Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Looking Back on 2013

December is the month for receiving Christmas letters and I am always fascinated to read these little literary snapshots of the year in the life of my friends.

In lieu of actually writing one to mail out, here is my post-Christmas column, looking back on 2013.

At the start of January my expectations weren’t all that high for the coming year, for some reason 2013 didn’t seem like an auspicious number to me and the thought of turning 43 just seemed blah.

Life is constantly full of surprises and with less than a day to go until the commencement of 2014, I look back in utter amazement on my last twelve months.

Like most of us, I’ve had my share of sad, frustrating, self-doubting and lonely times throughout the year but it has been balanced out nicely with unexpected adventures, some really great times with my family and friends, visiting places that had long been on my wish list and achieving goals I had set for myself.

Two of my close friends turned fifty this year and both insisted on celebrating their birthdays in amazing locations. Thanks to Sal and Anna, I flew to Broome in March and Byron Bay in August.
Wategos Beach, Byron Bay

Publicly stating in January that I intended to complete the Great Victorian Bike Ride in November saw me buying a touring bike in February and adding between 100 – 200km of cycling to my weekly exercise regime. By April I was joining the Kerang District Health Team in the 27th Annual Murray to Moyne bike ride from Swan Hill to Port Fairy.

April also saw the start of footy season for Sam and Henry and my favourite winter weekend pastime – cheering them on at Saturday morning junior AFL – GO RAIDERS!!

In May after twelve years and 358,000km of adventuring in the Trusty Nissan I retired it and bought the Barrmobile – a 2011 model Mitsubishi Pajero – complete with power windows and a stereo.

At the end of June I embarked on my first solo overseas adventure; it was such an amazing trip where everything seemed to fall magically into place that it felt as though I was being watched over by the Angels of Travel. I flew to New York City then a few days later, boarded a train to Hartford, Connecticut to attend the National Society of Newspaper Columnists (NSNC) annual conference. Afterwards I spent a wonderful few days with my friend Suzette and her family at their Cape Cod summer home.

From Cape Cod I went via New York to The Hamptons on Long Island to meet and stay with my Mother’s childhood friend, Annabel (the lady I’m named after).  Annabel was a great hostess and gave an excellent tour of the district surrounding her home. For my final four days in the United States I flew to Chicago and stayed with fellow NSNC attendee, Joani. I had a fun time exploring the windy city by Segway (a battery-powered stand-up scooter) and sharing many laughs with Joani.

For a brief moment in time in September I landed my dream job: One of two official judges for the Koondrook Barham Farmers Market annual mud cake competition. What can I say? It was a tough job but someone had to do it.
Official Chocolate Mud Cake Judges 2013

In October I took on the role of barista for the Red Gum Food Group; running their coffee machine at the monthly Koondrook Barham Farmers Market with the boys agreeing to help by taking the coffee orders and money. At the end of the month, Max, Sam, Henry and I headed off on a week’s excellent adventuring with our friends Em, Amy and Ty, to the land of theme parks: the Gold Coast in Queensland. We visited Wet ‘n’ Wild, Sea World, Outback Spectacular and Movie World.

November arrived before we knew it and suddenly the four of us were pedalling our bikes along the Great Ocean Road from Mount Gambier in South Australia to Geelong in Victoria.

I reacquainted myself with early morning swimming at the Koondrook Pool in December, dragged the kayak down the bank for some paddling on the Murray River and made good use of the riverbank for after work drinks with friends as well as being the venue for our alfresco Christmas Day lunch. The river also provided us with a number of delicious fish dinners – we dined on pan-fried Murray Cod and Yellow Belly courtesy of Max and his fishing rod.

In amongst all this excellent adventuring my full-time massage therapy business, Rosedale Health and Wellbeing continued to expand with over five hundred clients on the books and now includes two days every month at Barham’s retirement/nursing home, Murray Haven; providing massage therapy to both the residents and the staff.

