Of the many things Europe does well, it’s the continent’s magnificent Christmas festivities that can charm this cynical traveler every time. From Scotland to Switzerland an extraordinary spirit of festivity, connecting this generations to others long since passed, can be felt in the wintertime air. The traditions of the season are still strong in this thoroughly modern part of the world, where bustling Christmas markets fill the main square of big cities and bucolic, half-timbered villages alike. In the cathedrals, choirs singing the great medieval Christmas hymns fill the cavernous spaces with angelic harmonies, their melodies carried to the rafters on frosty puffs of breath.
One of the most interesting aspects of Europe is the subtle variations to each country’s celebratory traditions. I find them fascinating. Here’s a sampling of those variations from three different cultures: The German, French and English traditions.
Germany, despite being a progressive powerhouse not known for sentimentality, is actually one of the most magical places to experience the season. Old traditions die hard and Germany reaches far into its medieval past to embrace and celebrate the season. From the Bavaria to the Baltic, from the Black Forrest to Berlin, its people break out the gingerbread recipes, the carols, and the colors of the season.
Performances of the Nutcracker are to be found in theatres across the country, while well-built manger scenes adorn the cobbled public spaces of both the Catholic South and Protestant North.
Sprawling Christkindle Markets fill the squares of communities across the country, bursting with music and food and seasonal décor. Traditional favorites such as gingerbread and sweet prune-and-fig candies are served at stalls under a kaleidoscope of Christmas colors. It’s not unusual for a small chorus to be serenading bundled-up shoppers and sightseers with classic Germanic carols.
But the singing of carols is especially beloved and ingrained in the Christmastime traditions of England. In fact, they’ve been a staple of the holiday in England since at least the sixteenth century, as many of the country’s Christmas traditions are. The great cathedrals of Salisbury, Westminster, etc. hold spellbinding choral events by candlelight and colorful outdoor Christmas markets buzz with activity.
Do you like your Christmas tree? Thank England, where the tradition of the Christmas tree originated. The custom originated when pagan-era Druids decorated their places of worship with evergreen trees in the dead of winter, which to them represented life that could not be extinguished despite the cold and the dark. The later Christians appreciated this symbolism, as it reminded them of Christ’s promise of eternal life, and adopted the custom.
The holiday dishes are of course a pivotal aspect of any celebration, and the diversity in food served on the big day is one of the widely most varying customs of Europe’s Christmas celebration. In England the regulars like turkey and veggies are served, but desert is the real treat: The all-important Christmas pudding, a fruity desert usually made with figs and brandy, and mincemeat pies, both fixtures since the sixteenth century.
Another particularly English tradition also includes the wearing of a colorful paper crown—everyone is a king or queen at Christmas. Needless to say there is tea involved on this wintry day as well, often at 6pm on Christmas to warm the soul.
France revels in its ancient cultural traditions as it celebrates the Noel with that classically French combination of style and joy. Gift giving is less emphasized than gathering and celebrating simple rituals with family and friends—and sharing a fine meal with good wine, of course.
Paris, the City of Light, celebrates in a less ostentatious way than big US cities, but its neighborhoods often host popular Christmas markets that are as festive as any.
In the countryside, where the culture of any people really resides and thrives, the traditions are stronger and richer. The warm tones of local choirs singing medieval carols can be heard emanating from candle-lit, thirteenth-century churches. Many families will attend the midnight Mass and return home to enjoy le réveillon, or the “wake-up!” meal.
And that meal is fantastic. Being France, the food is an integral part of the celebration—in fact it’s the culinary high point of the year for many. Delicacies like foie gras, oysters and escargots are popular aperitifs, while the entrée tends to be more straight-forward dishes like goose (popular in Alsace) and turkey (more popular in Burgundy). Meat (including ham and duck) is paired with a good red wine and served with the ever-popular chestnut stuffing, a French favorite for generations. Chubby truffles are another beloved feature of most dinners.
While the use of the actual Yule log has diminished somewhat, the French make a traditional Yule log-shaped cake called the buche de Noel. It’s a sugary delight of chocolate and chestnuts.
After the Mass and le réveillon, the children put their shoes in front of the fireplace hoping that Pere Noel (Father Christmas) will fill them with candy, nuts, fruit and gifts. As the kids drift off to sleep, the adults sit up late, hang goodies from the tree and polish off the Yule log. Before they turn in for the night, a softly burning candle is are left on the table in case the Virgin Mary passes by, a long-standing custom of this Catholic country.
