Dragging an Ox through Water
  • Laura Guimond
  • Dragging an Ox through Water

Portland will pack its bags after the closing weekend of the “Keep Portland Weird” festival organized by the Gaîté Lyrique in Paris. The final days of the well-attended festival included a discussion entitled “Portland: Comment fait-elle pour être aussi créative,” in which three panelists attempted to explain the high concentration of creative people and endeavors within Portland's city limits. The closing concert was less cerebral, with dance-inspiring performances by acts such as Yacht, Miracles Club, Purple and Green, and DJ Beyondadoubt.

I attended the afternoon's panel discussion, whose audience was packed onto benches until the venue could provide sitting-on-the-floor room only. Three ambassadors from Portland—Kristan Kennedy (of the Portland Institute of Contemporary Arts), Mark Zusman (editor of Willamette Week), and Trevor Solomon (organizer of MusicfestNW)—introduced the idiosyncrasies of Portland with a slide show illustrating various cultural and social movements in their hometown.

While the Portlanders participating in the discussion were proud of the events that the city supports (including Eat Mobile, MFNW, the Time-Based Art Festival, and Occupy Portland) the focus of the presentation was on the people of Portland—from Phil Knight to Elliott Smith, Sam Adams to Carrie Brownstein, and all the Portlanders in between who bring something ineffable and intangible to the city. There is no Eiffel Tower, no quintessential croissant, that symbolizes Portland. The city can best be summed up by its population of young people who move there for a variety of reasons: cheaper rent, bike paths, an opportunity to start over, or, as a wise man once said, to retire.

“What would a weird Paris look like?” an audience member asked, seeking council from the keepers of the weird sitting before her. That's a tough question, it turns out. The panel made observations about how Portland is already like Paris (mass transit, pedestrian friendly streets, small city blocks, a river with bridges, and the rain), but no one could offer a way for Paris to be comparable in Portland's level of strangeness.

Trevor Solomon proposed one reason the weirdness of Portland works. “Portland is a town where people are connected and open to anything,” he explained. Kristan Kennedy expanded on this essential aspect of inter-connectivity, saying that in Portland you can be super-social or live under a mossy rock and keep to yourself but “even the people living under mossy rocks get together at least once a year.” Mark Zusman pointed out that Portland is one tenth the size of Paris, making the expansive cityscape—and the lack of mossy rocks for the timid to organize under—a potential inhibitor for community organizing.

It was a shame that no French associations or local organizers were invited to join the panel; their participation would have allowed for a more significant comparison of the two cities, as well as the possibility of a more lasting collaboration and influence between Paris and Portland. As a result, the audience member's question was left unanswered, with Solomon simply stating that he thought other cities should embrace the open-minded spirit espoused by Portland. As Phil Knight might say, “Just Do It."

The French (whose language doesn't really recognize the word “bizarre” as having anything but a pejorative connotation) are generally open-minded, but this doesn't necessarily translate into being weird. To this point, Zusman spoke briefly of Portland's accessible democratic process in which voters can change and challenge laws through the collection of signatures, describing it as either “weird or incredibly rational.” There seems to be a fine line between the two. Nationalized healthcare and access to a free college education would be “weird” in the US, but in France it's just a part of la vie.

After the panel discussion came to an end, I spoke with Rosine Evans (whose daughter Claire would perform later that night with her band Yacht) and Laura Guimond, the Communications and PR Manager of Travel Portland. Both were eager to continue the conversation. Evans, who is French but has lived in Portland for the last 20 years, was worried that the discussion didn't highlight the hard-working nature of Portlanders, who will diligently do shifts at a day job and accept minimum wage in exchange for the option to pursue more fulfilling projects on the side. Similar to the French view towards work and professions, jobs do not have to define you or take up more time than you allow them to- they are a means to an end which includes time and funding for travel, hobbies, and family/community.

If Saturday's panel was unsatisfying to curious minds, the French will have other opportunities to examine Portland, with growing attention being paid to the city in various French media outlets. Stéphane Davet published an insightful and astute article on Portland in Le Monde earlier this month (in which he calls Portland a “Mecca of artistic autogestions”) and the French radio station France Inter will do a two-part report on the City of Roses in early July.

With the end of this event-packed week in sight, I asked Guimond if the festival had lived up to her expectations. “There were a lot of expectations and trepidation,” she admitted, “but I'm pleased with the enthusiasm- from both people who have already visited Portland and people who have never been.” The night before, Guimond met two German kids who had driven seven hours from Leipzig, Germany in order to attend the Thermals concert—displaying the kind of enthusiasm that it takes to create and sustain Portland's internationally celebrated style of weirdness.