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I usually shop out of necessity rather than for entertainment. Yesterday though, since we were in Minneapolis, I talked Chuck into going with me to the Mall Of America. It was early afternoon when we exited Highway 77 onto Killebrew Drive, zooming past the first left turn lanes which were filled with cars. At the next traffic light, we turned into a parking garage and joined other cars hunting for an empty parking space.

Eventually, we parked near the Bloomingdale’s sign. Going into an elevator we couldn’t decide which floor to select so instead climbed the stairs where, at the first landing, we found the sky-bridge to the Mall barricaded. Traipsing up two more flights of stairs, we finally got to a pedestrian bridge spanning a roadway chasm. Inside, our first view of the Mall was looking down several levels into white and silvery layers of walkways and railings, an openness interrupted by the slant of escalators. Thousands of conversations floated up past us, mixing and bouncing off tile and glass surfaces.

Traveling is a series of spatial encounters, whether crossing vast expanses of North Dakota or traversing the astonishing passageways of the Mall Of America. We joined a stream of shoppers—groups of girls, couples pushing strollers, women wearing headscarves and long dresses, and even young men. We rode escalators down, on each level walking past hundreds of stores selling shoes and hats, clothes, cosmetics and hair ornaments, candy, ice cream, and coffee. We tried on hats in a millinery store and bought note cards and a blank journal in a stationery store. The crowds were the most frenetic on the ground floor where the shops wrapped around a midway of three-story-high rides, even a roller coaster, and like at a carnival you could buy pale green and pink cotton candy.

Alain de Botton explains that the sign he encountered at Amsterdam’s Schipol airport was exotic “…because it succeeds in suggesting, vaguely but intensely, that the country that made it and that lies beyond the uitgang [exit] may in critical ways prove more congenial than my own to my temperament and concerns. The sign is a promise of happiness.”

After an hour-and-a-half in the Mall Of America, we started looking for the exit, not because it would give us entry to somewhere new and exotic but because we would return to a suburban calmness. But it was harder than we thought to find our way out to the right parking lot. Passing the same shops again, you wonder whether you are circling or had encountered these stores on a different level. Just past the Apple Store we saw a sign for Android owners advertising an app for navigating the Mall Of America. At a sign with a directory to the hundreds of stores we found the “you are here” arrow and searched for the exit to the east parking garage, certain that we had just experienced an abstraction of America.

Alain de Botton. The Art Of Travel. Virgin Books (2002), p 69.