FOOD DYE IN MY CITY-GIRL HAIR

You guys. You know how some people (monsters) don’t like puppies? Well… here goes… I’m not the hugest fan of country music. There, I said it.
I don’t know why. It could be my general preference to poetic and abstract lyrics over flat out narrative story-telling through song.
Or it could be because my high school boyfriend was a farmer and country music reminds me of when we used to go to B&S Balls together. The locals thought it would be funny to squirt food dye in my (peroxided) hair with water pistols because I was a city girl. Which ironically could be the name of my country music hit.
Regardless, I was still keen to see Nashville. It came highly recommended.
Given our slight change of itinerary in Memphis (see Joe Biden: Itinerary Wrecker to catch up), we hustled into Nashville and bolted to the pick up point of our first stop: a Nash Trash tour with ‘The Jugg Sisters’, Sheri Lynn and Brenda Kay.
I’d booked the tour because 1500 people on Trip Advisor said it was excellent and also I was keen to start our stay in Nashville by getting to know the city in a re-purposed school bus that’d been painted hot pink.
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And it did give us a pretty good insight to Nashville for the most part. Especially if we had a particular interest in any and all locations that might have a vague association with Burt Reynolds. The sisters were big fans.
The ladies were also particularly excited when they found out we were from Australia. They told us that they’d had Karl Stefanovic on their tour once, in his Today hosting capacity, and then they proceeded to list all the Australian landmarks at which they’d like to bang him.
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Then we went from the hot pink bus to the Man in Black – the Johnny Cash Museum. It should’ve been quite the departure but towards the end of the tour I learned that the man himself had lent his likeness to a bunch of ATMs – Johnny Cash Machines – so it’s not like he had no sense of humour.
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It was a fabulous museum following his humble beginnings to his eventual death and included all the stops along the way. I was impressed to find this included his turn as the voice of the hallucinatory dog in chilli episode of The Simpsons.
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I loved Nashville. It looks like a big city, but the way they tell their stories very much feels like a small country town (plus no one put food dye in my hair).
All the major sights are linked and reference one another. For example, the Ryman Auditorium was the ‘Mother Church of Country Music’. It hosted both the Johnny Cash Show and the Grand Ole Opry. The Grand Ole Opry then left to perform in their own facility and took a circle of the Ryman stage with them when they moved. The Grand Ole Opry’s cast included superstars like Patsy Cline and Dolly Parton. Both of whom are honoured at the Country Music Hall of Fame. The intersection between all the major sites and their tributes to one another are really quite charming, and seeing them all leaves you with a really good understanding of the city’s history.
We actually toured the Grand Ole Opry and it was an interesting one. For the uninitiated, the Opry began as a live radio show of musical entertainment and was then broadcast from the Ryman Auditorium across the US. When it got too big it eventually moved to its own theatre and continues to broadcast three nights a week to this day. It is the longest running radio broadcast in America.
It also has a very official capacity as a ‘club’. There have been 200+ members inducted (all country musicians and entertainers) and some 60 them are still active participants of the Opry shows today. If you are a member, you get to come to any show you like and even pop onto the stage for an impromptu performance if the mood strikes you. New members are invited sporadically and at random. You are invited in public and without warning by another member with whom you might have a connection – a mentor, a childhood hero, for example. Then you need to officially accept the invitation by participating in you first Opry performance.
It’s a bit like a cult, actually. Only a really useful one that puts on awesome shows for people three nights a week and instead of a church or commune they have an auditorium with cool themed dressing rooms.
But it’s not a cult. I don’t think. I’m pretty sure it’s not.
Although curiously, I think actually quite like country music now. Despite the food-dye/peroxide related hair trauma of my youth I find myself quite keen to open my mind a little bit. I’ve found myself trawling through Spotify and opening up playlists such as ‘Country Kind of Love’ and ‘Hot Country Favourites’. I don’t know what’s come over me.
It’s weird.
(One of us, one of us…)
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JOE BIDEN: ITINERARY WRECKER

The thing about ditching your kids for a two-week, six-city trip to The States is, you have to make the most of every single moment. So with that in mind, I planned our itinerary to within an inch of it’s life. What’s that? You need a moment to scratch yourself? Sorry, that’ll have to wait until 3.17pm. Next Tuesday.

