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August 25th, 2010 RUTH BROWN | Featured Stories
 

Dear Mum

How’s Australia? Here’s what I think of Portland…

     
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Love, Ruth Brown
P.S. Andy Wright took these photos.

I arrived in Portland less than two months ago from Melbourne, Australia. My husband, James, was offered a job here, and I agreed to leave behind my career, house, family and friends to join him with little more than the bag on my back (OK, I also brought a laptop, iPhone, digital camera, PSP, e-reader, mini-disc recorder and two iPods, but apart from that, I’m a modern-day Huck Finn).

I know what you’re thinking: Oh, great, another white, middle-class hipster immigrant—just what Portland needs. If it is of any comfort, the folks at the U.S. consulate made it very, very clear you do not need me here. For those unfamiliar with the process of acquiring a non-immigrant visa to your country, it involves about four hours of waiting at the U.S. consulate, where you fill out several hundred pages of paperwork, wait in four lines and three waiting rooms, go through three metal detectors, provide two sets of fingerprints, sit through a Disneyish film of smiling American stereotypes (earnest Asian students! Beaming young Hispanic/Latina bride! Native American in leather chaps!) flashing their pearly whites and saying, “Welcome!” and then endure two interviews, where you must convince the humorless man or woman behind the glass that you absolutely do not want to become a U.S. citizen and you’ll be back in the land of Vegemite and vicious marsupials as soon as humanly possible.

With an unemployment rate of more than 10 percent in Portland, I know y’all don’t need me here. But at least I’m not another Californian. I bring with me an accent you apparently all find utterly adorable (which is refreshing; just about every other country on earth considers Australian accents to be grating, boorish and uncultured, which is, incidentally, what most Australians think of your accents. Don’t take it personally—hating on Americans is a national sport), and I’m a journalist, so there are no jobs here for me to steal. Instead, I’ve been spending my time on your delicious native dishes (peanut butter ice cream, peanut butter chocolates, peanut butter doughnuts, peanut butter pretzels), riding my bike around your backward and obscenely cycle-friendly streets (it’s been one thing to adjust to riding on the opposite side of the road, but it has been more difficult riding without people yelling, “GET OFF THE FUCKING ROAD, YOU FUCKING HIPPIE!” which is the traditional greeting to cyclists in most parts of the world), and conducting important ethnographic research into your culture to answer all the probing questions I’m getting from inquisitive folk back home (“Is everyone fat?” “Is everyone homeless?” “Is everyone stupid?”).

It occurred to me that some of my discoveries might be of interest to locals as well. Sometimes it’s difficult to see the great (and not so great) things about a place when they’re staring you in the face every day. I certainly didn’t appreciate things like universal health care and restaurants that take reservations until I moved to Portland. So I thought I’d share with you some of the field reports I’m sending back home. Maybe you’ll learn something new about the city you call home. Or maybe I’ll come off as a self-righteous know-it-all.

Dear Mum,

How are you? I am fine.

This is called a Big-Ass Sandwich. It comes from a food cart with the same name and it sums up everything you need to know about food in this town.

No. 1: You would hate it. It’s the exact opposite of every lentil and steamed veggie meal you ever served me growing up. It’s a white roll, stuffed with meat, cheese, béchamel sauce and fries. Yes, fries in the sanga.

You see, the restaurants, cafes and carts in this town are all engaged in an unspoken battle to create the most obnoxiously junky, fatty, fried, ridiculous dishes they can. I know: This is the country that invented deep-fried Coke, turducken, and pancake-and-sausage on a stick. But trust me, nowhere else in America are people so unashamedly enthusiastic and proud of their ever-growing list of gastronomic abominations.

This is the same town that cheers bacon on a doughnut, deep-fried peanut butter pies, burgers served between grilled cheese sandwiches, and nine pieces of bacon served inside a waffle.

And once someone ups the ante with the next bigger, sloppier, greasier creation, everyone starts writing “ZOMG!” on Twitter and people will line up around the block to face the latest intestinal challenge.

