Day 13: Flying home #KentuckyTour2014

chicago, bubba gump, shrimp, lexington, girl, reading, highlightsWe’ve been incredibly luckily with weather during our stay in Kentucky. Not only has it shone bright everyday, but it’s now pissing down with rain as we’re leaving for the airport to catch our connection to Chicago; an unavoidable sign it’s time to call it a day here.

The 6 hour layover is filled with an enquiry into the life of Bill Collis via Me, Myself and Eyes, going on the hunt for a giant bag of M&M’s to bring back to the office and one last look at the Chicago skyline with promises that’ll be back soon to stop off and say hello.

I spotted some Goths in the departure lounge. Admittedly, I didn’t know these guys were still knocking around, having assumed like all subcultures they’d ceased trading. Though I suppose somebody has to be propping up Underworld in Camden.

It’s fair to say I’m not ready to go home. I don’t have any cravings for a Sunday pub lunch or a bed that isn’t a blow-up mattress, in the same way I usually do after a long trip in a foreign land or the Monday after Glastonbury.

For the flight back to London I’m sat next to a girl from Reading, who’s spent the last few days on holiday in Chicago. She asked me what the highlight of my holiday was. And I honestly couldn’t think for the life of me. It was a combination of having far too many, and being far too active to allow any to yet sink in. Of course it was the wedding weekend, but which part?

I’m sure she was just being polite, but I actually sat and racked my brains for ages thinking of one solitary example to give her to hold onto. But couldn’t, so defaulted to the easy yet effective option of ‘spotting a bear in the woods’. Her highlight was the BBQ prawn skewers at Bubba Gump Shrimp Co.

Bubba Gump Shrimp as the zenith of your 8,000-mile round trip? Jesus. I suppose mine could’ve easily been food based, but I don’t think I’ll know until I’ve had a good sit down with a cup of tea and the photo album.

But, Kentucky you’ve been great. We’ll do this again sometime, yeah?

The End: Happily ever after!

 

Day 12: Sunday Cook-out #KentuckyTour2014

cook out, bbq, kentuckyEveryone’s up early for breakfast that is hosted by Ellen’s aunties, which is closely followed by the Chelsea-Liverpool title decider.

We soon order cabs to take us out into the countryside for the last hoorah; a traditional southern cook-out laid on by Molly and Becca and their two husbands Bull and Ryan. The ranch is now home to Molly and Bull, and the place is littered with dinner tables, garden games and the vast majority of the remaining wedding guests.

“Wow, look they’ve got a keg, and everything!”

Bill brought me a signed copy of his book too, and took me through some of the characters he’d been fortunate enough to meet over his career.

After a few days of fast pace, this was exactly what everybody was after; sun, beer, beef, ribs,cook out, bbq, kentucky, winchester chicken and corn hole.

Corn Hole? Right, a lawn game consisting of two teams of pairs. The pairs stand opposite each other, at a rough range of 30ft, each trying to throw bean bags on to each others wooden platform (1pt for landing it on, 3pts for getting it in the hole). The first to 21pts is the winner – though of course as interest peaked we reduced this to 11pt.

Right about now, I’m pretty certain my Dad is midway through constructing his own version, smashing up some old chest of draws in the process.

corn hole, kentucky, summer, bbq, cook out, USA

Day 11: Nupitals #KentuckyTour2014

moundale manor, winchester, weddingAfter breakfast with Dad, Joe and Luke at Shakespeare and Co to discuss last minute details, we join the rest of the Groomsmen on board the shuttles to take us up to Moundale Manor.

Moundale Manor is a 38-room private house in Winchester and only minutes from the church. Similar to Bullock-Bodley House, Moundale is a classic example of antebellum architecture, typical of neoclassical and Greek revival mansions of the Southern states. In essence, most likely a former slave plantation.

It’s here where we’ll get changed into our tuxedos, play killer on the pool table, play air hockey in the games room, watch Man Utd/Norwich in the home cinema while sinking a few beers on reclining sofas and wait for the call. It’s the sort of place you’d dreamed of having when you’re young, where the Sports Bar of the 90’s failed to replicate.

The place is so big, that up on the second floor Ellen and her bridesmaid are also getting ready. It takes a good 10 minutes to find one of the many bathrooms.

Hot sunny day, men walking around on fresh cut grass in suits, coaches to and from venues. It was all very FA Cup Final day like. After a few photos, it’s time to board the coaches for the short trip to the First Christian Church for the ceremony. It’s a church that’s been in the Collis family for generations, attended by Ellen’s Dad and his brothers.

The guests started to fill the church as we arrived, with Angie, the wedding coordinator, given us the final reminders of where to stand and where to hide.

