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Looking around Seattle with a guide called Ron

I have always enjoyed exploring cities by myself (occasionally I allow Jackie or my children to join me) and have never once signed up to a ghastly umbrella-raising tour guide. However, Steve, my trusty sabbatical planner, persuaded me at a lunchtime meeting on a busy day in the office that I would get more value (and he would get more commission) out of a short stay in Seattle by having a bespoke tour guide. Eager to get back to my desk, I was hoodwinked into agreeing and am now regretting it. For the next five hours we are entrusting ourselves to a stranger who will no doubt address me as Steward.

‘Here’s the thing, Steward,’ says Ron. ‘There are two things you have to remember on this tour. The first is my train of thought when I lose it; and the second is that when I say right, I probably mean left.’

It is Ron who is to be our private guide for our afernoon in Seattle. To my surprise, I like him instantly. He is slight, wiry, quirky, intellectual, with school teacher rubber shoes, and very, very Jewish. That this tour is going to be something different to those offered by umbrella wielders is apparent from the outset when I realise, all too late, that Ron hasn’t arranged how he will meet us. All I know is that his name is Ron and that he will be at the EMP at noon. It is a big and confusing building. I have no idea what he looks like, and he has no idea what I look like. Neither of us has the other’s mobile number. If he had said, ‘Look out for a ginger Woody Allen’, it would have been easy. Charmaine would never tolerate such flimsy arrangements.

Jackie spots an enormous black Chevrolet Suburban SUV outside the museum, with blacked-out, bulletproof windows and a burly, black-suited, black-tied FBI driver. She has delusions of grandeur and thinks that will be our car; I think if she gets in that car she will be abducted and waterboarded. I am scared of the scary-looking driver so leave her to approach him on her own to establish if we are to be his passengers for the day. Irritatingly, Jackie is right (she usually is both irritating and right): the FBI guy in fact transpires to be a placid Romanian called Sarin, after the chemical weapon. He has lost Ron, who is walking around the circumference of the museum looking for us, equipped only with our names and an intellectual air, but Sarin has an advantage over us and calls him on his cell phone.

Soon we are all united.

‘You like music, right?’ asks Ron, who has obviously been well briefed by Steve. It’s a safe ice-breaker. Better than asking about whether Donald Trump will be the next President.

‘Sure do,’ I reply, getting into my role and going native.

‘That’s great. I was going to take you to Nirvana’s record label, Sub Pop, but I called them up and they admitted that their offices aren’t very interesting. They don’t even have album covers on the wall. Are you in the music industry?’

‘No, I’m a lawyer.’

‘Oh dear. Well, we’ll see some great music sights anyway,’ lies Ron, before we embark upon a tour of famous and beautiful Seattle houses, none of which belongs to a musician; architecture seems to be Ron’s passion.

We begin with Queen Anne Hill, an afuent neighbourhood whose name derives from the architectural style of the mansions. The views from the top of Queen Anne Hill across Lake Union are spectacular. The houses are grand wooden piles, embellished with turrets and stepped porches. Each is beautifully unique. The town planners, until very recently, have insisted that the properties are all ‘sole resident’, which gives a picture-book character to Seattle. Only in recent years have multi-resident buildings (flats to you and me) been emerging to deal with the increasing homeless problem.
The next stop on our house-viewing tour is as quirky as Ron’s potential had promised. Ballard is a historic and hip neighbourhood of Seattle, full of some of the best restaurants, bars and shops in town, but Ron rejects all of them and instead we are driving down a less salubrious, nondescript street in industrial Ballard, with lots of drab construction work being undertaken around us and seemingly nothing of any interest to an afernoon tourist. Ron is very precise to Sarin about where to stop: ‘Just up here, don’t overshoot.’

Sarin is as confused as we are as to what site Ron could be leading us to, but Ron knows his city. In 2006, a construction project in Ballard planned to build a new shopping centre, which meant that a number of insignifcant houses would need to be demolished by a corporate behemoth to make way for the new building. Despite all of her neighbours selling up and moving away, octogenarian Edith Macefeld was a real estate hold-out and turned down a number of offers from the construction company to leave, eventually refusing a final offer of $1,000,000 to let them buy her chipboard house. The looming five-storey retail development had to literally be built around Macefeld’s 100-year-old tiny wooden farmhouse, as if the final jigsaw piece had been deliberately removed from the perimeter frame, leaving an awkward, unnatural, house-shaped gap.

Edith’s story became the inspiration for the charming Pixar animated movie Up. And here we are standing outside the celebrity cartoon cubbyhole, now empty following Edith’s death and looking very much like a condemned building. It is the quirkiest site I have ever visited and unsurprisingly there are no tourists here to spoil my tourist photograph. I ask Ron if he could also arrange for me to meet my favourite cartoon, Jessica Rabbit, but sadly she is not from around these parts. Instead I make do with the Tenth Doctor, who poses for a photo in front of the Up house.

Next, Ron takes us to see a troll under a bridge. It lives below a freeway underpass beneath Aurora Bridge and it is clutching a Volkswagen Beetle. It is twenty feet tall. I wait until some wayward children stop climbing on its head before taking my photo. I feel rather pleased. It is not every day one gets to see a troll under a bridge.

Extracted from Geoff Steward’s entertaining travel book ‘In Search of Nice Americans‘. Buy your copy here.

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