Always travel with snacks. Eat local. Taste the street food. Try the cuisine specific to this culture. Have you ever had something so delicious? These are all things travelers hear when heading to a new destination. But for me, some places are harder while others make my taste buds soar with delight. I’ve been a vegetarian for just under ten years now. There have, as in everything in life, been ups and downs and easy and hard spots, but all in all I feel better. As a traveler, there’s a huge draw to eating local and checking out the cuisine of places. We travel with snacks, of course, but can’t wait to dive into local cuisine. Some places have been easier than others to be a vegetarian. We’ve traveled to those vegetarian friendly and others heavy on the carnivore delights and have found some more manageable and enjoyable than others.
IN MY TRAVEL EXPERIENCE AS A VEGETARIAN…
Easiest country to be a vegetarian: INDIA
Even my meat-loving husband went vegetarian for a time while on our India holiday. We even got to share dishes. Almost every restaurant we went to had an entire section of the menu dedicated to vegetarian cuisine. Nowhere was it ‘just have a side dish’ or ‘can you tell me what the base of that sauce is, please?’ Here there was even street food available for me to enjoy the same as anyone who is a meat eater and perhaps…even more. Samosas, pakoras, chapatti, naan and flavourful dishes filled with spice mixtures and colourful sauces adorned my plate and tickled my palate. This is the land of vegetarians…all are welcome!
Favourite place to be a vegetarian: AUSTRALIA
I love this country! In a land of all things close to water, the land down under is veg-friendly. Where you’d never find me eating sushi in a mall in New York, I can’t wait for my Sushi Sushi fix shortly after landing at Tullamarine airport in Melbourne. At most food courts there are vegetarian friendly choices with pumpkin or aubergine and for those pescaterians, smoked salmon abounds. Tandoori vegetarian pie at Pie Face, the garden goodness burger at Grill’d or the fabulous fries at vegan Lord of the Fries only scratch the surface of available options. It’s fresh and easy….she’ll be right!
Hardest country to be a vegetarian: EGYPT
Incredible sights, unbelievable artifacts, amazing culture but not such great vegetarian friendly cuisine. In a land where travelers must stay away from fresh vegetables and many others are fried, Egypt wasn’t the easiest place I’ve found to be a vegetarian. Although falafel and hummus are available, it’s definitely harder to find variety or non-fried options. I can say that between French fries, falafel, bread, noodles and eggs, I was content for the trip.
Most surprising place to find a fabulous vegetarian restaurant: BUENOS AIRES, ARGENTINA
Argentina is steak territory! My husband was in carnivore heaven the entire time with one piece of meat larger and tastier than the next. In search of a restaurant that could cater more to me for a meal, we found one that won’t soon be forgotten. Bio, a vegan/vegetarian restaurant was so good that it not only satisfied my vegetarian taste buds with a quinoa risotto, but the lactose intolerant friend and two carnivore husbands were thrilled with their dishes.
As anyone with dietary restrictions or food allergies knows, being out of a food comfort zone isn’t as easy as being in one. Check the base of soups and sauces, ask your questions, have your questions written out in the local dialect and source out as many suggestions and reviews as you like on the web. Remember, you can always find a grocery store to pick up things you know you can eat and as an extra back up plan…always travel with snacks!
For more of Stacey’s travel musings, check out her blog.
Veterans’ Day in the US and the UK is replete with ceremonies (concerts and parades in the US, red poppies in the UK) to commemorate those who served their country in uniform. Aside from a great opportunity to thank those that fought in foreign lands, it’s a great opportunity to remember some of the historic sites that can give testament to the events they witnessed.
While some sites are now little more than quiet fields that have been reclaimed by nature, many places can still pack an educational punch that leaves the visitor still give the visitor a sense of the enormity and ruthlessness of war.
Here are a couple of my recent favorites:
Duxford Airbase and Imperial War Museum, Duxford, England
Revered as a major Royal Air Force (RAF) base during the legendary “Battle of Britain”, RAF Duxford also boasts an Imperial War Museum. With more than 200 historic aircraft ranging from rickety World War I biplanes to the B-17 Flying Fortress to the SR-71 Blackbird, the collection is arguably the finest in Europe. Also on display is part of the Imperial War Museum’s vast trove of historic photographs, uniforms and documents.
