Monday, August 30, 2004

The Trip Home

The night before departure I found out that my early morning flight had been delayed by over 2 hours. This would make local connections very tight and I didn't want to miss my flight home out of Los Angeles (LAX). If I did, it would mean a 24 hour wait for another.
So United Airlines changed some bookings and I felt confident that if I could get my baggage checked through to Sydney I would have a good chance of maintaining my schedule.
I turned up to Minneapolis Airport early next morning to check in and make sure the baggage situation could be settled. Sure enough my bags were booked through to Sydney, one of the advantages of flying with Star Alliance members. The reason for the delay was that the plane had arrived late the previous evening due to bad weather in the Chicago area. As the same crew was rostered for the next morning, rest period regulations prevented an on time departure. We boarded the plane on time but then just sat there. The captain had decided we hadn't enough fuel and was topping up. This delay caused us to miss our "spot" so we sat in a queue of planes waiting for take off. Another hour's delay!!!!!!!!
As a result, our arrival in Denver was very late and, yes, I had missed my revised connection. In fact "my" plane was pulling out as we were pulling in. A quick trip to a service agent got me another boarding pass for the next LAX flight which was leaving in 10 minutes. So it was quite a rush from one end of Denver's terminal 2 to the other but I made it. Once in LAX, I had an hour to make my international flight. It was another rush from United's terminal 7 to Tom Bradley International, over a mile. Luckily I got there in time and fought through the scrum that is the TBI to get checked in. Eventually I settled into my seat for the 12 hour flight to Seoul, hot, sweaty, stressed and thinking I was too old for all this. But I quickly fell asleep and later enjoyed a few good movies and some nice food.
I spent a few quiet hours at the wonderful Seoul airport relaxing in the Asiana lounge before another 12 hours to Sydney. Asiana Airlines is great to fly with. They have excellent service both on the ground and in the air and despite the extra time it takes to get to/from the USA via Seoul it is worth it. And you rack up extra flyer points as well.
In Sydney I was surprised to see my bags come out of the shute as soon as the belt started. Considering the very short transit times I had experienced en route, I was amazed my baggage even arrived in Sydney on the same flight.
So that was that!
Well, almost. I still had a 3 hour drive to get to the farm.

Tuesday, August 24, 2004

The Last Few Days in the USA

The last week was quieter than normal. I guess the Olympic Games took up a fair bit of time. We have had good coverage here via seven tv channels of which we get four via cable. A lot of the minor sports are shown live but the vast majority is packaged and shown delayed at prime time from 7-11pm. As expected they concentrate on American performances but if an Aussie is in the same heat you obviously get to see them. They show all finals whether Americans are in them or not.
On Saturday we went to a Vietnamese wedding. The father of the bride was a boat person all those years ago. He was interesting to talk to. There were about 180 people there. It was a combination of western and Vietnamese traditions and was a very pleasant evening. The food was great, basically Chinese, with a lot of seafood. The curried lobster was terrific. I will never know how you get the meat out of the shell with chopsticks so reverted to a fork. American wedding cakes are never
fruit cakes. This one was a strawberry and cream sponge even though it looked like "the real thing".
On Sunday we went on our Mississippi River cruise. Unfortunately we didn't get to go through the upper locks to St. Anthony Falls due to traffic restrictions but instead headed down river. There was not a lot to see except a few bridges, tree lined banks and the odd sandy "beach" with a few sunbakers. No one was swimming. I think the coliform count would be quite high. But the boat was really luxurious, it was a great sunny day and they served an ok brunch buffet.
So now it's time to think about coming home. All my flights have been confirmed and it will be an early 4 am start
for me on Thursday. Then it's 33 hours of travel with four connecting flights home via Seoul.
With all the cooking utensils packed up it's great excuse to eat out for the rest of the week. So we are going back to "THE" steak restaurant as well as some other favorites.
It's been an interesting 3 months living like a resident rather than a tourist. Life here is not too much different to that at home. Sure, some attitudes and cultural things differ but in the end Australians and Americans are very much alike, in the mid west, anyway.
There will be things I will miss and those I won't.
To close this adventure, here is a list of those things in no particular order.
MISS: decent roads
            lots of clean toilets
            great medium priced restaurants
            Caribou coffee
            great customer service
            obscene desserts*
            the city grid system
            decent public transport
            being allowed to turn right after stopping at red traffic lights
            cheap gas....ooooops, petrol
            pancake sandwiches
             Byerlies supermarket
             cheap cherries
             Culvers frozen custard (chocolate)
             wild salmon
             great mex

