Haziz and Our New Iranian Friends

DSC_4447I am in Dubai to present at a conference directed by the author of Cultural Detective Arab Gulf, Abdulhamied Alromaithy. His wife, Dr. Layla Al Bloushi, will moderate my panel. It’s my first time here, so I’m excited. Today was my tenth anniversary cancer-free, and we planned to celebrate by going to the top of the Burj Khalifa. It was beautiful.

In the morning, however, we walked around the old part of the city. Greg and I were fascinated by the organized chaos of the port. Boats were anchored three to six deep. How in the world did they get out once they were loaded? Packages were stacked everywhere! How did they keep track of what was where? Aren’t there waves in the Gulf? Wasn’t the loading precarious? Here the longshoreman show up in pickup trucks, SUVs and small trucks, to hand-load packages of textiles, boxes of spices, and many, many appliances to be shipped around the Gulf. We even saw electrical transformers.

The boats themselves were absolutely gorgeous, wooden structures brightly painted with filigree and other details. They looked very old. And the men who were working them were so very welcoming, cheerful, hardworking and happy.

The highlight of our day serendipitously became the invitation we received to board and tour an Iranian shipping vessel at the port in Dubai Creek. Our visit was accompanied by tea, lunch, shisha, and some great non-verbal communication that bridged my non-existent Farsi with our hosts’ non-existent English. Thankfully a spice trader helped us out with some translation…

More via Haziz and Our New Iranian Friends

Burlington Garden Tour

P1110353©Four days before the worst flood ever in the history of Burlington, we had a bright, clear, sunny day—perfect for a garden tour in benefit of the local garden club.

Foliage was a myriad shades of green and flowering in bright, lush colors, as we’d had plenty of rain (but not yet too much).

The first garden we toured was a prayer garden at Saint Charles Church, built by a graduating class of students in 2011. It was incredibly well thought out, with loads of clever sayings and decorations. The garden has been very well maintained. Click on any photo to enlarge it or view a slideshow.

We visited a public school with an ivy-covered inner courtyard—Karcher. The windows between the ivy appeared to be sunglass-covered eyes looking up towards heaven.

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We all loved the house on Bohner’s Lake. You enter from the top of a steep slope, proceed through a “secret” garden down to the pool level, from there to a picnic level, and finally down to lake level. Definitely relaxing, with lots of shade and great views!

Some of the gardens had wonderful water features, or creative decorations. Others had the most vibrantly colored plants!

Most everyone’s favorite was the last stop on the seven garden tour, “Rust in Peace.” OMG, is it beautiful! Melissa, the owner, has collected a wide variety of antiques and very artistically arranges them in her garden. Looking at her displays from any angle gives you spectacular views. She has grouped quite a few things: license plates, a garden of old water pumps, bowling balls, bird houses, milk cans, gas pumps, colanders, bicycles… The property is huge, with a pond down below the house. Because there was so very much to see, it was more exciting and interesting than peaceful. And you can only imagine how much work the garden requires!

Thanks to the Burlington Garden Club and the hosts, my cousin, her friend and I enjoyed an incredibly wonderful afternoon. Thank you all! The hard work, creativity and love of nature of Midwesterners were on full display!

Birthplace Flooding

I was born and spent the first eleven years of my life among southeastern Wisconsin’s dairy farms, corn and bean fields. My birthplace is also home to a large Nestle’s chocolate plant. When I was a kid, it was the world’s biggest, and the whole town smelled of chocolate; how was one not to fall in love with chocolate, smelling it everyday?

We arrived in town last Friday to visit family. Friday night it stormed, and again on Sunday. We had a big storm Tuesday night, with six inches of rain. Then, on Wednesday, the Fox River overflowed at least two dams, one in East Troy and another in Burlington, rising three feet higher than any previous flood in history. Flood level is 11 feet, and we crested at 16.5. Click on any photo to enlarge it or view a slideshow.

Hundreds of people were evacuated from their homes, and thousands of acres of farmland were flooded. The whole of downtown Burlington closed—businesses guarded by sandbags to save what they could.

Fortunately I have heard of no one killed; that’s where I so appreciate the communication systems and the public service workers in small town USA. Governor Walker quickly declared a state of emergency, so insurance, federal and state funds will hopefully help people recover financially from property damage and loss of income.

Our corn fields turned into corn paddies, reminding me of the rice paddies in Japan—though in that case the crop is intended to sit in water. Sadly, flooding is not great for corn or beans.