The the plan for Memphis was: Sun Studio, Beale Street, ribs, Graceland, Stax Studio, National Civil Rights Museum, Blues, more ribs, then early start on day three to continue the roadside itinerary of kitsch from Memphis to Nashville.

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Which all went to plan until we turned up to the National Civil Rights Museum to find that it had been completely shut down for the afternoon to do security checks for the arrival of former Vice President Joe Biden, who was to receive a Freedom Award from the museum that evening.

He was being honoured alongside the Reverend Jesse Jackson, who actually stalked us a bit while we were in Memphis. He was on our flight there and we saw him again at the Blue City Cafe late on our second nigh there. Evidently, he popped in for some late-night ribs after receiving an award for his decades of contribution to civil rights. We popped in for some late-night ribs after drinking and listening to music on Beale Street all night. It wasn’t even Hoff’s first ribs of the evening.

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Anyway, the point is, the random museum shut down completely threw our plans out the window. I had to be flexible. Pfft. We ended up having some enforced down time (my least favourite kind) and we had to see the museum the following morning. This effectively wiped out our ability to make any stops on the way from Memphis to Nashville as we were on a schedule to do a Nashville tour in the early afternoon.

And I had a cracker itinerary cooked up too. We were going to veer off the interstate to the city of Nutbush, or more specifically, the city limits of Nutbush, and I was absolutely going to make Hoff do the dance with me in front of the sign. If the National Civil Rights Museum hadn’t given Mr Biden and Rev Jackson awards for civil rights that evening, then I reckon Hoff would’ve given them an award for getting him out of that little exercise.

All that said, though, the National Civil Rights Museum was absolutely worthy of a complete schedule overhaul. Based at the old Lorraine Motel, where Dr Martin Luther King Jr was assassinated in 1968, the museum uses the activist’s life and work as a starting point to detail the civil rights movement from the first slaves until today. It is stirring, poignant and at times upsetting, but a timely reminder of the movement’s history and the work still to be done.

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So after our much-anticipated visit, we grabbed a coffee, waved goodbye to our new mate the Rev and headed east towards Nashville. The Nutbush will have to wait until we get there.

(ELVIS’) HOME SWEET HOME

I’m just a singer. Elvis was the embodiment of the whole American culture.
Frank Sinatra
The other thing about Elvis, apart from the whole culture embodiment thing, is that so much has been said about him that there’s quite possibly nothing left to say.
Sweeeeeeet. Shortest post ever.
Jks.
I don’t remember the exact time Elvis came into my consciousness but I do remember learning the recorder at primary school and having ‘Wooden Heart’ in my first book of sheet music. My mum told me it was an Elvis song and that my uncle used to lock himself in a cupboard with a guitar and play that same song. It stands out as a memory less because of Elvis and more because it was a surprising revelation of a melodramatic side to my usually stoic uncle.
Then like all of us, I couldn’t help but put the pieces of Elvis together from there. The odd snippet of a daytime movie. The barrage of pop culture references to jumpsuits and peanut butter, banana and bacon sandwiches. The conspiracy theories.
It was this last point – the conspiracy theories – that I think gave me my most enduring impression of the guy. In my mind he must have been the ultimate tortured soul, otherwise why would so many people believe that he elaborately staged his own death simply to escape his life?
It makes sense that I would be preoccupied with this train of thought. Elvis died only 5 years before I was born so I think in the early stages of my life his passing and the circumstances surrounding it were still very much in the minds of the public.
So this was the expectation I took to Graceland. In my mind, it was to be a shrine to a guy who gave so much but was ultimately tortured by the arduous task of trailblazing the very essence of superstardom and celebrity for everybody that would come after him.
Well. Boy, was I wrong. Elvis might well have been a tortured soul but as is made clear from the moment you arrive, Graceland was his happy place and the whole property is a glowing tribute to a guy who loved his home, his family and who knew how to have a good time.
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Graceland is a welcome respite from the speculation and the feverish adulation. From the unique approach to interior decorating, to the epic collection of toys – golf carts, horses, a purpose-built squash building – it’s simply the place that the King loved the most and this is evident in the personal touches he left all over the home.
Admittedly, these personal touches include peacock stained glass windows, yellow and navy colour schemes and green shag carpeting – ON THE WALLS – but they were his all the same, so I’m okay with it. Being there, you just get the sense that this was a young guy who thought, you know what, I’ve done okay. I’m going to treat myself. By putting what will surely be a timeless floor covering on my living room walls. 

