2016 Grateful 20

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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A walk through a cancer survivors park

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.

 

 

A parallel universe

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 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.IMG_4174 (600x800)

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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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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’

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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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.

 

 

 

Mistaken identity

On occasion my own stupidity astonishes me. I’m gullible. There are times I find it hard to distinguish between fact and fiction. And sometimes I just get the wrong end of the paper plate. Like thinking that the House on the Rock near Spring Green, Wisconsin, was a controversial creation by architect Frank Lloyd Wright. I couldn’t have been  more wrong.

Having just missed the last tour the day before, we drove back the following morning in plenty of time to make the 11 o’clock first tour of the day. As we hung around the visitors centre, it soon became clear that Wright’s wasn’t the mind behind the madness. It was Alex Jordan’s. And who, in the name of all that’s ever been draughted, was Alex Jordan, we wondered and why had I given up a day in Chicago to tour the one and only thing he ever designed or built? A house that has been called the tackiest place in America. A house that some call creepy? A house that others say is evil?

IMG_3587 (800x542)The story has it that Jordan’s father wanted to build a parody of FLW’s work in the shape of a Japanese house. Jordan took over the project from him and the original house came to be, a warren of low-ceilinged, dark IMG_3594 (800x589)IMG_3593 (800x600)IMG_3610 (800x600)rooms, lit with lamps that look like Tiffany lamps but are not. In fact, lots of stuff looks like other stuff, but isn’t. It seems Jordan took great delight in fooling people and would pay more for a good forgery that he might for the real thing. The place has no freestanding furniture or designated bedroom and while certainly intriguing and different, it’s not built to live in. It’s a house, not a home.

I was enthralled. I still haven’t decided if I liked it but it certainly made an impression. Every nook and cranny has something to look at. The lighting is poor though and the carpeted ceilings take some getting use to. Seats are built into walls. Trees and waterfalls vie for space with pianos and double-bases.  Random collections of musical IMG_3607 (800x600)instruments play tunes like the Hungarian Rhapsody. It’s all very surreal.

The house itself is accessed by a long wooden walkway that wends its way through the treetops high above the ground below. The view is magical. Especially in winter.

IMG_3598 (800x600)IMG_3637 (800x600)IMG_3612 (800x600)IMG_3656 (800x600)As Jordan added bits and pieces, people passing by started asking for a look around. And he started charging 50c for the privilege. He used this money to indulge his obsession for collecting things, sending staff around the world in search of oddities to add to his retreat. (Where was I when he was hiring?) If he spent three nights in the place, that was it. And while I liked its quirkiness, it would he horrible to heat, terrible to read in, and way too dark for sanity. But it is certainly something.

As we went from room to room walking in procession along the winding corridors that seemed subterranean, I was struck by a sense of displacement. I usually have no trouble imagining myself living anywhere. I have a fondess for stately homes and can lose myself in IMG_3664 (800x600)IMG_3658 (800x600)IMG_3661 (800x600)fantasies about holding court around a vast dining-room table without much trouble, the overwhelming sense I had here was one of extreme loneliness. Jordan called it a retreat and it is just that – a retreat – somewhere to escape to, to be alone, to lose yourself in. And get lost I would. Never the best at
orientiation, I was completely lost and didn’t know which way was up.

The lamps, the blue-glassed windows, the stained glass, the stones, the rocks, the trees.  My favourite room in the whole place though, wasn’t the library. It was the infinity room. At 218  feet long it has 3264 windows
and  extends unsupported for about 140 feet over the valley below about 15 stories high. Now this was a room I could spend time in. If it had a chair. Or a couch. I’d even settle for a beanbag.

IMG_3620 (800x600)IMG_3624 (800x600)IMG_3704 (800x600)IMG_3713 (800x600)IMG_3717 (800x600)IMG_3725 (800x600)I imagine though that it could get a little hairy in high winds and I’m not all that sure about the glass floor at the end – looking through that was a little head-wrecking. But it is absolutely stunning. Breathtaking.  Even if it wasn’t FLW.

But the house was only the half of it. The madness continued. In 1971, Streets of Yesterday opened. This indoor re-creation of old time America is a nostalgic look at how things used to be. There’s a hotel, a cinema, a theatre, shops, houses, and what’s claimed
to be the world’s biggest carousel. There’s fortune-telling machines, French postcard viewers, cobbestones, and trees. There’s all sorts of stuff you can try out with tokens. And because we were only getting half the tour (it being winter), we got our
tokens for free.

The full tour can take a day and is miles long – literally – dotted with restaurants and cafés. The complete attraction experience. While I thought the house was mad, this was bordering on twee. Not quite there, but it’s just one angelhair of candy floss away. And it’s all down to one man’s determination to build stuff people would want to some see, an attraction tailored-made for middle America. Frank Lloyd Wright it ain’t but  it’s certainly something.

