Wednesday, September 22, 2004

Travelogue 37
Mogadishu and Bedrock

Last night we went to see a film produced locally and screened at the Minnesota Historical Society. There was a packed house, and most were white people, surprisingly. The film was the project of a group of Somali high school girls, and it tells the story of Somalis in Minneapolis. In case you think this sounds obscure, let me inform you there are, according to official numbers, 30,000 Somalis in the Twin Cities. Some unofficial estimates range as high as 70,000. It was upbeat and positive. I enjoyed the occasional traditional song and dance because they're similar to Ethiopian. It was fun after the show when the high-schoolers took the stage, swaying, giggling, leaning on each other, and speaking confidently in that strange accent that's half Somali and half hip-hop. These are the same girls who spoke into the camera with the hijab over their hair, swinging their hands like rappers, with quick banter and cocky smiles, all the world as though they're staging a music video. The Somali boys from their schools mock them from the audience. They answer back that it's the men back home who screwed everything up. It's time for the women to take over. The theme of the film is two cultures, one heart. They say they aren't losing their old culture; they just get confused navigating the new one. Aren't we all in some stage of culture shock, anyway? I should join them onstage and recount my strange adventures here this summer. Like traveling home at 4:30 the previous morning from Troy's place on my bike. I sway and weave about as much as they do when they stand onstage, though with different reason. I'm pondering drunkenly how autumn has descended. When I first arrived here, at the height of summer, the sun was rising at this hour. Now it's pitch black out, and I'm hitting all the potholes in the roads. I thought I already had every pothole and crack in this city's roads pounded into my subconscious. Maybe it's just that the subconscious unravels a bit under chemical duress. In "Life On The Mississippi," Mark Twain describes training under a strict steamboat pilot when he was young. "You only learn the shape of the river," he screams at Twain, "and you learn it with such absolute certainty that you can always steer by the shape that's in your head, and never the one that's before your eyes." I think I'm approaching that kind of mystical union with the macadam. The other night I tried for a physical union. Again under chemical duress, I set off from the bar, searching behind me for a glimpse of my departing friends. Three Somali boys stroll up to me as I lie on the street's blacktop on my back. I've managed to work my shoulder back into its socket and now I'm laughing. They shrug in their streetwise way and ask, "What happened, man? Are you a little drunk? You hit this median and flipped right over your handlebars." I sit up and wave to the crowd on the balcony patio of the bar across the street. "Maybe a little drunk. You're good guys to check on me." "Whatever, man," they smirk. I carry on. The next morning, I crawl out of bed and get right back on the bike. A mile from home, I find myself in the midst of a crowd. They all have numbers on their backs. Some are jogging. There are no Somalis here, but I do spot Fred and Wilma. I see an assortment of other types of head gear: pizza boxes, bunny ears, Santa hats, and Viking helmets. I see women in wedding dresses, and I see women in flesh-colored tights sporting big, black bars across breasts and groin. There's someone in a Tweety suit. Another guy has a stuffed, green Shrek in a baby backpack. It's day of the "Blubber Run", an annual 5K sponsored by a local brewing company. Nobody I see is setting any records, probably because many of them have stopped at the halfway point for their free beer. Now they're panting toward their final reward of more beer at the end. We cross the Stone Arch bridge together, (see previous travelogue reference….) On the other side, they turn for a short spur in the course to the right, where they will double back and then up go up the hill across from the bridge. A sign informs them that if they go right as they're supposed to they'll get the full five kilometers they signed up for. But it also says, with an arrow to the left, "Short Cut, 3.75K, This Way." It's a mellow athletic event. I coast along behind Fred for a while. As you know, I have an appreciation for traditional costume.

Monday, September 13, 2004

Travelogue 36
Pictures of Paradise

Browsing the dollar box outside my favorite used bookstore, I came across and purchased a novel written not long after I was born, called "Dana, the Irrelevant Man," by a man named Cater. Now, who still denies that God is speaking to His-Her-Its creatures? These are the signs that one keeps by one's bed. I'll let you all know if there's a happy ending.

Eman was in town last weekend. I call her in the morning, and I say, "Hi Eman. What's new?" In a low, querulous tone, she answers, "Oh, nothing's new." I ask her, "What's happening?" "Nothing's happening," she snaps. "How's it going?" I continue, and I'll go on until she laughs. She hates this American ritual. "What could be new? We talked last night."

She gushes about Wisconsin. Her instructors are all brilliant. The town is pretty. She has new friends all lined up for the coming year. In one class, she's the only woman. She has a new car that she drove home Friday evening. It's going to be a wonderful year.

