travelogue: Portland, OR

“Is not this a true autumn day? Just the still melancholy that I love – that makes life and nature harmonise. The birds are consulting about their migrations, the trees are putting on the hectic or the pallid hues of decay, and begin to strew the ground, that one’s very footsteps may not disturb the repose of earth and air, while they give us a scent that is a perfect anodyne to the restless spirit. Delicious autumn! My very soul is wedded to it, and if I were a bird I would fly about the earth seeking the successive autumns.
– George Elliot

Portland feels like a city of Autumn.

An Autumn that Stanford, immersed within the strange microclimate of the Bay Area, had not been able to give me. It’s been warm most of the time, even now that we have reached November and are about to enter December – even though the nights can be chilly, and often when I leave my department to go home late at night I think it is far too cold to bike home without a coat, the days seem to be a prolonging of the end of Summer, that time when it’s still warm but not warm enough.

I hate Summer, and I hate it even more if it feels perpetual, never arresting, never giving me an opportunity to actually miss the heat and the opportunity to switch to lighter clothes (and to a lighter self?). I like that seasons change (though this will be happening less and less, as we all know), that nature has a cycle to it that is constantly renewing – I like this because it gives me a chance to miss the seasons, to crave for them, to crave for a change (and if you know me, you know how avert to change I can be). So I’ve been missing the opportunity to put on my Winter clothes, to actually feel good in my own skin – something that is only slightly possible when I have more clothes on, truth be told -, and to feel the cold wind on my face and on my hands.

Portland gave me all this. It gave me the Autumn that I had been looking for. It gave me the perfect opportunity to get away from my stressful life back at Stanford. And now, as I’m writing this on an airplane, making my way back to sunny California and its constantly dwindling and indecisive weather, I already miss it. It is a city of melancholia, maybe (and this might just be me), but it is also full of an energy that I’m not sure exactly how I can describe, as if the weather and the continuous pouring rain cannot stop the frenetic rhythm of its daily living. At night, however, it all changes: the city becomes deserted, and I’m walking around by myself under the pouring rain, and lonesomeness (not loneliness, mind you!) takes over.

My last day at Portland – or better said, my last morning – consisted of a drive through Forest Park, the beautiful apogeum of this Autumn appreciation days, where Paradise actually exists and the landscape has been taken hostage of these beautiful colours that take over the scenery and shift it completely. What would these landscapes look like without this disarray of nature?

The poetry of deactivated traintracks and leafy grounds (my two favourite things!) at Forest Park
Autumn landscapes and leaf carpets (Forest Park)

But Portland is a lot more than just my own personal Autumn obsessions.

Setting aside my perhaps unhealthy fixation in following trails of fallen leaves (a million trails that lead to so many different places around the city), I ended up coming across that feeling of authenticity that several “natives” of the city, and even other people with whom I talked to before I came on this street, had mentioned to me as being the ultimate defining thing about Portland. Around every corner and every street pops up a local brewery, a local coffee shop (or small, localized chain of them), local clothing brands and independent bookstores. My first stop was the most obvious one, and the most recommended by everyone I talked to – Powell’s City of Books, one of the biggest independent new and used bookstores, where I spent a whole morning browsing around and still felt like I needed the whole day to actually take full advantage of it. I did not come out empty-handed, though my budget does not allow me great shopping extravaganzas (and here’s to cheap, used books!)

There are very little chains of anything – fast food, Starbucks, clothing, you name it -, as if the appreciation of the local precedes giving in to the global brands. City life revolves around these small businesses that help instill the city with a sense of place and importance. I am not a fan of beer, but seeing all the local breweries and distilleries made me wish I was; I am also not the biggest coffee drinker, but I enjoyed a very delicious Moroccan-spiced one in a late Monday afternoon, as I watched the sun going down and day turn into night.

So I moved on to my other obsessions – food and bric-a-brac stores.

Food cars. Yes, the food cars – the oh-so-famous Portland food cars that everyone kept telling me I should try, that there was no other place to look for a street food culture. Hidden in every other corner around the city and boasting a good variety of cuisines for any tastes, I found it very difficult to actually ever become hungry in Portland. People standing on the side walks and waiting for their meal, delicious scents that permeate the streets and make me cross from the other side of the road to l. Also, if one wants to eat cheap, there’s no other place to try.

