Nine years ago I lived in Portland, OR, for 18 of the worst months of my life.
I moved there in March of 2009, handily ignoring endless news reports that said our freshly crashing economy made it a terrible time to move to a hipster city and look for work. And yeah, the reports were all right. It didn't take long to realize that my designs on finding a plum gig at a law firm in the middle of a down economy were laughably naive.
Why law? I still had possible designs of lawyerhood and I'd completed my paralegal training through Duke University in 2007; I worked at a firm in Charlotte for a year and a half right after. So, I swallowed my pride all the harder when found myself tossing pizza dough and serving tables two months after I arrived in Portland. I got out of pizza and into a law firm later that summer, but to only marginally better results. I hated the job, and the firm paid just enough to both get me by and deliver a bi-weekly reminder that the balance of the supply of good legal talent and demand for it still leaned heavily in their favor.
Oh, and through it all, I was stuck in a truly miserable relationship and living in the finished attic space of a mid-sized house, along with another couple who had the main floor. Broke, new in town, lonely, de-fucking-pressed - none of it added up to a good lens through which to explore a great city. And what a shame, because I'd heard so many great things about Portland! Food carts! Bikes! Doughnuts! Bands! Adult arcades!
At 26, the bits and pieces of Portland I made time to experience were eye-opening, mind-expanding. Classic architecture downtown and lush gardens in every neighborhood. My first burlesque show, the best fried risotto balls I'd eaten. Burrito carts next to pasta carts next to gyro carts next to pie carts, and the first coffee I'd tasted that made me feel like "Hey, I could get addicted to this for the next nine years." But, with so much of my life in disarray, being in Portland just never felt as good as it seemed like it should have.
I remember spending my lunch hours walking along the Willamette River downtown, wanting nothing less than to hop on the nearest boat, sail into the fog, and disappear. Or biking home, catching golden-lit glimpses of happy diners in hot new restaurants, and feeling roughly like Kevin McCallister in Chicago, home alone and gazing longingly at all the other families celebrating Christmas.
On some instinctual level, I think I recognized the need for some overdue personal maintenance and I moved back to Seattle in 2010. It had built-in friends, family near by, and it was 100% the right thing to do. Life has only gotten better since.
I've been back to Portland off and on since I moved away, and I've appreciated it's looser, freakier feel. Powered by its bounty of tech HQs, Seattle may be further along in its journey toward becoming a world class city. But it's also more stodgy, too ready for that phase of life where staying out past midnight feels like a chore. Where Seattle freezes, Portland heats up. The pastries are bigger, the parties are wilder, the adult entertainment less PG-13.
Still, I don't think I've ever enjoyed Portland the way I did when my wife and I visited last weekend. Yes, I ate the best bagel sandwich this side of Manhattan and I devoured chocolate rose doughnuts with a greater claim to spiritual profundity than any pastry has a right to (in general, Portland's NYC impression is way better than Seattle's). And yes, we stayed at a fancy hotel downtown and shopped everywhere and paid for all sorts of things that 26 year-old me would've been aghast at.
But really, nearly a decade on, happily married and no longer desperately scrapping for work, I'm satisfied in a way I never could've imagined for myself back then. Nothing sours a dish like depression. How delightful, then, that Portland finally tastes every bit as delicious as I'd always heard.