Sunday, 27 March 2011

Wisconsin - Packers and Steelers at the Super Bowl

One of the first subjects that has come on to my radar, in relation to Wisconsin, is the Green Bay Packers.  At first I thought they were some kind of food company (I'm still looking for a good Wisconsite recipe!), until an American friend told me that they are, in fact, a very famous football team and have just won the Super Bowl (Homer-Simpson-style, doh!).  My knowledge of football (or American football, as we call it in Europe) is pretty sketchy.  Despite having watched a million American movies or TV programmes, with references to quarter-backs and touch-downs, images of heavily-clad players wearing helmets with visors, I'm none the wiser.  I need to start with the basics of American football and try to figure it out as I go along!

American football seems to have grown out a college football game (which is probably why we see it so often in relation to high schools) - it's a mixture of rugby and soccer, with lots of new rules thrown in.  The team which is playing in offense needs to advance the ball into the opposing team (or defense)'s end zone, where they can score points, depending on how they've managed to get the ball there.  The best way seems to be by running really fast and crossing the line before anyone from the defense can catch you (a touchdown).

Football sticker from WHS archives
 In many ways, the Green Bay Packers is a good place to start.  They're the oldest professional football team in the National Football League (NFL), as they were set up in 1919.  They're pretty unique in terms of the NFL, in that they are the only major football team that isn't owned by an individual or corporation, but belongs to the people of Green Bay and Milwaukee, where the team originated.  The fans regularly sport fake cheeses on their heads, in keeping with their nickname, cheeseheads. It's also the only major team to be based in a small city - all other NFL teams are from one of the major US cities, eg the Dallas Cowboys or the New York Giants.  It's not the first time they've won the Super Bowl, in fact, they have won it more often (13 times) than any other team in the league, but it's still something of a victory for the underdog, when the only grass-roots team can bring home the Vince Lombardi Trophy, in defiance of the other, more commercialised, football giants.

There are 32 teams which currently compete in the National Football League.  In a combination of matches with rivals in their (more or less) geographical groupings, they finish the football season in early February with a final match called the Super Bowl, probably the largest televised sports event in the entire world!  The Green Bay Packers are grouped with the Chicago Bears, Detroit Lions and Minnesota Vikings and this year, at the Super Bowl, they faced off the Pittsburg Steelers 31/25 to claim the 2011 trophy.  Each Super Bowl is given a Latin number, rather than a year (which I guess adds a sense of drama) and this year was the Super Bowl XLV. 

It seems to be a massive event for most Americans and this year attracted a TV audience of more than 100 million and a physical audience of more than 100,000 spectators.  The game itself doesn't seem to last very long (not compared to cricket anyway!) and the mid-game entertainment at the Super Bowl has become a phenomenon in its own right - whether it's Gloria Estefan with Olympic Figure skaters or Justin Timberlake with Janet Jackson's 'wardrobe malfunction', the entertainment never fails to surprise, shock or, well, entertain!  This year it was the turn of the Black Eyed Peas to entertain the masses at the interval and the national anthem was sung by Christina Aguilera! 

Packer fans by drsethery
 With such a large television audience, it's also hardly surprising that the ads featured during the Super Bowl have also attracted a lot of attention.  Ridley Scott directed the famous Apple Mac ads in the early 80's.  This year, the car manufacturer, Chrysler, took centre-stage, with backdrops of Detroit and visuals of Eminem driving around the city!  It's such a big event that the major television networks (CBS, Fox and NBC) are given the broadcasting rights in rotation (this year was the turn of Fox).  Unlike the English FA cup, which is traditionally played at London's Wembley Stadium, the location of the Super Bowl changes from one year to the next.  Super Bowl XLV took place at the Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas.  Next year it will be the turn of the Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis to host the event.

All of this is completely new to me and, when the Super Bowl XLV took place last month on the 6th of February, I was blissfully unaware that it was even happening!  I promise to pay more attention next year, now I know the background of this league final.  It's also surprised me to learn how popular (American) football is in other countries.  There are 14 teams playing in the Irish American Football League, including the Belfast Trojans and the Dublin Dragons.  The British American Football Association (BAFA) has no less than 70 teams grouped into three divisions.  It's definitely a sport which is catching on here in Britain and Ireland, as well as many other countries in Europe, Asia and beyond!

