Wednesday, July 21, 2004

Out and About in Minnesota.

We went out Friday night to a great Mexican restauarant with some friends. For once the waitress had no trouble understanding me. Turned out she had been in Australia for a while last year and said she recognised the accent straight away. Anyway, this couple had been together for 7 years but married only a few months. They were runners, half marathons etc. In a mad anerobic moment during a race in Arizona he had asked her to marry her. She said yes, and next day they were in Las Vegas to tie the knot. He had to go out into the street and pay some passer-by $5 to be a witness. I have always wanted to meet a Las Vegas spur of the moment wedding couple. Mission accomplished!
On Saturday we headed off into the country to Morgan via New Ulm and Sleepy Eye (what a great name for a town!). I wanted to visit a vineyard, Fieldstone, that I had called in on a couple of years ago.
It was just in the development stage then but the owner and I had kept up email contact and he has now 2 vintages under his belt, It's funny to see this small vineyard tucked away at the back of beyond in amongst the corn and bean fields. But he wanted to diversify and had got some like minded farmers in the area to plant grapes as well. He developed an old barn into a winery, tasting room and reception centre. It all looks great and the wine, made from native grapes or hybrids, is not too bad. One of his reds had won medals in a major American show. He also has fruit wines but they were pretty sweet. He made us taste them all and I ended up with a few bottles of Seyval Blanc and Frontinac rose.
New Ulm is the centre of the German American community and they have all sorts of German festivals there during the year. In fact they play up the German heritage thing outrageously. The architecture all over town is very Germanic. There was hardly an anglo name in the cemetery.
We then headed to another vineyard, Morgan Creek. The wines there were, in a word, awful! Most were sweet or semi sweet, even the reds. They had a mixture of vinifera and labrusca based wines. Their top red at $20 a bottle was obviously oxidised, the Gewuerztraminer had been pressed to an inch of its life with a resultant tannic finish. This didn't seem to stop the crowd that was there from buying though. The place was packed. I think they need to apply a strict winery hygiene regime, if not to improve the quality, to at least get rid of the wine faults!
So then it was home via some very scenic roads. We try to keep off the state highways and interstates. By the way, if you ever see a just run over skunk ahead of you on the road, roll up the windows or turn off the air conditioning real quick. It's the most obnoxious smell ever invented and it lingers for what seems forever.
Sunday was a lazy day. We went out for a late breakfast, did some window shopping in a great cooking supplies store and hit a midday movie.
"The Notebook" is a very sappy version of a Nicholas Sparkes' book about alzheimers. It has a 2 boxes of Kleenex rating. Then we did the groceries at Byerlies and found....VEGEMITE! I have had the cravings for a few weeks now but was fighting them off. Now the withdrawals will stop.
I see that winter has finally arrived down home. Looks like an inch of rain so far. Hopefully there was not much wind damage in the region where winds reached 80km/h. Here it's warm and humid in the mid 80's with light winds.
I bought a filet of fresh wild Alaskan sockeye salmon for dinner the other night. Quite different from the farmed salmon. Very red in color, firm flesh and tasted a bit vegetative like trout. Will get some more!
The fish was washed down with a bottle of Chablis. Not the most expensive bottle in the world but have to say that if that was white burgundy, give me Australian Chardonnay any time. And this from a member of the ABC* club too!!!!!
The Australian women's soccer team is playing the USA here on Wednesday night. There is a lot of hoopla about the game. Apparently the USA think they have a chance of a gold medal at the Olympics and the Aussies are considered easy pickings. We shall see! 10,000 expected at the game.

* ABC = anything but chardonnay.

