Big Cheese

(Couple of slight edits since first posted.)

Almost every small town has its own festival celebrating its history or its ethnicity, or both, or neither. (I used to work in a town whose Fourth-of-July festival existed mostly to provide patrons for the Jaycees’ beer tent. It was held in Riverview Park, from which the river could not be seen.) To outsiders, these festivals often seem quaint or obscure, even as the locals like to believe they will attract tourists. My hometown’s annual festival really does attract tourists, however. In Monroe, Wisconsin, this weekend is Cheese Days. It’s celebrated only in even-numbered years, and for three days in September (today through Sunday) our little Swiss town of 10,000 becomes one of the largest cities in the state, with over 100,000 visitors.

(Nobody knows why the city fathers limit this tourist bonanza to an every-other-year basis, but I think it’s because the most popular food item of the festival is beer-battered deep-fried cheese curds, which nobody should eat more than five times a decade. It may also have to do with the genetic coding of our Lutheran and Congregationalist forefathers, who tended to believe that anything that’s fun must be enjoyed in extreme moderation, if at all.)

The festival centers on Monroe’s picture-postcard town square, dominated by its 1891 vintage courthouse. (The parking meters you see in the photo have recently been removed; the cost to park downtown had not changed in 60 years, a penny for 12 minutes, a nickel for an hour.) You can wander around with a bratwurst in your hand and listen to polkas, schottisches, and waltzes, played by accordion bands, often sung in German, with yodeled accompaniment. Locals say the appeal of this entertainment is waning, which you can see for yourself by noticing the age of the people listening attentively to it. Younger people are more attracted to the carnival . . . or the bars. Even though I’m not as young as I used to be, I can generally count on seeing a lot of people I know in the various bars and beer tents on Friday and Saturday nights—many of whom I haven’t seen since two years before and won’t see again until the same weekend two years hence.

There’s a big parade on Sunday which, if you’ve seen it once, you don’t need to see again, because it never changes. Nevertheless, people throng the streets to watch. Getting a good parade-watching spot is difficult. I suspect that houses on the parade route, which has never changed in my lifetime, can probably command a premium on their selling prices because of where they are. It’s usually my preference to skip the parade; I’d rather watch the Packer game, although it’s sometimes possible to combine the two, if you have a friend who owns a house on the parade route and runs the TV out into the yard.

If you don’t have a friend with a house on the route, there are other parade-watching alternatives. I’ve seen people chain a line of lawn chairs to parking meters the night before so they’ll have a good spot close to the square. (This parade-watching is a serious game.) At the very least, you can usually stake out a spot on the terrace between the street and the sidewalk anywhere along the route, if you get there early enough on Sunday morning.

On Sunday after the parade, most people gravitate back to the square, where the lines at the cheese-curd stand become  long and daunting. As a younger man, I would take in the familiar scenes and look forward to the day when I might contrive to move home and live in that place again. I know now that it’s not going to happen—that my hometown is a good place to be from and a fine place to visit, but my life is always going to be elsewhere. Nevertheless, the call of home is strong, particularly at this time of year.

I gotta get home to you
Home to you
I gotta get home to you
The truth, the lies, the alibis
Every day we do and die
But the path was lost in the falling snow
As we dance our days out there below

“Home to You”/Earth Opera (out of print; I wrote about this band and song here)

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