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My Favorite U.S. City: Madison, WI

The Mad City, or Madtown. A quirky capital amidst the cows, its unofficial motto is “77 square miles surrounded by reality.” Like many capital-university cities, Madison is a hodgepodge of university life, state government, and, well, normal folks. This one ensconced gorgeously among four lakes and endless green space. And we may be proud cheeseheads—but we ain’t hicks. Outlanders coming in expecting to see cowflop residue on their taxi driver’s boots will instead probably find themselves chatting about string theory or the role of animism in Vietnamese culture. Oh, and about how we have the best schools, the best hospitals, blah blah blah…

To its everyone-has-a-master’s-or-Ph.D education obsession and verdant loveliness, add typical Midwestern friendliness (you will chat with strangers here, trust me). And perhaps what I find most endearing: smiley open-mindedness. Madisonians truly couldn’t care less what you are, or what you do. As long as you mind your manners, of course (it is the Midwest, after all).

So it’s no surprise that in 1997 Money magazine declared Madison to be the “Best Place to Live in America”. This was followed up by a parade of other media, and perhaps why the city has had an enormous growth rate since the turn of the millennium, kept from light-speed only by our, um, interesting winters.

Yours truly is a typical Madisonian: came for college and never wanted to leave. Famed for its edge-dwelling radical political brouhahas of the 1960s (now much tamer), the University of Wisconsin and its inevitable mish-mash of world-renowned research and college-age looniness was a major attraction for this impressionable student, as it is for those who refuse to grow up—which is a large share of the population here. And since half of the world seems to want to study here here, it’s kind of like being abroad at home.

Even a few years spent abroad post-graduation were spent thinking about the Mad City, or looking on streets of Asia for someone wearing a Bucky Badger T-shirt. Travel writing takes me overseas regularly, but the old truism that traveling allows one to better appreciate home certainly holds here. Madison ain’t heaven, but I certainly haven’t found a better place to live.

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