Cold Country

Going out massive, glass turn-style doors next to the baggage area of the Portland airport, cold, rainy air hit me. And I realized that Southern California shirtsleeves were not going to cut it.

I quickly put on a coat and the black and gray patterned scarf that was given to me in the small town of Horsens, Denmark, and that I never have occasion to wear down south.

I was up in Portland to check in with old friends, my coach’s family from college, my best friend from the same formative time, during the Christmas season.

The weather, and the scarf, reminded me of the same time of year in Denmark. With the days short and evening falling early, the walking streets in the center of Copenhagen were well lit and cheerful. Throngs of people were out shopping or simply taking a walk.

Hot sausage vendors manned wagons called pølsevogns where muffled Danes stopped for a sausage, eaten standing at a shelf on the edge of the pølsevogn, without bread and with fingers, each bite preceded by a dip in dabs of ketchup and mustard squirted onto the piece of wax paper that the sausage was served on.

The scene from the center of Copenhagen was like an idealized Christmas postcard.  But with that small nation’s entrance into the European Union, necessitated by its great reliance on trade, the scene changed slowly, and, last time I went, was nearly unrecognizable, with the Danes mostly staying in the neighborhoods outside of downtown.

But I remembered the Christmas beers in Denmark. And so my old coach’s daughter took me from the Portland airport to the Kennedy School, an old high school on NE 33rd that has been turned into a hotel and bars, where I asked for a Christmas beer.

The waiter brought a pint of Kris Kringle. It was delicious, dark, a bit spicy, smooth, true to my memory of the tangy Christmas beers of Denmark. Like much in Portland, the school was a successful adaptation of old to new.

The place still looked like a high school, the same weathered, green doors with a release bar to go outside, a detention room, a principal’s office, long hallways and benches, but now the rooms and hallways are used for other purposes, mostly drinking. Joanne, my old coach’s daughter, told me the city leased the school to the McMenamin brothers, highly successful local brewers, for one dollar.

As are so many in Portland, the day was gray and wet. And it grew dark early.

We left after I had two Kris Kringles and she wound through the serpentine roads along the Willamette River and then across the Ross Island Bridge, that I remembered well from a distant time at Reed College. We passed through the neighborhood next to the college, filled with old, modest, well maintained houses, some with Christmas lights, others lit by a street lamp or a house light in the darkness.

Arrived at the house I knew from many dinners past, we sat down to a dinner of wine and cannelloni. Janet, my old coach’s wife, spoke clearly but haltingly, her thoughts crisp. The family had descended on both of sides from Croatian fishermen who bought and worked boats in rivers here and all along the coast.

We discussed matters at the local catholic church where they were active. One of the daughters is a teacher for an elementary school and it struck me when she said matters of sexual identity were at the forefront of the social issues she deals with, a topic so far from anything we dealt with when I was a kid.

I stayed the night at a hotel in the Pearl District of Portland, a former warehouse area next to the Willamette, now filled with bakeries, coffee shops, pizza parlors, pubs and wine stores, as well as a big Safeway where, as you walk in, you look down on the whole store, with the many bright holiday displays, in the basement level of an old warehouse.

My friend Matt has a condo in the Pearl that looks onto the river and walkways along it, from where we could see buses coming across the red-iron Hawthorne Bridge, boats going up and down the river, the lit windows of a trolley as it ran along the dark bank on the other side, and gray, characterless, long-haul Amtrak wagons coming through Union Station to the west.

Along the parkway outside the condo, Portlanders walked their dogs, jogged and rode bicycles, in the cold and the wet. The area seemed like a kind of alternative transportation hot spot, with boats, trains, trolleys, buses and bikes moving in different directions all around.

It was a chance to have some meals together and catch up. Matt’s wife Kathy had died of cancer a few months ago, but he is sustained in a social mix of old friends and relatives. We had a few meals together, talked about the current events, traded stories about old ones, I gave an overview of our First Amendment battle for access to court records, and we watched Sunday night football.

It was a good trip, a chance to catch up during the Christmas season when we all mark time. I returned the next day to Southern California, with wildfires raging, and put my Danish scarf back on the shelf.


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