Walking on air

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’

2016 Grateful 40

Back in January 2009, having moved into a newly refurbished flat that was no where near as finished as I’d hoped it to be, I had forsaken my right to call the landlord when something went wrong. I was the landlord.

Far from the near ecstasy I’d expected, I was feeling a little blah. Somehow I’d thought that being a property owner came with a newfound sense of maturity, an entry into the adulthood that had so far escaped me. But I felt no different.

I wasn’t depressed. I’ve suffered from depression and I don’t use the term lightly. It was more of a general WTF feeling. The anticlimax of reaching a goal, realising that life hadn’t changed all that much, and wondering what next.

I was in contact with a number of people around the world who were following my move to Budapest with some interest. Back then, I wrote real letters. I’d spend an afternoon in a bar over a few pints, penning away on my foolscap pages (lined, of course) and then braving the post office. Someone mentioned blogging. Explained that I could write and post and let people know what was going on. If they wanted to read, they would read. And it would give me something to do.

So I started.

On Friday, I posted my 1000th post. Hard to believe. What began as an account of my renovation/refurnishing morphed into a travel blog peppered with random reviews, a grateful series, and some general commentary on stuff. It’s fascinating to see what catches people’s attention. My most popular post-in-a-day with 407 hits in just one day began like this:

Down3I fell completely, madly, hopelessly in love today. I’d met him before, briefly, a couple of years ago, and while mildly taken with him then, it was nothing compared to what I experienced today. A drop in the ocean. A grain of rice in a paddy field. A grape in a vineyard. Today, I fell hook, line, and sinker. He’s cute. He’s blonde. He’s constantly smiling. And he’s two.

[Update: Finn now has a lovely little sister and is still making the world smile.]

My piece on Ágnes Gereb got more than 1100 hits…

While the rest of us have been busy getting on with our lives, most likely taking our freedom and ability to travel from A to B completely for granted, Dr Ágnes Geréb is still in detention, of sorts. Can it really be five years since I first wrote about her? Yes. I checked the dates. My piece published in the Budapest Times on 25 October 2010. And that’s as good as five years ago.

[Update: Ágnes is still battling for that same freedom the rest of us take for granted.]

One of the most read posts, with close on 700  curious to know more, also involved people. It began:

IMG_0341 (800x600)I love a good speech. And I love a good wedding. And it doesn’t get much better when you have both together. One of the lucky ones who got to see the gorgeous Dora Nyiregyhazki marry the equally gorgeous  Edward Quinlan in Budapest yesterday, I was struck, not for the first time, by the wonder that is marriage.

[Update: Mr and Mrs Quinlan are still poster children for the institution of marriage.]

A piece on migrants in Hungary also got a lot of attention:

refugees_walk_beside_motorwayHungary has made the news in Ireland. When I was there last week it seemed like all anyone was talking about was the migration situation. Pictures of Keleti train station. Pictures of Szeged. Pictures of the fence. Pictures of families sitting, waiting for an uncertain future. The one overriding question asked of me was “Is it as bad as they say?” And the only answer to that is no. It’s worse.

[Update: Syrian refugees (and many others) as still fleeing to Europe and Europe is still dithering about what to do.]

Given the month that’s in it, and in memory of the man who never failed to make me laugh, I can’t not mention Ronnie (RIP).

IMG_3375 (600x800)Each year, for the last four years, Ronnie Thompson would come to Budapest in March. The Londoner visited at other times, too, but it was his March visits that I best remember. Ronnie wouldn’t have won any prizes for being the tallest chap in the room, but he made up for it by being larger than life itself when he headed up the annual St Patrick’s Day parade in the city. Ronnie was our mascot – our leprechaun – our piece of magic that made the day special.

[Update: Ronnie was spoken of fondly at the recent St Patrick’s Day parade and was missed by many. Hope he was having a dram or three upstairs as he looked down on the shenanigans.]

All human interest. All stuff I like to write about. But I have a varied audience. Some are regular readers, some dip in and out, some save and catch up in bulk. When I travel, I write for a core few who, for whatever reason, don’t get to move around as much as they used to. And while those posts may not rack up the numbers, they’re even more important … to me. They’re my postcards, my letters from abroad, my way of staying in touch with people I’ve met along the way. People who have contributed to making me the person I am today. For better or worse 🙂

Thank you for reading.