I should finish my Wisconsin narrative from last week. But I'm afraid I've waited too long. As all stories do, this one has degenerated into a set of vague pictures in my mind. There's the drive down from Menomenie, for instance, to meet up with Craig in Trempealeau. It's a couple hours of golden sunshine and green hills, rolling fields and farmhouses, woods and pretty little outcroppings of rock. And there's the tireless paean to the Badger State coming from the passenger side. "Oh, it's so wonderful! I've got to win the lottery and buy that house, right there. No, there. Everyone can come visit! It's so cute!" And so on. The sun was setting over the promised land by the time we got to the little town of Trempealeau.

Pictures of Trempealeau: the first is of the river. This town of about three or four blocks in either direction is set on the Wisconsin side of the Mississippi, due south of Eman's new paradise, and right at Lock and Dam Number Six. The river is wide here. You look across at Minnesota, and it’s a dark line of bluffs at sunset. Some tiny headlights mark the highway. The distant sound of a train tells you that the other side has tracks just like this one. To the left is the long concrete dam. To the right, the river broadens upstream. Trempealeau Mountain rises to an odd point just behind the two or three blocks spreading past Main Street.

Picture Number Two: the Trempealeau Hotel. It's a nice tourist spot. There's a nice bar and restaurant. The latter has a screened-in porch with a view of the river, out past their lawn and the bandstand and the picket fence. They serve a good catfish. Ironically, today's front page has a story about river fish showing a high concentration of Prozac. And, indeed, we're all in a good mood. Craig shows up. Craig's friends show up -- a crew of motorcycle enthusiasts (they don't like the term biker) who gather here every year around Labor Day. They're all in good spirits and friendly. There's eating and drinking aplenty. Some of us play "Horse" on the basketball court in the back. Craig gives Eman a ride on his bike. I take a picture as he starts off with a little wheelie and she clenches his leather jacket with two little fists. The night dissolves in my memory into sketches of silliness. There's a bar on the other side of town -- that is, two blocks away -- where we play pool. Eman is bored, but I point out that this is Wisconsin. We quiz her about Packers and mullets. We marvel at how cheap the drinks are. One of our new friends mixes a syrupy, orange, caffeine-and-alcohol drink from a can into her blue vodka. It tastes revolting, but it seems to help her game. Someone has brought costume teeth. Craig tries on the vampire teeth, and every time he leans toward Eman -- and I mean every time -- she screams and slaps him. The night ends at the picnic tables in back of our hotel, where we drink the beers we not-so-subtly sneaked out of the bar. Some guys are spreading sleeping bags in the bushes. One guy sits conversing at the table in nothing but his cowboy hat.

The ride back: a bit of a blur because sleep was not easy. The train runs by the hotel, along the river, about every twenty minutes. And the room was stifling. I resisted drinking water because there's one bathroom for the entire floor, and a coupe guys are snoring in their sleeping bags out in the hallway. It's a lovely drive, though. Eman is too tired to gush, but I know she enjoys it. You pass by Lake Pepin, which is actually a piece of the river that widens out to an impressive breadth. It's bound by pretty hills and more picturesque towns. One town, named Alma, has a scenic vista that is worth the stop, even when you’re as painfully sleepy as I was. You drive up around the backside of the town's looming hill, park and walk to the edge, and a few counties emerge below you, and the winding Mississippi with a cluster of islands and marshes. You rest on the rocks at eagle's height and resist turning back to drive the rest of the way back to the city.

Monday, September 06, 2004

Travelogue 35
Strangers in the East

Eman and I drove to Menomonie the other day. That's in Wisconsin. She's enrolled in a graduate program in the university there. It's a big move for her, and we have all tried to prepare her for it. She's been in the U.S. for eight years now, but that mysterious land to the east -- Wisconsin -- we just weren't sure she was ready. For one thing, she has no taste for beer. We spent a couple weeks trying to train her, but she was stubborn. She reverted to wine every time. Wine in a Wisconsin bar? We told her how some wines come in boxes. But, really, she is being too glib about it all. I'm afraid she will have to learn the hard way. There's the cheese thing. I thought I had a teaching tool there. Ethiopian women like to put butter in their hair to condition it, and Eman does it more often than most. Visit her at home and watch it drip down her brow. I've taken to calling her kibi ras, which means butter-head. You can see where I'm going here: in Wisconsin the people are called cheese-heads, and often drive around with plastic blocks of it on their heads as hats, especially in Green Bay. She doesn't like football! We did our best to explain the place of the Packers in their hearts. She just laughed. One thing going for her is that Wisconsin people are generally much friendlier than Minnesotans, which isn’t saying much. But here again, we ran into communication barriers. She had never heard of a mullet. "Business in the front and party in the back," Troy explained. She was confused. We began to worry about her. So I decided I had better escort her there for her first trip.

