Restless in Seattle: impressions of a Fulbright experience amidst the 2020 turmoil

Dark. Gloomy. Rainy. The Emerald City did not fail to live up its reputation when I landed on its ground in early January 2020. What was yet to come, no one could have ever suspected…

Seattle was the final destination but not the first stop on my very first journey ever to the USA. After the hustle and bustle, magnetism, sparkle, and extravagance of a memorable New Year’s Eve in the Big Apple, I traveled southwest to the crowd-free Nation’s Capital, Washington DC, where I attended the Annual Meeting of the Archaeological Institute of America. This international conference is the yearly rendezvous of the most renowned experts in Minoan archaeology, my Ph.D. research field, outside of the island of Crete. It gave me the opportunity to present in front of a high-level and international audience the on-going progress of my research that I intended to further develop and finalize during my research stay at the Digital Archaeology Research Laboratory (DigAR Lab) at the University of Washington (Seattle). 

The DigAR Lab, directed by Professor Marcos Llobera, is a pioneering laboratory in the realm of digital technology and information applied to archaeology specifically. No wonder this laboratory settled in Seattle, the cradle of innovation where tech companies such as Amazon, Microsoft, and Google, to cite just a few, blossomed. Coming from a traditional academic education in archaeology, learning about the benefits of data and computer sciences to archaeological heritage management was exactly what drove me to Seattle. 

The University of Washington was simply magnificent. I enjoyed getting lost around the campus exhibiting multiple plaques and signs testifying the rich history of this university founded in 1861, one of the oldest on the West Coast. On my way to the impressive Neo-Gothic Suzzallo Library, conveniently opened from 7 am to 10 pm (to my great delight), I would make a stop on the vibrant Red Square, to observe hordes of students from all over the world rushing from one class to the other, clustering around food trucks or congregating for defending a student and/or political cause. This stop in front of the Library was also the occasion to greet the majestic glaciated Mount Rainier, dominating the skyline with its almost 14,500 feet tall. After some early morning bibliographical research, I would then head towards the Lab and would not miss passing by one of those comforting large air vents blowing hot air to warm up my cold feet, barely equipped for the rainy winter.

View of Mount Rainier from the Red Square, pre-Covid time

Through inspiring discussions with my Professor and other grad students, but also thanks to the chance I had that my research stay coincided with the recruitment of a new Associate Professor, I came to understand the differences in the practice, reception, and overall teaching of archaeology between Europe and North America. Because of its scope, indigenous archaeology in the Northwest Pacific is deeply anchored in contemporary civil society. I was happily stunned to witness that archaeology was effectively used as a strong and authoritative political weapon to solve present-day societal issues by defending and protecting those vulnerable communities. This activist approach is broadly missing from the classical practice of archaeology in Western Europe, maybe a relic of its colonial past, but this acknowledgment definitely provided full of thoughts for my own research. 

Alongside this new working environment, I also had to adjust to some daily habits that were completely exotic to me and led to sometimes embarrassing but always hilarious afterward situations: such as my first failed attempt to request a stop on the bus, unaware I had to pull down the rope and so ended up walking back uphill for half a mile under a hail storm; the first day I introduced myself to UW colleagues and would not believe anyone telling me not to come the following days because of the snow as I thought it was an “initiation” kind of joke for newcomers (it was not, I found myself alone on a shutdown campus and completely drenched from walking in the snow); the happy hour starting as early as 4 pm with my fellows grad students to get beers still three times more expensive than in Belgium; or that one time I went to order at the bar without noticing that people were actually standing very politely in line and I just cut in at a glance (people were even not mad at me, another proof of the unique civility of Seattleites).

As I was progressively integrating these social conventions, settling in my new work environment, and on the verge of developing a promising collaboration with IT students at UW for my research project, everything got disrupted, interrupted, and eventually halted due to the outbreak of Covid-19 in mid-March. During the lockdown, space and time acquired a different meaning: the future became shapeless, days blended together, new friends and colleagues met in the last two months seemed as far away as families and long-time friends staying in Belgium. Blessed and lucky to be healthy, it was about time to rebound, a skill that all Ph.D. students probably had to develop during their rugged journey. I thus took the decision to stay, with the hope the world would recover soon. On the academic level, despite the deprived access to the laboratory and library material, I could afford to work remotely and decided to solicit any resources available to make the most of my research stay at UW. Consequently, I enrolled in two online statistics classes taught by my Professor, started to learn to code, and became that enthusiast about data and digital sciences that I investigated new research paths for my Ph.D. project that I would have never dared dedicating time to nor even considered in normal times. 

The empty Red Square, Covid time

On the personal level, these hopes were nevertheless soon dashed by another dramatic historical event: the violent killing of George Floyd, the latest in a long succession of atrocities committed against the Black community. The subsequent protests against police brutality and institutionalized racism that sparked across the U.S. before spreading like wildfire around the globe made me face my ignorance and my own, yet everyone’s, responsibility in that matter. Alongside readings for my own Ph.D. research, I started to educate myself about the persistent history of racism through workshops and books, and by talking with people I had met during the protests downtown. 

George Floyd memorial graffiti at Lincoln Reservoir in Cal Anderson Park during the CHAZ/CHOP occupation of the park

Amidst the mourning, anger and stress the world was going through, as summer arose, I would nevertheless found my happy place in the retreat offered by the wild and green nature around but also within the city itself. I would spend hours walking in residential neighborhoods, fascinated by the heart and soul inhabitants invest in decorating their house and front yard. The bike would also become a symbol of freedom allowing me to explore the beautiful parks and lakes that convinced me that Seattle really has “the best of both worlds- nature, and city”. 

Wandering around the city on a summer day

All in all, although nothing went according to plan and that I decided to go home one month before the end of my Fulbright program, I remain highly positive about my experience in Seattle. I am so thankful to the Fulbright Commission in Brussels and to the incredible people I met, from my foreign Fulbright mates to my American housemate (also known as my kitchen partner in crime) and of course all my UW friends, colleagues, and my advisor for this unique opportunity. It turned out to be even more challenging than I could have ever imagined but as one would say “a smooth sea never made a skilled sailor”. This experience allowed me to discover and explore new research paths but also to grow awareness about contemporary social inequalities and the active role everyone could play in addressing them. I feel I have grown a lot from this Fulbright stay not only as a researcher but also on a personal level as a citizen of the world.  

Quoting author Melanie A. Smith, “You know you’re from Seattle when even amid perhaps the worst crisis you’ve ever faced, you can still appreciate a sunny day”. Maybe I am no more that much of a stranger to that other side of the planet…

Sunset on the waterfront

Thérèse Claeys is a Belgian 2019-2020 Fulbright Visiting Student Researcher in Archaeology at the University of Washington. Graduated as an archaeologist from UCLouvain (2012), Thérèse Claeys obtained a second Master in Conservation of Monuments and Sites from the Raymond Lemaire International Centre for Conservation (KULeuven, 2015). Her combined research interests led Ms. Claeys’s to focus on the preservation of the Bronze Age archaeological heritage in Crete for her Ph.D. Her strong aspirations for international mobility and innovation triggered her decision to pursue her research at the Digital Archaeology Research Lab at the University of Washington in Seattle. There, she will work on the development of digital solutions aimed at disseminating the outcome of her Ph.D. research.

Articles are written by Fulbright grantees and do not reflect the opinions of the Fulbright Commission, the grantees’ host institutions, or the U.S. Department of State