The ceremony went without a hitch (sadly I’m not the first person in the world to crack a wedding related pun here). Tears, cheers and many happy years.

Luke wore that crown, and not a single person lined up at the alter felt the need to chuckle.

We congregated outside, lining the steps from the church to the street. Then the two stars of the show came down the steps, through the cheering crowds and into the waiting white Bentley, where they’d meet everyone back at Moundale Manor for cocktail hour.

It was here at Cocktail hour that I met Bill, Ellen’s uncle. He’s a former eye surgeon and has recently published his memoirs called Me, Myself and Eyes. I instantly had a hundred questions lined up for him, as you normally do when you meet somebody so interesting. Dad had met him last year at Luke and Ellen’s engagement party, and so I had been looking forward to hearing some of his many anecdotes since.

Then it was back on the coaches, and onto the Winchester Opera House for the reception.

On every table, at every seat, lay a personalised note for the guest. Ellen and Luke wrote one for every single person. 160 guests. I genuinely wondered at what point they realized the scale of the operation, yet conscious they’d gone way too far to back track.

But as Liza pointed out in her Maid of Honour speech, the pair of them, Luke and Ellen, genuinely value everyone in their lives. And so it’d never be a case of “actually, this is ridiculous, told you this would take too long”.

winchester, opera, moundale manorMine was written by Ellen, as was most peoples (Luke’s ones will no doubt surface in several years as collectors items) and have to say was very touching. I’ve welled up a number of times over the last few days, in particular around the speeches; mother of the bride, mother of the groom and the bride herself giving particular touching speeches. Though I must admit, I do wonder where the emotional energy gets transferred to if not in the form of salty tears. And are there any side affects? Bags under the eyes? Brain tumor?

Then Joe’s speech; a brief history of the pre and post-Manhattan Luke Oliver.

Anecdotes from being forced to play Sunday League football by Dad, to Saturday afternoons shopping for World War 2 rifles at Islington war market (aged17), to working at the local fruit and veg shop to ringing the bell at the New York Stock Exchange.

I think it came in at around 17 minutes. He’d read it out to me earlier that morning at Moundale Manor shortly before getting ready.

The first dance was followed by a good healthy stint of Greek dancing led by Mrs C and her gang. I really enjoyed the Greek dancing, a perfect way to trick everyone onto the dance floor.

The live band played a great set, the Greek music fed into Irish ballads. It really was a great night.

We all piled back on the Hilton-bound coaches. Luke’s London mates were leading a sing song at the back. Never in my life have I more wished I knew the full lyrics to Fresh Prince of Bel Air. Still I manage to slide in on the parts I did know, and sip my drink during the parts I didn’t.

Once we’re back at the Hilton we, if somehow by default, head to the main centre of Lexington, an area that had hosted almost every after party of the last few days. Between running back and forth to the hotel to coordinate groups, I find myself on my jacks, still wearing the full-piece tuxedo and being subjected to taunts about attending ‘prom’ from various pissed college kids. Half thinking I might get my head kicked in, the other half assessing how much I probably deserved it for looking like this whilst on my own, I continued my search for everybody on the next street. Spirits are soon lifted when I meet Kateri and Casey, who’ve come to round everyone up.

Day 10: A rehearsal to end all rehearsals #KentuckyTour2014

Up early, and on form, to head to the church with the rest of the wedding party for the wedding rehearsal.

I’ve always taken a Gary Linker approach to warm-ups and rehearsals; why waste a goal in the warm-up?

Though given the Greek twist to it (such as Luke having to wear a crown), a run through is essential. A crown? Liza is quick to ask that that we don’t succumb to childish laughter during the actual ceremony, which lets face it is quite a big ask when somebody has to wear a ceremonial headpiece.

The rehearsal dinner itself is at Bodley-Bullock House in downtown Lexington, a 3-storey town house built in 1814. The 70-guest dinner was in the main room, though the house itself was a pleasure to explore. The Bullock’s snuff bottle collection a must-see, though unfortunately we only found out about it once the night was over. The house is used by the Junior League of Lexington as their headquarters, but is also a popular spot on local ghost tours.

After drinks and photos in the back garden we head back in to the main room to join the other 70 guests for dinner. Followed by some speeches.

I think it’s fair to say I paid the price for my stance on rehearsing when it came to my turn to play the role of after dinner speaker. Cautious few people ever really want to hear about somebody else’s day, I decide to keep it quick, managing to stagger through some stuff about me and Luke staying up all night writing unreadable novels and unsellable sitcoms, having a new cool sister and our introduction to Grits and the Waffle House via Mrs C.

