Saturday, September 26, 2015


Orlando was one of the stops on our original honeymoon plan for two reasons: to visit Mayan's uncle Dinu and Angelina and to revert to childhood at Harry Potter World.

It was great to see Dinu and Angelina, who had a lot going on while we were there helping to organise a Romanian community day and hosting Ana Maria Ferentz - a singer who had flown in for the event. They helped us get around, and made sure we were ok - we hung out together every night and went to Clearwater one day to check out the Florida beach scene.

Harry Potter World was awesome - easily as good as we hoped. The rides were great, the shopfronts in Diagon alley and Hogsmeade were full of character and detail, and the food was English enough to be convincing. We went back every day for three days and totally got inspired to watch all the movies again.



We also visited the rest of universal studios (Harry Potter World is just one part in both sections of the park, linked via a real train - the Hogwarts Express), which had equally immersive themed areas (e.g. Dr Seuss, Men in Black, Transformers, Shrek, Jurassic Park, etc.) and great rides.


Later, we went to Disney World, which is much larger than Universal and has a lot of different areas to explore - it's a bit daunting really. The hotels for Disney seem nicer, but we enjoyed the parks at Universal more, as they seem to be for an older (teenage) audience with better rides and less "make your wishes come true" stuff. Epcot was a bit different, like a permanent World Expo, but has a strong focus on selling merchandise and not much on country-specific rides or activities.


One cool thing about Epcot though was the gardening of the future exhibition which takes you on a tour of some government agriculture projects like hydroponics and aquaponics.

We found the Kennedy Space Centre really inspiring. We hired a mustang and drove out there for the day, where we got to visit a platform at the spaceport, see and hear about the cutting edge private sector companies setting up shop there to provide paid passage to space. We saw the Apollo 8 rocket and Atlantis shuttle, spoke to a real astronaut, rocket engineer and shuttle engineer and learned heaps. For instance, did you know that the outside of the shuttles were silicon tiles - they felt like a cushion wrapped in asbestos, and were largely hand-stitched with either stainless steel thread or something more high-tech and heat-resistant?


We visited Sam's brother Tom and his wife Jill in Chicago: locals are very proud of their city, its architecture, food, weather and arts scene. We wanted to see what all the fuss is about.

We had a great time with Tom and Jill, who took us around to see what Chicago has to offer in the way of architecture and gangster history and then relax in their rooftop hot tub for sunset drinks.

There are a bunch of good art galleries and museums, the two main ones being Field and the Art Institute. There's also some really great public artworks around the city.

One of the really amazing and surprising finds though was street art - a huge 20m-long mosaic by Chagall of the Four Seasons.

We also saw a great Cirque du Soleil show Kurios while we were there, which was a bit like a steam-punk cabaret show with acrobats.

We got off the beaten track when after the gangster tour we tracked down one of Capone's old hangouts - the Green Mill. It still sports a green exterior (which was colour-code for "speakeasy" in the 1920s and 30s) and an art deco interior with permanently moody lighting, and while is normally a jazz club we were able to catch a poetry slam. It was really amazing with some new and experienced poets reading their work out with to improvised jazz music. They were  personal and dramatic performances, which made the show very compelling and moving. It's been held at this venue every week since 1986.

Luckily we were in town for the first college football game of the season, which we expected to be a medium-size affair with a moderate crowd of family and friends clustered around an oval: we saw Northwestern wildcats tear apart some other team, but the crowd was so big and energetic, and everything was so slick that it felt like a national league of professionals, not students. This was even evident at the cheerleader-marching band show at half time, which they really seemed to take seriously and involved hundreds of people proudly performing in funny uniforms.


After NYC we were well into the swing of eating good fast food, and made sure to sample the Chicago greats: hot dogs,apparently invented in Chicago for the world's fair expo in 1893; deep dish pizza, which is basically fried dough shaped like a quiche or shallow pie crust that is filled with pizza toppings - we could only really eat one piece each comfortably. There are lots of popcorn places in Chicago, which all made the "Chicago mix" - american cheese (think twisties) and caramel. It sounds weird, and tastes really good for a few handfuls though is a super heavy and hard to finish a whole bag.

We also went to a bunch of trendy places with good healthy food, which was great if not iconically Chicago like deep dish pizza - however, at one place May was very excited to find chicken matza ball soup on the breakfast menu and credits her recovery from a cold to it.

New York City

After months of backpacking to places where we knew no one and nothing much, it was exciting to be landing in the States to spend some time with our families here.

