FROM THE BIG APPLE TO THE BIG ONION

Yo bro’s, what’s happenin’? Been long time … you know whaaaa I’m sayin’? 🤪

I’ve been crazy busy immersing myself in the whole Chicago culture and spending lots of time with the apple of my eye, … Harry! (Sorry Colm 😂, you know you are too!).

As I’ve mentioned in previous blogs, we have had nothing but good experiences with the natives of each place that we have visited so far. Our journey is not just about the places we visit but also about the different people we meet along the way. I know this sounds a bit disingenuous given that I have mentioned this in my previous blogs, but guys, the people we have had the honor of hanging out with here in Chicago on both this and our previous visit here has been so heartwarmingly welcoming! They have gone out of their way to spend so much time with us, taking us to see the sights of the city during our stay and just hanging out with us generally. And I speak in particular (aside from Allie and Jonny) about Stephanie, Mona and Erin, Athena and John, Dale and Maddie, and of course Marian and John!

So, before I move on to Harry, let me tell you a little bit about this fantastic city! As with all of my visits to previous destinations, one of the first things I always try to do is to learn a bit about the history of the place that I am visiting, to get a feel for the place so to speak, and so, I always find that a trip to a local Museum is the most informative place to do this as a first stop. A Museum will always set the tone and give you a great insight into what has shaped a place and is great for prioritizing your itinerary on the most interesting sights to see in any city. We got that opportunity in the first few days of our visit when a wonderful friend of Alison and Jonny’s (and now thankfully ours too), Mona, took us on a tour of the Chicago History Museum. And let me share a little bit of the amazing history that I’ve learned folks! Did you know that this city of culture and art derived its name from an Onion? Yes, an Onion (or more correctly a “wild leek”). It was originally called Checagou, which was the name that the Native American Indians gave to the plant back in the 1700’s. They, as in the Indians, grew this plant for food way back then! And Checagou then became Chicago! Not fake news! But true!

Chicago has come through so many periods of crisis over the years and its response to each has most definitely shaped its identity today. Gangland crime, Mass immigration and the successful integration of a vast amount of immigrants into its society, etc. however the biggest and most famous crisis of Chicago happened in 1871. The “Great Fire of Chicago”, left 300 people dead with hundreds of thousands losing their homes. Now, that’s not a lot of people I hear you say, but just think, way back then the population of Chicago was quite small, c. 300,000. The number of people that perished was quite small given that strong winds spread the fire which started in the southwest side of the city, across the city. However, the death toll would have been higher but for the natives taking refuge in the waters of Lake Michigan. The city for the most part was totally destroyed. In the aftermath of the fire, the people of Chicago basically had to re-build the city from scratch, pretty much on the ruins of the city that had lodged its debris on the banks of the Great Lake (east of Michigan Avenue). The motto “I will” was born here and the city as it stands today with outstanding architecture and skyscrapers as far as the eye can see are evidence of the resilience of this community. Interestingly, no real reason was ever found as to what started the fire. However, one of the stories doing the rounds is that it was the fault of an Irish woman called Catherine O’Leary who was milking her cows in a barn one night in the southwestern part of the city, with a paraffin lamp lit by her side. The story goes that the cow kicked over the lamp and that the this was the source of the small fire that spread and destroyed the city. Ah…sure it’d have to be an Irish woman that’d get the blame…😱😂. Later stories discounted this version and a more scientific explanation was that a meteorite shower that coincidentally happened that very same night caused the fire in a dried wooded area. Now, as an Irish woman, that sounds like a more plausible explanation to me! Did you know that the very first Skyscraper was built here? The contraceptive pill was also invented here too, which led to the whole free love and all that went with that of the 1960’s and 70’s.

