Mall of America

December 10, 2006

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I often joke to people that when I visit a new city for the first time, be it Milan or Hong Kong, London or Lompoc, I immediately head for the mall.  This isn’t really true, but I have to confess I’ve been to malls in Paris, Budapest and Helsinki: places where malls aren’t really the main attraction.  When Derek and I moved from London to Reading, my first comment about the new town was: “At least they have a good mall.”

I guess my mall-ophile nature stems from my southern-California upbringing.  Just as in the movie Mallrats, hanging out at the mall was about the only exciting thing to do in some of the towns I grew up in.  When I was a little kid, we lived for a year in Littleton, Colorado.  There was a mall there I’ll never forget: the Cinderella Mall, which despite it’s cheery name was actually a pretty creepy place.  It had a basement level of mostly closed shops, which someone had the brilliant idea of retheming as “ye olde Englishe streete” complete with cobblestone floors and gas lamps.  But, being in the dark basement, the effect was less Charles Dickens and more Jack the Ripper.

My favorite mall of all time is still the South Coast Plaza in Costa Mesa, California.  For quite a while, it held the title of largest mall in the world.  In addition to the carousel and requisite fountains, they had a restaurant (sadly, no longer there) called 20th Century Limited, which (as the name suggests) was themed like a train station.  You walked down brick platforms strewn with prop luggage, past giant black engines spewing steam, and dined aboard gently rocking train cars with rear-projected scenery outside the window and the click-clack sound effects of the train tracks.  I loved it!

It should come as no surprise then that when I needed a relatively short trip to reach the magical number of airline miles required to keep my Silver Elite frequent-flier status, I chose Minneapolis and the Mall of America as my destination.  Seriously though, for the number of miles I needed (and wanting to travel non-stop), the choice was between Minneapolis and Detroit, and who in their right mind would choose Detroit?

So, yes, I traveled from London to Minneapolis, got off the plane, checked into my hotel, spent the entire day at the Mall of America, went back to my hotel, slept, and got back on a plane for London the next day.  Crazy perhaps?  Maybe, but I got my frequent flier points, and now I don’t have to stand in any lines at the airport, so ha!

How was the Mall of America?  Not bad, but also not as exciting as I hoped.  For one thing, it felt smaller that I expected.  I’m not sure why.  It is huge.  Maybe it’s because so much of the space is taken up by the amusement park (see photo above) in the center.  Either way though, it was a beautiful mall, and it was fun to be back (even if only for a day) in the land of American excess.

I say “excess” because I think the most fundamental difference between Britain and the US is the idea of, “how much is enough?”  Eat at any restaurant in America, and you’ll always get more than you can eat.  There are even whole chains, like Claim Jumper, that base their reputation on this philosophy.  In the US, quantity trumps quality almost every time.  The food and drink seem to flow from some unstoppable spigot somewhere in the kitchen.  Try taking a sip of water without someone immediately refilling your glass.  Try eating all your steak fries without someone asking, “Would you like some more fries?”  And, there’s always that awkward situation where you pay the bill, gulp down the last of your Coke, gather your stuff to leave, and suddenly, before you can say “no thanks”, there’s a whole new glass of Coke on the table.

I call it the Costco mentality: if one of something is good, then 1,000 of something must be fabulous. I recall a New Yorker-ish cartoon of a man and his wife shopping at Costco.  He’s carrying a gigantic box, and the caption reads, “But honey, if we get this now, we’ll never need to buy straws again!” And indeed, it’s hard not to walk out of Costco without a supposedly lifetime-supply of something.  The really insidious thing is that now that you have so much of whatever it is you’ve bought, you use it like it’s water, and your “lifetime” supply runs dry in a few weeks.

Anyway, back to the Mall of America.  For my EDE (“excessive dining experience”), I chose the Bubba Gump Shrimp Company, which I was delighted to finally eat at after having passed it over in Hong Kong.  I wasn’t disappointed, either in terms of the food, the excess, or the theming (which of course, all had to do with the movie Forrest Gump) .  As I sat down, the waitress brought me the drinks menu… on a ping-pong paddle.  Then, I was quizzed on Forrest Gump movie trivia.  It felt a bit like a pop-quiz in high school, but I managed to get about half of them right.  Maybe you get a free dessert if you answer everything correctly?  On the table were two metal Alabama license plates (one said “Run, Forrest, Run”, the other “Stop, Forrest, Stop”) used to signal the wait staff in case you need something.  It was excessive and goofy, and excactly the type of thing you’d never get in a million years in Britain.  I have to admit, I loved it.  (Oh yes, and the shrimp was delicious.)

Exploring the rest of the mall, it was nice to see all the Christmas decorations.  In one rotunda, a temporary stage was set up, and live entertainment, from a high school drill team to a local chamber orchestra, performed.  Further along sat a life-sized replica of the train engine from the animated film The Polar Express, steam issuing from its smokestack.  And, last but not least, the “world’s largest gingerbread house”  which stood about 60 feet tall and had several rooms you could tour though, complete with audio-animatronic elves and gumdrop “stained glass” windows.

Overall, it was a fun trip, worth a day’s visit, but it will be a while before I’m back.  Excess in small doses is fine, but excess to excess… well, that’s just excessive.

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