Tag Archives: Mini Cooper

Happy Christmas, 10 Years On

This is a reprise post from last year.  Merry Christmas, ya’ll!

In keeping with my gradual transition to writing about unconventional travel and living abroad adventures, I’m looking back on the first Christmas I spent in the UK, 10 years ago.

I had learned a lot since arriving in October. Searching for housing, I had finally figured out that address numbers sometimes went up one side of a block and down the other. Also, many buildings just had names instead of numbers. The Oxfam head office was called John Smith House.

“House” was a misnomer because it was a modern, three-storey building in an industrial park across the motorway from the Mini Cooper factory, and 750 people worked there.

John Smith Houseatriumlobby

I could usually remember that the first floor was the “ground floor” and the second floor was the first floor. I had figured out that when my coworkers asked, “You awl right?” they weren’t concerned about my health; it was the same as someone in Minnesota asking, “How ya doin?” I was avoiding “creeping Americanisms” in my writing, as cautioned in the Oxfam writing manual, so was careful to write “storey” and “tonne” instead of “story” and “ton.” I was no longer taken aback when introduced to a 20-something coworker named Harriet, Richard, or Jane.

Most important, I had learned to avoid any references to my pants, as in, “I got my pants wet biking to work in the rain.” Trousers were pants, and pants were underwear. I loved the expression, “That’s just pants!” which meant something like “that’s insane!”

Everyone spoke in a low murmur. This was partly due to the open plan office, where six people shared one big desk, but I think it was also the culture. A few weeks after my arrival, a new Canadian employee came through for her induction (orientation), and her braying, Minnesota-like accent filled the whole building. One of those moments when I realized, “Ah, that’s what we sound like.”

At Oxfam, everyone walked fast. It was as if, by striding vigorously, they would personally Save the World.  My tall, ginger-haired colleague, Adele, was selling Palestinian olive oil out of her desk drawer. I enjoyed a daily fair-trade, organic chocolate bar from the cafeteria.  Oxfam had a Christmas bazaar in the atrium featuring beaded jewelry made by Masai woman who used the proceeds to buy goats.  Everyone was very earnest.

To be fair, the “Boxing Day”, or Indian Ocean, Earthquake and Tsunami (caution: upsetting video) had happened one year before, killing 230,000 people and leaving millions more without homes or livelihoods. Then, suicide bombers had struck the London transport system in July, killing 56 people and injuring over 700. The week I arrived in Oxford, an earthquake took 80,000 lives in Pakistan. People were reeling, but responding generously. Oxfam had received a tsunami of donations, internally referred to as the “Cat Fund”—for Catastrophe Fund—and rumour had it that they were struggling to do enough, fast enough, to respond.

But for now, Oxfam was abuzz with Christmas cheer. I look in my diary (date book) from that time, and I was busy meeting colleagues after work at pubs named The Marsh Harrier, the Eagle and Child, The Bear, Angel and Greyhound, and Jude the Obscure.

They called Christmas Crimbo, and presents pressies. There were crimbo crackers for sale, too, which are not a crunchy, salty snack, but shiny cardboard tubs “cracked” open at the festive table and containing a Christmas crown and trinkets.

C&CCrackers and CrownsC&C2

There was a panto in the Oxfam atrium, so to use all my new words in a sentence: “Are you going to the crimbo panto or shopping for pressies and crackers after work?”

And what is a panto? It’s slang for pantomime, an extravaganza that takes weeks of planning and involves elaborate costumes, jokes, dancing and singing, skits, and slapstick. Apparently it’s also done by families and in theatres but the only one I’ve ever seen was in the Oxfam atrium. Our usually-serious employees were dressed up as fairytale characters and making fun of themselves, our bosses, and our work. Very healthy, I thought. Take life seriously most of the time, then go all-out silly for a week.

The Queen’s Christmas Message that year was beautiful, in my opinion, and more relevant than ever.


On Our Last Leg

This is the last post in a series of 32 posts about a road trip to New Orleans that starts here.

