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.


  1. I love your perspective, although I'm king of feeling Like Wisconsin is getting the short end of the stick, lately. ;)

  2. I'll be getting back to the wonderous Dairystate in the next few blogs. Having said that I felt the need to big up Mrs Geekrant's homestate for a while. Its not like they've got any Superbowls to take comfort in.