Wednesday, 22 June 2016

Geekrant vs the Cafe and the Baseball Mall

Greetings, to everyone who thinks these humble musings of mine are worth reading, much thanks. I hope my latest blog is worthy of your readership.

As I adjust to life in America, I find that much of the United States is governed by the tension between two different ways, attitudes and opinions of life. Right from its founding, this nation has been been defined by how each and every person defines and sees it in a different way and manner. And that includes every part of life here. Anyway, more about that later.

So sometimes, the light here is too strong for me. I'm unsure of any scientific reasoning for this, but the light feels brighter, a quality of light not found upon that somewhat clouded island that bore me and gave once “its flowers to love and its ways to roam”. Four straight years of working permanent night shifts before I moved here didn't exactly help either. At times I try to increase my tolerance for this helical overload by sitting in the sun out on the balcony of our apartment accompanied by our dog, Reba, an animal much more adapted to basking in the sun than I am.

Here I find myself writing the next missive of my journal of transatlantic adaptation on the longest day of the year and it reminds me of the way the light feels finding its way into my parent's kitchen at home or into my in-laws house above the river in Frontenac which I mentioned in my last blog.

The light wakes you early in that house, that morning it splashed over Melissa asleep on the couch in the three season porch*, it found its way through the cracks in the spare room curtains to tickle Mrs Geekrant and myself asleep on the bed, it warmed Reba awake and finally it alighted on Neil, asleep on a couch in the living room.

We were waking in the breath-taking and friendly state of Minnesota, as beautiful and as welcoming a place to lay one's head than I have ever known. Waking in Frontenac always means one thing however. Breakfast needs to be arranged and when we're visiting, at least one day of our stay, that means Breakfast at the Whistle Stop Cafe.

The Whistle Stop is what my wife likes to call a “mom and pop” style restaurant (which is American for “locally owned not a chain”) which cooks up pretty delicious food for what feels like the entire area. I have never been there when its been less than packed to the rafters. So as is our tradition and because we wanted to show our guest as much of America as is possible in course of ten days, we dragged ourselves down to the Whistle Stop.

The Whistle Stop Cafe is a simple building, a square block of wood framed quaintness. Inside, nothing is sophisticated, no tasteful bar chairs bought from Ikea or super enlarged pictures of coffee beans. Instead it feels homely and real, like sitting down in a friends kitchen and talking with family. Pictures on the walls reference the wildlife of the area and the trains that pass in front of the cafe on the other side of Highway 61 and give the cafe its name.

To the Whistle Stop, we ventured and as I have mentioned before Americans make a bigger deal of going out for breakfast than we British do. It is a time to meet, to catch up, to spend time together. So Mrs Geekrant and I went, and of course, Neil and Melissa. Also, my wife's parents went and her brother and sister in law and their children, our niece and nephew. We never go to the Whistle Stop without going mob-handed, it has to be said. But in this cafe, that seems to be the general idea.

They do a great job of feeding entire clans of people. The food always excellent, simple but filling and wonderfully tasty, inexpensive with portions always larger than you think they'll be so you always end up ordering more than you need. “Eyes bigger than bellies”, as my Grandma used to say.

The Hash Browns are wonderful and wholly unlike the batter covered fried creations of a million fast food breakfasts world-wide. Here Hash Browns mean piles of shredded and fried potatoes and onions, covered with cheese, if that is your fancy. The country fried steak is something that I wouldn't immediately associate with breakfast but makes a fine addition. Steak pounded thin, dipped in flour and batter, and fried like chicken. It is then covered in what the Americans call “Sausage gravy”, a white sauce, thick and creamy, probably closer to hot custard in consistency than beef gravy. Its full of that spice that all good sausages should have which is less about face melting heat and more about taste.

The eggs are done pretty much anyway you want and there's sausages and bacon, of course.

So you sit there for an hour or so and just be, just exist. Spending time with friends and family in a place than doesn't seem to care about the endless onslaught of the modern world and its obsession with progress. When it comes to paying, the Whistle Stop only takes cash or cheque, so put that plastic away, good sir, its not going to work here. Neil enjoyed himself I think, although the “Trucker Special”defeated even his pretty large appetite. And so we sat happy and content like hobbits in some novel by Tolkien, well fed. Places like this are dotted throughout the American Heartland, roadside oasis' appearing along the highway like some Tolkeinian hostelry. All welcome and good food.