So there you have it, my 2013 – reminding me once again that life is a mystery and you just never know what is around the next corner.

To my readers in Australia and around the world, I hope you’ve enjoyed reading Behind the Barr in 2013 and thank you for your comments throughout the year. I wish all of you a new year filled with magical moments and excellent adventures in 2014.
Happy New Year!

Saturday, December 14, 2013

2013 Great Victorian Bike Ride - A week in another world...

“The best-laid schemes o' mice an' men 
gang aft agley” – Robert Burns 1759-1796

It is now approaching two weeks since the boys and I rode into Geelong and through the welcoming crowds that lined the finish line of this year’s Great Victorian Bike Ride. An epic cycling journey of more than 610km that began on a cold and wet Saturday in Mount Gambier, South Australia and finished on a gloriously sunny Sunday morning in Geelong, Victoria, nine days later.

As the famous Scottish poet, Robert Burns said back in the 1700s, the best-laid plans often go awry… Less than a week before we were due to depart for Mount Gambier, Granny (the other half of our support team and means of getting to the start and home again on the GVBR) broke her ankle… A quick scramble to Plan B saw Henry and I joining Scott, Lauren and their friend Jason in the Murphymobile.

Leaving warm and sunny Barham we arrived in the unexpectedly wintry and wet Mount Gambier 480km later for the start of the 2013 Great Victorian Bike Ride.
Tent city in Mount Gambier

Although as the cliché goes the road was long, it was beautiful. Barham was well represented with twelve members of “The Barham Bearly Bikers” and the Barham High School Team of twelve students and two teachers. We rode out of Mount Gambier with 5,000 other riders, past the famous Blue Lake that sits in the centre of an extinct volcano and on to Nelson, 42km down the road. Day Two saw us riding 74km from Nelson to Portland. Henry spent the first couple of days riding along with his friend and fellow Barham Primary School cyclist, James.

The third day was a long 95km to Port Fairy. At one stage in the morning along a eucalypt-lined road, I stopped to photograph a mother koala with a baby koala on her back.
Mother koala and baby
I chatted with fellow riders who had also stopped before continuing on to look for Henry, who hadn’t stopped. The next minute two police cars plus an ambulance, all with lights and sirens blaring roared past me and disappeared up ahead. Immediately my parental catastrophising brain kicked into gear as I imagined a sickening image of Henry falling into the path of some oncoming vehicle.

Nothing like those sort of thoughts to make you bike faster. By the time I’d reached the scene of the accident, I was out of breath, still hadn’t found Henry and my anxiety levels were escalating. The accident did not involve Henry; he had bicycled on cheerfully to the next rest stop.

Our longest distance day was Day Four. A reported 107km that turned out to be 113km, Port Fairy to Port Campbell where we stopped for two nights and enjoyed the Rest Day. Not far out of Port Fairy, Henry and I met Julia from Melbourne and her two children, Tim and Lucy. Julia was riding a tandem with Tim and Lucy taking turns riding behind the tandem and on an individual bike.

We met up with them again as we reached the Warrnambool morning tea stop along with their other tandem-riding friends Morwenna, Tim, Josh and Inga from Melbourne and Nick, Arwen, Miranda and Felix from Sydney. After a brief chat, Morwenna asked if Henry would like to ride on the back of her tandem and Inga could have a ride on Henry’s bike.
Henry about to ride with Morwenna on the tandem bike
Henry and Inga both thought this was a brilliant idea and happily we spent the next 50-odd kilometres of a very long day riding and swapping bikes with the tandem team children – Inga, Josh and Miranda. I enjoyed “drafting” behind the tandem bikes; making my ride considerably easier.

People that grow up on the Hay Plains (or around Barham for that matter…) have an entirely different concept of flat. Apparently the first four days of the ride were “mainly flat”. I discovered significant hills before we’d even left the outer suburbs of Mount Gambier and quickly had to find some lower gears on my bike.

