Sucking on Lobster Shells in Maine…

28 Aug

So I spent half my remaining August rent on a train ticket to Maine.  (Another) day off, so I was adamant I was not going to spend it aimlessly wandering around Boston and Cambridge, ducking in and out of coffee shops, Starbucks-Hopping in search of a bit of inspiration that might wing itself my way – similar to the faux-crutches (that’s crutches) propping up men in the alleyways of Fenway, demanding a dollar to be flung in their direction so that they can get wildly drunk and allow several bombshells to take advantage of them (their words, not mine).

A short bus ride from the train station, and already Portland feels different to Boston – despite both being technically ‘New England’.  With a bus full of pensioners and one man who sat in front of me who had the face of a ten year old, with his eyes anxiously absorbing his surroundings, just waiting to be reprimanded; I could gaze out of the window whilst making conversation with a woman in a sun-visor, and not fear my outer shell cracking into uncool territory.  Portland seems less showy, more itself – I guess it’s smaller, and whilst there is clearly a lot of wealth from the sights around the harbour, there is also a really accepting kind of vibe.  Not that Boston doesn’t have it – it does – but sometimes all you want is to sit on a wall, legs swinging, notebook on your lap, and no obligation to smile or make conversation.

Getting off the bus near Pearl Street (New England loves its Pearl Streets, Milk Streets and Dana Streets) I stopped in at Rosemont Produce in the hope that they would give me cash-back…  Amongst various colourful (sometimes funky in this heat) fruit and veg, there was also Japanese Saki – with a very cool, magic (even) looking glass bottle – imported but distributed by a company in Massachusetts – ripe avocadoes and mangoes for $1.99, medjool dates, fresh olive bread and home-baked pizza slices.  For the sum of $5 I walked away with a bottle of ooh-la-la-long peach tea, a mango, a tub of dried mango strips and a juicy white peach.  And an actual $5 note for my next twelve hours in this capital Maine city.

Next thought on my mind spanned as far as finding the nearest people-free patch of solitude from which to contemplate my picnic.  Sociable?  Not me, clearly.

So, what’s a girl to do in Portland, Maine, on a $5 budget and almost half a spin of the earth, of time to utilise until the train pulled up and took her back to the southern city of Boston?

Sunbathing and yacht-gazing might cost nothing but it soon wears thin.  I wandered through the Freedom Trail, down some steps, past two red-faced presumably Bostonians, sporting bright red caps bearing the letter B (too much Sesame Street, kids?) and matching polo-shirts, and found myself at sea-level.  Reminding me somewhat of Plymouth, Devon in England – I stopped to take a couple of photos before my camera decided to deplete of power on me, and put my best (holey) flip-flop forward.

The path was studded with what seemed to be silver shrapnel which twinkled (literally like day-stars) in the sunlight.  Tick Box – song lyric inspiration partially achieved.  A few yards up the path, towards downtown, I passed by the Polar Express, stowed up and looking sorry for itself.  Steam trains have a fond place in this here heart, I tell you.  Maybe it’s the memories of steam-train rides as kids, up in Shrewsbury, Shropshire – and days when I happily donned a shaggy, cropped elfin hairdo along with a pink flannelette jumper and an equally dodgy grin-come-smirk across my mischief-face.  A place to hide.  Confuse those onlookers who thought they could judge my character just ’cause I was half-pint sized.  Sweet?  Sour?  Both.  Perhaps it was the memories of a steam-train ride through Bellows Falls, Vermont – in the summer of 2003 – sharing a carriage with possibly a singer-songwriter who will forever influence my own soundtrack to life.

This Polar Express was the venue for a young Mainer getting married – and as I walked past, we exchanged massive smiles.  No better place, overlooking the sailboats in the harbour on a cloud-free day…

There are abundant ways you might wish to spend your hours in Portland, Maine – even if you are a bit of a loner, like I happened to be.  A poor, lonely, Brit.  Well – don’t let it stop you, folks!

