Home, Sweet Home: An Ode to Local Tourism

 

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Cathedral of St. Paul, MN

 

If you could live anywhere in the world, where would it be?

That’s a question many people ask one another, especially when first getting to know each other. It goes along with other lofty dreams and ‘get to know you’ questions like if you could be anything in the world, what would it be? Having an answer to these kinds of inquiries are automatically idealized, they have to be, because typically one has never actually lived in that place or worked that dream job to know whether or not it’s something worth even placing on a pedestal to begin with. We fall in love with a picture or in what we imagine life with no worries to be like–to be completely absorbed in the local of our choosing and nothing else. How many people answer Paris or Italy, or on a beach somewhere in Florida, or maybe even Japan? Why do those places seem more desirable than the one you’re living in right now? Likely because those other places feel like a perpetual vacation. They’re new, they’re more interesting, and they are filled with culture and history ripe for exploring.

NE Minneapolis train tracks

Old train tracks in Northeast Minneapolis

But while most of us are busy looking across the ocean or horizon for something better, some unknown adventure that supposedly exists somewhere outside of our own per view–all of that could be lying in wait in your own hometown waiting for you to explore and appreciate like any ordinary tourist would.

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When I was younger, I used to abhor living in Minnesota. Half of the year is dedicated to being an icebox and the other half is so grossly humid and hot, we’re all begging for a blizzard again. It never made sense to me, why anyone would willingly choose to live here–those exasperated statements more common in the throes of polar vortexes clocking -40 degrees Fahrenheit. I thought it was nothing more than a flyover state, shameless in its midwestern lifestyle and stalks of corn and farmland everywhere. I wanted to be anywhere but here and dreamed of traveling and living among the world–where surely culture and history ran rampant. 

NE Minneapolis Cityscape

Minneapolis lookin’ like a green screen

The first time I left the country, I spent three weeks road tripping through France and Italy. Even though I thought they were lovely countries and have since been back to both, when my flight was about to land and I glimpsed the cityscape of Minneapolis, I started to weep. It was then that I realized, Minnesota all along was actually a wonderful and beautiful place to call home. It had everything I needed right here–It’s a perfectly acceptable place to live with its own plethora of culture and great food, Instagram worthy landscapes–and, of course, history.

Blue Ox Coffee Company

Chess & Coffee at Blue Ox Coffee Company

There’s Glensheen mansion in Duluth, our own little Downton Abbey–or wait, is that the James J. Hill house in St. Paul? There’s the North Shore and the sinking of the SS Edmund Fitzgerald. Stillwater and the rock caves, Bemidji and the legends of friendly giant Paul Bunyan and his blue Ox Babe, Rochester and the Mayo family. Local legends like F. Scott Fitzgerald, Bob Dylan, and Prince–all born and raised here. Their footsteps walkable, their hangs and, in Prince’s case home/studio, all view-able. Our local scene of music, food, coffee, etc. is no joke either. The Twin Cities being an incredibly underrated stomping ground just as worthy of anyone’s attention as Chicago, Houston, Miami, and other major metropolises. Yeah, I said it.

Milwaukee Avenue Historic District

Milwaukee Avenue Historic District

So why am I telling you about how awesome Minnesota is? Because I’d like to show you. Traveling and writing about my experiences abroad is something of a living dream for me–and getting to indulge in history my passion. My next trip won’t be until next Spring, where I’m planning to visit Athens, Greece for the first time–but until then, let me take you on a journey through my home state’s local tourism. If you ever find yourself on this side of the country, I hope I can help show you the very best places to visit when you do!

And, of course, my history posts will still continue as I find time to fit in some good ol’ research on top of it all.

SKOL!

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The gorgeous North Shore

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8 Things I Learned While Traveling in Italy!

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I’ve always been proud of my family heritage. Since I was young, I delighted in being asked whether or not my family once had ties to the Mafia (they did) or how many times we ate spaghetti and meatballs in a given week (a lot). I’d throw around my grandfather’s old slang (like ‘Bacowzoo [sp?]’ which meant bathroom) like a badge of honor and claim the achievements (and embarrassments) of the Roman Empire in my historical comparison discussions on who was more badass. As far as I was concerned, I was Italian and presumably more authentic than Olive Garden.

I was so very very wrong.

You’re Not Italian; You’re AMERICAN!