RAF Duxford, situated in bucolic countryside outside Cambridge, was founded during World War I but earned its place in history during the darkest days of World War II. In preparation for his planned invasion of Britain, Hitler launched the full might of the Luftwaffe at England’s factories and cities in 1940.
The bombs killed indiscriminately. His aim was as psychological as it was practical; he sought to terrorize the population and break Britain’s will to fight. It fell to the undermanned RAF to defend the homeland.
As the sector station for Fighter Command’s No. 12 Group, Duxford Air Base was in the thick of the battle. Casualties were immense. The pilots who fought in the Battle were enshrined in lore as “The Few”.
In June 1944 the planes launched from the same runways would protect the Allied fleet as it steamed toward Normandy. It would also gain fame as one of the homes of the fighter escorts for the Allied bombers that pulverized Nazi Germany’s industrial might.
RAF Duxford continued as a fighter station after the war and was decommissioned in the 1970’s. With over thirty authentic buildings recognized by the British government for their historical significance, the base was granted to the Imperial War Museum (IWM) in 1976 and has been a world-class center of exhibits and education ever since.
Mulberry Harbors and Museum, Arromanches, France
The tiny French coastal town of Arromanches, perched on the sands of Normandy, holds another of my favorite war sites. Not far from the immaculate rows of gleaming marble headstones of the US cemetery at Omaha Beach, the beach village had its fate permanently altered when it was chosen to be the main port of the Allies.
One of the most vexing logistical challenges for D-Day planners was the issue of transferring the move millions of pounds of Allied soldiers, vehicles, weapons, and supplies from ship to shore once the troops had established a beachhead. At Churchill’s order, engineers were set to the monumental task of constructing giant ports nicknamed “Mulberry Harbors”, designed to accomplish the feat.
Before the blood had washed away from the Normandy sand, the ports were unloaded from ships and attached by brave engineers under enemy fire. While bullets still flew the ports were operational and offloading tons of materiel per hour for the final push against Hitler’s Riech.
Today, a very well done museum perches above the coast and describes the incredible engineering task undertaken to build the ports. It gives even a layman like me a good idea of how this was pulled off, and of the massive challenges (storms, waves, German gunfire) that the Mulberry builders had to contend with.
But this isn’t the most moving part of the area; the really evocative sights are sitting just off the coast and demand no entrance fee. Still visible in the surf are the ghostly hulks of the prefabricated ports themselves. The skeletal iron beasts, now rusted and worn away by decades of tide and salt water, serve as a silent reminder of the world-changing event that came to Normandy’s shores. And they remind us of the ordinary people—most now passed away—who found themselves swept up in the gale force of history.
“Last night while I lay thinking here, some WHAT IFS crawled inside my ear and pranced and partied all night long and sang their same old WHAT IF song: WHAT IF I’m dumb in school? WHAT IF they’ve closed the swimming pool? WHAT IF I get beat up? WHAT IF there’s poison in my cup? WHAT IF I start to cry? WHAT IF I get sick and die? WHAT IF I flunk that test? WHAT IF green hair grows on my chest? WHAT IF nobody likes me? WHAT IF a bolt of lightning strikes me? WHAT IF I don’t grow talle? WHAT IF my head starts getting smaller? WHAT IF the fish won’t bite? WHAT IF the wind tears up my kite? WHAT IF they start a war? WHAT IF my parents get divorced? WHAT IF the bus is late? WHAT IF my teeth don’t grow in straight? WHAT IF I tear my pants? WHAT IF I never learn to dance?
Everything seems well, and then the nighttime WHAT IFS strike again!”
–Shel Silverstein, Where the Sidewalk Ends
My sister and I read this poem over and over again when we were little. Although at the time we felt it acknowledged some of the fears with which an eight and twelve year old might struggle, it seems to have a greater meaning than at first I thought. What if we don’t have enough money? What if we get rid of the apartment? What if we can’t find a storage unit? What if, what if, what if? No matter the age or stage in life, the ‘What Ifs’ have a way of striking. How do you quiet the whispers?
We’ve thought about and heard it all before-when is the right time to have kids, to get married, to change jobs? Seems most of us don’t have an exact date or time and often, the best answer is – ‘it’s never the right time’. The minute you buy a house, you’re offered a job transfer in a new city that you can’t pass up. Wait to take that much-desired journey to a far off land and there’s bound to be a travel warning to the exact place you planned on going. Trying to know when the ‘right’ time is to make that life change is never easy. Do you cannonball into the deep end or wade with trepidation at the top step in the shallow part of the pool? How on earth are any of us supposed to know when the time is just right?
