Friday, 17 August 2018

Trying American Pie in Bismarck, USA

This article from my very first visit to the USA appeared in The Age newspaper in 2010, but never went online: so here it is. I was hosted on that trip by North Dakota Tourism and Virgin Australia.

To visit America for the first time is to encounter the strangely familiar.

Like every Australian, I’ve spent a lifetime immersed in the television and film output of the USA, absorbing the nuances of its culture. I even understand why it’s upsetting to have been cast as Benedict Arnold in the school play (thanks, Brady Bunch).

Which is why it’s mildly disconcerting to find that America is, in fact, much as it appears on screen.

Not that I’m spending quality time in the urban hotspots of Los Angeles or New York. I’m part of a media contingent that’s wending its way across Montana and North Dakota, two states as unknown to Australians as they are big.

When I’m travelling as a travel writer, I pay attention to the sights: Glacier National Park is impressive, as is the Badlands cowboy town of Medora. But I’m personally fascinated by the food culture, and how it matches our preconceptions of Americans and their collective weight problem (a problem, in all fairness, shared by many Australians, including this writer).

After several meals in roadside restaurants in small country towns along the Hi-Line, the east-west highway that runs parallel to the Canadian border, I decide that American food operates on two essential principles: choice and quantity.

“Choice” lies mainly in the micro-management of a dish’s accompaniments. By the time I reach our Bismarck hotel’s restaurant and the waitress rattles off a list of dressings to accompany my salad (“Green Goddess? What’s that?” “I don’t know sir, it comes out of a packet.”), I’m suffering choice fatigue.

The next day, while the rest of the group is riding horses and wranglin’ li’l dogies, I slip away to experience an aspect of American cuisine that’s always fascinated me: the humble diner.

North Dakota, it turns out, is not the obvious place to find one of these fast-vanishing icons, as diners were largely a feature of industrial cities along the east coast. Thus, Kroll’s Diner off the Memorial Highway in Mandan, Bismarck’s twin sister across the Missouri River, is a replica of the streamlined steel diner popular after World War II.

“I was watching a PBS special and they had a program about diners back in the early 1900s,” says owner Keith Glatt when I meet him a day later across town. “And I thought it would be really neat to do something like that. Then I was looking through a restaurant trade journal and they had these prefabricated diners. They’re built in Florida. They ship them to wherever you want them, and there you have a diner.”

Modern or not, it’s a beauty. I’m astounded by the sheer shininess of the building, a long structure of super-reflective metal. It’s easy to curl a lip at the architecture of the modernist era, but occasionally, when I see a building like this, I sense the postwar positivity behind it.

Inside, the nostalgia continues via a wealth of stainless steel, pink patterned laminate tabletops, cushioned booths, and strips of pink neon lighting. Then I take a seat within a booth, and notice a culinary element that’s very Bismarck - the number of dishes based on German cuisine, brought here by 19th century settlers.

For starters I order knoephla soup, an old-fashioned cream of chicken soup dotted with rectangular potato dumplings. It’s tasty and filling, but it’s nothing compared to the weightiness of my main course, fleischkuechle.

There’s no way to describe this dish gracefully: it’s a hamburger patty wrapped in an envelope of pastry which is deep-fried, then served on a skillet with a side of mashed potato and gravy.

The done thing is to squirt a dollop of ketchup into the pastry pocket before consuming. Strangely, the final concoction tastes satisfyingly like an Aussie meat pie.

I finish the meal with pumpkin pie. I’ve never had pumpkin pie before - in fact I don’t much like pumpkin - but it’s such a staple of American TV and movies that I have to give it a go.

The smooth, solid orange-brown filling packed with cinnamon and nutmeg doesn’t look promising, but it tastes great. With a side serve of cream, it’s damn good.

Another dessert Glatt recommends is his rhubarb crisp. “Rhubarb is very popular in this region,” he says. “You can’t kill it. You try to dig it out of your garden and get rid of it, next year it’s back. It handles the extreme climate we have up here.”

And though today is mild, it does become very cold in North Dakota in winter. I imagine the snow and ice piled up outside the Mandan diner, with myself slotted into a cheery booth and looking out at the whiteness while waiting for my hot apple pie to arrive, and somehow that seems just fine.