The final twenty or thirty kilometres into Port Campbell were along the Great Ocean Road and we stopped for some photo opportunities at the Bay of Islands and London Bridge before wearily cycling into camp.
Henry at the Bay of Islands

Me at London Bridge
My Barham riding buddy, Trish had the misfortune of crashing into a rider who had crashed in front of her. Trish had been catapulted over her bike and landed heavily on her right shoulder and was transported into camp on the “Sag Wagon” (one of the many buses that collected injured or mechanically stranded cyclists along the route).

I had all sorts of adventures planned for the rest day but in reality I felt so thoroughly exhausted that Henry, Trish and I were all content to just eat ice creams, fish and chips, soak our legs in the Southern Ocean and play on the Port Campbell beach.

We caught up with Max and Sam who were both riding with the Barham High School Team. They were getting on the road much earlier than us each day and also arriving into each campsite several hours before us. Although we didn’t see much of each other during the ride, both Max and Sam had an uncanny knack for finding me when their snack-spending-money fund was running low.

Day Six, an 80km ride to Gellibrand, saw us pedalling past the world famous Twelve Apostles (limestone stacks up to 45 metres high caused by erosion from the Southern Ocean) and up into the Otway Ranges and the dreaded Lavers Hill…
Stopping for a "Kodak Moment" with Henry at The Twelve Apostels

Six kilometres from our lunch stop and the top of Lavers Hill, Henry was ready to quit. Not ready to concede defeat this close to victory, we rested by the side of the road while I did my best to convince Henry to keep going. I wasn’t having much success until a magnificent teacher from Sandringham College stopped and helped. He literally pushed Henry along on his bike until Henry started pedalling again for himself – thank you oh mysterious trail angel!!
Henry and I at the top of Lavers Hill

With our nemesis, Lavers Hill conquered we headed off after lunch for the final 33km down into Gellibrand. Unfortunately my knee began to hurt shortly after lunch, causing me to be significantly slower than Henry on any uphill sections. Henry (enjoying a second wind) joined forces with Senior Constable Mel from Halls Gap, who was riding in uniform as part of the Victorian Police’s bicycle team.
Henry with Senior Constable Mel

That night Trish and I met up again with Gerry and Max from Sydney, who we’d met outside the Frying Nemo fish and chip shop in Port Campbell. While Henry watched Harry Potter on the big screen at the campsite, Trish, Gerry, Max and I wandered into downtown Gellibrand (pop. 383) – a little town with a big heart.

Like Barham a couple of years ago, Gellibrand had pulled out all stops to welcome the thousands of Great Vic Bike Riders and we enjoyed retail therapy at the local art gallery, pancakes with homemade plum jam and fresh Jersey cream at the local hall and a delicious bowl of Port Arlington mussels and icy cold beer at the Gellibrand Hotel.

The following day proved to be my toughest on the whole ride. Day Seven was 81km from Gellibrand to Birregurra with the day commencing with a relentless 16km climb out of the Gellibrand River Valley. The enormous daily rides and a late night watching Harry Potter proved the undoing of Henry, who refused to leave his sleeping bag.

While another shower of cold Otway rain washed over us, our camping gear and bikes and I was despairing at getting either of us on the road in time, I felt very close to tears and wondered why the hell I’d ever thought embarking on this excellent adventure with an eleven year old was a good idea. “God! Give me strength!” I muttered loudly to myself… Shazam! Yet another angel magically appeared… Chris (a school teacher from Warrnambool) offered to take Henry on the Sag Wagon.

With Henry sagged to Birregurra for a day of rest and relaxation, I pedalled on slowly. Although the ride’s physiotherapist had taped my knee that morning, it still hurt every time I put it under pressure.

The ride from Beech Forest along Turton’s Track through the heart of the Otway Ranges was beautiful. Cycling past dense rainforests of Myrtle Beech, Blackwood and Tree-ferns was quite an experience for someone more used to the open plains of the southern Riverina.