No. 2: It is made entirely from local ingredients. Portlanders are rabid locavores, and even their junk food must be made from locally grown products, or you’ll hear about it. Potatoes taste better when you know they were grown down the road, they tell me—even if you then fry them to a crisp in oil and slather them with sauce.

No. 3: There is a vegetarian version. Even when you make a sandwich that is essentially a shrine to meat and calories, you must make a vegetarian version, or you’ll hear about it (and the vegetarians are louder and whinier than the locavores). This may be the only place in America with morbidly obese vegans.

No. 4: It comes from a cart. All crazy fast food receives hype here—but it will receive 10 times the hype, and probably its own Food Network special, if it is also prepared in the back of a cart, wagon, van or truck.

No. 5: It is actually good. As contradictory as it may seem, Portlanders still like their greasy, fatty, fried, weird, junky street food cooked well by a professional, and you should see the Yelp! reviews if it isn’t.

If this journalism caper doesn’t work out, I plan on starting a food cart that sells whole organic, vegan-fed, locally raised pigs, stuffed with artisan peanut butter and Gorgonzola, then battered, deep-fried and served inside a giant taco. I will make squillions.

Dear Mum,

How are you? I am fine.

Everyone waits for the little white “walk” man here. Everyone. Even if there’s no traffic. (Even during their adorable version of “rush hour,” there is barely any traffic.)

I wish I could say I’ve picked up this habit, but I still jaywalk like everyone else in the world. Call it my eeny-weeny Gen-Y attention span, but if there’s little traffic and I need to cross the road—I cross. And here’s the crazy bit: Even if a “car” (usually a tiny little hybrid) does come along, the driver will stop, smile and wave at me as I cross! Even though I’m the one breaking the law! I almost want them to yell at me and screech to a halt like they do back home. But motorists are on the lowest rung of the traffic food chain here. Everyone is so environmentally conscious that they’re embarrassed to be driving when you’re walking or riding (or unicycling. There is an inordinate number of unicyclists here).

Hi Mum,

How are you? I am fine.

The other day I went to see a band, and above is a picture I took of the crowd. No, they are not intellectually disabled. This is what local kids do when they watch bands. They break into a weird dance, somewhere between pogoing and skanking, and flap their floppy fringes around out of sync with the music, regardless of whether it’s electronica or death metal. I have tried to teach them our native dance of standing at the back of the room with your arms crossed, frowning and half-heartedly nodding your head. I’ve tried to explain that it’s not that we don’t like the music, it’s just that it would be social suicide to let anyone know you enjoy anything. But here it’s the opposite: You must show the band you’re having the absolute time of your life by performing this same spastic, out-of-time jitterbug—even if the music sucks. I presume it’s an extension of the über-politeness thing, but I think the hipsters are also a little petrified at the possibility of being seen not enjoying something, in case it turns out to be cool.

Other forms of entertainment provoke similar disproportionately enthusiastic responses. At the end of movies, people clap and cheer loudly. Movies! I can only presume they’re doing this so the directors and actors in neighboring California can hear them being polite. Or they’re equally afraid of being seen to not “get” the film.

Or possibly they’re cheering the projectionist for having to sit through some of the horrible shit Hollywood produces time and time again. You know how we think most Hollywood films are rubbish back home? Turns out, we only get sent the best of the bunch. I think maybe Australia is actually known as “the lucky country” because it will never have to endure something called Cats & Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore or Marmaduke. Please bear this in mind next time you whinge about the back-to-back screenings of the latest Twilight installment.

Dear Mum,

How are you? I am fine.

Wanna hear something funny? James is considered a totally macho spunk here.

Much as I love him, the guy is an IT geek who loves sci-fi novels and abhors sport. It’s probably lucky we left Australia before he was thrown out for hating footy and AC/DC.

But most of the guys in Portland make him look like Crocodile Dundee. A good portion of the “men” here—though many look more like overgrown boys who struggle to grow their ironic moustaches—are mopey, scrawny hipsters who spend more time on their hair than their girlfriends do. They’re lovely, but there’s clearly a serious testosterone drought going on in this town.

