Self-Care Tips to Keep You Sane: Exploring (the Portland edition)

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, I’ve been in Portland, Oregon, for work recently. I was there to attend the annual meeting of the Society of Clinical Trials (there are blog posts coming on the talks I attended, workshops I helped to facilitate, and the posters I presented!). The conference ran between Monday 21st May to Wednesday 23rd May, but I chose to fly out the week before on Wednesday 16th. Whenever there is a conference somewhere outside of the UK, I really try to build in time before or after work commitments to explore. I love to travel, and I feel incredibly lucky that my job at the moment allows me to trot around the globe speaking to people, learning, and developing my skills; it’d be a huge shame to fly in and back out without any time to explore.

For me, exploring is one of the best ways for me to decompress and force myself to relax. I figured there are probably lots of people that feel the same – I know that Soph from Soph Talks Science has discussed her passion for travel lots previously, and Lisa from In A Science World has just got back from her post-PhD adventures in Asia. Anyway, I wanted to continue adding to my ‘self-care tips to keep you sane’ series, by giving you an idea of what I got up to in my down time in Portland. Hopefully it’ll encourage my fellow PhD students, academics and people who travel for work to take some time for themselves.

Powell’s book shop

After I landed in Portland on Wednesday, I had dinner and then went to bed. When I woke up on Thursday the first thing on my exploration list was Powell’s book shop. Powell’s is a chain of book shops based across Oregon, but the Portland City of Books store on W Burnside Street is the biggest independent book shop in the world. This is no exaggeration; I spent 8 hours in Powell’s on Thursday. I got lost wandering around each level, even though I had a store map (yes, the store is big enough to have its own map), and I could have very easily spent another 8 hours in there the following day. I knew that whatever I bought in Powell’s needed to be transported the 5,000 miles back to Aberdeen in my suitcase, and that it would be stupid to buy tonnes of heavy books to then have to pay for additional baggage allowances. That said, in those 8 hours I still managed to find and purchase 6 books that I absolutely, definitely could not live without. I know, ridiculous. Even more ridiculous was that I went back on Sunday with a few colleagues and ended up buying 2 more books. I’m sure that I’ll end up reviewing a few of them in blog posts in the future, but mainly I just wanted them for when my thesis is handed in. I love reading, and a visit to Powell’s was my chance to pick up a few books that have not yet been released in the UK yet.

Farm Spirit

If you follow me on Instagram (@heidirgardner if you don’t already!), you’ll already have heard me sing the praises of Farm Spirit. If you’ve seen me in person since last Saturday, you’ll have likely heard the same thing verbally. Now, I’m going to mention it here – my experience at Farm Spirit was so good that I genuinely just want to shout about it so that if anyone is in Portland they can go and visit for themselves.

Farm Spirit is a fine dining restaurant that serves local, seasonal and completely vegan food. The menu is preset, and you need to book tickets in advance – I booked the same week that I booked my flights to Oregon because I was so keen to get a seat. Speaking of seats, at Farm Spirit diners sit communally and dinner is served at set times (usually 6.30pm and 8.30pm). I went for the 8.30pm sitting, and the communal dining thing was perfect for me because I was there alone – colleagues from the UK and Australia weren’t arriving in Portland until the next day. I’m not going to waffle on too much about how good the food was here, I’ll just post a collage of the photographs I took and let you judge for yourself. If you are ever in Portland, you have to visit Farm Spirit; it has been my personal highlight of the trip.

Mother’s Bistro and The Water Front

On Sunday when colleagues had started to arrive in Portland, I was eager to catch up with people I hadn’t seen in ages. Dr Kirsty Loudon (my PhD Supervisors last PhD student) and Karen Bracken (fellow PhD student looking at participant recruitment to trials, but based at the University of Sydney, Australia), headed out for brunch at Mother’s Bistro. After a quick Google the night before, this seemed to be the most highly recommended brunch in Portland. I arrived about an hour before we’d agreed to meet so that I could baggsy a table (they only take limited bookings and the world wants to walk in at around 11am on a Sunday, but it was definitely worth the wait.

