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Nick Jenkins : The Opinionated Traveller

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Chicago in a Weekend

Saturday, 15 April 2000 15:23:42 PST

Spontaneity is not to be underrated. Sometimes the daily grind of modern society makes it seem like we're all automatons, mindless cogs in the modern machine. Truth be told, we make the shackles of our own mundane existence and we can break them, if we choose to.

I chose to spend the weekend in Chicago.

My friend Harv had been seconded to Chicago and was looking at spending a couple of months with nothing in particular to do. I also knew a couple of girls who live in Chicago that I met in Morocco at about this time last year. That, coupled with the fact I was bored out of my skull and consumed by aimless wanderlust convinced me it was time to visit the "Windy City".

I came to this conclusion on Tuesday night at about nine o'clock while sitting at my computer. In an internal debate (lasting all of fifteen seconds) I convinced myself it was a good idea, acquired a ticket via the net, asked the boss for Friday off and packed my bags.

Friday rolled around with alarming speed and my alarm jerked me out of bed to grab the nearest transport in order to make my 10.30am flight. It takes a good couple of hours to get to the airport in London.

The flight itself was uneventful and I managed to acquire the much coveted four-centre-seat spread to catch a couple of hours sleep before we landed.

The weather in Chicago was the first sign of an imminent good weekend - sunny and nineteen degrees Celsius. After the grey skies of London, I felt positively giddy. I felt like stripping off my shirt and prancing around the tarmac singing. Sunshine deprivatin does strange things to you.

From the airport I took the "L" (elevated train) downtown to Chicago to hook up with Harv. Getting out at Washington street, I eschewed the classic yellow taxi for more ambulatory form of locomotion. It gave me a chance to see the city as well as catch some sunshine.

Walking in Chicago is a pleasure and, as the LP says, Chicago is "flat, easy to navigate and one of the few American cities you can fully enjoy without a car." The streets of Chicago are broad and comfortable and they are justifiably proud of the architecture. Frank Lloyd Wright spent a lot of time in Chicago and whether he influence Chicago or it influencd him, I'm not sure.

In any case, Chicago's streetscapes are pleasing to the eye, dominated by solid, square, multi-storey structures, laid like ranked pieces on a chess-board. A pleasing regularity. The buildings themselves vary from stark modernistic glass pillars to ornate pre-war constructions or turn of the century icons. It's a tidy show case of high rise architecture. The streets are wide and pleasant, the city planned for and built on flat ground.

I found my friend's office and extracted him from a training course so we could organise our weekend. We had a few things to see but first I wanted to get in touch with the girls I met in Marrakech. I met Heather and Anna when we all got lumped together in a bus on a desert tour. They turned out to be nice people and we all managed to get along and stay in touch after we returned from Morocco. I managed to get Heather on the phone and we arranged to meet up.

Harv and I grabbed a bite to eat and then hopped on the L again, this time the red line heading for Wrigley Field. Wrigley Field, home of Chicago's favourite baseball team the Cubs, is an icon in iteslef. The Cubs have a fanatical following in the city, not withstanding the fact that they hardly ever win a game.

We weren't actually going to a game, I'd arrived on too short notice for that, but we headed out to a bar called the 'Gingerman' which was within spitting distance of the field. After a couple of rounds we sauntered off to the 'Corner Pocket' and played pool until they threw us out at 1am. This was a good demonstration of stamina from me since it was about 6am in my timezone.

The next morning I slept in, but not long enough to lose the sparkling weather. Harv and I strolled up through the town and over the network of canals that used to be part of the trading empire that was Chicago's lifeblood. We eventually hit the expressway on the edge of Lake Michigan and grabbed a cab down to the waterfront and the Field Museum of Natural History.

The Museum was okay but the two key exhibits that both Harv and I would have liked to see were unavailable. The first was Sue, the largest Tyrannosaurus Rex skeleton ever found. She was unavailable because she is powdering her nose for her grand unveiling on May 12th. The second was the Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit which was unfortunately sold out. How it could 'sell out' wasn't exactly clear, but sold out it was.

