Tag Archives: Wisconsin

The Taste of My Study Abroad

Peanut butter is one of those things I’ll always associate with a particular time and place. We have peanut butter in the U.K but it’s not overly popular. In the US however, it’s everywhere. To me, it’s a distinctly American taste. On the lower campus of the University of Wisconsin- Eau Claire there’s a big cafeteria that I would go to in-between classes. I remember looking around and seeing a PB & J for the first time. There seemed to be something nostalgic and quintessentially American about peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. For some reason, it was strange and funny that these were actually real, that they were right there in front of me instead of in the movies. They seemed more American than hot dogs even- because hot dogs and hamburgers have been transplanted into foreign menus so thoroughly. The PB & J seemed like the sandwich an American boy might have in his lunchbox at a summer camp; I can see him, sandy-haired and sitting on a log taking large, American-sized bites in the sun. I got myself the sandwich and found a booth. The first thing I realized was just how rich it was. The taste was fine, and I loved the jelly, but I found it so filling that I only ever got it in the future for the novelty value.

Sometime later, I was hanging out with my friends Jimmy and Zeke. They delighted in my thirst for American experiences, and out of the goodness of their hearts, took me down to the dorm’s vending machine and treated me to a care package of what they called essential American candy. It was interesting to me what Americans considered to be the most American and the most important. The care package included a Hershey bar, a Reece’s Peanut Butter Cup, and a Pop Tart. These were the things I had to try. If you’re an American reading this, what do you think of their choices? Let me know in the comments what candy you would choose for someone’s induction to American life.

Dedicated readers of TumbleweedWrites will remember my Lamb Boobs post a few weeks ago, in which I mentioned that my friends George and Elizabeth gave me a typewriter as a thank you gift for serving as their wedding photographer. Last weekend I finally got around to learning how to use it, and I decided to make a menu of all the food items that made a strong impression on me during my study abroad. These aren’t American meals so much as they are American tastes. These are the things that, whenever I take a bite out of them, I am instantly taken back to my time in Wisconsin in the fall of 2012. In some way, they all made me feel American when I ate them!

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The Dark Side of Eau Claire

As I continue my study abroad series of personal essays, I’d like to pen a short post about the city of Eau Claire itself. So far I’ve covered culture shock, my social anxiety, the friends I’ve made, and the classes I took during my 2012 student exchange, but there doesn’t exist yet a post about the city I called home for a semester. It’s something I get asked about a lot- the kind of place it is, what it has on offer, how well it stacks up against the image of an American city as given to us in Hollywood movies. And of course, nothing you see on the big screen can really prepare you for your first time living in the United States. But just for fun, I’d place Eau Claire somewhere between Hawkins from Stranger Things and Twin Peaks, but with a downtown area looking as if it were lifted from the set of Tombstone and repopulated with the combined cast of literally every Baz Luhrmann movie. It’s not small enough to give you the creeps that everyone’s watching you, waiting for you to fall asleep, and you know that if you nod off for one moment they’ll feed you to the big monster made of Jell-O that lives in the sewage system. No, the locals are for the most part very friendly, but there are a few sinister figures and neighborhood oddballs. But the town is also not so big that it doesn’t have that community sense of identity, and you don’t have to worry that you’re in a concrete jungle so vast that no one will notice when you’re inevitably snatched on the way home from the bowling alley by a bloke impersonating a police officer just so he can make you the leading star in his homemade snuff film. In case you haven’t realized yet, I’m putting a twist on this post about my favorite college town.

When I tell people that I’m interested in horror, they’re often surprised. I don’t watch slasher movies or read horror novels. I’ve never gone trick-or-treating or dressed up for Halloween. But what I mean when I say “horror” is really better described as “spookiness”. I’m interested in the horror that exists in the everyday world, that beats quietly in the human heart. And it’s this morbid curiosity that can actually be traced back to the city of Eau Claire itself. During the summer of 2014, when I returned to the place that had changed my life less than two years prior, I was chilling with Anne-Marie at her place on First Avenue. As we waited for Aaron to get back from work, we flicked through the channels on TV.

Southern Fried Homicide!” she said in her best Savannah-drawl. Anne-Marie is superb at accents. It was her decision to put the documentary on that changed everything. We spent all day watching Investigation Discovery, and when Aaron got home he became hooked too. They were highly-stylized documentaries with dramatic reconstructions, and every time the woman in the program went for a walk in the woods or got up in the middle of the night for a glass of milk, we’d recoil into the couch and squeal “No, no! Don’t do it!” as if it were in fact a fictional movie. It even got to the point where, after going to bed, Anne-Marie came back down the stairs to find Aaron and I with our hands over our mouths, sitting in the dark with the light of the TV flashing on our faces.

“When are you coming to bed?”

“Be right there, babe,” I remember him saying, and two hours later we were still sitting in the dark, watching the story of a girl from New Zealand getting murdered by some spoiled rich kid in Portsmouth.

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I probably took this fascination with horror a little too far however, culminating in a phone conversation in the winter of 2015 when Aaron asked what I was doing with myself in the UK. I replied in the thickest Australian accent I could that I was watching a show about a murder in the Outback mate.

“Good lord. You need to stop with these documentaries about Australian backpacker killers and leave the house,” Aaron said and we both started laughing.

