Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Getting to Know a City

The first time I went to Austin, Texas, back in 1996, I knew almost immediately that I wanted to live there: I drove in on a US Highway, and my first sight of the city was green -- greenery everywhere. I stayed with someone who rented one side of a duplex in a tree-covered neighborhood practically downtown, and her side of the duplex had a massive back yard. I had a Mexican Martini at the ever-moving Cedar Door, sitting on a patio and over-looking "Lake Austin" (actually the Colorado River). I had some of the best green bean casserole ever at a restaurant called Good Eats on Barton Springs Rd. And I went to see and hear the legendary Don Walser on Sixth Street. It was May, and the weather was mild. How could I not want to live there? Five months later, it became my home for the next four years.

The first time Stefan went to Austin, it was June 2008, and hotter than Hades. His first views of the city were massive Los Angeles-style freeway overpasses, cars and concrete everywhere, and strip malls with the same stores you see in every city in the USA. Don Walser was dead. The Good Eats I loved so much was long-closed. The Cedar Door had moved yet again. Most of the clubs I frequented a decade before were parking lots or something equally ugly. There was a magical night at Ginny's Little Longhorn seeing Roger Wallace and Jim Stringer, some very good food, and some fantastic hospitality from dear friends, but he did not like Austin at all -- and neither did I anymore.

Would it have been possible to visit the city at a different time of year, and coordinate a series of initial experiences, that would have made Stefan love Austin, and have made me fall in love with it all over again? Did Austin change, or did a combination of unfortunate experiences turn us off?

We'll never know.

We had a rather magical experience living in Louisville, Kentucky for most of this summer. Our temporary home was in the Highlands, a historic, lushly-green neighborhood of gorgeous old, lovingly-restored houses and very friendly people, where independent restaurants, bars, funky shops and practical shops are just a short walk away. Our next door neighbors included a dear friend from my university days whose wife liked to bring us homemade whatever. It was our introduction to Louisville and, therefore, we loved Louisville pretty much immediately. But if our intro to Louisville had been one of the horrifically ugly apartments out on Hurstbourne Parkway, a massive four-six-lane street of car lots and strip malls, or an inner-city neighborhood with trash and unkept houses and yards everywhere, we would have hated Louisville.

As mentioned in my last entry, our introduction to Portland, Oregon hasn't been a good one. The lush, green, cool-weather city we were expecting has been burnt to a crisp by a recent heat wave (which, unfortunately, returns tomorrow), and everything that might have been green once is now brown and dead. We managed to drive down every wrong street there is in Portland, seeing the ugliest, most trash-ridden neighborhoods the city has to offer. I've seen as much furniture in front yards as I've seen in some of the more unsavory parts of Kentucky, my home state.

We've written our initial impressions of Portland off to bad timing and bad luck. Everyone gushes about Portland. Everyone says they love it here. We're keeping the faith that we'll be gushing about it eventually too. We loved the Lucky Labrador Brew Pub and the Mississippi Station restaurant for lunch (Albi especially loved both). So far, as far as neighborhoods, we've loved the Hawthorne district, the immediate neighborhood around the Peninsula Park Rose Garden, Irving Park, Rose City and Hollywood -- in other words, the most expensive neighborhoods Portland has to offer outside of downtown.

We're now evaluating all the communities in the area that involve volunteer firefighters. We've visited small towns surrounding Portland, Salem and Eugene. What are we looking for in these communities? Pretty, well-kept, well-built houses. A downtown, however tiny, that has some personality (or at least a pub). Neighborhoods that would be nice to walk, park and live in. Unfortunately, it means we may have to give up on the idea of being a one-car family. There's a strong possibility that we will end up far from any light rail stop, and too far to commute via a scooter.

Finding the downtown of a small town is a funny thing -- you can't ask someone where downtown is, because they will send you to the ugly strip mall full of all the same shops you find anywhere. Instead, we just type in "100 Main Street" or "100 First Street" into Stefan's GPS for whatever town we want to check out. Works every time!

We've been ready to stop moving, stop living out of suitcases, and start unpacking for months now. But it looks like we'll be in transit for at least some more weeks to come. Send us rental OR job karma -- both will be graciously accepted.

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