Tuesday, July 20, 2004

More Minneapolis Musings

Life was a bit less hectic the last week or so it seems. Last wednesday we went out to a fondue restaurant which was really nice but expensive for what is really a cook your own. But they even had lobster and prawns to "boil up". There was a huge wine list but it took five goes to find something they had in stock. After dipping out on chianti's and rioja's we had to settle for an Oregon Pinot Noir. It was suggested that they might be trying to up sell us but i managed to keep within the wine "budget". I asked if I got to 10 would the 11th be free? They didn't seem amused or they didn't understand what I said which is always a possibility. On the weekend we headed again for Sioux Falls. It was an early start at 4 am and there was no traffic on the road but we had fog most of the way.Visibility got down to 50-100 m in some parts.
Once there we prepared for the engagement party. This involved a pig roast (pork loin bar b q) with the traditional home made baked beans and salad followed up by cherry or lemon cake.
Thirty five turned up for a fun evening. The more energetic played volley ball until the light failed around 10 pm. The more sensible sat and drank wine. South Dakota has the slowest flying mosquitos in the world. It must be the easy going country lifestyle or they may have been designed by Boeing. They are easy prey for an Aussie swatter used to South Coast midget dive bombers.
We stayed in Aurora that night which is a little bigger than Trent but is still out in the sticks and surrounded by bean and corn fields. The town has the largest ethanol plant in the state which uses corn as its raw material. The town's other claim to fame is a strip joint, The Pound, which is very risque for this part of the midwest. We went passed the establishment at
midnight. There didn't seem to be too many customers. Maybe the management provides discrete parking.
Sunday was uneventful apart from a visit to Culvers, the home of the butter burger and more importantly, frozen custard, on the way home. A supersize chocolate would be the way to go....but I resisted! I had the smaller olympic swimming pool size.
We discovered another restaurant/bar in our block. The Town Hall Brewery makes their own beer and has a koelsch on the list. It is a copy of the well known Cologne beer. It wasn't too bad, being just a little sweeter than the original. They also have a copy of a wheat beer (wiess) which I also used to drink in Germany, so will try that next time.
Now its time for some humble pie. I may have been a bit tough on Minneapolis a few reports ago calling it dull and grim.
But further investigations have proven me wrong.
It seems that the eventual arrival of summer has brought out the street cafes and the outdoor entertainment. The city has a traffic free mall running through it which is a hive of activity. The main thing which I didn't realise at first is that all the city blocks are connected by skyways. This allows the population to move around the city "inside" avoiding the winter cold and, it seems, the summer heat. So all the eating and drinking places are incorporated into the retail and office buildings. There are some really nice shops and all the brand name boutiques are there too. A lot of the buildings have huge atriums that let the sun stream while you eat and shop in air conditioned comfort.
Now here are some comparisons with home.
The USA must have the cleanest and highest tech rest rooms in the world. From the swishest store to the lowly
interstate highway rest area, they never rate lower than 8/10.
The service level is very high in most places. No Myer indifference here in the stores. The sales staff is always
visible and they actually know something about what they are selling.
The restaurant service level may be a bit over the top for Australians but you get used to it. The "how is your meal" thing has been supplemented with the "how were the first few bites" thing which can be annoying as is the "hi, my name is brad and i will be your server for the evening. the specials today are (add 1000 items here)". The latter is about as eye glazing as the list of salad dressings. but when things need fixing they get fixed fast. You hardly ever have to wait for your bill.
I guess this is a result of the huge competition for restaurant business as well as tips being the main source of income for staff. Tipping here is a given with 15 % minimum expected. Some places even calculate it for you on your bill. One even had 20 and 25% (you're dreamin') calculations as well. It's something you really have to budget for if planning a holiday here.
As far as prices are concerned, what we pay in ausdol you usually pay here in usdol. So that makes it around 40% dearer. But some things are cheaper, petrol for instance. I am paying around the equivalent of $A0.65L. and the locals are complaining about the recent price hikes!!!!! But seeing the size of the cars, 4wd's and SUV's that are driven I guess the mpg or L/100km factor evens things up a bit.
Other cheap items are books, cd's, dvd's, going to the movies, fast food, public transport ($A2 anywhere in Minneapolis with unlimited transfers in a 3 hour period), car parking are a few I have noticed.

