Saturday, 24 October 2015
I hope noone minds being referred to as "geekranters" but as a poetry junkie, the alliterative potential of that opening statement was too good to pass up.
So once again I decided to blog and to send you "a letter from America!" (credits to The Proclaimers)
and to speak once more about this new life I find myself in, on the shores of the new world.
Today, I engaged in an event that, it seems to me at least, is formative and pivotal in the lives of many in the midwest. Yes, I bought my first item of clothing with a camo pattern on it.
Now when I was a child growing up in the U.K., I enjoyed a good piece of camo couture as much as the next child whose grandfather told him stories of the war and his little piece of the struggle against Hitler. I even once tried on his old battle dress and saw a Lee Enfield rifle on his dining table (it wasn't his but a friends.) but that was military camouflage made up of coloured splodges designed to allow soldiers to vanish into a landscape away from human eyes. This, this is something quite different.
This is hunter's camouflage, a design that involves images of twigs, leaves and even branches, printed onto items as varied as phonecases, baseball caps, backpacks, guncases and even slippers and I know what you're thinking. You're right, I bought the slippers.
In a state like Wisconsin, hunting is still very popular, and with an area that is easily the size of the British mainland but with a population of only 4.5 million (that's over million people less than the population of London) there's a lot of wilderness areas out there. So hunting is also arguably considered as necessary and a way of life for many people here and in the states nearby.
These people are close to the land, they farm it, they eat of its fruits (they are more obsessed with fresh produce than any celebrity chef you care to name, and yes, British readers, that does mean Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall) and they hunt on it. It seems to be a way of keeping a living connection with the countryside around them and reminding themselves, in this era of internet shopping carts and Netflix, that to their forbears, this was wilderness. This was frontier country. The oldest settlement in Wisconsin, Green Bay, was founded primarily to hunt beaver and Wisconsinites haven't forgotten.
No matter how fond they are of hunting, they do it in a safe way with rules, many rules, about good hunting protocol and conduct and the need to wear orange.
There is a season for hunting every sort of game and, as Mrs Geekrant kindly pointed out to me during the writing of this blog, a camouflage for each. The one that I seem to see a lot here, appears to be for the hunting of deer. So if you're out on a hunt, you don't want to disturb the deer. So looking like tree bark is good. But you also don't want to get shot by one of the hunting party with a bad aim whp thinks you're a tree and is the vice president of the United States. So you wear orange, a shade of bright orange called blaze orange, in fact. This is to make sure people can see your neon clothed self from miles away (and the deer are colour blind, so to them, you're still a tree) and to create one of the most interesting colour combinations in history.
Camo and Blaze Orange.
Its everywhere and on everything. A popular phone case here is camo with orange accent colours, Underarmour manufacture a whole range of camo and orange gear. So I thought I'd join in because after a month of doing, well, not a whole lot, I have a job
So because I have a got a job, albeit a temporary one, I decided to take my wife out to tea (that's dinner to my American readers and any southern British readers, I'm talking about a meal, not a nice cup of camomile) and what better place to take her than Glass Nickel Pizza.
America is well known for its regional variations in food, ranging from street food to sit down meals in restaurants. Polish Hot Dogs in Chicago to deep dish pizza in... in Chicago as well. Although Wisconsin isn't really known for pizza, Glass Nickel has made pizza it should be known for, Madison style.
This is pizza that hipsters would eat while families argue at the next table. It's served by hipsters (one of whom upon hearing my accent, asked me if I'd heard of the Happy Mondays and then proceeded to put a track on the sound system so obscure, the band itself would have difficulty identifying it) with typical midwestern niceness. It's very Wisconsin in the fact that its the only pizza place I've ever been to that has a tester flight of local beers on the menu. It's also the only pizza place I've been to that doesn't pretend to be at least slightly Italian. This ain't no pizzeria. This is portions designed so frugal Midwesterners have leftovers for tomorrow, delivery cars that run on vegetable oil to fit in with Madison's deeply held hippyness and it is good!
