General George S Patton Memorial Museum Chiriaco Summit CA

I’m not one for guns. I’ve no great interest in tanks. But I will admit to a certain fascination with war. Travelling east on the I-10 from Palm Desert on our way to Williams AZ, we stopped off at Chiriaco Summit for breakfast and noticed that the truck stop is also home to the General Patton Memorial Museum. The gas station, the restaurant, and the museum are a family business and have been owned and operated by the Chiriaco family since 1933 (the museum opened in 1988).

Chiriaco Summit

Alabama-man Joe Chiriaco visited CA in 1927 to see his state team play Stanford in the Rose Bowl. He fell in love with California and stayed. I can only imagine that telegram to his mother. When his job as a water surveyor with the LA Bureau of Water and Power sent him to the desert – to Shaver Summit – he fell in love, again. He quit his job and bought the site which is now known as Chiriaco Summit. With his ear to the ground, Chiriaco paid attention to whispers about a new road to be laid between Indio and Phoenix. He started building. The gas station and general store opened 15 August 1933. A year later, Chiriaco fell in love for the third time and married Ruth Bergseid, a Norwegian nurse from Minnesota who had also come East to work at the hospital in Indio. Business boomed. Roads meant cars and trucks and cars and trucks meant drivers who need refuelling along with their vehicles.

In early 1992, under the command of General George S. Patton, the Desert Training Center (DTC) was established at Camp Young, right by Joe’s place. And when the troops descended, his was the only place they could go off base. Years later, Margit Chiriaco Rusche would work with the Bureau of Land Management to establish the General Patton Memorial Museum, which first opened its doors in 1988.

General Patton Memorial Museum

The wealth of information on display brings to life the career of the General and the sheer scale of the desert training that he initiated in preparation for a heads-on with Rommel in the African Desert.  In the 26-minute video shown, one of the former soldiers told of how they graduated from big tents to pup tents to hard ground. Life wasn’t easy but to a man, when they got to where they were going, they were glad of their training.

General Patton Memorial Museum Chiriaco Summit CA

General Patton Memorial Museum Chiriaco Summit CA

General Patton Memorial Museum Chiriaco Summit CA

General Patton Memorial Museum Chiriaco Summit CA

The Matzner tank pavilion is home to lots of stuff including a 2.5 ton Japanese Cadillac and an M60 turret. One of the tanks is set up so that you can climb up and sit inside. All I could think of were sitting ducks – way too small an enclosure for my liking. Out in the tank yard, other tanks on show include the almost mass-produced Sherman tank, the most popular model of  WWII. It was pouring rain. The red soil had turned to mud. But I hadn’t come this far not to have a look around. Mind you, not on a good day could I tell one tank from the other but they were quite the sight to behold.

General Patton Memorial Museum Chiriaco Summit CA

The documentary video shown in the General Patton Memorial Museum had mentioned two altars at Camp Iron Mountain, one Protestant, the other Catholic. Men of the cloth of each persuasion would say mass, outdoors, for the troops. The altars still stand but given the unseasonable rain, we thought it best not to try – even though part of me really wanted to see the reality this replica is based on. Next time, I’ll come in April.

General Patton Memorial Museum Chiriaco Summit CA

The area covered by the DTC is massive.

The War Department utilized over 18,000 square miles of desolate land in southeastern California and western Arizona where it trained over a half million soldiers on desert warfare tactics and survival in extreme conditions. For two years, 13 infantry divisions and 7 armored divisions marched and drove over the vast desert landscape. This massive training ground consisted of 13 divisional camps and numerous railroad sidings, ammunition dumps, hospitals, airfields and quartermaster depots. By May 1943, the German Afrika Korps had been defeated and desert training was no longer a necessity. However, training lasted for another year until it was officially closed in April, 1944.

Perhaps most fascinating for me was that I hadn’t realised that General Patton died in a car crash or that there were whispers of suspicion around his death. Military historian Robert Shipman, in his 2008 book Target Patton, claims that Old Blood and Guts (Patton) was assassinated on the order of General ‘Wild Bill’ Donovan. Mad. Second in the line of fascinations is that all this is so recent. People alive still remember training here. And locals, like Madison Payne, are still driving the same truck they were back then.