Friday, July 09, 2004

The 4th of July

So the independence day long weekend has come and gone with lots of fireworks, lots of nationalism and lots of fun. The Saturday was very wet and stormy so we headed over to the Mall of America, supposedly one of the biggest shopping centres in the world. It has 520 stores plus 60 restaurants, a 14 screen theatre and an amusement park, Camp Snoopy, with 30 rides all under one roof. It is considered a potential terrorist target but security seemed to be minimal. However road rage associated with parking places appears to be the major problem. A couple was stabbed there on Monday in a fight over a spot when apparently the 4th July sales caused a shortage of parking. But this could have been caused by the American phobia of never walking anywhere. These car parks are huge and usually have plenty of room but people seem to drive around and around and.....until they find a spot right at the door. God forbid you have to walk 50m!
We went to see "The Terminal" starring Tom Hanks which was a very funny movie.
Had dinner again at "Tejas", the south west style restaurant in Edina. They had changed the menu but it was just as good as last time. My Mexican duck (yes, really!) was to die for.
Next day we drove into St Paul for "Taste of Minnesota" which was a disappointment food wise. Fried food and food on a stick was the order of the day....basically carnival food. There was only beer, no wine. but the setting was nice on the river and all the paddlewheelers had arrived from down river to add a bit of "color and movement". Also lots of commercial booths selling everything from dating services to health insurance (perhaps because of the high cholesterol content of the food available), amusement rides and musical entertainment. I managed to find a great bratwurst stall that even supplied sauerkraut, pickles and mustard, just like in Germany! Tasted as good as it sounded. Huge crowds (you get used to that) were in attendance and the fashion police could have made many arrests if they hadn't obviously been on leave. The American flag was desecrated in so many ways....from jewelry, to shirts to ties to headbands etc.
MSP is the birthplace of Charles M Schulz so they celebrate Charlie Brown with statues of Snoopy all over town. I took a few pics of those but you could have taken one of them all, if you are a Snoopy fan that is. St Paul seems to be more open that Minneapolis and is nicer to walk around with more parks and many trees. They had decorated all the light poles with hanging baskets of flowers which was a nice touch.
Although summer has not arrived as yet (well it came and went!), it soon became obvious to us that the heat and humidity required us to move onto better climes. That we found at the Green Mill Brewery.
God bless America and air conditioning!
This chain of "pubs" brew their own range of beer in on site micro breweries. The Coors equivalent was great. So was the food. There is definitely a move towards "real" Asian here. Makes a change from the burgers, and I got fresh fruit with my shrimp, read prawn, wrap instead of fries.
So by the time we had eaten dessert and had a coffee at the bookstore chain of Barnes and Noble, it was time to hit the sack. We were woken later by the Minneapolis fireworks plus some residents of the apartment block with their own show. So we did really see 4th July fireworks!
Now I am going to have a whinge! Americans and Australians may say the same words but we don't speak the same language! I have never had so much trouble ordering a meal or drink. Take the word "beer" for instance. a simple one syllable word that has international meaning you would think? Not so! Well, not here anyway. I am thinking of getting cards written so I can just show the servers....would save a heap of time and reduce the ribbing I get from a certain person. There! that is off my chest.
For dinner went to a relation's new home in Hudson over the border in Wisconsin. Well it was supposed to be a light snack....nachos. But they were not like the nachos I had ever seen. Was more like a 5 course feast. They are a nice couple. She is an artist and has lots of her own work hung around the house. Some I like, some I don't. She was very adventurous with the internal color scheme of the house. Bold strong colors, yellows, greens and tans....but it all works.
He has a son in Iraq. No matter what you think about USA/Aus policy in Iraq, the anguish of the average citizen who has family in the conflict zone makes you less concerned with the politics of the situation. As usual it's the man in the street that bears the brunt of the politicians' ego based decisions.

