Sunday, June 27, 2010

How Much Time in Tuscany?

Fall airfare to Italy has finally started to drop, so now I am trying to decide how long we can afford to stay (both money-wise and time-wise). The dates for the photo class is set, so the real question is: How long do we linger in Tuscany before heading home?

Today's New York Times suggests the answer is: As long as possible.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Small Towns & Crumbling Roads: Reality via Westbrook

I wrote a bit the other week about my trip to the small Southwestern Minnesota town of Westbrook. While it is a small town, Westbrook isn't just a wide spot in the road. It has a recognizable downtown, a number of active businesses, and a hospital -- all hallmarks of a place that should have some staying power. Of course, there were also a number of closed businesses and vacant homes and hints that the population is rapidly aging.

It also has some pretty bad city streets . . . although, give the state of the streets and even the highways here in the metro area (Anyone else out there live in fear of the monster pothole at the base of the Lexington ramp onto I-94 East? The one you need swing around while merging into traffic or risk breaking an axle?), I can't say I really noticed the state of Westbrook's streets. I'm more likely to notice really good pavement these days because it is so often a rare find.

Conrad deFiebre of Minnesota 2020 just published a piece on roadway needs, using Westbrook as an example. It tells a bit of two stories - the difficulty funding the cost to maintain the investment we have made in our infrastructure (since everything said about roads is true of our water and sewer systems, parks, schools, and so on) and realities of governance when people will not or cannot pay for the services they need.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Sidewalk Art

A friend sent this my way, links to photos of the amazing 3D art of the "Chalk Guy" Julian Beever.

The pavement drawings are created in such a way to look real enough that people will step around ones that provide the illusion of the pavement dropping away. He describes them as "anamorphic illusions drawn in a special distortion in order to create an impression of 3 dimensions when seen from one particular viewpoint."

I think they are simply amazing.

He's done work across Europe as well as in the US -- I'd love to come across one of these!

(Thanks to Pam for the tip.)

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Coffee Break

I'm in training most of this week, a short jaunt north that winds between small lakes and wetlands interspersed with ugly suburban development. Mostly though, it is a pleasant trip and the weather is nice enough to put the top down on the Miata.

Ah, summer.

There isn't much for tea at the rather sub-par hotel in which we are meeting, so I've been scouting out the coffee shop possibilities en route. Yesterday I noticed a promising spot in a nondescript (and slightly frayed) strip mall just off Lexington on Wooddale Avenue.

I laugh when I pull into Billy's Coffee Shop today - I didn't notice the frogs when I came by yesterday!

Inside, the proprietor tells me he has the world's best chai tea.

He might be right.

Monday, June 21, 2010

The Music of Salzburg

I too frustrated trying to find a suitable hotel in Berchtesgaden (located in a walkable area and affordable), so I asked my dad how he felt about staying in Salzburg instead. Turns out he didn’t care where we stayed as long as he got to visit Hitler’s Eagles Nest (tickets already reserved), so Salzburg it is!

I probably would have planned to stay in Salzburg from the beginning, but did not really realize how close and convenient it would be . . . and our friends loved Berchtesgaden and highly recommended it. But getting from Munich to Berchtesgaden via train requires a switch in Salzburg and there are so many more hotel options. Not to mention that, without a car, a place where there are lots of things you can walk to is always nice. And I really like cities.

Staying in Salzburg also has another advantage for me – it will be much easier for me to take in a concert or two while I’m there.

The music festival will be under way while we are there, but official events are very expensive and largely sold out. However, Salzburg is the city of Mozart, so there is always music somewhere. There are enough options that I even think I find a few things suitable for my father, who really isn’t into classical music at all. . . .

For example, I think the Marionette Theater would be a good option. I was considering a Best of Mozart show, but now I see have a Sound of Music show! That is too funny.

Time to buy tickets!

Sunday, June 20, 2010

to & from the

I have new favorite website:

I guess I'll find out in a month or so how good it really is, but thus far it seems like an essential planning tool as I try to make arrangements for mode transfers at airports in Munich, Berlin, Helsinki, and Copenhagen.

The site includes information on options, prices, and directions so you can actually find whatever option you have chosen. I may never again resort to a cab just because it is easier than trying to figure out which transit line I need, what it costs, and where it is located.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Manitou Days Parade

It is a gorgeous evening, perfect for relaxing in the backyard with friends, so it is with some hesitation that I instead accept their invitation to join a little gathering in White Bear Lake for the evening.

I’m far more enthusiastic a short time later when the tree trimmers show up to begin work in the neighbor’s yard.