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We planned, Wisconsin laughed

I was excited. Very excited. The day was planned. A lunchtime catch-up with a cousin I’d not seen in years in Wisconsin Dells, followed by a visit to the Clown Museum in Baraboo. And then on to Spring Green to see the House on the Rock, the Franklin Lloyd Wright masterpiece. It didn’t get much better.

I have fond (and not so fond) memories of rooting in the lining of my bag to see if I could conjure up another quarter in some vain attempt to make good on my losses in Vegas. I wouldn’t have thought myself able to pass a slot machine or a roulette wheel or a Caribbean Stud table without stopping to place a quick bet. A couple of years ago, in Vegas, I discovered that the casino gene had left me, so when my cousin suggested meeting  for lunch in the Ho Chunk  Casino in Wisconsin Dells, I didn’t have to clean out my wallet and leave the credit cards at home.

IMG_3532 (800x600)IMG_3534 (800x600)Waterfalls running indoors beside escalators. Eagles suspended from a blue-cloud ceiling. All running  to the background music of slot machines and the heady smell of cigarettes and beer. I came, I saw, I ate, I chatted, and I never laid a bet. A minor miracle.

Wisconsin Dells needs to be seen in summer when the boats are running and you can get a full view of the amazing rock formations. Add that to the fact that my cousin’s hubby is a dab hand at making brandy old fashioneds and I can see a reason to come back.

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IMG_3547 (600x800)Next stop was Baraboo, the winter home of Ringling Bros., and Barnum and Bailey circuses from the late 1880s to the end of WWII. Where is Dr Who when you need him… I’d happily go back in time to say, 1904, and come visit then. It must have been amazing. All those exotic animals, off-duty clowns, acrobats with nothing but trees to swing out of… just imagine the craic in the pub on a Saturday night. I was like a child. So excited. But all for nowt. The place was closed up. For the winter. I was gutted.

IMG_3549 (600x800)“What began in 1959 with less than an acre of land, six old circus wagons and a boatload of passion, has now become an internationally recognized and respected institution encompassing 64 acres, 30 permanent structures, seven winter quarters buildings along Water Street, plus the Ringling Bros. Circus Train shed complex. Circus World is Wisconsin’s National Treasure.” This I got from the website. The rest I saw through the windows and fences. Cruel, I thought. So cruel, to be on the outside looking in.

IMG_3550 (800x600)Yet another reason to go back to Wisconsin in summer. The 4th Annual Big Top Parade takes place in July… mmmm…  And while I’m in the vicinity, I might just check out the summer clown workshops at the clown school. Never too late to entertain thoughts of a career change.

IMG_3553 (800x600)Baraboo looked like an interesting little town but it was too damn cold to walk around. With temperatures at the minus level, the wind had a bite to it that would break through the downiest down. We stayed just long enough to snoop around the buildings, bump into the local alligator, peer through a few windows, and satisfy ourselves that there was no way we were getting inside.  Later investigations revealed that Bradbury Robinson, he who threw the first forward pass in football history, grew up here. And we missed out on visiting Aldo Leopold’s shack (actually a rehabilitated chicken coop) – a historic monument that dates back to the 1930s. I can’t tell you how good that made me feel. As I added yet another note to my mental list of places to revisit, we soldiered onwards, to Spring Green.

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Wisconsin is flat. And famous for its cheese. They’re big into cheese. Green Bay Packers fans are known as cheeseheads because they wear hats that look like blocks of cheese. Whatever curdles your whey, I say. We passed many old barns in chronic states of disrepair and as I wondered aloud why they were left standing, I learned that it’s from these barns that the ever-so-expensive furniture made from distressed wood gets its start. Yup. The barns are left standing to age the wood. Could it be that natural aging that ups the price? Can a price be put on the humidifier effect of Wisconsin air?

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We pulled up to the House on the Rock [having been denied a view from the road because the scenic look-out was closed (?)] knowing from the website that it wasn’t open but hoping that we might get to see it from the outside anyway. We were fast becoming old hands at sneaking around. But we saw cars. And people. And when we made to park, an attendant came over and told us that they’d just closed. The last tour had been at 3pm! So much for updating your website, lads! I can’t tell you how unimpressed I was. I could see the programme for the next few days reshuffling itself as I wondered what I was prepared to give up so that we could drive back the next day to see it all. I really wanted to see it – in part because I quite like FLW and in part because of my late friend Rex who had been heavily influenced by the architect when he designed and built his house in Kentucky. I figured I could pay homage of sorts. So I mentally gave up Chicago…

It had been a good day, even if Winsonsin was closed. I’d caught up with my cousin, passed up on a bet, added Clown School to my bucket list, and would know the way back  tomorrow.