Out and About

This weekend was busy. On Saturday we went to St. Paul for breakfast (blueberry pancakes), followed up by a visit to the science museum to see a film on volanoes, tornados and earthquakes much in the vein of the discovery channel et al. But the medium was quite unique. The seats in the theatre lay right back and before the movie started, a huge dome screen came down over us and we were surrounded. We were then in the centre of things as the movie rolled. It was a matter of hanging on, especially as the helicopter as it flew into the volcano.
Had a nice lunch at a soup and salad cafe after. Yes, this is a food and wine tour of the mid west!
That night went downstairs to one of the local bars. It was warm enough to be outside and watch the passing parade.
A bus load of young "ladies' turned up. It was obviously a hen's night. The bride to be was wearing a huge penis hat.
They came, they drank, they made lots of noise, they left.
Next morning went down to the stone arch bridge across the Mississippi and walked to a craft fair in the river park that had lots of creative things. The bridge used to be a railway bridge with 87 train crossings a day! But is now part of a heritage walk around and over the river. It crosses where St. Anthony falls used to be but man's use of the river over the last 200 years has turned the falls into a weir, with a lock system to get the boats up and down.
There sure is a lot of water coming down the river. In the past, this area used the river to power flour and timber mills etc. There is still small hydro electric station working there. The whole area was obviously run down but they are doing up all the old mills and factories as apartments and I think it will be nice in a few years. They have reclaimed the river bank and it's now a long park area on both sides with lots of trees, cycling tracks and seating. The view looking back over the city is spectacular.
We went to lunch...el fresco in a nice place with great food but strange licensing laws. You can drink outside but they can't leave the bottle on the table. They have to take it inside and race out every time you want your glass filled. So that means at a bar with outside seating you can have a beer in a glass, but you can't drink one straight from the bottle. Also bottle shops are not open on Sunday.
The following weekend we had a good time in Sioux Falls or rather Trent which is about 45 minutes further on. It's potentially a long drive for us not used to the freeway system, 250 miles or so but on the interstate you can sit on 75-80mph for most of the way so you get there fast, apart from the frustrations of several construction zones, known to us as roadworks.
It was nice to get back into the country again after a few weeks in a city. Our hosts live on a few acres surrounded by corn and soy bean fields. They are agisting a few Angus cows with their calves. The grass was over the cows bellies. It would be nice to see that sort of growth at home sometimes.
We had nice barbie the night we arrived and then went to Dell Rapids, the major town in the area, the next morning for "quarry days", the local festival. The main industry, apart from growing corn and beans, is quarrying pink stone, a really hard pink granite which is used for building, roads, etc. They had the parade down the main street, just like you see in the movies with fire engines, cheerleaders, festival queen etc. It seemed to go on for a long time for a small town. I thought they may have gone around the block and started again. They had all sorts of sporting contests on as well as an vintage car show and the ubiquitous tractor pull.
That night we had another great barbie, this time with more of the family. There was lots of talk and fun.
The following day was a family reunion picnic which I think is a great tradition. Sadly because of the younger generation's lack of commitment to such celebrations, these gatherings are in danger of dying out.
Then it was back to Minneapolis......exhausted!


Friday, July 02, 2004

Life in Minneapolis, MN

It is the end of the third week in the USA. I have explored Minneapolis and St.Paul a little more. Downtown Minneapolis is a little drab but some of the suburbs are quite nice. I like the huge old houses and the graceful wide streets with the gigantic old trees in the obviously "moneyed" areas. However, within a street or two this wealth can change into poorer accommodation which seems to be the lot of the black and Hispanic population. The middle class suburbs dominate however and houses/cottages have that typical mid west architectural style with well kept gardens and street trees.
Downtown St. Paul is a little more welcoming. It seems to be less cavenous and there are more trees in the streets as well as open areas and parks. The old houses of Summit Ave. are some of the grandest I have seen and I will make a point of walking and picture taking in that area.
I have become used to the metro transport system which seems to have a wide coverage and is cheap and very efficient. I like travelling the bus. It is here you see the real population. However my normal route has been changed on the weekend with the introduction of the light rail system. Am looking forward to riding that some time soon.
The Mississippi dominates both cities. It's a mighty river even this far upstream. The cities have done well to give the population access to the river, reclaiming the banks for public space and redeveloping the inevitable industrial areas that in the past have utilized and degraded this natural asset.
I am looking forward to the 4th of July celebrations much of which is centred around the river.