Friday, September 17, 2010

Twin Cities - 2010

If there ever was a place that can be ‘diagnosed’ with Dual Personality Disorder it would have to be the metropolitan area of the Twin Cities: vibrant and cosmopolitan Minneapolis and its less sophisticated, more old-fashioned and conservative cousin, Saint Paul.


Saint Paul and the Mississippi:

I’ve traveled to Minneapolis every week for the better part of the last 9 months, which I think qualifies me to portray a fairly accurate assessment of the aforementioned ‘personalities’. On one hand there’s the cruel winter which minimizes outdoor exposure even when sporting layer upon layer of long-johns, flannel and thermal underwear. On the other hand, there’s almost a real-life rendition of a Toparceanu poem where everything comes to life during a short-lived summer that has no notion of things like heat-wave or humidity [relative terms when compared to those of us who wither under the scorching southern sun, of course]. It seems that people spend so much time sequestered indoors during the [extended] winter months that they look for every opportunity to ‘recharge’ outdoors during the [short] summer months.

So what’s going on indoors during the winter? Drinking seems to be a favorite pastime! That, and religiously following the Vikings (and the Wild to some extent). Then there’s the ‘world-famous’ Mall of America – second-largest retail-outlet structure in North America (apparently there’s a bigger one in Edmonton, Canada… but it’s so much more colder up there, so then it makes perfect sense ;-)). This place is beyond huge: 2.5 million square feet, 520+ stores and restaurants (planned addition for about 400 more in a spot across the street), over 4 million visitors annually, and yes, an entire Nikelodeon indoor theme park with several roller-coasters, kiddie rides, and an aquarium. The upcoming expansion calls for the addition of an ice rink, a water park and 3 hotels; a true vacation destination where you could potentially spend a few days without setting a foot outside. For outside it gets colllddd.

Cold, let me tell you. There is a sizable (and palpable) difference between ‘regular’ cold (F23/-5 Celsius) and ‘blistering-WTF-am I doing outside’ cold (below F0/-18 Celsius) especially since there are no natural barriers to hold off the winds from Canada. Yes, any “breeze” over 10mph (which is quite average in the winter) make all these temperatures ‘drop’ almost exponentially. And although it does not snow much around the metro area, freezing temperatures make “icing” an even bigger problem. If your car is parked outside, windshield scraping can be a 15 minute job. If I were to paint an accurate picture after walking 200 yards in sub-zero temperature and 10+ mph winds, I would say that blood circulation would eventually resume 5-10 minutes after going indoors and bone marrow would start to thaw out after 15-20 minutes or so. Yes folks, it is very cold in the winter, yet for some reason – unexplainable to me – people choose to live there. Maybe it’s the splendid summer that I’ll talk about in a minute…

But while we’re still covering winter, a couple of other things to note: skywalks and ice-fishing.

The omnipresent skywalk is what makes the downtown area ‘the’ place to be and work in the winter. All buildings are interconnected by this intricate maze of covered ‘tubes’ that link up the first floor of most buildings. I worked downtown Minneapolis years ago and never wore a coat going to the office, although it was over one mile away… The trick was to get back to the hotel before 10PM, as most of these skywalks would close in order to keep the ‘street-people’ out.

As for ice-fishing (or ‘catching frozen fish’ as my son called it years ago during a trip to Colorado) it seems to be quite popular. Most people do it by driving their truck on the lake (they freeze up to 3 ft deep or more) and drill a hole or two. Then there’s the Wilcraft ( of which I got a demo during a recent visit to the MN State Fair (more on that experience later)and can set you back at least $10K, or the full-blown ice-fishing ‘house-on-wheels‘ alternative, with all the amenities one would need when going ‘fishing’, including air conditioned, a stove, refrigerator and flat screen TV (

Let me stop here before I get accused of being a spokesperson for MN ice-fishing-gear manufacturers… but you get the idea: ice fishing is a serious pastime in Minnesota. Sort of like bass-fishing in the South, only the conditions are treacherous (yet again, not too many locals seem to be bothered). Oh, well… maybe it’s just us ‘wimps’ in the South that don’t get it! Apparently, for the locals is just a reason to get out of the house! Why? I know…I know…

But then there’s the summer.

Like I said, everyone is out like ants after a good rain [hence the Toparceanu reference; apologies for those not able to read Romanian and enjoy the detailed, pastel-like warmth and lyrical wit of his poems… perhaps the closest comparison would be a John Clare or even Keats (“To Autumn”, for example)…or better yet, Emily Dickinson (“Summer Shower”); I put some links in the reference section below if you’re inclined to switch to poetry after reading my prose]

Summer means the boats are back on the lakes, all the restaurants have terrace and sidewalk seating, and there is – seems like daily – a festival or two celebrating… well… summer. People just can’t seem to get enough outdoor time. I would too, if I lived there.

