Thursday, August 20, 2009

Blue Highways - dedicated to the bunny

William Least Heat Moon wrote a great book.
I have no idea if it ever made it into the NYT or into any book charts, but it inspired me something fierce when I read it. It was a lucky find at a book store here in Hamburg that carried English books for triple their original price in a time before the internet and amazon, or even less
He had, after losing his job, the crazy idea to travel all over the States in his van, using only the Blue Highways, and he wrote this book about it.
Actually, maybe it was even this book that turned me off the "regular" sightseeing and into wanting to discover the small wonders and the people in the places we went.
So when I joined my husband in the States in 88 while he was training for his new job, I did not want to go to the big cities (well, with the exception of NY), but wished to see the country itself.
So we went up north from Minneapolis, all the way to International Falls, because that was at the end of nowhere.
Least Heat Moon had this way to categorize the diners he visited into "calendar categories": the more of those were hanging in the place, the better the food was. He stated that he had eaten extremely well at four calendar places but never came across a five calendar restaurant and then wondered how awesome the food there might be..... makes me think right now about the categorizing of tornadoes, but not going there right now.

International Falls, now.
If you ever want a town that has nothing, that is the place to go.
The paper mill might be worth attention, the smell permeates the entire area. or at least it did then, no idea if it still exists. Our motel was clean, the people were nice, but that was about all of it. The liquor store was a trailer on some gravel yard, and I can't really remember if there was anything else noteworthy. It was cold then, even though it was May, the river and the lake were still frozen.
Now I'm a hopeless romantic, and my husband and I were on something like a second honeymoon, and Canada was just across the bridge, so I suggested we go over the border to have dinner that night. This proved to be no mean feat, because as Germans we had, of course, US visas in our passports, which included a green paper that you had to return when you left the country again. It took a convoluted discussion with the border control to make them understand we would only be gone for a couple of hours, but they were nice and let us cross into Canada and Fort Frances, the village on the other side.
We drove up and down the main street of that sleepy place, found a book store (of sorts) that had maybe five books, about twenty different magazines on weapons and a hundred on fishing, a couple of uninviting diners, a video store, and nothing else. After an hour of futile searching for a nice restaurant we gave up and returned over the bridge.
The Canadian border patrol greeted us with the words: "Oh you're back, ey?"
Slightly disgruntled, we asked him where he went when he wanted a really nice meal, and he replied, "We never eat in Fort Frances. We always go across the border to International Falls." and then went on to give us the directions to Thunderbird Lodge about 20 miles east out of town.
We did go there, and what a gem that was! Just like out of a travel prospect, with boardwalks out to the lake, a great deck, a large log cabin in the middle of the woods with a huge open fireplace, quilts over the sofa, Indian paintings on the walls and wonderful, wonderful food.
There were no calendars at all that we could see, but linen table cloths and napkins and very fine crystal glasses, too.

On our way back south, we went through a small village called Eli, lost somewhere in the Minnesotan wilderness, not much more than one street, but I loved it.
Sometimes when you come to a place and you get out of your car, there is this instant love feeling. Something just is right - the smell, the light, the sounds, not even necessarily what you see, but how it feels.
I had that with Eli, Minn., and many years later, with Floro, Norway.

In Floro, when my friend and I reached it, it was cold and raining, and we were tired from the long drive down from Alesund, and I just stood there in the rain and thought, this is it. This is the place I want to live. Eli felt the same.

A while later, we drove south from Minneapolis along the Mississippi (hey, and what a discovery that was ! The Twin Cities lie on the Mississippi! The same one that runs through New Orleans!) and saw many other lovely places. Somewhere down there - I have forgotten the name of the town - is a Quaker hotel where you can ask for a cat for your room. Honestly, I'm not kidding you. They offer a room cat to spend the night with you. And they served us the most amazing chicken soup.

So yes, I still love the small places. The heart places. The places where America lives.

PS: William Least Heat Moon's book was on the NYT bestseller list for 34 weeks. just googled him.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Betsy Ross and the Shenandoah Valley

There's one thing I'm not, and that is a good sight-seer.
This has been a matter of contention between my husband of nearly thirty years and me for nearly thirty years. Do your math.
We've been all over the place: Paris, London, Rome, Florence, Naples, the Cote d'Azur, New York, Minneapolis and some others, and it's the same every time. He wants to see the "sights" and visit the museums, and I don't. Or at least not all of them. While he wants to bring back memories of the famous sights, I want to sit in a street café and watch people, or go to supermarkets and watch people, or to department stores and watch people, or just sit on a bench on a busy street and.... you get my drift.
Even better, I want to meet those people. I just love to learn about people, and through them discover the place where they live because to me that means learning how that place breathes and works.
In London, I could have spent the whole day walking through Brick Lane and observe the life there, oh, and Oxford Street and its turmoil, I spent two hours sitting at a bus stop there, watching life. Got some take out food from a nearby Thai vendor, haggled over a shawl with an Indian who had a stand there, got coffee from Starbucks, helped one of our students pick a white dress from the store behind us, and marveled at the many different types of people that populate that city.
In Paris, I dawdled away an entire afternoon walking along Rue St.Honoré to stare at the chic women and their shopping at the designer flag stores.
In Rome, it was the park of the Villa Borghese where the nannies and mothers took the kids for their "airing".
In NYC, at my insistence, we walked all the way from the then still standing WTC to the Met, had lunch in Chinatown and coffee and cake in Little Italy and bought about ten books on the way.

You asked me what I want to see next year while we travel the US?
Well, it's you I want to see. Most and first of all, it's you, my mimosa sisters, because you break my heart with your kindness and your loveliness.
I can hardly wait to meet @crookedstamper in Washington. I'm sure we'll go and see Lincoln and the Capitol, because they're a must, but if there has to be sightseeing, I would like to see this:
The Betsy Ross House, because ever since Jay Leno mentioned her in one of his shows I've never forgotten that name and the story that goes with it.
The Shenandoah Valley, because I love that song.
The cherry trees in the Tide Basin, because Val sent me that fabulous painting of them.

Oh, and Starbucks. This is my goal: bring back a Starbucks City mug from every town I visit.

So you see, this is it. It's about you, the mimosas, not about Famous Sights.