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

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