The menu is full of word play and jokes. Such as the "Boaris Karloff" (That's a meat pizza with meats from the "Three Boars Head" meat company), "Fetalicious" (unsurprisingly feta based), "Breakfast Pie" (All day breakfast on a pizza), "Couch Potato" (Potato wedges, Cheese and Bacon), "Ranch" (my wife's favourite, with Ranch dressing on it) and Cardiac Arrest (that's just basically a whole lot of meat)
This time, we got a ten inch pizza each and it was good! Good in the way that only food prepared in a hippy stronghold obsessed with fresh produce, great music and ironic pop culture references can be. It came to our table piping hot and very quickly. We were in and out of there in less than an hour, (With leftovers which are in the fridge awaiting the test to see if they taste as good cold as warm) and although a tip is more or less required in this country, it's worth it for pizza that'll knock your socks off, leave you feeling hipper than a Grateful Dead album being played at Woodstock and will truly fit in your lunch hour.
So somehow being able to take Mrs Geekrant out increases my self respect and lowers my boredom level. Just the fact of having a job makes you feel better, a contributing member of society. I got it through an employment agency which is the one thing in this place which is absolutely no different than back home. No different whatsoever, They're the same, right down to the inspirational posters on the wall with slogans like "Perseverance" and a stock picture of a mountain. But they had jobs and a much lower tax rate and the state has a much lower cost of living than back there. So I felt good enough to blow some money on camo slippers and glass nickel pizza. Oh, and I bought a Wisconsin Badger's pennant to prove I live in Madison and just because...
So until next time, stay frosty Geekranters, this is Geekrant signing off.
Saturday, 17 October 2015
So another week has gone and so Geekrant finds the need to pick up my pen again and write another missive blowing open the strange relationship between the British and our colonial cousins, the Americans! Did I say "strange relationship"? I meant to say "special relationship" of course.
Now, until my social security card decides to show up in post, I can't actually work it seems (pesky legal work requirements), so I find myself, more often than not, home alone in the apartment while Mrs Geekrant slaves away attempting to keep me in the manner to which I am accustomed. Not that it's not that hard to keep me happy, just like every geek, throw me a six pack of Mountain Dew and I'm your friend for life. Its all I need to be happy. And the love of Mrs Geekrant, of course.
Despite this unintentional house arrest that I find myself under, I do get out and about occasionally. This week's excursion involved two walks, a trip to the social security office ("Excuse me dear boy...but where the heck my social security card at?"), a wedding to attend and a visit to the university book store (much cooler than it sounds).
All these things, of course, were fueled by liberal lashings of Mountain Dew, including the first of the two walks which Mrs Geekrant had originally described as "a hike". I hasten to disagree, by the end, my portly frame and tiny legs felt that it was more of an endurance test.
So as to how it began, on Monday my wife sent me a message from work suggesting that that afternoon we go to Devil's Lake. Now she said this in much the same way that my parents used to suggest a walk in the park, by which they meant a nice saunter through some woods and past some swings and slides, maybe a roundabout. There is no roundabout at Devil's Lake. Although technically a state park, it lies about 40 minutes drive from Madison and the hike would take us two and three quarter hours. Mrs Geekrant didn't get home from work till three. So it wasn't exactly a walk in the park...only that's exactly what it was.
Devil's Lake lies high, well highish it's not Kathmandu or anything like that, in the Baraboo Hills, a mini mountain range that wikipedia tells me may once have been taller than the Rockies. Only now they're...not. As you approach the hills grow in height, in exactly the same way that my home county of North Lincolnshire doesn't. Last time I came to Devil's Lake, it was my first time in the United States and I just paddled in the lake, this time though, I was to face the WEST BLUFF TRAIL!
Now, for those who don't know, the Great Lakes region of the United States (a region known for...well some massive honking lakes for a start) owes much of its landscape to the last Ice Age and Wisconsin does in particular. Much of the land in those days was covered, unsurprisingly, in ice, snow and one massive glacier, well probably more tha one, but who's counting. But however many there were, one of them got itself into Devil's Lake and turned the narrow river gorge already there into a mountain lake surrounded by quartzite bluffs. I'm not sure what all that means, but it was on an information board not far from the top of the climbing part of the hike.
