After nearly nine months on the road, coming back to Minneapolis, where I lived from 2002-2003, is the closest that I have come to feeling at home for quite some time. It is also a gentle reminder that our homecoming is just around the corner.
With less than a month remaining, the end of our trip is in sight. Our sailing date from Philadelphia to Antwerp has been brought forward by nine days so we have had to change our itinerary and prepare ourselves for our return. Over the past few weeks Mission Mississippi has taken us from the deep south to the extreme north of the United States, from the mouth of the Mississippi in New Orleans to its source in Lake Itasca; from crazy Mardi Gras parties to the frozen wilderness of northern Minnesota and everything in between. For me, Minnesota is the beginning of the end, time to start preparing myself for the ‘real world'.
Minnesota has an extreme climate which reflects on people’s personalities. It fluctuates between -20 and +40 ° C between the seasons of winter and road-mending (the locals favourite joke). We arrived on the warmest day of the year so far, when Minnesotans were bemoaning the long hard winter and preparing themselves for the frivolities of spring and summer. In the Twin Cities (of Minneapolis and St Paul) the snow had melted and people were starting to thaw out - the streets and bars were full and coats were open. However, in the north of the state the snow was still thick, people were huddled inside and you could walk on the frozen water of the lakes.
We noticed that people didn’t seem quite so fascinated by us Brits in Minnesota, as very few random strangers had commented on our accents or inquired as to who we were and what we were doing, in contrast to the warm reception we had received in the southern states. I don’t think it’s because people are any less friendly, for they are, but they are just more reserved and perhaps think it rude to ask. The difference is much like that in Europe between the austere Finns and the gregarious Spanish. Perhaps that is why I am drawn to Minnesota so much - it does remind me of Scandinavia, my mother‘s homeland. It is known as the state of 10,000 lakes, is covered in silver birch and pine forests and people go to their cabins in summer. Indeed many of the settlers in Minnesota came from Scandinavia.
I also hold the climate partly responsible for the three pillars of Minneapolis/St Paul culture - theatre, heavy drinking and politics. The cold drives you indoors to drink, think, talk and create. Minneapolis has the biggest theatre scene in the U.S., after New York City, including the annual Fringe performing arts festival. The Twin Cities can also be politically outspoken, as recently demonstrated by graffiti outside the National Republican Convention. The array of liquor stores and funky bars is testament to the drinking culture.
It is strange to return to a former life, one that has been carrying on in parallel in my absence. It is like visiting history. Minneapolis looks the same - my favourite liquor store, coffee shop, bars, the Wedge supermarket - and most of my friends are still here. Even more remarkably people still remember me and have been incredibly nice (and not just Minnesota nice) to us - buying us drinks and dinners, taking us to diners, housing us, entertaining us at the roller derby and theatre and mending our increasingly temperamental laptop.
Minneapolis doesn’t look as aesthetically exciting as, say, Chicago, and isn’t a major tourist destination, but underneath it is full of quirky and fun places to explore. It has an interesting mix of Germanic/Scandinavian settlers, resettled Hmong and Vietnamese, Mexicans and more recently Somalis. It makes for a fantastic array of restaurants. It is also one of the more progressive cities I have been to in the States. People cycle (even in the below freezing winters it has one of the highest commuter cyclist rate in the States), shop at co-ops supporting local agriculture and the gay scene is blooming. It is also a hotbed of not-for-profit organisations, such as my former workplace, the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, where we gave a presentation and a radio interview that will be available at Radio Sustain next week. People in the States have been some of the most interested in our trip so far - it really seems to spark the imagination in a country that is waking up to the realities of climate change.
We’ve been crazily busy in the Twin Cities as I tried to fit a year’s memories into one week so there has been little space for reflection. Now on the eve of our departure from Minneapolis I’m starting to reminisce, about our trip around the world in slow motion and about previous departures from places I love. It’s going to be hard going home. Minnesota has been a wonderful trip back in time and has also provided a gentle insight into what is to come back in Blighty.