Arriving into Birregurra I found a cheerful, well-rested Henry. He had managed to locate Truck Two, collect our bags and erect our tents; a very welcome sight indeed as all I wanted to do was eat dinner at the GVBR’s Café de Canvas and crawl into my sleeping bag.

Day Eight had us riding 82km from Birregurra, up through Deans Marsh,
Henry approaching the top at Deans Marsh
an exhilaratingly steep descent down to Lorne for lunch and then a picture-perfect sunny afternoon cycling along the Great Ocean Road to Torquay for the evening.
5,000 riders getting ready to leave Lorne
Trish, Henry and I caught up with friends and former Barhamites, Nat, Pete and Will before Trish and I joined Gerry and Max for dinner at Scorched a great little restaurant facing Zeally Bay. I felt a tad underdressed in my black tracksuit pants I’d spent most of the previous eight nights sleeping in but the service, food and wine was impeccable and a fitting epicurean celebration for our final night on the Great Vic.

Henry at the world famous Bells Beach
Sunday dawned; our final day was a “measly” 49km into Geelong via Barwon Heads. Henry and I decided to forego our usual Café de Canvas breakfast, opting instead to pack up and get breakfast en route. We found Café Moby shortly down the road and enjoyed a magnificent breakfast: bacon and egg roll plus an enormous chocolate muffin with a glass of fresh apple juice for Henry; sourdough toast with avocado, smoked salmon and goat’s cheese with a strong latte for me… my first coffee in nearly a fortnight – why on earth hadn’t I been drinking caffeine?! Suddenly I felt as though I’d been recharged and Henry obviously had too. “It’s only 49km Mum, lets not stop again until we reach Geelong.” So we didn’t.

I feel immensely proud of the boys and that we all completed the ride. It was certainly tougher and more challenging than I had envisaged through my rose-tinted cycling sunnies but as the GVBR saying goes, it really is a week in another world.
Sam, me, Henry and Max arriving back home in Barham

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

The Great Australian Squeeze

For more than sixty years the Williamson family of Barham have been growing oranges amongst the sandhills along the Murray River in southern New South Wales. Since the1960s they have been picking and trucking their oranges to the Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane and Adelaide markets.

Earlier last month they had their first bottling run under their own label, “The Great Australian Squeeze”; a pure fresh orange juice that is naturally sweet with no added sugar – grown, squeezed and bottled here in Barham. It is a culmination of a number of year’s work to add value and market their own product as well as promoting the local citrus industry around Barham/Koondrook as a whole to the rest of Australia.

A little over a year ago they built a juice processing and bottling plant and began supplying pure orange juice to a Melbourne firm under the label of Milla’s. When Milla’s first approached Kurrnung to supply them with juice, Kurrnung had over one thousand tonnes of Valencia oranges sitting on their trees unsold.

Looking for a way to increase the value of their citrus crops and increase industry and employment opportunities within the local Barham district, Kurrnung agreed to supply Milla’s. They promptly installed a juice processing and bottling plant capable of juicing four tonnes of oranges or producing approximately two thousand litres of juice per hour.

For years Australian orchardists have fought a losing battle against cheap imported oranges and orange juice concentrate from both North and South America. The big multinational juice processing plants such as Lion (Berri and Daily Juice) and Heinz (Original Juice) do buy some Australian grown citrus for their juice products but a substantial amount of their juice is reconstituted from imported concentrate that is significantly cheaper than the premium fresh juice produced in Australia. Small quantities of orange juice concentrate are produced in Australia but in the vast majority of cases, if you are buying orange juice made from concentrate, you are buying imported juice.

Fresh orange juice is a powerhouse of anti-oxidants, essential minerals, vitamins, and nutrients that can provide long-term benefits for your health. It is a naturally good source of potassium, essential for the functioning of our nerves and helping reduce the risk of high blood pressure.