On the otherhand, Mum’s was brilliant. A perfect combination of anecdotes of a much younger Luke, and context around his departure to New York. And also, quite rightly, pointing out that Ellen has far exceeded the expectations of a Daughter-in-law.

Ellen and Mrs C both touched on Luke’s ability to master human qualities that are often hard to maintain simultaneously. In that he’s both “well liked and well respected” and “interesting, and interested”. If you can pull both of those off, you’re pretty much sorted.

All three also mentioned the very special loved ones that weren’t present at this special occasion.

Dad went for the instant crowd pleaser, orchestrating the cheering crowds as he called out the places that people had travelled from. From Los Angeles to Singapore and everything in between. Of course going East to West.

It was just great catching up with lots of old faces from the last time I was on the East Coast back in 2009. Second cousins Caroline and Susie, and their mum Rita and auntie Eileen. This lot gave me a tour of Philadelphia on that trip and are hugely popular amongst our family in London. Not least for their ability to appreciate puns and regurgitated Tommy Cooper jokes from the 70’s that we pass off as our own – “just like that”.

And Ellen’s old school friends Molly, Bull, Rebecca and Ryan – I’ve not seen this quad since the latter two kindly let me sleep in their attic when I was in Washington DC for Obama’s inauguration.

And nothing’s changed since that 2009 trip – I’m sure Obama’s legacy team would like to hear otherwise, but I refer to how familiar everybody seems. Though of course social media probably has something to do with that.

Also from that trip, and more specifically my stay in New York with Luke, is Casey a very talented photographer. And her boyfriend Josh, who had a tattoo of that Octopus that can open a jar of pickles; a decade of engineering undermined by a billion years of evolution. And also her good mate Kateri from Harlem, another whizz with the lens.

I’ve never been one to question the “meaning of life”, as it always seemed futile to ponder something that can be answered by a novelty T-Shirt slogan, but essentially this must be it; a series of coming togetherness to celebrate the love of people we know and love.

You don’t need to be some 19-year old philosophy student to get down with that.

Joe definitely has the same curse with technology that has seen me go through a number of laptops and software virus’ over the years, as his plan to surprise the room with a selection of video messages from home takes a hit when the projector and sound fail to work. After messing around with the cables, we get it up and running. But the wait (and the corresponding red sweaty faces) is well worth it, when everyone from my Grandparents to our local shopkeeper are beamed on to the main wall to wish Luke and Ellen well.

“Isn’t that Mistry from the Pied Piper?”

“Yeah, he’s been getting ripped off on the pick ‘n’ mix since 1974”

Who needs luck when you’ve got Church Lane’s finest on your side!!

So after the rehearsal, we make the short walk in town for more laughs.

Ellen is rightly concerned that Luke will continue to lead the party crowd late into the night, a Pied Piper of Lexington. Afterall, the wedding is tomorrow, and everybody needs to be on form after a good solid year of planning. A whole lifetime depending on which way you look at it.

Given the track record of the Oliver Brothers, it’s highly unlikely that we’ll be the first to leave a party. History will dictate that we’re there until the lights come on. It’s not necessarily a symptom of our lust for life, just merely an irrational fear of missing out.

Myself, Joe and Kate didn’t find it hard to persuade Luke however to get a relatively early night at 1am, he knew the score. But Kate suggested (just for the craic, ya’know) we send Ellen a photo of the three us lying down next to some black bin bags. So, we do.

Of course Ellen knows the score (everyone knows the score nowadays), but she was probably still be a tiny bit concerned that despite the jest intent, we were still drunk enough to think lying face down in some alleyway wearing our best clothes is somehow a good idea.

I’d actually stopped taking notes for this trip some time after arriving in Lexington. Since arriving it’s been non-stop. It’s been hotel bed to shuttle bus, shuttle bus to designated event, designated event to afterparty.

All these events are just the headlining acts. But in between they’re filled with serendipitous lookalikes, quick pints at the hotel bar, good solid handshakes, generous word play, film references, looking for plug adapters, applying quotes from The Office, charging iPhones and everything else that is worth writing about but not worth jotting down at the time.

And everybody has been up early, and on form. Though the beer is evidently fresher and lower in alcoholic volume, I think it’s more to do with adrenaline and the enthusiasm that every day demands of us. This is a once in lifetime trip, and we cannot afford the luxury of staying in till ‘noon with a dry mouth and a banging headache.

At some stage of this trip we’ll crack on with some Moon Shine from the Appalachian Mountains, digesting the strawberries that have been preserved in alcohol for a number of years…but that’s a different story for a different time.