But let’s get back to the real topic of this post- which is ultimately my attempt to convey my impressions of the city in which I found myself, and the way it always seemed like a spooky place to me. To give you a brief rundown, Eau Claire is a pretty desirable city as far as American cities go- it’s small, green, the streets are wide, there are no skyscrapers, there’s no pollution, and the whole place is surrounded on all sides by dense pine forests like that town in the Edge Chronicles. When I got there, it made me think that this was perhaps once a haven in the piney wilderness for travelers and merchants to stop off at on the way to Minneapolis. But really, I was seeing Eau Claire through the lens of Tolkien. The settlement in fact began as a lumber town, and there are plenty of remnants of that history. As my host family drove me around the spacious, quiet streets, they would throw facts and local trivia my way. There used to be a cornfield there, that kind of thing. It became clear to me that half of the city had remained almost exactly as it was, completely immutable, and that the other half had undergone some drastic changes. For the longtime resident, it seemed as though they would look in one direction and see the city exactly as they remembered it from their childhood, but then turn around and find themselves faced with a landscape as alien to them as it was to me.

My host mom liked to tell me how, when she was a kid, you had to cross the Chippewa by ferry. There’s a bridge there now. As we drove across it to the western edge of the city, we came into a place called Shawtown. The name instantly set my imagination into all kinds of spooky directions. I wanted to say, “Forget it Jake, it’s Shawtown,” and get to work on writing a gritty noir thriller. Shawtown was set up as a place for the families of the lumberjacks to live; the decadent Victorian mansions of the lumber barons themselves can be found on the east side of the river, nearer to downtown.

There’s the horror of one’s imagination and the horror of real life, and I experienced both throughout the three years I spent in Eau Claire. The horror of the imagination is taking a walk on a long path through the woods and finding a pink toddler’s shoe by the edge of the trees. There was no doubt in our minds that she had been snatched by the Hag of Half-Moon Lake; a pale, bloated witch with gills and webbed feet, her hair sickly green with algae.

“She’s a meat pie now,” I lamented, pointing at the shoe.

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There are mundane landmarks in Eau Claire with a quirky edge, places that for all intents and purposes are perfectly normal but nevertheless created this spooky atmosphere in my mind. Places like Pizza Del Re and the Pickle, unremarkable brick buildings that looked like fronts for mob activity, gave me the shivers. To say nothing of the many strip mall laundromats, the cheap fast food joints, the impossibly small bars, and beauty salons with bordered-up windows. Right on the edge of town there’s a place called The Antler’s Motel, where we assumed many a janitor had to fish a face-down body out of the pool. But by far the creepiest location of all is Banbury Place- an old tire factory on the edge of town that now rents its considerable floor space as warehouses and offices. Anne-Marie even had a roommate that used to cycle there, and I always said I wouldn’t have been surprised if one day her bike was found on the banks of a ditch, the front wheel silently spinning. Everyone liked to joke about how scary it looked, but that’s not to say it was in fact a place of unrelenting horror.

All those places aren’t necessarily the cause of anything sinister; they just contribute to the spooky backdrop. While I was in Eau Claire, there were plenty of real events to get scared about. There were reports of a strange man jumping out the bushes and flashing girls with his flaccid cock, there was the car chase and subsequent shooting in 2012- part of which I actually witnessed, there was the teenage runaway who crashed a stolen car full of cocaine right outside the Menominee Street Dairy Queen and ran off into the swamps of Carson Park, never to be heard from again- Aaron witnessed that one. There were the meth-heads that lived next door to Anne-Marie, whose half-naked children found no end of amusement in Superman-punching the passing cars. And there was the awful time that some deranged man tried to break into Anne-Marie’s house at night. It all adds up in the paranoid part of your psyche. One time my friend Zeke was showing me his student house, and insisted that I see the basement.

“You go first, I’ll be right behind you,” he said.

I made my way down into the pitch-blackness on a staircase that wobbled like a Jenga Tower after you start taking out the bottom few blocks. I reached the bottom of the stairs. It was cold and damp. Even though Zeke and I are good friends, I couldn’t rule out the possibility that he had lost his mind since I last saw him, and I braced myself for the ball-point hammer that was surely about to cave in my skull. But all of a sudden, the light flashed on and I found myself looking at a table with several upturned red solo cups.

“Dude! Check out our beer pong table!” Zeke said, and I breathed a sigh of relief. He was still the same old Zeke.

I know this post is a little bit different to my usual personal essays, but before I finish my study abroad series, I’d like to give you an impression of the city I lived in as it existed for me. That, I believe, is the best way to go about travel writing; not to document the actual, literal Eau Claire- since I am not a local historian or a longtime resident- but to write about how it appeared to me, as an outsider. I’d love to get a dialogue going with some of you as well- let me know in the comments what seemingly normal places in your hometown give you the chills. Why do we see the haunted in the mundane?

That Time I Saw Bill Clinton In A Parking Garage

In the last post in this series I wrote about the kinds of opportunities on offer at an American campus. When I studied at the University of Wisconsin- Eau Claire my semester coincided with the 2012 presidential election. It was awesome to have Vice President Joe Biden come to campus and to attend his campaign speech for free. As the semester went on, the weather got more and more bitter and so too did the election.

On October 31st Bill Clinton was visiting Eau Claire to campaign for Barack Obama. How could I turn down the opportunity to see such an iconic figure? It was a Wednesday, and on every Wednesday I had my senior class- a 3 hour creative writing workshop. It was my favorite class with my favorite professor. As I walked down the hill to lower campus, I started to wonder if I could really be arsed to see Clinton. Back then I was extremely anxious about going to places and trying things without someone to do it with me, which sounds crazy when I had already come all the way to another country by myself and was doing just fine. Not only was I anxious, but I was a lazy son-of-a-gun to boot. I wondered if I would be able to motivate myself to walk downtown and see this speech all on my own. I didn’t like the idea that laziness and anxiety would get in the way of a chance to see a former President, and I continued this warring dialogue in my head as I approached Hibbard. It would be so easy to just say “ah, heck with it” and walk back to the warmth and comfort of the dorms, and resume binging Breaking Bad and eating pizza with Aaron. I wished he were here so we could go together.