As a result, the ladies here hit on James like mobsters. When he first floated the theory that it’s because he actually looks and acts like he owns a pair of testicles, I laughed and said it was just the accent.

But he’s right. Most of the chicks in Portland are loud, hard-drinking, covered in tatts and could (and would) crush beer cans between their norks. Most of the men are sensitive, well-spoken, immaculately groomed and would put the beer can into their canvas tote bags until they could find an appropriate recycling bin.

I will send you a CD by a late local artist called Elliott Smith to help you better understand.

Dear Mum,

How are you? I am fine.

No, this is not photoshopped. This is a water fountain with actual water. Remember those? I have fuzzy memories of them as a kid, before Australia went into a permanent drought and it became illegal to wash your car or fill your swimming pool. (I do remember running through the sprinklers in the backyard as a kid. But I presume my nieces and nephew don’t even know what a sprinkler system is. Hell, they’re not even legally allowed to play with a watering can after 8 am.)

Here there is enough water for everyone. People can shower for as long as they like (with regular shower heads, not the weak “water saving” ones our local government makes you use), wash the car, water the garden—people even water down the sidewalk. They wash concrete!

I hope these kids realize how lucky they are.

Hi Mum,

How are you? I am fine.

This is the view from my apartment window. That’s Mount St. Helens in the back there. Some days it’s totally invisible, but on a clear day, it suddenly appears out of nowhere.

There are a few other mountains that pop up on the horizon, too, like Mount Hood and Mount Tabor (which is actually just a smallish old volcano—a hill, really—but I think people like being able to brag that they “rode up a mountain,” so we all play along).

The locals are obsessed with these mountains. Every time there’s a clear day, random strangers will stop me on the street and point: “Look! It’s Mount Hood!” And I look, and there is Mount Hood. Same as it was the last time I saw it: a mountain. And I’ll say, “Are you visiting Portland?” “Nope, I’ve lived here for 20 years!”

“Have you been to Mount Hood/Tabor/Larch/Talbert yet?!” is almost invariably the first question after someone learns I’m new in town, before pulling out a map and detailing the trail I absolutely must bike or hike.

Sure, there are mountaineering and nature nerds back in Australia—it is, after all, the home of Uluru Rock, the Great Barrier Reef and forests with some of the largest and oldest trees on the planet—but we don’t carry on like a pork chop about them every single day. And if a twentysomething city-dweller like myself ever expressed a desire to go hiking, people would ask if I was feeling all right.

But here, everyone from scrawny hipsters to fat, tattooed rockers to prissy sorority girls spend their weekends traversing hills and pulling themselves up rock faces. Here, it’s uncool to not like nature.

Dear Mum,

How are you? I am fine.

The other day, I rode my bike for hours until I was way out of the city and surrounded by mountains and trees and big suburban houses. Now, you know I’m a big-city gal and hate the ’burbs with a passion, but for some reason, I felt really at home and I couldn’t work out why.

Then it dawned on me: There were actual Asians living here. Asian restaurants, Asian languages, Asian brands, Asian people.

Portland may be friendly and liberal and artsy and accepting, but unless you go way out Woop Woop, it is painfully, painfully white. And I don’t mean that figuratively: 75 percent of the people who live here are white. There’s a Chinatown with no Chinese people and Vietnamese restaurants with waiters who have never even been to Vietnam, and most sushi shops are staffed by Mexicans (who also don’t live in the city).

It’s funny, because Portlanders seem to think of themselves as a diverse bunch. It’s true—there are white hippies and white yuppies and white college kids and white taxi drivers and white lawyers.

Yet, whenever I point it out, people are all, “Don’t you come from some racist backwater island?”

They’re right—but at least you can get a decent bowl of pho.

Call To Home

As I made my mother an unwitting participant in this article, I thought it was only fair to give her a right of reply on her impressions of Portland—from 7,000 miles away. So I called her up and showed her a few iconic images of the people and places that keep this town…you know what. (Hit the play button below to listen in on the phone conversation between Ruth and her mum.)

 
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