Every weekend locals head for the lakes. The “Land of 10,000 lakes” – as MN is known (it is also known as the “State of 10,000 taxes”, but I’m not gonna even touch on local politics) – actually has almost 12,000 lakes [by that, meaning a body of water larger than 10 acres]. So, boating choices are plentiful. Then guess what? Partying on the lake equates to drinking, which makes ‘drinking’ a favorite past time in the summer as well. Aaaanyway… bottom line is that most stories around the water-cooler on Mondays start with: “so I was on the lake this weekend…”

Lake Minnetonka on 4th of July:

Then there are the parks, luscious green, typically around a lake (or along the Mississippi) and full of people picnicking, playing, walking, jogging or dragging along some quadruped by the leash. The new ‘Target Field’ [for Tar-jay is headquartered there] is the brand-new (opened this year) home of the Twins and every home game is sold out (yes, they are top of the AL Central division, but ‘just being outside’ contributes to the high attendance as well).

Sculpture Park - Minneapolis:

The Twins in action:

And I mentioned restaurants earlier… so many to choose from, grouped in relatively small areas (whether is Downtown, Uptown, or the Warehouse district)… and they all come alive in the summer, with outdoor seating (some have a rooftop terrace where movies are shown almost every evening – Solera, Brit’s Pub, Seven), live music, and fresh, seasonal food [a couple of recent James Beard award winners among the chefs; I have denoted their restaurants in italics]. Some of the notable (and my favorite) spots: Alma, 112 Eatery, Lucia, La Belle Vie, Oceanaire, Manny (all a bit pricy but worth the splurge) and Bar La Grassa, Chino Latino, Wondrous Azian Kitchen, Saffron, Solera, or Origami (easier on the wallet and a bit off the beaten path, or downright adventurous when it comes to the menu). And for good eats on a budget: Punch Neapolitan Pizza, Brasa, Al’s Breakfast, True Thai, Barrio or Hell’s Kitchen. No matter where you land, you’ll be pleasantly surprised of the quality of the “foodie” scene in Minneapolis. And in the summer, there’s a lot of seasonal ‘flavor’ to everything!

On the other end of the culinary spectrum, there’s the food offerings dished out by the world-famous Minnesota State Fair. I watched an Andrew Zimmern special a while back about this social/gastronomic experience and was fairly grossed-out by the type of foods that can be skewered on a stick, battered and deep-fried. But as they say, when in Rome…

So armed with decent amounts of curiosity, indulgence and optimism I embarked on the short drive to the outskirts of St. Paul. Open for only 12 days of so around Labor Day, the “event” culminates a year-long process that evaluates, ranks, and awards ribbons to the local farmers for their products and livestock. I’ve seen at least 100 species of chicken, some big enough to pass for a turkey at Thanksgiving [didn’t know that many varieties existed and I’m wondering if they all taste like… well… chicken], the ‘nursery’ was full of days-old lambs, kids [baby goats that is], calves and pigs [oh, how yummy it looked in my mind, roasted on the spit with an apple in its snout], there were horses of all sizes and cattle with humongous udders [“check out the tits on that cow” somehow seemed like an appropriate – even if childlike – comment]. The whole scene provided an amazing petting-zoo experience for anyone with kids.

this "chicken" would easily tip the scales around 20-25 lbs!!!

... and these little piggies were 4 hours old!

There was live music of questionable quality throughout the park, but on the main stage the list of performers (over the duration) included –among others – the likes of Tim McGraw, Carrie Underwood and KISS. Quite impressive on that note!

Kids and adults alike also seemed to have a blast enjoying all the bright-colored spinning, jumping or rotating machinery that – aside from the obvious fun factor – provided an added challenge in reference to “holding-in” some of the questionable menu items ingurgitated earlier. Here’s a quick list of some of the more “inventive” choices: Big Fat Bacon (1/3 lb slab fried, caramelized with maple syrup and served on a stick), Cheese curds (battered, deep-fried mozzarella), corn-dogs (up to one foot long), Australian potatoes (sliced, battered, deep-fried and topped with cheese), turkey legs, and even deep-fried candy bars/Twinkies!!! With all these ‘food’ choices I was almost expecting to see a Mobile Angioplasty Unit nearby, or at least EMS truck at every corner.

