That’s it. I’m converted. My preferred mode of transport in America is now the train. Yes, Amtrak has its detractors but I’m certainly not one of them. Read more

I’d be hard pushed to tell you where Minneapolis ends and St Paul begins. My geography and sense of place, never good at the best of times, totally let me down in the Twin Cities. Read more

“Discover the deep cultural, social, military, and political history of this historic site near the confluence of the rivers. Take a guided tour, view an exhibit, watch a demonstration, and engage in thought-provoking conversations that will spark connections between the past and your life today.” So reads the opening lines of the Fort Snelling website. Read more

Death and cancer are not synonymous. Fight. Don’t give up.

In 1980, Richard A. Bloch (co-founder of H&R Block, those people who help you with your US tax returns) was given the all-clear. He had battled with lung cancer and won. In  2004 he died of heart failure. In the intervening years, he and his wife Annette dedicated their lives to helping others fight the Big C. The RA Bloch Cancer Foundation is now  a major resource for victims in North America.

In 25 cities in Canada and the United States, you might just stumble across one of Bloch’s Cancer Survivor Parks, just as we did when walking around Minneapolis. Intrigued by this rather substantial patch of green in the midst of what has to be prime real estate area, we had to take a look.
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IMG_4210 (800x592)IMG_4209 (800x600)The parks all have the same three elements but are designed to fit in with their surroundings. There are two different walks. The positive mental attitude walk has 14 plaques, 4 inspirational and  10 instructional. One of the instructions is simply to read the Foundation’s free book Fighting Cancer.  

The second walk is the Road to Recovery, seven plaques that explain what cancer is and what’s needed to overcome it. No rocket science here, nothing we don’t know, but somehow it’s easier to digest. A good example, I think, of the medium being the message. The Foundation notes the intention of a park on its website: To newly diagnosed patients, it is meant to give hope and courage. To those in the process of fighting the disease, it is meant to give directions and determination. To those who have not had cancer, it is meant to reduce fear.

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The most evocative for me, though, was the life-size sculpture of eight people passing through a maze that represents the disease. Those going in show all the emotions we associate with a diagnosis – fear that we or our loved one won’t  make it, hope that we/they will, and a determination to try. The three coming out are happy they’ve made it.

The sculpture  – Cancer… there’s hope – is the last work of Mexican artist Victor Salmones. It’s quite something. Two weeks after he had completed it, Salmones was diagnosed with cancer. He died in 1989. A fitting legacy.

 

 

Although it’s been more than a month since I was in the States, one morning in particular keeps replaying itself in my head – the morning we went to the West Bank and ended up in Somalia.IMG_4172 (800x600)
When we had driven through the Minneapolis neighbourhood of the West Bank on our way to St Paul, I had a made a mental note to come back and walk around what looked like a very vibrant, ethnic neighbourhood, a splotch of colour on an otherwise rather typical grey steel and glass cityscape. I was particularly taken with the shop names. I wanted to get out a world map and stick a pin in every country mentioned.

IMG_4181 (800x600)IMG_4176 (800x600)Also known as Cedar-Riverside and Little Mogadishu, the West Bank is a vibrant community that was at once foreign and familiar.  Its demographics have morphed over time, from predominantly Scandinavian at  the close of the nineteenth century  to being home to one of the largest Somali communities in the USA today. In the 1960s and 1970s, it was where the hippies hung out. Think perhaps Haight-Ashbury in San Francisco. It was here that the activists fought the developers, where the anti-war protesters made their opinions known, where poets and musicians found their inspiration, where actors tread the boards.

IMG_4171 (800x600) (2)Were I to relocate, I might upset the age balance. It’s a young place with nearly three-quarters of the residents under the age of 35.  The community sits in the shadow of the multi-coloured Riverside Plaza – where the TV character Mary Richards lived in later episodes of the Mary Tyler Moore Show. Today, it’s home to thousands of Somalian.

IMG_4173 (800x600)IMG_4184 (600x800)We walked, and talked and took photos. And then we got hungry. Not much was open  – not even the Acadia pub, which proudly boasts NO CRAP ON TAP on its window decals. Another doorway asked the world to SAY YES TO PEACE AMONG PEOPLE. It was morning and while appreciative, I was craving eggs not invocations to do my civic duty. Breakfast ain’t breakfast without eggs so we popped into the only open café we could find:  a large rectangular room with the basic tables and chairs and a small counter at the end whence reigned the IMG_4174 (600x800)woman of the house. A television was showing some soap too asinine to hold anyone’s attention for very long. The menu was a peculiar mix of African takes on America staples. Our fellow diners were all male, all African, and all speaking something other than English. They all seemed to know each other. Those who came in as we were sitting did the rounds, greeting all the others in the room, moving from table to table if a something more personal than a catchall hello from the doorway was needed.

