The Saturday shot #26: an American Bear

This week, I wanted to share a picture shot during my recent holidays in the US, whilst visiting a Build-a-Bear outlet. I was indeed surprised by the cultural insight that this child shop could give on the American culture. After all, myths and beliefs are fostered in our early age, some say even before. So what struck me was that if, in swinging London your little ones can choose to dress up their cuddly toys in mini Mel C or a furry Sid Vicious, in the US the choice offered gravitated around Marines, Troopers and GIs gears. No wonder the belliquous mindset of the nation may be in, if childhood models are defined by military forces... Don't get me wrong I am not challenging that soldiers can be heroes, but I would always think of armed intervention as a necessary evil rather than a good thing. This beliefs again may come from my own culture and referential scheme. This reminds me indeed of this speech by former French Prime minister Dominique de Villepin back in February 2003 when addressing the UN security council on France's position with regards to initiating a war in Iraq:
This message comes to you today from an old country, France, from a continent like mine, Europe, that has known wars, occupation and barbarity. A country that does not forget and knows everything it owes to the freedom-fighters who came from America and elsewhere. And yet has never ceased to stand upright in the face of history and before mankind. Faithful to its values, it wishes resolutely to act with all the members of the international community. It believes in our ability to build together a better world.


Paris vs. New York by Tony Miotto

When the Big Apple is compared to the City of Lights, that can be enlightening... And this animation by graphic designer Tony Miotto, is clearly a nice source of light. Nice execution on the cultural differences and references of two of most famous cities in the world.

And if you like that split-screen graphic approach, you may enjoy a similar stance on Franco-American relationships with this video (shot with a Nokia phone), and which describes a transatlantic love story.


A mountain dweller in the Washington valleys

A couple years back I had the opportunity to discover Seattle on business, and have since returned quite few times in that city. But I knew there was more to the North-Western region than the SeaTac airport and taxis commuting between my hotel and the company's offices. So this summer, I decided to dwell a little longer than usual in the Washington state, and to discover the Ocean surrounding the liberal harbour of Seattle. If I had been amused by some traits of the Space Needle's home (the passion for salmon, the doubtful kindness, the SUV contradictions, etc.), the Evergreen State brought its lot of interesting cultural encounters...

Size definitely matters.

Yes, let's start with the blatantly obvious. It is so overused a cliche to describe the US as the country of superlatives. Everything is the "world best...", "world #1...", etc. That is at times laughable but one thing you cannot deny is of course that everything is big. Feet, portions, roads, people, drinks, cars... The caravans are so huge that it is not uncommon to see one of these trailers actually pulling a 4x4. You read me right, Dutch reader of these lines, on the other side of the pond, mobile homes are towing the car, and not the smallest! That is probably the so-call American Dream for you, our European summer migrators who every summer cross the French territory, looking for a sunburn...

As said, everything is oversized. Even roadkills are! No flatten hedgehog or mouse on the tarmac of Washington roads. The smallest animal I have seen on the side of the road was a deer... A deer! I mean how can you even run over such a beast? Probably not with a Renault Twingo. But that is probably more understandable when you put yourself in the shoes, or behind the wheels I shall say, of one of the locals... Were you driving one of these giant pick-ups that dwarfs the most ostentatious SUV in Chelsea, it would be hard for you too to see what happens below 2 meters from the ground. They cannot do things small, I tell you... So beware when you cross the road!

Into the "wild".

During our trip, we spend some time touring the stunning Olympic Peninsula. After the great British summer we had in London, we had to extend the pleasure... However the name of this region is not connected to athletic performances, but to the presence of an eponymous Mount Olympus in the middle of its national park. That Park is the host of a rainforest, several Indian reserves, magnificent lakes and equally surprisingly deserted beaches. No wonder this region is inspiring authors of all styles.