After countless hours of negotiation with the voices both inside and out of my head, I can honestly say I have no idea when the time is right. But, I do think that when it is at the closest level of right for you, you’ll know. One of my best friends jumps into life. When she wanted to try life on a new coast it took her less than a day to make the decision. When that coast didn’t work out and an overseas offer arrived, she was gone within a week. She knew the instant she met her husband and married shortly after and has tackled other life decisions with continued intensity. Me, I’m the opposite. It took me till twenty-five to finally buy the gift my parents wanted to give me at twenty-one. I cried when I went off to university and although immensely excited, struggled with the idea of moving overseas. There were things I ‘needed’ to be able to make the leap, but after leaping once, twice and a third time my comfort zone has been blown open and the needs seem less and less. Everyone has his or her own process. Sometimes you’ll know deep in your toes that it’s right and other times ‘the right choice’ apprehensively knocks on your door and it takes quite awhile to hear it, answer it and let it in.
The process, decisions and choices are yours. Although, sometimes, life makes a few of those decisions for you but for those that are left to your own accord, listen to the message the world is sharing with you and leap when you’re as close to ready as you’ll ever get. John Lennon said, ‘life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans’. Time doesn’t stand still and there are only so many do-overs in a lifetime. Find your do-over and take the plunge. Just because we don’t all openly embrace change, doesn’t mean it’s bad. When the signs of the universe finally become clear or as un-fuzzy as they can to you, do it…..the time is right.
For more of Stacey’s travel musings, check out her blog.
“We need HOW many shots?” Six immunizations, a signed yellow fever card and two prescriptions later we left the doctor’s office. It was going to be worth it, we just knew it! Five years and a few extra booster shots later and we were right. Our time on the African continent yields some of my most favourite travel memories and life-changing experiences. “Africa gets into your soul and stays there”. This is my answer to most questions about my time in Africa. With a smile, I remember the moments that would not have been possible anywhere else. If you’re even a bit curious-Go, you’ll never be the same again.
We’ve traveled to Africa three times and each has been more different than the time before it. There was Egypt in the north, South Africa and its surrounds in the south and Tanzania and Kenya in the east.
Egypt is filled with history, culture, religion and life on the Nile. We slept on a felucca, rode camels in the Sahara, translated hieroglyphics, awed at the pyramids and sphinx and ate our weight in falafel. Egypt’s appeal was the intertwining of religion and life amidst an ever-changing landscape. It seemed that there’s a part of Egypt ruled by the river and a separate part away from it all. Markets clamored with vendors selling their wares and religion was heard all around – most especially as the sound of the muezzin floated through the air calling worshippers to prayer. Perfumes, hookah pipes, cartouches and papyrus were readily sold to travelers as take home items and history was captured on cave walls.
Southern and western Africa is still my favourite of parts we’ve visited so far. We spent three weeks through parts of South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, Zambia and Zimbabwe. Hanging with penguins at Boulder Beach, glimpsing the southernmost tip and feeling like the true king of the world atop Table Mountain are special. Bush camping in the Okavango Delta was more than memorable since a raging hippo chased our mokorros and we lived to tell the tale. And let’s not even talk about the jump into Devil’s Pool-this is truly the definition of living on the edge! My favourite beyond a shadow of a doubt was Namibia. Etosha National Park’s watering hole is Discovery Channel in living colour as silent onlookers sit for hours waiting for animals to visit for a drink. Soussevlei is a sand lover’s paradise and hiking Dune 45’s bright, brilliant sand dunes make you feel like a cherry seated atop nature’s sundae. After visiting Namibia, it’s become one of my most treasured memories.
And then there’s the Serengeti and Ngorongoro Crater. Masai warriors live their lives off of the land and teach their children to do the same. Dotted through the plains you see Masai houses and schools left standing for the next group to come through as the nomads move to a new location. Dry season floods the view in colours of beige, red, brown, orange and yellow showing the effects of nature on the landscape. Pockets of bright green pop where rivers flow with life in the wet season. Dust mixed with gravel and the omnipresent red dirt kicks up as the 4x4s journey the open roads in search of sightings. As trucks pass on the narrow lanes camera lenses and binoculars pass each other as their owners pop the tops of trucks to feel the wind and come face to face with a neighboring giraffe.