First stop NYC. We have stayed in NYC for 2.5 weeks with May's uncle and au

nty in Great Neck - the place that was the inspiration for Great Gatsby, and since WW2 has had a large Jewish population. It's easier to find Challah here on a Friday than it is to find a taxi. Rodica and Adi, Barbara & Vincent and everyone were really welcoming, hospitable and generous and we felt right at home. We loved playing with baby Rebecca and hanging out with Alan, Kelly and their kids.  we even got to put our Romanian to use, though after 5 months in South America we would slip into Spanish by accident every once in a while.



We had a ball celebrating May's cousin,  Barbara's wedding to Vincent. The wedding was at a beautiful house and garden in Westchester, upstate New York, overlooking the Hudson River. We watched the sun set over the water to the sound of Barbara and Vincent exchanging vows, with baby Rebecca happily watching on in their arms. Everyone was really friendly and fun; we shared cigars with the groomsmen, danced with new found friends and their kiddies, met more family and friends, and Sam was pulled aside to be told by Dede that he had the best dance moves. After meeting us at the rehearsal dinner one of Vincent's cousins very thoughtfully made us a DVD of two old 1930s Australian films that he liked.

We expected that all the clothes shops in the US would be cheaper than in Australia, but they totally weren't, other then our favourite find: Second Time Around, a consignment store chain. We did have fun in some of the over the top  touristic stores in Times Square though like the  M&Ms store, Hershey store, Disney store. A little off the beaten track we found Thompson St just next to  Soho, where we spent a while playing board games at the Uncommons,  and visiting the chess and checkers store.



Also Orchard St in Lower East Side where there was very edgy art and fashion stores, including one with a full bar, and a drink special for "waiting boyfriends": a shot of whiskey and a beer, with the Godfather movie playing on a projector. 

We explored the newer trendy areas  in Long Island City and Williamsburg a bit too, which were awesome though not as lively as Manhattan. We visited a very hip rooftop garden (featured in several gardening blogs etc), but it turned out not to be a community garden, but a for-profit place and smaller than it looked in the photos.

To further our education we decided to visit a bunch of museums - our favourite was the Met (which definitely needs multiple days!), and the Jewish Heritage Museum. The Natural History Museum was interesting, but unexpectedly confronting because it is full of stuffed dead animals "collected" in the 1930s standing in lifelike poses, including a herd of elephants. MOMA and the Guggenheim were interesting, the 9/11 memorial is moving, Intrepid was awesome, and the really surprisingly fun museum was the Paley Centre, which is an archive of old TV and radio broadcasts you can search through; like a curated Youtube. We watched the live broadcast of the first steps on the moon, listened to WW2 radio broadcasts, the original coverage of the twin towers being attacked, then lightened up a bit with Conan O'Brien and Sex in the City.


Some of the places we enjoyed the most were a bit off the beaten track - we went three times to see local stand up comedy at the Stand, in Gramercy. Nearby is Union Square, another favourite place because it is always busy with interesting things like demonstrations, street theatre, picnickers, farmers markets, and winner takes all chess. We also visited the Brooklyn Tabernacle for a Sunday service, a huge Methodist church in downtown Brooklyn. They have a congregation of 12,000 and a Grammy award-winning gospel choir. It's a very moving service, and people really do stand up spontaneously in their places and praise the Lord.

Central Park is really beautiful, and surprisingly so given it was totally dodgy in the 60s, and it seems that most of the money used for its restoration came from wealthy donors like Donald Trump, who have collectively put in $800m since the 70s to make it beautiful. Even the suburban gardens in Great Neck are amazing, with beautiful old elms, oaks, maples and plane trees everywhere and large forested parks and wetlands here and there throughout.


Because we stayed outside the city, every day we caught the train and subway - compared to other places it was easy, safe and rarely crowded, so it was a breeze. Bizarrely you can buy beer on the train platform to drink on the way home, we called it the Long Island Rail Roadie.

We were very excited to try some of the street food in NYC - the best was bagels and pizza. Best coffee was at Starbucks; all the trendy places make really sour coffee, perhaps because they always drink with milk or water not as espressos. Best burger was also at a chain: Bareburger, which makes  organic & sustainable beef, turkey, bison, elk burgers, with myriad options for bun, salad, cheese, sauce, everything. Turkey bacon is also as good as we always hoped it to be: why can't we get this in Australia?

Other favourite NYC food: Peking duck, Texan barbeque, popcorn specialists "pop karma" on Orchard St, magnolia bakery, gyoza in Chinatown, meatballs in Little Italy