(Can you spot the tree-trimmer? Trust me, even if they can be hard to see, they are not hard to hear!)

White Bear Lake’s summer festival is called Manitou Days and tonight is a big parade that kicks off the event.

One of our friends have a lot at the every end of the parade route. Well, near the end of the parade route. The parade doesn’t actually pass their property, but it starts to dissolve just down the block. Our friends assure us that sometimes performers will give a special encore performance just for them (although they’ve never convinced a marching band to do that) and there is often candy left (although not usually the really good candy).

But all that is more-or-less irrelevant, because I’m really here to hang out with friends on a lovely evening and enjoy dinner and drinks. The parade is just a bonus!

We are literally a block from the lake.

The parade starts off with the obligatory antique police car, but – this being White Bear Lake – it is quickly followed by trucks pulling gorgeous vintage boats. We’re off to a good start.

The parade follows the street along the lake. Some of the units turn and end up passing us as they leave, but most continue straight into the park and then disburse, coming past us only to pack up or begin to wander back to their homes and vehicles.

I actually really like parades, so head to the end of the block to check things out, I’m surprised by how narrow the street is – it is more a lane than a street. As the trucks drive by pulling various and sundry floats, wagons, and boats, the passengers lean over the side warning those lining the narrow lane to pull their toes back out of the street.

It may be the most picturesque setting for any parade in America.

It’s a pretty typical small town parade though, with a few dignitaries and marching bands . . . and lots and lots of children.

Cool, but I think I’m ready for a drink, so it’s time to return to our little party.

We aren’t very successful at scoring candy (everyone swears they already gave it all away), but most people wave and a various friends stop by to chat.

It's all highly entertaining.

We even convince a few folks to perform for us, like this juggler who starts off with his juggling clubs. . .

. . . and then offers to demonstrate his technique using a few of our beers.


The guys will probably want to wait awhile before they open those. . .

We ALMOST get to see a marching band too, as the New Richmond Marching Tigers continue directly from the street into the park and past the water station in front of us before breaking ranks and calling it a night.

Sheriff Fletcher actually has candy left (and really great huge balloons) when he reaches our little gathering.

You can't be too fussy when you’re watching a parade from this vantage point!

Time to move along. After all, there is a house down the street a bit where there is a rhubarb pie waiting for us.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Girls Weekend Road-Trip to Cottonwood County

A friend’s family auction seemed a good excuse for a weekend road trip to southwestern Minnesota.
Highway 60 Road Trip (June 11, 2010)

Auction Day (June 12, 2010)
Heading Home: Highway 30 and On to New Ulm
We didn’t have a lot of time to explore the area, which is a pity because the area around Lake Shetek is supposed to be really nice and I have always wanted to get to nearby Jeffers Petroglyphs.

I was a bit surprised by the fact that some of the cities along the way didn’t seem very tourist-friendly – on summer weekend afternoons we found museums, historic churches, and many businesses (all the coffee shops) closed. This was particularly true in Saint James, where tourist information of any sort seems hard to come by. Still, it's worth stopping and poking around.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Highway 30 and on to New Ulm

Previous post: Auction Day

Despite the rain, it’s pleasant cruising through the bright green fields.

(We’ve had a wet spring, so the fields are particularly lush.)

Our plan is to do a little shopping (art glass and popcorn balls) in Sleepy Eye, but it is late in the afternoon when we arrive and it appears that the police station might be the only thing in town that is open.

It’s sort of disappointing.

Sleepy Eye Stained Glass has a few lights on, but it looks closed. We pull up in front and peer from the car through the rain at the hours posted on the door. Yup. Closed.

But there is a woman inside on the phone and she motions us in, struggling to unlock the door while finishing her call.

We enter the workshop, getting brief introduction to the types of work underway. Then we move on into the retail store, which carries glassmaker’s supplies, finished lamps and shades, decorative objects, and jewelry – including the lovely floral pendants she makes (and which don’t seem to be shown on the web)

Shopping completed, it seems like a good time to find some dinner and wine. Fortunately, Ann and her family had recommended a winery with a great pizza oven somewhere near New Ulm. Unfortunately, we aren’t really sure where it is. . .

You’d think a winery wouldn’t be such a hard thing to find, but I’m about ready to give up as we turn around for the second or third time while Jan and I try to make sense of the map on Pam’s phone with the scant directions in the ad in the local tourist brochure.

Morgan Creek Winery (once we find it) turns out to be a pretty place.

Mostly though, we just want a drink. . . . oh, I mean a taste.