Image credits:

The image of the Green Bay Packers sticker has been provided copyright-free by the Wisconsin Historical Society in their Visual Materials Archive, which is also available on their flickr photostream.  It's a fascinating archive and I think it's great when historical societies preserve images in this way and make them available online to educate future generations! 

The image of the football fans celebrating the Packers win at Super Bowl XLV was provided by flickr user drsethery aka Seth Carlson, a freelance multimedia designer who is originally from Park Falls in Wisconsin.  You can see more of drsethery's photos on his photostream

The sheer joy on the faces of the fans is surely worth all the hard work that a team like the Packers puts into the game?  Thanks Seth for sharing this image with us, using the Creative Commons license.

Sunday, 20 March 2011

Wisconsin - Badgers, Cheese, Republicans and Gay Rights!

It's approximately 4,600 miles (or 7,400 kilometres) from Venice to Milwaukee, the largest city in Wisconsin, the US state which I have chosen as the subject for my blog this month!  Like a lot of my fellow-Europeans, my geography of the US is a bit rough around the edges and I'm sure most of my peers would find it difficult to pinpoint Wisconsin on a map of the United States.  I often hear Europeans expressing their disbelief when Americans don't know the difference between Slovenia and Slovakia or don't know where exactly Cornwall is, but I think it goes both ways!  A lot of the detail about the US gets lost in the general picture that we have of this nation, that's why I'm looking forward to learning about Wisconsin, so I can separate it in my mind from the blurred impression of the States that I have from a lifetime of movies and TV programmes!

Badgers and Cheese

Wisconsin farm by lesliebyk
 So to start with - a lot of my American friends will understand the reference to Badgers and Cheese in the title of this blog, but I'm sure most of my non-American friends will have no idea what this is all about!  Well, like other states, Wisconsin has been given a nickname, in this case the Badger State.  Although there is a species of badger that is native to North America, the 'badgers' in this case were Cornish lead miners, who were amongst the first Europeans to settle in what is now Wisconsin, in the early part of the 19th century.  Lead mining didn't seem to take off, for whatever reason and the Cornish immigrants were soon followed by other Europeans, notably German and Norwegian farmers, who have helped shaped Wisconsin's identity and politics in a way that is still perceivable in the 21st century.

Wisconsin is also known as America's Dairyland and is the second largest producer of dairy products, after California.  Having dallied with wheat production for a large part of the 19th century, in the 1890's most Wisconsin farmers shifted to dairy production and Wisconsin is well known for its cheeses, Wisconsinites being referred to as cheeseheads by some of their less countrified neighbours! 

Republicans and Gay Rights

I'm already sensing the apparent contradictions that make up Wisconsin's political outlook.  On one hand it's an incredibly progressive state, steeped in a Scandinavian liberalism that is characteristic, not only of Wisconsin, but neighbouring states like Michigan and Minnesota.  It surprised me to learn that Wisconsin was the first American state to provide legal rights for gay people.  Wisconsin is one of the 12 states (including Michigan and Minnesota) that doesn't have the death penalty. 

On the other hand, the Republican party was founded in Wisconsin and the state was the birthplace of the rabidly anti-communist senator, Joseph McCarthy.  That the Republican party's origins are in the anti-slavery movement is something I'm still trying to get my head around and I'm hoping my research for this blog will help me understand the nature of the American political system.

A Tale of Two Cities

Milwaukee skyline by Amy Puzia
 Most Americans think of Wisconsin as being an incredibly rural state but more than two-thirds of the states' inhabitants live in urban areas.  Although the biggest city in Wisconsin is Milwaukee (which I'm sure most people have heard of), the state capital is Madison (hands up who's heard of Madison, WI?).  I've always been baffled by the fact that many American states seem to completely ignore their main cities and have, as their capital, a small city which is patently obscure.  I'll give you a few more examples:

Sacramento, California (not Los Angeles or San Francisco)
Baton Rouge, Louisiana (not New Orleans)
Tallahassee, Florida (not Miami)
Lansing, Michigan (not Detroit)
Springfield, Illinois (not Chicago)
Carson City, Nevada (not Las Vegas)
Olympia, Washington (not Seattle)

You get the picture?  It's like a deliberate attempt to make pub quizzes more interesting!  I guess there are good historical reasons why this is the case and, from what I've read about Madison, WI - it sounds like a pretty cool place!  But I find myself being drawn towards Milwaukee, the Algonquian Pleasant Land, as my main reference point. 

