Week 8: 50-City U.S. Speaking Tour

I walked down a deserted Nicollet Mall and, when I reached the bridge, I came upon an eerie sight: the mighty Mississippi river frozen into an uncanny, supernatural stillness.
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Monday, June 4th

It's only a half-day drive from Saint Louis to Iowa City, so I don't have to leave too early. The late afternoon sun creates some stunning epiphany-effects over the Iowa landscape. My event is in the iconic Prairie Lights bookstore, and I am able to manifest a parallel parking space right outside the store. Apparently, Barack Obama did a book talk here once -- I wonder if he had a bigger audience? I am determined to make it tonight to Minneapolis, where I lived for five years. That way I can get three nights in Twin Cities, and do some reminiscing.

I cross the border into Minnesota at around half-past-midnight, and need to get gas. The gas station seems to be a busy and lively place. I am delayed here unnecessarily, because after I pre-pay for the gas, the pump fails to deliver any, and it takes me a while to get it sorted out. It's frustrating to be in a long line at the counter, especially as most of the people in line are not buying gas.

Now this is just an observation, and it may be taken as un-called-for. I don't think (and this is just my personal opinion) that people who are already significantly overweight should be bringing their kids to a gas station at nearly 1 a.m., to treat them to junk food. I'm just sayin'.

Finally, I make it to the AmericInn in Chanhassen. I last stayed here 12 years ago -- the night after my house was packed up, when I left America permanently to return to England with General Electric.

Tuesday, June 5th

Eden Prairie has changed beyond recognition. The (new) Eden Prairie mall is magnificent and quite elegant. There's even a huge Barnes & Noble which wasn't here when I left. I go in there and sign my books (with their permission, of course). Not something I ever imagined doing when I lived here.

My event is at the Minneapolis Club, hosted by the Minnesota International Center (part of the World Affairs Council of America). It's quite a posh club, and they even have 'Minneapolis Club' combs for individual use in the men's room (which after using you're supposed drop in the used comb bucket for sterilization, but I keep mine as a souvenir).

After my event, Carol Byrne and Catherine Born of the Minnesota International Center take me to dinner in a wonderful restaurant off Nicollet Mall. They've been reading my blog and they want to know more. Reassuringly, they tell me not to give up hope -- "Just give her space."

Wednesday, June 6th

This is my day off to enjoy Minneapolis. It is a beautiful day to do so. I park in the DoubleTree, which used to be the Hotel Luxeford back then in December 1994 -- when I first arrived into a dark and freezing Minneapolis winter and could feel that America was going to change my life forever. In those days, my primary communication with my London office was by fax, and the hotel used to charge me a dollar for incoming faxes.

Nicollet Mall is beautiful and busy and pedestrianized. There are now hybrid buses and trams and community-use bicycles. (This is virtually communism, surely?) There is also something I never saw before -- young, articulate, white people sitting on the sidewalk, asking for money.

The ambient warmth makes a sharp contrast from my poignant memory of that first Sunday morning in December 1994, when I ventured out for a walk - confused by the blue sky and bright sunshine into thinking it must be quite warm. I was in for a shock. There was a Cold I had never felt in my life before -- an absolute, uncompromising, all-powerful cold. I walked down a deserted Nicollet Mall and, when I reached the bridge, I came upon an eerie sight: the mighty Mississippi river frozen into an uncanny, supernatural stillness. America certainly made an impression that day. On the walk back to the hotel, the gallons of coffee and orange juice I had been given for breakfast suddenly drove in me an urgent need for relief. Nowhere seemed to be open, except a bar called The Gay Nineties -- I saw two men going in together. It didn't really appeal. (Whilst I struggle to get women to be interested in me, I've never had a problem attracting gay men.) In the end I trudged to the far corner of a deeply snow-shrouded parking lot and watched in amazement as the warm liquid froze instantly.

In the evening I go for another trip up memory lane, to Mall of America. It's just as I remember it. Only quieter.

Thursday, June 7th

I leave Minneapolis and head for Madison on I-94. The traffic on the Interstate comes to a complete stop. It's clear there has been a major accident up ahead. We all shift our vehicles out of the way, to allow the emergency vehicles to squeeze past. A few SUVs give up the wait and drive across to the other side of the freeway, leaving tire tracks in the long grass. I consider doing the same, but the Raptor isn't four-wheel-drive, and would probably get stuck in the middle -- leaving me with some embarrassing explaining to do. ("I'm sorry, officer, I'm from England. I didn't know it wasn't allowed. I'm just a writer on a 50-city US speaking tour. Here's a signed copy of my book for you. May I inscribe it with your name?")

I reach Barnes & Noble in Madison, and discover that they have set this up as a 'book signing', not a 'book talk'. The place is deserted, in any case. I sit at the signing table, sipping coffee and intently studying my iPad -- as if I'm completely relaxed about the fact that there's no-one here at all. After one hour, which I think is a reasonable time, I gladly get the hell out of here.

I check into the Campus Inn and have dinner in a quiet restaurant with my old friend Bill Wellman and his family. Bill was an exchange student to my university in Scotland. I said goodbye to him in 1984 and he promised to write, but he never did - the insincere bastard. Eventually, I gave up expecting to hear from him ever again. When my book was published 23 years later, he recognized himself in it and got in touch. It turns out that the bag with his address book was stolen at Glasgow Airport, and that's why he never wrote. Never make assumptions!

Friday, June 8th

I check my weight in the morning and am delighted to see that I have returned to my target.

I spend the day enjoying Madison. A group of local people kindly put on an authentic protest for me, outside the Capitol building. Something about 'Big Business.'

My evening event is in Mequon, Milwaukee, at a delightful and quaint Unitarian church in lovely grounds. Then it's a quick Red Lobster and I head to the Holiday Inn at O'Hare Airport. I will be in Chicago for the weekend, making an appearance at the Chicago Tribune Printers Row Literary Festival 2012.

Saturday, June 9th

In the morning, I drive into downtown Chicago and meet writer Margaret Overton for a non-date. Margaret will be on the discussion panel with me at the LitFest. We have clearly established that this is to be a non-date for a very good reason - I live in Kuala Lumpur and she lives in Chicago. So it wouldn't really go anywhere. (But think of the Miles!) There is free food and drink in the writers' hospitality room, so we end up sitting there. The free food and drink includes bread, cheese and grapes. I love bread, cheese and grapes! My diet is recklessly abandoned. I may not have made much money from my book, but I always get free food at literary festivals.

Margaret Overton is intelligent, highly educated, attractive, graceful, charming, vivacious, elegant, cultured, and has a stunning figure. But she berates how difficult it is to meet an attractive man who is normal. Wow! -- America must be in a sorry state in this department.

"Hey, Higher Self, I have a joke for you. Why can't women in America find boyfriends who are intelligent, educated, good-looking, charming, compassionate and sensitive?"

Because they already have boyfriends. Very drôle, Imran.

"It's quite an affirmative joke, Higher Self, if you think about it."

I don't think, Imran, I just Am.

Sunday, June 10th

My writer's badge lets me into the writers' hospitality room, so I spend the day at the Festival, periodically returning to the writers' hospitality room to eat the free bread, cheese and grapes.

See the 50-city U.S. tour plan on the website.

Photos are on the Facebook page.