibilities that we considered were:
  • an animal moving across some sort of metal grate on our rooftop (no possums here, but there are sometimes raccoons)
  • an animal growling? and somehow that being transformed into the strange sound down the fireplace
  • rain water running over our rooftop or through our gutters, somehow causing the sound - was it us, or did the sound often happen after a damp night? And we cleaned our gutters and roof recently, which is why we might not have heard the sound before
  • our 1978 constructed house is haunted (well OK, perhaps we didn't consider this option too seriously)


  • The mystery was solved one morning in a moment of insight - it's a woodpecker!
    They come out in the Spring and t-t-t-a-p-p-p-p away at all sorts of things, and they're not limited to wood - housing eaves, street lamps, anything that makes a sound. We had been hearing them around the neighbourhood and house, but it took us a little while to make the connection with the metal stove pipe above our gas fireplace!








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    Michael at work in the garden


    February 2008



    Out and about
    Back in Seattle the weather has been gradually getting warmer. We think we are more acclimatised to the weather, as we haven't felt the cold quite as bitterly this year (either that or we're better equipped now!). We have taken the advantage of several fine weekends to go - you guessed it - for more bike rides!

    We took a day trip to a nearby city called Tacoma (think Tacoma is to Seattle what Geelong is to Melbourne), where we wandered through downtown, visited a glass museum (containing, not made of, glass), and explored a couple of parks situated along the Puget Sound.


    Hawaii
    Lucky Michelle went to Honolulu for a work conference (gosh life is tough, ain't it?!) and stayed a extra couple of days to enjoy the warm weather and some outdoor activities. It was only a short trip so I just stayed in the Waikiki area which was very touristy - but it was still a lot of fun with day tours in hiking, biking and snorkeling. Some highlights included:

  • walking through a bamboo forest
  • snorkeling within 2 metres of a turtle
  • enjoying a "perfect sunset" on the beach
  • hiking up a volcanic cone at sunrise


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    January 2008

    Arizona road trip
    We took advantage of a work trip that Michelle had in Arizona, and spent a long weekend driving north from Phoenix. Unfortunately, after one day of sunshine, it rained for much of the rest of the weekend, and because we were at a fairly high altitude, there was even some snow.

    Nevertheless, we defied the weather, got out for walks and enjoyed some interesting sights and sites, including a former mining town and striking rock formations. We didn't go all the way to the Grand Canyon, but with the deep red colour of the earth, we started to feel like we were getting to "Canyon territory", and we definitely saw enough to tempt us back for another visit!


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