Did I mention there was climbing, oh yes folks, maybe not ropes and helmets style climbing although that is possible at Devil's Lake, but walking where you have to really watch where you're treading if you don't want to get hurt. The West Bluff Trail is a 1.4 mile trail which is expected to take you one and a half hours to complete. Why so long to walk it? Because the first half of the trail is all uphill with a 50 to 70 degree angle to climb and by its highest point, hikers are 500ft above the lake itself. There were several points where my short stumpy legs wanted to give up, especially when passed by college students in t-shirts and shorts whose glance at me seemed to say "Dude, you think this is hard? This is nothing, for my fraternity pledge, they left me out here for three days and nights with nothing but my wits and a novelty hat with two beer cans and a straw attached". Also there was a girl who probably weighed half my weight, who skipped bouncily past us on the way down, like a gazelle. I felt like a hobbit and a short one at that. The girl was obviously running the trail as a loop. I'm glad I couldn't run it and that I had to stop occasionally. If I hadn't, I wouldn't have seen the views. From the top, you could see the whole lake stretched out before you, trees with their autumnal colours on display and wheeling above it all were birds. But not just any birds. TURKEY VULTURES!
As we had climbed, the thin soil seeming to make a totally inadequate covering for the solid quartzite rock beneath our feet, we became aware of birds flying above our heads. They swooped and glided, catching thermals in some silent ballet of the skies. They were everywhere, as numerous as starlings in autumn skies back home. And they were big. Bigger than any bird that I have seen outside captivity and actually most that I have.
They were Turkey Vultures. They're called that because it looks like someone stuck a red turkey head on the body of a scary vulture. I never thought I'd see great birds like that, so untouched by humanity and so unbothered by its influence. At various points on the trail, the bluffs created shelves from which to lookout. Walking, carefully, to the edge, we could see a group of about 10 to 12 vultures "chilling out" roosting in a tree. We stood there watching them for five minutes or more. They didn't care and I felt suddenly, something of the feeling that the earliest settlers in the Americas must have felt when first faced with the untamed wilderness.
The way down was tiring, the downward slope hurting already tired muscles but the tiredness was worth it.
I was privileged enough to see a great bird of the Americas in its natural environment and that was worth any tiredness. Walking back to the car park, the trail followed the banks of the lake through boulder fields that looked like some lunar landscape and a silence and serenity that seemed to melt everything else in the world away except us, there in that moment.
Thus passed my first hike into the American wilderness, not that it was really out there wild, but it was, at the same time. And though I hail from Shakespeare's "sceptred isle" and love its rolling hills and hidden coves. Still I am blessed to live here right now, and see these things and be loved by my beautiful wife.
So until something grabs my fancy to commit to black and white words on posterity's page. This is Geekrant, signing off.
Thursday, 8 October 2015
As I have previously noted within the pages of this web based tome, things are different here. The food brands are different (they don't have Robinson's squash! How do they conduct a major tennis tournament without barley water?), the bathrooms are different ("it flushed on on one yank!") and they drive on the wrong side of the road. But the one thing I didn't expect is how different sports are.
I should clarify that last statement, I knew sports would be different. I always loved American Football, a fact that my brother has always struggled to accept and many a disagreement in Geekrant's parental household has raged over the issue. My father dislikes the fact that the Americans call Ice Hockey, "Hockey", because obviously Ice Hockey developed from field hockey and they should know their place. Well, Dad, Hockey players are bigger than me, so you can inform them of their error when you come over to visit.
So I knew sports would be different but what surprises me is how the support for sports teams is different.
One of the consistent complaints I heard growing up from the greybeards in my hometown, is how nobody supports their local football club anymore. Now granted, they were talking about Scunthorpe United, whose greatest claim to fame is Kevin Keegan once played for them.(for those Americans reading this, Kevin Keegan is a english football player known as much for his 70s Bay City Roller/David Cassidy/Donnie Osmond wannabe perm haircut/disaster as for his silky skills on the ball.) Still they were right, young people nowadays are just as likely to run away from the mediocrity of their home town clubs as they are to leave home for the big city lights of London.
Here however, sports clubs take on so much more than that. They become part of a regional identity, where you're from, or where you went to college or even where you went to high school. As it probably was for english football fans generations ago.
Here in Madison, one symbol represents the city in nearly every arena, sports pun intended, of life. That symbol is The Badger. Not just any badger though, a fierce, bad tempered looking badger in a red and white striped turtleneck. This is Buckingham U. Badger. This is Bucky.
He's everywhere, his picture is on everything, his visage stares down from billboards, flags, shop windows. An image that defines Madison, used to sell everything from A to Z. There's Badger buses, Badger care, (subsidised healthcare) Badger storage units, Badget coupon books. All this for the mascot of the University of Wisconsin, Madison's sports teams.