Drinking orange juice with meals boosts the absorption of important minerals like iron. Simply having a glass with your breakfast cereal will boost the amount of iron your body absorbs during that meal. Drinking at least two glasses of orange juice per day increases the vitamin C concentration within the body by 40 to 60 percent. Vitamin C has many benefits for your body; it improves the health of skin, joints and the entire cardiovascular system. It is also a powerful antioxidant and stimulates your immune system.

Kurrnung is hoping to supply towns along the Murray River with The Great Australian Squeeze and extend their market through to Sydney as the demand grows.

With the big national supermarket chains, Woolworths and Coles keen to publicise their support for Australian farmers and fulfill the wishes of a growing groundswell of Australian consumers pushing to buy homegrown produce, it is anticipated The Great Australian Squeeze will be on supermarket shelves nationally before too long.

Already locals and visitors alike have been able to purchase the juice at Club Barham; our local supermarkets, IGA and Foodworks; the BP Service Station on Moulamein Road, the Riverside Café in Murray Street and the Long Paddock Food Store in Koondrook, all avid supporters of locally grown produce.

The Great Australian Squeeze is the end result of local orchardists who are passionate about their industry and committed to producing the very best fresh orange juice for the Australian public.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Training for the 2013 Great Victorian Bike Ride

With a little over a week to go until this year’s Great Victorian Bike Ride (GVBR), I thought I’d share a little update on how team Barr is travelling…

Back in January I mentioned that one of my goals for 2013 was to complete the GVBR  (you can read all about it here). As is the case in many of my goals, it expanded to being (what I thought would be) a great idea to involve the whole family…

My happy little vision included my three sons (Max, Sam and Henry) and I all heading out after school or work and on weekends together for training rides. We’d be chatting, smiling and laughing together as we road along in the sunshine, with a nice tailwind, building up our fitness for the nine day, 610km event in November.

When I’m excited and passionate about an idea, I can be extremely convincing so I set about extolling the virtues of the ride to the boys:
  • It would be a memorable life experience we all shared

  • We would get fitter and feel healthier

  • It would build our resilience and self-confidence levels

  • We would meet thousands of other friendly bike riders

  • We would be riding our bikes along one of Australia’s most famous and picturesque roads
  • Someone else would be transporting all our luggage and preparing our meals

  • Every day would be a new adventure and every night we would camp at a new location

  • At the end of the ride we would all bask in the warm glow that is the sense of achievement

  • They’d have over a week off school!

Before long the boys had agreed to enter the GVBR with me (on the proviso that it was a once off and they would never have to go in it again…)

What can I say? I now understand the saying, “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.”

The reality of training has so far, been somewhat different to my vision at the beginning of the year. While I have been loving getting on my bike at every opportunity… my three sons have not. In fact, if given a choice they would just pump the tyres up on their bikes the night before the start of the GVBR and pedal off the next morning.

Our training rides have gone along the lines of me enthusiastically announcing it’s time for a training ride and my sons flatly refusing. Me calmly stating that we will be going for a training ride and my sons flatly refusing. Me getting a little upset and my sons becoming more adamant that they will not be going out today… maybe tomorrow… or next week. Me promising ice creams all round if we bike the Murrabit Loop (60kms) the boys suggesting we bike to the local café for ice cream instead (2km). Me getting cranky and then resorting to parental blackmail and other forms of psychological damage (read: I will throw your Xbox in the bin.). It usually ends in tears (namely mine) before we all get on our bikes and ride out (into a cyclonic headwind). Clearly I am not cut out to be a teacher, coach or an inspiration leader and I question my ability to even be a parent… where have my rose-tinted cycling sunnies gone?

It wasn’t meant to be like this!

Despite my somewhat less than ideal reality of preparing for the upcoming bike ride with the boys, I am still tingling with excitement and anticipation for what I am sure will be an excellent adventure – bring on the 23rd November 2013!