I was also blown away when learning more about Abraham Lincoln! I know I am stating the obvious when I say that his connections with Chicago are huge, thus the naming of so many places in his honor. Statues adorn so many parks and streets and in fact the area that Allie and Jonny live in is called “Lincoln Park” after him. Another fantastic man, Dr. Martin Luther King who had strong connections with Chicago. In 1956 during the early months of the Montgomery bus boycott, he gave his first sermon in Chicago. Both men had the same dream, freeing black people from slavery and seeking justice and equal rights for the black communities. And both suffered the same fate, death at the hands of white supremacists. Reading about these influential heroes of men, being shot in cold blood after all they had achieved, was so dreadfully wrong and should absolutely serve as a reminder to every political leader throughout the world today charged with ensuring that people of different colors, race, religion are treated equally !! It is quite moving seeing the trojan work done historically for the black community by both Lincoln in the abolishment of slavery and of Martin Luther King on the work he and his followers have done in an attempt to ensure that the black communities are treated with respect and have the same opportunities as all other nationalities living in Chicago. And yet, while I’ve visited the north side of the city and Chicago itself, I have been advised not to venture into certain parts of the city where black disadvantaged communities exist. It is apparently not safe to travel into these parts, with drug cartels, gang wars and a huge number of shootings happening on on a daily basis. And I can’t help but wonder (albeit without a thorough and full knowledge of the causation of the problems faced by these communities and more importantly, the reasons why these black communities remain so ghettoized) if Martin Luther King and Lincoln were alive today, what their take would be on the situation that still exists with the lack of investment to these ghettoized black communities? Would they believe that there is enough being done to educate and help these people to break the cycle of ghettoization and stop these daily shootings? Incidentally, I noticed in the recently televised elections for the State of Illinois, that out of a huge number of candidates running for election, there is a clear lack of representation from the black communities. Only one candidate (Kwame Raoul) who won the Attorney General count was black. I’m at a loss to understand how the black people of Chicago/Illinois feel when they see absolutely no representation from their own black communities at such important election events? It has certainly given me an appetite to learn more about these parts of Chicago and to delve further into the reasons why these predominantly black neighborhoods still have such huge social problems.

And while I have had the privilege of visiting this beautiful city, my access to parts of it have been somewhat restricted. I can only speak of the more privileged parts of the city that I have had the pleasure of seeing, which on the face of it are diverse and full of people integrated from all countries around the world. Black, White, Asian, African-Americans, etc. all living together in harmony for the most part. Homelessness seems to be pretty much under control here too, and the numbers of homeless people visible on the streets is much lower than New York. I’m not suggesting that the problem is any less significant here, but again, I am told by the people of Chicago that homeless people are well taken care of in the main in this city.

Having said that, on Mother’s Day, Alison took me out for a lovely lunch and Colm ventured off into the city by himself. While walking down one of the main streets in Chicago, he came across a man, (pretty much the same age as himself), sitting in the middle of the road, clearly distressed and wanting to end it all. Colm and another lady went to intervene and thankfully Colm managed to convince him to stand up and walk with him to the safety of the footpath, where he spoke to him and took him for some lunch/food. Naturally, he wanted to find out pretty much what was going on in this poor man’s head and so spent the afternoon with him, and they shared stories of their respective lives. This man had had a really tough time of life up to this point and thankfully at the end of the evening when Colm left him he had moved past where he had been earlier in the day. The reason I am mentioning this here is for no other reason than the fact that unfortunately Colm only managed to get the man’s name and has since been wondering what became of him when he left him that afternoon. He said his name was Francisco Thomas, and that he was completing the last five months of a probationary period following a lengthy prison stint. Colm found him at Wells Street, Chicago but Francisco was from Birmingham, Alabama. So if anyone reading this knows of this man, it would be great if they could reach out and let us know if he is doing ok and if there is anyway we could contact him again. It’s worth a try!