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Even if you don’t consider yourself an Elvis fan, it’s a real treat to see a home of this period so well-preserved and so untouched by the trends of the last 30-odd years. There was not a distressed brick wall or exposed beam in sight, I’m happy to report.

Needless to say, it was a big morning. The folks involved in Graceland have done an epic job of preserving and cataloguing anything and everything related to the King. My favourite artefact was a letter from a Miss Hedda Hopper, who ostensibly wrote to thank Elvis for a donation to her School for Visually Handicapped Children (one of a plethora of charitable acts, apparently), but who also informs Elvis that she’s taken up The Twist:
It is the best exercise I have found. I have taken one inch off my waist and two off my fanny. Now I know how you keep so thin.
Picturing Miss Hedda Hopper working up a sweat doing the twist in her living room was quite possibly the best part of the Graceland experience.
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1966 ROCK-OLA MODEL 433

A reconstruction of a primary school journal entry, circa 1990:

On the weekend, mum and dad took us on a long drive to a place called Woodend. We went there to go to a jukebox auction. We bought a jukebox. When we got it home, mum and dad turned off the money bit so you don’t even need coins. My favourite song is ‘Leader of the Pack’ by the Shangri-Las.

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True story.

At the time, I genuinely thought this was a thing that parent-type people did; go for a drive one random weekend and buy a secondhand jukebox. It was only much later that I asked myself, “What on earth possessed my parents to do that!?”

I’m still not exactly sure, but it was a Rock-Ola model 433 and it was the best.

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We got to play whatever music we wanted and we knew where the secret cancel button was if someone picked something rubbish. Our friends loved coming over and playing it (as did their parents) and we had some awesome parties with the jukebox providing the soundtrack. We rummaged through op shops and trash and treasure markets for the elusive record singles it played. It was such a thrill to actually find a few. And when we did, we took them home, catalogued them and typed up a title strip to slide into the display window.

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Later mum and dad got a pool table and darts board too so the jukebox lived in the poolroom. It was sort of like the best man cave ever, only better because we all got to play there and the whole idea wasn’t rooted in toxic masculinity.

The thing is, I realise now that the very best thing about that jukebox was the invaluable musical education it gave my sister and me. Absolutely priceless.

So when we got to Memphis we headed straight for Sun Studio which is considered by many to be the birthplace of rock and roll. Walking through the doors, I felt intimidated. Not because of the calibre entertainer that had passed through them before me but because I felt like a bit of a poser. I didn’t know much about Sun Studio, only what I’d read in my dog-eared Lonely Planet, and I was dreading having to feign recognition when the guide inevitably started rattling off the musical names associated with the place’s history.

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I thought it might be a bit like that time we went to Florence and went to about forty famous art galleries and museums before we realised we know nothing about art or European history.

But, that wasn’t the case at all this time. Aside from the administrative characters associated with Sun Studio, I had a pretty good strike rate of recognition. No posing for this little tourist, just enthusiastic nods of recognition.

And it made me realise what a good job my folks had done of educating me in all eras of music and in encouraging me to enjoy and appreciate music that had come years before me. Elvis recorded ‘That’s All Right (Mama)’ at Sun Studio in 1954 and the fact that this music remains relevant to me today makes me feel totally warm and fuzzy inside.

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I’m not suggesting every artist I know passed through that old Rock-Ola, but the fun we had listening to old music on that thing certainly gave me a taste for different styles of music. More than that, it gave me a fundamental understanding that there is value and reward in looking back and in preservation.

This is my absolute favourite thing about travelling. That thing that happens when you take the time to venture out and try something new, and the connections your mind makes when you’re trying to make sense of it all. In my case it was realising how lucky I am to have parents who not only exposed me to all kinds of music growing up, but who created such happy memories in my childhood. Memories that suddenly come flooding back standing in front of a tour guide at a 78-year-old Memphis recording studio.