The picture below is a fine example of my goal to do the GVBR. The vision versus the reality… It is also a fine example of life. The vision versus the reality. And often it helps to remember this.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

A Town Called Mills Acre

On a Friday night back in September, my dad (Farmer Bill) and I attended Outback Theatre for Young People’s original and brilliant production, “A Town Called Mills Acre”… Namely to watch the youngest Barr and budding thespian, Henry take to the stage.

Henry and his great mate, Tom Mason, had been chosen to mentor the debuting actors and actresses from Barham Primary School – Mrs Laughlin’s class of K/1 Red.

Built in 1921, the School of Arts Hall in Murray Street, Barham, swelled to capacity with over 300 people attending the final night’s performance. A culmination of more than six month’s work with our Outback Theatre for Young People’s (OTYP) Angela Frost and Richie Hallal.

OTYP Artistic Director, Angela and Designer, Richie worked tirelessly with a core cast of five students from Barham High School - Jesse Buchanan, Shanelle Faul, Katherine Loomes, Annie Stewart and Eddy Wilson – together they developed and wrote the play; a story about the families within the rural community of Mills Acre.

The story of a small rural community facing the reality of massive water allocation reductions for irrigated crops, falling commodity prices, of essential services being closed and the drift of country families to cities. A town called Mills Acre could have been Barham or Hay or Wakool or Moulamein or any number of small towns and communities within the Murray Darling Basin in rural Australia.

The full cast included over eighty additional students from Barham High School, Barham Primary School, Moulamein Primary School and Wakool Burraboi Primary School.

 “Shelby McCoy and her family run an irrigation rice farm. Their livelihood comes under pressure due to changes in water access, environmental concerns, and the growing fear of an uncertain future. The McCoys are forced to question their own lifestyle and very fabric that holds their community together. This heart-warming story of a family paving their way forward through innovation, creativity and courage.”

The play very aptly conveys to the audience what it feels like to face the prospect of losing the job you had always assumed was yours for life and with it your house, your possessions, your security and your dreams.

It is hoped with further funding and sponsorship this powerful play will go on to dazzle audiences in our national capital, Canberra. Stay tuned…

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Leaving America

My final day in the United States, the 10th July 2013, arrived all too quickly. Joani piloted me safely back to O’Hare International Airport near Chicago, where I caught my two hour flight back to New York’s JFK Airport on a Jet Blue A320 aeroplane.

At JFK it was a simple matter of collecting my luggage and catching the AirTrain from Terminal 5 to Terminal 7 and checking in on Qantas flight 108 to Sydney via Los Angeles, due to depart at 6.55pm.

With about four hours to kill, I settled down next to a power point and got out my trusty Macbook for a spot of typing.

Late in the afternoon announcements began broadcasting over the PA system alerting passengers to a massive storm cell that was stretching from Florida in the south to Buffalo in the north. The storm cell included significant tornadoes across the east west flight paths, delaying all flights from New York to the West Coast.

We boarded our plane an hour behind schedule but then spent over two hours sitting in a queue on the tarmac with more than forty planes in front of us, all trying to get a safe east/west route. When we finally took off our flight path took us over southern Canada to avoid the storm; we arrived in Los Angeles (LAX) more than five hours later.

At one stage our LA – Sydney flight was going to be diverted via Brisbane to refuel before reaching Sydney. An eleventh hour change saw us back on our original flight path, directly to Sydney.

After a long but pleasant flight back to Australia, I changed planes at Sydney and then flew on down to Melbourne. It was lovely to be greeted by Farmer Bill and Granny and driven three and a half hour’s home to Barham and the boys.

And so ended my (first) excellent adventure to America… and I have to agree with the late Mark Twain, who said:

“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one's lifetime.”

Travelling to the USA had never been on my wish list, mainly due to my preconceived and not very flattering ideas about Americans I had formed in 1994. This is a gross generalisation but back then when I was traveling through Europe, the Americans I met or observed were (in my opinion): loud, arrogant, not that worldly and... they wore pastel coloured tracksuits… (ok, that is being a little harsh considering my fashion-sense is questionable at best.)

