Portland, Maine: the joy of discoveries before saying farewell

It is the end of another summer. It is time for you to leave the island too. Good-by to clams and mussels and barnacles, to crows and swallows, gulls and owls, to sea-urchins, seals, and porpoises. It is time to reset the clock from the rise and fall of the tide….
– Robert McCloskey, American writer and illustrator of children’s books, from A Time of Wonder

Storefront pooch on Exchange Street.

Storefront pooch on Exchange Street.

Our department headed over to downtown Portland to have one last meal following the close of our summer summit late Tuesday afternoon. We carpooled and after my good friend and colleague – frolleague? – Bernie Monegain dropped off our other frolleagues across from the Flatbread Company (72 Commercial Street, Number 5, Portland, 207.772.8777), where we were going to dine, I remained with Bernie to find the elusive open parking spot. As fate would have it, we found a generous strip off of Milk Street, with Exchange Street and its alluring shops one street over.

Waterlily's colorful storefront on Milk Street.

Waterlily’s colorful storefront on Milk Street.

I admit that while I wanted to keep Bernie company and continue to catch up with her (we only see one another once or twice a year), I had ulterior motives for wishing for a parking spot in the epicenter of Portland’s downtown shopping experience, where brick streets and sidewalks lead you to unique shops. Bernie indulged my request to “just check out one store,” but as we turned the corner onto Milk Street, I spied a quaint shop to my left. I stopped, looked back, and internally debated before requesting Bernie to allow me to “just take a quick run-through.” Bernie was hungry and we were both aware that our colleagues and frolleagues were no doubt ordering their flatbread pizzas after a happy hour of downing their cold beers and sipping their full-bodied wines and sangrias. She must have appreciated the curiosity in my eyes, the plea in my voice. We turned around and stepped inside what seemed like another world – certainly another culture – which was at once energetically colorful and serene.

Stepping inside a new world of color, textiles, and other natural materials.

Stepping inside a new world of color, textiles, and other natural materials.

Discovery: ‘Conscious trade’ and artisan import love
Waterlily (26 Milk Street, Portland, 207.775.5459, info@waterlilyimports.com), is a “conscious trade” boutique featuring handmade clothing, jewelry, accessories, and gifts by artisans from the Portland area and across Asia. Being the true journalist that she is, Bernie talked with the shop girl – no offense meant, I just love that expression – and found that proprietor Renee Garland travels to Asia five months of the year to discover and handpick the wares that she sells in her shop. She began her journey several years ago, combining her love of travel with supporting artisans and sharing their artistry, and has been able to successfully sustain her business. Renee also creates and sews many of the textile goods, including jackets, pillows, and purses, which boast a harmonious explosion of colors.

Bone earrings hand carved from Bali artisans.

Bone earrings hand carved by Bali artisans.

If you check out Renee’s Facebook page, you’ll see that she created the intricate designs for the gorgeous bone earrings that Bali artisans hand carved in time for summer. The semi-precious stone earrings and other jewelry pieces made by Anusara, two sisters in Bangkok, are recent additions to Waterlily. Once again, I forgot to ask for the shop girl’s name, but a warm shout-out to her for her time and patience in responding to our questions, letting us know more about Waterlily, Renee, and the beautiful artisanal wares, and obliging my request to try on numerous pairs of bone earrings as we three tried to determine which intricate design and shape was our favorite – and looked the best on me. I hope I’ll still be coming to Portland every August because I found another unique destination and a deep appreciation for Renee’s artistic eye and fair trade philosophy.

Beautiful earrings from Anusara of Bangkok.

Beautiful earrings from Anusara of Bangkok.

Se Vende Imports's charming storefront.

Se Vende Imports’s charming storefront.

Discovery: Shop talk and more artisan import love
After such a wonderful time at Waterlily and the fact that we still hadn’t made it to the restaurant, I assured Bernie that we could skip my original destination point and make our way to the Flatbread Company. We were both still warm and glowing from discovering Waterlily. Perhaps it was that warmth and glow that compelled me to turn to Bernie one more time and ask if we couldn’t “just do a quick run-through” of this particular shop on Exchange Street. Bernie was game, so off we went. I had gone to Se Vende Imports (4 Exchange Street, Portland, 207.761.1808, info@sevendeimports.com) on Saturday with Jack, but longed to return and do another once-over. That Saturday I had chatted with a couple of women behind the counter, and in another stroke of luck, the younger woman was there.

