Thursday, March 17, 2011

Chicago 2011 Day 5: Thistle and Shamrock

Although Robin was up and out at some unearthly hour, Sarah and I barely surfaced long enough to tell her no, we weren’t planning to get up, before rolling over and shrugging the fluffy duvets back over our respective heads. We did not stay slugabeds for long, however, and by 10:00am I was on my way to brunch and Sarah was on her way back to her convention.

I’d been planning to catch a bus up Michigan Avenue to the Grand Lux Cafe, as I had been slathering for their brunch since getting a peep at their weekend menu when Becca and Dustin took me there; however, even in my pre-coffee dullness, I was able to notice the crowds of excited-looking people thronging the Chicago Riverwalk across the street from the hotel. In one of those rare serendipitous coincidences, I had happened to stumble out of the hotel at the very moment that the Chicago River was being dyed green.

The Dyeing of the River

Lining up

Green River

Heading North up Michigan Avenue, I was moving against the green-clad crowds thronging the sidewalks walking in the direction of the parade, an event that seemed to be extremely exciting. Never one for large crowds, and even less of one for standing still in cold, windy weather, I chose to spend my Saturday morning having a delicious, leisurely brunch at the Grand Lux Cafe overlooking the Magnificent Mile.

Grand Lux

After brunch, I tried my hand at some shopping, but as the only things that caught my eye were 1) a $2,500 plum red chaise lounge at Crate and Barrel, 2) what I thought were some over-sized rings at Anthropoligie, which turned out to be door knobs, and 3) some bracelets that I thought my sister would like, but that actually turned out to be napkin rings, I finally gave up and headed back toward the hotel. Once again, I found myself going against the post-parade dispersal of the crowds.

Downtown

Back in the hotel, I snuggled down to upload some pictures, watch CNN, and watch the hotel maid clean the room (a situation I found a bit awkward. It was hard to keep from offering to help her). This was, after all, supposed to be a vacation, and I felt determined to at least rest a little bit so as not to start my teaching week feeling like death warmed over.

In another of life's serendipitous coincidences, I accidentally sat on the TV remote and switched from CNN to PBS, on which was showing the Les Misérables 25th Anniversary Concert. New afternoon plan, I thought; however, it wasn’t long before Sarah called me from downtown, announcing that she and her other music nerd friends were headed to the corner of Jackson and State to pick up some famous gourmet popcorn as an afternoon snack. Since it was the last day of the trip and I had not hung out with them basically at all, I hopped on the Jackson Express and hotfooted it down to where they were, only to discover that they’d bought their popcorn already and were headed back to the hotel for an afternoon rest. Not to be deterred, I decided not to waste a perfectly good trip downtown. I set my face to the wind and walked north on State, hoping against hope that I would be able to find some sort of jewlery for my sister that was not actually intended to be home furnishings.

A nip into the store Forever21 was not only unfruitful: it would almost qualify as disturbing. Let me put it this way: ladies and gentlemen, just because you can shop at a store called Forever 21 does not mean that you should. (Yes, middle-aged men, I AM TALKING TO YOU.) I had more success down the street at another boutique which, as fate would have it, was having a sale on jewelry.

Fast forwarding to 7:30pm would find us snugly tucked in to box seats at Chicago's Orchestra Hall preparing to see Helmutth Rilling conduct the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in Mendelssohn’s Elijah. Somehow, Sarah’s friend John (who had reserved our seats) had managed to maneuver us right next to the VIP box. We were seated right next to the director’s wife! And that wasn’t all: due to Sarah's music nerd connections, we were sharing our box with a certain Irish composer. (Incidentally, you can check out his choral group's work here. It's fabulous. I'm actually glad that I didn't really know who he was or anything about his music at the time, because I think I may actually have died of a geekout. It wasn't until we got back from the trip and I started listening to his music that I realized how close a brush with glory I'd actually had. No wonder Sarah was so worked up!)

It was a glittering night.