All right, let’s be real, we are in the mood for a drink, but the tasting will help us select the wine we’ll have with dinner.

I’m not generally a big fan of Minnesota wines and these don’t do anything to change that, but Heather is patient and laughs along with us as we work our way through their offerings.

Mostly we laugh. A lot.

Finally it is time for dinner, amazing light and fresh pizzas baked in an open wood-fired stove and served on the patio.

(See them in there?)


Auction Day

Previous post: Westbrook

About 5:45 I am half-awake, half-dreaming of rain.

Oh oh. I’m NOT dreaming.

We are up before the alarm, looking for a TV station with up-to-date weather (one 24/7 weather station simply re-broadcasts the previous day’s forecast, which isn’t particularly useful) to have a sense of what the day will bring. . . we realize that rain will make continuing the auction very difficult, if not impossible.

By the time we arrive the decision has been made: the auction will be rescheduled and held at a different location.

After a quick tour of the antique and vintage clothes and hats, Ann puts us to work moving boxes out to a trailer and packing dishes in the garage and, when the garage is mostly empty, in the house.

y noon all of the dishes are packed, only the collection of oil lamps on the dinning room table are still to be packed.

Ann’s sister has had a pork loin heating in the crock pot all morning and there is graduation cake left from the week before. We get out our stock of red wine, cheese, and crackers and gather with the others for lunch, more story telling, and lots of laughs.

We pack the lamps before we leave. It’s unfortunate that the auction had to be rescheduled, but it still feels like a good day.

I think we need to come back here again.

Friday, June 11, 2010


Previous post: Highway 60 Road Trip

We have checked into our nothing hotel in Windom, along the way vowing to check out the quilting store and a few other enticing things we passed on our way through town . . . tomorrow, before we leave.

When we call Ann to arrange to meet for dinner, she and her family start a debate over the best route for us to take to Westbrook. We tell her we’ll find the way on our own and will call back and arrange to meet when we actually get to town.

It is a pleasant drive through a green landscape (it has been a wet spring) with a few low hills punctuated by the occasional wind turbine. The time goes quickly and we are surprised to suddenly realize that we have arrived. Time to call Ann back and figure out where, exactly, she is.

Pam’s phone soullessly declares that there is no service.

My phone is back in the hotel.

Jan’s has a dead battery.

Now what?

Actually, it’s kind of fun to have a bit of a mystery to resolve and, let’s be honest, Westbrook (with a population around 800) just isn’t that big. We ought to be able to track down Ann’s mom (and from there, Ann) in no time flat.

So what clues do we have? We know what Ann’s car looks like, we know her mothers name and that she lives in an assisted living facility, we know Ann’s sister lives somewhere in the area. This shouldn’t be too hard.

We take a reconnaissance drive through town: There is a bar or something right off the highway, a senior’s center with attached housing, a couple of stores and a bar downtown (all closed), a couple churches, a nice park - but nothing that looks like an assisted living facility. We haven’t seen Ann’s car yet either.

So they are probably still getting ready for the auction. . . Where is the auction going to be held? We check the flier: It will be two blocks from where we are sitting now contemplating what to do next.

We spot the house immediately, it sits on the “town” side of the road with a view of the field across the street.

Ann’s car is in the driveway and the yard is festooned with doors, fences, patio furniture, and more.

This must be the place.

Of course, no one is around.

We reconsider our options: Keep searching or break out the wine and cheese and have our own happy hour here in the yard?

We leave a note on Ann’s car and resume our search, starting out in a new direction. After a couple blocks we can see the end of town – no assisted living housing – so we turn around at the co-op and head back to the senior’s center where they laugh and give us directions to the hospital and assisted living units. The assisted living apartments are located one block past our original reconnaissance trip. In the parking area at the assisted living facility we realize we are one block (on the diagonal) from Ann’s mom’s house. We can almost see the house.

No one answers at Ann’s mom’s unit, but a kindly staff member takes up to the office and hands over a telephone. When we connect with Ann we discover that she and her mother are on their way to the elevator.

We meet in the hall.

Soon we are back in the car, headed over to the co-op (where we turned around earlier) where the family has spent the day sorting items packed on hay racks in one of the sheds.

A lot of near misses for such a small town!

We end our evening at the Loose Moose (the building by the highway that I suspected might be a bar or restaurant) with Ann’s family. We laugh a lot while eating great steaks and the world’s best French fries.

On the drive home I notice something on the far horizon. Lighting? No. . . fireworks. They continue for our entire trip back to Windom, the grand finale occurring when we are only blocks from our hotel.

What a nice welcome!

Next post: Auction Day