Our local baseball diamond is most definitely out of commission for a while.

Our city park became a lake. Rescue workers launched their boats in the former parking lot.

And the ground floor of our beautiful new Veteran’s Memorial building was filled with several feet of water.

It was very difficult to get anywhere, as so many roads and bridges were closed. Thousands of homes lost power throughout the area.

Please keep these hardworking, friendly people in your thoughts and prayers. Let’s hope the power comes back on soon and that recovery can proceed smoothly.

USA’s Oldest Sanctioned Bowling Alley

DSC_0692©We held our cousin’s birthday party yesterday in South Milwaukee. In Lincoln Village, actually— a traditionally Polish neighborhood that is now heavily Latino. On the corner sits a 200 year-old home, the ground floor of which is a baudily decorated tavern. Upstairs lives 88 year-old Marcy Skowronski, the very feisty and sharp-as-a-tack proprietress, and in the basement is a two-lane bowling alley built back in 1908. When I made the reservation, she and I must have talked for about twenty minutes—she’s a hoot!

When we drove up, I could see my cousins weren’t as excited as we were. I imagined them thinking, “We drove 30 minutes for THIS?” The house is old, non-descript, not the best maintained, much like any other in the neighborhood. To many locals, a place like this can, I suppose, be very ho-hum. Greg and I have outsider eyes—I was born in this area, but I haven’t lived here since I was 11; Greg grew up in California. To us, visiting a place steeped in local history and tradition is awesome; we don’t care where on the planet it is. New and fabulous clubs and restaurants have lots of parallels worldwide, but funky local dives—that’s where you see true diversity. We’ve confirmed this through decades of living as global nomads. Our group ended up having a very good time; it just wasn’t a place they would have chosen for a party.

Anyone versed in bowling history or Milwaukee-area trivia knows this place as the Holler House. Holler House is confirmed by the United States Bowling Congress as the first bowling alley in the USA. In 2008 Esquire magazine rated it one of the best bars in the USA.

In the bowling alley, you’ll notice Polish falcon crests above the lanes. There is a mini-museum of bowling balls, bags, shoes, trophies, and other memorabilia dating back to 1912. The two lanes are made of wood, and they are gorgeous—though far from level after all these years! Balls are ancient, largely heavy, and many have only two finger holes. Some of the balls are even made of wood! Bowling shoes are a tangled mess, very worn and quite smelly; they hide beneath the stairs. One wall in the alley is cinder block and is filled with signatures and drawings of bowlers who have preceded you. Click on any photo to enlarge or view a slideshow.

What is the best part? The pin boys, of course! The manual-mechanical pin-setting mechanism requires a real person to reset the pins. He (in our case, his name was Carmelo, and he was a college student) hides at the back of the alley, narrowly escaping the flying pins and hurtling balls, in order to launch, by hand, your ball back on the hand-carved wooden track so it returns to you. He also re-loads the semi-mechanical pin-setting machine. It is chez cool! The ball return is HAND-CARVED wood! I could barely believe my eyes!

Score is kept on a large piece of paper hung on the wall—just like when I was a kid. The teenager and twenty-something in our group seemed to have no idea how to score a game of bowling, so it was nice for the older set to have a skill to show off. I will also brag on my cousin Chub who, at 80, still bowled a fantastic game!

Marcy married Gene Skowronski in 1952, and has run the bar since his death. Her parents-in-law built the place back in 1908, calling it “Skowronski’s.” She and Gene changed the name to “Gene and Marcy’s,” and changed it again to “Holler House” around 1975, when they heard that a customer told them his wife had asked him to take her “back to that wonderful, noisy, holler house bar.”

Here’s a 2014 interview with Marcy from the documentary, Pints and Pins. Check it out. You’ll get a good feel for her storytelling, and you’ll see just why I and everyone else falls in love with her:

While there is a full bar, there are no taps for beer or sodas, so you only order bottled beer. But, man, are there some good beers—and wonderful service by the bar keep! Here you can have an excellent Old-Fashioned or Gin Rickey. While the Internet and Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives talk about Marcy’s food, please realize that she is no longer cooking. She is happy to have you bring in your own food, or order in. Fortunately for us, they very graciously produced a coupon for Ned’s Pizza, which has long been on our bucket list. It did not disappoint! I’ve always said that there is goodness in not over-planning; it leaves space for spontaneous blessing to enter. In this case, it was pizza instead of the Polish sausage I’d somehow been imagining all day.