Although I failed at bribing John to participate in various fun sideshow activities (i.e., putting his arm around the director’s wife, asking for her number, telling her that her husband is fiiiiiiiiiiiiine, etc.), I did succeed in having a fantastically entertaining evening watching some of the world’s finest vocal and instrumental musicians show off (including a very attractive male cellist who appeared to have the body of a football player and the soul of a poet.... not that I’m reading into things too deeply or anything... But whatever. Stop judging.)

Other moments of amusement throughout the night:

The director’s wife spent the intermission leaning over the balcony rail, calling down to friends, waving and people, and tossing small candies from the balcony. Perhaps such things are not frowned upon in Germany? Or perhaps she’s just a saucy old girl who refuses to conform.

John fumblingly dropped his program during one of the pianissimo moments.

John told us various stories about his adventures throughout the week, including the time he supposedly got “locked in a bus” by a grouchy CTA worker.

The cellist who turned pages with his bow (same as aforementioned...again with the judging).


A quick taxi back to the hotel, some time lounging in front of the fire in the front lobby, and then to bed for three hours of sleep before hopping a cab to O’Haire to catch a 6:55 flight back to the Palm Beaches.... on spring time change morning. Oh, yeah, we thought that one out when we bought the tickets.

* * *

All of the Chicago pictures are now up for viewing

HERE.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Chicago 2011 Day 4: Somewhere in Time

We awoke to the horrifying news that an 8+ magnitude earthquake plus a tsunami had struck Japan. Our room TV was switched on for the first time during the trip in order to catch up on the situation.

Realizing there was not much I would be able to do to assist, I zipped on my long gray coat, shouldered my (vaguely hideous) pink shoulder bag, and moved onward into the sunny morning.

As with each day of this trip, I had a sketchy sort of plan in my head that did not exactly to as, well... planned. First priority of the day was to see Moody Bible Institute, where my parents met in the 1960s. I thought I might as well make a day of it and spend the day on the North Side. And actually, for the most part, that’s what I did.

I began by taking th 66 bus to the corner of LaSalle and Chicago, where—quite unobtrusively—sits Moody Bible Institute.

Moody Bible Institute

Somehow, no doubt as a result of having spent hours paging through my parents’ yearbooks, I always imagined the school in black and white. Instead, I found a red brick compound on a quiet, tree-lined street. The only signs of life were in the reception area, where a very eager and kindly young man offered to help me and then became unusually excited to learn why I was there poking around.

From Moody, I hoofed it to the El a block away and wound my way through Old Town. If this part of the city was a bit less enthralling than I had been expecting, the lovely little all-day breakfast place I found for lunch more than made up for it.

St. Michael's

Catty-corner from both the Chicago History Museum and Moody Church, Elly’s Pancake House offered a fantastic array of breakfast, lunch, and dinner items, and—most importantly—had the best coffee I’d tasted since showing up in Chicago. Taking my time with lunch, I happily sipped coffee and indulged in some hardcore people watching until well into the early afternoon.

While waiting for a bus toward Chicago Avenue, having planned a walk down the Magnificent Mile for my afternoon—I got a text from Sarah asking if I’d like to meet her and her friend John over near Union Park to go to the Lyon and Healy harp showroom. Never one to miss out on a new experience, I hopped onto the El and wound my way in a southwesterly direction toward Ashland. I’d arrived at the showroom a bit before John and Sarah, so I sat in the front with the receptionist and waited for their arrival. When they eventually did walk in, Sarah went immediately to the desk to check in with the receptionist, so I walked over and introduced myself to John with a typical cheesy Ruth smile and a handshake. My attempts to chat with him turned out to be unexpectedly awkward before I realized the problem: John thought I worked for the showroom! He should have known better, as I was not dressed nearly fruity or artistic enough to have worked there. Plus I was still wearing my travel bag and fingerless gloves, but apparantly these did not register with him. His excuse, “I just saw a beautiful smile and thought you were welcoming me to the showroom!” Nice save, John. Nice save.

Lyon & Healy

While Sarah nerded out over the harps, John and I chatted about musicals and the city of Chicago. After getting a glimpse of the price list for these harps, I walked on tiptoe between the rows, imagining with realistic horror what would happen were I to knock one over at the end of a row...