Surprisingly, no one was really impressed with the story of how my great grandfather came to America with a potato in each shoe and a grape stem in his sock–not when there are literally native Italians everywhere. What makes you feel special in America because you’re one of maybe 15 million is inconsequential in Italy. Fact is, your family LEFT and even if you still have some that stayed behind like me, you’re more different than you are similar. As an Italian-American in Italy, don’t be surprised when no one understands your Italian or when locals can smell the tatertot hotdish on you and immediately try speaking to you in English. They’ll ask you about George Clooney as if he’s your next door neighbor and offer you a spoon (which is uncustomary to an actual Italian) to eat with your pasta because you seemed to be suffering with your fork twirl. They’ll hastily explain away that you’re an American when you embarrassingly order the same flavor scoop for your double gelato and they’ll giggle at you when you knock back your first Italian Digestive like a fool assuming it’ll go down as smooth as Pepto. And you know what? That’s okay. Going to Italy as an Italian-American is your chance to learn about the culture your family left behind and realize that, in its absence, you’ve created and reclaimed your own back home–one built on meatballs and tommy guns, Rocky Balboa and wooden spoon beatings, “gabagool” and Cesar salads. Own it.

“It’s Not Dinner Unless There is Pork on the Table!”

I thought the worship of bacon was an exclusively American concept but I’d be willing to wager that Italians love their pig more than we do. If you don’t believe me, let’s take a second to run down the list…prosciutto, capicola, cacciatore, soppressata, guanciale, spalla, bologna, panchetta, speck, culatello, salt pork, etc. You’d be hard pressed to find a menu or a table that didn’t have pork included–in fact, I’d say it was the meat of choice for most dishes and pasta (and even fruit!). It’s hanging everywhere in the market, it’s in nearly every sandwich, and most rural areas you can smell it wafting among the streets as if there was a little piggie walking right next to you.

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Do You Speak Inglese?

Don’t go to Italy assuming everyone speaks English–they don’t. We were lucky to run across a number of helpful folks who could speak a little, but it was mostly trying to figure out which words we knew in each other’s respective language in order to construct a sentence the other could understand. Most waiters and waitresses in high tourist cities can speak enough to provide you with excellent service but please don’t try to order an American alcoholic beverage like my travel companions did and try to explain to them, in English, how to make it. Things descend into confusion fairly quickly. Your best bet is to learn as much conversational Italian as you can before going, this way, you can gesture along and try to explain what you need using words both of you understand or just rely heavily on Google Translate like we did when we needed some extra help to explain ourselves. It’s true that most Italians have taken English in school, but do you remember much of your world language of choice in high school if you didn’t go on to study it in college? Exactly. Try to learn and use Italian, it’s their country after all.

Driving is for Lunatics

It shouldn’t come as too much of a shock that the Land of the Ferrari likes to squeal its wheels and ignore most roadway etiquette. For every Nutella croissant I ate, I feared for my life in equal measure on the road. The Autostrade or major highway is merely a place of suggested speed, there aren’t many stop lights so don’t expect an easy navigation through an intersection, double parking is the norm, and incessantly honking at backed up traffic that has no place to go is just common practice. Save yourself the heart attack and take the train.

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Pretty much it

Ain’t Nobody Got Room for Breakfast

Italians don’t really eat breakfast–not like we do in America. You eat a croissant and enjoy a cappucino, that’s all you should give yourself room in the tum tum for. We’re, of course, used to far more protein than that in the form of eggs, bacon, sausage, pancakes, and lard but in Italy, you should save the real feast for later. When we ate with our relatives, we learned that it was common to start eating for real around 12pm and work your way through the courses for the next 3 hours over family time and conversation with that being the main meal of the day. Ultimately, you eat big once, saving room throughout the day with eating and drinking only what was necessary to survive. And if you’re having trouble keeping away from delicious food until dinner? Don’t worry, everything with food closes in the afternoon and doesn’t re-open until 7:30pm. Get ready to be hungry and lose some of the American fat around the waist you brought with. Also, don’t forget the Italian Digestive!

Coffee is the Real Deal

Knowing my extensive professional background in coffee, I was completely prepared for the kind I’d experience in Italy. My travel companions, on the other hand, weren’t. Assuming you’re the type to drown your coffee in creamer or are prone to taking your dose of caffeine blended in ice with syrups and sugars–the coffee offerings in Europe are going to be quite a culture shock. I spent most of my time assisting my companions in ordering what I thought they’d be able to drink or creating a mutant concoction at the self serve that would be sweet enough for them to enjoy. It’s all about espresso, espresso, espresso and it is DELICIOUS! Unfortunately, the espresso that comes out of the machine at your local coffee shop is a bit more bitter and unrefined than the variety they serve in Italy–for example, it’s completely possible to drink it straight up and not gag. Espresso in Italy is slightly bitter but not overpowering, sweet but not overly so, a bit heavier in body, and savory in the aftertaste. You can order with milk if you wish, but there is no need for syrups and sauces like back home–in fact, good luck finding the option!