Africa is different. Africa is beautiful. Africa is a blending of thousands of cultures amidst a backdrop of animals and a landscape controlled by nature. Africa leaves you wanting to return and teaches lessons you may not have known you needed to learn. Africa gets into your soul and stays there.
For more of Stacey’s travel musings check out her website.
Male to Colombo to Dubai to Milan and finally landing in New York forty hours later was the route we took home from the Maldives last week. The jet lag has been palpable but we’d both say it has been worth it for the perfection we experienced in our beach bungalow island paradise for six magical days. But for most of the people we talked to, the look of disbelief in their eyes when we explained the journey home was enough to say-“no way, I’d never do that!” We’ve gotten the same response countless times with the question-‘how long is the flight from New York to Melbourne? What on earth do you do for that long?’ Travel may mean something different to everyone, but no matter the explanation, we all have our reasons for leaping.
For me, travel is a journey from start to finish. Be it a two-day jaunt or a leap of years-I find magic in every part. It’s hard to believe considering when I even mention a thought about a trip or a move; my mom get’s stressed not liking anything to do with the word travel. For me, it’s exhilarating. There’s the research, the decision, the planning, the packing and then the actual adventure. I enjoy it all, but I actually get excited when I get to the airport, hand off my bags, head through security and know that I’m on my way! Each time I wander around the airport shops like a kid in a candy store knowing something great is about to happen-the anticipation is only the start to the journey.
It’s been called a traveler’s curse, itchy feet, a vice, an escape, running away and a million other things, but for the travelers I know, it’s part of their make up. Check the genetic code and I think you’d find a travel gene as part of many of our DNA compositions. We’ll tell you that our lists continue to grow no matter how many lands our feet touch. Some count passport stamps while others regale you with tales of amazing people and incredible human-interest stories. We’ll save our pennies regularly for that unquenchable desire to spend them on an adventure. Some travel solo on a journey all their own while others go in groups and find they learn even more about themselves than they ever expected. Some seek the world’s wisdom while others have a passion for learning as much as possible through first-hand encounters different than those in which they themselves experienced in their youth.
Why do you travel? What for you is worth the leap or the risk? Does the age old adage, “if you think adventure is dangerous, try routine-it’s lethal” resonate with you? Is it to experience other cultures, food, beer and lifestyles? Do you feel a pull towards nature’s beauty or the UNESCO world heritage site list? Do you like to volunteer in other parts of the world? Is it to get outside your comfort zone or just to know that you’re one small part of a much greater world? For me, it’s a mixture of all of these things. The insatiable curiosity of learning by doing is a driving force but the act of travel encompasses so many others that it’s difficult to put into words. Like many fellow travelers, the rush of travel makes me feel alive and although it comes with risks-I believe they are far outweighed by the rewards. I breathe better when I travel. I feel better when I’m planning an adventure. I smile more when talking to others about their experiences and bantering about ideas for new exploits. I learn more about the world when I’m forced outside my comfort zone and I relish the relationships that have been fostered by these ventures. Even more so, through my travels I’ve learned more about myself and why I leap, and I’ve learned to trust that the net will, without a doubt, appear.
In the end, although I would never tell you that these past few days of waking up at 4am has been pleasant (when you’re not heading to the airport to catch another flight at least), the sunrises have been beautiful and the jet lag undoubtedly worthwhile.
Why do you leap?
To read more of Stacey’s writing check out her website.
It can be difficult to find new angles through which to view places you already know well. Human nature being what is, it takes a conscious effort to see anything through new eyes. We tend to see only what we’re familiar with, and what strikes our vision on the most surface levels: the old buildings, the people, the streets, the here-and-now bustle that is so easy to get caught up in. But shifting our approach is sometimes needed if we are to really appreciate all the layers and the richness any place has to offer.
As a travel writer I’m always forced to do this, and though it’s challenging, it always rewards me with a much deeper perspective of a city’s beating heart and long-hidden scars.
For example, trying to find a topic in which to write about can suddenly have me thinking thematically. In the case of Amsterdam, I was recently casting about for a theme. The picturesque canals and predictable clichés are worn out. I wanted to go deeper.