About a half hour outside of Minneapolis, you cross into Wisconsin, passing over the wide and lovely St. Croix River. Almost immediately, the hills start. Where Minnesota is disturbingly flat, Wisconsin is wall to wall hills. They're small and rolling -- no mountains. Some of them are kind of funny-shaped, vestiges of glacial days, I hear. But all of it is scenic and rustic. Lots of corn and soy stretching off in rows, farmhouses and their silos on hilltops, cows grazing. Eman was gushing about her new home state; that is, until the huge Bush signs began appearing in the fields beside the highway. And I can't wait to see what she thinks in November, when all these pastoral scenes begin to take on the appearance of war zones, orange-vested hunters stalking among the woods and tiptoeing through the fields.

We arrived in Menomonie and scouted around for the university. It's near the old town center on the southern shore of Lake Menomin, (which means "something" in Amharic, by the way.) It was a pretty day, bunches of white clouds shaped like turd piles scudding across a bright blue sky over the green, turd pile hills. The lake was radiant, and I use that word literally because it glows in spots a strange neon green. Later, walking along the lakeside, I saw the culprits: tiny, one-leaf water plants like moss floating together like oil slicks close to shore. Kind of strange.

The town is standard, upper Midwestern fare: a few blocks of squat, stone buildings from the end of the nineteenth century, some of which are delightful with their elaborate, Victorian-era carvings, turrets, and arches. The rest is wooden boxes from a later era and bland offices and bars. I had time to kill, so I stopped in an internet café close to campus. It was empty except for the owner, a lively, cross-eyed old man (can I say coot affectionately?) with shreds of gray hair straying from under his cap. He's got plaid on, of course, and loose, old polyester slacks. He's beaming a toothless grin at me and wants to know who I am. He tells me all about his place. He established it for the kids -- "leave them money and they'll just fritter it all away" -- but found that he had such fun, he spends more time there than anyone. "It's a three-ring circus in here, I tell you." It's a Spartan place, hardwood floors and random desks with an assortment of computers. He's obviously a technology nut. The screen savers are pictures of college boys sleeping on the beat-up couches. The browser is an alternative variety, a free download from the web. There's a mixer and a mike up front. He can't pay anyone to play, but he broadcasts their performances on a web cam. "There's so many kids in here on a Saturday night, you have to come in the back door to get to the bathroom. Oh, it’s a hoot."

More on Wisconsin …

Wednesday, September 01, 2004

Travelogue 34
The Body

On the tranquil north side of Nicollet Island, there's a small, old bridge that crosses the stream of the Mississippi that separates island from land. It's one of those ancient trestle bridges that abound in historic Minneapolis. Its span is laid with planks wide enough only for pedestrians. A metal plaque informs me it was built in 1901 and designed by a man named Loweth. I stop in the middle of the bridge to space out for a while, wage the day's battle with melancholy. On the island side is a steep, wooded bluff that fishermen climb down in order to sit by the calm water. On the other side is a park. This morning, the sky is an odd patchwork of blue and rain. Dark water laps soothingly against the shores. A fish jumps. Intriguingly, there are a few spots in the water below that reflect the light in lines and shadows, so that the small waves create a pattern like a topographical map. The exact shapes never repeat. I'm studying this phenomenon when an old man approaches. He is white-haired and wears big, square glasses. His nose is veined. He looks at me and asks, "Have they found the body?" I don't know. "A lot of them end up around here," he says. It seems there's a body from Fridley due to pop up. Nothing. He nods briskly and moves on.

The meditation is blown. Now I'm glancing around for bodies. It's my civic duty, I suppose. I get back on my bike and ride along the river. I can't help but scan the shores. Crossing the wide Plymouth bridge, I'm staring over the side. The current is unmarred by human flotsam. On the other side I head back downstream. I hit one of the little showers drifting over the city. I pass a forlorn man who is blowing leaves from the bike path. Further on, I ride over the white figure of a man painted onto the path to indicate it's a pedestrian path. Someone has chipped away his head. Seems a sign of my mission. I stop and wait on a wet bench. Nobody passes but a living young woman with a huge lens on her camera and an intent, determined smile. Her vista will be won. Maybe she's a crime reporter.

I give up and head into the Warehouse District. This is a district on the north side of downtown, along the river. Its square, Chicago-style quaintness was a lot more quaint before the 90s boom discovered it and made it an investment. Now, instead of blank, brick walls, empty windows, and a feeling of history, you've got coop balconies overhead and boutiques below. There's still a bit of atmosphere. The café recommendation for this part of town: Moose and Sadie's. Sit among the yellow brick and wood, below the air ducts, and watch artists and software engineers mingle. Wonder at the familiarity of the faces. "They're still all here," you muse -- that is, if you're a Minneapolitan who has returned from far away. "They're still here. Time is strange." You'll watch the healthy young window-washer, soapy brush in one hand and squeegee in the other. Each tool is given an expert turn across the glass. He gets a patch of sunshine on his shaven head, but he doesn't seem to feel its warmth. You'll notice how the highest windows are warped and ripple like water in a transparent stream. You'll notice an old man with red veins on his nose entering, and you'll feel apprehensive.