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Stray pup knows what’s good

This Place has Really Gone to the Dogs

Italy has an interesting relationship with dogs. It’s normal and encouraged to bring your pooch with you everywhere–from shopping malls to restaurants and as long as they don’t poop anywhere (which I was unfortunate enough to waltz into at a shoe store) they are more than welcome. You’d think then that a place which clearly treats dogs as a part of the family would be prone to sticking together–but for every family dog you witnessed happily accompanying their owners on errands, there was also a stray dog prowling around for food and the kindness of strangers. It’s ordinary enough for passerbys to toss food their way as if they were homeless beggars and smart strays who know which patio is attached to a tasty restaurant will visit in routine–waiters merely side-stepping the four legged guests. No one shoos them but everyone gives a little from their table to the dog in need. It was really hard for me to not just adopt every single dog I saw–they were always polite and sweet and responded to commands like sit, stay, and lay down. Clearly, these dogs have gotten used to their life on the road but I couldn’t help but ache for them to find a good home.

Nutty About Nutella

And last but not least, let me just confirm that Italians really are obsessed with Nutella. No joke. It’s in EVERYTHING.

Ancient Egypt: The Miracle of Contraception Part 1

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Ahhh, contraception. One of the most well conceived scientific conceptions of all time…see what I did there?

Women have been trying to wrestle control back from their ovaries since the dawn of civilization. What with a near consistent almost worldwide patriarchy and, if Game of Thrones is to be believed, the hourly struggle for a dude to keep his breeches laced up, the threat of unwanted pregnancy has always haunted the female psyche. Sometimes a woman wants to do other things, guys. Like be a super Senet master or…uh…something else. Nah, but for real, as hard as it is to believe, contraception and preventing pregnancy has been around longer than the idea that women’s purpose is to marry and baby-make.

Even though the debate rages today on just how much freedom a woman is “allowed” to exert over her body, know that if ever one so much as uses the word “tradition” to explain why any form of birth control should be prevented from a modern day and supposedly educated populace, swift kick that fool in the jugular, yah get me?

Because if they don’t already know, the Egyptians have been getting down for ever. I mean, really, what else is there to do on the Nile’s off season?

The Ancient Egyptian recipe for preventing pregnancy (Because frak you, Isis!):

First of all, ladies, in the off chance that your conservative minded government prevents access to the methods I will describe below or if you get stuck with a “blessing from God” in the disguise of a sex crime, you’ve got the best natural and free birth control possible–Breastfeeding!

Women were known to extend their breastfeeding for many years! During lactation, progesterone fails to build up like in a normal menstrual cycle and thus ovulation can be prevented by keeping that kid dependent on the boob! Side note: Perhaps this is why royalty had wet nurses? Not just for social standing implications but to encourage every opportunity of producing an heir?

If the thought of childbirth turns you off though, luckily we have a papyrus from 1850 BC known as the “Kahun Gynaecological Papyrus” which details other means of birth control. (Check it out here)

“Another prescription hin of honey, sprinkle over her womb, this is to be done on natron bed.”

This was a substance mixed with honey and sodium carbonate which was applied inside the vagina. Couldn’t find any modern opinions on if this one in particular worked but than again I admittedly didn’t look hard enough.

One other substance they did use was an acacia gum which was also placed inside the vagina. This does, in fact, contain spermatocidal properties. Compounds of the substance produce lactic acid anhydride which is today used in some preventive jellies. Point goes to Egypt!

The most interesting and somewhat shocking suggestion given by the papyrus for a pessary (for those without a vagina, doctorate, or a girlfriend–a pessary acts as a physical barrier between the cervix and any invading sperm) is as follows:

“For preventing […] crocodile dung, chopped over HsA and awt-liquid, sprinkle […]”

Ignore the jumbled untranslated Egyptian text because, yes, that says crocodile dung.

As I try not to imagine dealing with that whole business, science at least puts my mind a little at ease with why anyone would consider such a thing.

It has been suggested by some modern historians that not only would the feces most likely effectively block seminal fluid at the os of the cervix but that it could also change the pH level.

Not good enough an excuse?

Well, John Riddle puts forth the suggestion that inserting feces into a woman’s vagina would, in fact, be an excellent form of contraception because…well, it would keep the boys away, wouldn’t it?

There’s also the idea that such a practice may refer to an incident in Egyptian mythology where the deity Set attempted to harm Isis while she was pregnant. He was typically associated with a crocodile (Not to be confused with Sobek) so, crocodile =/= pregnant.

Either way, I guess they had their reasons.

Any of these sound good to you, ladies? D:

Fact check it, yo!

Contraception and Abortion from the Ancient World to the Renaissance. John Riddle. 1994.

Economic Transformations and General Purpose Technologies and Long-Term Economic Growth.“Historical Record on the Control of Family Size.” Richard G. Lipsey, Kenneth I. Carlaw, Clifford T. Beker. 2005.

Kahun Gynaecological Papyrus. 1850 BC. http://www.digitalegypt.ucl.ac.uk/med/birthpapyrus.html