Why are there so many anti-Abortion billboards in Minnesota?  I don’t know.  On this road trip we passed through nine states, including Minnesota.  Some states had a sprinkling of anti-abortion billboards, but mainly they had billboards for adult superstores.

adults Lions den truckers x

“Southern X Posure.”  Get it?  Do you get it?  I love the euphemism “Gentlemen’s Club.” Really, no actual gentleman would step foot in one, right?  But seeing these every couple of miles makes you wonder if there are any gentlemen left.

Why was it okay to advertise porn in Tennessee, one of the most conservative states, while in Minnesota—one of the most liberal states, we were bombarded with anti-abortion billboards?  Maybe the social conservatives who live here feel outnumbered, and therefore that they must fight harder than if they lived in Tennessee.

The route from Albert Lea, Minnesota to the Minneapolis/St. Paul airport wasn’t very interesting, just a straight shot up Interstate 35.  We passed more towns with old world names, like Geneva, Manchester, Kilkenny, and Dundas.  There was the sadly-named Hope, Minnesota.  Had the founders, in their denim overalls, chin beards, and gingham frocks, engaged in some magical thinking?  “If we name our settlement Hope, surely the Good Lord will cause us to flourish!”

Here is Hope’s claim to fame: “Hope had a depot on the Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific Railroad.  A post office called Hope has been in operation since 1916.”  Hope is an unincorporated township, which means the U.S. Census doesn’t bother listing its population, so I can’t tell you whether it is tiny, miniscule, or sub-atomic.

We crossed the Minnesota River as we approached the airport. The Minnesota originates in Big Stone Lake, near the South Dakota border, and flows east until it merges into the Mississippi. I let Lynn believe we were crossing the Mississippi one more time—after gazing out over it in Memphis, New Orleans, and Hannibal.

In 11 days, we had driven 2,660 miles (4,280 kilometers).  If we had followed the Mississippi, we would have driven 4,640 miles because it meanders.  Some day I would like to take a meandering road trip.

Don’t get me wrong, we saw a lot and had a great time.  We saw cranberry fields and went to a Native American pow wow in Wisconsin.  In Chicago, we saw the world’s largest Tiffany glass dome and one of the iconic painting, American Gothic.  We were moved to tears in the American Civil Rights Museum in Memphis.  We spent five days in New Orleans with friends, heard lots of music, and ate lots of Cajun and creole food.  Lynn and I spent six days in a Mini Cooper and were still speaking to each other.  We had the chance to try pickled pigs lips.  Instead, we ate at a Cracker Barrel.

We did go off piste a few times, but it would be great to take a road trip with no time limits.

Instead, I dropped Lynn off at the airport at 7:00pm to catch her 9:00pm flight, and drove home.

It was good to be home but it also felt weird.  I had bought this condo so my son would have a supportive place to live when he was released from prison.  I had told myself that I was buying a condo because it made financial sense, and maybe it did, but underlying the decision was my desire to give him a fighting chance of making it once he was released.  (My apartment landlord wouldn’t have allowed him to live with me.)

And Vince was making it.  He had a job, he was sober, and after seven months he had moved out to his own place—the day before Lynn arrived.  So now I stood in the doorway of the empty bedroom.  I felt a little sentimental, but I was mainly happy for Vince and for me that we both had our own space.

The next day I went back to work and got down to writing proposals to fund torture rehabilitation—and banking more paid time off for the next holiday.

Super Sonic, Not

This is the latest post in a series about a road trip to New Orleans that starts here.

The route from New Orleans to Oxford was the same as the one we’d taken going south, only this time I had no car worries so I was able to enjoy the beauty of the landscape.  We passed Ponchatoula, Natalbany, Amite City, Fluker, Osyka.

It started to rain, and I mean hard.  I drove on, in denial, the deluge so loud Lynn and I could barely hear each other talk, and so thick we couldn’t see the car in front of us or the shoulders of the highway.

Finally I saw semi trucks pulled over to the side of the road, common sense prevailed, and I took the next exit, McComb.  It was nearly lunchtime, so why not try some local delicacy?

I spied a Sonic.  Perfect!  Drive-in restaurants are such an American thing; I was excited that Lynn would get to experience one.