General Patton Memorial Museum Chiriaco Summit CA

I missed out on the Remembrance Walls at the General Patton Memorial Museum (an excuse to go back). But we were already two hours behind schedule and the rain was showing no sign of easing. Museums like these make road trips in the USA one of the best ways to travel. The freedom to explore is something not to be taken for granted. But never once, had you asked me what I’d be doing on Valentine’s Day, would I have said – ogling tanks in the Colorado Desert.  The museum is open seven days a week 9 am to 4.30 pm (except for Christmas and Thanksgiving). Admission is $10 ($8 for seniors). Count on losing a couple of hours here (especially if it’s not raining). Well worth stopping or detouring for.

It’s been five years since I was last in the Colorado Desert. [Confession: I had been referring to it as the California Desert (as it’s in CA) but actually the Coachella Valley sits in the northern end of the Colorado Desert, near the lower reaches of the Colorado River.] Back in the day, the valley was a sea and when the first settlers appeared, they found seashells. As the story goes, Conchilla (Spanish for little shell) became Coachella, perhaps because of someone’s bad handwriting. The state highway 111 runs right through, a retail corridor linking Indio, La Quinta, Indian Wells, Palm Desert, Rancho Mirage, and Cathedral City. We drove it a number of times travelling between friends in Palm Desert and friends in Palm Springs and everything seems to run together. It’s hard to tell when one city stops and the next one begins.

Palm Desert, with its high-end shops on El Paseo, seems a little more upmarket than its sister, Palm Springs. Both though, cater for the more mature resident or tourist. I felt younger than usual. I was amused to see that shoppers on El Paseo can flag down a courtesy golf cart to get from A to B. Downtown Palm Springs offers more in the line of tourist-focused art galleries, general souvenir-type stores, and eateries. It’s far more alive and opens much later.

Shopping in Palm Springs vanity plates

Shopping in Palm Springs - Palm Canyon Drive

Sony Bono statue Palm Springs

1930s water bowl for dogs in Palm Springs

Has it changed in the five years since I was last here? Well, it still has its fair share of vanity plates that make the slow driving fun. The statue of Marilyn has gone but the one of Sonny Bono is still there.  And just about the only cigarettes I saw this time were in this 1930s doggie dish. Annoying that it’s being used as an ashtry.

Shopping for a slice of social history

On the advice of her hairstylist, a man who knows his stuff, the lovely DLW took us to the Sunny Dunes Antique Mall on 507 E Sunny Dunes Rd. It’s heaven on earth for serious shoppers and browsers alike. About 30 vendors have sections in which they sell their wares. Each takes it in turn once a month to run the cash desk. It’s all high tech. You can pick your bits from anywhere and everywhere and bring them to the check out by the front door. There, the codes will tell the prices and discounts. We made out like bandits. But were I living locally or if I had a bigger luggage allowance or if I could have driven home, I’d have done a lot of damage.

Shopping in Palm Springs Sunny Dunes Antiques Mall

Shopping in Palm Springs Sunny Dunes Antiques Mall

Shopping in Palm Springs Sunny Dunes Antiques Mall

Shopping in Palm Springs Sunny Dunes Antiques Mall

Shopping in Palm Springs Sunny Dunes Antiques Mall

It was a trip down memory lane. The Kenwood mixer, the old tin buckets, the leather jackets, the comics, the jewellery. All of it recognisable. All of it once treasured. I spotted a mink stole for $135, perhaps evidence of how out of fashion fur is in the USA. I’ll admit to being tempted, more for the images it evoked that the stole itself. We passed a good hour there, if not more. And I could have stayed longer, but I was upsetting myself thinking about what I couldn’t take home.

These sorts of places are repositories of social history. They’re like windows to a bygone era. They say so much about the movement of peoples (just check where the glass and crockery come from), about pop culture (posters, books, records), about style (clothes, photos, pictures). If you’re in Palm Springs, treat yourself. They’re open 10 am to 5 pm every day except for Christmas and Thanksgiving. Holiday hours may vary.

Sunny Dunes Antique Mall Palm Springs CA

Watching live crab at Redondo Pier CA

Way back when I moved to California, I remember feeling cheated. In my head, I was moving to Los Angeles, but my address said Torrance. I wasn’t living in LA. I was living in a city some 12 miles south of it. Granted, that city was in LA county, but that didn’t appear on my address.

Revisiting Torrance CA

I spent a month there in 1990 and came back again for another six months later that year. It felt like I was there for years, but doing the math a few lifetimes later, seven months was all I had. I worked at an Irish pub on the corner of Western and Del Amo, Friday nights from 10 pm till closing and then occasionally covering other shifts for other bartenders as needed. It was quite the education. I remember running after my first customer to give him back the change he’d left on the counter. The whole tipping thing had eluded me. I’d soon catch on, though. I made a mess of pouring my first few pints of Black and Tans (half Guinness half lager), and some random guy at the bar benefitted from my mistakes. I met lots of people – Irish and American and Australian – and some 25+ years later, I’m still in touch with a few of them.

