So how do you like Portland?

I get this question every day.

Now that I’ve been in Portland two weeks, and have a shiny new library card, it’s time to allow you in, let you see what I’ve seen. I’ve been hoarding it, but too many questions prompt me to share.

I had been to Portland (PDX, as they call it here, which I can only assume is from the abbreviation for the airport, but Chicago doesn’t call itself ORD, so…?) twice before Tim took the job here, and was charmed by it. To be fair, I’d been to the touristy section downtown, a gorgeously posh hotel just blocks away from Pioneer Square. From there, I could walk to the chic coffee house and VooDoo Doughnuts, VooDoo and to Powell’s, though I never got there on my own. Walking around Portland, I found quickly that it’s a very manageable city, on the scale of St. Louis, with which I was once familiar. PDX and STL are similar cities for many reasons; the river, the hilly streets, the pockets of upscale neighborhoods cheek-by-jowl with less tony environs, the lively nightlife. It’s plenty cooler here than STL, especially right now, when STL often experiences its inexhaustible humidity straight into October. PDX has no humidity, which surprises me for an area as fertile as this. I clearly have not got a handle yet on the environment.

Here are my reactions to PDX, by category.

1) Weather: the week after we arrived, PDX was enjoying a major heat wave. It was 85+ and sunny the whole week, and the apartment swimming pool was packed every night. And then we got a thunderstorm, which is, apparently, quite unusual here. Tim reports that a thunderstorm will evoke an office conversation among his normally taciturn coworkers, all men. They will actually say “Did you hear that thunder?” the day after a thunderstorm. This is notable because the Chicago area gets thunderstorms as frequently as it gets rain. Thunder and lightning are regular parts of rainstorms in the Midwest, so to have thunder be the topic of conversation surprised Tim, and amuses me.

Since that initial storm, the weather’s been cool, no hotter than mid-70s, but delightfully chilly at night. If I could, I’d sleep with the windows open all year round, and according to Tim, it’s nearly possible to do so here. I need better tools for dealing with the chill, however, because my normal sleeping attire does not cut it, even with Mr. Hot Box sleeping next to me.

Because you’ll see reference to me not having “my things,” I should mention that our POD full of carefully edited and audited belongings has not yet arrived in PDX, and won’t for several months. We are making do with what we have right now, and I’m crossing my fingers that the weather and my fortitude hold out long enough to manage with transitional season clothes. I do have my Editing Sweater, warm but not stylish. Right now, with my feet cuddled into Tim’s slippers, I fear it is my feet that will suffer the most without my POD-captive winter socks. I’ll keep you updated.

The weather in PDX reminds both Tim and me of our fall weekend at the cottage, Tim’s parent’s summer place in Muskoka, Canada. There are periods of warm weather, but most of the time, it’s just pleasant, sometimes involving a soft rain, and the air redolent of pine and an unidentified, sweet scent. PDX smells wonderful. I wonder if the natives even notice anymore.

2) Scenery: Lush foliage, stunning vistas, winding roads, intelligently designed buildings, and a population dedicated to preserving and honoring the natural beauty of the area combine to make PDX one of the most deeply beautiful cities I’ve ever seen. Yes, there are run-down areas, but by and large, there’s a feeling of inter-connectedness between the people and each other, and the people and the environment. People recognize they are surrounded by beauty, and take time to wallow in it; there are parks all over the city, and gardens, and park benches; sidewalks are peppered with statues of wildlife; tiny homages to trees and waterfalls and nature are everywhere.

I received a request for “more pictures of Portland,” but what the caller did not recognize was that my photos of trees and leaves and rocks and branches and the view out my living room window are pictures of Portland. That IS Portland. Yes, there is a lovely city, with some beautiful buildings (the library is, obviously, one of my favorites), but I can’t get over the fact that, instead of trying to conquer nature, trying to cement over the tree roots and eradicate any hint of green, this city has embraced the natural setting, and celebrates it as part of the definition of the place. Yes, Chicago has some beautiful parks, but remember, I lived in the suburbs, where the acknowledgement of nature was grudging at best.