WON"T MISS: upside down light switches
                      power plugs with no switches
                      driving on the right hand side
                      being allowed to do u turns at traffic lights
                      the search for the closest parking place.
                      obscene desserts*
                      Fox News
                      reality tv
                      the arby glove (little turd!)
                      not being understood
                       "hanging on" to your knives and forks in some restaurants
                       24 hour parking meters
                       the indeterminate number of salad dressing choices
                       Bush and Kerry television advertisements

Talk to you next from home!

Tuesday, August 17, 2004

More Doings in Minnesota

Last weekend we went downriver to Red Wing for a bit of a family gathering. It turned out not to be the cutsie village we first thought. Red Wing is quite a big town with a lot of industrialisation along the river bank. We stayed in an old Victorian house in a nice "burb". Downtown was was ok too with lots of shops and places to eat. They were having a river festival so there were lots of things going on and the place was full of people.
The "girls" went shopping on Saturday while the "boys" did a bit of a bar crawl around the small towns surrounding the area. It was great to finally see some hills being in the Mississippi Valley. The rest of southern Minnesota is SO flat. This meant the corn and bean fields were in a minority while cattle and horses predominated. I saw some really nice wooded areas and small farms on the backroads. We also went to a car show on the river bank. There were nice old cars from 60's and 70's in addition to the really old ones. Rain set in for the day so we went to the movies, Tom Cruise in "Collateral". DON'T BOTHER! It started ok but got really silly and lots of violence too.
We went to a store (it's a chain) that sells uncooked pizzas. Just like Pizza Hut you get to order what combination you want but they give it to you "raw" so you can cook it at home. I have never seen these at home but it is a good idea. Then we played poker until 1am! There were not a lot of hands played. It was more drinking and laughing. Needless to say I only brought home 4 of the dozen bottles of wine I took.
The next morning, after pancakes, bacon and eggs we crossed over into Wisconsin and came home up the Mississippi Valley to MSP via Hudson where we stopped for Caribou coffee....the best in the world!!! This chain puts Starbucks to shame. Pity they are so localised but I am bringing some of their beans home. They make great blueberry muffins too.
During the week we went to see a surf movie. "Riding Giants" was great. Awesome tow in waves at the end. There was a history of surfing as well with some great grainy old film which brought back the good ol' days together with some funny stuff.
We followed up this with dinner at an Italian restaurant, Campiello, which we had come across during our last visit to uptown. It was great too. I had roasted mussels for appetiser, not entree, and spit roasted chicken and spinach rissoto as entree, not main (you gotta get these expressions right or else) washed down with a very expensive bottle of chianti which was really wonderful. No room for sweets, even though the Coldstone Icecreamery is virtually next door.
Later that week I went back to the science museum in St.Paul specifically to see the Lewis and Clark movie on the surround screen.
It was a great day, sunny and cool, just like our winter. In fact this has been the coldest August on record in Minnesota! It was great to walk around this nice city. The outside cafes were doing a roaring trade at lunch time.