The old Looneys bar in Torrance CA

The old Looneys bar in Torrance CA

We stopped by to see the old place. It changed hands after the sudden demise of the legendary Tubbs (a man who made 6’2″ look like 7’3″) back in 1998 and morphed into Paddy O’s, which fell in the wake of rising rents. I’d last been there, I think, in 1991 and yet it seemed like yesterday.

I’m spending this weekend back in Torrance with the inimitable JNP and his lovely wife SRP. Driving over to Torrance from the airport, I searched in vain for something I recognised, someplace that looked familiar. I drew a blank. I remembered, though, about the carpool lane where cars with two or more people get to drive a little faster. That helped. But I was blown away by the number of driver-only cars on the road and their lack of willingness to let you into their lane. I was distracted by the vanity plates and had to turn off the radio in case I missed my off-ramp. I’d forgotten how much attention it takes to drive the LA freeways and for the first time recognised why automatics might be better than stick-shifts.

I had a list of things I wanted to do – have an In ‘n’ Out burger, have a carne asada burrito (and we did at La Capilla – don’t miss it), and do the milk dud/malteser comparison check, just to make sure I remembered that maltesers are better. I also wanted to check out Walmart, Target, and RiteAid. And if I could fit in a few cemeteries, so much the better.

Redondo Pier

Riding the waves at Redondo pier near Torrance CA

Redondo pier near Torrance CA

Redondo pier near Torrance CA

Redondo pier near Torrance CA

LA is having unseasonably cold weather and when I’m tired, the cold seems to take up residence in my bones. While I was well wrapped up, others walking the pier at Redondo Beach were in their shorts and t-shirts. It was a glorious day, perfect for some of Kincaid’s legendary clam chowder. The sea lions were bellyaching about the cold, too, much to the delight of the visiting toddlers. The fishermen were holding their own, despite the dire warnings posted about not eating the local catch. And the sea was a brilliant blue, not something I’d ever connected in my LA memory.

Fishing from Redondo Pier

Bait shop at Redondo Pier near Torrance CA

Fish cleaning station Redondo Pier near Torrance CA

Fishing from Redondo Pier near Torrance CA

Fishing from Redondo Pier near Torrance CA

Fish warning at Redondo Pier near Torrance CA

It’s a lovely part of LA county… beautiful on a sunny day. Revisiting Torrance CA, I’ve readjusted my LA memory bank to include the sea. And next time might just be tempted to rent a rod and try my luck.

 

 

Back in 2001, when I had a feeling that my time in the USA might be coming to a close, I took a road trip with the inimitable RosaB. On our way from somewhere to somewhere in the State of Alabama, we passed a billboard for the Ave Maria Grotto in Cullman. Then we passed a second. By the time we hit upon the third, the advertising had done its job and we left the highway to see what the fuss was about.

Built by a Bavarian Benedictine monk, he himself a little on the small side, too, the four acres is known far and wide as Jerusalem in Miniature. Not far into the twentieth century, Br Joseph’s job was to man the pumps and watch the oil gauges at the Abbey’s pump house, a mind-numbing task he did for 17 hours a day, 7 days a week. To keep himself sane, he started to build little grottos around tiny statues. He made tiny copies of the Holy sites in Jerusalem and eventually had enough to put together a miniature of the city. The monk had rarely travelled so he built his pieces from images on postcards. [I still send postcards – maybe somewhere, someone might put them to use. You know who you are.]

The Abbot of the monastery would have made Walt Disney proud. He soon cottoned on to the winner he had within his walls. He had great plans for an OTT religious grotto, carefully landscaped, meticulously made. Work began in 1932 in an abandoned quarry in the Abbey’s grounds and today, it’s visited by millions. It was one of the highlights of a memorable trip. Well worth a look if you’re in the vicinity.

Fast forward a few years, and I’m in the UK. I’d gone to meet my then boyfriend who was on leave from the QEII. We ended up in Wimborne with its 1/10th scale model town. An idea that incubated during the 1940s, it opened to visitors in 1951. The buildings are made from concrete with beech windows. I still remember feeling like Gulliver as I wandered through the tiny streets, afraid to put a foot wrong lest I step on something or a little someone. All very real it was.  Another lovely memory. Another one worth a visit.