My impression of Americans didn't improve over the years, thanks to what seemed like a tsunami of US TV shows flooding our local television channels and limiting our Aussie content.  (I also felt Australia would blindly follow the US like a besotted schoolgirl).

It was only because of the NSNC Conference that I went there.

Now upon reflection, after nearly three weeks of travel around the eastern side of the United States, my opinions have changed significantly; below is a very brief summary:

·               I found the people I met (from all walks of life) were welcoming, extremely polite and helpful and I experienced many random acts of kindness from complete strangers.

·               When it comes to good manners and speaking politely, I now think it is we Australians who could learn a thing or two from the Americans.

·               Food portions were definitely on the large side, however healthy salads, fresh fruit, meat and vegetables were readily available choices.

·               One final snippet of surprise: New York City has the best tap water (after rain water) I’ve ever drunk – who knew?
I always wondered what a stick of butter looked like...

Saturday, August 31, 2013

Chicago: Off to the Windy City on a Whim

Using public transport in New York City is surprisingly easy. With very little effort or anxiety, I managed to find my way from Penn Station to Jamaica Station to JFK Airport and then onto my Jet Blue plane to Chicago.

I sat next to a charming mechanical engineering student from India (whose name now escapes me) she was studying at the University of Illinois. Unfortunately (I type tongue in cheek) she lent me a pair of earphones to listen to the in-flight news… unnervingly the breaking news story was of a major air crash at the San Francisco airport where a South Korean airliner had crashed and burst into flames on landing. Not the sort of visuals you want when you’re cruising at 36,000 feet. Fortunately, my trip was pleasant and uneventful.

Former columnist with the Chicago Sun-Times media group, Joani Foster, who I’d met at the NSNC Conference the week before had invited me to come and stay. Joani met me at O’Hare International late on Saturday night and drove me back to her home at St. Charles, Illinois – a city of 33,000 on the banks of the Fox River about an hour west of Chicago.

The next day we eased into the final day of the weekend by attending the Unity Church of Fox Valley’s Sunday morning service and joining fellow churchgoers afterwards for a delicious lunch.

I’d been praying to find a large antique or bric-a-brac centre… my prayers were answered after lunch when we learnt the monthly Kane County Flea Market (antiques, collectibles & fancy junque "Best in the Midwest or Anywhere!") was open for the weekend. I spent a fascinating few hours wandering around the hundreds of stalls and chatting with various stallholders. I learnt all about collecting antique fishing lures from Sam, who
Vintage fishing lures
explained the value of lures still in their original boxes and the merits of various miniature oil cans used to oil fishing reels. Another stallholder, Jim, explained the difference between numerous vintage baseball mitts and Dave and Sue further down enlightened me on coin silver flatware (pre 1880 silver cutlery produced by melting silver coins)… you just never know when this sort of information could come in handy.

Monday was my day designated to visit downtown Chicago. Former home to one of the most notorious American gangsters of the 20th century, Al Capone (1899-1947), Chicago was founded in 1833. Today, it is an architecturally beautiful city of 2.8million people, built on the shore of Lake Michigan. I caught an early morning train from Geneva Station into the city with Joani meeting me for lunch later on.

I booked a 10am Segway PT tour with City Segway Tours. A Segway PT (Segway Personal Transporter) is best described as (my new favourite toy) a battery-powered stand-up scooter. It is a fun form of two-wheeled transport invented in 2001 by American businessman and inventor, Dean Kamen. Environmentally friendly, the self-balancing, electric powered machine works by using internal gyroscopes and tilt sensors (lean your weight forward and the Segway moves forward; lean back and the Segway slows, stops and goes backwards). They are an ideal way of touring a town or city and can travel at speeds up to 20km/hr and cover a maximum distance of 38km on a single battery charge. City Segway Tours run rain, hail or shine… as luck would have it, I had rain. Torrential rain.

