When I was in fifth grade, we each had to pick a U.S. state on which to do our report. Everyone wanted Hawaii, California, Alaska, or Florida because- duh- those were the Cool States. I drew out of a hat and was given the option of Alaska (which drew hushed gasps) or Michigan.
I chose Michigan.
For reasons unknown (The American Auto Industry? Home of Vernor’s Ginger Ale?), Michigan held the sort of unbelievable allure that somehow trumped the Iditarod, reindeer, and igloos. On oral report day I passed around blue raspberry Jello cups swimming with Swedish fish- in honor of the Great Lakes- and my best friend and I performed a song to the tune of The Cordettes’ 1960’s hit “Lollipop,” which went something like “Michigan, Michigan, Oh Michi-Michigan…”
I promise I wasn’t as big of a loser as I’m sounding at this exact moment.
Some twenty years later one of my dearest friends moved to Ann Arbor for her fiancee’s doctoral program and wanted some company to help her adjust to life in the Midwest. I was more than happy to oblige and left Mr. M and the pup Charlie Mae for a weekend in Southern Michigan.
Days #11,112-14: As the plane descended into Detroit (and I prayed and chanted and was generally grateful for the existence of pharmaceutical sedatives), I couldn’t help but be amazed by how beautiful the countryside was.
My treasured friend who we’ll call Muki was gracious enough to pick me up from the airport, we hugged and were SO happy to be reunited, and in the short half hour it took to drive to Ann Arbor, I talked her ear off about how excited I was to finally be in Michigan (“Look at all this GRASS! And you have Cracker Barrels here?!!”).
Brilliant academic that she is, Muki had to bring her brainpower to a few afternoon meetings, and I took the opportunity to walk around her neighborhood. Do you ever have that feeling that you’ve caught the seasons just at their fulcrum, right at the exact moment that summer transitions to autumn?
Miracle of miracles, autumn officially began while I was on my walk. The air turned crisp… I zipped up my jacket… crackly brown leaves tumbled across the sidewalk… squirrels stuffed their cheeks with winter supplies… I found a beautiful tree caught somewhere along the journey from green to red. I relished the super-wide sidewalks shared with only a few other people (all of whom smiled a hello, New Yorkers). It was a gorgeous afternoon.
That evening after Muki and her fiancée D.B. got home, we all three took a mini driving tour through wet & rainy downtown Ann Arbor to Zingerman’s Roadhouse for dinner.
Dinner (fried green tomatoes, mac n cheese, a black bean burger, and sweet potato fries) was so utterly delicious that I stuffed myself silly and had to unbutton my jeans as soon as we made it to the safety of the car. We shared caipirinhas as an incongruent homage to Mr. M & my recent expedition to Brazil and toasted the beautiful occasion of friends gathering together again.
When we made it home, Muki & I flopped on the floor like beached whales simultaneously complaining about how full we were and thinking about where we might head the following morning for brunch. We really like to eat.
Muki & D.B. decided on Angelo’s, a rightly popular diner that’s been on the edge of the University of Michigan campus for sixty years.
While we waited for our table, I felt noticeably… foreign. At LEAST 2/3 of the patrons- no matter the age- were sporting blue & gold U of Michigan clothing. Muki & I met in college- a tiny liberal arts college with no sports program to speak of. We know nothing of the phenomenon that is College Football- although Muki’s quickly learning that it’s a very VERY big deal.
“U of Michigan wear is a viable fashion option!” she informed me. I tried to check my judgmental look. I think I’ve been living in New York too long.
“Seriously!” She proclaimed. Apparently on home football game days, school spirit reaches such a zenith that 75% of all Ann Arborites won’t be caught dead in colors other than blue and gold.
I was starting to get pumped on this idea of blue & gold camaraderie when our table was ready, and I had reason to get excited about something else… the AMAZING seasonal pumpkin pancakes. They were absolutely the best pumpkin pancakes I’ve ever had, and I swore to Muki & D.B. that I’d attempt to recreate them at home and come back for a visit once I had mastered it.
When we left Angelo’s, it was pouring rain, so D.B. took us on a driving tour of the gigantic U of M campus.
The buildings where he takes most of his graduate classes were enveloped in forest, and he watches deer (and even a baby skunk!) from the window. Somehow, getting to see subway rats on a regular basis didn’t quite measure up.
Later that afternoon, when the sun finally started to peer out from those storm clouds, Muki & I decided to walk around downtown.
Ann Arbor, as Muki so perfectly explained, is the Berkeley of Michigan. It’s a liberal, everywhere-offers-soy-milk kind of college town, and it’s cute beyond control. By the time we wrapped up our tour and were headed for the infamous Zingerman’s Deli in the quaint neighborhood of Kerrytown, I was sold on moving to Michigan.
As we left Angelo’s that morning I announced that Muki & D.B. had made a big mistake introducing me to those pancakes, as I would want- nay, insist upon returning Every Single Time I Visit Them (“Hey guys! Wanna go get pancakes? How bout now?… Now? Guys??”). Zingerman’s Deli became the second such place. This is home to the sandwich that Oprah Herself rated 11 out of 5- although let’s be real, that just throws the whole scale to crap. Now what, Opie?
We were accosted by samples before even getting across the threshold, which is always a very good thing. I’m not one to turn down homemade graham crackers. We lingered at the cheese counter looking for supplies for an at-home picnic, and the friendly cheesemonger dumped samples into our paws as quickly as we could scarf them down.
The Deli has spilt over across an outdoor patio into the coffeehouse Zingerman’s Next Door. I panicked because there was too much sweet stuff to choose from, wasn’t sure what my mouth would end up ordering for my tummy, and ended up sputtering out “Uhh… mocha? Please?”, which turned out to be Homer Simpson drool-worthy delicious.
The three of us spent the rest of the evening talking and visiting over our dining room picnic and a Michigan Riesling I’d found at the market on my walk the day before. There’s nothing better than toasting the company of loved ones.
The next morning left no doubt that Autumn was here, and we decided to go apple-picking in a nearby township. In an ode to all of our Southern CA roots, we puzzled over what exactly a “township” was… unincorporated city? Hamlet? Is it like a ‘borough’? Unfortunately for us and for Michigan, the spring freeze that ruined most of Michigan’s cherry crop also took a toll on the apples, and the orchards had no fruit left to pick!
We had a wonderful time nonetheless: Muki got a candy apple, I cooed at the petting farm lambs, and we all agreed that whatever a township was, it offered wonders unsurpassed by city life.
Despite the fact that I immediately sunk a few notches in the eyes of all of my fifth grade classmates when I chose Michigan over Alaska, 10 yr old Me clearly knew a thing or two about the marvels of the Mitten State.
And it doesn’t hurt to have one of your absolute most favorite people in the world there, either. :)