Sarah tries an electric harp

Somehow Sarah wound up testing electric harps and having hard-core music chats with one of the salesmen. Sarah and John stayed a bit longer, but I zipped back to the El shortly after that and popped back to the northern end of the Magnificent Mile, having determined to walk it while there was still daylight. Taking a recommendation from a friend, I stopped first at Ghirardelli’s for a decadent hot chocolate, which I sipped as I walked south past the big-name stores. I must have looked like a local, because I was stopped at least twice and asked directions. Surprisingly, I was able to be helpful in both cases, which did nothing to help my ego problem, but much to help the poor lost tourists.

Along the River

I arrived back at Michigan and Wacker just as the sun was dipping behind the horizon. With the air temperature plummeting, I decided to nip back to the hotel to put my feet up for a while before deciding what to do about dinner. This also gave me time to catch up with world events via CNN. I won’t lie: it’s hard not to feel a little bit guilty for having such a great day when people on the other side of the world are going through hell on earth.

Afternoons

At any rate, by 7:00pm, I had worked up an appetite that could no longer be ignored. My original plan had been to have Chicago-style pizza; however, I failed to take into account the the fact that nobody seems to dine at home on Friday nights. I was hard put to find any place with a wait less than an hour and a half, which is how I wound up at a Chili’s a bit off the beaten path. Still, the evening was not a total loss. I was able to eavesdrop on a totally hilarious conversation at the table next to mine, which was populated by young men in their twenties. Most of them looked as if they most likely played Dungeons and Dragons in their spare time. They spent most of the evening talking about the internet and girls they had met through LiveJournal. I was sorry to see them go.

My waiter—“Walker”—was quite solicitous, expressing concern that I was Dining Alone. I had to be careful not too look up too often, because any time we made eye contact, he would come over to see if I wanted anything. I usually didn’t. After I was done eating, he did bring me a hot tea (which I noticed he did not charge me for!), so I left him a nice tip, wrapped myself in my various winter garments, and walked out of his life forever.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Chicago 2011, Day 3: Finely Cultured

Looking out of the window of our 29th floor room along East Wacker overlooking the Navy Pier, I was somewhat astonished to see a filmy white substance thinly coating the ground and the surfaces of still-parked cars. Surely not... was that snow?

It certainly was.

As I lurched out into the wind (which no matter the direction I headed throughout the day always seemed to be blowing directly into my face), snow flurries rode the currents.

My plan had been to be at the Frank Lloyd Wright home/studio museum by late morning, so a quick nip to State and Lake put me in the way of picking up the Green Line, which happily was pulling into the station just as I came through the turnstile. I skipped across the platform and straight through the train doors just as they were about to slide shut. This felt a bit like being in a movie.... except that in reality, as the wind had blown my hair straight up in the back, I did not feel that I was exactly exuding a movie star aura (unless we're talking about a Muppets Movie). Also, there was no soundtrack playing (other than the one in my head, naturally, which is pretty much continual).

Still, my lack of glamor aside, it was pleasant to sit on the nearly-empty train and rattle out of the city, passing boarded-over buildings, junkyards, and slums.

At nearly the end of the line, we reached Oak Park. From the Metro, it was just a short walk up the oak-lined streets into the Historic District. (Incidentally, on the way to the Frank Lloyd Wright home, I may have passed Hemingway’s birthplace, and I’m sorry, but *yawn.)

Frank Lloyd Wright home and studio

Our tour group was the usual motley crew: a young couple, a pair of hippies from San Diego, a husband and wife duo from Italy (he translated for her the entire time – how exhausting!), a heavily bearded fellow from Spain, a father-son combo from Ohio, a middle-aged mom who asked questions at every turn, and yours truly (in all my Muppet-haired glory).

We began our tour outside in the snow (of course).

Against the Sky

The remarkable design of the overall building and each of the individual rooms is apparent even to one such as me, who has no real design knowledge. I will forgo any description here, as my vocabulary for describing architecture is along the lines of thinking certain things looked “neat” and others “really, really neat and awesome.”