I got to the museum early so decided to "do" the exhibits. Am glad I did. The upper Mississippi exhibit was interesting as were the dinosauers. They had a heap of hands on things in the biology and weather rooms but it's school holidays and the place was packed with kids.
In biology they had a complete slice of a man and a women, the real thing incased in huge glass or plastic slides, head to foot, mid region. After you got over the initial shock they were fascinating to look at.
The movie was great with spectacular scenery from a helicopter which fitted the medium so well. I had read their actual diaries last year so it was nice to see an abridged pictorial version. They sure did it tough for the two and half years they were on the move up the Missouri, over the Rockies to the Pacific and back again. At one stage they were down to eating tree bark and candles. They only lost one expedition member (ruptured appendix) and 2 native Americans (self defence) were killed. They did so much good scientific work and surveying as well as building relations with the Indians. It is a pity it turned out to be the beginning of the end for native Americans, not that that was any fault of Lewis or Clark. It's a great story, like Charles Sturt or Bourke and Wills et al. The adventure is well worth reading about. I think SBS ran a doco a few years ago. It was made by Ken Burns who made the Civil War series. Ihave tried to buy the dvd but it's not available for our region.
I caught the express bus home. It runs down the interstate using the breakdown lane to avoid the slow traffic that always exists between the twin cities. The driver was a black female michael schumacher clone. Formula 1 in a rattly old bus was an experience.
This Saturday we went shopping and then headed for Hudson and a night out.We went to a new wine bar in town. It was very trendy with a good selection! Then to a Carribean influenced restaurant where I again had spicy fish. After dinner it was out into the sticks to the Willow Creek saloon, a country bar where everyone knew one another or maybe they were all related. The band played the theme from "Deliverance" which I thought was appropriate. We drank beer and people watched and didn't get to bed until well after 1am. We got up early next morning and we went out onto our host's boat from a trip down the St. Croix River after grabbing take out coffee at Caribou. It's a tributary of the Mississsippi and joins up with her 10 miles down stream. The river is very wide at Hudson, at least 500m, but can be shallow in some spots, 1m, due to shifting sand bars.The scenery is lovely with very green forests coming right down to the banks where there are lots of sandy beaches. There are also amazing houses but they are well hidden among the trees. We saw deer and eagles and where in the hell did the seagulls come from????????
While we were out there, Steve got a call on his cell from his son in Baghdad. Talk about the wonderful world of communications. Here we were sitting in peace and quiet on a cool summer morning while he was in a 130 deg F hell hole with the possibility of getting shot at. I think the river would get very busy later on in the day as there were hundreds of boats moored everywhere. The river freezes over in winter and all those boats have to be lifted at the beginning of October. Then it was back to our hosts' home for brunch. I sat on the deck and watched the squirrels and chipmunks feeding on seed they had left. We had biscuits (scones) and gravy which is not at all as bad as it sounds, bacon, pancakes and juice. All great!
Then home to watch the Olympics and to start some cleaning up and organization for our imminent departure in just under two weeks.

