Wisconsins Morning News

Gene's Blog: I wasn't ready for THAT question

How strong is YOUR Milwaukee game?

We always say we're proud of our city, that we're this undiscovered gem the rest of the country should really get around to finding because we have all this cool stuff like Summerfest and the lakefront and blah blah blah.

Gird your loins, because we're less than a year away from being officially "found."

The Democratic National Convention is here next July and before that will come all manner of folks doing prep, recon and other duty ahead of the four days of political wonkiness that'll be gaveled to order at Fiserv Forum.

Maybe you'll volunteer. Perhaps you want to Air BnB your house. You might own a business that eagerly awaits the inflow of outside dollars. Or, you'll join the growing chorus of folks vowing to be as far away from these environs as possible, worried about crowds, potential chaos and a general inability to get to where you're going.

Fine. It's America. Seize the moment and do with it what you will. The rest of us staying behind will deal with whatever comes our way. All of us are potential ambassadors in waiting--chances are, you'll bump into someone from somewhere else over the course of the coming months, folks who'll have questions about where to go and what to do. This is where we can "Milwaukee" them to death: smother them with the kindness we're so internationally renowned for. Two things that always come up in any travel/vacation piece about this neck 'o the woods are our urban cleanliness and our municipal friendliness.

We have about 11 months to brush up on things: being able to tell a visitor how to get to the lakefront--and no, don't just point east while saying, "Drive that way until you start getting wet"--and other landmarks WITHOUT having to resort to Google. It might be good to have a modicum of local history tucked between the years: I wouldn't be expecting a visitor to ask you to name all of Milwaukee's mayors but you might want to know that, yes, this is the first major political convention we've ever hosted and yes, this is where a nut job took a shot at Teddy Roosevelt all those years ago. You don't have to be John Gurda, but I think is part of our civic duty to have the basics about the place ready to be shared at the drop of a wet coaster at the nearest tap. Makes it sound like you actually care about the place where you live, not like it just happens to be the place where the fates plopped you. Attachment is...kinda sexy.

Speaking of which.

All of us who know it's a "bubbler" and not a "water fountain" also come pre-loaded with an expansive list of dining and drinking preferences. Be it beer, pizza, prime rib, or burgers, we know what we like and are more than willing to share our thoughts--sometimes, at the tops of our lungs. This knowledge can make you a valuable resource for the hungry/thirsty person, a true ambassador for all that's good and should be shared locally. That visitor will head home eager to share the Milwaukee experience, be it good or bad, and your input will go a long way in shaping that take. There's no better commercial for any community than word of mouth, someone who goes back to Boston or Denver and says, "Yeah, this is good, but you wouldn't believe the (insert food/beverage here)  I had at (insert joint here so as not to offend any of my friends in the business) in Milwaukee during the convention. It was AMAZING--in fact, the whole town rocked. You really should go there."

That's the chamber of commerce jackpot.

I pride myself on being ready for such things. Travel will do that to you, as folks overseas ask you where you're from and what you're known for. It's fun to wipe that blank stare off someone's face, a person who thinks Milwaukee is in Michigan or worse, thinks of us only as the home of Laverne, Shirley and a guy named Dahmer. We've all encountered our share of out-of-towners over the years, answering the most basic of questions with aplomb. Just the other day I encountered a guy from Toronto who'd done business here as part of his work with BMO Harris bank, a man who absolutely loved our town and couldn't ask enough questions about it, just in case duty calls him back here. I hope I lived up to my municipal duty.

My recent run on Canadians continued Friday when I bumped into a couple from Calgary, here for a wedding in Lake Geneva. He'd been here before--he even know which syllable the emphasis needed to be applied to when saying "Wauwatosa" out loud--but in the course of our chat he served up a question I'd NEVER heard before in all my time in Wisconsin.

"Where," he asked, "do you go for a romantic fish fry?"

He might as well have asked me to come up with the cube root of pi. In Chinese.

All of us have our favorites, and they roll off our tongues like the names of our kids. We share them, argue about their virtues, critique the shortcomings of those we find not worthy of our patronage. I scoured my ever-more-feeble mental hard drive as his question lingered in the tavern air, the joints fell out of my mouth but each one with the proviso, "Yeah, but I really wouldn't call the place ROMANTIC."

As the moment lingered, I incorporated the help of others nearby. Of all the fish fries in all the gin joints in southeast Wisconsin within driving distance of our Canuckian friend here, I said, is there one that you'd recommend as...cuddly?

To a person, we were stumped. There were at least four truly fine fish fry places within walking distance of our barstools but none would willingly offer up candlelight and a wine bucket along with your rye bread/deep fried haddock/Cole slaw. I can't remember ever seeing couples gazing longingly into each other's eyes over ketchup and fries, at least not at the fish bistros I hit. And, what you do at home after you crush your pair of carryouts is strictly YOUR business.

Maybe "romantic fish fry" is a Canadian thing, like Boxing Day or Tim Horton's.

Our group finally had to resort to the nearest cell phone where a quick search produced a few places that kinda-sorta-maybe fit our visitor's bill. He eagerly jotted down the suggestions and even bought me another beer before they headed off to what we all hoped would be a place that would meet their, ahem, needs. 

How would YOU have answered? I'm open to suggestions, because with a huge convention drawing nigh and more strangers a'comin, we're all going to need to have our "A" game polished up and good to go so we can be the best ambassadors a city could ask for. We have a chance to shape a tourist's visit, build a municipal brand, burnish local traditions in the minds of someone who isn't from these parts but who will have all manner of expectations, some of them more realistic than others. Advice moving forward--be ready for ANYTHING: where's the Fonzie statue, how do I get to the Pfister, where's the best brewery tour. Answers to those and other staples should fire quickly off any good local's tongue.

Included with that should be a suggestion or two when it comes to where to find the best romantic fish fry, because if it happened to me 11 months ahead of the convention, it may well happen to you before the gavel drops.

You've been warned.

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