Frank Lloyd Wright home and studio

Our guide through the house was an adorable retired gentleman named Fritz, who loved architecture of this period so much that he has studied “all the greats,” as he put it, and even saved up for the “trip of a lifetime” to see Charles Rennie MacIntosh’s work in Scotland and some other Italian names, which of course I did not recognize. The tour, which was supposed to have lasted an hour, went for an hour and forty-five minutes, but Fritz was so interesting and the house so enjoyable that nobody even had noticed until he pointed out to us that we were “a little behind schedule.”

Speaking of being behind schedule, upon the tour's completion, I decided to have a quick walk around Oak Park before catching the metro back to the city. What actually happened was that I got turned around and walked in (stately and refined) circles for over an hour before a kindly bag lady at a 7/11 put me back on the right track.

Keep Kids Alive

Arriving back in the city, I stumbled into the nearest Corner Bakery and treated myself to another soup in a bread bowl, into which I also crumbled several packets of crackers, because some days it just seems impossible to get a meal starchy enough!

Knowing that I had a long evening planned out with friends, I nipped back to the hotel to charge my batteries (both literal and figurative) and get set for a big night ahead.

In anticipation of the big night in question, I headed back toward the city center around 5:00pm, looking forward to meeting up with my friend Becca and her husband Dustin. While waiting for the metro to deliver them, I chilled (literally) at the corner of Michigan and Randolph. Much to my surprise, I spotted a kilted gentleman trotting up the sidewalk carrying a drum. Eventually I nipped back into the Chicago Cultural Center to see what wonders the other floors (other than the ground level, which I had seen the night before with James and Wendy) had to offer.

And there were indeed wonders to be seen.

Chicago Cultural Center

Chicago Cultural Center

Chicago Cultural Center

Chicago Cultural Center

Not long thereafter, Becca and Dustin arrived and sent me instructions to meet them at the Intelligentsia coffee shop just a few doors down. Guzzling our (excellent!) coffee and chatting, we hoofed it down Michigan to the Art Institute, which was packed due to it being a “free night” from 5-8. Once inside, we were immediately separated. I wandered through the Impressionists and the armor displays alone, then--after a flurry of texts--met up with Becca again in the Renaissance rooms. (And may I just say, those Renaissance artists... saucy!)

Once fully cultured and full of the joy of the fine arts, we sallied forth into the cold, catching a bus up to the North Side and riding just a few stops north for dinner at the Grand Lux (which, to the best of my knowledge, is the actual name of the restaurant and not something I made up because I could not remember the actual name). Becca and I ordered a pasta and chicken dish that was to die for, and Dustin ordered a burger that would have taken three hands to eat had he had three hands. (Important Note: He only has two, but still managed to eat the burger.)

During dinner, much good conversation was had. This husband and wife duo was able to offer advice on 1) how to get rid of a Southern accent, and 2) the best plan of attack for studying Greek/Hebrew. When Dustin excused himself for a few minutes, I shared with Becca some of the few Merry Misadventures that don't actually make it onto my various internet outlets. (Hard to imagine, I know, but there are some...)

Before any of us knew what was happening, we had ridden the bus back to Wacker and had come to the point of parting. Some fervent side hugs and sincere handshakes may or may not have been exchanged (and some spoken blessings thrown into the mix as well), but at any rate, eventually my hosts headed one direction into the night, and I another.

Back at the hotel, I found Sarah and Robin in the lobby lounge holding court with several other nerds of the music persuasion. We chatted happily about our respective days before dragging our weary selves up to the room for another night of restorative sleep.

Chicago, Day 4 was right around the corner!

See more photos from Chicago Day 4 HERE.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Chicago 2011, Day 2: Let Us Go Then, You and I

WEDNESDAY, DAY 2

Robin and Sarah were on a time table, thus at 9:05 they were both sliding out the door to meet fellow conference-goers in the lobby. They were, both of them, dressed nicely and looking shiny as new pennies.

I, on the other hand, who had no real schedule to keep for the day, took my time getting my morning started. A leisurely shower and two mugs of tea later, I shrugged on my long gray coat, flipped up the hood, and stalked off into the thick Chicago fog.

Navy Pier

As Wednesday’s weather seemed unlikely to cooperate for outdoor sightseeing, I contented myself with spending most of the day at the Field Museum of Natural History.

