BUCKET LIST CRASHING

In winter 2015, I was living in Auckland, pregnant with the Girl Child, and spending my days between playgroup, swimming, Little Kickers and generally wrangling the Boy Child who was two at the time.

So when my sister, Tara, came to visit, we decided to get out of Auckland and see a bit of New Zealand.

We headed south for Rotorua, and spent a few days down there riding the Skyline, visiting Te Puia and trying to explain the link between increased Geothermal activity, sulphur and the unique odor of Rotorua to a two-year-old with a keen sense of smell.

I also accidentally drove right through the middle of a traditional Māori village (due to an overzealous GPS) which is hands down the worst thing I’ve ever done while travelling and left me feeling more mortified than the time my entire primary school saw my undies at assembly (long story).

So it was maybe the work of karma for this incident that saw the speedy decline in the Boy Child’s behaviour that trip.

He was not napping. He was not going to bed on time. He suddenly, loudly and violently began to exercise his right to conscientiously object to bathing.

Karma.

Or maybe it was the fact that he was two. I guess we’ll never know.

On the way home from Rotorua, almost as an afterthought, we stopped by Matamata which is the home of the Hobbiton movie set, and a critical stop for NZ Lord of the Rings kitsch.

And it was during this movie set tour that the Boy Child’s behaviour hit peak ratty-ness. He screamed. He tantrumed. He didn’t want to walk and as it turns out, Hobbiton is not pram-friendly. It was cold. It was muddy. He sat in the cold mud. He wanted to go inside the fake Hobbit house facades.

And about half way through the tour, when we were too far in to turn back, I suddenly though to myself, what am I doing here?

I didn’t even particularly enjoy the Lord of the Rings movies.

At about the same time I took closer notice of our co-travellers in our tour group. So many accents. So many highly specific questions for our tour guide. So many Lord of the Rings t-shirts.

And then it dawned on me, these were not people who had stopped here in passing. These were people who had come a long way to visit here. These were actual fans. These were people who were maybe even ticking off critical items on their life’s bucket lists.

And holy crap, my kid was ruining it all. The horror. For all I knew these people may never get a chance to get this far south of the Equator again, let alone try Hobbiton again on a day without a tiny two-year-old Aussie screeching because I wouldn’t let him pick the fake set flowers.

And this is hands-down the hardest thing about travelling with kids.

It’s not the jetlag. It’s not the constant demands for snacks as though our pantry has somehow grown sentient and accompanied us to the US. It’s the spectre of ruining someone else’s once in a lifetime experience with your kids’ unpredictable behaviour.

On that note, yesterday the kids and I went to see Aladdin on Broadway.

I suggested Hoff have the afternoon off (which was a decision driven by fiscal responsibility as much as it was marital compromise) and I was so excited to book the kids their first musical theatre tickets. And on Broadway, of all places.

I was nervous that they’d be too young, but I took precautions.

I planned a late morning snack during our stop at the beautiful Grand Central Terminal that morning to head off hangry-ness. I booked a matinee as opposed to an evening performance to mitigate tiredness. I booked the front row of a balcony to eliminate incidental seat kicking. I booked seats on the aisle in case I had to drag them out of the theatre by their ears and read them the riot act. I planned to bribe them with interval M&Ms.

But as the day drew closer and particularly when the kids woke up at 5am, the Boy Child with a blocked nose and headache, and it was raining, I started to have post-traumatic flashbacks to Hobbiton.

What if they’re noisy? What if they can’t sit still? What if they put their feet on the railings and drop their shoes over the balcony and brain some poor pensioner in the stalls? What if they don’t appreciate the shining, shimmering, splendidness of it all and completely lose it?!

Simply put – what if they ruin someone’s once in a lifetime Broadway experience?

Even worse – what if that someone whose once in a lifetime is ruined is me?!

As it turns out, they did none of those things. They sat (relatively) still and watched the show. They laughed at the appropriate times. The gasped in awe at the appropriate times. They peed their pants when there were unexpected pyrotechnics (not literally, thankfully, as that was one of the few doomsday scenarios I had not anticipated).

In the end, the Boy Child leaned over about ten minutes into the show and said, “mum, this is the best thing ever.”

And the Girl Child was so sold on the narrative that she queried why we were all clapping the bad guys in the curtain calls.

As for me, I shed a quiet tear during “Friend Like Me”, because I was so darn happy to share this experience with my kids, and to tick something off my own bucket list in the process.

And maybe a teensy bit in relief because this time we didn’t seem to be crashing anyone else’s bucket list ticking in the process.  

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TRY HARD

Wasn’t that just the insult of the mid-1990s?

Look at her in her ripped jeans and her Doc Martens. I bet she doesn’t even listen to Nirvana. What a try hard.

(They were right. I didn’t listen to Nirvana. But I still wear Doc Martens to this day. Because screw you 90s grunge kids; warm, comfortable footwear is for everyone.)

But who knew that as a mum, being a Try Hard would actually be a badge of honour?

What, me? A try hard? Your damn right I am. Or I do.