Of course, a well-deserved reputation for religious tolerance in previously intolerant times is a strong undercurrent in the city’s history, shaping its character. But everyone knows about the city’s lenient attitude towards marijuana and prostitution. The pot-selling “coffeshops” and the brightly painted brothels of the Red Light District are hard to miss, and at any rate weed and sex are not exactly major taboos anymore. So, in doing this “personality profile”, as I like to view travel writing, I decided to focus on the less well-known, more hidden-in-plain-sight landmarks that quietly but effectively tell the story of Amsterdam’s legacy of tolerance in intolerant times.
The point is, looking around the city for these things forced me to look through fresh eyes. I began to notice things I hadn’t paid much attention to before. Statues and plaques commemorating Amsterdam’s history—normally easy to pass over in the bustling, thoroughly modern city—began to emerge from the background, as if reaching out through the centuries to educate me with a silent power.
Paying attention to these small reminders eventually told a story, a long and rich narrative, of how the city’s philosophy of tolerance became a beacon for many persecuted people seeking a safe refuge from their own country’s intolerance in a way that the pot bars and sex shops could not. Small churches emerged from the urban crush and hordes of camera-toting tourists, inviting me into their quiet, solemn interior just as they’d invited minority sects whose beliefs had marked them out for discrimination. Small Catholic churches in times of Protestant intolerance (and vice versa) thrived here, as did humble little synagogues that operated without interference or malice from the city’s fathers.
Around a corner from a busy street, a small brick building in a quiet courtyard bears a faded plaque indicating that English pilgrims came here to worship before heading to the New World. They prayed here, and then boarded the Mayflower to escape persecution in their home country. They were made to feel comfortable here.
The remnants of more recent times came to the fore as well. I begin to notice the many houses bearing historical plaques indicating that the occupants courageously sheltered Jewish families during the Second Word War.
Not far away a statue of a portly, none-too-attractive dockworker seems at first glance to be a forgettable, bland post-war tribute to laborers. Look closer and you’ll find an inscription indicating that it memorializes the brave stand of the Amsterdam’s dockworkers, who staged the first strike undertaken in Occupied Europe to protest the mistreatment of the city’s Jews by the Nazis.
The strike, held a few days after 400 Jewish men were herded together on the spot where the statue now stands, was brutally put down by the SS within hours, and is remembered by few today. The statue’s rotund subject was a real-life non-Jewish dockworker who participated in the strike because he felt it was the right thing to do.
A small room in the city’s historic Dutch Theatre, once a point of assembly for Jews about to be shipped off to concentration camps, holds a humble memorial of three little stones. The memorial seems unimportant. Search for the true story, however, and you’ll find that the three stones represent a local man named Walter Suskind, his wife and small daughter. Suskind smuggled 1,200 Jewish children to safety during the war. In 1945 his work was discovered by the Nazis and he and his family were themselves sent to Auschwitz, never to return.
Soon I begin to understand how many centuries’ worth of brave Amsterdammers have risked it all to welcome and aid minorities in dark times, and that courage was common place in the face of tyranny. It underscores the strength of Amsterdam’s heritage of tolerance more than any fashionable pot bar or cheesy sex shop ever could.
My point is, the “what” that you look for isn’t nearly as important as the act of searching for new ways to connect to a city’s unique DNA. The important thing is looking from a thematic perspective, searching for that thread of history that informs its culture. This can provide the prism through which you can see through the here-and-now veneer and access the richness of a city’s historical character, forged in the crucible of time and trial.
It was December of 2004 when I took my first Contiki trip for two weeks in Australia. On the first night I met two girls from Minnesota and that’s where the love affair with the State Fair began. For years Cara has been teaching this New Yorker about all things Minneapolis and although I’ve now been many times I was never able to hit it at the right time to take part in the festivities. It took just about a decade but I finally made it to the Minnesota State Fair.
I learned a lot from Cara. I learned about ‘Minnesota nice’, throwing my hat by the Mary Tyler Moore statue and the structural brilliance that is the Spoon and Cherry. I’ve spent time making s’mores on Lake Superior, walked across the border into Wisconsin and listened to loons at a few of the twelve thousand lakes. There has been fun at the mall, a visit to the Jolly Green Giant, photos at lock and dam number one which was a first for this ocean loving New Yorker and then a return visit for her wonderful wedding. And let’s just talk about the fabulousness that is an ice-house and an ice party-Oofdah! Minnesota is a wonderful place.
