Read The Tsar's Dwarf (Hawthorne Books)

Read The Tsar's Dwarf (Hawthorne Books)
"A curious and wonderful work of great human value by a Danish master." Sebastian Barry, Man Booker finalist (Click on the picture to go to the book's Amazon page)

Friday, July 4, 2008

Keep Portland Weird (God Knows I Try)

When I came to Portland a few years ago, I liked the city immediately. From the second I got off the Max and looked around, I felt that Portland had a laid back vibe. People seemed friendly, the overweight cops smiled, and no one vomited on me.

Back then I was on a lecture tour of the USA, talking about Denmark and Danish literature. My other stops were UC Berkeley, University of Washington, Seattle, and University of Wisconsin, Madison. I liked all of these places, but somehow I felt most at home in Portland.

One of my first days in town I saw a sticker. Keep Portland Weird, it said.

"What a great slogan", I thought. And within a few months in the Rose City, I found out it was true. Portland is weird. It's edgy the same way an age challenged hippie is edgy. Portland even has something as un-American as bike paths. And hey, it's a city that reads. What more can you ask for if you're into weird?

I have a confession: Being Scandinavian I don't care much for American cities. You know what they are like: Big places with deserted down towns, melancholic muggers, and shiny bank tellers that swallow your credit card. But Portland has parks with happy squirrels. It has Farmer Markets and Portland State University with its backed up toilets - Portland rocks.

However, the weirdest thing in the city is something that the locals take for granted: It's how polite people are. Portland, Oregon is the kind of town where people will apologize if you kick them in the groin. Some people might argue that the natives are passive-aggressive, but that's not the case. They're just passive.

"I love the Pacific Northwest," a New Yorker once told me. "It's the easiest place in the world to take advantage of people. If you cut them off in traffic, the Portlanders just smile."

Yes, Portland is pretty amazing, especially to a Dane who is used to his rude homeland. In Denmark people walk into you without apologizing. In Portland they start to apologize five minutes before they walk into you. Here your personal space begins thirty feet away. The Pacific Northwest is a place where people don't touch each other unless they have a written permission.

The other day I was in a gelato joint. By coincidence, my left index finger touched the fingers of the girl who was handing back my change. She screamed as if she had been sodomized by Greeks.

"What's wrong?" I asked.

"We touched," she said, her face flushing with anxieties.

"Maybe you should work with computers," I suggested and spilled my gelato over her sneakers.

Yes, Portlanders are seriously weird. When they ride their bikes they think they're making a "statement". They believe they're part of a vast underground movement on a mission to fight everything on four wheels. Hey, in Denmark we just ride our bikes from point A to point B.

Once I got caught in a Critical Mass demonstration. I thought I was going for a joy ride with strangers, but suddenly we were surrounded by police. A few militants held angry speeches accusing the Portland pigs of everything from killing commuters to overthrowing the government in Bolivia. At one point, a man on a skateboard threw a soda pop at a police officer who looked like Nancy Pelosi. I got the hell out. Just think if I were thrown out of this fine country for hanging out with riff-raff demanding the death penalty for driving a Toyota.

Anna Bannanas on NW 21 is another of your ultimate Portland experiences.

It's the kind of cafe you could have stepped into in the late seventies, dark, seedy, with a Quaalude kind of atmosphere. Most of the customers are either gay or look as if they have auditioned for a death metal band. But everybody's friendly enough. As I said before, Portlanders are always friendly, even if they want to mug you.

On the wall, there are your run-of-the-mill T-shirts for ill adjusted rebels: Friends don't let friends drink at Starbucks, one of them screams. There are also newspaper clippings everywhere. A year ago it was the kind that told you that the world is fucked - that George Bush is a Martian, and that Lou Dobbs wants to kill all illegal immigrants with his bare hands. Now Anna Bannana's seem to have lightened up. But it's still the kind of place that makes most sense if you're on drugs.

I'm not but I just love this café. And it doesn't hurt that I was introduced to a 75 year old turtle the other day. It climbed around on the Art section of The New York Times, taking a dump on Angelina Jolie.

"Is that your pet?" I asked the proud owner, a regular who took pride in his pet's bathroom skills.

"It's the love of my life," he said and got teary eyed on the porch of Anna Bannana's.

Another cafe that's typical for Portland is Palio in the South East. When you walk in, it's quiet as a library. The people who hang out at Palio will rather spend time with their lap tops than with you. It's the kind of place where you don't dare raise your voice. If you do, everybody turns around like stressed out senior citizens.

However, Palio is a great cafe. I would recommend it to any nerd. They have wonderful cheese cakes, good savory tarts, and an odd collection of dictionaries. They come in handy if you want to look up a word in say, Malaysian.

Yes, at Palio everybody seems to be cramming for a test. A nasty part of me always wants to creep up on somebody and scream, D MINUS, but I don't think that joke would go down well with this crowd.

So how do we sum up, Portland, Oregon? It's not easy because there are a lot of Portlands. There's the corporate downtown where caffeine is the religion. There is the Pearl if you like to be taken for a ride, there is Belmont with its cute cafes and its many thrift stores (they might call it something else, but I know a thrift store when I see one).

Maybe I could sum it up with a lie I've heard several times - Oregonians telling tourists that Portland is beautiful. That's not the case at all. San Francisco is beautiful. So are Paris, Copenhagen and Prague - Portland is not. However, it's a great city nevertheless.

As everybody knows, Portland has been named the second most livable place in the US, and I totally understand why. It has naked bike rides, it has water fountains enough to drown all birds in Oregon. It has Powell's, one of the coolest book stores in the US (the place even has a Danish section with cook books from the sixties. What more could any connoiseur ask for?)

Actually, Portland has many great things going for it. It has Poetry In Motion on the buses - you know, small signs with excerpts from poetry collections no one has ever heard of. I love it. Give the passengers soul food instead of buses on time. You rock my world, TriMet.

I'm also impressed by the many neighborhoods that look like lush botanical gardens.

So here's to you, Portland.

Thanks for being good to me. And keep being as weird as you want. You definitely have my permission ...
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