On a lighter note, I’ve been touring around getting flicks of the famous Chicago Bean 😱 where my ass looked way bigger than it normally would in photos due to the magnified mirror and its concave shape..ahemmm… doing the whole Shakespeare Comedy Improv show, which was most definitely another highlight of the trip for all of us, thanks to Mona again. (If you have never experienced the improv comedy that Chicago is renowned for, you really haven’t lived folks. It is a uniquely hilarious art form that has to be seen to be believed). The Shakespeare one is particularly amazing….and it is certainly not what you’d imagine it to be… I won’t spoil it, just get there if you can!. Travelling the subways and discovering the underground city of Chicago (the Pedway), taking lovely walks by Lake Michigan, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Chicago Cultural Centre, Millennium Park, the Willis Tower, and some fantastic walking tours of the city. Seeing the Hugh Hefner playboy mansion (they invited me to come join them, but I said I was only here for a month 😂 – although I did bring my small red swimsuit in case I had a change of heart 😂😱), Cathal’s arrival in Chicago, celebrating Paddy’s Day with him and my beautiful daughter Allie, her husband Jonny and Harry and their fabulous friends. Witnessing the whole St. Patrick’s Day celebrations (after that Irish Rugby win – talk about adding to the excitement of the day), the dyeing of the Chicago river to a luminous shade of green, celebrating with Egan’s Irish Whiskey (no less). Man, I have just fallen head over heals in love with this city! Sadly, both Caoimhin and Colm’s absence were felt on St. Patrick’s Day (Colm’s wonderful uncle Jim passed away just before St. Patrick’s Day and he travelled home to Ireland naturally to be with his family. Caoimhin is busy working in Madrid in Spain).

Now if you are lucky enough to be visiting Chicago, you cannot miss a visit to one (or all if you can manage it) of the city’s old Speakeasy bars. Speakeasy bars (secret bars) became a thing during a time when there was a nationwide constitutional ban on the production and sale of alcohol between 1920 and 1933. Prohibition supporters called “drys” (mainly women apparently, trying to keep their husbands from the curse of drink) presented the prohibition as a victory for public morals and health. However, unbeknownst to these do-gooders and as with all banned substances, there were ways and means around the prohibition, and the people of the USA figured it out by setting up secret “Speakeasy” bars. In these bars back in the day, alcohol flowed freely and all sorts of shenanigans went on…best leave this bit to your imagination! Interestingly, Mona, for whatever reason and in her wisdom knew how much we might appreciate a visit to one of these bars (ahemmm) and kindly took us to one of the oldest and uniquely authentic Speakeasys in Chicago called “The Drifter” . On arrival we climbed down a staircase to the basement of a building and accessed the bar through a secret door disguised as a bookshelf! Yes, honestly, a bookshelf with ornaments placed neatly on each shelf…all innocent like! Sure what else would it be there for boyyyy ehhh? 😂😂😂. To open the door we had to twist one of the ornaments – and inside, a jaw-dropping sight! Nothing has changed since its original existence. The bar, the bottles on the shelves, everything remains intact as it was back then. And a stage with musicians and dancers performing exactly as they did back in the day. A true glimpse of a moment in the city’s history where we felt transported back to the 1920’s as we sat there watching the performers on stage and sipping our cocktails – in the dark, in secret  Although, it was a bit of a throwback to my teenage years, sneaking Pernod from my parents drinks cabinet and thinking they didn’t notice when I watered it down so they wouldn’t see how much I’d taken out with me to our very own Speakeasy bar which I won’t reveal – but the cloudiness in the bottle after I had added the water was a dead give away – and put a very quick halt to my party plans 😂