We were finally were able to schedule a trip at the end of August 2011. We were even able to catch up with another travel friend (who also lives in Minneapolis) we met two years prior in Europe. When Hurricane Irene hit our Long Beach shores and the ocean waves were quickly encroaching up the beach nearing our car park and sea wall, we were safely ensconced in the twin cities waiting for the day we would get to head to the fair and finally see the truth behind the heads carved out of butter. Ten years ago I heard of these butter heads and couldn’t come close to picturing what it would be like at all. Would I really get to meet a Dairy Princess?
We hopped a bus to the fair, got our tickets and smiled wide as we entered the gates of what could have been many, many football fields worth of fairgrounds. I guess had I been to the New York or any other state fair ever in my life, perhaps I wouldn’t have been as excited, but this was special. My Aussie husband had never been to anything like this either so it was a treat and a half for us both. For Cara, it has been a yearly event for as long as she can remember. When those ten days roll around at the end of August people from all walks of life flood into Minneapolis to take part in, work at, eat at or visit this fabulous spectacle. Concerts take place, competitions are won, farm animals are shown and dairy princesses take center stage in the dog days of summer at the fair. We went, we watched, we ate and we smiled.
First of all, this is one of the best people watching spots I’ve ever seen. Thousands of people wander the roadways and sections and the fashions of decades past forced some of us to raise a quizzical eyebrow-but it was all part of the fair. Our first stop was the Dairy pavilion. Not for my lactose intolerant friends, this is where you can get fresh ice cream & yoghurt, whole milk in abundance and here in all their glory are the butter heads. Children and adults press their faces as close to the panes of glass as possible as if New York City’s Macy’s Christmas windows had come alive. The incredible artist sculptor comes each year to create masterpieces at the fair. She’s an amazing artist and manages to take the exact likeness of these chosen Dairy Princesses and carve their features into blocks of butter. The artist and the princess she’s working on adorn puffy parkas to keep warm in the frozen tundra that encapsulates them so that the butter can stay at a temperature warm enough to carve and cold enough to keep its sculpted form. It’s a huge honour to be crowned a Dairy Princess and after the fair is over the family of the princess gets to keep the butter heads if they choose. We watched in awe of this artistry and marveled at this magical moment that could only happen here in the land of dairy. And then Cara told me that I too could get my head carved out of butter! You should have seen the look on my face! With the help of the Internet, we went to the butter head station, uploaded my photo and within minutes my face appeared as a butter imprint on a pin that I could proudly wear. After years of wondering, I finally got to see a head carved out of butter-this was a huge check off my travel list!
As with any fair, food is a huge attraction. Mat was the first to get a lesson in all food Minnesota State Fair. Cara, being an expert in all things fair steered us to her favourite pronto pup vendor. You should have seen the look on my husband’s face when she said ‘you have to have one of these’! And just like that we learned the difference between a pronto pup and a corn dog and the magical taste sensation that happens when you put anything on a stick! Her reasoning for the pronto pup was that when dipped in pancake batter the hot dog takes on a whole new flair. I photographed, he ate and all was right with the world. Me, I went in the direction of salty and sweet. First there was an oozy and gooey s’more from the S’mores truck that melted in my mouth and fingers. Next, there was the pickle (on a stick of course) that was bigger than Mt. Rushmore. Then when we wanted some French fries we were steered past about fifteen different vendors to the only one Cara said was good enough to try-and again, of course, she was right. Who could say no to a jumbo sized red bucket filled with salty chips?
It’s no surprise that the fair lasts ten days since it would take us that long to be able to see every part. I sat on a tractor at the John Deere section and Mat happily adorned some paper animal hat on our way to the animal pavilion. Visions of Charlotte’s Web and the words to ‘Zuckerman’s Famous Pig’ danced through my head as we ventured into the barns to visit the pigs and goats and watched in amazement as we saw baby ducklings born right in front of us. So far, it has been even better than expected. Passing the prize winning vegetables, more rides and playing our own personal games of Frogger as we weaved in and out of crowds, we even got to have a look in the 4H pavilion taking me back to all of those special summers of my youth spent at 4H Camp in Riverhead, New York.
According to our host, no day at the fair is complete without a taste of her favourite squeaky cheese. What? She hasn’t steered us wrong yet, so with perplexed looks on both of our faces, we followed Cara and her then boyfriend (now husband), Wade, into the only food court that she liked for this mid-west delicacy. For us, this was a first. She ordered. We waited. Within minutes a small basket filled with oodles of fried goodness was upon us. Small dollops of fried cheese awaited and as Cara’s eyes lit up she watched as we took our first bite of these fried cheese curds and we all quietly listened for the squeak….and squeak it did!