Hurricane Ridge for instance is coming straight out of a Disney movie. After a good hour drive uphill amongst enormous trees on a beautiful road, you finally arrive at a pass from which start walks and other alpine wanderings... But rapidly you are welcome by the local "wildlife", with elks crossing your way, giant black grouse singing whilst chipmunks drum the beat... You think I overdo it? Not at all. It was so surreal that we were expecting any minute to see a props man jumping out of a bush and shouting "You've been pranked!".

On the other hand, when you walk along the wild beaches of the western side of the peninsula, you feel you have landed in another type of literature. An eery one. Snow White has bitten the apple and the evil witch is enjoying her supremacy by the sea. The rugged landscapes, bathed in creepy fog and cluttered by rotting log trees were not without reminding me Tolkien's Mordor. I was once pretty sure I saw the shaddow of a troll in the woods, unless that was a pupil walking back from school... That is also possible since, as I eluded to it earlier, the locals are not the smallest beings either. Anyway the eery views of that area inspired  Stephenie Meyer for her bloody trilogy.

Stretching to greatness?

This leads me to my third literature reference... The town where vampires and werewolves supposedly fall in love with girls a lot younger than them (a few centuries younger... Is that legal or should we report this idyll?), Forks proved that the principles outlined by Philip Kotler in his marketing bible have been well assimilated. "Brand stretching" is about using an established brand name in order to introduce unrelated products. Well, the following pictures speak for themselves (click for full screen view):
Arguably that is a bit too much, but had you lived in that same tiny little village before the books' release and seen an influx of +600% in tourists, you too would have probably jumped on the bandwagon and taken these novels as a blessing. Because frankly outside the blockbuster reference, Forks really epitomises the concept of "uninterestingness". The problem, however, is that once you embrace that gorry kitsch, you cannot avoid but seeing vampires everywhere, let alone in medical notifications or native artefact's (is that me or that totem has got pretty sharp teeth???):

Depressive back country?

I seem to be a bit harsh with Forks, but do not let that anomaly derail my overall take on that beautiful region well-managed by the Quileult tribe. We loved hanging around at La Push and watch the sun set on the sacred rocks. That was even a poetic conclusion to that part of our trip, because we then headed South to Oregon and had to drove through less enthusiastic neighbourhoods. If the wild beaches were eluding to a literary devastation, further down it is a lot more literal. Aberdeen in front of all. Besides a river and the "Highland Golf Club" at its outskirt, that town has little to compare with its charming Scottish cousin. The rest is indeed pretty much despair, ruins, closed-down shops... This was home for Kurt Cobain, and frankly you may assume that it was in itself a source of inspiration for the grunge movement!
Love at first sight
The logging industry which pulled the regional economy for decades is slowing down nowadays. Smaller towns are drained out in favour of Seattle or Portland, the two urban poles in that part of the country. Although often compared as eternal enemies, the two cities have got a lot in common. As I was saying in introduction, they are liberal harbours in the middle of what is often depicted as the western redneck America. If Canadian proudly sew their flag on their backpack, Seattleites and Portlanders state their beliefs directly on their skin. I am impressed by the amount of ink people carry on their skin around there. Could that be to ensure that people do not see the original colour of their neck?

Anyway... I really enjoyed discovering that region which surprised me in many ways. I was promised rainfall and greeneries. If we indeed saw as much emeralds as last year, not a single drop of rain came to refresh the scenery, which clearly contrasts with our drenched Irish holidays. I liked the possibility to sneak away from the urban jungle and to dive into the rainforest. In light of my origins, I also loved hikking in Mount Rainier, its reflective lakes and its blossoming meadows. I am pretty sure at this stage that with such a description of these alpine surroundings you are expecting blonde Maria coming out of the evergreen woods and complement my list of highlights with a "...Raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens; Bright copper kettles and warm woolen mittens; Brown paper packages tied up with strings; These are a few of my favorite things...", but I don't care. No matter how unlikely Seattle may sound as a summer holiday destination, it is now in my list of recommendations... As long as you can walk around on 2-meter stilt, of course!

To read further:
And some more pictures of that trip: