You don’t realize until you have guests from another country quite how much of your life revolves around finding things to eat and just how American that is. I’m still kind of amazed by that, even as our refrigerator slowly begins to show gaps on the shelves again. It’s actually kind of troubling to me how often my next thought once we had finished something was, “Let’s get something to eat!”
It explains a lot, actually.
Our Swedish friends came to visit us for a couple of weeks this month, and it was just lovely to have them here. In between quiet times hanging out at home we ran them all around Wisconsin and ate more than our share of tasty meals (sometimes on Wisconsin time, and sometimes on Madrid time, which runs rather later than Stockholm time when it comes to meals). The house still feels a bit empty now that they’ve been safely back in a country with non-insane leadership for almost a week.
They did say that we could stay with them if we needed to do so anytime soon, which was nice of them. We’re hoping this will not be necessary in a permanent sense – jury’s out on that right now – but we will definitely try to take them up on that at least temporarily next summer. We had hoped to visit as many of our friends across the Atlantic as we could this year, but it turned out that “as many as we could” came down to “zero” since we never quite got our act together and then the summer filled up with so many, many activities that it’s probably not a bad thing that we stayed here in Our Little Town and let friends come to us. And they did! First Californians, then Swedes!
Life is good.
It’s actually a bit difficult to say when we got together this time, since it happened gradually. Maria had been an exchange student in Indiana this past year and it was for her to go back home so Mats came over a bit early so he could visit his old stomping grounds in northern Wisconsin from when he was an exchange student, then picked up Sara, David, and Helena at O’Hare and took them to Indiana where, by all accounts, they had a good time with Maria’s host family. Then they spent a few days in Chicago, where Kim and Tabitha met them for a day while Lauren and I took care of a few things here. Apparently there was pizza – or at least the deep-dish casserole that Chicagoans insist on referring to as pizza – involved. It is a tasty thing no matter what you call it. Also museums.
And then they all landed here in our house, and what a time it was.
We showed them the turkeys, of course. There is just something ridiculous about turkeys that says you need to show them to all of your visitors, even those who might not be all that enamoured of turkeys, because turkeys of course. Our friend Lois, who lets us keep our poultry in her barn, was there and was happy to hang out with us.
The next day was the Fourth of July, which they have in Sweden too (as well as a Third and a Fifth – it’s a full-service country that way) but it doesn’t mean the same thing that it does here. They don’t celebrate American independence because why would they, and there’s not much point to fireworks when the sun doesn’t set until 1am. So while we geared up for our usual family and friends cookout (which happens whether we are here or not, as we discovered one year when the extended family came down and partied at our house while we were out of town. TRADITION!) the Swedes went out to see an All American Fourth of July Parade in the next town up from ours. They reported that it was an experience.
And then we ate. It was the usual Fourth of July barbecue - dogs, burgers, bbq ribs, potato salad, cucumber salad (hey, it's usual for us), chips, and any number of other things that aren't really good for you but you only live once and who wants to live to be a hundred if you have to eat kale every day?
You can’t grow sweet corn in Sweden, and the verb “to shuck” doesn’t translate very well. But it’s fun. Afterward we all hiked over to the hospital to watch the fireworks arc gracefully over the cardiac and neonatal wards, because that probably made sense when they were planning it. Our Little Town puts on a nice display, really, and what's more American than shiny explody things after a giant marginally nonlethal meal?
The next day we went to SummerFest, which is a weeks-long music festival in Milwaukee dedicated to the idea that beer makes music better, which is fine if you enjoy beer, I suppose. Somehow we managed to pick the day where everyone got in free before 3pm, which was all kinds of sweetness. It’s also kind of fun that the kids are all big enough to head off on their own and meet us at pre-arranged times, so everyone could go to the concerts they wanted rather than sit through what the majority decided to see. On the one hand, there were some real duds that day – one rather talentless rapper in particular stands out for making even his YouTube fans among us get up and leave – but on the other hand there were more than enough great acts to make up for him. There was a bluesy sort of band that we found early on that was good, for example. And ninety minutes of Pat McCurdy is enough to make any event better, really. We also ran into some very friendly people while we ate dinner near a comedy improv tent. I hope their day turned out well also.
I will confess that by the end of it I was pretty maxed out. It’s too loud and I’m too old, and there is only so much festival food that I can cope with these days, alas. But it was fun while it lasted.
We spent a couple of days after that hanging out and taking it easy, visiting some of the things here in Our Little Town. There’s a nice little beach that the city built on a flowage off the river, for example, and you can’t visit here without stopping for ice cream at one of the many places that provide it to Wisconsinites even in the dead of winter. We dutifully registered for the lottery for the $10 tickets for Hamilton in Chicago every morning, since Maria wanted to go see it and it’s hard to get in right now – at least it’s hard if you want to have any money left to do other things while you’re visiting the US. We never did win, but not for lack of trying. Our friend Joe came down from northern Wisconsin for a few days to hang out with us as well, and he, Mats and I took in a minor league baseball game while everyone else did other things.