Bernie and Cait (isn't that the name of a 1970s sitcom?).

Bernie and Cait (isn’t that the name of a 1970s sitcom?).

I remembered that Cait Capaldi – yes, we asked for her name – had mentioned that she was a belly dancer. As I snapped one photograph after another of the jewelry on display, Bernie had a great conversation with Cait, and we were treated to a heartwarming story. Cait had coveted a statement silver pendant on a leather cord made by the nomadic Tuareg Tribe of the Sahara Desert but being a starving college student, she couldn’t pull the trigger. Something about needing to eat over having a piece of jewelry! She went to the store to look at the pendant time and again, and then she ended up working for the owner of Se Vende Imports – yes, I forgot to ask for the owner’s name! While she tried to set aside money, even as the piece was set aside for her, saving up wasn’t happening soon enough. When Cait graduated, however, the owners, a mother/daughter duo, presented the pendant to her as a graduation present. It couldn’t have happened to a sweeter, more bubbly person. Cait indulged my request for a photo. She struck a confident pose after we both convinced Bernie to join in the fun and get in the picture.

Silver treasures.

Dripping with silver treasures.

Simple yet stunning Hill Tribe cuff.

Simple yet stunning Hill Tribe cuff.

Hoop dreams.

Hoop dreams.

The mother/daughter owners of Se Vende Imports also travel the world in search of unique jewelry and other finds, and support artisans by buying directly from them. Some of the other stunning pieces of jewelry are made by the Hill Tribe of Thailand, in the northern region of Myanmar (Burma). As I mentioned in Monday’s blog, Se Vende Imports carries a dizzying array of rings, bracelets, earrings, necklaces, and accessories. And they run from very affordable rings and earrings at $16 to works of art for a pretty penny. There is truly something for every woman at her price point. I admit it – you can’t do a run-through. You have to walk slowly and appreciate the craftsmanship of the pieces. And enjoy the warm conversations and customer service. Bookmark. Promise to return. Done and done.

The Flatbread Company's version of the "bucket list."

The Flatbread Company’s version of the “bucket list.”

‘Before I die I want to….’
I never seem to hear my smartphone ping me when someone tries to call or text me. I was clearly distracted this time around. When we finally made a dash for the Flatbread Company, I discovered a few text messages from our frolleague Diana, asking where we were, though at a certain point, they knew. Bernie and I had stories to tell and pictures to show. We discovered that our New Media producer, Benjamin Harris, went to high school with Cait – such a small world, indeed! Bernie and I were more than ready for wine and pizza. On our way back to the hotel after dinner, Bernie, our frolleague Eric, and I stopped in front of a big black chalkboard that ran across the lower length of the restaurant’s building to the corner. It bore several columns and rows that proclaimed: “Before I die I want to” and then a blank line. Bernie wanted to write something down, although all the lines seemed to have been spoken for. None of us wrote a word, but as I returned to my hotel room and started packing, my toiletries and clothes retreating from the bathroom and closet, I thought about what I would write. I would take up several columns, though one of the first ones would be to write several novels and short stories and somehow get them out into the world. But if I were to capture the moment, I would write this: “Before I die I want to discover people and places, goodness and joy in everything, and the creative spirit in us all.”

Lighthouse on an island in Casco Bay.

Lighthouse on an island in Casco Bay.

As I prepared to leave Portland on my last night, I looked up and read the words of Robert McCloskey, from Time of Wonder, one of my all-time favorite children’s books, with great appreciation and not a little sadness: Take a farewell look at the waves and the sky. Take a farewell sniff of the salty sea. A little bit sad about the place you are leaving, a little bit glad about the place you are going. It is a time of quiet wonder – for wondering for instance: Where do hummingbirds go in a hurricane?

Maine sunset from Peaks Island, looking toward Portland.

Maine sunset from Peaks Island, looking back toward Portland.