Category Archives: Minneapolis

England and America; Two Countries Separated By A Common Language…

…and pretty much everything else. Given how close it is to Britain in terms of history, culture and time, it is interesting how unusual America has made everything when left to its own devices for a few hundred years. The differences felt starker than I have noticed in most other places that I have been to, perhaps because I was expecting things to be much more similar.

Language

I travel to a lot of different countries, and yet it is astounding to me the number of things that are lost in translation in the same language. Here are some of them from Minneapolis that had me laughing like a child;

Steak and kidney, anyone?

Steak and kidney, anyone?

Yup, that's actually what it says.

Yup, that’s actually what it says.

...I'll take a pass right now, thanks.

…I’ll take a pass right now, thanks.

Bonj:

Bonj: “..what the FUCK is a Jiffy Lube??”

Religion

This was really unpleasant for me. The moment I stepped onto the plane from Amsterdam to Minnesota, it became apparent that there were people who genuinely believed in Christian religions and made no bones about talking about it openly and loudly. I am not going to devote much time to it in this particular blog, except to say this; outside of small communities in the UK that take it seriously, I come from a culture where religion is largely dismissed and ignored, with the occasional gentle pat on the head when religious types turn up and say something nice. It was really scary to be surrounded by people who treat religion like it is all real.

Food

The ingredients for food don’t vary all that much the world over, but the way it is put together in America is quite honestly odd. Everything I saw was largely based around convenience. While they do have fresh produce, the vast majority of the shelves (in the supermarkets at any rate) were full of things that had been pre-cooked and stuffed into cans. Anything that you can think that you might possibly want to cook together (and plenty of things you frankly wouldn’t in your worst nightmares) has already been combined and packaged for you. No doubt with massive doses of high-fructose corn syrup, and usually with cheese and bacon. If it doesn’t say cheese and bacon on the front, check the ingredients on the back.

There is weird stuff all over the place;

In Target…

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…for when you have a mobile sausage-and-pancake emergency, obviously.

Shopping is such demanding work, you clearly can't wait to get home in order to eat.

Shopping is such demanding work, you clearly can’t wait to get home before you eat.

…in bars…

The leftover bits from when you make cheese, deep fried in the same batter they do sweet and sour chicken balls in.

The leftover bits from when you make cheese, deep fried in the same batter they do sweet and sour chicken balls in.

What the fuck is this even? They were everywhere.

What the fuck is this even? These things were everywhere.

…in the pharmacist…

Sweaty leftovers from other food production lines.

Sweating leftovers from other food production lines.

...why?

…why?

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FYI, this means ‘run away very fast’ in the UK.

…on the side of the road…

When neither a croissant nor a sandwich will suffice...

When neither a croissant nor a sandwich will suffice…

…and I have of course saved my favourite Walmart till last…

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Family Guy fans everywhere will hear nothing but Stewie’s voice in their heads.

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Another American product that I only know as a reference from comedy. “Hoooot pockkeetttttts….”

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Oh, THAT’S what that hideous thing was…

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…and they are REALLY keen on them apparently.

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With added bacon and cheese! P.S. They don’t actually know what Cheddar is.

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With added Green! Here’s another one for the “…why?” pile

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More supplementary bacon and cheese! Only the potatoes are real this time though.

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Thick and chunky manwich, huh…?

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Cheez whiz? I’d see a doctor if I were you. Also, I love how they are dipping broccoli in it, presumably the healthy choice.

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With added bacon! And sugar!

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Yeah, that’s not all packaging; they have genuinely made green and red tortilla chips for Christmas.

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ALL OF THE CHEESE.

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And if that wasn’t quite enough cheese for you, here’s a bit more.

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There’s a vegetable in it! Extreme wellness!

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Bread goods in a can…

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Apparently this stuff bursts out like a comedy snake when you open the can.

...bet there's cheese in them.

…bet there’s cheese in them.

Shopping, customer service and niceness

In addition to the aforementioned oddness of the products offered when out shopping, there is a very different attitude towards you as a paying customer in the States. Everyone who walks through the front door is immediately put on a pedestal. A lot of the American service-based industry is reliant on tips to bump up frankly shoddy wages, and while this is not the case in shops, the same level of terrifying attention seems to be mandated in large corporations.

While in Target, wandering through the fresh veg looking for carrots, some guy who was replenishing stock turned around with a big smile and said,

“Are you finding everything OK?”