The only other drive in I’d ever been to was Porky’s in St. Paul, where I had worked as a car hop for one month when I was 16.  The floors were so greasy I had to grip the countertops as I skidded my way around the kitchen.  Porky’s was a dive frequented by bikers and guys with muscle cars, who aren’t exactly great tippers.  After retrieving the umpteenth food tray with a one cent tip and cigarette butts stubbed out in ketchup cups, I told the owner to fuck himself and walked out.  Porky’s has since been torn down and replaced with some bland chain store.


Sonics are a chain, and they’re all new and shiny.  They’ve even got bathrooms.  Our eyes bugged out at the menu: once again, everything was deep fried and the drinks were neon colored.  Why?  Do a lot of people think, “Yum!” when they see neon?


Lynn and I ordered without any language difficulties and a perky teenager named LaShonda delivered our food.  I had the Super Crunch Chicken Strip DinnerTM with tater tots, which were a staple of the American diet back when “convenience food” was a novelty.  Now they’re back.  There was also Texas Toast, which is very thick toast, and, in case that wasn’t enough brown food, one onion ring.

In the photo below it looks delicious, but this is not how it appeared in its cardboard box.  Everything was slightly wilted and smushed together in a small pool of grease.

Super Crunch

“Don’t bother asking if the chicken is free range,” I laughed at Lynn.  The chicken, if that’s what it really was, looked and tasted like thick white rubber bands that had been soaked in solvent until they were pliable enough to chew.  I gagged and couldn’t eat more than a few bites.  I should have known when I saw “boneless chicken wings” on the menu that we were not in for a nice surprise—a chain restaurant with good food.  Lynn managed to choke down her burger and a few limp fries.

The rain had let up so we pulled back onto the highway.

Bogue Chitto, Zetus, New Sight, Hazelhurst, Gallatin, Crystal Springs … “I imagine Crystal Springs is a delightful place,” said Lynn, deadpan.  “Oh yeah!” I nodded.  Pickens, Ebenezer, Durant, Possumneck.  Wait, whatPossumneck—we laughed?  Even if we hadn’t just left our Australian friend Christine, a.k.a. possum, in New Orleans, it was still a funny name.

Vaiden, Winona, Grenada, Coffeeville.  I was running low on gas and pulled off the highway but there was no town at the top of the ramp.  I drove into the countryside, assuming we would hit a town eventually, and we did.  I can’t recall its name; it could have been French Camp, Bruce, Eupora, or Paris.  It was a very small, sad, dilapidated town.  From the looks we got, mine was the first Mini Cooper any of the residents had ever seen.  I gassed up and went in to pay just in time to hear Lynn shriek, “No!”  I reached her as she was surreptitiously photographing the giant jars of pickled pigs things and what appeared to be a neon drink, or condensed urine.  Yum!

pigs lips

Festival Fever

This is the latest post in a series about a road trip to New Orleans that starts here.

Our last day in New Orleans.

We started the usual way, the four of us out on the street: “Should we go to the right?” one of us would say.

“Are you asking, or do you want to go right?”

“I don’t care.”

“Well I’d like to go left.  I saw any interesting house that way and I’d like to get a photo of it.”

Disappointed look.

“Do you want to go to the left?  If you do, just say so!”

“No, I really don’t mind what we do.”

So we went to the right.

Disappointed look.

There’s a lot of talk about us Minnesotans being passive aggressive.  We hint at things instead of just saying what we want.  I try not to do that, but sometimes I feel I’m being mean just stating what I want.  I’ve traveled a lot; I’ve lived and worked with people from lots of countries and cultures.  Except for the Donald Trumps of the world, the desire to avoid confrontation—even the appearance of confrontation—seems universal.

A Mimosa at 10 in the morning always helps to smooth out bumpy interactions, so we ordered four, then wandered around the French Market.  This is a vast collection of booths with vendors selling everything from Mardi Gras masks and beads, dried soups and artisanal soaps, artwork and Alligator heads.  I bought an alligator head for my six-year-old nephew.  This would secure my position as adored aunt.  I found a voodoo doll for a friend; it was made in China.  Everything was made in China, of course, except maybe the alligator heads.