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IMG_4188 (600x800)We sat over coffee so strong a mouse could trot across it. We ate food that again, was both foreign and familiar. And we listened to everything going on around us, unable to understand a word. It was light years away from any TV depiction of the American Mid West. A parallel universe. And I wondered how long it would be before the language was lost, the culture diluted, and the food choice changed. I thought  about the melting pot that is America and the generations of immigrants who now call it home. And I thought of Europe and the myriad migrant communities that are mushrooming in , say, Germany and Dublin, whole neighbourhoods where German and English are the foreign languages and schnitzel and coddle the foreign foods.

IMG_4178 (800x600)IMG_4177 (600x800)Just up the street, Neighbourhood America lives on , unabated. Palmer’s Bar is a local institution. Had it not been so early and had it  not been our last day in the city, I could have parked myself on a high stool and paid attention to nothing but the world ticking by.

From the outside it looks like a throwback to the speakeasy days. From this inside, these old photos speak of community and spirit.  Ranked by Esquire as one of the best bars in America, a recent review tagged it as a  refuge of coexistence, the bar beats with diversity. Anarchists, the homeless and academics all dwell there. Bob Dylan no doubt pounded a few beers here in his Minneapolis days and Bonnie Rait has been known to drop in when she’s recording in town. If I ever needed a reason to go back, this might just be it.

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There’s something a little surreal about being about to walk around a city without once going outside. Given the cruelty of the Minnesota winter, this is an added plus for those living in Minneapolis. The city has 8 miles of glass-walled skywalks connecting government buildings, office buildings, shopping malls, and public amenities over 69 blocks downtown. It even has a skywalk map. Think London underground  … in the air.

IMG_4130 (800x600)IMG_4140 (600x800)The skywalk is the brainchild of real estate developer Leslie Park, who even in the early 1960s, had vision enough to fear the damage indoor shopping malls could do the heart of a city by taking all the traffic to a convenient, one-stop shop as it were. To combat this convenience and to keep people shopping and using downtown Minneapolis, he started building skywalks. Those in existence today are owned by the various buildings they connect and therefore don’t have regular opening and closing times. [Could locked skywalks replace underground carparks as terrors spots in movies I wonder?]

Given that the nearby city of Bloomington is home to America’s largest shopping mall, this was smart thinking on his part.

The Mall of America, a shopping mall in Bloomington, Minnesota, is the largest shopping mall in the United States. It is also the most visited shopping mall in the world. Opened in 1992, the mall receives over 40 million visitors annually. Currently, it features 520 stores, a theme park, an aquarium, a movie theater, a wedding chapel, 50 restaurants and about 20,000 parking spaces. The mall is so big that it has its own zip code (55425)

IMG_4137 (590x800)IMG_4148 (800x589)I was fascinated. We walked miles. I could have done the same again the next day, had we had a next day. You simply never know where you will end up or what will be around the next corner. Look over a balcony down onto IMG_4193 (800x600)an indoor garden, a bank, a café. See sculptures and statues. Stop for coffee in the famous Caribou coffee shops. Pop into Macy’s to experience the magic of American Customer Service, where, if you’re lucky, the shop assistant will conspire with you to find you the best online coupon to use … on their phone!

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MTMOORECharles Strite, who invented the pop-up toaster, was born in Minneapolis. Mars Inc., father of the Milky Way and the Snickers bar, was founded there in 1920. The city and its suburbs are home to 12 Fortune 500 companies. Bob Dylan used to live there (in Dinkytown, in what’s now the Loring Pasta Bar, where we had dinner one night). And, of course, it’s where Mary Tyler Moore threw her beret in the air at the start of the Mary Tyler Moore Show. Classic TV.

Whether it’s theatre [Minneapolis (combined with St. Paul) is the 3rd largest theatre market in the US and is second only to New York City for the most live theatre seats per capita]  or birdwatching [the Eloise Butler Wildflower Garden and Bird Sanctuary is the country’s oldest public wildflower garden],  skywalks or shopping, Minneapolis is a city that has someone for everyone. And, alongside Madison, WI, it’s a city I think I could live in.

PS – The local airline, Sun Country, has put in a bid for a Cuba route. Just sayin’

I’m not a great one for museums. Unless of course they’re connected to the Holocaust, genocide, resistance, war, the Inquisition – things that we need to remember not to forget. Then I could happily spend an afternoon re-educating myself. Of my non-awful museums of choice, the Unicum one in Budapest is a favourite. But museums generally are not high on my list of places to see when I’m travelling. Read more

I don’t have  TV in the flat. I can’t have a TV in the flat.  I could have one if I wanted one but I can’t. Because if I did, I’d do nothing but sit in front of it all day, every day. If it makes noise and shows pictures I’m mesmerised. Turn it off and walk away, you say. Tell this to the teen with fake ID who spent her first day in New York in front of a TV watching back-to-back reruns of MASH, chomping on giant-sized bags of sour cream and onion chips. Ridged no less. Sights? What sights? I had control of the remote. I was in multi-channel heaven. [Imagine what I felt like when I discovered TV on demand?????]