(Like right now I’m trying hard to understand the grammar.)

I write this from a silent Upper West Side hotel room as I wait for my kids to wake up after our arrival here last night.

New York City might be the city that never sleeps, but my kids sure do. Especially after we subjected them to a 28-hour door-to-door, long haul, cross hemisphere, international travel experience.

(Which is how I sold it to them in the first place, incidentally. The trick is in the marketing.)

And boy did I try hard in my preparations for this flight.

I did a trial suitcase pack three weeks prior to the flight to ensure I could cover all manner of social/meteorological situations in which we might find ourselves.

I bought those packing cells which I was worried might be a bit of a scam to convince highly strung family travel coordinators to part with their cash, but actually they’ve turned out to be my favourite things in life after my wedding ring and children.

I pre-selected our seating positions and meal choices.

I packed snacks, medications, fresh clothes and sleeping aids (comforters and eye-masks obviously, not medicinal – settle down Internet.)

Critically, I worked long and hard on packing things to entertain the kids during the flight.

In the days before we left, I was chatting to the Girl Child’s kindy teacher about our trip. She regaled me with stories of the effort she went to for carry on entertainment during a trip she took when her kids were similar ages to ours.

I inwardly beamed with pride when she starting listing an almost carbon copy of the contents of my kids’ backpacks – colouring books, educational worksheets, the makings of a comprehensive travel journal, meticulously crafted but critically lightweight travel games.

I mean, this woman is an actual qualified early childhood educator so maybe I’m was doing something right?

Then she dissolved into laughter and further recalled how once her kids were on the plane and had their seatback screen/personal entertainment devices in hand, they were totally happy and content to get on with the process of flying long-haul, and the only thing her hours of hard work really achieved was to create extra weight in their bags, which ended up being left – largely untouched – at their holiday destination as a result.

And now, having come through the other side of child-friendly, long-haul travel ourselves, I can concur that yep, I probably didn’t need to try so hard with all that stuff either.

The only thing I really should have done was learn how to play Minecraft, which we diligently installed on the Boy Child’s iPad before we left.

(Seriously though, send help. Like are you meant to eat the sheep or domesticate them? I’m so confused.)

That said, the lengths that I went to in preparing for our flight was nothing compared to the planning that has gone into our itinerary from here on in. There may or may not have been multiple spreadsheet tabs and graphic-based brainstorming maps. There were definitely multiple travel guides involved. Both online and hard copy.

My point is, I’ll never stop trying hard in my dogged pursuit of the creation of magical childhood travel memories for my children through our travel. It is my favourite incarnation of myself as a try hard so far.

(Take that, Stussy hat and overall wearing 1992 me).

I LEFT MY HEART IN NASHVILLE (AND MY KIDS IN QUEENSLAND)

As you may have gathered from my last post, we really enjoyed Nashville. But we had a bourbon tour a-waiting for us in Louisville, Kentucky, so at 7am on Saturday morning, we jumped in the car and headed towards Louisville to meet our tour with a half hour to spare.

Or so we thought.

When we plugged the address into our trusty iPhone maps we were horrified to find it put our arrival time at half an hour after we needed to be there. There was a one-hour time difference between Nashville and Louisville. This was disastrous. Louisville was our last stop and the sole purpose of our one-day stay there was to hit the Bourbon Trail.

Now, before you go judging our travel naivety, please let me just show you a map of the drive from Nashville to Louisville and then you decide whether you would have thought to check for time differences. Go on. Be honest.

Nashville to Louisville copy

Anyway, we spent the two and a half hour trip on the phone with the tour company trying to work out how we might be able to meet up with the group, without leaving our car stranded at some boutique, craft distillery in the middle of Nowhereville, Kentucky.

In the end, it was determined that we could make it to the first stop in time to meet up with the group, so Hoff made the chivalrous gesture of dropping me there, and forgoing the rest of the tour so he could take the car back to Louisville and pick me up later. Whattaguy.

The ensuing bourbon experience was lovely, albeit a little lonely. And needless to say, the whole race to get there, and Hoff missing out, put a bit of a dampener on our day, especially after we had such a brilliant time in Nashville.

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Maker’s Mark Distillery Grounds

Which unfortunately also put me in a bit of a broody mood on the whole, but particularly vis a vis, our children. Or more specifically, our separation from them.

The monkeys are only 3 and 5 so a two-week parting was always going to be a bit of a gamble. On both sides. Aside from the obvious, my fear was missing them too much and essentially ruining a good holiday with bad, moping moods.

And for their part, we left them with Hoff’s parents who live about 300m from the ocean, and they have a pool, and they have a thing called ‘second breakfast’. So there was a good chance they wouldn’t notice we were gone at all. But, you never know.

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Mudjimba Beach

Add into the mix that by Louisville we were well and truly on the home stretch of our trip and, well, it was a tricky day, emotionally-speaking.

I don’t think it was any coincidence that the one full day I spent apart from Hoff was also the one day I struggled most being away from the kidlets. As it turned out, all of us – both the kids and I – were pretty much fine throughout our holiday apart from each other.

