Since moving to Milwaukee over a year ago, Lauren is rediscovering her (mostly) German heritage. She is still searching for a proper dirndl.
The Land of Beer
Ever heard of a magical land where beer flows nearly 24/7?
We hadn't either—until we moved to Milwaukee. Before moving to Wisconsin, I knew the state as the backdrop for Laverne & Shirley and Happy Days, but I just assumed that it was a "regular" Midwestern state.
It's not. Wisconsin is one of the most unique states I have ever been to. Here's what I have learned so far.
Packers Clothing Is a Requirement
*Cue everybody's surprise.*
On Packers game day, you can expect everyone and their dog to be dressed in Packers gear. Some people will actually wear a Packers shirt under their work clothes—I know a certain cupcake decorator who employs this tactic even though she has to be around hot ovens. No matter what, she is willing to make the sacrifice!
The "Pack" also has the magical ability to change someone's personality temporarily. I've seen sweet, motherly ladies turn bloodthirsty during the Pack's musical introduction, which ends with: "Go Pack!"
To Wisconsin, the Packers aren't just another football team; they are the pride of the state, a religion, and nearly a part of the family. The Packers are so ingrained in Wisconsin that whether the team wins or loses determines the mood of the natives for that day. If a player gets injured, it's as if they are about to attend a funeral—there's that sad, lost look in their eyes.
Beer will help, but don't you dare bring up the Bears or Vikings during this healing process—you may regret it. Packers fans are extremely devoted.
Learn Where the Best Fish Fries Are
Ah, Friday fish fries.
This tradition has been part of Wisconsin's history since almost the beginning. We can thank the state's mostly German and Polish-Catholic roots since followers of the church were not permitted to eat meat on Fridays. This was the compromise.
Today, Friday fish fries are still stronger than ever. A traditional fish fry includes coleslaw, potato pancakes or French fries, and a piece of bread (usually rye). Many fish fries that I have been to also have a bonus of polka music. Combine that with the many breweries in Wisconsin, and you nearly have a wedding celebration. It's so much fun to see everyone trying to do the Chicken Dance after eating and a few pints. It always seems to be party time in Wisconsin.
Have Access to a Dirndl or Lederhosen
I had to bring back my German Club experience from high school to remember what a dirndl or lederhosen were, but perhaps you are already more familiar with these traditional pieces of German clothing. We see these a lot during German Fest in the summer in Wisconsin. The dirndl is a dress with a snazzy pattern, lace details, and a corset-style white shirt. Lederhosen look like shorts with high socks and suspenders. I'm mostly German, and the lederhosen is my nightmare. I think the men wearing these look almost geriatric. Just my opinion.
Understand What F.I.B. Means
Wisconsinites seem to say this term nonchalantly, and the true meaning of it requires me to use curse words. So please, fill in the blanks for me. F.I.B. means Forking Illinois Bus card.
Allow me to use it in a sentence: "Ugh. That car is driving slowly. Must be an F.I.B." A native explained it to me: F.I.B. is a derogatory term for 'Illinois people' who buy up their state's beautiful lakefront and who act and drive rudely (by Wisconsin standards). Everybody above the age of high school knows this term. When used, I can't tell if people are coming from a place of frustration or merely joking, which brings me to a Wisconsin survival rule: When in doubt, buy them a beer. It. Solves. Everything.
Beer and a Shot of Gemuetlichkeit
Wisconsin, especially in areas like Milwaukee, definitely embraces its German roots. German beer gardens abound—at publicly funded parks no less. Local beer flows at nearly every social function, and Wisconsin has adapted the concept of gemuetlichkeit (or friendliness) to "work hard; play hard."
And they do. Cities like Milwaukee take gemuetlichkeit up a step, and it certainly shows; they have every kind of festival imaginable. There's Pug Fest, Train Fest, Summerfest, Garlic Fest, cultural festivals, and various neighborhood street festivals. Those are just the ones that I can remember. During the summer, we can't keep track of them all.
Another thing: when you get here, be ready to be offered a lot of beer. It's just a way of life, and some of it is even free. Occasionally on Fridays, my husband and I will go to a local place that taps a keg of free beer until it runs out. You may want to grab Pedialyte to recover the next morning, as well as a local recommendation for the best brats and cheese curds. You're going to need it.
Your Catholic or Lutheran School Stories
Almost half of Wisconsin is Lutheran, while more than 25 percent is Catholic. That's a lot of Catholic/Lutheran school stories! Almost everyone I know in Milwaukee went to a private Catholic school and can share their horror stories from time to time. Bring yours.
Know That Water Fountains = Bubblers
The lexicon of this word puzzled me until I researched it. We're accustomed to hearing the term "bubbler" from across the pond and on the East Coast. How did it make its way over to the middle of the United States?
Early on in the drinking fountain game, the Kohler Company of Kohler, Wisconsin designed a water fountain where the water 'bubbled' up. Hence, they called it a bubbler, and this term is still used in parts of Milwaukee and Madison. Believe it or not, people my age don't understand the word 'water fountain.' I guess that's great regional marketing.
Know Someone Who Has a Cabin
This is one of the best friend benefits if someone has a cabin or knows someone who does. What better way to get away from the festivals and free beer than a peaceful time at the lake with more beer and bonfires? I can't think of a better way.
Know That Tailgating Is a Sport
It's just that simple. Wisconsinites will tailgate to any event, even if they don't enter the ballpark gates. Or the parent-teacher conferences. I'm kidding, but I bet that's been considered. My husband's coworker has said that she will tailgate anywhere. She's not kidding.
Common tailgating staples are brats, hot dogs, potato salad or coleslaw, chips, and of course, beer.
Common Misconceptions About Wisconsin
- The term "cheesehead" is not really used. I have no idea where the name came from or who uses it. My best guess is an out-of-stater may use the term, but not native Sconnies.
- Terms like "Hey Der!" (Hey There!) aren't used in most of Wisconsin. In fact, it's mostly limited to what the natives called "Uper" or the Upper Peninsula of Wisconsin. Uper is where many Scandinavians and Germans took part in the logging industry, and that's why the accent sounds similar to the Northern Minnesota accent. Wisconsin as a whole does have a Northern accent, and certain sounds are emphasized. Words like "bag" turn into "bayg." The "o" sound in words stretches out for "ooooooooh."
Famous People From Wisconsin
- Gene Wilder
- Chris Farley
- Willem Dafoe
- Tony Shalhoub
- Harry Houdini
- Heather Graham
- Fred MacMurray
- Gena Rowlands
- Mark Ruffalo
- Spencer Tracy
- Bob Uecker
- Orson Welles
- Charlotte Rae
- Danny Gokey
- Jane Wiedlin
- Steve Miller
- Douglas MacArthur
© 2017 Lauren Sutton