There was a Tsunami of Stuff.  That’s how the world is now.  I will probably sound old here, but when I was a kid and young adult I don’t recall there being so many shops that sold gifts and other useless things.  There also weren’t as many thrift stores, probably because we weren’t buying knick knacks at gift stores for our friends, who would later secretly re-gift them or drop them off at the Salvation Army.

By now, the fifth day of the festival, the French Quarter was filthy, smelly, and heaving with people.  The weekend brought in a younger crowd.  Molly and I drank beers while we walked along; this is a particular rare pleasure for me.  The only other time I can recall being allowed to do this was at the Notting Hill Festival in London, where I enjoyed a Strong Bow while having my ear drums assaulted by 10 Caribbean steel drum bands playing at once.

In Minnesota, you have to wear a neon wrist band and stand in a corral like a criminal to enjoy a beer at a festival.

We found a place to sit, in the sun, and listened a band called to Cha Wa, which is a “Mardi Gras Indian funk band.”

Cha Wa

They were great.  We walked to the waterfront, which was a 98% African American crowd.  It was great to see, after visiting the Civil Rights Museum, so many people— young and old, families and couples, flocks of teens—just out and enjoying themselves.

We took the streetcar back toward our neighborhood.  Don’t call it a trolley—apparently that’s very important to the natives.  It goes about five miles per hour, but we weren’t in any hurry.  At one point we stopped and the driver got out and wiggled the cable by hand to get us going again.

A few more drinks on Frenchman Street, a few more incredible bands.  It was the last fever peak of the festival before reality hit on Monday morning.  The drunks were sloppy, the streets were greasy, music was everywhere, I saw a guy wearing a green chicken costume, and someone else wearing a skull mask riding a unicycle.

The next day Molly flew north to Minneapolis/St. Paul, Minnesota, where her husband would pick her up and drive her home to St. Croix Falls, Wisconsin.  Christine left to catch her flight back to Oxford, England.  Lynn and I headed north in the Happy Mini, also toward Oxford—Oxford, Mississippi.

Cooper versus Cruiser

This is the latest in a series of posts about a road trip to New Orleans that starts here.

Finally, I will shut up about my car, I promise.  I got to the garage, met Tracy, who was a woman, and after I paid the bill she flagged down a guy to lead me to my car.

“Honey,” she called out to him, “Will ya’ll show this here Miss Anne where her PT Cruiser is?”

PT Cruiser!?

Thankfully the guy got it.  “Ya’ll got a Mini Cooper, right? Ya’ll insulted she called it a PT Cruiser?” he laughed.

“I’ve never been so insulted!”

In my opinion, PT Cruisers are novelty cars for retired people who really want a Sports Utility Vehicle (SUV) but can’t admit it.  The PT Cruiser allows them to drive a giant gas-guzzling vehicle and pretend they’re quirky and eccentric.  Despite the fact that I was getting all-new spark plugs, I still affirm that the Mini is a finely-engineered vehicle.  And mine was nine years old, after all.

PT Cruiser

I raced back to the B&B, parked the car in front, and parked myself in the courtyard under the Kumquat tree with a book and a glass of wine. Molly texted to ask if I wanted them to come  join me.  “no enjoy yourselves and take your time.”  If there was something called a “sub-text,” I would have typed, “No!  Stay away!  I need to be alone!”


This is how you know if you’re an introvert or an extrovert.  It’s not about whether you like people or parties or crowds, or have a lot of friends.  It’s about what you do to recharge when you’re drained. I’m an introvert, because as much as I love my friends and parties and crowds, I just want to be alone when I’ve been through a stressful experience.

So I sat under the Kumquat tree for hours.  I was reading Memoirs of a Geisha, and I hadn’t expected it to be so fascinating.  How accurate was it, I wondered? I would never dream of asking my sister-in-law Akiko, who has a PhD.  I think she would be horrified that I would think she knew anything about geishas.


Hours later, Lynn, Christine, and Molly strolled in and I was happy to see them.

“Why was I so stressed about a stupid car?” I wondered out loud.