What, the bright orange pointy things? Umm, yeah actually. See this big sign right here? The one that says the name of the thing I am looking for? That helped…

I genuinely found it really intimidating how overly friendly everyone was, and how willing to get up in my business they were. I am used to a lifetime of aloof politeness, being allowed to get on with my day largely uninterrupted. Whenever anyone asked how I was in America, inquired whether I was having a good day, I was really taken aback, and didn’t know how to respond.

What bothered me about it was that it was plastic, forced, fake…but they were trying really hard not to let you know that. Someone has written it into their contract that they need to be seen to be helpful, friendly and interested, on pain of something awful I imagine. It’s a service model that has been now picked up by corporates outside of the States…but it’s a thing that we really aren’t very good at it in Britain. If you are eating in any chain restaurant across the country these days, you will find that halfway through a mouthful of your dinner, some bored youth will flounce over and ask “Is everything OK with your meal?” without even the vaguest pretence of giving a shit.

In Britain, we all know that work sucks, and anyone who appears to enjoy what they are doing needs to be treated with a certain level of distrust. If someone says “Y’awright?”, we all know they aren’t ACTUALLY asking if you are alright, and they do not require a response. It is simply a polite acknowledgement of your presence – the type that is used as social lubricant in a country where there are so many people trying to occupy the same space at the same time.

…I handle that way better than someone who is pretending to care because corporate policy says they should.

Doctors

They don’t have a national healthcare system in America, so you find people are dealing with a lot of frankly concerning conditions with home remedies.

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The differentiation between ‘drip and dribbles’ and ‘larger surges’ had me giggling for ages

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‘Discreet’ does not exist in a culture where you can’t afford to have concerning bladder failures checked out.

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Lots of itching going on, apparently.

The pharmacy (which had a drive-through window, by the way) had a mind-boggling array of different types of plasters and bandages and lotions and potions and salts and scrapers. It really was a dark window on the life of a nation. Or at least the section of that nation that can’t afford proper healthcare.

Vehicles

As a driver, it all seems largely straightforward, but there are a couple of things that scared the living shit out of me in America.

Intersections. They don’t believe in roundabouts, for reasons best known to themselves. Instead, they have ‘intersections’, which are just overblown crossroads. In the States, the roads are longer, straighter and wider, and this contributes to a sense of a massive amount of space where some huge vehicle might appear out of the blue – travelling really fast – at any given time…on the wrong side of the road, no less.

My nervousness was not helped by the fact that you can actually turn right into traffic when you are sat at a red light, and no, I still don’t understand why that is OK.

Indicator lights. They are red on most American cars. Fucking RED. Just like the brake lights. My friend told me after picking me up from the airport, “There are no indicators here” and I thought she was simply joking that no-one bothered to use them… No, they are just completely indistinguishable from the other lights on the arse end of a car. I honestly do not know how anyone ever thought that was a good idea, but don’t expect to ever understand what other road users are about to do in America.

Trucks. All of the haulage vehicles have noses on them, unlike in the UK where the front of the cab is flat. The only time I ever normally get see trucks like this is in sinister American movies, and it made me feel really quite uncomfortable.

They all remind me of something out of Duel

They all remind me of something out of the Stephen King thriller, Duel.

Beer

God bless America, its alcoholism, and its multitude of microbreweries. It is the one place that I have truly felt at home in terms of my beer consumption. I admit that everywhere I went was hand picked by my friends so this might not be true of all places, but I feel like it is fairly representative. Every bar had a good selection of beers from local breweries, and the liquor stores all had a wide variety of those local beers, the breadth of which I only ever see in the UK in the biggest supermarkets.

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All of the beer, for my face.

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This was my favourite, and I make no bones about it – this beer kicked my arse

Also, they ID everyone, everywhere. Which is funny when you are British and they can’t figure out what your ID is even supposed to be. I never realised what a laissez-faire attitude UK establishments take towards checking legal drinking until I got out to America, where I can only assume that the fines for serving alcohol to people who shouldn’t be drinking are quite significant.

Please allow me to leave you with one of my favourite things from the Mall of America in Minneapolis;

Happy Bonj is Happy.

Happy Bonj is Happy.

Minneapolis – 25th November 2014 (Day 1/8)

I have never really had any desire to visit America. It has never spoken to my inner being, or interested me in the same way that a lot of other places have. Actually that is not entirely true; I would love to the see the giant redwood trees, to take in the spectacle.

