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

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Heading to the Hamptons for the Fourth of July

My next stop on “Annie’s Excellent Adventure to America” was a trip to the eastern end of Long Island to meet my mother’s childhood friend, Annabel; the lady I’m named after.

Growing up on her parent’s farm in the north island of New Zealand, Mum had been sent to Woodford House boarding school near Hawke’s Bay for her secondary school years where she met Annabel.

When we are young we often believe our childhood friends will be in our everyday lives forever. Life circumstances change, people move in different directions, other parts of the world and suddenly you discover decades have passed and you wonder where the years have gone and what those friends are doing now.

My mother and Annabel hadn’t seen each other for more than fifty years but thanks to modern technology they had been able to reconnect via email and via email, Annabel had invited me to visit her if I had time while I was in the US.

Leaving Sharon’s in the East Village, I caught a cab down to the Jitney Ambassador’s depot at 40th Street and 3rd Avenue – the Jitney is the long-running bus service that connects New York City with the South Fork peninsula of Long Island, known as The Hamptons; a popular summer destination for many families as well as being the clichéd “playground for the rich and famous.”
I managed to recognise Annabel’s New Zealand golfing friend, Heather – who I was sitting next to on the bus and the two and a half hour trip passed quickly. Annabel met us at East Hampton and we went back to her home and beautiful garden near Amagansett.
Annabel's garden near Amagansett

LongHouse Gardens
After lunch Annabel took us for a quick tour of the area. Our first stop was a visit to LongHouse Reserve – sixteen acres of magnificent gardens and outdoor sculptures owned by Jack Lenor Larsen an internationally known textile designer, author and collector.
LongHouse Gardens and scuptures

Annabel and Heather walking through the LongHouse gardens
From LongHouse we had a walk through the affluent town of East Hampton… fortunately I saw nothing in the various shops that I couldn’t live without… however, I did see several late model Maseratis casually parked along the street that I though my son Sam would have appreciated. (When I’d been looking for a replacement vehicle for the Trusty Nissan a few months ago, Sam had suggested on more than one occasion that a Maserati Gran Turismo would make the perfect family car.)

For tea that night, Annabel took us to Sag Harbor – originally a whaling port settled in the early 1700s – my Fourth of July evening meal consisted of a delicious piece of grilled swordfish and chips (or fries as they say over in the US; the cafe lady told me they were steak fries... then I was really confused). Afterwards we joined the bumper-to-bumper traffic down to Montauk, the tip of the South Fork peninsula of Long Island, to see the spectacular fireworks display from the beach.

The 4th July is Independence Day, the national day of the United States. It commemorates the adoption of Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence on the 4th July 1776, which declared independence from England. Traditionally the day is celebrated with fireworks, family reunions, street parades, barbeques, picnics, baseball matches and general merriment… similar to our Australia Day (without the vegemite sandwiches or cricket…)

The next day Annabel took us for a drive along the nearby Further Lane and its collection of mansions and extensive gardens. A block from the ocean, it is home to some of the most expensive private residential properties in the United States (Steven Spielberg has an abode there.)

Indian Wells Beach
We called in at Indian Wells where crowds of people were soaking up the July sun on the beautiful sandy beach overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. Our next stop was Montauk Downs, one of America’s top public golf courses and one of Annabel’s favourites.

For lunch we drove out to Montauk and enjoyed a drink and a delicious alfresco seafood lunch at Gosman’s Topside Bar, looking out over the Montauk Harbor and watching the fishing boats come and go.
A G&T at Gosman's Topside Bar

Montauk Harbor

Wasabi and Panko Crusted Tuna - Yummy!

After lunch we climbed to the top of the historic Montauk Lighthouse. Commissioned by America’s first president, George Washington, the lighthouse was built in 1796.

Montauk Lighthouse
Late in the afternoon Heather caught the Jitney back to New York City and I stayed on with Annabel for one more night. The next day Annabel was leaving for Halifax in the Canadian province of Nova Scotia and had invited me to join her for the 840 mile, two-day road trip. Although very tempted, the logistics of getting myself back from Halifax to New York ended up in the “Too Hard Basket”… so I opted to fly to Chicago instead…

The next morning we took a car ferry from the south fork to the north fork of Long Island before catching the big Cross Sound Ferry from Long Island across to New London, Connecticut where Annabel and I had lunch before saying goodbye. Annabel headed northeast towards Maine and I caught the train back to New York to catch my plane to Chicago that night.
The New York Times and a chocolate chip cookie

Friday, August 9, 2013

Back to New York City for a Night in the East Village

A traffic accident on the freeway into New York City made my 250-mile bus journey from Falmouth on the 3rd July considerably longer than I expected. Caught in a huge traffic jam, the bus crawled along at pace similar to a Galápagos giant tortoise in low gear.

Arriving mid-afternoon, I caught a taxi to my accommodation in the East Village… or so I thought. Thunderstorms had rolled in for the afternoon and in a particularly heavy downpour the driver pulled up at where we both thought I was meant to be.

Unfortunately, it turned out we were both wrong… forty blocks wrong I discovered after the taxi had left. Already soaked through and no available taxis in sight, I walked twenty blocks before discovering a bus heading in the right direction.

Resembling a somewhat disheveled and damp bag-lady and arriving much later than expected, I introduced myself to Sharon and her fifth floor apartment in the East Village that I'd booked through My room for the night was compact but with a very comfortable bed and a nice window looking out over a little treed courtyard. I was tempted just to lie down and do absolutely nothing but it seemed a waste of an excellent adventure not to go out and explore for at least an hour or so before bed.

A friend from primary school, Claire, suggested via Facebook that I make my way to “Babycakes” for a coconut donut to die for, or at the very least, cheer me up. The famous gluten-free cupcake shop was an easy walk from where I was staying, so donning rain jacket and umbrella, I headed out once more.

Sadly, they were all out of coconut donuts by the time I got there but I survived nicely on a variety of yummy chocolaty cakey things. The chocolate fired up my dormant caffeine addiction so I made my way towards Tuck Shop – an Australian owned and run pie shop in the East Village, rumored to have excellent coffee and even more excellent Aussie meat pies.

However, by the time I’d walked from Babycakes to Tuck Shop in the oppressive New York humidity, I’d turned into a ball of sweat and coffee was the last thing I felt like… and really, who eats meat pies with coffee?

Fortunately the Tuck Shop had a large fridge filled with a selection of South Australian Coopers Beer. I selected a Thai green curry chook pie and a bottle of Coopers green label Pale Ale – a match made in heaven and the perfect evening meal when you’re feeling a little homesick for Australia, your family and friends.

A good night’s sleep and I woke refreshed ready for the next leg of my travels; it was the 4th July and I was heading to the Hamptons.