We could have stayed forever. There were endless rides, countless pavilions filled with amazing sights, vendor after vendor of fried deliciousness and people as far as the eye could see. Sadly, we only had one day to spend at the Minnesota State Fair, but in that one day it far surpassed all of my expectations that started when I first heard about it on a boat in the Great Barrier Reef all those years ago. For a girl who has smiled every time I’ve landed in the dairy land, the fair was a huge success. For me, the end of the official summer season is always showcased by days at the beach listening to the ocean and saying goodbye to our friendly lifeguards-but, I always look forward to hearing Cara’s stories and reliving those moments when I got to meet a real life Dairy Princess at the Minnesota State Fair.
Have you been to the Minnesota State Fair? What’s your favourite thing about state fairs?
For more of Stacey’s travels check out her website.
Travelers are curious. Why else would they put up with the more uncomfortable bits that make up “travel”? Squatting toilets for instance or anything that has anything to do with an airline.
Many of us are so curious that we want to see it all. The whole world. At the very least, a sample of each region from the world. That “see it all” curiosity is especially true for my husband. His initial thoughts on creating an itinerary are never “I’d like to go back to….” but always “We haven’t yet seen…”.
I, on the other hand, am a very nostalgic person. In some ways, that seems like a trait that wouldn’t encourage travel but would instead put a damper on curiosity for all things novel and strange.
Believe it or not, I think nostalgia can fuel travel too. Of course a person who has traveled as a kid may feel nostalgic about returning to the places they visited or simply about travel in general. But I think there are 3 ways in which nostalgia can inspire anyone to travel, even those who never traveled before.
1.) If you think about it, the discovery of something new is inherently familiar from our childhood. When is this world more full of discovery than when we’re children, constantly exploring “firsts”? Everything from our first bike ride to our first field trip comes with that feeling of discovering something novel. In that way, even a person who never traveled as a kid may feel nostalgic about new experiences and new places.
2.) Some people travel for the nostalgic feeling of a simpler time. One of my first jobs was as a front-desk clerk in a bed & breakfast in Amish Country Ohio and I must say, most of our tourists came to remember what life was like when the world was slower. Every day I heard someone exclaim, “My grandmother used to do it that way!” or “Yes, I remember when we made bread that way too.”
My point isn’t that nostalgia inspires you to travel to Amish Country but rather that nostalgia can inspire travel to developing or remote cultures, not yet saturated with all things digital. Eastern Europe for instance reminds me of the America my grandparents tell stories about. Yes there are cars driving down dirt roads in the countryside, but there are horse-drawn carts too. And pay phones! And little bakeries run by little old women in the same plain aprons my aunts used to wear when they made homemade bread.
3.) Doesn’t the study of genealogy and family history seem to sprout from nostalgia too? Genealogy seems to inspire even the least wander-lusting types to travel back to the place of their roots. There’s something fascinating, after all, about visiting a town you’ve heard family fables about. My grandmother used to sing a song about buying shoes in “Laderbach.” Never has she seen Laderbach, but seeing the name “Laderbach” on a sign in Switzerland brought back warm memories of my her singing the songs her grandma sang to her. It was fascinating to realize that a little hint of Switzerland had trickled down through the generations in the form of a song.
Nostalgia is a mysterious feeling in this way. It seems it’s not just a love of things familiar from our past, but sometimes a love of things reminiscent of a past we’ve never even seen ourselves.
Why travel far and wide you ask
What will you perhaps find?
There’s so much here to see and do
Why go far to unwind?
So much to say – the words are hard
They make so much sense to me
Stay here to find the everyday
Or go abroad and see?
The fun, the peace and curiosity
It runs deep in my soul
Adventures to have and experiences I seek
The journey itself is the goal
In travel I find a piece of myself
I’ve yet to find at home
Truth and identity are ones that I seek
And I find it whenever I roam
It’ll never be easy or just the right time
To quit tradition or ditch the routine
Follow your dreams and go forth to find
So much learning from travel you’ll glean
Years from now what will matter more
What you did or didn’t do?
Remember you matter and you are important
And you choose what works for you
Venture out in the world there’s adventure afoot
The more you travel the more you know
Don’t wait for the right time for everyone else
If it’s right for you…JUST GO!
To read more of Stacey’s travel adventures, visit her website.