In Portugal recently, we happened across a third such marvel in the village of Sobreiro. Aldeia Tipicia (typical village) was a the brainchild of potter José Franco who began work on this masterpiece in 1960. Driven to preserve the customs and crafts of Portugal, he wanted to replicate the old workshops and stores, the houses, and the communities that were all in danger of being swallowed up by progress. He also wanted a miniature village for kids, with working windmills and all sorts. Later he added a third part – an interactive children’s agricultural centre inside some castle-like walls. Franco died in 2009 leaving a legacy that,  like the others, and indeed like Miniversum here in Budapest, is still working its magic.

Because no matter what adult worries and concerns you might have going in, when you happen upon these miniature places, you can’t help but revert back to being a child. Rediscovering the open-mouthed child-like awe often jaded by cynicism is quite the experience. I found myself pointing and exclaiming like a kid on Christmas morning.

None of the visits were planned. But all happened when I needed some perspective. Someone up there is looking out for me. For this, and for the artists like Br Joseph and José Franco who made them possible, I’m truly grateful. Cost of entry: free. Recalibration: priceless.

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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.

When in the Twin Cities recently, my hosts took me to see the Mill City Museum. They’d planned the day around it and it would have been churlish of me to suggest alternatives (not that I had any – I’m not big on research). If you’d told me that I’d find flour so fascinating, I’d have called you names. But fascinating it was.

IMG_3953 (800x600)It’s an excellent museum that chronicles the importance of the mills to the area. From when the first mill opened in 1866, people have been earning a crust by grinding, milling, sifting, and packaging flour. The grain elevator tour is a gem. You sit in the elevator which IMG_3956 (800x600)stops at various floors in the mill and explains through video and narration what went on back in the day. Brilliant. I never knew that flour dust was explosive! I never knew that white lung was also billed as occupational asthma. And I never knew that Minneapolis was once the flour milling capital of the world. Back then, the men could swing a 100 lb sac of flour as easily as if it were feather pillow. [deep sigh]

IMG_3964 (800x600)IMG_3977 (600x800)The city is home to the famous Pillsbury doughboy, but that mill is no longer in use and has been converted into artists’ lofts. From the viewing platform high up in the museum, there’s  fantastic view of the cities, which is worth the admission price alone. And if that isn’t enough to convince you, local man Kevin Kling’s movie – 330 years of history in 19 minutes – has to be one of the best ( if not the best) history synopsis I’ve seen of anywhere. An excellent example of how a city lives through its people and how its culture lives through its stories. Sharp, witty, engaging, and to the point, tourist boards the world over could take a lesson from this man’s book. If you’re in the neighborhood, it’s definitely worth a visit.

The great teardown of Minneapolis which saw 200 buildings razed in 5 years has left its twin city, St Paul, just a tad more attractive.

IMG_4037 (800x600)IMG_4033 (800x600)The Cathedral of Saint Paul, which opened its doors to sinners in th early 1900s, is a replica of St Peter’s in Rome. Sitting atop of Cathedral Hill, its copper dome shines down over the city. JFK attended 11am mass there on 7 October 1962 and the pew in which is sat is now marked with a bronze plaque. There’s also a stone from the castle in  Rouen, France, where Joan of Arc was imprisoned back in 1431. It’s a magnificent building, in stark contrast to the last church I was in, but beautiful, too, in its own right. My favourite part was the Shrine of Nations, a series of mini altars/chapels featuring saints from around the world, including our own St Patrick.

IMG_3999 (800x591)IMG_4016 (800x600)The drive up to the Cathedral took us through the posh part of town, with massive old houses lining both sides of Summit Avenue. Had we had time, I’d happily have spent an afternoon just walking the streets wondering who lived where (F. Scott Fitzgerald was a local in his day). As it was, I was IMG_4006 (800x600)already praying I’d win a lottery so I, too, might afford the view.

One of these houses was home to a certain James J Hill, a man who was before his time.  A man with a vision. Canadian by birth, he made his way to the States when he was 17 where he worked as a mud clerk on the Mississippi.  He made his millions on the railroads, and married  a waitress from his local café. Mrs Hill never forgot whence she came and ensured that her kitchen help had wooden floors to stand on rather that stone IMG_4019 (800x600)flags. It was the first house in the city to be fully electrified back in 1890 – 9 miles of wire it took to wire it up. In its day, Hill’s art collection was valued at $1.7 million, all housed in his private gallery, also home to a 1006-pipe organ. Add this to the 156 rugs that cover the floors on three landings, the 2000 square feet of hallway, and the fabulous stained glass windows (he’s said to have turned down designs submitted by Tiffany), it’s a house I’d have little trouble imagining myself living in.