I got into class, sat myself down, and a thought occurred to me. In my Making More Friends in the USA post I introduced my friend Calvin, who sat near me in that creative writing class. Only two days prior, he had asked if I wanted to get coffee on my birthday. I was busy chillin’ with Aaron, Zeke and Jimmy in Towers North at the time, but had promised him we would hang out. Calvin had a friend, a girl that sat with us, called…let’s call her Briony. As we unpacked our notepads and pens, she said, “Hey, isn’t Bill Clinton in town today?”

Class commenced as per usual, and when it ended it was late in the afternoon. Calvin looked at me and said, “So, how about that coffee? You busy?”

I said I was interested in going to see Clinton, and perhaps we could go together. He smiled and looked back at Briony and asked if she was interested. Swell!

We left the campus and headed toward Briony’s house where we planned to leave our bags. I remember being interested to see what a given student house looked like. We walked through big sylvan streets with little traffic. The houses all had large lawns. They were often made of white-painted wood and all had spacious porches which contained locked bicycles, inflated donuts for tubing the Chippewa River, hookah pipes, and the evidence of many a party; beer bottles and red solo cups strewn about the front steps and lining the porch railing. There were also dogs and families in some of the houses. A thick canopy covered every street, and everything was shadowed and sleepy. The front yards were adorned with whirligigs, flower patches, American flags, abandoned couches, empty lawn chairs, tricycles, and discarded stacks of cardboard.

We arrived at the house where Briony lived and it fascinated me. Briony and her roommate rented the upper half of the house, and so there was a stairway on the exterior of the building that took them up to their front door. I remember Briony apologizing for how messy her apartment was and it struck me as representing the carefree existence of student living. We found her roommate sitting cross-legged on the floor and the girl smiled up at us and said hi, promising to look after our bags.

“Just throw them on the floor anywhere you like,” she said, as Briony went into another room to fetch her jacket.

We started then towards downtown Eau Claire and the light was starting to leave the sky. It was at that point in the day when the streetlights are coming on and glow faintly amber against a sky the dullest shade of white. The speech was taking place at the Ramada Convention Center. By the time we arrived, the line was so big that it stretched around the whole block. We instantly grew apprehensive about whether we would make it.

I can be a pretty impatient person sometimes and one thing I’m not good at is simply standing still. I’ve always hated waiting in line, especially at airports and the like. As the day grew later and the line (“queue” in British English) trudged forward at the pace of a spilt flow of porridge, I began to realize just how naïve I was to the weather in Wisconsin. I’ve always had this tendency to put on less layers than I need out of a fear of being too hot. I hate being out and about with too many layers on and feeling sweaty, and back then I figured it was better to be too cold rather than too hot. Almost as soon as we got in line, I started complaining I was cold. I knew right away I had made a grave error. I was dressed in a thin, white vintage cabana shirt with black, office pants. I looked like I ought to be drinking Cubanitos in Havana or smoking outside a café in Sidi Bou Said. Aside from being about forty years out of date, I attracted all kinds of bemused stares at my lack of preparedness. With the kind of shirt I was wearing I was practically topless for all the protection it offered. To quote Joey from Friends: my nipples could cut glass.

Unable to control myself, I started shivering like crazy. Wisconsinites are polite and yet direct. They’re too polite to criticize my choice of clothing but nonetheless direct enough to ask where my jacket was. A woman in front of us couldn’t stand to hear my teeth chattering any longer, and said that while she didn’t have a spare sweater for me, she could offer me these little things that might warm my hands. Out of her handbag she produced these two things that looked like teabags.

“Rub them together in your hands. It’ll warm you up,” she said. “But whatever ya do, don’t open or tear them. That would be painful.”

The line snaked around these two massive buildings and we were stood there for an hour or more, with me cursing my stupidity the whole time. It was nice to hang out with Calvin and Briony some more, but I was starting to think I should have taken them up on their initial suggestion of coffee. I imagined we would have gone to a place in the campus student center Davies called The Cabin. I never actually went to The Cabin during my exchange, but I remember thinking of it as a nest of hipsters in flannel shirts and beanies, discussing Bon Iver over their Caribou Coffee. I was super-paranoid about being associated with hipsters back then. I’m not sure what my fear was exactly, but I avoided them like they were linked to Spanish Flu. But all my insecurities about being a closeted hipster went out the window when I was on the sidewalk that day feeling my crown jewels shrivel up into my body in a desperate attempt to preserve heat. At that moment The Cabin looked like the warmest, coziest place in the world.

This better be worth it, I thought to myself. We were so close to the convention center now. As we edged closer, coming off of the street and under the massive concrete parking garage attached to the side of the building, we began to talk excitedly about the comfy chairs and central heating ahead of us. It was fully dark by now. The stars were out and the hardy Wisconsinites breathed clouds of condensed water vapor. Then all of a sudden the line came to a stop and didn’t start moving again. A crowd began to form outside the hotel and a woman came along and announced that the seats were all full and that she was very sorry but could we kindly piss off.