Seven steps to near heaven

Fusing the flavours of the Far East with those of Europe, Baraka was born in Budapest in 2001. This gem of a restaurant has seen three lifetimes in the city. From a modest infancy on Magyar Utca to its demure teens in the MaMaison Hotel on Andrássy, it has now come of age in the beautiful Palazzo Dorottya just off Vorosmarty tér.  I had the address and still walked by the place twice. It’s easy to miss – whether by design or happenstance, I’m not sure.

baraka-5968 (800x533)I had fond memories of eating there back in 2013 so when invited by a friend to try out its most recent incarnation, I didn’t think twice.

We like our food. We like our tipple, too. He had assured me that the cocktail bar (the cleverly named Akabar) was to be taken seriously. He was right. You can eat there, too, but we were saving ourselves for the seven-course degustation menu. Recently inspired to pair my meals with gins rather than wines, I opted to forego the latter in favour of the former. That said, I did sneak a peek at the wine list. The champagne offer alone is impressive and the wines very representative of Hungary.

baraka-6018 (800x533)My overall first impression of the dining room was that of space. The tables are set far enough apart to allow some modicum of privacy in an open-plan room that seats 38 in all. Separated from the kitchen by a glass wall, chef Norbert Biro and his team work their magic in full view of anyone who cares to look. And again, just as with the cocktails in Akabar, food is taken seriously at Baraka.

schrimp carpaccio (800x533)We started with a white shrimp carpaccio with coriander spinach pesto, and a coconut prawn velouté. Coriander, spinach, and coconut rank up there among my favourite foods of all time so I was in heaven. In fact, we both were. It salmon (800x533)would be a hard act to follow. Next we had Acacia wood-smoked Scottish salmon, with butternut squash, wasabi, and goat’s cheese. While it certainly looked the part, the wasabi didn’t quite work for me. That said, I cleaned my plate regardless.

scallop yuzu buttermilk 2 (800x538)Next came a choice between scallops with yuzu buttermilk, a tomato confit, and candied egg yolk or seared foie gras with poached pear, port, and peanut. Few foods trump scallops in my culinary book and although not a great fan of tomatoes, I’m even less keen on foie gras. And as I’d never knowingly eaten a yuzu before, I was keen to try this Japanese citrus fruit once we had been introduced. I was glad when my half-hearted offer to share a taste was turned down. My friend had opted for the foie gras and was, by the looks of it, equally happy that he didn’t have to share his either.

Next up was the sweet potato and leek ravioli with a green curry velouté, a simple dish that seriously challenged the shrimp carpaccio.  At this stage, I was wondering where I’d find the room to finish. Degustation menus can be deceiving. The portions may seem small but when you take into account the richness of the seven courses and the plethora of tastes involved, it adds up. It didn’t help, of course, that the leek bread served as an accompaniment was positively orgasmic, lending some credence to the rumour that David Seboek (baker of said bread) wooed his wife and co-owner Leora and won her heart through his baking.

atlantic cod (800x533)Our second, and final choice, was between Atlantic cod with miso, cilantro, and squid-ink gnocchi and Hungarian deer loin with fig, ginger, mascarpone, chestnut, and chocolate. Usually anything with chocolate gets my vote but I just can’t do figs. So I went with the cod and found it just a tad too salty. It might have been the miso.

Rounding off what will be remembered as an almost perfect meal, we enjoyed a cheese plate and a selection of handmade desserts. Usually anything in the dessert line gets a short shrift but I was so full that I had to savour each morsel and savour I did. Delectable.

I’ve had a few taster menus in my time, the most recent before this being at the Michelin-starred Costes. And while the food at Baraka ranks right up there, I’d have liked a little more conscious, nay confident, discourse about what I was eating. It’s not on everyone’s wish list, but I like to know the provenance of my food and how it has been prepared. It all adds to the experience.

The seven-course degustation will set you back 25 000 ft (39 000 ft with wine pairing) and is worth every forint.

First published in the Budapest Times 25 March 2016

Fearing fear

I went to bed one night this week, planning a round-the-world trip to celebrate a big birthday later this year. I was imagining where I might go, who I might visit, what I might do. I fell asleep trying to figure out how long I could reasonably take off work or how much work I could do when travelling.

