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Ethnic towns

Celebrating Syttende Mai

On a special day in May, Norwegian-Americans wave the red, white and blue.

It's a wonder that we love the Norwegians so much, considering the food they brought from the old country.

Lutefisk, or dried cod soaked in lye? Rømmegrøt, a butter-soaked cream pudding that should be called heart-attack-in-a-cup?

We forgive Norwegians because they have a sense of humor about everything, including their food (“O Lutefisk, how fragrant your aroma. O Lutefisk, you put me in a coma. You smell so strong, you look like glue, you taste yust like an overshoe.")

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Syttende Mai in Stoughton

In May, everyone turns Norwegian in this southern Wisconsin town.

In the small Wisconsin town of Stoughton, red, white and blue flags fly everywhere on Independence Day.

Except here, the patriotic holiday is celebrated in May, and the flag is Norwegian, not American.

Norway had been under Denmark's heel for more than 400 years when it signed a new democratic constitution on May 17, 1814, a day that became known as Syttende Mai.

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In the land of Norwegians

Old World traditions come with a wink in the bluff-country burg of Spring Grove.

At first, the southeast Minnesota town of Spring Grove looks like any other town.

There’s a café, an antiques store and a park full of statues. But Spring Grove isn’t ordinary. It’s full of Norwegians.

In the park, two bronze men appear to be squabbling; they’re characters in a nationally syndicated comic strip written by a Spring Grove man 50 years before Neil Simon came up with “The Odd Couple.’’

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Truly Amana

The busiest of Iowa's seven Amana Colonies is both a living historic monument and a shopping destination.

It's obvious from one look at the shop-lined streets of Amana, the largest of the seven Amana Colonies, that modern commerce is in full flower there. Even so, the first question asked about the villages is: Are the Amana people Amish?

And no wonder — the people of the Amanas spoke German, lived simply and adhered faithfully to Scripture. Many still do. But no, they never were Amish.

The first people of the Amanas were German immigrants who came to Iowa in 1855.

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Where the Germans are

In southern Minnesota, New Ulm hangs on to a colorful heritage.

There are few towns more conspicuously American than New Ulm, Minn.

Laid out by the town founders, its wide streets follow an orderly grid toward downtown, where cars park at an angle in front of boxy brick businesses and meat-and-potatoes cafes.

There are softball games and Friday-night fish fries and many friendly people. It's the epitome of small-town America — and yet this is a town famous for being German.

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A pocket of Norway

In northeast Iowa, Decorah still is Norwegian after all these years.

Of all the immigrant groups, Norwegians perhaps are most sentimental.

They settled in hills and valleys reminiscent of their homeland, bringing trunks full of handcrafted ale bowls and mangle boards.

Generations later, they’re still painting bowls and stitching costumes in the old style and celebrating holidays with foods poor Norwegians ate in the 19th century.

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Tulip Time in Pella

In central Iowa, the Dutch celebrate colorful origins.

Even in a region rich in ethnicity, the Dutch stand out.

In a town square in Iowa, lacy white hats shaped like pyramids, horns and half-moons bob high atop women's heads. Men wear black caps, breeches or baggy trousers and narrow bands cross at their throats. Their wooden shoes click and clack as they dance.

"These are the weirdest people I've ever seen!'' shrieked a little boy watching from the sidelines.

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Troll-hunting in Mount Horeb

A little town near Madison wins friends with a mix of old and new attractions.

In Mount Horeb, Wis., trolls are revered, not reviled.

The little town west of Madison calls itself the Troll Capital of the World, for its many mascots — most wooden, but one live — and Norse traditions.

It doesn't have the medieval Norwegian stave church that has been the town's pride and joy since 1937. The ornate wooden building has gone back to Orkdal, Norway, whose residents built it for the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago and will reassemble it as an attraction for Orkdal.

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Swiss at heart

In Wisconsinís Little Switzerland, New Glarus hangs onto a colorful heritage.

In a verdant little glen in southwest Wisconsin, the 13th century makes a reprise appearance every year.

It comes with pageantry, bloodshed and a whole lot of noble sentiments, courtesy of the 18th-century dramatist Friedrich Schiller. It also comes in German that’s as meaty as the Landjaeger sausages sold to spectators.

As I arrived during the first act of "Wilhelm Tell,’’ a rich Swiss patriot was discussing the horrors of war with his wife.

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Globe-trotting in Chicago

From Chinatown to Andersonville, these colorful neighborhoods are a window into other worlds.

One Memorial Day weekend, my friend Grace and I went to tour "ethnic'' Chicago. But we'd only been there a few hours before we realized everything about Chicago is ethnic.

Chicago is a mosaic, a city of neighborhoods settled by waves of immigrants who arrived to dig its waterways, build its railroads and work in its slaughterhouses.

One of its first neighborhoods was Bridgeport, settled by Irish canal workers in the 1840s and the stronghold of Mayor Richard J. Daley and his son Richard M. Daley, the current mayor.

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Eating in the Amana Colonies

In eastern Iowa, a historic village has a long tradition of feeding people well.

Before 1932, the pious, hard-working people of the Amana Colonies were the only people in Iowa who got to eat out every night.

Members of the pacifist Community of True Inspiration, they emigrated from Germany and built seven villages on 25,000 acres of eastern Iowa farmland. For nearly 90 years, they lived communally, pooling resources and skills.

Butchers, brewers and winemakers turned out goods for everyone, and meals were served in 50 communal kitchens.

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Kalona, naturally

In southeast Iowa, the Amish find common ground with those who value a grassroots lifestyle.

Around Kalona, Iowa, there's one group of people who always have understood sustainable agriculture and locally sourced food.

For the Amish, that's a lifestyle, not a movement.

Since 1846, Old Order Amish have lived and worked in this bucolic pocket of southeast Iowa, 20 minutes from Iowa City.

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Sweden in Minnesota

Prowling antiques shops around Lindstrom, visitors find a beloved heritage.

Walking around Lindström, it's not hard to guess where the area's first settlers came from.

If the multitude of umlauts don't give it away, the herds of Dala horses and straw goats will. Factor in the giant white coffee pot in the sky, and you can be pretty sure this is Swedish country.

In the 1850s, poor Swedes came pouring into the lakes country west of Taylors Falls. It wasn't the best farmland, but it was cheap, and it looked like Sweden — lots of water, lots of trees and, unfortunately, lots of rocks.

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Bazaar on the prairie

To see the world, just head north to multicultural Winnipeg.

On a single day in Winnipeg, a tourist can learn a few words of Cree, dine on curry and conch, and come face to face with Queen Victoria.

The empire on which the sun never sets has come to the Canadian prairie, and so have a whole lot of other countries.

The Cree and Assiniboine — Aboriginals, they’re called here — came first. Then a French explorer arrived at the juncture of the Red and Assiniboine rivers, and a Scottish lord brought in Scottish and Irish settlers.

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