The other exhibits were relatively interesting but consisted largely of the usual collection of sacred artefacts knicked from indigenous people, this time of course the local Indians. The totems in the Field Museum are impressive and would be more impressive still if they were back with their original owners instead of crammed into some dimly lit corner of the Museum.

After the museum we braved the arctic winds coming off Lake Michigan and strolled back into town. We paused for lunch at a 'Bennigans' one of a the ubiquitous American chain restaurants which, despite the service-circus, serve better food than the average high street restaurant in London.

As we headed back to Harv's place in the quaintly named 'Streeterville', we got a taste of windy city weather. In the space of four metro stops the temperature dropped ten degrees, the wind picked up and the mist rolled in off Lake Michigan. When we got on the red line downtown, it was about twenty degrees and we were in t-shirts. When we emerged at Chicago station it was about four degrees and we were in imminent danger of suffering hypothermia. The hair on my arm bristled like a porcupine on the attack and goosebumps the size of grapefruit sprang up across my snap-frozen body.

We had a brief sprint home to collect some more clothes and spent the rest of the afternoon strolling around the shops on the swanky Michigan Ave. In the evening we headed out to meet up with some more friends. Since Harv used the phrase "dull as dishwater" to describe his office friends in Chicago, we'd been forced to search out some new ones. Through the traveller's friends-of-a-friend network he'd manage to get in touch with Alex and Mel, both of whom work for Lufthansa in Chicago.

We met the girls in a pub called the 'US Beer Co' which specialised in. . . well you get the idea. They had just been out to barrack for one of their friends teams in, that un-American of all things, a rugby match. Their team lost heavily.

From the 'Beer Co' we piled in the back of Mel's car and headed off for dinner. The girls took us to the John Barleycorn which has been a haunt for Al Capone in the days of prohibition. The decor inside was a little bit confused, with models of three-masted schooners vying for room on the picture rail with busts of Shakespeare and Galileo. Just up the street from the restaurant was the spot where John Dillinger was cornered and shot.

The restaurant featured the only surly American waitress I have ever met and a suspiciously uncloudy species of Caffrey's Irish lager. The beer wasn't horrible and we tipped the waitress a grudging pittance after the girls remonstrated about how appallingly they get paid. We turned in about midnight that night.

The next morning we headed out to the Adler planetarium near Meigs Field (airport). The planetarium features the "world's most advanced" big screen projector. This one, the narrator explained, was powered by real-time feed from a computer rather than the old photosensitive pigments on celluloid method. The planetarium also had "interactive" controls in the arms of your seat. During the presentation, control of the view passes over to the audience and you are able, collectively, to fly around the surface of Mars.

The predictable result of having a democracy fly a plane is that you spend most of your time crashing into the ground until the narrator tells you all what to do. The show was quite inspiring and made even my bloated ego feel astronomically insignificant.

After the planetarium we had time enough for a leisurely lunch in another chain restaurant ('TGI Fridays' I think). Over lunch Harv and I talked about life, unrequited romance and high explosives, as we are wont to do.

My plane was leaving at 5pm so I headed off soon after that and caught the train back to Chicago O'Hare for the six hour flight to London. I landed at 5.40am at Heathrow and was straight back into the office where I managed to prop myself upright for eight solid hours before I went home to collapse.

I liked Chicago more than either of the other U.S. cities I have visited, San Francisco and Seattle. Both of the west coast cities felt cramped to me, too many people in too small a space. Chicago has a real sense of space and presence.

The waterfront green acre parks remind me of my home town too. Perth, like Chicago is on the water but it's the Swan river instead of lake Michigan. Having somewhere to walk the dog, play baseball or stroll in the sunshine is very conducive to a relaxed way of living. This is, of course, assuming you have sunshine, a dog, a baseball and/or the inclination to use them.

Chicago is the sort of city I could live in, if it weren't for the six feet of snow it sees every winter. If you're looking at another dull weekend, do something spontaneous, go to Chicago. Hell! Go to Uzbekistan if it takes your fancy, but get off your arse and go somewhere!