Wondering about the decor? I sort of like the dark red walls, the tapped tin ceilings in bright red, the old hardwood bar, and the stained glass lamps, but the many bras hanging from the ceiling? Marcy tells me that she was drinking with some girlfriends about 50 or so years ago when they decided to throw their bras up on some skis hanging from the ceiling. A tradition was born; women visiting for the first time were encouraged to autograph and leave an intimate souvenir to commemorate the occasion, resulting in thousands of bras hanging from the ceiling. The current batch is a second round, as in 2013 all the bras were taken down and boxed up, for the tradition to begin anew.

Some years ago the guys decided they wanted in on the action. Marquette University published an article on Holler House, and the male students asked Marcy if they could autograph and hang their underwear and boxers. She said, “Sure!” As I said, she’s feisty and doesn’t miss a beat!

The place of course was open during Prohibition, when they hid the booze under a baby crib. Her father-in-law smoked 18 cigars a day and drank Old Fitz. In 2008, in preparation for the 100th anniversary, Marcy found five two-hole WOODEN bowling balls weighing 15 pounds each. I think we may have played with them last night, lol! Nowadays, Marcy’s son-in-law takes care of the accounting, and her two grandsons can’t wait to take their turn at being pin boys.

It’s a dive, no doubt. It smells almost as old as it looks. But it is so cool! Well worth the visit! We shared some great laughs and reminiscences here. Call ahead to make a reservation: 414-647-9284. Bowling is $4/person/game, and it’s customary to tip the pin boy $3/person—he works hard in limb-threatening conditions!

 

ChocolateFest!

DSC_0169©I grew up in a very small farming town in southeastern Wisconsin, amidst fields of sweet corn, soy beans, pigs, cows and chocolate. What, chocolate? Yes, my birthplace— Burlington, Wisconsin—was at least at that point in time, in the 1960s, home of the world’s largest Nestle’s chocolate plant. When the plant was running, the smell of chocolate filled the thoughts and the subconsciousness of those in town and the surrounding areas—anyone within whiffing distance. No need for me to wonder why, as an adult, I crave chocolate.

In the late 1980s some entrepreneurial municipal leaders started Chocolate Fest. It quickly gained popularity thanks to Hershey’s suing our town over it’s newly adopted byline, “Chocolate City USA.” The lawsuit was written up everywhere, including the Wall Street Journal, and my little hometown of Burlington gained some welcome press (plus, we still use the tagline). Click any photo to view it larger or see a slideshow.

This year, thanks to our desire to get to DC to witness Danny receive the Congressional Award, we are in Wisconsin much earlier than usual, in time for Chocolate Fest—it’s always on Memorial Day weekend. How could anyone resist a festival with such a cute retro logo? And loads of chocolate of every kind? And rides? And games? And carnival food?

I wanted to go and take some photos, and Greg was kind enough to humor me and act as photographer’s assistant, carrying my gear and helping me set up. We had a blast watching a brother and sister’s intense concentration and commitment to a game of chocolate Jenga. Their teamwork and mutual support were a sight to behold. If more families were like this, America would be oh-so-great! In the end, when the tower finally fell, there was no shame and blame, just pats on the back, shared sadness, and smiles. God bless those two! Ends up the two men against whom they were playing were their Dad and, I’m guessing, their uncle. Mom and little sis were in the audience. I do love small town Midwest!

Next up in the chocolate tent was the cupcake eating contest. I was very quickly enchanted with vampire boy (he had his face painted like a vampire). He easily won the child portion of this child-parent contest. Check out his passion and skill. Sadly, while his Mom did her absolute best, she wasn’t able to keep with the Dad next to her who cleaned up his plate quite easily.

We absolutely love our home in Mazatlán, México. It is a blessing every year to be able to reconnect with loved ones north of the border, and to experience the beauty up here. Every culture on this earth has so very much to offer; if only we’d take the time to truly embrace one another and realize that we all have our truths, our contributions and our pieces of the solution. It was a privilege and a joy to share Chocolate Fest with all of you today!

The city fair in Burlington goes on today, Sunday and all day tomorrow, Memorial Day. Then next weekend is our church fair—St. Thomas here in Waterford, which includes my all-time favorite: cow pie bingo. Plus a pig roast. I think we’ll have to miss it, though, as we plan to drive to St. Paul to visit Danny.

Thank you, parents and kids, for being such good sports about letting me photograph you all! If you want the high-res versions of any of these photos for your family use, just let me know!