Impressions on a Blank Slate

Portland, Oregon is not one of those places folks talk about a lot.  The city is rarely in the news – real or entertainment – which would imply to me that is lacks both famous people and significant crime.  I don’t hold either of these things against it.  Here is what trying to conjure up ideas of Portland made me think of before I actually went to Portland:

  • Maybe it’s like Seattle
  • I think it might rain a lot there
  • Isn’t that where those mini grapes come from?
  • Was Portland somewhere you stopped in the game “Oregon Trail”?

That’s about it.  And honestly, my lack of knowledge about this city seems to be the norm.  Tell people you’re going to Vegas, New York, LA, Chicago — any of those other American cities that have had jazz standards written about them — and people will have a thousand ideas on things you should do when you go, where you should stay, what you should wear, the right amount to tip your taxi driver and so on. But when I told people we were going to Portland, the response was lacklustre, ranging from “that’s nice” -type comments to the more direct, “Why?” and “But what’s in Portland?”

Having never been there, that was what I intended to find out.  Now, obviously, I could have done a bit of research before the trip.  The internet is full of useful information.  But opportunities to enter a situation without prejudice – positive or negative – don’t come along every day.

To go to a city with no expectations at all holds its own excitement: you get to experience your own authentic impressions.  What you think is what you actually think and not what you have been told is the thing to think.  (Yes, it is comforting to believe we are all independent thinkers whose opinions are uncoloured by those we hear from others, but I really just doubt that’s the case.  And for the record, choosing not to like something because it’s popular so that you can seem edgy or whatever isn’t actually any different from liking something just because it is popular.)

So, blank slate of my mind prepared (or unprepared, more appropriately), I got on a train with my travel companions and headed south to see what I could see.

Now, a short word on train travel: trains are innately glamourous.  Something about the comfy seats, the ability to get up and walk around while still making progress, the existence of a “dining car”… it’s all very retro cool.  I think planes may have once held this glamour, but cramped seats, bland food, screaming babies, stressful safety announcements and dry air have maybe taken off the shine a bit.  Cars are too common to be glamourous, and they get caught in traffic, particularly on holiday weekends.  Buses have the same problems.  But trains just carry along their old off-road tracks, from quaint red brick station to quaint brick station to the occasional stunning marble station.  The entry to Portland, if you choose to come by train, is marked by one of these stunning marble stations.  An excellent introduction, in my opinion.

And it just got better.  The city is freakishly clean.  Like a movie set.  Every second building looks like it’s heritage, and gorgeous brickwork, ironwork, marblework and carvings are around each corner.  There are parks and gardens all over the place.  There are funky little boutiques.  It’s a great city to walk around, being fairly uniformly flat.

The day we arrived, there was an art festival going on in the main park in the Pearl District.  Now I’ve been to a park art show or two in my time and they usually display a handful of talent and a whole lot of average-looking landscapes and flower arrangements.  But this, now I don’t know, but I think people might have had to actually audition, not just pay the joining fee.  I’m not saying I loved everything.  Art is pretty subjective.  But even the stuff I didn’t like showed skill.  And the stuff I did like, wow.  One of the photographers there was probably one of the best I’ve seen.

And the food!  Now, I love food.  I’ve said this before.  And I can honestly say that all the food we ate in the whole four days was excellent.

It started at the art festival.  Along the outside were food stall vendors.  Being peckish, I investigated and found myself at the roasted nut place.  I am a fan of roasted nuts, so this wasn’t a hard sell, but I decided to go for the least obvious choice.  Sweet and spicy pecans, curried cashews, candied almonds: all excellent options, but nothing new.  What caught my eye was the rosemary, apple, hazelnut combination.  I liked the sound of that as it had the right blend of quirkiness and solid food combination principles.  My instincts did not lead me astray.  The hazelnuts (or filberts, if you will) were delightful.

And the brilliant food just kept coming.  We went to the trendy Pazzo, which served splendid pasta.  We ate at the supposedly haunted Old Town Pizza, and saw no ghosts but loved the flavours and the eccentric style of the place.  Santeria had probably the best Mexican food I’ve eaten outside of Mexico.  The Morning Star Cafe made breakfast and lunch things that were so good, we went back the next day to eat there again.  (The Morning Star Bowl = Vegetarian Breakfast Bliss.)   Typhoon made a fantastic pad thai and a perfectly spiced pineapple curry.  We found an olive oil and balsamic vinegar shop with loads of flavours to sample and buy.  (The lavender balsamic vinegar is divine.  You could almost drink it.)  We tried the notorious Voodoo Doughnuts, and while they may not quite have lived up to the hype, being just doughnuts after all, they were pretty fun.  Flavours like grape and tang made me very happy because, after all, who doesn’t want a purple doughnut?

Cool art, stunning architecture, interesting shopping, good food: what else could a person want?

How about the biggest book store I’ve ever seen.  Powell’s Books is enough to strike you dumb with its enormity.  With warehouse-sized rooms colour-coded by topic, it’s a book lover’s dream.  Taking up a large square block on two floors, it just goes on and on, with new books next to used and places to sit and peruse them.  It was actually a little overwhelming, and would take much longer than we had to properly explore, but how fantastic to know that it exists.

Portland may be the most un-hyped city I have ever visited.  Apparently it has a tourism board.  I have a feeling that someone is bribing them to keep their mouths shut.

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