Communal Portland

I don’t know how it happened to happen like this, but my first time stepping a tired traveled foot into a hostel of any sort wasn’t until my recent trip to Portland. I spent most of my twenties darting from one location to the next with extreme budget constraints one way or another – especially while on tour – and still, somehow, never stayed in a hostel.

It was the Northwest Portland Guesthouse where I stayed for the first week of my visit to Oregon. The guesthouse is essentially connected to the hostel section of the property, divided only by an outdoor garden area, which offers a little slice of outdoor seclusion in the middle of the Nob Hill neighborhood.

Northwest Portland Guesthouse

There are technically two guesthouses as a part of the overall property, both with their own kitchenettes, but the full kitchen – and the one where the free coffee and fresh bread (both from the neighborhood) are in the mornings – is the hostel kitchen. So the sun would rise and I’d rise too a bit after and then blearily change Ever, maybe wash my face, and shuffle over to that big kitchen with Ben to break bread and engage in a ritual so tried and true for me that it’s ceremonious at this point. I’d drink coffee while warming up physically, but also to the day and all of the responsibilities it holds. Caffeine: the great warmer.

Northwest Portland Hostel Kitchen

This kitchen is where I saw hostel life buzzing the way I’ve always imagined it. I’ve watched this kind of synergy saturate the room in my own kitchen in the mornings as an Airbnb host. No language barrier or cultural difference seems to matter during those mornings, when we all wake up the same way, refreshed or exhausted maybe from the night before, eager to sit with our hot drink and put something into our tummies, happy for stimulating conversation, happy to witness expressions take shape on a new face. We’re vulnerable when we’re in this place and let-down is exactly where I like guards to be in this way, so tired that I’m chattier with strangers than usual, so focused on my warming and my waking that everything is still soft around the edges of me and everyone else, nothing hardened by the day yet. The sense of community fostered in this hostel kitchen during mornings like these no doubt helped to shape my overall impression of Portland as a place where community matters, where sharing is simply a part of the local economy, and where politeness should be the default.

We called a giant room in the O’Donnell house home for five nights straight after having spent two nights in the Greenleaf House. It was spacious enough that Ben could work at the desk while I strolled around the various neighborhoods within walking distance. He’d wake up before dawn to begin his workday and once we brushed sleep off of our shoulders and completed our definitively sufficient bread-and-coffee breakfast, we’d be off.

Off to Couch Park to play beneath the beautiful tall trees, where the sight of the dogs in the dog park, the energy of the students from the school next-door coming out for recess, and the futuristic playground kept Ever sufficiently entertained. We walked to Blue Star Donuts to see what all of the fuss was about and tried two vegan options, both of which were mouth-watering and crafted in a manner that clearly comes from experience and an astute attention to detail.

Blue Star Donuts

Off to Playdate PDX – a genius idea of a place that offers little ones everything they could possibly want to facilitate play but equally importantly offers an array of coffee drinks, alcoholic beverages, and tasty snacks.

Playdate PDX

We stopped into the Trader Joe’s down the road so frequently (grapes, bananas, crackers, soup, repeat) that it began to feel a little bit like my own neighborhood grocery store. And sometimes we just spent our mornings simply walking. It felt so good to be strolling her through a seemingly unending grid of sidewalks – a decade of NYC living followed up immediately by eerily remote country living can really bring these kinds of details to the forefront. I felt my blood circulating in that special way it does when your muscles are your mode of transportation.

We’d head out all together as a family in the afternoons when Ben had wrapped up his EST work and we’d walk some more. We checked out the breweries nearby (and now are finding it difficult to settle for anything other than) and, of course, the food cart options.

Portland Food Carts

We took off to downtown one day for dinner at Sizzle Pie and walked from there to Voodoo Doughnut for dose of sweet sacrilege in the name of Must Do and all the way back one night.

Voodoo Doughnuts

We drove over to Mount Tabor Park and took it all in from that height, fresh thin air and all. We set our eyes on the Columbia River Gorge, Multnomah Falls, and Bridal Veil Falls before winding our way back to Portland beneath the mossy towering trees.

Columbia River Gorge

Multnomah Falls

We walked to Vtopia Vegan Cheese Shop & Deli and I couldn’t believe the goodness they’re creating over there with cultured nuts. My heart ached for Ever and her cashew allergy.

Vtopian Vegan Cheese

On our anniversary, we walked to Petunia’s Pies & Pastries – an all-vegan, all gluten-free bakery – for mouthwatering treats before a quick taco/burrito dinner and followed that with a jaunt up to Forest Park and Wallace City Park for a pre-bedtime burn-off-all-the-energy playground stint.

Petunia's Pies And Pastries

Fall In Portland

We walked over to yoga studio/vegan health food combo joint, Prasad, for what amounted to a perfectly lovely breakfast.

Prasad Breakfast

The options for exploring in the give-or-take vicinity of Northwest Portland Guesthouse seemed limitless.

Nob Hill Portland

Our outings were charmed with heart-warming encounters, my memories from the trip are a book fat with post-it note interruptions. I think about any one place we went and suddenly there’s the flash of a smiling face before my mind’s eye and the recollection of another specific instance that made me feel welcome before my thoughts return to the topic of the original place.

When bedtime neared, we’d make our way back to the guesthouse where I’d nurse Ever and get her to sleep and Ben and I would spend the rest of the night chattering quietly, sitting in the plush chairs that were tucked into the large window’s inlet. It was the perfect place for our little family to call home while breaking ice with Portland. Even the thick carpeting was a great buffer for my daughter’s many toddler-related falls. The staff members were accommodating and the owners – Jim & Britta – embodied that Portland vibe I came to love so much by the end of my trip – they’re kind and generous people who place an emphasis on developing and enriching the community within their property and beyond it.

Starting my day all of those days with that communal kitchen energy stretched and strengthened a muscle in me that I needed to be reminded exists – the I Am Not An Island muscle. Loosening up with strangers as a first morning order bodes well for how you might treat the strangers you encounter the rest of your day. That warm-up helped me to quiet my little social anxieties and relearn something I’m sure I knew as a child: when you smile at someone you don’t know, there’s a good chance they’ll smile back.

Disclosure: My accommodations at the Northwest Portland Guesthouse were covered by the guesthouse. As a part of this arrangement, my husband provided photography of the property to the owners. 

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Elizabeth Seward is a writer and songwriter, among other things. Read a full bio on the ABOUT page.