Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Portland & Austin: tales of two cities

We can never fully imagine a place until we've actually been there and felt it, smelt it. The body needs to smell the coffee, feel the air, the pavement beneath the feet. Reading about a place, hearing about it, seeing photos or videos of it; it doesn't matter – they're all subjective accounts; there's no such thing as armchair travelling – it has to be done in person.

We all have different ideas of what a place will be like before we've been there. I remember Rachel imagining Bangkok to be all wooden shacks (which it wasn't); I imagined New Orleans to be the same – and it was, mostly. Likewise, cities such as San Fransisco, Ho Chi Minh and Jakarta conjured up preconceived ideas before I actually visited them. Once I got there, most of my preconceived ideas went out the window. In a good way.

Portland, Oregon and Austin, Texas are two such places I haven't been to but my mind has built them up as semi-mythical cities; liberal, progressive, creative and pleasant to ride a bike in. I know people in both cities; hopefully they'll put me up for a few nights and I'll find out. Both cities are as deeply steeped in myth and mystery (for me) as, say, Damascus and Bethlehem.

The main thing about both towns is they're just so cool. My Own Private Idaho was shot in Portland, and Old Joy, starring Will Oldham, ends there, after a weekend camping in the near-by Cascade mountain range. Steve Jobs quit Reed college, Portland, after a term, but it didn't seem to affect him adversely. Harry Smith, Lance Bangs, Mel Blanc, Matt Greoning, Elliott Smith, Courtney Love, Stephen Malkmus and Gus Van Sant were all born (or live/d) there.

Chuck Palahniuk, writer of Fight Club and resident of Portland, wrote a quirky guide to the city, Fugitives and Refugees: A Walk in Portland, Oregon in 2003. The title comes from Katherine Dunn, author of cult novel Geek Love, who calls Portland the home of America's 'Fugitives and refugees'. No ordinary travel guide, Fugitives and Refugees tells you the location of Palahniuk's tonsils (in a bush) before delving into 'strange personal museums, weird annual events, ghost stories and sex clubs'.

Beth Ditto (of Gossip), waxes lyrically about the city in The Guardian way back in 2007, calling it 'The friendliest big little city in America'. She cites its cheapness, temperate climate, creativity, abundance of thrift stores and 'its amazing music scene – Elliott Smith, Sleater-Kinney, the Dandy Warhols and the Shins have all been based in Portland'. I really think she should lay off those waffles, though.

'Keep Portland Weird' is a local bumper sticker slogan, based on the 'Keep Austin Weird' slogan, both of which are intended to promote local businesses and keep the cities individual.

Austin, Texas is the self-proclaimed live music capital of the world. I first remember seeing the place in Richard Linklater's movies Slacker (1991) and a few years later, Dazed and Confused (1993). The city has loads of film and music venues and festivals (such as SXSW). Cool famous people who have lived there include Wes Anderson, Terence Malick, Daniel Johnston and Mike Judge. Uncool famous people who have lived there include Owen Wilson, Sandra Bullock, Matthew McConaughey and Stevie Ray Vaughan.

Austin is home to the largest urban bat colony in the world, who live under a bridge. Cult Brit writer Iain Sinclair sold his literary archive, forty years worth of shopping lists, notebooks and dead insects, to the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center in Austin.

What makes both cities cool is they're not really big tourist destinations, there's no must-see attractions (except the bats). The best things to do in them, from what I gather, is hang out, walk around, listen to music, buy some books and records. The perfect things to do in a city.

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