Latvia, Serbia, Lithuania. . . Portlandia?
Put an 'ia' on it, and any place name sounds odd and alluring, to ears of a certain political attunement.
That's the conceit, anyway, behind Portlandia, a quasi-successful sketch comedy series set in Oregon's largest city, located for obscure reasons of history not on the coast where ports belong but 100 miles
The show gently mocks Portland's reputation as the enduring nirvana of the 1990s. It's a place where unemployed but highly educated young people wear close-fitting tuques, drink any beer but Budweiser, and debate, as I heard three of them doing last week on a late-night walkabout, whether veganism is in fact hypocritical because potatoes and tomatoes are "multi-celled organisms" and thus are deserving of respect, and not being eaten.
But assuming you want to eat, Portland is a fabulous place to visit.
The proliferation of street food, with dozens of vendors serving up everything from Belgian-style waffles to scalding lamb-stuffed Egyptian gyros, is one of the things that makes downtown Portland an interesting and eclectic place to visit.
Some past left-leaning Kelowna civic politicians never missed an opportunity to go to Portland on one pretext or another, ostensibly to learn all about what makes it a great place and import those cultural learnings for make benefit our glorious city.
Lefties see Portland and go gaga over public transit, bicycle promotion, and parks. These things may make for a more pleasant city, but they're certainly not the key lessons Portland has to impart to a place like Kelowna. They're more incidental than instrumental; after all, we've already got buses and bike lanes.
It's also worth remembering that Portland has a metro area population of more than two million people. Its sheer size, relative to Kelowna, makes it capable of supporting a much broader array of attractions, businesses, and, yes, a light rail transit system.
With more than a century and a half of urban history, Portland also has a diverse architectural landscape, with well-kept buildings from the 19th century along with a funky mid-'80s number, The Portland Building, hailed as imaginative and ground-breaking or reviled as butt ugly. It's all worth seeing, and the remarkably short downtown blocks make walking a breeze.
Historical and demographic realities aside, I'd say there are some aspects about Portland we would do well to emulate. But these admirable qualities are more likely to be conservative in nature than anything a leftie would prize.
First, there's no sales tax in Oregon. Zip. If something says it costs $9.99, that's exactly what it costs. It's like the Alberta advantage, but without the oilsands. Somehow, the state government still raises the money it needs to do the things its citizens expect it to do.
Some of Portland's most engaging attractions have nothing to do with government and everything to do with good old-fashioned American entrepreneurialism, initiative, and commerce. Things like Voodoo Donuts, where people line up all day and night to buy preposterous but delicious items, such as crullers topped with bacon.
Things like Powell's Books, a massive downtown store where used and new books share self space, things like old movie houses converted into pubs where kids and babies are welcome, and things like having the most strip clubs per capita of any American city.
That last one may not be everyone's cup of tea, but it hints at another reality of Portland life - the most free-speaking place in the U.S. The state constitution confers more
freedom of speech than the federal version. By contrast, Kelowna politicians once seriously debated a proposal to limit the number of election signs a homeowner could put up on his lawn.
But free speech provisions do not stop Portland authorities from preventing their downtown being overrun by the kind of sketchy-looking, drug-involved folks that populate our City Park and a good number of central streets.
A popular bumper sticker in Oregon says Keep Portland Weird. But not too weird, please. Signs at the entrance to downtown prohibit "Cruising," aka aimless driving around.
Carl Abbott, a Portland State University urban historian, disputes the whole idea that Portland is very much unlike the rest of America. "I'd call it sincere, earnest, outdoorsy, old-fashioned and pleasant," he told a newspaper in 2009.
Like any place in the great republic to our south, Portland residents simply seem more aspirational, creative and independent than Canadians.
If we could somehow import greater quantities of those qualities north of the border, Kelownia would be a much better place to live.
Ron Seymour is a Daily Courier reporter on leave until April 15.