Wednesday, August 04, 2004

The Eatathon Continues

This report is going to sound like a restaurant review. Seems we did a lot of eating out over the last few weeks.
We went to another Fuddruckers hamburger "palace" but unfortunately this franchisee didn't have his act together or was just having a bad day. Nothing was good about this visit. We wont be going back, to this branch of Fuddruckers anyway.
We had found a part of town during one of our "where the hell are we" excursions when we tried to take a short cut home. Called Uptown it is near the city centre and has heaps of restaurants and bars. So we went back to do mex and indulge in another Coldstone Icecreamery experience. Walking around we found a Carribean restaurant so mex got the chop for that night. What a great place! Chilli crab cakes followed up by fish with herbs, ginger and some sort of curry rice all baked in a banana leaf in a wood fired oven and washed down with, dare i say it, chardonnay!
I just managed to fit in the ice cream later ie. a medium serve of dark chocolate mixed in with chocolate brownies, chocolate chips and chocolate fudge!!!!! Wonder why i had trouble sleeping that night?
The next night we went to a German restaurant. The Gasthof zur Gemuetlichkeit has quite a reputation in Minneapolis. It is the centre of Oktoberfest celebrations in Minnesota. The place is large but was nice, just like a proper German pub. The beer was great. Warsteiner was so fresh! We shared a 2L boot.The atmosphere was Disneyland Deutschland with a lot of pseudo Bavarian bravado. I could have killed the accordian player by the end of the evening. You can hear "Roll Out the Barrel" just so many times. The food bore little resemblance to the real thing but was passable. The main thing was we had a lot of fun.
The culinary highlight of the week and maybe the trip, so far, had to be dinner at a well known Minneapolis steakhouse.
It was fantastic.
Ruth's Chris Steakhouse is part of a huge chain of American steakhouses. Great steak! No, absolutely wonderful steak with all the fixin's and not too bad a Cabernet to go with it. The cheesecake was to die for, not to mention the chocolate cake that I managed to have a few bites of. Servings as usual were huge. They have 40oz t bone! I had the large filet which was 12 oz and 3 inches thick and cooked to perfection.
We think we might go there again for our "farewell" dinner.
This weekend we left for Sioux Falls on Saturday morning but not too early this time. We had a good run or maybe the trip seems shorter now after doing it a few times.
We did butter burgers and frozen chocolate custard at Culvers for lunch and then headed for Trent. From there we went out to dinner with some friends to a Chinese BBQ. You select all sorts of self serve meats, seafood, noodles, vegetables and sauces which they cook on a huge hot plate. It was really nice although I overdid the chilli a bit. My use of chopsticks seemed to be a novelty for the table. Then we went back to their place for more of a chat while we watched the storms roll on by. It was really loud and lightning was everywhere. There were tornado warnings but nothing happened, so we made a run for it inbetween the downpours.
I have mentioned before going into decision crises brought on by the list of specials and salad dressings at restaurants etc., not to mention the vast selection of goods at supermarkets. You would have thought you would be safe at a car wash.
Not so!
We got confronted by the attendant with a long list of wash options not to mention an equally long list of the car deodorants available, from cinnamon to vanilla. The latter broke me up.
That night around 2am more storms hit Trent. It was like being in a war. Great claps of thunder and continuous lightning with lots of wind. Hardly any rain though. We had to get up and turn on the TV to check out the tornado alerts but there was nothing. There were a heap of branches down next morning.
On Monday we drove back to Minneapolis, stopping at a huge sporting goods and clothes store, Cabelas, on the way. I bought some new pants and a few shirts. For some reason my current wardrobe doesn't seem to fit as well as it did in Australia. Must be the laundry detergent here.
Other than the above, the main action here has been the Democratic Party Convention and the nomination of John Kerry as presidential candidate. The event was given wall to wall media coverage. Hopefully our election campaigns never get to this level of hoopla but I have a feeling we are already heading that way. However I did like delegates' orchestrated hysteria not to mention the balloon and confetti finale. There seems to be an unhealthy concentration on the personality and background of the candidates and their wives rather than on the policies but guess we are into that as well these days. No one is willing to call the result in November with it split right down the middle. I noticed there was no heckling at the public meetings of either Bush or Kerry. Apparently it is not the done thing, being a manners' issue. You can degrade, defame and humiliate politicians in the media, impeach them on trumped up charges and even assassinate them, just don't yell at them at public meetings.
We went to the local wine shop's wine sale. The place was a madhouse. Cart, sorry, trolley rage was just bubbling below the surface. Who says wine is not popular in the USA? Lots of bargains.....but not enough time to drink them all. I bought Australian Rieslings (CHEAP!), Kiwi Sauvignon Blancs, some generic Bordeaux and some Loire Valley wines, Pouilly Fume and Sancerre. The latter are completely different to the New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs and not to my taste. I must be a French wine philistine!
Another thing I have found to be different here is the postal service. Post office shops are in supermarkets and are open 8am - 9pm every day. There are even mail deliveries on Saturday!!!! You can leave your stamped mail in your mail box to be picked up rather than making a trip to the post office (so that's what that little flag on the post boxes is for).
I also found out that health insurance can cost up to $US9000 a year, so no more whinges about Medibank or MBF!!!!!