In some ways, moving to a new part of the United States has been stranger than moving to a country in southern Africa. It’s a bit like living in Bizzaro World. Everything is familiar but also a bit… different. Things move along just as I would expect and then all of a sudden something weird happens. I suppose Portland’s unofficial motto is “Keep Portland Weird” and I’ve come to expect weirdness. More often than not, it’s me that’s weird.
It’s actually been a good adjustment so far. Life in Botswana has tempered my East Coast urgency. I’m not sure I could easily slide back into the fast-paced life of Washington DC. Out here? Things are a bit more calm. Everyone is friendly – like really friendly. If people were this friendly in DC, I would assume they were being sarcastic. Or even condescending. Portland seems to be filled with a community of ‘live and let live.’ I’ve quickly felt at ease – it’s definitely started to feel like my future home. But there are some things I still need to figure out.
Which way is north?
I’ve never had a good sense of direction. I’ve learned to enjoy getting lost because I do it all the time. Despite my best efforts, I usually chose to go the wrong way. I’ve learned that ignoring my GPS is a bad idea, because in the end it’s almost always right. When I was living in northern Virginia, I had a fighting chance. I knew the city was across the river, roughly the the northeast. My metro stop was always on the bottom left of the map. If I turned right, it would generally take me where I needed to go. Generally.
Here? I have no hope. The whole map is turned upside-down for me. The city is still across the river, but the river is now southwest of me. My stop on the MAX is on the top right. Turning right is exactly the opposite of what I should do these days. Now I have to ignore every single one of my already-poor instincts.
I did discover something very important about these instincts. My internal compass does not seem to point North. Instead, my internal compass points towards the closest bookstore. The first time I got lost, I stumbled upon Powells. The next time, I stumbled into a Barnes & Noble. It’s been a recurring theme, one I’ve thoroughly enjoyed. My wallet, less so.
Why aren’t the cars moving?
Washington DC has a bit of a reputation for jaywalking. Police won’t hesitate to write you a ticket if you cross the street at the wrong place. In theory, the risk of a ticket will discourage people from crossing streets willy-nilly and therefor keep pedestrians safer. Portland takes a different tactic.
Pedestrian right-of-way is a BIG thing here. As a driver you are expected to yield to pedestrians 100% of the time. Always. No question. Learning to cross the street in DC means I usually wait for the cars to pass before I start heading across. Look left, look right, look left again. All that. That approach here ends with a standoff. I wait patiently for the car to pass by and the car waits for me to cross. After several false starts on both sides, I finally acquiesce and cross first. Basically, I have to re-learn the basics of crossing the street.
Do you tip the gas station attendant?
I also bumped into another strange driving difference. A few days ago, I pulled into a gas station to fill up my car. I opened my door, and a very friendly man walked up and asked what I needed. I was really confused, so asked him to fill up my gas tank. Little did I know that Oregon is one of two states where it is illegal to fill up your own tank. You can get a fine of up to $500 for even trying.
Once again, I found myself in a situation where I had no basis for ettiequte. Should I have just rolled down my window? Do you tip the attendant? Would it be rude not to? I had no idea what I was doing, but everyone here is so friendly that I just sat and smiled and tried to blend in.
Why are the bridges so terrifying?
Portland has lots of rivers. Lots of them. To get anywhere you have to cross over at least a few bridges. These aren’t normal regular bridges like you might get over the Potomac. These are really tall double-decker bridges with exits and entrances seemingly over the water. Some feel like terrifying tunnels in the air. The bridges spilt and you have to change lanes or already know what lane you need to be in. They’re also angled basically 45-degrees to the water so you constantly feel like you’re going to fall off. It seems like one wind gust away from plunging into an icy, watery car death. I mentally make a list of how to escape once I inevitably fall off. Let the car protect you from the initial impact while rolling down the windows so you can quickly escape. Better to be prepared.
I’ve been reassured that I probably won’t actually fall of the bridge, and that I’ll get used to them. I’m not convinced. Until I get more comfortable driving the bridges, I’m totally content to yell as loud as I please when I drive across them. My fellow drivers may think I’m insane, but I want to make sure the bridge-gods know how terrified I am.
Who on earth are the ducks?
Portland is a little city (or maybe an appropriately sized city), so they don’t have their own NFL team or MLB team. It is the home of the Portland Trailblazers (Basketball) and the Portland Timbers (Soccer/Football). They also consider themselves part of 12th Man. More than that, everyone seems to have deep-seated loyalty to the college teams here. I, of course, know nothing about the college teams around here.
I was in a job interview where the two people interviewing me started talking about the Ducks. I just smiled and nodded, because (1) I didn’t know who the ducks were and (2) I didn’t know if I was supposed to support them or disparage them. The guys interviewing me seemed divided on that topic. If nothing else, I need to figure out the local teams so I don’t accidentally support the wrong team. Alternatively I either need to forego my past loyalties and adopt these new teams or I need to double down with my teams and become a hardcore fan. It would be so much easier if my current teams were any good (Go Redskins? Anyone?).
What beer should I drink?
Ok, so this one isn’t really a challenge per say, but it is certainly a question I’ve asked a few times. There are an endless number of delicious, delicious breweries around here, and they have an endless assortment of ales that it’s a challenge because now I have TOO MANY options. This question is going to be a fun one to answer. Expect further reporting on the topic.
My adventures in Portland continue. Slowly I’m learning more about this new place and finding ways of fitting in – or at least not making a complete fool of myself. Or worse, unintentionally breaking unknown laws. So far my time here has reminded me that the United States is a big place. A big, weird place. And that I’m weird too.