Once upon a fair

It’s that time of year again. Whenever August creeps into view with it’s heat and humidity, one of the largest annual summer social events comes with it: The State Fair. 

You may remember last year that I saw both the Illinois and Indiana State Fair. Without question, the best dressed was the one in Indianapolis

This year I’ve got two on the docket once again: Wisconsin and .. another visit to Indiana. Why am I going back to Indy? What’s different? 

For starters, a new theme (Popcorn) and most importantly, an invitation. Dave Shaw, the Chief Operating Officer of the Indiana State Fair Commission, spotted my blog last year and invited me to return in the following season for a behind the scenes tour. He was kind enough to mail me tickets, and I am packing my bag right now to head to the fairgrounds. 

What better way to see a fair? Stay tuned for photos .. and food reports.

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Madison: Round Two

Without question, Madison is way out in front of some other Midwestern cities I’ve encountered. That being said, I tend to disassociate cities and their surroundings areas. Manhattan? Not like the rest of New York. Austin? A liberal swath of green in the great stretch of Texas. So too, Madison.

On my last visit North, and my first time in the city, it was papered with Recall Walker signs and Wisconsin Badger red. It hums like a college town and holds all sorts of ethnic restaurants, indy bookshops, trendy shops and the like. It breathes youth in bicycles, cupcakeries and loud t-shirts. Needless to say, it’s nothing like the flatlands preceding it.

This time a trip to Madison on business, with a regional conference. Take a 5 hour drive (hundreds of miles, then turn left), a good audiobook and an additional weekend with friends to follow = I am a happy girl. Not to mention it’s dairy central and I’m headed straight for cheese. Move over hipsters, I’m starving for culture.

And that’s TWO – count ’em – TWO weekends in October that were dedicated to cities.

Hallelujah, holy shit, pass the ice cream.

Madison Wisconsin ice cream

Bright lights, big city

Call it small town detox. Call it Midwestern rehabilitation. Call it the great urban escape. Whatever you wanna call it I’m getting the hell out of Dodge for the weekend!

I’m on the road this weekend heading for Chicago. Its my first time driving north to the city, rather than taking the train. At this point, in an effort to preserve my sanity, I’m pretty sure I would ride a donkey North to Chicago.

This wasn’t a random point and shoot. My dear friend Katie is in the city for a conference so it makes good sense to drive up to spend the weekend with her. Yes, it is Homecoming weekend here in town.. but the lure of friendship, food, and humanity is far too much for me to ignore.

If anything, my time in the Midwest has shown me that there is really no distance  too great for me to drive to get out of the cornfield. I recently wrote about the issues of trying to shop in a small town. While I may not always be willing to make a two hour round trip for a box store, I think nothing of it when there are friends, and food, involved.

Some things I’ve learned about making a road trip.
1. You really have to love your car and love spending time in it.
2. You need a good audio book, a rocking iPod or a talkative companion.
3. You will probably benefit from having a cell phone charger in your car.
4. Towns with a population of 200 really do exist.
5. There are way less rest stops than there ought to be.
6. Don’t underestimate how much corn can change a landscape.
7. Those straight flat roads were meant for speedng. Cops know this, too.
8. A curve comes along once every 100 miles. Don’t miss it, stay alert!
9. Roads without lights are very, very dark at night. Don’t take your well lit roads for granted.
10. Nine times out of ten, roads are numbered, not named. Tricky..

Is it weird I was excited to see a 3 lane highway? Whatever, I’m ready.

Small Town Shopping

Preparing for Homecoming has really brought to light the issue of what is impossible to find in this town. My staff and I have agreed to participate in the Deck the Halls competition where offices compete for the most spirited decorations. I’ve simultaneously discovered how fiercely competitive my students are. When a random person falls into one of our intense conversations about streamers, I usually try to loop them in with an explanation, “We’re participating in the Deck the Halls competition…..” This is consistently punctuated by, “We’re going to WIN” by any one of my students in the room at the time. Look out!

School spirit aside, and not revealing any of our epic decoration plans, I have to say .. this town is a pain in the ass when it comes to shopping. As a rule, I hate to shop. I have to be in the right mood, on the right day, with all the stars aligned in order to come up with a destination that involves spending money. Well, god help me if I ever make that decision in Charleston, because it will involve a long drive and more money than I intended.

I make jokes about heading out to “civilization” and finding some “humanity,” but I’m not kidding. Here in Charleston we have a Walmart, and that’s it. That’s not an exaggeration. Sure, you can go to the Dollar Store, or the County Market. I have not set foot in Rural King and don’t plan to (I don’t need live chickens). When I first moved out here I’d be on the phone with my mom talking about what I needed for the apartment, and she’d suggest “Bed Bath and Beyond?” An hour away. “Target?” An hour away. “Kohls?” 45 minutes or an hour away.