Day 9: Suit fittings and horse racing #KentuckyTour2014

lexington, winchell's, geno's, kentucky, bloody maryI broke my Bloody Mary duck over breakfast, and what better group to do it with than the rest of the Groom party; Joe, Me, Dad, Andy K, Jimbo, Johnny, Mark R, Mark W, Bruce, Will, Foster and Paul.

We’re at Winchell’s Bar for breakfast, next door to Geno’s who have the honour of being the official suit supplier to the #TeamColliver Wedding. We’re here to get our final fittings for our Groomsmen tuxedos before heading off to Keeneland Races for a day of gambling with the rest of the gang.

Despite us all providing our sizes 6months earlier, they’ve still buggered up most of the kit. They’ve pretty much gone for the much practiced and much failed one-size-fits-all approach, despite clearly getting a heads up that unlike Ellen’s Bridesmaids (a fine collaborative cohort of Southern Belles), Luke comes equipped with a band of men of all different shapes and sizes.

Anyways, after given the store clerk a wedgie and leaving him hanging from one of the outside lampposts, we jump in Paul and Foster’s shuttles and head for Keeneland.

Now’s a better opportunity than ever to say the ease would not of been possible without Foster and Paul. Jumping from one vendor to the next, these two made sure of a seamless experience. We did our bit (i.e. waking-up in the morning) but they did the hard, and often thankless, bit of making it all come together.

Meanwhile, the Bridesmaids party spent the morning in a town called Nonesuch, about 20 minutes from Lexington, for a Bridesmaids Brunch at a restaurant called The Glitz. Mum said how the beautifully lit restaurant sits below Irish Acres, a huge gallery housing antique furniture, jewelry, dolls, toys and glassware. It sounded a bit like my Nan’s house back in Kingsbury.

keenland, kentucky, horses, racesWe all meet at the prestigious Keeneland, the no.1 thoroughbred horse race track in the USA, for a day of laughs in the sun.

Day 8: Back to Lexington #KentuckyTour2014

lexington, winchester, hellenic, bluegrassRight, enough pissing around; let’s get up to Lexington for what promises to be the wedding of the decade.

But in all seriousness, the State of Kentucky has impressed me massively. Prior to this trip, telling people my plan to spend two weeks in Kentucky was often met with looks of disbelief, eyes searching for an explanation and/or a punchline. Me too, I was quick to justify it with “my Brothers wedding, he’s getting married to a girl from there” before making sure that they understood “they both live Manhattan, New York”.

But I’ll say now, and I’m rarely wrong about these things, add this State to that US roadtrip you’ve got penciled in.

So we jumped on the motorway and set off, cruising past the signs to the birthplace of Colonel Sanders. And no, we didn’t stop.

We gathered our thoughts at a Cracker Barrel on the outskirts of Lexington, before making the final leg of the journey to our hotel, the Hilton. But first we popped into the nearby town of Winchester where the actual wedding was taking place. Winchester is where Ellen’s Dad grew up, and was also the location of her Grandparent’s restaurant that was famous for its Irish stew for over 60 years. It’s still fondly remembered by locals, with the site recently being honored by the Hellenic Ideals Program of the Bluegrass. Now here stands a metal plaque to mark the spot where “4 Greek Immigrants served the public from 1909 to 1973”.

The first person I bumped into at the hotel was Johnny and his girlfriend, one of Luke’s oldest mates. The last time I saw him was at Kilburn tube station? Or was it the Claddagh Ring in Hendon last Christmas? Eitherway, this is Kentucky and the rest of the London gang come pushing through the doors to check-in; Andy, Lou, Gary, Orla, Patti, Lawrence, Martin, Jimbo (another expat living in the US), James K, Sheryl, Conor and Tara.

Then Mum followed by auntie Maureen and Michelle; a Nolan Sisters tribute act if ever I’ve seen one. The two aunties flew over with uncle Patrick and auntie Paula this morning.

Mum has been in Lexington since Sunday, staying with Mrs C and helping with the preparations aswell as heading out to the Woodland Reserve distillery with Joe and Kate. Her roles have ranged from the essential (driving to the civic center to get wedding licenses) to the essentially thoughtful (helping the A-team put together the wedding buckets).

Wedding buckets? Civic Centre? Two terms that may suggest traditionalism is on its way out. But no, wedding buckets were the carefully put together welcoming gifts that everyone received when they checked in at the hotel. A large KFC bucket, filled with goodies including a can of Ale-8-One (bottled in nearby Winchester since 1926 and the only soft drink invented in Kentucky still in existence), local guidebook, local history book, an apple bearing the “I love NY” logo sticker and a pack of Walkers crisps. Also the wedding itinerary that included an illustration by their friend Jason, featuring Luke and Ellen outside their New York flat flanked by landmarks from both New York, London and Kentucky. In addition to the big names, it also included several personal sites of specific interest including the place they met and The George pub in Kingsbury.