An audible groan rang out and the crowd didn’t move. A barricade was erected to keep us from getting any closer and to make room for Clinton’s motorcade. We waited for the shiny black cars to arrive so that we might catch a glimpse of him. At worst we could brag at having seen one of his secret service agents. The only thing I remember from this part of the story is a crushing sense of disappointment. Finally, however, as if knowing that I had come all this way from Bristol, England, the woman returned and announced to the sizable crowd that Bill Clinton was going to come out and give a mini-speech to us, so that we didn’t go home with nothing. What an amazing fellow, I thought.

Then, sure enough, Bill Clinton’s motorcade turned up and he got out of the car. He looked exactly as he did on TV. His hair was brilliantly white though- whiter and thicker than Biden’s. He had a really distinctive look to him, I thought. Someone handed him a megaphone and he addressed the shivering crowd of Wisconsinites clad in green and yellow coats. It was quite a scene, I thought. Even though we didn’t get to see the actual campaign speech, this little spontaneous moment in the parking garage felt somehow more special. Everyone seemed to be wearing some form of Green Bay Packer attire, and we all felt touched by Clinton’s coming out to us in the cold.

The fact that I didn’t bring my camera felt like an even bigger mistake than my choice of clothes. Sometimes in today’s world of social media, it feels like if you don’t have a picture to mark an event, then it didn’t happen. So I don’t have a photo of my own to accompany this post. However, I did find this image online of Clinton speaking to us in the parking garage-if you look really hard you can even see half of my face, at the back of the crowd on the right of the image.

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Photo credit: Jeff McCabe, click here to see original image

When the speech was over everyone cheered and we hurried back to Briony’s house as quickly as we could. And so ends the memory and today’s blog post. Thanks for reading! If you’re enjoying this study abroad series, then consider giving me a Like or let me know what you think in the comments. Make sure to subscribe to keep yourself up to date, because I have plenty of stories left from that fall semester in 2012.

Wisconsin Name Origins & Misnomers!

Wisconsin will always be my favorite U.S state because it’s the first state that I lived in, and one in which I lived in three non-consecutive periods. It’s the state that made itself my home; it’s the place in which I found love. And it enjoys this gray area where its reputation precedes it, but it’s not quite so iconic that it won’t be misunderstood, misrepresented and mispronounced. So I thought I’d do a post today covering some misnomers and little-known facts about my home state.

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  1. How did Wisconsin get its name?

There are several theories on this. Here’s what we do know: the first European to reach the Wisconsin River was the French explorer Jacques Marquette. He arrived in 1673 and in his journal he called the river Meskousing. The French later changed this to Ouisconsin, which was then Anglicized to Wisconsin in the 19th century and made the official spelling in 1845 by the Wisconsin Territory legislature.

But what does the name actually mean? It’s believed that Marquette derived the name from the native Algonquian-speaking tribes of the area. A popular theory is that it comes from the Miami word Meskonsing which translates to “It lies red”, in this case referring to the setting of the Wisconsin River as it flows through the reddish sandstone of the Dells. It’s a neat idea, but I tend to go with the other theory that posits that it’s actually an Ojibwa phrase meaning “Where the waters gather”. I learned this at the Paul Bunyan Logging Camp Museum when I got a private tour during its offseason in 2012. It’s always the definition I come back to, and in the fall of 2013 I submitted a portfolio of poems based on my experiences in Eau Claire that I called Where the Waters Gather.

  1. How do you pronounce Wisconsin?

A lot of people who aren’t from Wisconsin mistakenly emphasize the “c”, which always sounds super-preppy and stuck up. If you’re around Wisconsinites you want to avoid making the mistake of saying “WIS-KHAN-SIN” and instead adopt the smoother, more natural pronunciation of “WIS-GAN-SIN”. The “c” is actually more of a hard, low “g” that is not meant to be emphasized.

  1. How else can you avoid offending Wisconsinites with incorrect pronunciation?

These are the two big ones my roommates and I like to point out: Milwaukee (the state’s largest city) and Green Bay (home of the greatest franchise in all sports). Let’s start with the former. If you’re not from Wisconsin, there’s a good chance you’re pronouncing the “l”. You’re not meant to. A true Wisconsinite will tell you that in order to say the name correctly, the “l” has to be completely dropped. This is another instance, like with the name “Wisconsin” where the natives prefer the low, smooth sounds that don’t break up the flow of the word unnecessarily. The correct way is to say “MUH-WAH-KEE”.

As for the city of Green Bay, this one’s interesting. The Wisconsinites will say it as if it is one word. Even though it is not spelt that way, in your mind you must think of it as Greenbay, and say it thus. This occurs in British English too. For instance, we call Leicester “LES-TER” and I defy you to sit down with an American watching Jamie Vardy and co. for the first time and not have them demand why it’s not called “LEAK-EASTER”.

  1. Why is it called the Badger State?

Believe it or not, this has nothing to do with the animal, no matter what the chain-smoking Dementor sex-offender inside Bucky tells you. It’s actually all to do with lead mining. In the 1830s Wisconsinites traveled to nearby Galena, Illinois for work in the lead mines, making temporary homes out of caves they dug into the hillsides. The Wisconsinites were derisively nicknamed as “badgers” and their troglodytic burrows as “badger dens”. The Wisconsinites accepted this moniker however and decided that the best thing to do would be to own it, so they took the name back north with them and it later came to include everyone in the state.

  1. Where does the term Cheesehead come from?

Much like the origin of “badger”, the nickname “Cheesehead” was originally created as an insult by natives of Illinois. Given that Wisconsin is the largest producer of cheese in the U.S and perhaps the greatest cheesemaking land in the world (yep, it routinely beats out France in international competitions), you can see how our neighbors south of the border arrived at the name. It’s true that the term “Cheesehead” was used as an insult for the Dutch by the German soldiers during WW2 but I’m not sure if there’s a connection. I think the jocks of Illinois arrived at it independently.

