I’m not very cool, I’ll admit it. I think I was born with a neat side part in my hair and I always manage to look tidy and clean somehow. Even when I try to rough it up I fail abysmally.
I worked as a farm hand once on my friend’s property and on my first day he laughed his arse off at the store fresh pleats still ironed into my work shorts; in comparison he looked like Crocodile Dundee’s first born son and had a nut and bolt holding the top of his work shirt together.
So imagine how out of place I felt in Portland, America’s uber-cool city in Oregon. I thought London was full of hip people but this city is populated almost entirely by people who think, act, dress and work differently. It’s wonderful.
Keep Portland Weird.
Portlandians genuinely live an alternative lifestyle and go about life as if the weirdness is completely normal. Want to be a wallpaper designer/tattoo artist/cooper/candlestick maker/baker/brewer/antiques dealer/old timey barber/fashion designer/barista AND make a living doing it? Go to Portland.
The city has farmers markets run by actual farmers, art colonies, food trucks, vegan restaurants by the score (all of them busy) and some of the best beer, bread, wine, cheese and coffee I’ve ever had.
Our guides to the city were two fellows deeply involved in Portland’s tech start up scene. Tech start up? Basically, it’s a fancy term for a small business ‘starting up’ in the technology sector.
Alex and Nick (who I know from summer camp) are working to build and launch a mobile app – check it out here – that will organise all of the content people create on their iphones and tablets and other assorted knick knacks into something tangible, like a digital scrapbook of adventures. Their idea has won support from Nike and is attracting lots of investors and attention.
Nick told us on our first day that Portland is a place young people come to retire, and promptly showed us a few episodes of Portlandia, a comedy programme that takes the mickey out of and celebrates the differences to be found in the city. But don’t think because it’s different it’s lazy. Nick and Alex work their arses off, which is a mean feat because they’re both quite skinny.
Portland’s tech start up scene
Alex and Nick work from home, or in cafes, or at a bar. They are always online working on something. They host other start up people at their home which has fast wi-fi connection. They attend meetings in the city and meet up with other tech sector people to share information and exchange ideas.
There is no office cubicle, hierarchy, holidays or retirement plan. They are fuelled by passion and an intense desire to work for themselves on something they believe will make a difference in the world.
Some may call their decisions naive and question their sanity. But in a world ravaged by recession and rapidly changing from industrial to digital I admire their prescience and take inspiration from their work ethic.
Carmen and I left behind well-paid jobs in the media to work on this travel blog and a few other projects. Our own sanity was questioned, often by others and most often by ourselves. But spending time in Portland and seeing that the alternative is not only possible but also rewarding was very inspiring.
A brave new world.
I read an article on the BBC’s website that explored the brave new world forming around internet technology and how it’s changing everything we have ever known.
In the ’90s the net was a new thing and the world got a little carried away with what it was going to do. But now the dreams are becoming reality and connection is the new economy.
Imagine never working in an office cubicle again.
Working lifestyles are changing rapidly and as someone who remembers a world before mobile phones and the internet I think it’s both exciting and a little scary. People can connect with each other like never before and form their own subcultures, no matter how weird or how few people are taking part.
Perhaps that’s why Portland is such a magnet for people who want to live differently; and those who work online find the city a haven for people who have bought into the idea that doing what you want – whether it’s in Portland’s tech start up scene or some other creative adventure – is no longer weird, it’s required.
Nick and Alex are riding this new wave and whatever the future brings for them right now I think they are in the right place at the right time.
And perhaps one day there’ll be no such thing as a long commute to work sitting in traffic, only to wind up sitting in a cubicle for eight or more hours.
I’m sure you, along with me, will welcome this day when it comes. And I don’t think it’s too far off.