After a time of basking in the afterglow of a good feed and with my in-laws off to church*, we decided to set off on the next stage of our journey. We took Neil to a baseball field. Well not exactly, we did take him to a baseball game that week* but that was at Miller Park in Milwaukee. The baseball park we took him to that Sunday had long since ceased to be any such thing.

When I was a young boy in the United Kingdom and urban developers decided to build a shopping centre (that's what the British call a mall) in Sheffield, they used land that had previously been used primarily for industrial purposes. They called it “Meadowhell”, I mean “Meadowhall”. In Minnesota, they did exactly the same thing but they built it on a ball park instead. They called it “The Mall of America”

One of the interesting things about Minnesota that I may not have mentioned in my brief “Ode to the North Star State” in my last entry, is a feature that sets it apart from any other state in America. It is the only state in the U.S. whose professional sports teams are all named for the state and not for any single city. The reason for this is the Twin Cities.

Minneapolis and St Paul each lie on the Mississippi River, one on either side, adjacent to one another. Minneapolis is the larger of the two but St Paul is the state capital. To all intents and purposes, they make up one urbanised mass, sitting on the upper Mississippi. But to the cities themselves, they are separate and equal entities, none more influential or important than the other. So, keeping that in mind, the teams are named for the state. The Minnesota: “Vikings*” (American Football), “Timberwolves” (Basketball), “The Wild”, “Lynx” (Women's Basketball), “Swarm” (Lacrosse)and, of course, their baseball team named after the state and the cities themselves. The Minnesota Twins.

The Twins and the Vikings, played, for many years at the indoor “Hubert H Humphrey Metrodome”, a stadium that gained world-wide notoriety when its roof collapsed from the weight of snow upon it, but before that they played in a stadium known as the “Metropolitan Stadium” which is located in Bloomington, a suburb of Minneapolis, an open air stadium, now unusual in Minnesota, the Metropolitan Stadium was used by the Twins and the Vikings from 1961 to 1981. After it was demolished, they built the “Mall of America” on the same site.

Now when I say they built a Mall, they really built a Mall. In the same way that the Whistle Stop is a hymn to small town simple living, unencumbered by modernity, the Mall of America is a cathedral to America's love of commercialism and convenience. It has over 520 stores spread out between what varies between 3 and 4 stories of airy light filled shopping heaven (or hell depending on your opinion of shopping). It has an amusement park in the centre, a thirty odd feet tall Lego sculpture of some Japanese Mecha above the Lego store and a Sealife centre in the basement.

Some stores have multiple outlets all in space that I reckon you could fit Meadowhall in about 8 times. Neil wanted to go to Abercrombie and Fitch, like any good preppy English boy who doesn't get to go that often. The first Abercrombie store we entered was specially for children. Which kind of gives you a feel for the size of the place.

A bewildering and confusing world of glass and chrome. Stores that we could we only dream of back home. Entire streets of restaurants and fast food outlets. One store, dedicated to the selling of all things made of Alpaca, another a gift store for all things Minnesotan. Whole department stories like Macy's and Sears.

America truly is a country of contradictions. Two worlds always pulling at the other. Not in a bad way but in a process of still trying to find out what America should be as a nation. This day we had breakfast in a cafe not much bigger than our apartment, that afternoon we ate dinner in one of 40 restaurants bigger than that, in a entire town of such shops. One side seems so alien to the other and yet somehow not. They are born out of the same belief in their own country, the same desire to define for oneself what American means what it will mean in years to come. This is still a nation of immigrants, of starry eyed dreamers looking to the skies for tomorrow or to the hills for yesterday. And am I becoming one of them? I can not say. But it seems to be a good place to leave this blog post. Myself and Neil wandering bewildered in a shopping mall. For isn't that most male's condition when faced with that much shopping?

*A three season porch is like a conservatory although less middle class, more wooden and more homely in my opinion.

*My wife's parents go to Valley View Assembly of God, in Lake City. Any Sunday you're in the area, drop in, Pastor Orin Sandberg will be happy to have you.

*The Brewers lost to the St Louis Cardinals 3-10. More about that in another blog.