Later the family headed out to the suburbs of Lexington, to Mrs C’s house for the first night of the wedding. A perfect first night over nibbles and beers in Mrs C’s lovely house, getting to know the family more and more on a minute-by-minute basis.

Ellen is one of three triplets. On one of the walls was a framed newspaper cutout from The Lexington Leader (dated 4th Sept 1981) with the headline “Triplet threat… Parents think thrice about it” accompanied by an image of the three children, which went some way of describing their uniqueness. Ellen, Liza and Foster were local heroes according to 1980s folklore.

I’d met Liza way back in 2009 when I was last in New York but she’s since moved down to Washington DC where she manages a designer shop. She’s got one of the biggest roles of the weekend as the Bride of Honour.

I’d never met Foster, her brother, but heard nothing but great things. I’d tried to glean as much from Facebook as I could pre-Kentucky, but was none the wiser. Would he index highly as the All-American hero, or higher as a Pee Wee Herman? Truth is, he was neither, but simply an original nice guy.

After having a read of the article, Luke took Joe and me down to the basement, where the rest of Triplet Mania memorabilia from the 80’s could be found.

“Wow, it’s the actual triple seated baby carrier from the actual front page photo!”

It was this same night we met Angie and Paul, Ellen’s Auntie and her boyfriend from Columbus, Ohio. It’s fair to say you don’t meet truly good people everyday. But today we’ve met a batch of them. I’d thought today’s quota had already been exceeded by Foster and the waitress at breakfast who let me pocket an extra bottle of syrup. But then these guys too!

We headed to a bar called Cheapside in town to meet up with the rest of our family, Luke’s London friends, Luke’s New York friends and any other person who’d just arrived in Lexington for the wedding.

Day 7: Searching for falls in the physical space #KentuckyTour2014

mammoth cave, geography, teacher

Me, rocking the Geography teacher look!

Our last full day in Cumberland Falls and so we head out to the train yard which would dispatch Kentucky’s coal to the rest of the Country during the industry’s heyday. It’s closed, but the lady kindly lets us have a look around the yard and museum.

So we headed out to Yahoo Falls instead.

“Bet you had to use a search engine to find that one” somebody said, most likely me.

It’s a real optical illusion. When you see it in photos or from the many viewpoints that hover above it, it looks big but not worth-the-trip-big. It’s only when I climb aboard one of the boulders next to it do I realize just what we’re dealing with. I’ve let Dad, Kev and Mary follow the pathways into the rock behind the waterfall. Within minutes, they’re almost lost amongst the vast backdrop of grey, resembling nothing more than little florescent rain-proof dots.

yahoo falls, cumberland, kentuckyThe downpour from up above is no trickle, as first thought, but a pounding of water. Nonetheless we get the photo of Dad pretending to take a shower underneath it.

“Would be a great place to have a music show in this cave, think of the sound and the natural acoustics” says Kev.

“That’d be some rock concert” I hit back quickly, secretly knowing that Kev was lining that piece of word magic up for himself.

We make tracks out to the viewpoint where The Natural Arch of the Daniel Boone National Park can be viewed. We also continued along a dirt pathway that loops around the northwest end of the arch for more specular scenery of the thick forest below.

Even at the height of the financial crisis “Recession? What recession?” appeared to be a key phrase said by many in London, whilst marveling how it was possible to get a full English breakfast and a pint of Stella for less than £6 in JD Wetherspoon. I mean the graduate market was dire and even when employed you had to be constantly reminded of how good things used to be by management. But really, after the initial panic, jobs came back and restaurants and pubs seemed to do okay. But it was never London that felt the real pinch but places like Chester, Warrington and Red Ruth.

Assumingly the similar of the USA, where a severe drop in standard of living wouldn’t be New York but places out here. Driving back from Yahoo Falls, I noticed an out of business petrol station. A petrol station? No longer in action? That’d normally be quite symbolic, making an apt cover photo for a book entitled The 1970s: A Retrospective Look. It wasn’t the only sign of a once thriving tourist spot falling into a spot of economic decay.

Eagle Falls Resort, a large classic American motel about 2 minutes from the actual Cumberland Falls waterfall, lies derelict and abandoned. After asking about it at the front desk at Du Pont, we’re told it’s been in some state for a few years after going bankrupt and falling into the hands of looters. People around here loot?

Jerry Hoake for Mayor.