Minneapolis was the first major city we’d visited since leaving Salt Lake City over a week earlier. Armed with a list of recommendations from a few midwestern friends, we headed to Psycho Suzi’s bar in the north of the city. From the front, it looked like a Baptist church and inside it looked like a generic wine bar. The back patio, though, was themed like a Hawaiian tiki bar, facing out over the Mississippi.
We ordered a Pu Pu platter. In hindsight, we could’ve inferred from its name that it wouldn’t be the nicest of meals. One of the items was ‘Minnesotan sushi’, which was a pickle wrapped in a bit of ham.
From Psycho Suzi’s we headed to a speakeasy in the uptown district. Speakeasies in post-21st amendment America are just hipster-filled bars that don’t put a sign up outside. This particular bar involved going down a sketchy back alley and finding a doorway with a red light over it. The door was locked, so we knocked and were led to a booth table in the basement.
A fake fireplace occasionally opened to allow waiters into and out of the kitchen, but it wasn’t clear how to order a drink. Then, without warning, a mirror on the wall in our booth opened and a man’s face appeared to take our cocktail order. This happened several times through the evening, and did not get any less alarming.
In the morning, we headed east across Minnesota and Wisconsin, taking a detour via Green Bay because I thought it might be nice to drive down Lake Michigan. In reality, the interstate was as dull as ever and didn’t even pass that close to the lake. In search of something interesting, we drove past Mannitowac county jail, famous for being at the centre of Netflix’s ‘Making a Murderer’ documentary. It was, unsurprisingly, not interesting either.
We spent the night in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, a pleasant city on the edge of Lake Michigan. It was pouring with rain, so we took an Uber to a downtown bar for dinner. Every time I order a meal in the US, I am accompanied by an anxiety about ever finishing it. I hate to leave good food on a plate, but the portion sizes are almost always ridiculous. A couple of nights later we would share a Chicago deep pan pizza that, even in its smallest size, could happily feed three people and even then they would probably stagger out, clutching their bellies.
Our final day of driving was also our shortest: under 100 miles from Milwaukee to Chicago, but we had some important business to attend to first. Six Flags Great America is a theme park and water park with something like 14 different roller coasters. We rode some of them, paid $10 extra to go into the water park (followed by $15 for a towel and $14 to rent a locker) and then rode some water slides too.
Chicago is the first US city I ever visited, back in 2007. It remains one of my favourites because it just looks like an American city should, with skyscraper-lined streets, cast iron fire escapes and ornate wooden train platforms overhead. It is architecturally far more interesting than New York City, it is compact and flat, and it has some excellent blues.
On the way into the city we drove by the Home Alone house, slowly enough that I could snap some photos, then parked up at the same hostel that I’d stayed in last summer and headed out to a nearby blues bar. It was indescribably good.
Over the next couple of days, we went up the Willis (formerly Sears) Tower, ate an excessive amount of deep-pan pizza (see above), spent hours in the air conditioned Art Institute to escape the absurdly hot and humid weather outside, then watched the Chicago Cubs play baseball.
I’m not sure I’ve ever experienced weather as humid as Friday in Chicago. After a dinner of too much barbecue meat, we took an Uber back to the hostel. The car was covered in stars ‘n’ stripes streamers, banners and hats, and the driver gave us an unusual safety briefing at the start of the journey, before then talking non-stop for the 12 minute journey. When I stepped from the air conditioned car, my glasses instantly steamed up.
Too much meat
I type this from JFK airport in New York, from where I will take my final flight home in a few hours. In the two years I have lived in the USA (plus a previous trip 11 years ago), I have visited 42 states + DC, visited 24 of America’s 59 national parks (and countless national monuments, historic sites and landmarks). I escaped the UK just after the Brexit vote and inadvertently found myself in a country flirting with fascism (although I tried to do my bit to prevent it).
In August 2016, I travelled to the other side of the world to a city where I knew nobody, and then I made some friends. I taught some amazing students and had the privilege of taking them on trips to India and Thailand, as well as to Oregon to observe a total solar eclipse.
I learned pretty quickly that we Brits culturally probably have more in common with our European neighbours than with our former North American colonies. I also learned that saying my own name in my own accent causes confusion to American ears: “Rope?” “Romain?” “Ropp?”
San Francisco is a beautiful city. Having visited most of the others, I can say with confidence that it is the most beautiful city in the USA. On a sunny day, I will never get bored of seeing the Golden Gate bridge peeping over the horizon, but it is the less expected sights that win it for me. Walk 10 minutes in any direction in San Francisco and you will stumble upon a magnificent old church, or a colourful house, or a surprise view of Alcatraz.
SF (never “San Fran” or “Frisco”) is welcoming, friendly and very liberal, but one of my earliest memories is of a strong smell of urine. Homelessness, frequently linked to serious untreated mental illness, pervades this city, and the problem seems to be getting worse. Somehow a city so progressive is unable to figure out how to humanely help these people. Meanwhile, the booming tech sector’s six-figure-earning millennials have pushed rents for those of us who aren’t homeless to eye-watering levels.
The western United States in general, but particularly California, has the most incredible countryside. On my first drive down the coastal road to Santa Cruz, I caught myself grinning in disbelief that I could live somewhere so stunning. The national parks of Utah and Arizona are like alien landscapes, with colours and distances that my little English brain could not comprehend. Yosemite, Yellowstone, Grand Teton: every one of these parks is utterly beautiful in totally different ways.
I leave the USA delighted by how much I’ve had the privilege to see and do over the last couple of years. I look forward to family, friends, British food, British TV and not paying nearly $2000/month in rent for a tiny studio in the suburbs. But I will miss my San Franciscan friends, the Californian weather and the great American road trips. Will I return? I think there’s too much that annoys me about American life for it ever to be my permanent home, but enough to draw me back to this diverse land from time to time.