And on now to the most important part of our visit to Chicago … this little perfect person called Harry – oh my gawwwd guys! The highlight of this whole trip – I kid you not! I’m not telling you a word of a lie when I say he’s most definitely (and I don’t say this lightly) but he absolutely is definitely the most intelligent two year old walking the planet right now! I know, I know, you’re saying I’m biased, but seriously, this is my total impartial opinion of Harry! He’s also the cutest and most beautiful too! On that note, I have a confession to make since becoming a grandmother (and I just know other grandparents feel the same about their grandchildren). But lads, when I see other kids his age, I just think…nah, they’re not nearly as intelligent or cute as he is…I seriously am doing the whole comparison stuff! I know it’s so wrong of me to say that, but hey, I said I’d do the whole truth and nothing but the truth on this blog, and there it is for ya! He turned 2 at the end of February, and the first thing he roared when he saw me for the first time was “chocolate butttonnnns, and Tayyyytoooo” (I clearly made a huge impression on him when he stayed with me at Christmas (ahemm!)), but how and ever, luckily I had brought these items with me and he was delighted to devour as much Tayto and chocolate as we would allow him. He’s just hilarious…his vocabulary has gone from saying words sporadically here and there only two months ago, to now having a full blown conversation – albeit it’s like trying to decipher a secret code or cryptic message sometimes when he gets deep in conversation about something – (it’s good training for a potential career as a Russian spy I guess) – and when he sees that we are understanding what he’s saying, when the penny drops with us and we look relieved and enthusiastic, he is ecstatic with delight and continues on for another half hour! His favorite subject right now is farm animals. I reckon he’s gonna be a Vet if he continues like this for the next 20 years. (It’ll be interesting if he reads this blog when he’s older how amused he’ll be about this prediction).

A trip to the local Zoo in Lincoln Park is his absolute favorite and he is obsessed with the Friesian cows there. (The Zoo at Lincoln Park is free for children which is fabulous and so educational for them). He’s like a little sponge, eagerly wanting to learn new things and his ability to learn is absolutely mind blowing! He can count to 13 already, I kid you not! He knows his whole alphabet, he sings dozens of nursery rhymes, clear as day, and is his own little hilarious person with a huge personality and ability to wrap myself and Colm around his little finger. One of the funniest things he does is an impression of his Dad dancing. You see his Dad, Jonny, puckers up his lips when he’s getting into the whole groove and when Harry is asked to make his Dad’s “dancing face”, lads, I swear, he puckers up his lips and starts wiggling his hips and it’s just fantastically funny! In a nutshell, we are hanging on his every word and loving every single minute we are spending with him!

We spent so much time hanging out with him at the Zoo, the Children’s Museum at Navy Pier, parks and playgrounds, sitting him, watching all of his favorite programmes and singing all of his nursery rhymes, taking him everywhere we possibly could and doing what he loves to do most – having stories read to him. We have loved every minute of him. He is such a happy-go-lucky little boy! While hanging out with him and Allie, my heart was bursting with love and pride at what a fabulous wife and mother she has turned out to be! She basically rocks ! 👌 Whenever we meet up, we always have a Mammy and Daughter “Hang-out Day”. Our day this time around was an early morning Yoga Class, a healthy lunch and then a proper going over with a real Chinese massage, where two expert Chinese women hung from poles on the ceiling and walked all over us basically! I’m still feeling the pain but my gawwwd, has it loosened those tight shoulder muscles from carrying my luggage on my back!

There is another really special woman in Harry’s life that I absolutely want to mention in this blog. And that is his American Grandmother, Stephanie. In addition to the devotion of Alison and Jonny to Harry’s development, much of it can also be attributed to a beautiful, colorful lady whom I had the honor of meeting very soon after we arrived here. She is someone who has left a profound and lasting impression on me as Alison’s Mum and Harry’s Grandmother.