IMG_4028 (800x600)IMG_4030 (800x600)IMG_4064 (800x600)IMG_4059 (800x600)He had showers in the bedrooms. The master suites had walk-in wardrobes. The place was fire proofed (no one wooden beam touches another), burglary-proofed (stylish steel grids on doors) and for a man who was permanently blind in his right eye and fond of an onion sandwich before hitting the sack, James J was quite the character.

The dining room, where he hosted President McKinley for dinner has a gold-leaf ceiling and leather walls with a 25-foot long dining table. I was salivating. The massive red house next door was his wedding present to one of his sons. [Dad?]

It was a different world back then. In many ways arguably a better one, a simpler one. But like anything, this appreciation might well have depended on how far up the IMG_4069 (800x600)stairs you were sleeping. It was a lovely glimpse into times gone by and further confirmation that the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St Paul have a lot going for them – not least among which is their hospitality. It’s been a while since I’ve felt so at home. Thanks MB & J.

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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.

 

 

One of the last questions I ask myself as I pack my bags and get ready to move on is whether or not I could live wherever it is I am leaving. Considering how spoilt I am in the homes I have – Ireland and Hungary – it takes a lot for me to say yes. And it takes a helluva of a lot for my yes to be a resounding, unhesitating, yes! But Madison, WI? There’s a city I could move to tomorrow (assuming the next POTUS is someone I can bear to look at).

State capital and university town, Madison is big enough not to know everyone and small enough to be walkable. And it has heart. I could tell. I can tell a lot of the spirit of a town by its signage. What? I hear you say. You’d move countries based on a few signs? Well, I never said my brand of logic was for everyone. But given how I make my decisions, that’s more research than I’ve ever done.

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The city sits between two lakes  – Mendota and Monona (the latter is the one into which Otis Redding’s plane crashed). And there are three more close by: Lake Waubesa, Lake Kegonsa and Lake Wingra. Of its 94 square miles, over 17 are under water. It’s quite something to look out over the frozen expanse of water and wonder how much lotto I’d have to win to be able to afford a lakeside property.

Home to about a quarter of a million people,
Madison oozes an appeal rarely found in my American experience (even though I’m a great fan of the US of A). Everywhere I looked, I IMG_3875 (800x600)saw humour, generosity, and a charming ‘what the hell, life is for living’ attitude. I admit to having a serious case of the moves. And it wasn’t just the thoughts of warm cookies being delivered up to 3am. The city seems to be making a concerted effort to stay local, support local, and be different. That I applaud. The city’s farmer’s market is the country’s largest producer-only market with over 300 stalls. And on a per capita basis, the people here buy more books than anywhere else in the country (okay, so there’s a big university, which by the way numbers 24 Pulitzers and 17 Nobel prizes in its alumni…. perhaps no surprise about the books). It has 260 parks in the city itself and one of the 10 free zoos in the country. And perhaps what’s most endearing – its nicknames include Mad City and Madtown.

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IMG_3816 (800x600)IMG_3821 (800x600)The State Capitol is at the  city’s heart. No building in town can be taller than it and nothing new can be built within a mile of it. It’s the second tallest dome in the country, after, of course, the one in Washington DC. The day I was there, a massive schools art exhibit was in progress and there was
certainly a lot of talent on display. Stunningly gorgeous, it was inviting and inclusive and almost homely, despite the gilded ceilings and the fancy columns. I was particularly impressed with a poster pointing to understanding assumptions.

IMG_3824 (600x800)IMG_3846 (800x600)Walking the streets of Madison, I was completely taken with the place. And I started to think about going back to school – again.  But I’m being fanciful, I know. Still, though, it’s dreams like these that keep me young inside. The possibilities life offers are endless. How cool is that, eh?

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IMG_3898 (800x588)And, of course, there’s also the FLW connection. I know I keep banging on about him but what can I say, I like the chap. There’s a convention centre in Madison that he designed – or at least, he drew the original drawings. There was some fighting with City Council over his IMG_3902 (800x600)
plans to extend out over the lake (and I wondered about the Infinity Room in Jordan’s House on the Rock and how it is supposed to be a tribute to Wright). His signature is there, though, on the wall, as is a bust of the man himself. There’s also quite a stunning photo exhibition of IMG_3905 (800x600)his work which gives some idea of what a proliferate architect he was. I was suitably awed.  Yes, Madison left its mark. It’s an amazing little city in a state that has much to offer by way of hospitality and frozen custard. I mightn’t be on the  next plane, but it’s been filed away for future reference.

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