What’s more interesting is that the first Cheesehead hat was actually worn at a Brewers game, not a Packer game. A guy from Milwaukee made the first one by cutting up his mom’s couch. Presumably this was before he got his skull caved in with a rolling-pin.

  1. How old is the chant “On, Wisconsin”?

It’s believed that the first person to yell “On, Wisconsin!” was Arthur Macarthur Jr during the Battle of Chattanooga in 1863.

  1. How did the Green Bay Packers get their name?

This one’s interesting. Despite what rival fans around the NFL may have burbled into your ear, it has absolutely nothing to do with laundry or fudge. The team was named for its initial sponsor, the Indian Packing Company. That’s where Curly Lambeau worked. In 1919 his then-employer gave him $500 for uniforms and equipment on the condition they would be named for their sponsor. A newspaper article at the time of the team’s formation actually referred to them as “The Indians”, but by the time the first game came around the nickname “Packers” had caught on. I think this is so interesting because the team could just have easily become The Green Bay Indians, especially given how that nickname is so popular with other sports franchises. A year after the team’s founding, the Indian Packing Company was purchased by the Acme Packing Company, and so when the team’s introduction to the NFL came around, they wore jerseys that read “Acme Packers” on them.

 

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My Top 5 Wisconsin Delicacies!

Today I’m going to be writing about one of my greatest passions and that’s the cuisine of the US state of Wisconsin. There are several delicious entries which sadly didn’t make the cut and still so many more that I have yet to try, but here are my current power rankings for the delicacies that I have had thus far!


#5 Kneecaps

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I was attending a wedding reception at a bar in Denmark, WI in the summer of 2014, when my roommate’s mom told me I ought to try a Kneecap, saying that not only was it a Wisconsin dessert, but one specific to the northeast region of the state. My love of cultural assimilation brought the pastry to my lips. It’s basically a fried donut with a depression in the center that’s filled with whipped cream. It’s also covered with powdered sugar. I’ve got a sweet tooth so it definitely suits me. It’s interesting that I’ve tried this, and yet I still haven’t tried Wisconsin’s most famous dessert- the Kringle. But it’s on my bucket list!

 

#4 Deep-Fried Cheese Curds

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Most Wisconsinites will tell you that the best and purest way to eat cheese curds is when they are “squeaky” to the bite. This is caused by the elastic protein strands in the curd rubbing against the enamel of your teeth, and so the optimal time to eat them is at room temperature when they are fresh. As much as I do love them, I think I prefer them deep-fried and battered. I had them once at Curly’s Pub- a restaurant that used to be found in the atrium of Lambeau Field (or, as I call it, The Sistine Chapel of the West). They’re great as an appetizer and perhaps best paired with a cup of ketchup.

 

#3 Booyah

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We really are getting local now. Booyah is a stew that’s made with vegetables and the bones of meat (chicken, beef, pork or ox tail) and it’s specific to the Bay Area of Northeastern Wisconsin. It’s a staple of things like church picnics and is usually only made for such social events, since it’s cooked for 2 days in a cast iron kettle with a wood-burning fire and serves a whole army of people. I had it at a high school graduation party in a small town near Green Bay in 2015. The smell of Booyah is amazing. The whole yard was thick with the scent of chicken broth, and it was tasty but super-hot. I actually burnt my tongue eating it. My roommate’s grandfather took it upon himself to tell me the history of this mysterious dish, which cannot be found outside of the Badger State’s borders. He told me that the stew is Belgian in origin, and I have since confirmed this online, with articles telling me that the name “booyah” is a Flemish or Walloon Belgian spelling of the French word “bouillon”, which translates to “broth”.

 

#2 Brats

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This really is a great example of the German influence on the state. The immigrants of the 19th century brought the recipes of their homeland with them, and Wisconsin is one of- perhaps even the best- places to go in the USA for sausage. Summer Sausage, Kielbasa and Venison Sausage are extremely popular, but perhaps none is more quintessentially Wisconsinite than the Bratwurst. In the rest of the USA the hot dog reigns supreme at summer cookouts, but in Wisco they prefer Brats. Wisconsin is actually the nation’s largest producer and consumer of this sausage. I’ve had it dozens of times during my time living there, and there are so many variations. I spent July 4th in Wisconsin in 2014 and 2015 and on both occasions we grilled Brats. We chose these beer-battered Brats with chunks of cheddar inside. I miss them…

 

#1 Fried Fish

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Remember, this is a subjective power ranking, and it’s based on which delicacies I tried and which I liked best. And undoubtedly the most pleasing entry to my taste buds is the fried river fish I ate in 2015 whilst spending some time at my roommate’s cabin in the Northwoods. We had a blast catching some trout at this trout hatchery an hour’s drive away, and we took our catches back to the cabin where my roommate’s dad deep-fried them. I have a picture of our fried trout from that day which you can see above! It’s not only my favorite Wisconsinite meal but it also stands as the best fish I have ever eaten.

 

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My Top 5 Areas of Natural Beauty in Wisconsin

A few weeks ago I wrote the post My Top Five Small Towns in Wisconsin, and it was so enjoyable to write. Whenever I get an idea to write something- be it a short story or a game review- that idea is only ever the skeleton of what the post becomes. So much of what the text is about is discovered in the act of writing. I often find I only need a vague, hazy image or idea- just enough to get started- and once I do, everything just kind of snowballs. A thousand ideas seem to seep in at once, tugging me this way and that. I never truly know how a piece of writing will turn out. When I write the memoir entries of my online journal- I surprise myself with how much I remember. But those details are only revealed through the act of writing. It is writing which brings them back. Before I start a memoir entry, I always worry that I won’t have enough material for a solid blog post.