Stephanie lives in the same apartment block as Alison, Jonny and Harry and has well earned the title of Harry’s “American Granny”. Her devotion and love of my grandson is something that gives me great comfort. His paternal grandmother Ann and I already have our own “Harry fan club” going on and meet regularly for lunch back home to discuss his every move 😂. And to have another female on board – well I just hope that we can have a “Harry’s Granny Harem” event in the not too distant future with all three of us. We will surely turn him into a women’s rights campaigner yet! Stephanie and Harry have a bond that is quite rare and beautiful. She knows his every grimace or smile, she recognizes every sign of his love of learning and she feeds that longing like nothing I have ever seen before. An example of this is when we were busily getting ready for Harry’s 2nd Birthday party shortly after our arrival. Stephanie arrived at Alison and Jonny’s apartment just as the party was getting into swing. We had all exchanged gifts with Harry and she calmly and gently handed him hers towards the end of the evening. When he opened it, her gift left us all gobsmacked and moved beyond words. It spoke volumes of how well she knew and loved him. Inside her parcel was a hand stitched soft book that had taken her weeks to make. It contained material pages of activities from his favorite songs and nursery rhymes. She had carefully and lovingly attached felt pieces to each page of the book with zippers and buttons, characters from his favorite stories and nursery rhymes that he could remove and attach and which would develop his cognitive skills and his love of learning. The room fell silent when the parcel was opened and we gasped with amazement at the love and care that was jumping out from every page of such a beautiful handmade creation. And throughout our time here witnessing her total devotion to Harry, caring for him with such love and attention, it warms my heart to witness this unique relationship between them both. Harry’s reaction to mentioning a visit to Stephanie’s place is wonderful. He is equally as devoted to her. His little eyes light up and his smile spreads across his whole face when he knows he’s going to see her. He tries desperately to pronounce her name “Ste..haneeeee”. I wish every child in the world could have a “Ste..haneeee” in their lives. Walking into her apartment one could be mistaken for thinking it was a children’s daycare centre designed with love for the joy of the children she takes care of. Colourful soft surroundings with shelves full of handmade toys and robots she herself has put together. It is nothing short of a child’s paradise. I have never in my entire life met anyone as dedicated and full of love for the children in her life. No matter where Harry goes as he grows older, I’ve no doubt she will be there in his life, if not his minder, then in whatever shape or form that might take.

Stephanie also took us under her wing to show us as much of Chicago as she could while we were here. As a member of many clubs and organizations in Chicago she has turned herself into our tour-guide, taking time out from her own busy life to take us around all of the sights of Chicago. I have spent many sunny fun-filled days with Stephanie visiting the Chicago Art Gallery, doing walking tours of Chicago, lunching in unique and quirky establishments and generally exploring this wonderful city. Each day is a new adventure with her, and we have become almost “Thelma and Louise-like”. And so a new wonderful lasting friendship has begun, which is really exciting for me and I feel, (as do Alison, Jonny and Harry and Colm) so very lucky to have her in our lives. Thank you Stephanie!

Another fabulous woman that I’ve mentioned throughout this blog is Mona. Mona’s family roots stem from Co. Cork and we had met her briefly when she did a stop off in Tullamore on a trip she had taken to Ireland last year. She has spent most of her life living in the USA and possesses a wealth of knowledge about this city and the USA generally that is better than any you’ll get online. Nothing like local knowledge as they say and in this case, this is so so true. She has given us some amazing advice and help with our plans for travelling down the west coast, and as a result we are pretty much sorted …Thank you Mona!

While I am sad and quite tearful to be honest saying farewell (for now) to Allie, Jonny and Harry, I will be meeting up with them again on our return trip hopefully. So, here I am now, mid-air, (having left Chicago O’Hare Airport) on the way to Seattle for the next stint of our trip, i.e. travelling the high-speed Amtrak Coast Starlight train down along the Pacific coastline of the USA. We will stay in Seattle for a few nights, then move on to Portland, then Sacramento, then San Jose, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Santa Monica, Venice Beach, San Diego, and then on to a place that Mona swears we have to visit before we leave – a trip to Santa Fe, New Mexico, following which we depart for Japan. After all the snow and freezing temperatures, I can almost smell the heat from here…. Eeeeeek!

Just landed in Seattle – Be back soon y’all! 💋💋💋

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