Kroll's Diner is located at

Friday, 10 August 2018

Wrecked in Stockholm: The Fatal Voyage of the Vasa

As much as I love history, I don't make a beeline for historical museums when I'm visiting a new city.

As a travel writer I need new or under-explored attractions to write about; and chances are, a long-established historical museum will either be overexposed or a bit dull.

So I reluctantly set time aside to visit the Vasa Museum when I visited Stockholm, Sweden in 2012. It had been open since 1990, after all, and housed a ship that was almost 300 years old.

But I'm glad I did go. It was magnificent.

Here's the story. On 10 August 1628 the splendid new warship Vasa set sail on its maiden voyage, crowds cheering it from the docks.

It managed to cover a full 1300 metres out from Stockholm when it keeled over and sank.

Awkward. Especially since the Vasa was headed to the war raging between Sweden and the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.

The Commonwealth was Eastern Europe's great power of the time, covering a million square kilometres from the Baltic to the Black Sea, and this was the fourth conflict in a row between the rival Baltic kingdoms.

Seventeenth-century Sweden's loss was our gain, however. Surprisingly well-preserved by the brackish conditions of the Baltic, the ship was rediscovered and salvaged in 1961. After decades of treatment, it was installed in its current home.

Walking around its hull in dim light, peering at it from different angles, it was easy to imagine it was the 17th century again and the Vasa about to undertake its disastrous first voyage.

I recommend a visit to the museum if you're ever in Sweden.

Which goes to show, you should never write off a history museum because the subject sounds a bit, er, dry.

The Vasa Museum is located at Galärvarvsvägen 14, Stockholm. Find opening hours and entry fees at its website.

Thursday, 2 August 2018

Capital! All the Capital Cities I've Visited

A model of the Houses of Parliament, London,
within the Mini-Europe theme park in Brussels, Belgium.

I was musing the other day about national capitals, those cities in which the government of a country is based.

Often they're the most prominent city of a nation, and thus the most popular destination for international tourists as well: think London, or Paris.

Other times they're not so prominent, though may still draw overseas visitors: Canberra perhaps, or Ottawa. Some capitals are barely known to tourists, who usually visit another part of the country entirely: Suva, Fiji springs to mind here.

Some countries are so big, of course, that you can see quite a lot of them without reaching the capital. I've been to the USA eight times now, and still haven't visited Washington, DC. Nor have I got to Beijing while in China.

Does it matter? Not really, unless you're fascinated by attractions connected with government.

I am, as it goes, because my university degree was in history and politics. So it occurred to me to list in order all the national capitals I've visited, and in what year that visit happened.

Note that I didn't get to the capital of my own nation before visiting that of neighbouring Indonesia. I was living in Perth then, and from there Jakarta was more accessible by air than Canberra in those days!

National Capitals Visited:

1. Jakarta, Indonesia (1981)
2. Canberra, Australia (1989)
3. London, UK (1990)
4. Paris, France (1990)
5. Cairo, Egypt (1992)
6. Budapest, Hungary (1993)
7. Vienna, Austria (1993)
8. Prague, Czechia (1993)
9. Damascus, Syria (1994)
10. Amman, Jordan (1994)

11. Warsaw, Poland (1994)
12. Berlin, Germany (1994)
13. Bangkok, Thailand (1997)
14. Suva, Fiji (1999)
15. Rome, Italy (2001)
16. Vatican City (2001)
17. Wellington, New Zealand (2003)
18. Santiago, Chile (2005)
19. Vilnius, Lithuania (2008)
20. Bratislava, Slovakia (2008)

21. Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia (2009)
22. Ljubljana, Slovenia (2010)
23. Ottawa, Canada (2010)
24. Delhi, India (2011)
25. Dublin, Ireland (2011)
26. Stockholm, Sweden (2012)
27. Seoul, South Korea (2014)
28. Muscat, Oman (2014)
29. Brussels, Belgium (2014)
30. Singapore (2015)

31. Copenhagen, Denmark (2016)
32. Kiev, Ukraine (2016)
33. Pretoria, South Africa (2018)... though South Africa is more complicated, as its Parliament actually sits in Cape Town, and its judiciary in Bloemfontein.

And I'm hoping to be in Tokyo before the end of the year! Capital.