Here we go! These are the top five places I have traveled to in Wisconsin that I consider to have been the most naturally beautiful.

 

#5 Devil’s Lake State Park – Sauk County

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This was the first taste I got of the wilderness of Wisconsin, my first sense of it’s being a frontier. Prior to visiting, I had thought for some reason that the Badger State was going to be comprised of flat cornfields and yellowish prairie. But I couldn’t have been more wrong. Wisconsin is known for its rolling hills, its dense pine forests, its rocky bluffs and its crystalline lakes. It actually has more freshwater bodies than neighboring Minnesota, whose license plates boast of it being The Land of Ten Thousand Lakes. This is the country that inspired Laura Ingalls Wilder to write the inimitable children’s novel Little House in the Big Woods.

Devil’s Lake seems to me like the quintessential Wisconsin state park. You have bluffs, a lake, and piney woods far as the eye can see. When I went there with my family in August of 2012, it reminded me of the scene where Shelley Winters gets knocked off the rowboat in one of my favorite all time films A Place in the Sun (based on Theodore Dreiser’s classic novel An American Tragedy). The lake itself, like much of the topography of Wisconsin, was shaped by the glaciers during the last ice age. The glaciers are the brush and Wisconsin is the canvass. The lobes of these glaciers traveled across the land, depositing materials and then melting, and thereafter the land as we see it today took shape. This is how Devil’s Lake was formed, with the lobe essentially creating earthen dams out of terminal moraines. The lake is about 47 feet deep and by no means the deepest Wisco has to offer (that honor belongs to Big Green Lake in Green Lake County, which has a whopping maximum depth of 237 feet). Devil’s Lake seems to have derived its name from a misinterpretation of the Ho-Chunk name for the lake- Tawacunchukdah– which means Spirit Lake.

The time I spent here was short. My family and I had a picnic here and we discussed the image of Americans as being extroverts. A guy walked past, offered to take our picture, before pointing at our Doritos and exclaiming “I LOVE that flavor!”. It might sound like nothing, but this tiny exchange left my British parents in quite a state of excitement.

 

#4 Big Falls – Eau Claire County

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This is a special place to me and my now-roommates Aaron and Anne-Marie. The summers of 2014 and 2015 are a particularly nostalgic era in our lives, in that it seemed like the last taste of freedom before our youth was finally and decisively ended. We were still undergrads and the summers then were a chance (before the responsibilities of true adult life sunk in its hooks) to treat every day as an opportunity for adventure. We went everywhere together, did everything together. Our thirst for excitement knew no bounds, and I had forever attached them to my idea of what the American summers meant. We became known as the Three Amigos, and perhaps no place exemplified our antics better than Big Falls.

We went four times to Big Falls- twice in each successive summer. It’s a favorite recreational spot for college kids and families of the Eau Claire area. The falls themselves are located on the Eau Claire River, and there’s a large beach area where we would set up our blankets and have the most amazing picnics. The three of us would wade into the waters and spend hours throwing the pigskin or the frisbee to one another, deliberately trying to get each other to dive for it. During the summer of 2015, we went there with Aaron’s sister Elizabeth, and somehow we got the idea that they would throw the frisbee and I would chase it like a velociraptor and try to catch it in my mouth. We have a bunch of memories from this place, from fording the river with our picnic baskets and coolers held above our heads to me getting bitten by a horsefly.

 

#3 The Prairie River Dells – Lincoln County

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The Prairie River is a 40-mile tributary of the Wisconsin River, and I was lucky enough to visit it in June 2015. The word “dells” derives from the French “dalles” and roughly translates to “narrows”. It refers in general to rapids enclosed on either side by rocky gorges and ravines. We were spending some time Up North at Aaron’s family cabin, and Aaron’s dad- who Aaron boasted was an experienced woodsman- suggested we check out surrounding areas of natural beauty to satisfy our craze for photography. The Prairie River Dells Scenic Area is located near to the town of Merrill, and we were able to take the time to drive there after breakfast.

At this time our party consisted only of myself, Aaron, his dad, and of course Anne-Marie. We took close-up photos of flowers and insects, we took selfies (which we had to retake due something flying into my eye), and climbed the outcroppings that overlooked the river. It’s a beautiful, secluded area and perhaps the most wild place on this list. The river is surrounded in all directions by thick forest and the most brightly green shrubbery I have ever seen. The trail itself is for the most part natural and unpaved. All around the fragrance of wildflowers. Tag alders and tamarack.

The river itself has significance to the local area as a productive source of trout fishing. In order to help restore the river as a flourishing habitat for trout, the DNR removed four dams. The river is now free-flowing for its entire course!

 

#2 Witches Gulch – Adams County

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Of course, the term “dells” is more famously associated with the Dells of the Wisconsin River. Like much of Wisconsin, it owes its existence to the glaciers that ran amok during the ice age. The story of the formation of these dells is pretty exciting- I promise a tale of mayhem and destruction! Although the dells were formed during the ice age about 15000 years ago, the rock that they were carved out of goes back an incredible 520 MILLION YEARS, during what geologists call the Cambrian Period. Basically, the rock that became the dells was sitting at the bottom of this shallow ocean. Then, skip forward to about 19000 years ago and the glaciers are coming in. Although the rock itself avoided the touch of the glacial lobes- given that it is located in the Driftless Region- it would still be shaped by them. When the glaciers melted they formed what was known as Great Glacial Lake Wisconsin, about 150 feet deep and roughly the size of Utah’s Great Salt Lake. What glacier remained acted as a massive dam of ice, which ultimately gave way causing a cataclysmal flood, whose waters then created the bizarre and beautiful rock formations we enjoy today.

