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Rick Steves’s Pandemic Tour

We may not be going to Europe, but there’s plenty to see right here in my own backyard.

A few months ago I thought I’d be spending the Spring Fever months in Uzbekistan, Paris, and Llanfairpwllgwyngyll, a delightful town best known for the Bryn Celli Ddu Burial Chamber, the Plas Cadnant in bloom, and its 19 syllables, shortened from the ancient 313 when phone books were invented. Because of self-distancing and the subsequent collapse of all international travel, I am instead strolling the sidewalks and byways of my hometown of Edmonds, Washington, looking out across Puget Sound at the majestic and now inaccessible snowcapped Olympic tops, dreaming of fresh baguettes from my friend Jacques’s Parisian patisserie, of palov from a delightful street cart in Tashkent, or a big heaping bowl of Tatws Popty from the always delightful Llanfairpwllgwyngyll pub. 

We may not be going to Europe, but there’s plenty to see right here in my own backyard.

I confess I have spent very little time in my own backyard; I travel most of the time and I tend to only be here to handle the mail and change a shirt. My family is probably around here somewhere, but the kids have asked me to not “tour” their rooms while they Facetime with their friends. So let’s explore the wonders of nature right here!

My backyard is a 12’x12’ concrete pad, adorned with some delightful patio furniture my wife trashpicked from the neighbors eleven years ago. The chairs are green, plastic, and, I have to say, very comfortable, with a delightful view of the 3’x12’ strip of let’s call it a garden blooming in a sunny frame of late afternoon Edmonton light against the white fence that separates the Steves from the McAllisters, who I believe still live there, I’m really not around here very much.

But a cool early spring breeze and some moody clouds make me think it’s time to seek out a delightful cocoa and warmer climes, so off we go!

The sliding patio door is original to the house, circa 1975, and while the aluminum has acquired a pebbled patina, it still slides smoothly most of the time, representing a classic design that speaks of a culture in touch with its need to commune with nature with both a clear view and a clever arrangement for access that speaks of a philosophy based on getting up and going where life takes you. Let’s go in.

The charming kitchen catches the last of the afternoon light in an orange stripe across the family photos on the refrigerator. The room is dominated by the tornviken, or “kitchen island,” and the svenbertil, a traditional form of table designed to fit in the kitchen at a reasonable price, some assembly required. Here we meet a local woman, steeped in the traditions and practices of Minnesota cooking, but long a resident of these milder winters west of her birthplace. She’s making a traditional Edmonton favorite, multi-grain bread “sandwiching” two slices of ham with lettuce and garlic mayonnaise, or “mayo.” Having local friends or guides to bring local life to life always helps to bring local life to life, and we are not disappointed now. This happens to be my wife. “Did you...did you want one too?” she asks, I think hopefully.

“I’m going to make some cocoa,” I say, heading toward the stove where I see the kettle.

“Okay,” she responds, clearly relieved that I will be refreshed. She is the woman of the house, my wife and fellow house curator, Mrs. Steves. Under her friendly guidance, I am directed to the Hersheys, a chocolate powder produced since 1894 in Pennsylvania, an eastern state. When mixed with milk it produces a warm drink that can be quite pleasing on a chilly night. “Do you know how old this Hersheys is?” I ask.

She smiles. “I’m sure the expire date is at least 2022.” We laugh. At least I do. As the cocoa warms in the pan, I select a mug. The Steves collection goes back to my grandmother’s childhood, and includes a 1957 Roy Rogers and a 1963 Bullwinkle J. Moose. I select a widemouth SubPop (founded 1986 in nearby Seattle, better known for music), low, modern, starkly white against the deep brown of the liquid, which is now bubbling over in the pan. I am alerted to this by the gentle simmer as milk touches the stovetop and my wife says a quiet traditional snack blessing, “Oh for the love of God.”

It’s the perfect way to end our tour of this charming corner of Edmonds, Washington. My fellow curator and I retire to drive the kids from the family room and catch up on the stories of the day’s pandemic adventures, in a medley of recommendations on YouTube. It’s a feast for the eyes, and if we’re lucky we’ll catch one of my memories of the Baltic, or perhaps soft porn.