Pioneer Square mileage sign

photo courtesy of stouttraveladventure.blogspot.com

Now that I’m trying to shop for decorations, I realize that we’re going to have to get pretty damn crafty because I’m simply not making a 2 hour round trip to get to a Michaels, or a party goods store. Growing up in suburban Pennsylvania, I was so close to everything. We still had to drive, but you could get what you needed within 15 to 20 minutes from the house. Don’t even get me started on proximity to what I needed while living in Spain. Even working against siesta and Sundays, I was still able to get there and back – without a car.

Here, I find myself planning a day in Champaign (100 mile r/t) or a long weekend with Holly in Springfield (200 mile r/t) so I can a) get my hair cut, b) dine out, c) visit a museum, d) hit up a bookstore, e) buy craft supplies, f) buy clothing, g) soak up some humanity. This is not only a time commitment, but a drain on the wallet. Figure in the time it takes to get there and back, and then the gas money .. and that’s my monthly excursion out of town.

Let’s not overlook Mattoon, which holds the wonders of Home Depot, Staples, three more dollar stores, Wendy’s, a used bookstore, Big Lots and the original Burger King (really). It’s a mere 10 miles from here, and also has another Walmart if I’m feeling adventurous. Sometimes I head over to Tuscola (25 minutes out) for a trip to the outlets, or swing by the Amish (20 minutes out) for some homemade cinnamon buns and a change of scenery. Maybe this is why I no longer think anything of driving 3 hours to get to Chicago?

If you need us, the students and I will be in the office making paper chains all week… the Dollar Tree had a sale on construction paper.

city mouse, country mouse

Once upon a time …

… in the land of Aesop’s fables the story of these two rodent relatives was created. The posh city mouse comes to visit his country cousin, and teases him about his simple life. The city mouse invites his cousin to his home in the big city to show him how life is bigger, better, brighter in comparison. Over dinner they run into a problem with the neighbors (dogs) and they have to hide to save their lives. The moral of the story is revealed when the country cousin goes home to his country comforts, declaring he would rather live a simple life than live in fear.

Terrible portrayal of the city! What – is the mouse living in Camden? There have been many variations on the story since it was first created. I always thought the story had to do with two people leading separate lives differently but happily. The moral of my version: One size does not fit all.

Well I’m the city mouse. Now masquerading as the country mouse, I set up shop in a one bedroom apartment in a small Midwestern town and I am slowly fading away, far from city comforts. I do have my fair share of noisy neighbors .. although they aren’t dogs, they act like them.

I am plagued by cravings. I crave noise and people and twenty-four hour stores. Mom and pop restaurants, my favorite coffee shop and the people. Where did all the people go?

My students give me the eyebrow of disbelief when I tell them that I am an expert on culture shock. It’s not that they question my authority on the subject. What they don’t believe is that I gave up another year in Europe for some work experience in the cornfields. There are days when I don’t believe it either.

Moving to the Midwest is one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. It beats moving to Europe, going to college, taking the GMAT (twice). It is isolated and flat, empty and quiet. I have to drive over an hour to go somewhere like Target, Bed Bath & Beyond, Barnes & Noble. While we do not close for siesta, we are closed on Sundays for religion and rest and inconvenience.

photo courtesy of anormalife

photo courtesy of anormallife-amyemilia.blogspot.com

There are things I do like: the cheap rent, the absence of a highway speed limit. I’ve never been somewhere where I can see for miles and miles over the same terrain. Perched on a mountaintop, sure. Standing in a field, never. The sun rises and sets in the most brilliant colors that blow out the landscape for endless minutes. As a result of this unobstructed view, a sunset can consume you. Literally swallow you and pull down the day with a gulp, and you with it.

I see things in photographs, eyelids like shutters. Red barn and a silo – click. Single naked tree – click. Long empty roads – click. When I see the skyline of Chicago, I could weep. My eyes aren’t open wide enough to catch the lights, the colors, the people. As though I need to stock up on the stimulus before I head back to the stillness. The train ride home is the longest, with the city receding behind me as we move along the tracks.

Being the country mouse has its own luxuries. Uninterrupted cooking and a kitchen to myself. No need to roll up the yoga mat or turn down the stereo. Do laundry at weird hours, walk around in my underwear. Plenty of time to write, read and reflect. I am an only child after all, solitude is important to me.

But .. wow.