I went to the Dells with my roommates in the summer of 2015. One of the things we decided to do during our weekend vacation was take a dinner cruise through the dells at sundown. It proved a great opportunity for photography, and we have many memorable snaps to mark the occasion. Halfway through the tour, our boat anchored at a little inlet shadowed by overhanging trees from the high cliffs above. We were at the beginning of what was known as Witches Gulch (yeah, I’ve looked it up and apparently it IS Witches Gulch and not Witch’s Gulch). The name itself seems kind of obscene. But the location is gorgeous. It’s basically a tight ravine that follows the narrowest of winding creeks. The whole place is straight out of a spooky fairy tale!

 

#1 The Northern Highland

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I’ve mentioned several times on this blog my trips to Aaron’s family cabin. Well the cabin is situated in a remote part of Northern Wisconsin (which is basically one giant old-growth pine forest). You’ve got the Chequamegon Forest to the west and the Nicolet Forest to the east, and scores of lakes in between that were created by melting blocks of ice during the glacial drift. The cabin is right on one of those lakes, built over time by Aaron’s dad, who even constructed this massive dock for the boats. Going here really is a treat; one leaves the entire world behind. There is little to no cell phone service here. Everyone wears t-shirts and shorts. The girls don’t wear make-up or fix their hair. The emphasis of the lake life is comfort.

But this post is about areas of natural beauty, so I’ll save my stories about the cabin itself. But I will, however, initiate this comment by saying that one of the things we would do at the lake is go canoeing, kayaking, speedboating or pontooning. One night I went kayaking alone on the lake, which is a great way to appreciate its immensity. It was late in the evening, but it was summer and it was light. All around the trees were hushing. Being alone in that kayak I was struck with how loud these trees sounded, as if this was the only way to hear all of them together as a cohesive whole, as an orchestra of the forest. Sundown is a great time to be on a lake. On this one you can see loons traveling in pairs, every now and then diving down to catch fish. At the shore of the nearest island there’s a bare tree with branches like spikes. It’s the only tree on the shoreline without needles. On the top branch you can sometimes see a bald eagle surveying the lake below, occasionally making a sharp dive toward the water and reemerging with a fish. I took my kayak right under the branch it was sitting on, resisting the urge not to look up and see the talons that were sure to bury themselves in my eyes. But it turned out the eagle wasn’t so interested in me as it was in the fish.

The lake is abundant with wildlife, including large fish like muskie and pike. One time Aaron and I canoed to the furthest point of the lake, got out, and explored the nearby woodlands, before remembering the only thing we had to protect us from Wisconsin’s black bear and reintroduced timber wolf population were a pair of oars.

 

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I just want to say thanks to my brother for helping me with the pictures for this post! If you enjoyed reading it, please consider giving me a Like or Subscribe!

 

Making Friends in the USA Part 2

You may remember from my first post in this series that in American colleges, the dorms are monitored by R.A’s. I decided to give my R.A the pseudonym Akbar, because he spoke Tamil and the Mughals once ruled India. I figured that was more badass than just giving him a replacement Indian name like Sanjay or something. Anyway, I remember that throughout International Orientation Week I consciously tried to get on his good side. I hinted that I had no friends and no one to eat with, and Akbar, whether he detected my overtures of friendship or not, invited me to play a few soccer games with him and his mates, who were from all corners of the planet. Akbar knew I was shy, and one time he asked me to come eat with him and a few of his friends. I said very little, but I remember him introducing me to two Americans, who were the only other white people at the table along with myself. They had these very sarcastic expressions on their faces and I got the impression they were constantly making fun of the others. They reminded me of New York comedians like Jerry Seinfeld. There was the cool, confident air about them and they sat back very relaxed (in contrast to the highly animated Malaysians), very much waiting for some poor soul to test their wit. One of them lived on lower campus, and for the sake of this blog we shall name him Bart. The other was Akbar’s roommate (I didn’t even know R.A’s had a roommates!), and he was a sophomore that we shall call Aaron (due to his striking resemblance to Aaron Rodgers). The first thing Aaron told me about himself was that he was an “asshole” and that I should be fully prepared for him to make fun of me and any point moving forward.

I believe this encounter took place on September 4th, a Tuesday, and at the time it did not seem too significant. It is however important for this story going forward. Despite joining them for dinner that time, I resumed my routine for the rest of the week of grabbing takeaway boxes and rushing back to my dorm. You might wonder why I didn’t pursue Akbar’s friendship further, but his inviting me to dinner was just one incident in a whirlwind of experiences that week. This was the first week of classes, and I was like a little puppy exposed to a sudden influx of stimuli from every direction. It took all my energy just to keep up with everything.

The UW-Eau Claire campus is huge. At the time I was in awe of the giant dormitory buildings and the wide open spaces. It was in stark contrast to the University of Winchester, which seems almost entirely localized in the parking lot of a hospital. The UWEC campus is often praised for its greenery, its woodland aesthetics, and the clean, open areas. However by American standards it is considered a small college, with a student body of no more than 12,000. It was still a massive change for me however; as the number of students enrolled at the University of Winchester at the time was about 6,000. There seemed to be no end of things going on at the campus. There were the damn religious zealots, running around campus shouting about Jesus, there were the political factions who decided to spray-paint the sidewalks with partisan propaganda like they were playing real-life Overwatch, and every now and then you would see a phalanx of white girls in flannel shirts and beanies chanting “No ifs, no buts!” remonstrating with placards in front of Schofield. I quickly became used to the idea that every time I stepped outside I might get approached by someone for one reason or another.

