When I left Minneapolis at 18 to study in France, I never imagined the locals would think my birthplace was the equivalent of Mars: a faraway, frozen place where it was probably impossible to find a decent baguette.
At best, I met the occasional businessperson who, during a long layover at MSP, spent an hour wandering the Mall of America. At worst, telling French people that Minneapolis was my hometown drew either confusion — “where?” — or misplaced recognition — “race cars!”
“No, that’s Indianapolis,” I interrupted. “I’m from Minne-apolis.”
I kept struggling to explain where and what my apparently godforsaken hometown was. “Seven hours north of Chicago” or “seven hours south of Canada” sounds pretty horrifying to people who can take the TGV from Paris to Amsterdam in less than half that time. While drinking white Bordeaux and nibbling on petits fours, no less.
So I tried my luck with sports teams. “Twins?” “Vikings?”
Then came the blank looks. “Twins? Qu’est-ce que c’est?”
Finally, at an outdoor dinner party in Grenoble, France, with the peaks of the surrounding Alps glimmering in the balmy dusk, I lit upon the solution, quite by accident. First came the requisite “where are you from?” Then I blurted: “Minneapolis. Where Prince is from.”
Around the table, eyes lit up. Two neighbors, a chic couple I found intimidating in exactly the way you expect the French to be intimidating, broke out in competing, champagne-fueled refrains of “Raspberry Beret” and “Purple Rain.”
I should have known sooner. Only the Purple One can draw instant global recognition to my hometown.
In the years that followed, wherever I lived, worked or traveled — Prague, Istanbul, Budapest, Chiang Mai, Amsterdam — the single syllable of his name elicited an instant heart-brain-memory connection, the kind only music can spark. It usually came in the form of a knowing nod or a big smile.
And, like that glamorous French couple, hearing his name seemed to inspire people to break into song under the most unlikely of circumstances — like, for example, my cyclo driver in Hue, Vietnam, who sang “Little Red Corvette” all the way to the walled fortress of the Imperial City.
After returning stateside, I worked at a Los Angeles restaurant where claiming Minneapolis as my hometown provoked either condolences or shivers.
And, just as with the French, I was stunned by how many Angelenos confused Minneapolis with the Home of the Indy 500. (Were Californians not required to study geography?)
Invoking the majesty of that single word, “Prince,” not only set them straight geographically, it allowed me my own “What have I got to lose?” bit of swagger. Yeah, I’m from that cold, snowy city you’ve never seen or visited, and so is he.
A childhood’s soundtrack
I was introduced to Prince’s music by sheer happenstance one very cold Minnesota winter in the early 1980s. I was a primary school student, maybe 7 or 8. While ice skating at Lynnhurst Park one evening, I spotted a battered cassette tape stuck in the snow near the warming house. So I fished it out for a closer look.
The tape, half unspooled, was a blank with the words “Dirty Mind” written on one side and “Controversy” on the other. I didn’t know exactly what either of these things meant. And I had no idea they were Prince records. But it sounded intriguing (Dirty Mind? Definitely not Nancy Reagan-approved!) so I stuck it in my jacket pocket.
When I got home I cleaned off the bits of ice and dirt and carefully wound the tape back in with my pinkie. I stuck it in the cassette player, thinking it was too damaged to play. Then, suddenly: In the dark, alone, I heard “When You Were Mine” for the first time.
For the rest of my childhood, Prince’s presence in my life was everyday and natural. I was never his biggest fan. But, like many children of the 1980s who experienced “Purple Rain” as a kind of initiation rite, his music provided the soundtrack to that formative decade.
What’s more, for us Minneapolis kids, his music served as a map to the adult freedoms and possibilities of our very own city. Over the past decade, the historically funky, artist-driven Uptown neighborhood has been smoothed over by the gentrifying forces of Apple and Patagonia stores, plus it lost its namesake bar and music club. But back then it really was, as the song says, “where I wanna be.”
The school nurse at Lyndale Elementary had a son who was reportedly good friends with Prince. Suddenly getting sent to the nurse’s office became a thrilling prospect. A few of the veteran teachers at 1990s-era Minneapolis South High even taught Prince at Central in the ’70s, back when he was transitioning from basketball player to budding guitarist.
And then there was the first of many trips to First Avenue, where local audiences witnessed his breakthrough performances. My father chaperoned my sister, my best friend and me to the club so we could watch as “Purple Rain” was filmed.
We stared, transfixed, as Prince’s body double rode up to the club on that shiny motorcycle, over and over again. Finally, the real Prince appeared, all smoldering sex appeal and leather and lace. A cold, gray day on that gritty stretch of First Avenue never looked so cool.
For those of us born and raised in Minneapolis who left for other places, Prince was our passport to cool, a currency that was accepted anywhere in the world — even places where, tragically, no one has heard of Hüsker Dü or the Replacements. I’ve found that invoking Prince is the best way to announce: “This is where I’m from.”
After more than a decade as an Austinite and an Amsterdammer, Sarah Chandler now lives and writes in Minneapolis, where she teaches writing at the Loft Literary Center. Her work appears in publications such as the New York Times, CNBC, Lonely Planet and BBC Travel. Find her on Twitter: @chandler_sarah.
ABOUT 10,000 Takes: 10,000 Takes is a new digital section featuring first-person essays about life in the North Star State. We publish narratives about love, family, work, community and culture in Minnesota.