Yet it was only when I was smack bang in the middle of the MidWest that I realised the effect that TV has had. It has painted a picture for me of middle America, one that on occasion lives up to reality and on other occasions, falls far short. There’s little in the way of consistency.

IMG_3927 (800x600)I took the bus from Madison, WI, to Minneapolis, MN. On a fine day, it would take about 4 and a half hours. On day with a blizzard blowing in Chicago (where the bus started its odyssey) and in Madison, it would take a lot longer. No matter. I’d booked a seat with a table for $10 (in advance) and bought a second ticket for my second suitcase (f0r $25 – the day before) even though the bus wasn’t even half full. Hey, I wasn’t about to argue with the driver – a supersized, chain-smoking, steel-toe-booted woman with a look that would relegate all the nuns in my childhood to the back pew. [She would later pull over on the highway (yep  – I thought that was illegal, too) to go upstairs to have words with someone who had ignored her first request to turn down their music. They saw the light.] Anyway, she ticked all the boxes. Roseanne Barr with attitude.

Behind me, two young men (who weren’t travelling together) kept up a ball conversation  for the entire trip. They showed little favoritism, starting with football and taking apart the coaches and players of the Green Bay Packers (WI), the Vikings (MN) and the Chicago Bears (IL). They then moved on to baseball and had made it to the 76ers in Philly just as the bus pulled in to the terminus. Another box ticked – if it involves a ball, American males can talk… and talk… and talk.

Across the way, one woman, who had taken a fall and hurt her arm (but not her hand) the day before, was trying to get an appointment to see a doctor. She spoke to the hospital and then to her husband, her sister, her daughter, and her son. She had words with her daughter, too, whose good-for-nothing husband wasn’t worth the blade of grass he was born under. She must have had free local calls and could have found a role in just about any US family sitcom I’ve seen.

Opposite me was a young girl who ate her way across the miles, trying repeatedly to connect to the wifi we all could see but none of us could access and no one had the balls to ask the driver. [My job was to make your journey as pleasant as possible. Tell my bosses. If you enjoyed your trip, my name is Judy; if you didn’t, my name is Tracy.] Every 15 mins or so she would swap out her book for her phone and her phone for her iPad, and her iPad for her iPod,her iPod for a nap, and then nap for her book, and her book for her phone… Me? I just watched her, checking in occasionally on how the others were getting on.

We eventually made it to the Twin Cities, stopping first in St Paul and then in Minneapolis. Thankfully, I was being met. And had a hotel booked for the night over in Dinkytown.

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20160302_080147_resized20160302_075554_resized20160302_072118_resizedYep – Dinkytown. What a great name for a neighbourhood. Close to the university, it’s home to lots of fraternity and sorority houses (another check on the list of American staples) that were both old and new. I was fascinated. And it has its headshops, its bookshops, its trendy cafés and restaurants, its Irish pub and its diners. And in particular, it has Al’s diner. Didn’t see anyone though in letter jackets. (And no, I didn’t mean leather.)

Al’s opened to the public back in 1950 at 6am on 15 May. Its 14 bar stools have been sat upon since then, from 6am to 1pm daily. Theirs is a simple system. You don’t sit down until you’re old its okay to do so. You can be asked to move up or move down the line to accommodate others. And while you’re never rushed, there’s a niceness that pays attention to those in wait and overrides any thoughts you might have of dallying. That said, the banter flows. There are boxes of prepaid yellow chits filed in alphabetical order beneath the counter. Checks are totalled manually. Orders are hollered out when done. So many boxes checked there…

20160302_072056_resizedThe morning we were in there, two business men sat to my left. They were talking in millions, the way you do – discussing investments and such like. To their left, a lone diner, a young fellow in his early 20s, had just realised that Al’s didn’t accept credit cards. He asked the waiter to hold his seat while he went to the ATM.’No worries’ he said. ‘Pay when you’ve eaten.’ There’s trust for you. So he ate. They ate. We ate. And when it came time to pay, one of the businessmen told the waiter to that he’d pick up the young man’s check, too.

20160302_071323_resized‘Why would you do that’, yer man asked with a shock that said he wasn’t local.
‘Ah’, the man replied, ‘someone bought me a latte earlier this week. I’m just paying it forward. You do the same.’ I’ve seen the movie. I’ve done it myself. But I’d never actually seen it done in real life before. And my eggs Benedict were great, too.

Only a wet day in Minnesota and I’m beginning to see why the state rates so highly when it comes to places to live.