portland // day 1

After a tiring journey traveling from the East Coast, we arrive in Portland at 6am. When we arrive at Hotel Lucia, we all agree to get some more sleep and reconvene a few hours later.

It’s then time for some food. From the itinerary, we select Grain & Gristle, one of the New York Times’ recommended places for brunch. We quickly discover that Portland is similar to Austin in the sense that, apart from the business center, the city is quite widespread, and the hip neighborhoods can only be reached by car (good thing we rented one!). Grain & Gristle is a cozy space, and I confirm it is indeed a great restaurant for brunch. Olympe orders the Buttermilk Biscuits and Sausage Gravy ($7), and tells us the biscuit is so good she wishes it were serves separately (she’s never been a mixer). Our parents get the daily special, which, if I remember correctly, is some kind of a spicy chorizo egg dish. My vegetable scramble is nice and moist, but the real highlight are the roast potatoes accompanying it ($10).

We return to the car and drive back to the city center, parking right next to Powell's. Everyone I know who’s ever lived in or visited Portland has told me about this place, and nearly all of these people have described it to be as “Strand, but better”. I find Strand to be a pretty fucking cool place to begin with, so you can imagine how high I placed Powell’s on my “must-go” list of places. Powell’s is gigantic and, as such, quite overwhelming, especially for first-timers like ourselves. It’s probably less intimidating if you’re looking for a specific book, or if you’re going into the store with a particular type of book in mind. We finally make it to the art section, which is already more human-sized. I particularly enjoy the interior design and architecture books. There’s a whole shelf just on tiny homes, cabins and sustainable living, if you’re into that stuff (Cabin Porn, anyone?).

Just a street away you’ll find Everyday Music, a large record store with a selection almost as wide as Amoeba in California. This place has excellent prices, with most used CDs under $5, many under $2, and an entire section at 50 cents! We end up buying a mix of new and used albums, including Aladdin Sane (Bowie), Yellow House (Grizzly Bear), the Good Bye Lenin! Soundtrack (Yann Tiersen), and Thank Your Lucky Stars (Beach House). Plenty to listen to in the car.

Before heading out to our walking tour, we make a quick stop at
Westend Bikes, where you can find some sweet helmets and riding gear. The bicycles themselves are beautiful, but some are priced pretty steep (I don’t think I would risk paying $3,000 for a vehicle that has a 30% chance of being stolen each day).

Our walking tour begins on Pioneer Square, where we learn about the city’s early days. Amongst other tidbits of information, our guide tells us that native Portlanders don’t use umbrellas - only tourists do - and neither do they hail taxis (they call them instead). We stroll around and discover some of Portland’s original bronze drinking fountains, which date back to 1912. Apparently the city is far from a water crisis, as these fountains spout water all day long. We then arrive in front of the Portland Building, designed by Michael Graves in the 1980’s. The edifice is quite controversial, and people seem to have strong feelings about it. For instance, while it was named one of the World’s Ugliest Buildings by Travel & Leisure in 2009, the Portland Building is still studied in architecture schools as an icon of the 1980's postmodern architectural style. The building also hosts the 35-foot tall Portlandia Statue, which you may recognize from the Portlandia opening credits. This woman is the second largest copper statue in the US after the Statue of Liberty, yet few people know about it because it’s easy to miss. We learn that public art is an important aspect of the city. In fact, buildings are required to set aside 2% of their budget for public art. And it’s not just buildings that host art: in the street, we walk past a group of animal statues dressed in holiday sweaters! Much quirky.

After the Portland Building, we make our way to the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, a historic theater building opened in 1928. Today, the edifice functions as a performing arts center, and is home to the Oregon Symphony and the Portland Youth Philharmonic, amongst other music groups. Many people still refer to the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall by its original name, the Paramount Theater, and some call it “The Schnitz”. Here we recognize yet another Portlandia opening credit icon: the Portland sign.

We walk past the Portland Art Museum and head to the Oregon Historical Society. While the building is closed, we still get to catch a glimpse of the famous Portland Penny. This penny is the actual relic that was used to name the city of Portland. The story goes that, in 1845, the two founders of Portland, Francis Pettygrove and Asa Lovejoy, decided to flip a coin to decide whose hometown their new land would be named after. Pettygrove was from Portland, Maine, and since he won two out of three tosses, the city acquired the name it has today. Had Lovejoy won the coin toss, Portland would be known as Boston!

Just next to the Oregon Historical Society is a tall outdoor mural depicting the Lewis and Clark Expedition. This expedition, commissioned by President Thomas Jefferson in 1804, consisted in a group of US Army volunteers crossing over from St.Louis to the Pacific coast of the the first time. Led by Captain Lewis and his close friend Second Lieutenant Clark, the journey lasted a little over two years. Their main goal was to establish an American presence in what is now the West Coast of the United States before the British and the Europeans could claim it. While I had heard of Lewis and Clark by name, I had no knowledge of this expedition, and felt a little ashamed because it seems like it’s a key part of US History. To be fair, I went to a French school on the East Coast, so the odds of learning about the US West Coast we’re double-stacked against me...

We walk back toward the government district and arrive in the middle of Chapman Square, a small park that was once reserved for women. Today, it hosts a number of all-female ginko trees, perhaps to remind people of its history. In the square you will also find the statue of a typical pioneer family, as well as that of an elk.

On the way to the water, we walk by Mill Ends Park, the smallest park in the world. If you’re not careful, you might just miss it! The Willamette River is just past this patch of green, and provides you with a nice view of a few of Portland’s bridges. In case you’re wondering, it’s pronounced ‘Willamit’ (like Hermit the Frog), which is not the way I had been saying it thus far. A little trick our guide teaches us to remember: it’s Willamette, dammit!

After resting for a bit at the hotel, we decide to have dinner at Karam, a very close Lebanese and Syrian restaurant. I’m immediately set on the spinach pie ($11.25), which will leave you with a very strong breath that is well worth your neighbors’ troubles. It tastes a little bit like a calzone filled with taboule (not cheesy, but very fresh). If you’d like to try a little bit of everything, I recommend you order a mezza, which is a sampler of various dishes. Mom’s meat mezza ($16), for instance, includes taboule, hummus, grape leaves, babba ghannouj, falafel, kafta kabab AND chicken shawarma. Vegetarian and vegan dishes are plenty! The traditional baklava is a must for dessert, and if you have a craving for ice cream, the large chocolate ice cream option will serve you just right.