I'm looking forward to learning even more about this corner of the USA and I hope you'll continue to join me on my learning experience!

Image credits:

The image of a farm in Wisconsin is by flickruser lesliebyk who is originally from Wisconsin, but now lives in Oklahoma (a nice tie up with my last blog about an American state!). You can see more of Leslie's photos at her photo stream.

The photo of Milwaukee's skyline is by flickruser Amy Puzia. You can see more of Amy's photos at her photo stream.

Thanks to both Amy and Leslie for sharing these images with us using the Creative Commons license.

Thursday, 10 March 2011

Veneto - Se vedemo!

Wow - can't believe it's time to say goodbye to the Veneto already!  I don't feel like I've even scratched the surface with the learning this small corner of Europe has to offer.  For the record, I had intended to write further blogs on the famous Benetton group of Treviso, on architecture and Venetian art.  I also intended to write about a book I read called Miss Garnet's Angel but, alas, time has been my enemy in the last few weeks. 

As well as all the books I've read, films I've watched and food that I've cooked, I also learned the following interesting facts about the Veneto:

That Venice is traditionally divided into six areas, called sestieri.  Many Venetians can no longer afford to live in the city, but live across the lagoon in the industrial mainland town, Mestre.

That the famous architect Palladio, who designed villas for the wealthy elite of the Venetian Republic, was born in Padua and published a seminal study of architecture called Quattro Libri dell'Architettura or 'Four books of architecture'. 

Canaletto's The Grand Canal and the Church of the Salute

I learned about the local legend that gondoliers are born with webbed feet and about the old witch Befania, who brings presents to children on January 6, rather than at Christmas, when she's too busy cleaning her house. 

I learned about La Sensa, the League of Cambrai and Catallus, the love-poet who was born in Verona.

I learned that Dante was welcomed in Verona, after his exile from Florence and that Galileo was a professor at Padua university. 

I learned about St Barbara, the patron saint of soldiers and about Elena Piscopia, the first woman to be awarded a PhD.  I also watched a movie called Dangerous Beauty about the famous Venetian courtesan, Veronica Franco.  I learned about Ruskin's book, The Stones of Venice and that the Dolomites were named after the French geologist, Deodat Dolomieu.

Giorgione's La Tempesta

I learned about the Russians of Venice; Turgenev, Diaghilev and Stravinsky.  I learned how the Venetian Lido has been replicated the world over. I learned about the Caffe Florian and the five bells of the Campinile, including the malefico which was tolled on days when an execution would take place.

I learned about the Bridge of Sighs, so called because it was crossed by offenders on their way to the State Prosecutors.  I learned about the Bocca di Leone and La Fenice

I discovered Giorgioni's evocative painting, The Tempest and the wonderful Venetian art that is to be found in the National Gallery here in London.  I learned about Tintoretto and Tiepolo, Carpaccio and Canaletto.  I learned about the Hotel Danieli and the tilting campanile of San Giorgio dei Greci. 

One of the best-known musical acts to come out of the Veneto in recent years is DB Boulevard with their lead singer Moony aka Monica Bragato.  They had a massive hit with Point of View in 2002.  But they sing in English, so I want to leave you with a clip from Youtube by another Italian band, although they're not Venetian, I found myself listening to this song over and over again, as I was writing and researching for this blog.  The song is called Estate 'Summer' and the band is called Negramaro.  They remind me of an Italian Keane and I hope you enjoy this song as much as I have!

Next up, W . . .

Image credits:

The image of the flag of Veneto was provided copyright-free on Wikimedia, the original image having been supplied by wikuser Vajotwo with this derived version being added by wikiuser Flanker - you can see a more detailed description of this image at

Giorgione's La Tempesta now hangs in the famous Venetian art gallery, L'Accademia and Canaletto's The Grand Canal and Chirch of the Salute now hangs in the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, Texas. 

Both paintings are in the public domain and copyright-free.