You could always host a competition to spot the most non-PC sign (unintentionally) – I’d win, hands down, with ‘Benkay’s Sushi’ just off Commercial Street – ‘WE SERVE BROWN RICE’ – if Human Rights for white pudding rice were around, there’d likely be some sue-ing of the Sushi guys, going on.  As if it’s not enough that  the blessed grains are short and dumpy and suffer from water-retention – they’re even being ousted in favour of their brown counterparts.  But it’s Maine, darlings – there ain’t none of that BS here.

Wandering to the ferry port I meandered in and out of several premium businesses that would be in the Purple District if this were a Monopoly board.  Le Roux Kitchen and Homewares stocked ‘arty’ napkins, olive wood honey-twizzlers for $7.99, painted exotic fish corn prongs for $5.99, Lobster aprons and tea-towels (deceivingly Maine-ish, but actually sourced from China or India).

Enough of the boring tourist-talk…

Whilst Portland is fairly chilled, laid-back and doesn’t aim to be glitzy nor glamourous – it hasn’t totally stuck to its guns as far as individuality goes.  For a start, there are the usual chain-infections cropping up like a case of herpes – such as Dunkin’ Donuts and Life Is Good (although I have nothing, whatsoever against that store – they host an awesome summer music festival each year to raise money for kids).

One thing I did pay special attention to was the abundance of ATM machines, tastefully submerged within the red brick of old mills, factories and fish stores – as anti-corporate as they might look, yet fees still applied – sending my sorry cash card over the edge – so much so, my fiver really was all I had to survive off, all day.  The horror.  It serves me right, let’s face it.

You could get a beer for under $5 if you make like a true Brit and remain stingy on the tipping front (but I’d not recommend this, seeing as servers make a base rate of less than $2 per hour in most cases).  I did walk past a pub on Commercial Street, advertising Mimosas (is that a drink??) for $3 during their 3 – 7pm Happy Hour.  I could, however, have bought a bag of crinkle chips – sour cream ‘n’ onion – for $1.29 and still had change.  And, I’d have got to meet Mad Mo (I named her that) Master of Paninis.  It looked as though she had lived in that store for years…it looked like that store had lived in her for years…

In the end I settled for ice cream from a corner store parallel to the front main-street.  Carrying away my lime gloop – sorbet with lime peel mixed into it – I sat on a wall, perched my mango in the sunshine and waited for it to ripen…  Having said that, it could be like waiting for a crazy cat lady or a west-witch to be stung with the fertility bee.

A lucky spot, it turns out.  Just opposite Berlin Wall, with the Lucky Catch tugboat to my left – and Portland Lobster Co. in front of me, I listened to over an hour of live music, bare feet up on the dock railings, mosquito bites scratched and bloody.  The band was pretty fly – with covers of Fleetwood Mac (Nicks era) ‘Landslide’ and Matchbox 22 (well they can’t help that).

Another method in absorbing Maine without parting with cash – is to people-watch.  Just behind me, a wife said to her white-socketed, jesus-sandalled husband, with bony knees, in a thick Louisiana accent – “Just look at her tiles, honey!”  It sounded so sexual, so naive, and so, totally superficial and pointless – I couldn’t help but steal it for a future book character.

The history of Maine revolves around its port and fishing trade, I gather.  Most original buildings remain, and you could, if you are feeling geeky, spend your time photographing (mentally, if you are like me and forgot to charge up your camera before leaving home) the old signs on the tops of the red-brick buildings.  Then, all it takes is a bit of imagination and you can almost zip yourself back to a time before gelato, plastic lobsters and Becky’s Diner (although to be honest, that Diner is the real-deal and hopefully existed long before tourism did).

I wandered past some market vendors and got chatting to a water-colour artist and jewellery designer named Vallerie (wished I’d remembered her surname as he stuff was beautiful) – self-taught, and from a family of water-colour artists, her work was simple and pretty – with bubbles of aqua marine, oxygen drops and underwater scenes and starfish.  An intuitive talent.

Last, but not least, it’s an essential past-time of Mainers during summertime, to compare and contrast tan-levels on a scale not dissimilar to the Richter (I’m sure some bum-tan-lines could cause natural disasters).  Hands down, no question (or hands up if you’re the Hells Angel rider), the Harley riders have it in the bag.

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