Memphis recording studio

 

JACKETS: BOTH THE WHISKEY AND LITERAL KIND

Here’s the thing about football: I’ve never…. really…. got it. If you’ve ever read any of my previous blogs you’ll know that I’ve spent a good portion of my typed words talking about football, specifically, rugby league, so this may come as some surprise. Permit me to explain.

I am not an athlete. I have never been interested in playing sport. I avoided it at all costs. And I have always found the experience of not being athletic to be an alienating one, which I assume is not uncommon. It could be why so many people gravitate to sport as spectators. Those who can’t do….watch?

As I kid I bonded with my dad over a love of the Melbourne Demons (Aussie Rules, for those requiring translation). But looking back, I think my love of that experience was more about time with my family. My cousins were all Dees supporters too and I have some really fond memories watching games together. Aside from that, (and one particularly striking nude photo of Stephen Tingay in the Herald Sun circa 2000), I don’t have many of memories of the specifics. I’m pretty sure it wasn’t about an appreciation of the sport itself.

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Lived on my bedroom wall until exposure from the sun over many years faded it away.

Fast forward to 2003 when I meet Hoff, who was a rugby league player and had never dreamt of being anything else. The only one more surprised than me that I have ended up married to a professional athlete would probably be childhood me. Or maybe my mum.

In those early days, I was well and truly a rugby league convert. I went to every game, I devoured every news story and I made a concerted effort to understand the sport and all its nuances.

But, as Hoff and I grew more and more serious, my relationship with sport became more and more problematic. Rugby league, went from being “that thing we do on the weekends”, to “that thing that controls our lives, determines where we live, what we do most days and our livelihood”. Sixteen years of being involved at a personal level is enough to give anyone a slightly different viewpoint, I think, particularly for someone like me who never really understood it in the first place.

All that said, I had an absolute ball at Monday Night Football in Green Bay. Go figure.

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We went to Green Bay with the sole purpose of attending a Green Bay Packers home game. It was a bucket list item for Hoff and far be it from me to stand in the way of lifelong dreams.

We kicked off the experience with a tailgate event, which started a couple of hours before the game. It was incredible. So many people, so much food, so many drinks and not a shot measurer in sight. Eek.

Honestly, these people know how to do football. There were people everywhere and such a joyous vibe about the place, that it was hard not to be excited (even though I could only name one player on the whole team and even then only when I was standing behind Hoff wearing his jersey with said name on it.)

Tailgate

The attire was a site to behold too. Cheese wedge hats (which had me lamenting the finite space in my suitcase), green and yellow pinstripe suits and so many Packers jerseys that I was beginning to think they were compulsory town uniform. From the minute we got up that morning we barely saw a person – working in a professional capacity or not – who was not wearing one.

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Hoff insisted on wearing his as soon as he purchased it at 10 o’clock in the morning

And holy hell was it cold. We’d been keeping an eye on the weather in the lead up to our trip and feeling grateful that it wasn’t looking too bad, then the day after we arrived a cold front blew through the mid-west and knocked about fifteen degrees Celsius off the mercury overnight. We’ve been cold ever since. Green Bay was absolutely no exception. I was so cold that I purchased a lovely pair of gloves, which I think really bring out the colour in my eyes.

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I also chose to combat the cold by donning my ‘whiskey jacket’, which actually proved to be pretty effective (thank goodness for Americans and their generous pours). Also, thank goodness for the 80,000-odd other people who attended this game. It made for a cozy walk to the stadium and a good amount of body heat once we were there.

(I was less excited about the number of people at the game when I went to the loo at one point and genuinely got lost on my way back to my seat. Dammit, Hoffman, if there’s one sports-related thing you’re supposed to be good at after 16 years of professional fandom then stadium navigation should really be it.)

It was a good game too, I’m told. I can read a scoreboard and so obviously I know that the Packers won, but that’s about the sum total of my understanding of how it all went down. You get to yell ‘First Down’ every now and again, which has something to do with yards gained, but as I’m not exactly sure what a yard is either that doesn’t really help me much. Metric all the way, baby.

