Once I was sitting at a bus station in Stockholm when a German couple came up to me and asked in broken English for directions. I got a massive grin on my face, thrilled with the thought that I had passed as a local in Stockholm. In reality, my blonde hair makes me a shoe-in as a Swedish doppelganger, so it was likely just an educated guess on their part based on the other non-blondes they had to choose from at the bus stop. As quickly as they had made my day, I ruined theirs by not only not being a local poser, but I was the embodiment of clueless when it came to knowing anything about the area as I had only been in the country for about three hours at that point.
Seattle has proven to be no different than any other trip I’ve taken in my life in the sense that I struggle to fulfill my need to see and do everything that makes it “Seattle” versus my want to at least give off the vibes that I’m mildly in the know already. Balancing my ability to be a tourist and experience more about my new city versus pull off being someone who can pass as a local is a tricky business. Could I really have one without the other?
In an effort to juggle these two things, I frequently try to throw in an activity or two that is a bit touristy in order to educate myself about the new city in which I want to be categorized as a local. Recently, it was Bill Speidel’s Underworld Tour about the seedy underbelly of early Seattle. I figured even if it was terrible, my ticket was redeemable for a free drink at the bar, so it couldn’t be all bad. This tour was supposed to be about prostitution, drugs, and scandal, which I find tend to be good facts to pull out of my pocket as conversation starters.
“Did you know that heroin was once sold over the counter as treatment for the common cold?” I would ask complete strangers, sharing my new found knowledge with fascination.
It was a nighttime tour in Pioneer Square through the Seattle underground (what remains of the streets after the Great Seattle Fire). Needless to say it was quite informative with the kind of useless yet interesting knowledge that I thrive on. I listened, enthralled, as the tale of Madame Lou Graham unfolded, who owned a lucrative brothel and pretty much single-handedly contributed enough money to rebuild the city after the fire destroyed everything. When she died she left all of her money (which would roughly be equivalent to about 7 million bucks today) to the Seattle public school system.
I thought about how crazy it must have been to live back then. The tour guide said that to work in her brothel, the prostitutes had to speak two languages fluently and be able to play a musical instrument. While the whole thing was interesting, I also found it incredibly depressing that I don’t even possess the skill sets necessary to qualify as a prostitute in the 1800’s.
Our small group emerged from the sweltering underground tunnels about an hour later and headed straight for the bar to claim our free refreshments. I walked through the door with a friend of mine who I had convinced to come along with me as there was a promise of free booze at the end of the tour. We plopped ourselves down at the bar, and while I had just committed a quintessential tourist act, I considered it an investment in myself as a more educated local.
The bartender kept glancing over at me, and I simply assumed that I must have emerged from the boiling temperatures of the underground looking like a psychopathic clown with all of the makeup running down my face. I turned to talk to my friend and tried to get a quick whiff of my armpit to make sure I wasn’t the smelly girl sitting at the bar who didn’t realize it.
The bartender walked over to me and started in on this story about how there is a big population of geeks and nerds in Seattle due to the influx of jobs provided by Microsoft and Amazon, which therefore contributed to their Gen Con growing exponentially every year. I smiled and nodded, having no clue what was happening or where this conversation was going. He said, “Well there’s this girl in all these Gen Con things named Jen Page and you look just like her. Like I thought you were her when you walked through the door.”
“Maybe I am,” I said jokingly.
“Well I know you aren’t. Because I’ve met her. And I’d know. But you could totally pass as her sister or something.”
I laughed as clearly my joke was lost on him and I had committed some sort of blasphemy by claiming to be this girl. Then, out of sheer curiosity, I grabbed my phone to google this person who was a Seattle local running around as my twin. I didn’t see a resemblance and figured maybe he just needed his eyes checked. But if one person accidentally mistook me as a local, maybe it wouldn’t be long before I’d be passing as a native on my own.