I think Portland, Oregon, is an amazing city, but I can't stop making fun of it. I've recently returned from three days in this peaceful, attractive, pleasant, youthful, socio-politically-aware utopia. I came to the conclusion that the benefits of Portland are undeniable.
For our first two evenings in town we were staying in a house only just out of the centre city, but still set in the woods. It overlooked downtown and the river it is set on. I arrived at midnight on a Friday evening, and the first thing I saw out my window the next day were smiling runners going by, two-by-two. Many wore faded T-shirts bearing some sort of positive message.
We all journeyed into town and spent an hour or so walking through a large farmers' market in a shaded, leafy park. I rounded out the first part of my Saturday walking around Powell's Books, a place that is like Wellington's Unity Books multiplied by a public library. It is as awesome as all of the five most awesome bookstores I've ever set foot in put together. The rest of Saturday was spent at a wedding 45 minutes out of Portland, but not so far out that I couldn't enjoy several excellent local Portland craft beers over the course of the evening.
Sunday began with a brunch in downtown Portland; the city centre is low-key. It feels relaxing and uncrowded. It doesn't feel like a big city, but it has all of the trappings. It is all in very good shape, devoid of the urban grime you'll find elsewhere.
The average age of Portlanders is only 36 apparently. There are a lot of bearded men in flannel shirts, and friendly, smiling women in American Apparel-issue summer dresses.
The people in Portland were so friendly that I could have almost tricked myself that I was in Canada. I spent an extra day in Portland than LP and her family so as to soak up more of the city. On my travels, I stopped in at a Starbucks for an iced coffee, and after I paid they discovered they were out of iced coffee. The barista looked into my soul to apologise, and made me a more expensive drink for no extra cost, and then thanked me warmly for being so understanding. In line at the movies, after a brief wait, the cashier smiled at me, tilted her head warmly, and expressed her appreciation for my patience.
I had dinner out at a bar after the movie: a plate of fish and chips washed down with a cold, Portland-local, craft-brewed IPA. I was alone with my recently purchased Marilyn Monroe biography to keep me company. The four young adults at the table over from me were having the most intelligent conversation I'd ever heard in public. They freewheeled effortlessly across reasoned and insightful takes on politics, genetically modified organisms, and symbolism in To Kill a Mockingbird. The four listened to each other, never spoke over anyone and built nicely on the point that was made before them. After a few minutes I realised that I had set my book aside entirely and was listening to their conversation as company.
On my way back to my hostel in the Alberta Arts District, after strolling down one of Portland's cornucopia of stately and tree-lined avenues, past several "Portland Recycles!" and "Portland Composts!" signs, I stopped at a food co-op staffed by a merry band of scruffy, tattooed twenty-somethings. I was after a dessert and a nightcap. I picked up another well-priced and locally brewed Portland IPA and some mango yoghurt - the label bragged that it came only from happy cows. It was delicious.
The following morning I woke early to allow myself a few hours to peruse the local cafés. It was a veritable Cuba Street thick with quality espresso and quality baristas. I over-indulged in coffee, happily. I browsed Portland's daily newspaper, the Oregonian; it was smartly written, well reported and a little sassy. I liked it.
Flying out of Portland, a kind lady at airport security complimented me on my ability to follow instruction. There was a country musician playing in the food court.
It was as relaxing as I've ever found an airport.
I was sad to leave. I felt about a year younger. But, there's an instinct to laugh at Portland that I can't shake. Even while I was there the jokes were flowing.
Am I so burnt by the cruelties and ups and downs of big-city living that I cannot open up to a good thing?
I know I'm not entirely alone here. There's a whole TV show dedicated to making fun of Portland. But what's so funny about a place that nice?
What is there to be suspicious of?
Nothing. It rains a lot more in the Pacific Northwest than in other parts of America, apparently. But I'm sure Portlanders have a mature and reasonable way of rationalising and adapting to this downside.
Portland is an extremely earnest city. You can sense it in everything from the conversations that you overhear, to the T-shirt slogans, to the encouragements to recycle, to the local media, to the warm smiles on everyone's face. It believes in something: locally grown food... sustainable living...
To many, Portland seems to be a pure, symbolic embodiment of youth culture. It has probably reached a point where there's uniformity in its casual lack of uniformity, so the people who really want to feel different might find it harder to do so.
Also, where a lot of youth culture elsewhere is defined by apathy, Portland really cares.
I get the punchline. There's something funny about a place where people really believe in something, and something initially alternative has become a new normal.
In Portland, it seems, positive change is possible, things can get done, and the world can be a better place with a little effort.
For us morally calloused non-Portlanders, maybe we make fun of this as being an aberration, because overall sarcasm is easier and there's a certain fear that maybe in some way they could be right?
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