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August 17, 2012

Minnesota Nice meets Massachusetts Mean by Samantha Dempsey

by risdmaharamfellows

When I first secured an internship with the Mayo Clinic Center for Innovation, I had no idea what it would actually mean to spend a summer in Rochester, Minnesota.  I’d spent my life rooted firmly on the East coast, so naturally I turned to wikipedia to learn about my new home. I discovered that the city of Rochester has a population of 106,769, is one of only four counties in the entire “Land of 10,000 Lakes” without a natural lake, and is home to the renowned Ear of Corn Water Tower .

The next step in my Minnesota education was watching Fargo, a Coen brothers movie filmed in a small Minnesota town much like Rochester.  That might not have been the best film choice, since after watching it, I was fairly certain that I was going to meet an unfortunate end in a wood chipper like one of the main characters.  With this research in my pocket, I boarded a flight to Rochester to begin my Minnesota adventure. I took my first steps on Minnesota soil after disembarking from the smallest plane I’d ever flown on and walking through the smallest airport I’d ever seen– and stepping directly out into a cornfield.  Welcome to Rochester, Minnesota.

The inkling of thought that first struck me in that cornfield later grew into one of my biggest realizations about my new home.  Although Rochester is technically a city, its inhabitants strongly adhere to a small town mentality.  The first indication of this is the three coffee shops within walking distance of downtown Rochester.  One is a Starbucks that closes at 6 on weekdays and 3 on Sundays.  One is hidden somewhere within the Marriot hotel.  And the third is a chain called Caribou Coffee where I spend the better part of my Sundays.  The nightlife in our fair city closes down and locks up at midnight sharp, and while public transportation exists, I have never actually heard of anyone using it.

The best part of Rochester is the people who choose to live here.  They’ve taught me that there really is such a thing as “Minnesota Nice” and that, likewise, there’s also something I’ve dubbed “Massachusetts Mean”.

One of the hardest things for me to grasp was that Minnesotans really want to share and give things away.  Whether that means giving compliments to strangers (I’ve been stopped three times on the street and told, “You look gorgeous this morning”), or giving food to friends, they always want to leave you with more than you came with.  One of my coworkers hosted a party at her house, and on my way out the door, despite my protests she loaded my arms with leftover strawberries, Cool Whip, pizza, two unopened beers and peaches from her pantry that weren’t even being served at the party.  I experienced similar generosity from a friend’s yoga instructor.  A few minutes after meeting the yogis, I told him how much I admired the meditation beads he’d crafted.  He immediately removed them from his wrist and offered them to me.  I told him I didn’t want to take his beautiful beads to which he responded, “You’re not taking them, I’m giving them to you.”  After that answer, I felt as if I’d been thoughtlessly rude and accepted the beads without further dissent.

You must understand that I’m a born-and-bred New Englander to the core.  When people offer me things, I assume they’re just doing it to be polite.  The worst thing a New Englander can do is be a burden to a friend, and so back home in Massachusetts, it is much better to decline something honestly offered than to accept something offered out of politeness but that will be sorely missed.  Here, however, people really genuinely just want to share and go out of their way to be nice.  At the farmers’ market in Rochester, I once asked a vendor if she sold spearmint seedlings.  She said, no, but there were plenty in her home garden and I should stop by and dig up a few.  She promptly wrote down her address, and when I asked how much she’d like in exchange for the plants she told me not to worry about it and that the plants were getting overgrown anyways.

I’ve learned a few tangible things from the people of Rochester as well.

  • Really good cheese curds squeak between your teeth when you bite down.
  • At least three kinds of “egg bake” should be served at any respectable brunch.
  • A “hot dish” doesn’t simply refer to a warm entree, but rather a particular kind of casserole involving multiple layers of potato, ground beef, and cream of mushroom soup.
  • Belly-dancing cowgirls shaking their bells to the tune of Cotton Eye Joe are a legitimate form of entertainment.

The last Minnesotan experience I’ll mention will be the large-scale events I’ve taken part in.  Hundreds of Minneapolites pelted me with pounds of overripe tomatoes at the Midwest Tomato Fest, a huge, street-wide food fight in the Mill City.  At “Nordic Fest”, I came to appreciate the Swedish heritage of my Midwestern brethren surrounded by more blond and blue-eyed people then I’d ever seen in one place.  I discovered that “Pizza farms” are not, in fact, places where magical pizza trees grow, but instead are weekly events were Minnesotans drive deep into the corn to dine on pizzas made from ingredients grown on same farmland where they spread their picnic blankets.  And finally, one of my biggest life regrets will be that I was unable to attend the Midwestern Lumberjack Championships that occurred during my first week here.

I knew I’d learn a lot from my professional mentors at the Mayo Clinic Center for Innovation, but I didn’t realize that the entire state of Minnesota would make sure I left with more than I came with.

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