One night I walked with my roommate- let’s call him Brad- down to lower campus to meet up with a friend of his from high school. The night was full of activity, but it was a completely different atmosphere to Winchester. Every night in Winchester you would hear the drunken singing of three lads with their arms around each other or some basic bitch puking in a bush somewhere, but in the U.S there is strictly no alcohol permitted on campus. Suddenly, I was underage again. It didn’t seem to bother me as much as it did the other British students in Eau Claire, since even when I was of age back home I didn’t seek out the party scene. Instead, there were more wholesome forms of entertainment; on the big grassy area behind Putnam on lower campus a huge cinema screen had been erected and was playing the first Hunger Games movie. Brad had disappeared to Skype his brother from North Dakota, and I spent the evening with his friend Kathy and her friend Bridgett. We sat down for about 5 minutes on the edge of the crowd before wandering off to this photo booth. A bunch of students were there taking pictures with their new friends, and as we waited in line, we ended up talking to this group of girls. I remember thinking I was doing well, and I really didn’t have to offer much for these girls to seem impressed.

“Start talking,” they demanded.

“I don’t know what to say,” I flat out told them.

“It doesn’t matter. We just want to hear your accent,” they said.

The first week was full of random social events like that. I remember early in the week I had to get up one morning to partake in this icebreaker exercise with a classroom of people that neither included those on my floor nor those in my classes. It was completely random. The teacher gave someone in the first row a clean roll of toilet paper, and told them to take as many or as few squares as they wanted before passing it on. Soon everyone had differing lengths of bogroll in their hands and we were informed that we had to tell the room a fact about ourselves for every square we had. I think I took a medium amount- perhaps 5 or 6 squares. I was the only foreigner in the room. I did not feel confident whatsoever, as my stomach had been rumbling loudly this whole time and I was super paranoid that everybody knew.

I remember being amused that the guy before me- a skinny, pasty looking chap with rectangular spectacles and an N7 hoodie- stood up with about 15 squares and absolutely no trace of shyness and declared “I love video games, mostly recently the Mass Effect Trilogy”. I respected him for it but watched eagerly the faces of everyone else in the room, as back then I didn’t game too much- it was more something of a casual, infrequent indulgence that I hid shamefully. But this guy didn’t give a flying fuck. He just straight up broadcasted his love for Commander Shepherd and didn’t give a second thought to the pretty, German-looking ladies of the American Midwest. The whole experience of being around different kinds of people and watching them interact was very interesting to me, and contributed in no small part to my growth as a person.

However I was still missing what I had craved, what eluded me at Winchester and in Bristol, which was a friendship group to belong to, that would take me in wherever they went. I was having a lot of positive interactions but they were isolated incidents. I had no hope of attaining this dream, and at the end of that first week I consciously told myself to be prepared to be a lone wolf once more. The sights and sounds of the New World would make it an improvement over another year in Winchester. I tried to tempt people to befriend me by leaving my door open and playing my iPod through Brad’s stereo, which consisted at that time almost exclusively of Elvis Presley songs. I sat at my desk, doing homework or creative writing exercises and listening to “Don’t Be Cruel” and “His Latest Flame”. People would smile at me, say hi, but they walked on past my open door. No one took the open invitation.

It was Friday, September 7th and about 12pm noon. It was a clear day and summer had carried over from August. I removed my iPod from the stereo and sat in silence for a while. Then, all of a sudden, there was a knock at my door. I looked up. It was Aaron- Akbar’s roommate, the Aaron Rodgers lookalike. Out of all the people I had met and spoke to, he was one of the last I expected to show up here. I had barely spoken to him that time at dinner, and he seemed like someone who had it all together. I remember him being the laidback comedian of the group; he was entirely unlike the other Wisconsinite guys I met who were more enthusiastic and forward in their pursuit of friends. They were all like “I’m so happy to meet you! I love England! What’s it like?” whereas this guy didn’t seem to be impressed so easily. However, as I looked up and saw him leaning coolly in my doorway, I saw for the first time that this guy had a friendly side to him and now I wasn’t threatened by his unforgiving humor. He asked in casual way, as though he expected me or whoever else he chose to be fully expectant for this kind of interaction, if I wanted to “grab some lunch”. I jumped at the opportunity, since I thrive best in one-to-one scenarios, and we walked over to Hilltop and sat down. It wasn’t too busy. We got to talking, and pretty soon I was convinced that Aaron was my best friend.

That might sound strange, but hear me out. Sometimes friendship is more of a gradual progression, but at other times it’s like lightning- it’s perfect and it happens all at once. There was no sense of awkwardness or contrived conversational tactics. We clicked instantly, and I was as comfortable talking to him as I was my closest friends back home, or my family. We ended up talking for 5 hours, just sitting in the cafeteria like two brothers who had known each other their whole lives. I already knew that I would never have to eat alone again. We exchanged numbers and he told me he expected me to come along to a screening of the Packers season opener against the 49ers that Sunday, and that he would teach me the rules of American football. Eventually we got up as he had to go to class or something like that, but he told me he would be in touch about hanging out later that evening.

Finally, I thought, I had somewhere to belong. I was already getting on well with Akbar, his roommate, and I knew they had a group that played soccer regularly, and would be sure to welcome me again.

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Want to know what happens next? I’ll release the next episode in this series by the weekend!