And if it's not the Badger. It's the white "W" on the red background flag of the university adorning half the buildings in town. UW 's stadium seats 80,321. That's an 80,321 seater stadium for university sports. That puts it easily in the top fifty sports stadiums in the world by size and it's only the fifth largest stadium in its own conference.
Madison is Bucky. Bucky is Madison and if it's not the red and white of Wisconsin that people revere, it's the green and gold of the Packers.
People paint their houses green and gold, wear foam cheeses on their heads and tailgate in subzero conditions. Macdonalds even put the fixture list on drinks cups sold in the state of Wisconsin. To live in Wisconsin, seems to mean to mean being a cheesehead and following the Packers. This is regional pride at its best.
And while it might seem foolish to support a badger, at least he's doing better than Scunny Bunny. (My hometown mascot).
Till Next Time.
Wednesday, 7 October 2015
So Geekrant has been silent for nearly 18 months now. I'm aware that this occurence probably brings forth a complete lack of sorrow from most (if I in fact have any) of my readers. However what with being engaged, planning a wedding, getting married, applying to emigrate to the U.S.A, emigrating to the U.S.A. and working a full time job creating high quality potato based food products. I haven't really had the time.
However, now, like the Pilgrim Fathers, the Founding Fathers, the Irish and Arnold Schwarzenegger before me, I find myself on these far shores. And so as an antidote to the boredom that comes from waiting for my social security number to arrive and only having having American daytime tv to watch, GEEKRANT IS REBORN! (cue dramactic music maestro please). This will chronicle my opinions about life, the universe and everything in this the land of the exile that love has chosen for me well, at least it will if my wife let's me write it...
THE FAR SHORE
Someone, somewhere, back in the mists of time (and considerably wittier than me, it must be said) made the observation that the British and the Americans are one nation separated by a common language. If that's true it's not just a written language but a cultural one also.
The food's a little bit different. The attitude's a smidgen unlike good old northern english hospitality, the weather's definitely different. As a connoisseur of American pop culture (I might have watched some Cheers once upon a time) I thought I was ready for this... and how wrong was I?!
So right here, I'm going to write down some of the observations I've made here and hopefully I won't upset the entire nation and get myself put on a slow boat home. Starting with...
So I washed up in Madison, "Mad City" as the locals call it. It's the capital of the state of Wisconsin which is literally translated from a Native American word for Cheese... Okay I'm joking, it's named after the Wisconsin River as you all, no doubt, knew. Madison is about two hours from Chicago and an hour or so from Lake Michigan. Its warm and humid in the summer and in Winter it changes its name to the Frozen Tundra! It gets cold.
Now as been hinted at already, these guys like their cheese, in fact all their dairy. They call Wisconsin "America's Dairyland" after all. They make tons of the stuff and they have a deep love affair with fresh produce. As a result, Madison, Wisconsin, is home to the U.S.As largest producer only farmer's market. (It means you buy direct from the farmer...this isn't Morrison's meat counter you know)
So Madison loves its food, it also loves its beer, with large and micro breweries all around. This city loves a good pint (as they might say back home) although they generally seem to drink from bottles. They're also not necessarily fond of putting alcohol percentages front and centre on the bottle, especially some of the smaller breweries. However as a general rule of thumb, they'd think you were a pussy for drinking anything less than a 5% beer. Not that they'd tell you that, they're far too polite for that.
Madison is politically active and likes to express its displeasure with the present governor of Wisconsin with nice little gatherings in the state's capitol building. These are given the veneer of an earth shattering protest but as a lot of the people outside the city are quite partial to the governor, it doesn't do much good.
So Madison is left wing, as left wing as a bumper sticker from a 1967 Crosby, Stills and Nash tour stuck on the fender (not bumper bizzarely) of a green VW camper van converted to run on vegetable oil and hot air.
Its clean for a city, with plenty of green spaces and cycle paths, even an arboretum and a botanical gardens. The lakes are beautiful in the early morning sunlight and while it is taking a while to adjust to the bumper stickers and overt political campaigning on cars, the prices with sales tax (VAT to us British) not built in and the aging hippies who don't seem to realise the Vietnam War ended 40 years ago, I will adjust. The reason? I like it here and I love my wife and my new life. Oh and the sports teams are good. Go Badgers, Go Packers!
Till next time, this is Geekrant signing off.