"Fuck you, puny human."

“Fuck you, puny human.”

In fact, I think that’s the key to why I have never been all that interested; the whole of America seems like a spectacle, a novelty (albeit a dangerous one), where the rest of the world looks on with baffled curiosity, “…what ARE you doing, America??” It’s always struck me as a place where you go and you point and look at the funny things, rather than a place to go and BE.

That said, I do have a vested interest. For the past 12 or so years, there has been a group of people that I know from Minneapolis who I met through an American Head Charge band forum. I’ve been saying for years that I should go out and visit them, but it always seemed like a prohibitively bigger step than just hopping on a plane to Europe.

Well, circumstances aligned and in typical impetuous-Bonj style, during a conversation in October with one of my friends who moved over there some years ago, I decided that I was finally going to go. Within 15 minutes I had booked a flight for 4 weeks’ time. Hurray for me and planning ahead…

Fast forward to 25th November, 04:30am, and I was getting up to get the train to the airport. I am frequently awake at that time of day anyway because I am rubbish at sleeping, but it’s a really different experience when you have things that you need to achieve. Thankfully I had teed up my coffee machine before I went to bed, which took a bit of the sting out of the morning.

Essential to my happiness and wellbeing in a way that some simply can't understand.

Essential to my happiness and well-being in a way that some simply can’t understand.

The taxi showed up on time, which is never a thing you can be certain of in advance, and at 05:55am I was sat on the train to Birmingham International. I was tired and I was cold, but I had to keep reminding myself not to complain – I had no idea what temperatures I was going to be experiencing in Minneapolis, but based on some recent updates and gleefully shared comedy sketches, I was expecting it to be what I would commonly refer to as ‘Bastard Cold’.

I had invested in a proper coat for the trip. As a rule, I don’t like coats, and will stubbornly insist on wearing nothing more than a t-shirt during the day, conceding to a hoodie only when it’s absolutely necessary. However, this was likely to be cold on a scale that I had never experienced before, plus if I’m planning on moving to Norway in the next couple of years, it was going to be a worthwhile purchase. As it happens, I kinda like it. I didn’t however pay too much attention to my trousers because my legs are never normally cold… I very quickly decided to rectify that with some 100 Denier tights once I got the airport.

While I was certain I would be grateful for the extra layer provided by the tights once I hit the States, I was sweating my ever loving tits off in Birmingham, which didn’t help with the tiredness. It was like someone had draped a hot tea towel over my face and I just wanted to curl up under a table and drift off.

The Wifi pass for the hotel in Oslo. D'awww.

I found the room number for the hotel I stayed in Oslo in the back of my travel notebook. D’awww.

One thing that I had researched beforehand and been absolutely horrified about was the cost of using 3G in the States. 100MB data bundles were £10 each, and – I quote directly from the EE website here;

  • If you use more than your bundle allowance, the bundle is re-applied automatically up to 20 times a day. Each time the bundle is re-applied you will be get another 100MB and be charged an additional bundle fee
  • With this bundle we will never charge you more than £300 in one day

Holy shit. £300 A DAY? In what universe is that considered reasonable? Is that REALLY the cost of delivering the service? Seriously? I switched my 3G off the moment I got on the damned plane.

Speaking of phones and planes, there was a man sat next to me on the flight who was doing something that I have noticed people doing more and more recently, and it winds me the fuck up at the best of times; switching their mobile onto speakerphone and then shouting at it. If you are one of the people that does this – STOP IT. Immediately. If you are that concerned about radiation, you’d better find a way off the planet my friend – moving your phone a few inches away from your face is not going to help you. Also, he was sniffing loudly and repeatedly. Blow your fucking nose, or I will elbow you in it, and really give you a problem.

…I am a misanthrope at the best of times, but tiredness was clearly making me extra grumpy.

I wasn’t on a direct flight to Minneapolis; we were headed into Amsterdam where I had a layover before flying on to MSP. It was a KLM flight, and I have to say that the Dutch flight crew were amazing. They seemed to be entirely populated by camp, mischievous scamps who coyly sashayed up and down the aisles in an elaborate pantomime  – and relentlessly targetted the biggest and most alpha of males for merciless flirting, which absolutely made my day.