Our apartment is situated on the West Slope, which means that we’re just on the other side of a “hill” from the downtown area.

headed into the city
headed into the city

We’re still in PDX–just by a hair–but it could not feel more removed from city life. The view from our living room is west, out over the valley in which is nestled a little town called Beaverton. However, all we see from our perch on the side of the hill is trees, and distant mountains, and at night, lights winking in the valley. At night, we join the other residents in walking the parking lot for exercise (!), the wide circle cut into the hillside that challenges our glutes and quads.

foliage lining the parking lot of our apartments
foliage lining the parking lot of our apartments

Along the parking lot are vast banks of wild blackberry briers, dozens upon dozens of feet deep, and pine trees, and native holly trees. 

We walk under starlit skies, engaging in quiet conversation interrupted occasionally by a friendly hello from our neighbors. This is pretty rural, if not secluded.

But Tim’s office is a total of 4.6 miles away–and he works in the heart of downtown.  I’ve never seen him happier to go to work in his life, and we know now that his disposition had nothing to do with the work he was doing, but the process of getting to that job. In Chicago, the commute was making him miserable. Here, he practically skips out the door. It’s quite a sight.

(down the hill, through this tunnel, into the city)

The physical landscape cannot be differentiated from the city itself. This is a lush mountain area that happens to have a vibrant city in its bosom, and the two graciously and happily coexist.

3) Scenery + Weather=Challenging Driving Conditions: In an effort to repopulate our home with usable pieces while we’re awaiting the POD, I have utilized Craigslist a fair bit. I am a pretty confident driver, given my commuter experience in Chicago and my solo cross-country trips with my daughter. But this is when I found that Portland really is *in* the mountains. The road we live on has an 8% grade, and my ears pop going up and down the hill. Driving around the bottom of the city the other day, I was treated to a gorgeous–and treacherous–view of the Willamette River, including a scenic overlook into the river valley. Not even 20 minutes from my home, there is at least one scenic overlook. Quite a change for someone whose previous hometown’s claim to fame was once the juvenile detention center.

Another day, in another direction, I discovered that roads named “Johnson Pass” mean “this is the dangerous, winding, steep, no-shoulder two-lane mountain pass on which many people have died.” Portland-20130921-04568I was supposed to pick up a piece of furniture at the end of this road at 7 p.m., which meant that I would likely have to take this road on the return trip–in the dark. And it was supposed to rain. I turned around and went home, not willing to risk such conditions for a free kitchen table.

My only complaint about driving around here is that the scenery is so distracting in its beauty. On every corner, there’s another breathtaking view, or fascinating tree, or funky building, or garden I have yet to explore. It’s kinda hard to keep my eyes on the road.

4) People: I’ve had few encounters with people here, as I haven’t had an opportunity to really dive into the activities I’m planning yet. However, in the incidental contact I’ve had already tells me things are very different here. I can–and do–smile at people and they’ll smile back. I can ask questions of the grocery checkers, and every one of them (not just the special few) will offer a cheerful, pleasant, sincere response.

My opinion about friendly behavior is most certainly tainted by my experience in the suburbs of Chicago. The number of truly friendly people I encountered day-to-day in suburban Chicago could be counted on one hand. Most of the time, if I said something that invited a response, I was ignored or, even more commonly, looked at as if I had a mental disorder. It’s just not a friendly place.

Perhaps Portland is “normal” compared to Chicagoland, I don’t know.

What is indisputable, however, is the fact that there is such variety here, such brazen and joyful individuality, that the obvious differences that made me such a sore thumb in Chicagoland barely make an eyelash bat here. In my two weeks here, I have seen a grizzled, paunchy old man with long uncombed hair wearing a clingy, knee-length pink knit dress–and no bra; lots of pink hair on people of both genders and all ages; plaid skirts with fishnet stockings over clunky combat boots–on men. Perhaps the biggest relief of all is the variety of ethnicities represented. I am so happy to find that Portland is not as homogeneous as I had heard. I’ve always been uncomfortable around large groups of white people.

But where I once worked so hard to contain outward signs of my personality (because history proved I’d be rejected), I am starting to feel comfortable allowing little things to show. It’s going to take some time for me to get used to this, partly because I am such an introvert, and will scurry back to my shell the moment I’m unsure. But I can see the wide range of people just carrying out their daily lives without a single conformist pointing and sneering, so I’m pretty hopeful that I can carry out mine as well. The next step will be deciding what activities comprise that life.

(and here are some pictures of downtown Portland.)

Portland street during rush hourCourthouse

Food carts. Haven't sampled them yet.

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