After we finished at brunch we went for a wander around the city, headed to the Saturday Market (which is still called the Saturday Market even when it takes place on a Sunday), and then sneaked in another sly visit to Powell’s.. I know, ridiculous. It was super warm on Sunday and my jet lag still hadn’t completely gone (let’s be real, it never really went – I was awake at 4am most days which was not ideal before a full day of conference presentations), so we decided that an early dinner was a good idea. Kirsty and I headed back to the hotel to meet up with another Karen (Innes – a Trial Manager based in Aberdeen), and we had a lovely walk along the waterfront, eventually stopping for dinner at a cute little Italian restaurant that was only 10 minutes walk back to my hotel.

Over the course of the rest of the trip I got the chance to explore more of the culinary delights of Portland, and I managed to resist the urge to head back to Powell’s for a third time.

I really enjoyed my time in Portland, the fact that I had built time in to explore made the late nights/early mornings and few days filled with thesis editing feel much more manageable. The only thing that did shock me though, was the sheer scale of homelessness in Portland. The city clearly has a big problem with homelessness, which I guess isn’t such a shock – every city has homeless people – but this was so much more visible than I had anticipated. I didn’t feel particularly unsafe at any point, but I did feel incredibly guilty that I had flown half way around the world to give a few presentations at significant expense (obviously not personal expense, but still), when there were people sleeping in the streets just metres away from the conference venue.

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An Evening With Bill Nye – Portland, Oregon

Last night I went to see Bill Nye Live in Portland. If you were at school in the 1990s, you probably recognise that name from the TV show ‘Bill Nye the Science Guy’ – it ran between 1993 and 1998 saved many, many science teachers from terrible hangovers as Bill took over teaching for a lesson.

Now, Bill Nye is not only a science educator – he’s the CEO of the Planetary Society, he provided consultancy on scientific matters to Barrack Obama when he was in office (ahh, the good old days..), he’s written multiple books, and he’s even been on Dancing with the Stars. Most relevant to last night’s event is that’s he’s a board member of the Mount St. Helens Institute, a non-profit aiming to ‘advance understanding and stewardship of the Earth through science, education, and exploration of volcanic landscapes’.

Ticket sales for ‘Bill Nye Live: An Evening of Seismic Importance’ were in support of the Mount St Helens Institute, and on the 38th anniversary of its eruption, Bill Nye and the Institute aimed to educate and entertain on the topic of climate change, the effects of the 1998 eruption, and how we can all work together to, quite literally, save the world.

I wasn’t really sure what to expect from the event in terms of the level of seriousness in the way the content was presented – Bill Nye has always been funny, but this topic is serious, especially given that it was in honour of the 38th anniversary of the Mount St Helens eruption. 57 people died as a result of the eruption, so I was a bit weary of Bill’s jokey side.

To be honest, there were parts of Bill’s presentation that did make me feel a bit uncomfortable. I agreed with just about everything that he said, but the way that he repeatedly described the eruption as ‘amazing’, whilst only mentioning the victims of it once or twice, and in quite derogatory ways (Harry Truman was one resident who refused to leave despite being told to evacuate the Mount St Helens site; he was killed by the pyroclastic flow that overtook his lodge and buried the site under 150ft of volcanic debris), didn’t sit well with me. I get that he was playing things up for the audience, but Mount St Helens is less than 2 hours away, and given that the eruption was only 38 years ago, it’s feasible that people can remember the devastation that it caused; it seemed insensitive.

Mount St Helens before and after the 1980 eruption.

That said, overall I thought the event was really well done. The audience was very mixed – lots of families with very young children, large groups of adults and older couples wanting to learn more about the volcano, so I thought the way Bill managed to communicate such complicated science was brilliant. I’m not a geologist, and haven’t studied volcanoes since I was about 12 (I think it was in a Geography class with a teacher I didn’t like..), and I followed the graphs and statistics that were presented pretty easily. There was a young boy sat next to me who seemed to follow along easily enough too, and as we got up to leave I heard him say to his Mum, ‘how do you be a geologist then?’ which was a heart-warming end to the evening.

Find out more about the Mount St Helens Institute here, and watch Bill Nye’s latest Netflix series ‘Bill Nye Saves the World’ here.