It was my first time in Schiphol airport and I was struck by how clean and quiet it was. They were in the process of renovating the airport and you wouldn’t know anything about it if it wasn’t for the notices all around telling you that it was happening. Damn, they are only installing new lifts at work, the howling of angle grinders and drills echoing around the building on a daily basis sounds like the tortured wailing of eternally trapped souls.

The only evidence that anything was going on.

The only evidence that anything was going on.

I had a bit of a wander around to familiarise myself with the layout, and spotted some nice shiny Heineken cans in a chiller cabinet. I managed to resist their charms for a good 7 minutes. It was €3.98 for a 500ml can, which equates to about £3.54 a pint. It’s reasonable I guess – it’s only slightly more than I pay in Northampton. I also had a bag of organic, fair trade, dried mango. Apparently it was helping to reduce environmental impact…by travelling all the way from Burkina Faso… Uh huh.

I am a very simple creature.

I am a very simple creature.

It struck me while I was sat passing time and people-watching that I was the only person there with a beer. I was however sat next to a group of young adults and a ridiculous amount of McDonalds takeaway food. I couldn’t decide out of the two of us, who represented the worst example.

I headed down to the departure gate a little bit earlier than I normally would – and I was glad for it, because they were already open for boarding, and I got the absolute 3rd degree before being allowed on board the flight. Just within the departure gate, they had their own special scanners and separate security staff. They wanted to know where I was going, what I was going to be doing there, and every question was delivered with such absolute deadpan calm and coldness, I genuinely started to worry. It was also then that I first realised that what is normal life for me, may not be all that normal to other people.

The primary objectives of my trip were:

  1. Catch up with an old friend who moved out there
  2. Get some new tattoos done that she had designed for me
  3. Finally get to meet my Headcharge friends

Now, I have spent at least the last 10 years of my life merrily chipping off around the world to meet friends that I have made via the internet, and it’s something I don’t even stop to consider anymore. However, trying to justify myself to this imposing, stoney faced security guy was really quite difficult. I ended out desperately bringing up this blog on my phone and showing him the pictures of the carvings I was getting tattooed. He wandered off with my passport to have a chat to some other security staff stood at another table, and then came back and waved me through without a second glance, almost like he had never really given a shit in the first place. I suspect there might be something in that. On the way down the tunnel to the plane, there were two couples behind me; two young Canadians and two elderly Americans, and they both said that the checks they had just been through were far more extreme than anything they had experienced before.

I finally got onto the plane, and settled in. It was the same seating arrangement as on the Father Ted ‘Flight into Terror’ episode; 2 seats, aisle, 3 seats, aisle, 2 seats. I was sat next to the window to the left as you face the front of the plane. That would normally be awesome, but on an 8+ hour flight it’s a pain in the arse if you want to get up and walk around. I was however looking right at the front of the wing and WOW, that was a big-arse engine. Seriously.

I'm not sure this gives you the proper perspective but that's a big fucking chunk of metal right there.

I’m not sure this gives you the proper perspective but that’s a big fucking chunk of metal right there.

The next thing I noticed after gawping at the sheer expanse of metal through the window was two guys sat in the row behind me, talking in thick American accents, in a very matter-of-fact way, about different denominations of the Christian faith. Then one of them said, “The Reformation was necessary, but it went too far…”

Shit. They meant it. They were actually seriously discussing it like it was a real and important thing. I was worried, for the second time in 30 minutes, and wondering what the hell I was getting myself into. I know religion exists, and a lot of people in the UK probably still kind of believe in there being a God when push comes to shove, but I have never in my life heard anyone seriously talking about religion like a living and breathing thing. It was genuinely unnerving.

The flight from Schiphol to Minneapolis-Saint Paul was with Delta airlines, and I was thoroughly impressed with their staff, their choice of TV and film entertainment in the seat mounted screens, but most of all I was impressed with their safety video. I laughed out loud more than once – I was definitely not expecting the tribbles!

I was delighted to find that there was free beer all through the flight – there are very few quicker ways to my heart, if I am honest. If only the Wifi had been free, I would have been delirious.

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Adventure Time; made my day.