“Because you didn’t know if you’d get here,” Christine said.

“You’re emotionally attached to it,” said Lynn. “I had a Mazda Miata convertible that was my baby.  When we moved to Scotland I finally sold her because I could only drive her once a year.  When they took her away I cried!”

“It was five hundred and fifty bucks!” Molly chimed in.

When I was in my 20s and 30s, an unplanned $550 expense would have been a disaster.  I would have had to borrow money from my mother, or put it on a credit card.  I would have had to cut back on some other essential item, like food or cigarettes or beer.

Slowly, slowly, I’ve worked my way out of debt and into financial safety.  If I had worked for Wells Fargo this would have gone a lot faster, but I’ve always worked for charities.  Like I’ve written before, you can work for a nonprofit and have a good life, if you’re very, very careful about your spending.  Saving, even small amounts, is super important too, because the interest eventually piles on and one day you look at your balance and think, “Whoa!  How did it get so big!”  Of course it can go down, too, if you’re invested in the stock market, so don’t look at it when the market’s down, and whatever you do, don’t sell at the bottom.

Sorry, I go off on tangents, I know.

You may be wondering if New Orleans is an expensive destination, and I think the answer is no, if you can find reasonably-priced accommodation.  They’re still rebuilding since Hurricane Katrina, so there’s a housing shortage.  Plan way ahead, especially if you’re going during a festival.  If you can gather a group of friends together and split the cost four ways, it’s very affordable.  And more fun.

Lake Eerie

This continues a series of posts about a road trip to New Orleans that starts here.

We crossed the state line from Mississippi into Louisiana just as night fell.  I had hoped and planned not to do any night driving, especially in the south, but it hadn’t worked out that way.

The car started making a subtle chunk-a-chunk-a-clunk-a noise so I got out my secret weapon—Abba.  Yes, Abba.  I have a friend who loves to compile CDs, and she volunteered to make a set for the road trip.  Who was I to say no?  She went above and beyond, and created a boxed set of seven, each with a play list, and two bonus CDs of classical and new age music.

photo 1photo 2

I appointed Lynn the DJ of the car and away we sailed, singing along to Knowing Me, Knowing You.

I could no longer hear the noise—problem solved!

If you’re unfamiliar with New Orleans, here’s the lay of the land.  The city is bordered on the south by the Mississippi River and on the north by Lake Ponchartrain (pronounced ponch’-a-train), which is the 11th largest lake in North America.  If you don’t count the Great Lakes, which are outliers, it’s the 6th largest.

To get to New Orleans (pronounced nu or’-luns, by the way) from the north, you have to cross the world’s longest causeway, which is a bridge over a body of water.  The Lake Ponchartrain Causeway is 24 miles long.

Ponchartrain is a salt lake.  Supposedly there are sharks in it but I didn’t want to think about that.  I also didn’t want to think about my mom’s friends who had crashed in the lake at night in their small plane and drowned because they’d lost their bearings.  In the dark, you can’t see the horizon.  There are no landmarks, no trees or lights to tell you how far you are from land or how far you’ve got to go.  It was pure darkness on either side of the road, except for the one oil rig we saw off in the distance.

“Is that New Orleans?” I asked excitedly.

Lynn, as always, had the US map in her lap.  “No, I think it could be Baton Rouge.”

We drove on and eventually it became apparent that the “city” was an oil refinery.  We’ve got one south of St. Paul that everyone calls The Emerald City.

Emerald City

After a half hour of feeling like we were hurtling through outer space, we cleared the causeway and entered the crazy spaghetti-like New Orleans freeway system.  Once again, I was flanked by semi trucks on both sides going 85 miles per hour.

“This is when the engine light turns red!” I joked—sort of.

“No!  We’re so close!” Lynn said encouragingly.

And then we were there.  New Orleans!  I pulled up in front of the B&B and killed the engine.  I would have her towed away tomorrow, but right then I just wanted a beer.  Maybe three.

Our friend Christine and my cousin Molly had already arrived and they came out to greet us.  “Welcome to New Orleans!” we all exclaimed, hugging and laughing and already feeling the relaxed vibe of the place.