We chatted to them on FaceTime every day, which as anyone with preschoolers will know, is tricky. Despite the fact that increased screen time seems to be the ultimate goal of my five year old most days, FaceTime with his wayward parents didn’t quite seem to fit the bill.

Also embarrassingly, every time we had to FaceTime them in public, within earshot of Americans, they had this odd habit of coming out with the weirdest things, such as “Hey Mum, guess what, Grandma hasn’t checked the mail for three days because there’s a frog living in the letterbox!” Doing nothing for the Australian stereotype on the whole.

frog

On this day though, I realised for me that any anxiety I had around being apart from the kids was probably being offset by the absolute pleasure I took from being in Hoff’s company for an extended amount of time; in reconnecting a little bit. It was the best. We had great conversations – finished them even, we shared new experiences and dissected them later, we had moments of doing our own thing and we had long periods of sitting together in silence, scrolling on our phones or reading, and taking absolute joy in the fact that would to do that, together. There was no work, no phone calls, no housework, no My Little Pony, no Hot Wheels, no cooking – at this point I’m legitimately unsure as to where my cutlery draw is located.

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The point is, I’ve been giving a lot of thought as to whether I’d do it again – leave the kids for this long. And I think the answer is, yes, absolutely I would. But not for a long time. It has been a dream, a refresher and a bit of a CTRL – ALT – DELTE on our lives, which had become a little stressful of late. But because it has been so wonderful, at this point, I don’t feel the need to do it again any time soon. It really has felt like such a privilege and I really believe this will carry me through for a good long time.

That said, I can absolutely also see myself being back around my children for about 23 minutes before I surreptitiously begin Googling airfares and hotel deals.

The three-year-old fancies herself as a bit of a comedian, highlights of which include “Why did the cat and the dog climb the tree? Because they got hit by a car.”

And when we ask the five-year-old about his day, he generally recounts the plot of the latest animated garbage he watched on telly. Despite the fact that the other 12 waking hours of his day were probably filled with activities specifically design to plant magical childhood memories in his brain.

Following the tour, I felt instantly better once being reunited with Hoff. I resolved to enjoy my last night in Louisville, and the last night of our holiday. It was filled with more bourbon and fried chicken (Kentucky-style), and of course lots of lovely, lovely reflecting on how very lucky we’ve been.

TAKING BACK ‘TOURISTY’

One of my favourite Saturday Night Live sketches is a Weekend Update with Tina Fey and Amy Poehler where they re-appropriate the word ‘bitch’ as a person who gets stuff done.

Tina: Maybe what bothers me the most is that people say that Hillary (Clinton) is a bitch. And let me say something about that. Yeah. She is. And so am I. And so is this one.

Amy: [Nods in agreement] Yeah. Deal with it.

Tina: You know what? Bitches get stuff done.

Since then, Hoff and I have found ourselves doing the same. He might come home from work and find everything looking unusually organised and say “Wow! You’ve been a real bitch today!” Or I’ll say, “Honey – I can see the bottom of the dirty clothes basket!” and he’ll say, “What can I say? I’m a bitch.”

Anyway, prior to arriving in Nashville, we’d heard rumours that the downtown can be a bit ‘touristy’. Some lovely people even gave us some recommendations with a more local flair.

But as we were staying in downtown, and feeling a bit lazy, on our first night we decided to go and check it out anyway.

And. It . Was. Awesome.

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So many people, so much music, so much fun and frivolity. So many groups of people celebrating special occasions wearing matching self-made t-shirts in honour of said special occasion.

We had the best time. We ate BBQ, we drank, we danced and we sang. We wandered down the street, listened to the live music floating out of bar windows and followed our ears to the ones we thought sounded best. And if we got sick of that one, we one upstairs – IN THE SAME PLACE – and listened to a different one. And then we did it all over again on our second night there.

I don’t know if that Tennessee Whisky had me feeling all warm and fuzzy (it is very smooth apparently), but I didn’t get a sense of any dirt-baggery either. Everybody just really seemed to be there to have a good time and enjoy the music. I wonder if that came down to the large cross-section of ages that seemed to be out having a good time. It could also be because Hoff and I never stayed out past 10.30pm because we ourselves are no spring chickens so perhaps this is not a peak dirt-baggery period.

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Whatever the case, I decided that I liked the touristy downtown of Nashville. Probably because I am a tourist. And also – why should ‘touristy’ = bad anyway? If lots of people flock to a place, it must have some intrinsic appeal? Frankly, I’m tired of trying to find the ‘hidden gems’ and sites ‘off the beaten track’ and ‘away from the crowds’. It’s too much hard work. I’m on holidays.

So I’m taking back ‘touristy’. Would I recommend a night out in downtown Nashville? Hell yeah, I would. It’s super touristy.

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.
johnny cash simpsons
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…)

(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.
Graceland
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.
hedda hopper

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.

 leader of the pack

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.

title strips

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.

sun studio

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.

thats alright mama

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