*The Vikings have not always experienced success, which is a pity. However if you want to engage in trash talk with a Vikings fan, it appears to be a good start to refer to the team as the “ViQUEENS” and go from there.

Monday, 13 June 2016

Geekrant vs the Tourist and the North Star State

Hello, Geekrant readers, I would call you “Geekranters” but that hardly seems complimentary or edifying does it. So I'll just call you “readers” until someone comes up with a better name. The next few blog posts I make will involve the visit of my friend Neil (a.k.a “Samik”, a.k.a. “Sanj”) to the shores of the United States of America. They also will include reference to and some of the events recounted take place over the Memorial Day weekend.

Memorial Day is a national American holiday originally created in the aftermath of the U.S. Civil War to allow for the tending and commemoration of the graves of the fallen. On these electronic pages, I try to temper my natural urge to serious opinionated thought but I would for a moment allow it. In my opinion there is no greater sacrifice than laying down one's life for another or for a cause, a dream, a nation. Those of us who have never experienced such times can sit in the peace bought by their sacrifice and wonder about whether the wars were justified or otherwise, whether there was another way or was diplomacy the answer. During the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, three men of roughly my own age from my home town died bringing home the pain of that loss to a generation who had never known it until that point. We should always honour their sacrifice, the reason they gave their lives and never once think that our opinions on the righteousness or otherwise of war can allow us to treat them with anything else than the highest honour. These were British soldiers, obviously, but I hope that my next few blogs do not dishonour all veterans, regardless of nationality or dishonor the meaning behind Memorial Day.

Also, writing this has made me think of my hometown and just what home means. After in the same town for the first 32 years of my life, there are few places that compete with it to feel like home. One is our apartment here in Madison and Wisconsin in general. Another lies further north and west. My wife's home state of Minnesota and her parents' house.

If one were so inclined to set out on the journey from Madison to my in-laws house, they would leave Madison from the north and travel along the highway in the direction of the Minnesotan twin cities of Minneapolis and St Paul. They would pass Baraboo (home of Circus World and the Ringling Brothers Circus), skirt the water-park loaded tourist oasis of Wisconsin Dells and drive virtually straight through Mauston (pronounced Moss-ton). They would then come to a fork in the road at a place called Tomah. If one dreams of the lights of the Twin Cities, then take the north fork but as is often the case with life, our intrepid traveler should take the road less traveled by and head west.
 After Tomah the hills that guard the way from Baraboo start to become more rolling and now start to become more bluff like in places as the road descends towards the Mississippi.

And that, dear readers, is where the feeling of home begins, the highway crosses the river at a place the French imaginatively called, “La Crosse” and enters Minnesota, The North Star State.

The road then turns north and travels alongside the river. On the driver's left side are high wooded bluffs which rise out of the river valley steeply, in places the trees give way and glimpses can be seen of sheer rock-faces. Here and there, houses cling to the hillside, wooden framed wonders, bleak and isolated looking in winter and incredibly inviting places to live in summer. On the driver's right, the river passes lazily by, although it is in reality far from lazy, full of barges transporting cargo south as far as the sea and dams generating valuable hydro electric power and all the other things dams do. And between these disparate landscapes the road winds itself, sometimes far from the river and then sometimes not as the bluffs stick out into the river like some weather beaten headland on the North Sea.

The names of towns come quicker now, Winona, Wabasha, Kellogg. Each town similar but also different. Making a claim to its own small part of the world. And then after about an hour or so of driving the river road and 3 hours plus of total driving time, the road enters Lake City.

Lake City is a small (pop. 5,063 at the 2010 Census) quiet, pretty town of simple timber frame houses, Lutheran churches and a High School which Mrs Geekrant attended. It is also where Laura Ingalls Wilder, writer of “Little House on the Prairie” lived for six months as a child, where water skiing was invented and lies on the magnificent Lake Pepin, the widest point on the Mississippi.

My father, has always expressed surprise that the widest point of that river could lie on the Mississippi. My father, it is fair to say, enjoys maps and seeing where towns and cities are in relation to everything else. However for him and for many of us bought up in other nations than the U.S., we think of the Mississippi as a entity of the southern states of the U.S. All Memphis Blues and New Orleans Jazz, Alligators and Cajun food. It never occurs to most of us that the same river begins in a mid-western state that borders Canada, a state less known for shrimp fishing and gumbo, as for hockey and lutefisk*.