Bric-a-brac stores. A lifelong passion – all things old and used (and pointless, most of the time), stacked together in tiny little shops just waiting to be found and given a new life. Vintage furniture, old postcards, books that have been so used they are practically falling apart. In East Portland, I found some of these shops – vintage clothes, furniture shops, record stores – on East Portland, little gardens of Eden of mementoes and someone else’s memories being put on display for sale. I wonder: just how much of our lives is in these objects?

One of the many food car blocks in the city, this one in Downtown Portland
“Losing my head” (an homage to Joana Andrade’s series) over bric-a-brac stores in East Portland
Sun (briefly) shining and the sky in fading tones of blue by the Willamette River at Waterfront Park

Allow me to share a story that made my Portland experience somewhat different, and that made me look at this cold season from a different point of view (a vantage point, maybe). And with no photos, this time.

As I was taking the tram back home on a late Tuesday afternoon, a young woman sat next to me. Though I do know her real name, for the purpose of this story, let’s call her Alison – her actual identity is irrelevant, and I am sure she would appreciate it if I did not reveal her real name. She talked to me for a good thirthy, fourty minutes, as the tram was going around town and shifting between the West and the East bank of the river. She asked me if I could give her some money – she was homeless, had no place to sleep in, and carried with her one of her few belongings (a skateboard), her only means of transportation. In cold days, she would get into the trams and ride it for hours, just so she could get warm. This I witnessed a couple of times: as I was taking the tram, there was a continuous flow of homeless people going in and out, looking for a warm place to stay in, even if briefly, ignored by the tram driver and fellow passengers.

Tough lesson learned: I guess only from a privileged point of view can one truly appreciate Autumn or Winter. So the guilt kicks in, somehow, as it’s always easy to like the cold when one has a warm place to spend the night.

She told me about her life and her dreams – that she was 23 (like me), that she was from California, that she had moved to Oregon one year ago to get away from an abusive boyfriend, that she had been doing drugs ever since she was a teenager but was really trying to get clean, that she wanted to get a job (and she was trying to, but no one would hire her, so she was continuously applying and going to interviews), that she really wanted to have a nice apartment so that she could get a cat (a Siamese one, preferrably) and take good care of it, that she wanted to go to school – she wasn’t sure of what she wanted to study, but she wanted to make something out of herself.

Dreams that I felt I had always taken for granted.

I told her I couldn’t give her any money – I had no cash on me – but I would gladly buy her dinner and something to eat in the morning as well. So we stepped out of the tram and she told me she would like to get some sandwiches. I bought her what she asked for – water, juice, two sandwiches (with veggies, lots of them), a cup of warm coffee, some fruit.

As I sat with her while she ate her food, she told me: “I’m very persistent. I’m not giving up. I’m getting my life straight”

Alison, I’m sorry I couldn’t give you anything else. And I hope you do turn your life around.

(I should say that I am not trying to play the good samaritan card here. This is a side to these cities that we very rarely see portrayed in any sort of travel or life chronicle – I guess we’d rather ignore our privilege than be confronted with it in such a direct way? Choosing to look away and ignore what is a clear problem – and in Portland, much like San Francisco, homelessness is an issue. So, if homelessness is part of a city, and you are constantly being confronted with it, it should somehow also make its way onto these pages. If you’re experiencing a city, choosing to only portray its beauty makes no justice to the place or to its people.)

“(…) Delicious autumn! My very soul is wedded to it, and if I were a bird I would fly about the earth seeking the successive autumns.

And yet I too, if I could, would fly the Earth looking for a series of successive Autumns. The poetic Autumns that only the perhaps a privileged flâneuse like myself can truly appreciate. Streets paved with different shades of red and orange and yellow, warm spiced coffee in dark afternoons, eating Pad Thai right by a food cart while trying to protect myself from the rain, taking black and white photos for one of my college assignments and wishing I had colour film instead, riding a tram for hours to get a general sense of the city and talking to the people who appreciate it the most.

This chronicle is what Portland gave me, as summarized as it could possible get. Perhaps this is not the most accurate description of the city – if accurate descriptions of cities ever can and do exist at all -, but just like I have my own version of Lisbon, I also have my own version of Portland.

It made for a nice break to get away from life at Stanford – in Portland, and even if just for a very brief period of time, I forgot about my daily struggles with projects and coursework, about deadlines and assignments, about the incredible pressure that I put on myself constantly. About three weeks away from the final screening for my film and the end of the first quarter of classes, I am slowly falling back into reality.

In Portland I found Autumn. In Portland I let go just a little bit of myself.

– Inês

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