And then we went to the Renaissance Faire.
I confess that I was a bit unsure about how people from a country that actually was around during the Renaissance would take to the RenFaire – there’s a certain “coals to Newcastle” kind of feel to it – but it turned out I needn’t have worried. For one thing the RenFaire has only the shadowiest of connections to the actual Renaissance. As I have noted before, most of the people there are wearing clothing that would have gotten them burned at the stake in 1450, and “ye olde nachos with jalepenos” were about as historically accurate as the herds of Travelling Daenerae that flowed through the place. And for another thing, well, it’s fun and that’s all you need.
We saw some wonderful acts. If you are ever near Kenosha on a summer weekend (and who isn’t, at some point in their lives?) be sure to check out the Mud Show for a festival of innuendo and slapstick, and Barely Balanced for some of the greatest acrobatics and snark you’ll ever see. Also, Moonie the Magnificent, who can pack more dialogue into a whistle than most people can with two dictionaries and a word processor. I ran into two people cosplaying Rincewind the Wizzard and Two-Flower, which pretty much made my day. Kim’s day, on the other hand, was made by getting a photo with Martin Frobisher, which is just one more reason we work well together.
Our big excursion was to spend some time in the Wisconsin Dells.
The Wisconsin Dells is a place of great natural beauty completely encased in a thick layer of kitsch, into which pours money and out of which pours tired but happy people. It seems a fair trade. We actually stayed in a very 1920s-style sort of resort outside of the Severe Kitsch zone – the sort of place where you could easily imagine groups of people in heavy white clothing doing calisthenics for their health – which was a very nice place to stay, especially as we were not ourselves required to do any calisthenics. It had red-painted wood buildings, a tidy little pool, and a whole lot of green and quiet to help you recover when the kitsch got excessive. Because we certainly had our fill of kitsch.
Our first stop, in fact, was one of those indoor amusement parks that feature everything from arcade games to go-karts to a particularly intense habitrail setup about fifteen feet over the go-karts, where the kids could run about while tethered to the ceiling. The adults, meanwhile, found a nice table and played Maya (which is probably not spelled that way since it’s Swedish – there’s probably a “g” and an umlaut in there somewhere). It’s a card game that meets every requirement for such things that I have, being interesting enough to hold our attention but not so consuming as to preclude conversation and beverages. I highly recommend it. We played it a lot while our friends where here, actually, in between bouts of Phase 10 and Shindig Machine, which is more of a storytelling prompt than a card game.
We also spent a full day at one of the many joyously excessive waterparks that they have at the Dells. They let you in basically for free and get you on things like parking and meals, which seemed like a reasonable arrangement to us, and in return they provide you with endless opportunities for fun, minor injury, and embarrassment. Really, it's the perfect summer getaway. As I am not much of a water person my job was to man the base camp, and I happily sat in a shady spot reading my book on medieval European history while others ran around getting wet. No, I am not cool. I know that. Thanks for pointing it out in case I had forgotten. Lauren did get me on a couple of the roller coasters that this particular park also has just for folks like me. They are wooden roller coasters, so you get banged around quite a bit, but one of them has a drop of about 110 feet that takes you into the pitch dark underneath the parking lot, up into an actual corkscrew loop (pretty cool for a wooden coaster), and then back under the parking lot and into the park again. I cannot tell you how much I enjoy the fact that Lauren is a roller coaster junkie too.
Lauren and I also skipped the boat tour that the rest of the group went on the next day, viewing the actual “natural splendor” part of the Dells – the rocky section of the Wisconsin River that gives the place its name. Instead we headed off for the Ripley’s Believe It Or Not Museum in town. We were suitably impressed.
For all this we also managed to have some arts time. One night we drove up to a town near here to catch Lauren’s marching band perform at a competitive field show. We got there just in time to see her group - they wouldn't let us in, since we came clattering up the ramp just as the first notes sounded, so we watched from the ramp until they were done - and then settled in for the other bands. There is no tradition of marching bands in Sweden, apparently. Also, the woman selling food tickets spoke Swedish, so there was that. Another night we saw the local high school’s production of Sweeney Todd, with Tabitha on spotlight and a phenomenally talented group of students on stage (the woman playing Mrs. Lovett was amazing, and the guy playing Mr. Pirelli was Chaplinesque in his physical comedy). It’s not really an uplifting show – A Modest Proposal with music, as Tabitha put it – but we had a grand time.
Our final expedition before sending our friends back home was to an escape room nearby. If you’ve not tried an escape room, you should. You get locked into a room full of puzzles, and you have an hour to solve them all and unlock the door to get out. From that simple premise a whole lot of entertainment flows. We split into two groups, and both groups managed to get out of their respective rooms shortly before time expired, so win.
And now we are back to as normal a reality as we get. Mats, Sara, Maria, David, and Helena are back in Sweden and we miss them. But perhaps next summer!