Here, the river widens into a wide lake called Lake Pepin. Ingalls Wilder mentioned it in at least two of her books. It's area is 45.7 square miles, it freezes over in winter and it has its own legendary monster, which I hope that someone has decided to call “Peppy”. It is also incredibly beautiful and picturesque and much used for water sports although they can forget asking me to join in if Peppy really is chilling out somewhere in the depths.

Five minutes drive down the road lies the small settlement of Frontenac and there, on the tree lined summit of a low lying hill lies my in-laws house.

There is a stillness and a wildness to this state, a sense of timelessness that makes me feel that, whenever I set foot there, I am reclaiming some primal part of my soul which too much modern city living has eroded away. It is the 32nd state of the Union. Admitted to the United States on May 11, 1858, just in time to send troops to the Civil War. It is known as the “Land of 10,000 Lakes”. It is a landscape of woodlands and farms, lakes and prairies. The LA Lakers take their name from the time that they spent as the Minneapolis Lakers. It was also the only state to vote for Ronald Reagan's defeated opponent in the 1984 Presidential Election, native son Walter Mondale.

It was settled predominantly by northern Europeans, in particular, Scandinavians and Germans. The state reflects this in many different places including the name of the state's NFL team, the Minnesota Vikings, the plethora of Lutheran churches and a particular form of Mid-western American English making use of Scandinavian expressions known as “Nordski”. Judy Garland was born in Minnesota, so was Prince, of course and being a geek, I love the fact that Macgyver is from Minnesota. Oh and did I mention Bob Dylan?

So what better place to bring my friend, Neil to give him a deeper taste of this part of America than just one state can enbue.

We had set out on the journey from Madison upon the Saturday afternoon of Memorial Day weekend, Neil having flown into O'Hare International Airport in Chicago on the Friday before. Having spent the morning at Madison's annual “Bratfest” (of which more in another blog), we then spent the afternoon chasing storm clouds along the river road to Lake City and Frontenac. The rain crossed our path in bands, the tree covered bluffs looking, in the misty rain, like something more suited to a tropical Jurassic Park than this northernmost of the contiguous United States.

We arrived at Mrs Geekrant's childhood home under grey skies, during a break in the rain. Neil might have been expecting a subdued welcome, instead he got our niece and nephew running around the house, my father in law grilling burgers out on a still damp deck while his father kept him company, the house full of members of Mrs Geekrant's extended family (including her father's mother who I would be remiss in not mentioning as she is partial to this blog and her encouragement to my writing is appreciated) and as we'd also brought my wife's friend Melissa with us too, Neil could never question the Minnesotan capacity for hospitality and welcome.

I am, truth to say, enamoured of that capacity. The whole Mid-western approach to hospitality and community rivals the Northerners of my own native country where I grew up. But back home, our natural welcoming nature tends to be tempered by British reserve and dare I say a slight cynicism and world weariness that comes from the difficulties that declining industry and damp weather can bring. The Mid-westerners have such an optimism and a friendly politeness that I feel there is not much that can suppress their natural jollity.

I find myself in the midst of my own British reserve incredibly blessed by the apparently automatic way my wife's family accept me. My accent maybe about as far from Nordski as you can get but when I'm there, there is no question of me being treated any less than family, which I know is not everyone's experience with their in-laws. The Midwest, it seems to me, doesn't care about your past, or previous failings, your heritage or your nationality, they welcome you with open arms and try to feed you hotdish (or casserole depending on your state), take you out to breakfast and treat you like a brother or sister from the moment they meet you and I am thankful that I married into it.

So, there really was no better place to start my friend's ten day sojourn than in a old wood framed house, with a porch, on a hill, five minutes drive from the Mississippi with friends and family ready to greet anyone who comes rolling through. I am proud of where I come from and my own family back home and the town I was born in but I have found a place to call home here too. And I am quite happy with it.

*Lutefisk is fish steeped in water and lye until extremely alkaline and then steeped in water till bought to neutral PH. It has a jelly-like consistency.

Frontenac is also known as Frontenac Station, at the time of publishing it was unclear what its present official name is.