Monday, September 24, 2007

Another foreign country

Northfield, Wisconsin was a sleepy, peaceful village...until people started disappearing. If a summer blockbuster were to be made about the town where I stopped for gas this weekend, that's how the preview would begin. Minneapolis radio stations had long since fizzled into static. At some nebulous point between Eau Claire and Wisconsin Dells, where I was headed to rock climb with a group that included my college friend Claire, a laconic sign promised food and gas (no further details provided) at the next exit. In need of both, I turned off the interstate and into the perfect setting for either a Hallmark commercial or a horror movie. I drove out of it just as quickly; unincorporated Northfield’s main street stretched little more than two blocks.

“Unincorporated” was a word I recognized from many family road trips through the Midwest. As a child, I developed a romantic notion about life in these tiny towns. Born and raised in the city, I could conceive of hardly anything more thrilling than scooping a stack of letters out of a classic aluminum mailbox while standing in the shadow of a grain elevator. However, I never took it upon myself to find out what “unincorporated” precisely meant until yesterday. The official definition, generously provided by the always obliging, doesn’t diverge much from what the size of these hamlets had led me to expect: An unincorporated town is one that hasn’t been granted formal existence as a self-governing settlement. In theory, this means that Northfield doesn’t have, among other things, its own police force. What it does have is a gas station, an American Legion, a towering church, and a diner which seems to deliberately cater to picturesque stereotypes by being named Dee Dee’s.

After unintentionally speeding out of town on a road lined with Folk Victorian houses and—yes—classic aluminum mailboxes, I made a U-turn and headed back toward the service station. As I approached the register to pay (no credit card pump here) for my gas, a very familiar tension tightened my chest. I immediately recognized the slight anxiety I’ve come to associate with carrying out everyday activities in a foreign country. In Ecuador, even the simplest undertaking required some measure of mental preparation: What strategy should I use to bargain down a taxi price? What exactly was the name of the product I was looking for? In Northfield, the only accent I had was Minnesotan, and the price of gas was (dismayingly) nonnegotiable. Still, I was sharply aware of being completely, irreparably foreign.

Don’t worry: This isn’t the part where the girl who has returned from abroad comes to the profound realization that she is from everywhere and nowhere. I am and will always be just about as Midwestern as they come. The time I’ve spent living in South America hasn’t done anything to shorten the occasional long “O” that elicits laughter from friends from other regions. I fiercely defend “pop”’s position as a legitimate word in the English language and maintain that nothing tastes better at 1 A.M. than French toast from Perkins. I’m convinced that I would have felt out of place in Northfield even if I’d never set foot outside Minnesota.

Minneapolis is a scant two-hour drive from Northfield, but I’ve felt closer to home after trips that have involved passports, customs forms and seat backs in upright and locked positions. Like Northfield, my home city is characterized by the chatty “Midwest nice” courtesy that I came to appreciate while studying in Washington, DC, where people always seemed to be walking briskly to somewhere very important. On any brief outing in Minneapolis, however, one is almost certain to cross paths with dozens of strangers. On the other hand, both the cashier at the gas station and the middle-aged women who prepared me a sandwich at Dee Dee’s—which smelled like potpourri and sold an impressive variety of Christmas decorations—recognized and were able to strike up conversations with every patron who entered. Minneapolis is by no means the most bustling metropolis on the planet, but some measure of anonymity is possible; not so in Northfield, where most of the people I saw were divided between the American Legion barbeque/horseshoe game on one end of town and the funeral occurring simultaneously on the other.

Another characteristic of Minneapolis is the velocity with which it changes; every time I return after having spent time away, parts of the scenery have invariably mutated; there are always buildings that have (dis)appeared, storefronts that have transformed or parks that have undergone facelifts. Only a long-term resident would be able to verify whether the opposite is true in Northfield; my suspicions stem from a book I flipped through at the counter at Dee Dee’s Diner. The book was compiled to commemorate the 150 years that have passed since the town was founded by Norwegian settlers; pages of photocopied black-and-white photographs depict turn-of-the-century residents and a series of one-room schoolhouses that successively burned down or were closed. Glancing backward out the window of the diner, I realized that the town’s main street didn’t look much different than it did in a photo from the beginning of the twentieth century.

I don’t subscribe to the belief that only one of these two places represents the “real America,” while the other—either by virtue of being globalized or antiquated—is somehow artificial. In Ecuador, I spent a significant amount of time arguing that the United States is much too large and diverse to be characterized by phrases like “North American culture.” If ever find myself doing so again, I’ll use my short stay in Northfield as an illustration of just how deceptive these umbrella terms can be. I’ll also use it to remind myself—hopelessly addicted to long distances—that it doesn’t take a plane ticket to go somewhere completely different.

Back on the freeway, I popped open the Styrofoam container in which the women at Dee Dee’s had packed my sandwich. As I sped away from Northfield, I savored a delicious—and familiar—grilled ham and cheese sandwich. If it had been a movie, saccharine music would have swelled as the voice-over mused that maybe Northfield wasn’t so foreign after all.

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