I awoke up to hear that Brussels had been bombed. The airport. The metro. Brussels? Brussels! Brussels?! The core of the European Union. The city from which the EU is governed. A city that many of my diplomat friends have called home and many others still call home.

I’m left wondering why I’m so surprised.

Istanbul, a city I’ve visited just once, but one that was high on my list of places to go back to, has seen a slew of attacks in recent months. Streets I walked on. Cafés I passed by. Corners on which I stood breathing in the city. Blown up. Gone. Perhaps amongst the dead and wounded are people I met in passing. I’ll never know.

Paris, a city I reconnected with last year, another city high on my list of places to go back to, has also been a victim of the terrorism that’s plaguing the world. Could I ever watch a football game or go to a music venue there without wondering what if? I’m not sure.

brusselsAnd now Brussels. I’ve been there a number of times. I prefer their chocolate truffles to their beer. As I write, the casualty count has hit the hundred mark and the metro is set to reopen. The airport? That’s another story.

French physicist and Nobel Prize winner Marie Curie said once that nothing in life is to be feared; it is only to be understood. I grew up with the IRA and learned from an early age that terrorists win by changing how we live our lives, by instilling fear, by inducing paranoia.  I thought I understood enough not to be afraid, not to change, not to fear. Now, I’m not sure.

I used to take comfort in the fact that a fortune teller told me once that I’d live until I was 87. Have at it lads, I thought. I’m invincible for a few years yet. But then they never said what sort of life it would be. Terrorist attacks leave more than death and destruction in their wake. Hearts and souls are irreparably damaged. Children grow up far too quickly. Parents grow old far too soon. And the ugly seeds of distrust are sown. Yes, fear makes strangers of people who would be friends (a nod to actress Shirley MacLaine there).

Later, as the news from Belgium flooded the Net, I checked out Budapest, using the metro, the tram, the bus. And everywhere I saw the same thing. Crowds of tourists and locals alike going about their business but now under the watchful eye of pairs of armed police and soldiers strategically positioned on street corners, in metro stations, by tram stops. I felt a modicum of safety at this rapid response, but know in my heart of hearts that if IS wants to find a way, it will. Sky News reported one IS Commander quoted in an online Islamist magazine as saying: My advice is to stop looking for specific targets, hit everyone and everything. And that would appear to be their MO. I doubt I will ever understand what drives them. Or what makes it okay in their eyes to cut short the lives of random strangers. I doubt I will ever believe in any cause enough to knowingly and willingly terrorise those who don’t.

And while I might be more vigilant as I travel, I will still go. Because, more than anything else, I fear fear itself. I do not want to be afraid.

First published in the Budapest Times 25 March 2016

Floured

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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2016 Grateful 41

There’s a lot to be said for being Irish. We have a finely honed sense of self-deprecation that means we laugh at ourselves before anyone else can put the boot in. Our mammies are a collective repository of such gems as:

  • A little birdie told me
  • How’d you know you don’t like it if you haven’t tasted it?
  • Don’t make me get up
  • There’s enough dirt in those ears to grow potatoes!
  • If you fall off that wall and break your legs don’t come running to me!

And we all recognise the following traits:

ST P

And while there are times it mightn’t be all that great to be Irish in Ireland (do we have a government yet?) it’s always good to be Irish abroad. This weekend in Budapest was a particular case in point.

I like to dress up. I like the long frocks and the heels and the black ties. I like the round tables, and the pomp and ceremony that goes with it all. But there’s a fine line between boring and brilliant – and these event can go either way. This year’s St Patrick’s Gala Dinner was the best of the four (?) I’ve been to. And to think that I nearly didn’t go! Me and 227 others sat down to eat at in the ballroom of the Marriott Hotel with an illuminated Buda Castle district as our backdrop. The views were stunning.

IRishBy way of entertainment, the Irish dancing was more of the Flatley kind than the traditional embroidered costumes and ringlets I was expecting. And while some traditionalists might have preferred the latter, I was mega impressed with what was on show. A lone male dancer held the stage, more than ably assisted by a bevvy of Hungarian females with figures to die for and talent oozing out of their heels. Speeches were short, sweet and to the point and the traditional music throughout the night was there – not too much there, but there. Irish music students from the Kodaly Institute were also on hand with some beautiful renditions of Irish songs – the Rattlin’ Bog went down a treat. Finishing off with a DJ was inspired – it was like a brilliant wedding …. without the bride and groom. Mind you, I did wonder at the Argentinian steak for the main course, but then remembered the Che Guevara was of good Irish stock, so that covered that:

The first thing to note is that in my son’s veins flowed the blood of the Irish rebels. —Ernesto Guevara Lynch, speaking of his son, Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara.

