You know how there are those places you’re really excited to see, then you start worrying whether your high expectations will be dashed?
You know how sometimes you needn’t have worried at all, and the place was, as you first imagined, amazing?
Yeah. Portland wasn’t that place.
To be honest, it hadn’t even crossed my mind that I might be thinking too highly of Portland. It’s had a lot of hype recently: the rising hipster, cool place that is full of people who love coffee, books, quirky bars. And on top of that, it’s surrounded by some pretty awesome nature. What could I not love about this place (um, despite actually not loving coffee myself)?
Well, it turns out that soon after we stepped off the Amtrak and onto the train platform, post-hell-of-a-journey-where-everything-went-wrong (more on that in a later post), my first impressions weren’t the best.
In all the hype about Portland, I expected it to be lively and have lots of different vibes. I read up on the Pearl District, where we stayed – supposedly a trendy place – but found it largely empty. There was a pub here and there, a restaurant dotted around… but… where was everyone? I put this down to it being relatively late in the evening. But… it was a Friday. Ok, so maybe we weren’t in the right area of the Pearl District. That must be it. The plan was to sleep after our big day and tackle a new part tomorrow. Things will pick up then. I would love Portland.
Our first moves were to go to Voodoo Doughnuts, Powell’s Book Store and Stumptown Coffee (all of which I did like). As we walked, I kept waiting for a bit more of a scene of people… it didn’t happen until we got to Voodoo Doughnuts: seeing the line, I joked to Alan that this is where everyone in Portland is.
What I came to discover is that Portland, even though it is a city, doesn’t behave like a city. It has a very small town feel to it, the streets are wide and everything’s quite spread out. Alan didn’t find this so hard to get his head around which confused me until he pointed out that I’m from London. It’s a good point: London is big too, sure, but it’s high with its skyscrapers and compact. You rarely walk a street that doesn’t contribute to one of the many characters that make up London. Whether it’s Shoreditch, Greenwich, Chelsea, Peckham, Covent Garden, Soho, or anything else, you can walk almost seamlessly from each city vibe.
Portland doesn’t really have this, or at least not from my point of view. Each place we walked, you’d pass quite a few blocks where nothing was going on. And I mean nothing… I like walking past resedential areas, but they’re not what these barren blocks consisted of. They looked industrial and incomplete, and the sparsity of places bothered me. There would be a pub, and then nothing… a coffee shop, and then nothing… sometimes there would be a cute line of shops/bars/cafes, as if you had to work for the treat.
I think my expectations weren’t on the same wavelength as what Portland is really like. If I had spent more time there, I probably would have sniffed out the best parts and worked out the vibe. Problem is, the city doesn’t seem to cater for someone who is casually walking around; it seems like you have to know where you’re headed – those were the times when Alan and I had success and liked what we saw.
I would still go back to Portland if I was in the area – but I don’t think I’d make a specific trip there. When we left, I felt my head hang a little low: I wasn’t disappointed in Portland, per say, but more disappointed in myself that I had projected a view of Portland – and obviously the wrong one – which made me have to grapple with my own mind to understand it. It was as though I was working backwards to get to the ‘start from scratch, clean slate’ I should have started with.
But then again, that’s all part of travel, isn’t it? Your experiences in life determine what you think and how you perceive things – growing up a Londoner has impacts on me I’m still finding today, apparently. And it shows you that the simplest of things can throw you off: I’ve adjusted fine and embraced differences in all sorts of places, but Portland was like missing a step on a staircase.
Maybe I’ll work you out next time, Portland.
P.s. No word of a lie, the bracelet I bought at a Portland market broke and fell off during writing this. Talk about payback.