I am notorious for being late to the party when it comes to new music, film or cartoons, and my latest discovery was no exception – Adventure Time. They had a massive array of films, music and TV shows available to watch, and I spotted Adventure Time in the kids section, and thought I would give it a go since I had heard good things. I was absolutely blown away, it was hilarious. I am not convinced for a minute that it is a kid’s show; it’s post-apocalytpic, straight-faced mental, and runs at a 90 degree angle to reality. I love it. The first 20 seconds on the clip I have linked below made me giggle like an idiot;

Sadly, I ran out of Adventure Time with 3 1/2 hours of the flight left. I had properly had enough of being on a plane by that point. I think it worked out to being around 9pm GMT and I was done. Really done. There was, however, precisely nothing I could do about it, which was an odd situation for me – I was so used to having easy local access to the world of the internet, and being free to design my life around me, for the first time in a long time I was utterly powerless to influence my situation. It was as much humbling as it was frustrating.

Fnarr fnarr...delicious nuts...

Fnarr fnarr…delicious nuts…

Tiredness, boredom, alcohol, and the weird isolating face-pressure you get on planes managed to combine and overwhelm me, and I drifted off to sleep. Sadly, this lasted for a grand total of 4 minutes. At that point, my brain remembered that I was sat upright, moving, and surrounded by people and I shook myself awake again. I honestly could have cried when I saw how little time had passed.

Saviour.

Saviour.

Eventually, I found a couple of Louis CK stand-up shows and entertained myself all the way into MSP. Anyone familiar with the “Of course…but maybe…” brain interplay that he talks about in his Oh My God comedy special will understand a lot of what happens in my head on a daily basis;

We eventually came in to land after what felt like an eternity. The closer we descended to the ground, the brighter and more awake I felt.

Night time Minneapolis from the air.

Night time Minneapolis from the air. Also, awesome camera work.

I shouldered my bag and marched off to passport control…where I was grilled a further two times by airport security staff. I had to again explain why I was here, what I was doing, where I was staying… They took my fingerprints and a photo of my face ( I don’t THINK it was close enough for a retinal scan but I wouldn’t swear to it). I then had to explain why I only had hand luggage; it never occurred to me that it might be suspicious.

One thing I will say for both of the guys that I had to talk to on the way through, they both loosened up and started responding to my jokes by the time I finished talking to them – that’s either a testament to my British charm, or the fact that they are just dudes doing a job. I’ll let you decide.

The last hurdle before I was finally through was a pair of stern-looking guys in security uniforms, stood on rostrums on either side of the last door out of the baggage reclaim area. They reminded me of the pair of sphinx statues in The Neverending Story.

Less tits, more intimidating.

Less tits, more intimidating.

I walked up and asked if either of them needed to see to the customs card that I had already had checked – twice. The man on the right – bless him, one of the tiniest men I have ever seen – grunted a little bit and held out his hand. I gave him the card, expecting another grilling. He simply looked at it, handed it back, puffed up his shoulders and said “Welcome to Amurrica” in the gruffest, deepest voice I have ever heard outside of action-movie trailers. I think he had been practising it, and if I wasn’t so afraid of getting shot, I’d have fallen over laughing.

My friend was literally pulling up outside as I stepped out of Arrivals, in an act of genius timing. I can’t describe the joy at seeing her again after so many years. She drove us back to her place out in Fridley, and after a very small amount of debate, a trip to the liquor store was in order – I love it when people are on my wavelength.

One of the first things that I discovered that I liked about America was having dedicated shops for beer. I’m so used to being tucked away in the back corner of a supermarket like a cousin with questionable genetics that it was really refreshing to have a whole store there to celebrate alcohol.

My friend explained to me that you will get ID’d for alcohol literally everywhere you go – age restrictions aside (minimum age 21, which is mental to me, but that’s another story) apparently they need to check your ID – normally a driving licence – for other restrictions. It made perfect sense at the time she was explaining it, but thinking about it now, I can’t remember what restrictions might be on your licence that meant you weren’t allowed to purchase alcohol… Just because you’re buying beer doesn’t mean you are going to drink-drive, surely? I don’t know, someone thought it was a good idea. At any rate, I cheerfully presented my passport at every bar and store from that point in, and gleefully watched as everyone wondered what the actual fuck they were looking at;

I am a grown-up, honest.

I am a grown-up, honest.

Also, you can pay by card everywhere, but most places still take signatures instead of PIN numbers – my card isn’t even signed, and no-one ever checked. If you’re looking for a place to commit card fraud, that would be it folks.

I bought myself some more Heineken, because I was not in any kind of position to make any complex decisions that evening. I drank a few, and then utterly crashed.

My ill-tempered roommate

Say hello to my ill-tempered roommate for my stay in Minneapolis.