GOod FridayIt was a late one. A very late one. And not for the first time, I wondered at our insatiable need to party on, and not stop till we drop. We had a pre-party, the party itself, and an after party. Give the considerable number of collective years of experience to hand, I have to admit to being more than a little impressed by our staying power. (Thanks to TJ and DJ for hosting.) Am already sorting a table for next year…

Sunday was understandably slow in starting but it, too, managed to wheedle the last ounce of energy from those still feeling the effects of the night before. The St  Patrick’s Day parade has become a feature of March life in Budapest and thousands showed up at Szabadság tér to follow St Patrick as he led the procession through the streets of the city to end up at Instant where more than a dozen bands set up shop in various rooms and corners to entertain the masses. From traditional pipers to pagan punk bellydancers, folk, trad, blues were all covered, too. Everyone was sporting a bit of green (even if this was simply looking green at the gills) and the general bonhomie was tangible. A brilliant day.

Massive amounts of organizing went into both events. Kudos to all those involved. I’m exceptionally grateful that all I had to do both days was show up and be Irish.

All afloat

Even with the might of Google at my fingertips, I can’t find anything definitive on when the first parade took place. There is vague talk of Mesopotamian rulers who liked to adorn public walls with pictures of them walking on the heads of their enemies while marching ahead of their troops. It’s not a huge leap from that to actual marches, military displays of might and conquests.

The noun itself would appear to date back to the fifteenth century from the French word parade – a show of bravado or an assembly of troops for inspection. Or there’s the Italian parate – a garish setting forth. Or the Spanish parada – a staying or stopping. Apparently the non-military meaning, that of a march or procession, was first recorded in the 1670s. Yep. Parades have been around for a while.

Everyone’s heard of the Mardi Gras in New Orleans and the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade in New York, the latter around since 1924 and watched by 3 million+ TV viewers last year. But it’s Hanover that lays claim the longest parade in the world – the Hanover Schützenfest – said to be 12 kilometres long with more than 12,000 participants from all over the world, including more than 100 bands and around 70 floats and carriages. That’s a hard one to top. But I’m sure, it, too, had its humble beginnings.

IMG_3444The St Patrick’s Day parade in Budapest is a baby in comparison. Born in 2011, it’s been growing at a rate equal to any rambunctious five-year-old. I was the unofficial counter back at the start and my tally showed 546 people in procession. The following year, I got to count again and came in at 998 [and yes, I was too obdurate to tack on another two to break the 1000, which is probably why I was fired… temporarily]. Last year I missed it – unlike the 3500 people parading in Budapest, I was in Naples watching the Pope being set upon by a naggin of nuns who had been let out for the day to see him parade through the streets. In terms of entertainment, it ran a close second.

IMG_3401This year, although Müpa turned green on Thursday to mark the annual Feast Day of one of Ireland’s patron saints (yes, we have three: poor St Brigid and St Colomba barely get a mention these days), the parade itself will be on Sunday, 20th March. Kicking off at 1.30 pm from Szabadság tér, the thousands (my money is on 4172 people showing) will parade through the streets of the city and end up at Instant on Nagymező where the party will kick off in earnest.

IMG_2695 (800x593)And there will be floats. Our baby is out of nappies and into short trousers. It’s growing up. Local schools have been invited to build floats made out of at least 50% recycled materials, taking the greening of St Patrick’s Day to a whole new level. I’m not quite sure what’s in store but I’ve been hearing stories of giant shamrocks, supersized rugby balls, and all sorts. And bringing it down to individual level, there’s the shamrock-in-a-vase initiative. Just make yourself a big shamrock from recycled materials, stick it in a recycled vase, and bring it with you on the day. It’ll certainly make a change from walking the dog. [Note: Green groups will gather outside Farger café.]

Demos have their place. As do protest marches. But every now and again, it’s nice to march in celebration, just for the fun of it. And if you need an excuse to take to the streets and party, St Patrick has kindly volunteered to steer your course. See you (and your shamrock) on Sunday from 1.30 pm at Szabadság tér.