Chicago Field Museum

After saying hello to T-rex skeleton ("Sue") just inside the entrance, I ambled through the rambling exhibits, enjoying the design of the fine old building just as much as the exhibits themselves.

Chicago Field Museum

Chicago Field Museum

Brilliance

The featured exhibit on horses, which would have had my sister enthralled, was less interesting to me than it would have been to her; nevertheless, I took these pictures and sent them to her in further effort to make her wild with envy.

It worked.

My intention had been to hit the Art Institute of Chicago next, but I had learned from experience what happens when one visits more than one museum per day: the brain begins to suffer from Museum Overload and partially shuts down. To circumvent this, I decided to keep the art gallery for the next day, contenting myself with lunch at a Corner Street Bakery (where my dream of soup-in-a-bread-bowl finally came true!), a walk down Roosevelt, and a trip on the El to the financial district. It was there that I viewed the facade and lobby of the Rookery, a 19th century survivor of the Chicago fire, redesigned by Frank Lloyd Wright.

The Rookery

Realizing that the Rookery was within close proximity to where I planned to meet my friends James and Wendy later in the afternoon, I wondered absently if James had the Rookery on the evening agenda, and if I should have saved it for later... but in the end, it turned out to be all for the best, since our plans changed at the last minute anyway.

Although I hadn’t really done much walking on the cold, blustery streets, I found myself chilled to the bone. My (insulation-impaired) Florida clothing--combined with my delicate, warmblooded wimpishness--had really taken its toll on my skinny bones. I decided that a quick bus ride back to the hotel and a huddle under the thick duvet sounded like the perfect way to refresh and recover before Round 2 of Wednesday’s sightseeing plans.

The original plan for the evening had been to meet James and his lovely wife Wendy at the Sears (Willis) Tower to watch the sunset from the observation deck. James had been excited about this plan, because like a true native of any oft-visited city, he had as yet to hit this tourist landmark. This plan had to be scrapped, of course, as the fog choking the city would have made such a trip extremely unproductive. Instead, we met at the Chicago Cultural Center to view the Vivian Maier photography exhibit.

Chicago Cultural Center

From there, we hopped in a cab and headed across the river to have dinner in the near north side at a little place called Frontera Grill. So what if the wait for a table was long when there were books to be discussed and travel adventures to rehash! While James went jogging around the downtown area, Wendy and I settled down in two comfortable chairs for a nice heart-to-heart about books. Finished with his evening exercise, James returned to the lobby of Frontera Grill to keep us company while we waited.

In case you've been living under a rock somewhere and are unaware of how things work, a long wait for a table generally indicates excellent food, and this was no exception. We dined on fancy Mexican food, chatted about everything but politics, and spent a leisurely time enjoying the brisk atmosphere of the popular (surprisingly crowded for a Wednesday night) restaurant.

Of course, as one would expect, there were a few awkward moments, such as 1) when James intimated that our mutual friends had led him to believe that I was insane, or 2) any of the various times our waiter was talking to us and we were all nodding and smiling vacantly while pretending to be able to understand and hear him. (Although that second one might just have been me.)

In no time at all, the evening wound itself to a close. In true Ruthette fashion, I found myself taking my rather abrupt leave, abandoning James and Wendy on the sidewalk in front of the restaurant, leaving them both to bask in the fading glory of having been in my presence.1 As my hosts for the evening, being the thoughtful souls that they are, had chosen a dinner location within easy walking distance from the hotel, all it took was for me to orient myself along the space/time continuum and quick-walk through the crisp, chilly air back to the hotel.

NOTE: At no point in this trip did I manage to take any pictures (jumping or otherwise) with any of the kind folks with whom I had so much fun meeting up, hanging out, and seeing the city. Various theories as to how/why this happened abound, however, I will admit right now that this is one of my great regrets from the trip.

See more pictures from the trip HERE.
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1 - I do apologize for anyone who has ever experienced one of these. My admittedly abrupt personality--combined with the after-effects of a year spent in China, where social functions often end by a guest saying, "I will go," and leaving instantaneously--can have a startling effect, I am told.