I was paired with a lovely family of five from Arizona, who were taking a break from the olive groves they owned. As lightning and thunder flashed and crashed overhead, I was thinking it was probably a good thing I’d attended church the day before…

A Segway is surprisingly easy to ride and after some brief instruction from our cheerful and knowledgeable tour guide, Segway-Master Clark, and about five or ten minutes practising; we were all zooming around quite comfortably… in fact, some of us were wondering how to override the speed limiters…

Our three-hour tour took us past Soldier Field; a football stadium opened in 1924, it serves as a memorial to American soldiers who have died in wars and since 1971, it has been home to the National Football League’s Chicago Bears.

Further along the tour, we came to the Shedd Aquarium, built in 1930; it was once the largest aquarium in the world. Stopping at a nearby lookout gave us views across Monroe Harbor to Navy Pier and the panoramic skyline of the city. While we were there, I took the opportunity to glide up to a hot dog stand and purchase and eat
Chicago-style Hot Dog
a Chicago-style hot dog. Consisting of a steamed all-beef frankfurter on a poppy seed bun with yellow mustard, onion, sweet pickle relish, tomato, red peppers, a dill pickle and celery salt – it was a tasty snack when you’re cold, wet and hungry!

We zoomed along Lake Shore Drive, stopping for a Kodak moment in front of one of the world’s largest fountains, the substantial Buckingham Fountain. Modelled after the Latona Fountain at Versailles in France, the Buckingham Fountain has been a Chicago landmark since 1927. From there we made our way to the beautiful Millennium Park – officially opened in 2004, it holds Indian-born British artist, Anish Kapoor’s mighty sculpture, Cloud Gate, known more commonly as The Bean.

The Bean was completed and unveiled in 2006. Moulded out of seamless, mirror-polished stainless steel this massive sculpture weighs in at around 100 tonnes.  Resembling a gigantic blob of liquid mercury, this whimsical work of art has taken first place in my all time favourite modern outdoor sculptures. The mirror-polished stainless steel reflects the famous skyline of Chicago as well as the thousands of tourist who come to photograph it. Once the tour had finished, I walked back to The Bean and waited to meet Joani.

After a delicious lunch at The Park Grille, we walked down the road to the Art Institute of Chicago. Inside the 1893 building was a treasure trove of art and artefacts spread over one million square feet. I loved the Thorne Rooms; a gallery of some 86-miniature
Massachusetts Living Room and Kitchen 1675 - 1700
rooms by American artist,
Narcissa Niblack Thorne (May 2, 1882 – June 25, 1966). With extraordinary detail, the Thorne Rooms allow you to vicariously glimpse European interiors from the late 13th century to the 1930s and American furnishings from the 17th century to the 1930s.

Other artistic treasures we viewed included Marc Chagall’s America Windows or “Chagall Windows” which famously appeared in the 1986 film Ferris Bueller’s Day Off; the Arthur Rubloff Collection of Paperweighs (one of the largest collections in the world) and Grant Wood’s famous 1930 oil painting American Gothic.

By the time we got to Geneva Station it was quite late (after 9.30pm); driving back to Saint Charles from the station we saw a couple of skunks. It appeared to be Pepe le Pew and Mrs le Pew, out for an evening stroll. Afraid to get too close, I took a couple of pretty ordinary photographs… better that than getting sprayed by the highly offensive chemicals they produce in their anal scent glands, Joani assured me.
Pepe le Pew the skunk... not my best photographic effort

For my final day Joani and I attended a morning yoga class at the huge state-of-the-art Delnor Health and Wellness Centre, followed by lunch with Joani’s writing group (Joyce, Roseanne and Kate) at a pub in Batavia overlooking the fast-flowing Fox River.

Our last stop for the day was the big Kohls department store, where I bought some sports clothes… in anticipation of a serious health kick for when I got home to counteract the intensive and dedicated food research I had conducted whilst visiting the United States…
With Joani's writing group