First published in the Budapest Times 18 March 2016

Bussin’ on up…

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.

 

 

Moving to Madtown?

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.

IMG_3836 (800x600)IMG_3835 (600x800)IMG_3840 (600x800)IMG_3852 (800x600) (2)IMG_3868 (800x600)IMG_3869 (800x600)IMG_3870 (800x600) The overwhelming sense I got was one of culture and caring mixed in with a healthy dose of quirkiness and little fear of being different.

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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2016 Grateful 42

When I get something in my head, I’m like a chicken with a speck of blood.I start to fixate. I have even been known to obsess. Sometimes, though, life interrupts my efforts to realise whatever it is I’ve gotten wrapped up in and something else takes over. But not always.

Having discovered that the House on the Rock wasn’t one of Frank Lloyd Wright’s creations, I was determined to visit a building that was. Taliesin, his home place, was closed for the season so I had to look farther afield. Apparently some proud owners of Wright’s houses are happy for people to rock up to their front door and ask for a viewing but I couldn’t bring myself to do that. If I owned one, I can’t think of anything more annoying.  But GP, the queen of Wisconsin, came to the rescue.

IMG_3757 (800x600)IMG_3779 (800x600)In the city of Milwaukee there’s a church – the Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church. It was one of Wright’s last major commissions. He actually died before it was officially opened, which is a shame. A shame that he missed seeing the effect it has on people.

I was also eager to see it because I had heard that it was what Ayn Rand based the Stoddard Temple on in her book, The Fountainhead. But that bubble has burst. Stoddard, apparently, was based on a Wright-designed church, but on a 1906 Unitarian church he designed in Oak Park, Illinois – Unity Temple. [Fascinating article here on the Rand/Wright relationship.] But I didn’t know this when I was there. The one I was sitting in was built to human scale, with no traditional religious imagery (or minimal imagery, if you discount the floor plan being in the shape of a Greek cross). It matched.

IMG_3764 (800x600)IMG_3773 (800x600)It is one of the most beautiful churches I’ve been in. And so comfortable. Not a word I’d usually associate with a church. But why not? What is it about church architecture that says no to comfort? Perhaps people might spend more time in them if they were more IMG_3776 (800x600)welcoming.

The pre-service (if that’s what it was … ) started at 8.30 am so we had an early start to be sure to be there on time. When we arrived, the car park was nearly empty – not a good sign. And there were just four others in the church, not including the priest (cantIMG_3766 (591x800)or?), who was already in full voice. Did I mention it was Greek Orthodox?

I was clueless. We sat. We listened. I got lost. People started arriving around 9.20 and the mass itself started at 9.30. And people kept arriving. Conversation happened all the while. Old and young alike stopped to say hi to friends and neighbours. It was all very convivial and so not Roman Catholic. The choir in the upper balcony was in fine fettle. The congregation resembled the cast of My Big Greek Wedding and was remarkably white. It made for some great people watching. Two hours into it all, things were still going strong. But the pews were comfortable. I said that, right? As neither of us had been baptised into the Orthodox faith, we couldn’t take communion. This was clearly stated on the leaflet. But we could partake in the bread afterwards (even if I’m still not sure what that was about). It wasn’t easy to figure out the ritual or to understand all that was being said and sung. But it did feel holy. In a surreal sort of way.

I was particularly taken with how relaxed everyone was. And how right the church felt. How usable. How for the people. I’ve been in modern churches and not liked them much. I think they often fail to capture the spirit of it all. I’ve been to fabulous old ones, too, that while stunningly gorgeous, are just a tad too ornate to be real. But this was different. It was simple, usable, and cosy without being small. It didn’t take much imagination on my part to see the Man himself stopping by and sitting down for a chat.

Back in 1958, in a letter in which he refers to the church, Wright had this to say:

The edifice is in itself a complete work of modern art and science belonging to today but dedicated to ancient tradition—contributing to Tradition instead of living upon it.

This week, thousands of miles removed from Milwaukee, I’m grateful that I had the chance to experience Wright’s work. The last time I spent so long in a church was in Prague, one Easter, when I had to turn to someone standing beside me and check to make sure I was at mass, in a Roman Catholic Church. It went on forever with 13 readings … in Czech. That I resented. This was different. This was special.