November 30, 2023 | Rome, Italy

Low to the ground

By |2018-03-21T18:57:07+01:00September 15th, 2013|First Person|
According to a 2012 Travel & Leisure Magazine survey, Portland, Maine is America's fifth best city "hipster" city, ahead of New York.

f I were to live anywhere in America, it would be Portland, Maine. At least I think so. I wasn’t born there, nor do I have relatives who are Mainers. I don’t even have memories of summering there as a child. Coming across Portland was just a happy accident that gradually evolved into something more.

Now, when I’m back in the United States, usually in the summer months, Portland is a must.

Getting there requires some effort. For me, a Rhode Islander, that means a ride to the station, a train to Boston, a bus to Maine, and finally a cab to the center. I don’t mind. By now I know when to expect the train, which are the most comfortable aisles. I can even predict how long I can read before motion sickness sets in. People are the sum of their habits and routines. I’m no exception.

In Portland, I’m American, which is to say I’m not in Italy. Let me explain:

I don’t feel silly for wearing flip-flops. Most of the time I don’t even wear makeup. I like to think my eyelashes are grateful for the break. I often do my shopping and errands with wet hair. At restaurants, the waiters understand when I’m serious and when I’m being sarcastic, something I struggle with in Italian. They give me their names and promise to “take care” of me. It may sound frivolous but it’s not.

When in Portland, I don’t think much about pasta or bread, nor do I lust for my morning cappuccino. Instead, I indulge in fries cooked in duck fat and frothy vanilla bean milkshakes. I carry my iced coffee around in a plastic cup with a straw. In Maine, blueberries grow low to the ground and are small and violet and baked into latticework pies that I buy by the slice and eat with my hands. Most of all, I like the way I’m spoiled. I have the perks of a city but can still hear seagulls. The air is salty.

Most of Portland is made of brick, a response to blazes that have swept through the city three times over the course of its history. In the town square is a monument that honors townspeople who died during the American Civil War. It’s appropriately in stone. Best of all, the city can be maneuvered on foot, rare in an American town and a relief for someone who has always preferred to be a passenger. Not surprisingly, I almost always take the ferry out to one of the smaller nearby islands (Maine’s waters are grey and fickle, so different from Italy’s, but I like that unpredictability). My favorite island is so small it has no paved roads or street names. Its year-round population is 60. The shores are ideal for a baguette and cheese lunch or just for doing nothing and taking nap. In Portland is the boy who made me my first lobster roll. He’s the one who holds my hand. We can talk for hours just about how the brain works. I miss him when I’m gone.

It’s usually on the island, or in town, that I think maybe, just maybe, I could be happy in America — and that maybe Portland might be a good fit. For a moment, I can picture myself there, with a bare face and wearing a summer dress, bringing home armfuls of fresh produce in spring and braving the harsh cold of the Maine winter. Maybe I’d get a tattoo, or work at one of the local restaurants, serving in-house charcuterie and vegan meatloaf. In August my mother and I made a weekend trip to Portland and stayed in an expensive hotel. We bought artisan-made paperweights and sunflowers. The mother-daughter weekend felt good. It felt nice to be normal.

But these thoughts are always followed — strangely — by a sense of acute discomfort, a brief rearrangement of my molecules. It’s a byproduct of asking myself if I ever really gave the U.S. much of a chance? After all, I’ve seen so little of my own nation. Las Vegas and California remain mysteries, illustrated only by my Rome students’ recollections of their honeymoons or family road trips. “Do you know Route 66?” they ask me. They’re disappointed when I shake my head no. The Italian students to whom I teach English describe the mountains of Colorado and downtown Chicago and I’m jealous. Have I neglected the diversity and beauty of America? Did I come to Italy mistakenly? What if I could be just as happy, if not happier, living in my native land?

But eventually the panic passes. I remind myself I’m 24. I can live in one place or a thousand places. A great deal remains to be seen, I tell myself when I’m in Portland. Nothing is set in monument stone. After that, I listen to the stillness and finish off my last bite of blueberry pie. It is sweet yet tart, firm yet crumbly, all a blueberry pie should be.

About the Author:

Alexandra's "Second Generation" column ran from 20012 through early 2017.