It was a great experience overall and considering that almost 1.8 million visitors wandered in this year, it seems like everyone can find something enjoyable about it. Mine would have been the $1-all-you-can-drink milk stand, unfortunately I started with beer and did not want to take any chances…

So there it is, folks. An abbreviated MN sketch, with the good, the bad and the ugly. Hope it peaked your interest to visit some day (preferably during the summer) and if you do so, this little narrative prepared you for it in some shape or form. But if your trip falls during the winter months, make sure your wardrobe includes a parka, choppers, sorels and a heavy tuque.

Oh, and if you want to sound a little bit like a local while you’re there, keep your vowels (“o” especially) twice as long. And say “Oh yah… You betcha” a lot!

References [some, at least]:

Minneapolis -

Ice Fishing Competition:

G. Toparceanu – ‘Balade Vesele si Triste’:

E. Dickinson – ‘Summer Shower’:

John Keats – ‘To Autumn’:

John Clare – ‘Summer’ / ‘Summer Evening’ / ‘Summer Images’ / ‘Summer Morning’:

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Panama(w) City Beach - Labor Day 2010

It’s officially called the ‘Emerald Coast’ – the stretch of beach lining the Gulf of Mexico on the ‘panhandle’ side of West Florida. College students have proclaimed it the “Spring Break Capital of the World”, since more than half a million booze-crazy ‘kids’ show up for a week-long party [read: drinking, sex and drugs] in the spring. I simply call it the “Redneck Riviera”, for all its’ visual beauty from afar, once you’re down at “eye-level” or within earshot of any conversation you simply realize that PCB caters to a certain demographic on the ethnic-social scale...

Earlier this summer the president and his family went for a dip in the brilliant blue waters of the Gulf … and as the pictures would show you, the scenery rivals some of the best palm-tree laden beaches anywhere else in the continental US. Great accommodations (and relatively cheap) bring down anyone within driving distance. Unfortunately, ‘driving distance’ means southern Georgia and Alabama (and this year, some of our neighbors to the west – MS and LA – who did not want to take any chances with the oil spill).

What does that mean? You hear “y’all” in every other sentence (or it’s plural: “all a’ y’all”)… and you’ll be hard-pressed to find anyone to engage into a half-intelligent conversation. Here’s a snippet of something overheard while waiting to get a drink at the bar (it looked like they were either in a first date, or he was actually trying to pick her up):

…conversation had something to do with teeth (sensitive subject, apparently here in the South)…

Him: ‘doesn’t really bother me, but I can stick a toothpick all the way in’ [stunning visual, eh?]

Her: [didn’t seem to be grossed out by the comment or even flinch] ‘oh, my teeth are just fine…I take good care of mine’

Him: ‘oh, I don’t… but this one [with the toothpick apparently] is the only one that gives me trouble; it doesn’t even hurt though…only when I poke in too deep’ [;-)]… then he keeps going: ‘my sister on the other hand, she takes great care of her teeth but has like 5-6 bad ones’

Her: ‘yeah, some people just have bad teeth no matter what…’

Another guy butting in: [why not get sucked into such an enlightening conversation?]: ‘how many times a day do you brush your teeth?’

Her: ‘three at least’

…at that point, I almost yelled to the bartender: “make it a double and pass me a paper bag just in case I have to listen to this any longer!”

Seriously though, after a few days spent in PCB I promptly added a crucial requirement on the checklist for individuals that my kids will be allowed to date/marry/socialize with: they have to born and live north of the Mason-Dixon Line! The further north, the better! [For those of you who don’t know me that well, I’m kidding of course; I would never stereotype people like that… but the arguments and ‘supporting evidence’ can be overwhelming sometimes]

So if you decide to visit, know that you’ll enjoy the beach and some of the activities it has to offer, but there’s not much outside of that. The obligatory “Ripley’s Believe It or Not” is there [sort of a Mecca for the linguistically challenged patrons who call the resort Paenamaw C Tee Beeich] and you’d be really lucky to find a dining spot too far north of “average”, with most of the ‘fresh catch’ [likely frozen for a while] deep-fried or cooked in half a pound of butter. Oh, and BTW, most of these so call “upscale” eating establishments have a minimum 1 hr wait and don’t take reservations [that would mean bringing a certain degree of civilization to this corner of the world; what a sophisticated concept!]

If you want to spend some time relaxing on the beach and are thinking ‘beachfront property without the beachfront price tag’, GO. If you’re an amateur observer of human behavior in some of its less developed or intellectually evolved stages, GO. But if you’re looking for much outside of that (including lounging in the resort’s pool/jacuzzi after 10 PM) then GO SOMEWHERE ELSE…

Or better yet, go with a bunch of family and friends, consume copious amounts of fruit-and-vegetable-distilled-byproducts and none of this would matter!