So even though I am a bit of a sportaphobe, I’ll always be grateful for having had this once in a lifetime experience. Not only was it all kinds of fun, I got to forget all my hang-ups about sport and just be a fan. (Coldest, least knowledgeable fan ever, but a fan just the same).

BADGER-HEADED CHEESE BUTT

The only thing I knew about Wisconsin I learned on our previous trip to the States. I saw a man sitting in a bar watching football with a hat on his head shaped like a badger and a ‘cover’ on his butt shaped like cheese. He was essentially a badger-headed cheese butt. Being late October at the time, I asked Hoff what Halloween costume he thought old mate was going for and Hoff simply says, “oh nah, he’s just from Wisconsin.”
Apparently, Green Bay Packers fans are sometimes called ‘cheeseheads’ and one of the college teams up there are the Badgers, so there you go. Looking at this odd dude with his badger hat and cheese butt, I knew Wisconsin was a place I’d need to visit one day.
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That day came on Sunday when we picked up a car and headed north, to Green Bay.
Whenever I plan a trip, I do the adult thing and select dates that work for everyone: children, employers, child-lookerafterers, it’s a rich tapestry. Whenever Hoff plans a trip, he looks at said dates and sniffs out any professional sport that may be being played in the vicinity. On this occasion, there just so happened to be a Green Bay Packers home game a mere 3.5 hours away. Apparently, this is a big deal. For Hoff, it was big enough to re-route our entire trip and devote two days (and a fair chunk of the trip budget) to the getting there.
So we hit the road for another stint in the car with my trusty itinerary for stop offs along the way.
Pleasant Prairie saw us tour the Jelly Belly Factory and get free jelly beans for our trouble – score. I also now know more about the manufacture of jelly beans than perhaps anyone outside the confectionery industry ever should. We got free hats too.
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Our next stop was the Mars Cheese Castle, so-called I guess because of the state’s infatuation with cheese and anything of the dairy-related nature. It was a cool place with heaps of great local groceries, beer and deli items. Plus now I know where old mate probably got his cheese butt. Blessed are the cheese-makers indeed.
Back in the car for a vastly more sensible stop – the Wind Point Lighthouse in Racine, which looks over Lake Michigan. Up until this point Hoff and I had been sniggering whenever locals referred to Lake Michigan’s shore as a ‘coast’. It’s a shore, not a coast. Chicago even has a neighbourhood called the Gold Coast, so named for its proximity to the shore of Lake Michigan and because of some convoluted story about how some rich dudes built their houses there. Unlike our Gold Coast which is presumably so named because it’s actually a coast and it’s kind of gold-looking. Anyway, the sniggering stopped when we saw how big Lake Michigan truly is. It might as well be the ocean, so ‘coast’ might be an apt descriptor after all.
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Our final stop of the day took some sleuthing. I’d read that in 1962 a bit of space junk crashed landed to earth outside an art gallery in Manitowoc, Wisconsin. It later turned out to be a bit of the Russian’s Sputnik IV and the actual site is marked by a very nondescript brass ring embedded into the road, and a modest plaque on the nature strip. It took us four laps of the block before we spotted it.
Apart from being a quirky stop on my ‘itinerary of kitsch’, as Hoff has taken to calling it, the space junk site also proved to be a good excuse to visit the county that is infamous for being the setting of ‘Making a Murderer’. I have some moral reservations about sticky-beaking around sites that are related true crime because I know there are very real victims, but man is it hard to switch off your inner rubber-neck. So we may or may not have toured the justice-related sites of Manitowoc County, but we assuaged our guilt by winding down the windows and loudly debating the location of the space junk to anyone who may have been within earshot. That way they’d think we were space nerds and not true crime ghouls (which is only marginally preferable, probably).
My last job of the day was to steel myself for what was to be an onslaught of sport for the duration of our next stop – Green Bay. Hoff is a veritable encyclopaedia of international sports knowledge and American football is no exception. In fact it’s a specialty. We’ve been together for 15-odd years now and I’ve always prided myself on my authentic-seeming engagement with Hoff’s running commentary and rattling off of facts, which he does with increased speed and frequency, the more excited he gets. So excuse me while I nibble on some cheese and Google fan chants in our hotel room. Go, Pack, go.