My friend and former neighbor who lives in New Orleans had recommended the B&B, which was called the Ould Sweet Olive.  It was lovely:

ould sweet exterior ould sweet interior

As is the case with old buildings that have been rehabbed for new purposes, the layout was a little weird.  I had reserved the suite, and the entrance was through the bathroom.  The shower had a glass door and the bathtub was in the middle of the room.  There was no real door between the bathroom and the sleeping area, just these:


But hey, who cared?  It was charming.  We had arrived!  The Ould Sweet Olive was in the Faubourg Marigny neighborhood, which was quiet but just a few blocks from Frenchmen Street and the French Quarter where all the action was.  There was a patio outside our suite with a fountain and a giant kumquat tree.  There was beer and wine in a mini fridge for $1 a glass.  Best of all, the weather was 70F and clear, compared with 30F and snowy in Minnesota.

Then and Now

This continues a series of posts about a road trip to New Orleans that starts here.

We pulled out of Memphis and began our third 400-mile drive.

This was the most scenic part of the trip.  The rolling hills continued, one long ascent followed by a long descent, followed by another and another and another.  There were woods on both sides punctuated by blooming Magnolias and occasionally something that appeared to be bougainvillea blanketing a full-grown tree.  That was spectacular.  Most of the drive was through Mississippi, which does not have a motto.  It does have a coat of arms which includes the phrase Virtute et Armis (by valor and arms).

And here I must correct what I wrote about Minnesota.  “Land of 10,000 Lakes” is what’s on our license plates, but our official motto is L’étoile du Nord (Star of the North, or in Latin, “I long to see what is beyond.”)

That could explain a lot about me.

Once again, Lynn and I postulated about what could be wrong with the car.

“Maybe it’s overheated,” she said.

“But why?” I asked.  “We’ve only driven 50 miles.”

I had driven many cars that were in much more alarming shape than this one.  When Vince was a baby I had a Buick LeSabre that was so old it didn’t have seat belts.  I would stick Vince in a banana box and put him on the back seat.


There was the 1964 Chrysler Imperial with push button gears on the dashboard.  Now it’s a very cool collector’s car, but in 1978 it was just a “winter beater,” as we called cars that were expected to just barely get us through the winter.


There was the car whose driver’s side door had to be held shut by…my arm.  There was one that never ran.  Never even started.  I bought it from a neighbor for $125.  He pushed it down the alley into my backyard after assuring me that all it needed was a carburetor.

I went to a junkyard and bought a carburetor out of wrecked car for $50.  My brother and his friend Hans came over to install it.  The result was Hans running down the alley with his hair on fire, waving his arms trying to put it out.  My brother tackled him and rolled him in the dirt before any serious harm was done beyond a temporary bald spot.  I had to pay $75 to have the car towed to the same junkyard where I’d bought the carburetor.

So why was I so worried now?

But then a second, bigger engine light came on with a loud DING DING.  I pulled off in the nearest town, Canton, Mississippi, and parked in front of a liquor store, where I called AAA while Lynn read the manual.  I had forgotten there was a manual.

The AAA representative had such a heavy southern accent I was forced to admit, “I’m sorry, but I can’t understand what you’re saying.”  She repeated herself slowly.  “We can come and tow your car, and you’ll have to find a motel in Canton for the night.”

Just then a monster truck roared into the parking lot. An enormous black man got out and came storming toward us—Lynn literally leaned away from him as he loomed into her window, while I fumbled to lock the doors.

“Ya’ll okay?” he asked.  “Ah didn’t mean ta scare ya!  Ah seen yur car and it don’t look ya’ll from ‘round here and ah thought ya might need help.”

Lynn and I laughed with relief and assured him we were fine.  When he was out of earshot, we analyzed our reaction and agreed we’d been scared because he was a huge, aggressive man and we were in a strange town, not because he was black.

Lynn read from the manual, “If the engine light is red, you should pull over immediately and call for help.  If it’s orange, you may continue driving but have the car looked at your earliest opportunity.”

The lights were orange.  Surely, another 200 miles couldn’t do any harm.  On to New Orleans!