Dear Portland: A Love Letter from an Expat

(This was written a few years ago while our family was living in Australia for a few years. It is admittedly a bit dramatic, but I love the perspective one gets when we leave our "normal" for a trip or adventure.)

Dear Portland. I always knew you were special, but now I can absolutely confirm it You are. Indeed. Actually. That cool.

I am living in Brisbane, Australia, with my young family, for two years, but desperately longing for your epic cult breakfast spots, uber local food carts with plant-based disposable cutlery, grocery clerks who can rattle off the best micro-regions of wine and Burgerville.

Overnight, I went from organic locavore to conventional food shopper. I’m trying to not dwell on it – chalking it up to overseas reality. But it’s only a fraction of what I’m realizing.

You see, Portland, I kind of always knew you were a unique place but not on the level I see it now. You were my big adventure. I grew up on your doorstep in Southwest Washington – on the fringe of progressiveness that had already permeated my world. In the 80s my parents took us to you for very specific reasons: to visit to the zoo, to see the circus, to ice skate at Lloyd Center, to visit Saturday Market at Christmas, and for senior high school portraits.

Portland, you and I actually came of age at the same time. In the 90s I sauntered off to “risky” North Portland to attend the University of Portland while many friends traveled to other parts of the country for college. Even at U.P., I barely skimmed the surface of your burgeoning coolness; not comprehending just how sophisticated you (and I) were about to become.

But, after college – we really took off. I flirted with Seattle and journalism; it didn’t work out. I returned to you, Portland. At the same time so did thousands of young people from the Midwest, the East Coast and other parts of the U.S.  They flocked to the folds of your “urban growth boundary”. They became my friends. They challenged improved my ideas and my style. They thought you, Portland, were “all that and a box of organic chocolate.”

I knew you were okay, but I still didn’t see what the fuss was all about. Surely there were still cooler young places for young people to work, right? “No” – they insisted. This. Was. It.

Portland was their escape from a life of American suburbia. A place where Walmart was not a part of their vocabulary. The place where they could find a job with their English degree – or not – but it didn’t matter as long as they were bike commuting and Nordic skiing. Some found traditional jobs that paid well right away. Perhaps in the tech or engineering industry. Others discovered entrepreneurship or worked non-profit or chose a mix of jobs. It didn’t matter because no one was really judging. We all co-mingled. In Portland, you didn’t have to perform on the corporate ladder, as one’s cousins did, back in Minneappolis or Pittsburgh. We accepted each other and challenged each other – physically, as weekend warriors in extreme sports – and mentally, as a giant moral compass of good. And the beer at the parties was, naturally, only microbrewed perfection.

I discovered you right alongside all the imports.   

And – even though I was still skeptical. And even despite the worst economic slide in American history. We were all creating something the rest of the country was watching with an air of amusement. An experiment of sorts.  A sideshow of ethical wonderfulness. They said it couldn’t possibly stick – or could it? Yes. It was taking off – we were onto something. And I giggle when I see trends we were trying out in Portland two decades ago are now mainstream in many parts of the U.S.

I couldn’t be more proud.

Eventually your young hipsters became parents (myself included). My husband and I bought a small, war-era home in that sketchy neighborhood of North Portland where I first attended college. We watched the uneasy change that ensued – the struggles with race and gentrification and original businesses adapting and train lines going in and small, specialized coffee, food and bike parts shops setting up shop. After a decade, we sold that first house, made a move across town, enrolled our oldest child in Portland Public Schools and were settling in for parenting perfection, here, amongst our people.

Still, even in the glow of Portland’s obvious brilliance, the two of us -- both local kids -- felt left out. Here we were, in our mid-30s and longing to be from somewhere else. We just knew we didn’t have the same appreciation for our fair city that so many of our Midwest and East Coast friends had.

This was the pioneering west to them. This was simply our hometown to us.  

We’d longed for our moment of more different.

And so, when an opportunity to break from PDX’s safe terrain came up last year, we made it work. We rented out our home, packed up our life and our two kids and our fantastic outdoor gear and trekked to Australia’s shores for a stint as expats. However, it’s been immediately clear that any version of Portland would be our true home to come back to.

You are, indeed, the epitome of idealistic and not all components of you are realistic and I so often question you. But, you, Portland, have got it going on. And when I return I will settle in for good. In the meantime – keep up the good work. I’m keep tabs from a distance and can feel the “hipster” deflating from me the longer I’m away.