I LOVE POIDA

Ever since I was a kid I’ve loved sketch comedy. Full Frontal was my favourite and I adored Eric Bana’s Poida. I might be the only woman alive who found Eric Bana more attractive before he was a big Hollywood star when he sported a blonde mullet on Australian television.

Poida
Eric Bana as ‘Poida’, c. 1995

When I was in high school my friend Loz and I made our own sketch comedy show. My favourite sketch was when Loz interviewed me as Dr Miriam Stoppard, who was the author of a sex education book Santa had pointedly given me that year. We filmed it sitting fully clothed in an empty bath with stockings on our heads and we thought we were hilarious. That’s probably why we called it The Funny Show.

After The Funny Show went into permanent hiatus, I moved on to watching Saturday Night Live, devouring anything any SNL alumni went on to make and reading memoirs of all my favourite performers. And time and time again this same place kept popping up as a training and breeding ground for almost anybody who’s ever said anything funny: The Second City in Chicago. It’s been a dream of mine to see something there ever since. So here we are.

And did I mention there’s also a touring Saturday Night Live exhibition that just happens to be here right now as well? I love my life.

But first!

We started our stay in the Windy City with a food tour.  I learned was that Chicago is known as the Second City because it burned to the ground in 1871 and was completely rebuilt, not because it’s second to New York City, which is absolutely what I assumed. Apparently they get a little tetchy about that common misconception too. It’s their koala bear, evidently. Whoops.

And then onto Saturday Night Live: The Experience. Honestly, if there were a Make a Wish Foundation for adults in full health, it’d be my wish to spend a week at 30 Rock seeing how SNL is put together, which is exactly what the exhibition was. It was split into days and detailed outlines of what takes place on each day and it was absolutely incredible.

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This epic day was capped off with a visit to Jack’s Pumpkin Pop-Up which was essentially one giant, orange Instagram opportunity but super-fun, whatever the case. (Sidenote: do Americans have a problem with obesity because they see vegetables as decorations? Hmmm. Food for thought. Get it?)

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Friday saw us split up for the day because honestly, it’s been a long time since we’ve spent an extended amount of time together so we are pacing ourselves. I did a tour of the iconic Chicago Theatre and Hoff went to this sports museum where they something, something, home run, something, something hall of fame, something, something, World Series. I swear I was listening.

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We reconnected in the late afternoon for a Prohibition Bar Tour, which was great because if you can’t find a tour where you get to eat and learn about a city, surely a tour where you get to drink and learn about a city is the next best thing, if not better.

I’ve recently discovered that I have Scotch whisky distillers in my family tree and not so recently discovered that I really like alcohol so I’m always interested to learn more about its role throughout history. Predictably I learned much more in the first few stops of the tour than the last few. The basic take away was that Prohibition was doomed to failure from the outset and the whole thing was an exercise in futility but now we have themed speakeasy bars so it’s not all bad.

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And then finally, on to Second City which did not disappoint. We saw the 107th Revue on the Mainstage with a cast of six pretty great comedic performers and if one or two of them aren’t famous sometime in the next decade, I’ll be very surprised. Hoff and I laughed our heads off and it wasn’t just because of all the cocktails we’d had at Club Lucky before we arrived.

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The last few days in Chicago saw us live out a few more of our Windy City goals – I did a deep dish pizza making class and Hoff spent college football Saturday sitting in a bar with about 63 televisions watching half a dozen different football games, drinking beer and eating BBQ chicken wings.

We also spent a second night at Second City seeing a completely improvised musical based on an audience suggestion, which happened to be “Flying Covered Wagons”. It was one of the cleverest things I’ve ever seen on stage. I tried to hide in a broom closet in the Second City training centre at the end of the night so I could sneak into some classes come Monday but Hoff found me and made me come back to the hotel. We’re off to Green Bay next to see the Packers play Monday night football and apparently he’s not keen on missing it.

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In the meantime, thanks for the memories Chicago. We had a ball.