Friday, August 28, 2009

Innocents Abroad An Aussie's Trip report on Chicago

I’m running a bit behind on reports. This trip was Sept/Oct 2006. Travellers me, (female) and 2 of my offspring, (Daughter aged 17 and Son aged 18). A stop over en route to visit people in Kansas.
In short: AWESOME city. We’d LOVE to go back sometime, still so much to see that we didn’t get to.
Stayed at Congress Plaza Hotel. Selected for location and price. Location was indeed very convenient for our interests. It was frustrating that most US hotels don’t have fridges in the rooms. Only place we stayed where we had this facility was Great Bend Kansas.
We read the guide books, but it’s amazing how much was still a surprise, as you will see below. LOL . Most things I booked on the internet myself from home.
DAY 1 – mostly in flight. It’s about 20 hrs of travel to Chicago from Sydney. Flew United, which was fine. Lots of Aussies on the flight wearing flag hats and shirts. Made me think that, like me, many were a bit over-awed at leaving Aus. I’d managed to keep it a bit more discrete though and had opted for a wattle embroidered T-shirt under my jacket. The bronzed gum leaf earings stayed in my handbag for the trip but got much use after arrival – subtle eh! LOL
Probably got fleeced at LA airport, he SAID it was for battered women and had some gruesome photos to show you, he was probably lying but hey, the information the guy gave was worth 20 bucks to me at the time, so I decided to be generous. We LOVED the US, but probably the least positive aspect we struck was that you can’t just take people at face value. If they offer you assistance, even if they look kind of official, no sooner than providing the help they’ll want your money. We quickly stopped accepting help from strangers.
Our agent arranged transfers to our hotel. Expensive but we figured it’s a really long flight and who needs the hassle in a strange city. I slept most of the way and arrived in better shape than when I left, which was a surprise. After arrival we freshened up and walked out to seek some dinner about 9:30 pm. Not much open this end of town - only Subway and Dunkin Donuts, so we just walked towards the river and ended up at Smith and Wollensky downstairs. I’m sure the waitress must have thought we were from another planet. Our first trip to the US and we had no idea what was going on! First we asked about drinks that have never been heard of (lemon, lime and bitters) even when she asked what was in it, there was clearly a language barrier. (What’s fizzy lemonade? What’s Angostura bitters?) then we had an issue with paying by credit card. In Australia, when paying by card, they take your card and bring you the slip (so far so good) and then you sign and they check your signature against that on your card, or check your ID. In the US it’s standard to just bring the card and slip and duck off quick smart and not come back. We kept waiting for the waitress to come back and check my signature. In the end we had to ask, which was clearly considered an odd thing to do. We struggled with this for days and were thinking the service was just bad, but the nice people at Crofton on Wells explained the local custom to us. You guys in the US must have HUGE credit card fraud with processes as loose as that! Anyway, the meal was delicious.
Back to the hotel, and the toilet is causing much consternation. Is it blocked? It’s like a lake! So much water!! Ah, and it forms a whirlpool – (so that’s what that Simpson’s episode was on about!) Son discovers some unfortunate design consequences. Very puzzling, maybe not using this facility appropriately. How’s it done here? I won’t go into details but let me say it took Son quite a while to lose his deep unhappiness with the toilets, even after detailed discussions with daughter’s male (American) friend via phone.
Surprised to find that everything opens at 10 am. (In Australia we’re used to everything opening by 9 am, and in the city many things open earlier so people can stop in on the way to work which generally starts at 8:30 or 9). We took the opportunity for a walk in the park across the road before a leisurely breakfast at the Corner Bakery, which has a nice cosy atmosphere. Food was OK. The yoghurt is a bit too far to the side of fat free.
MASS excitement when we spotted some squirrels in the park. So cute!! We never did get over being embarrassingly thrilled with the local wildlife. Even saw a chipmunk in the garden at the zoo. At first we were wondering what is was, but then realised and it was SO exciting! The beaver at the zoo also was a major hit. Like a swimming wombat! Anyhow, the parklands and public landscaping in Chicago is lovely. Everything beautifully maintained and really clean. Lots of wonderful statuary both modern and traditional. The city planning is also very impressive and the lakefront is beautiful. We LOVED it. Being flat also, meant that we could just take off and walk to most things we wanted to do.
Sears tower next. Wonderful and not to be missed. 360 degree views over an extremely impressive city skyline, and the lake of course. They also have historical information about Chicago on the interior walls which was interesting. Lunch at Giordano’s. A “famous stuffed pizza” which was interesting and tasted OK. I was glad I’d insisted we just get a small one and see if we wanted more. They’re very deep and cheesy, like a bowl of melted mozzarella. The 12 inch (recommended for 1 – 2 people) fed 3 of us no problem at all.
Went and tried the “Chicago mix” at Garretts popcorn. Didn’t like it though. The cheese one was really oily and the caramel tasted burnt. Binned it.
Back for a rest before our internet booked Downtown Deco tour with the Chicago Architecture Foundation. FASCINATING. Local pride in all things architecture completely justified. These tours are a must. Tour finished at a little bar where we had gourmet pizza with a lovely couple from Oregon who were also on the tour.
We bought ourselves a local sim card for our phone, so my daughter could communicate with friends in Kansas. Ah yes… A note for Aussies heading stateside: In the US they call their phone credit “minutes”. My son had so much trouble asking people on the street in Kansas Citywhere to buy phone credit. They just looked at him like he was mad. Noone helped, a friend explained when we met up.
DAY 3: Frank Lloyd Wright on Tuesdays Tour. Again booked online with CAF. Wonderful. A real thrill. The volunteer tour leaders are extremely competent. Oak Park is beautiful. The architecture delightful. More squirrels!!
Afternoon we went and checked out what our transfer driver described as “the bean”. It’s a massive sculpture officially named “Cloud Gate”, by a British artist I think. I wasn’t fussed in advance, but it’s awesome too and worth the walk, and just near the Frank Gehry structure which we just had to check out. Lunch at the Park Grill was delicious.
We also visited the cultural centre for info on sports games. Did a bit of shopping. Bought some shoes. Came across the MOST bizarre thing. Loudly announcing itself to the street was a shop within one of the big department stores called “Australian Home Made Ice Cream and Chocolate”. Huhhh?! We just had to check that out. Australian chocolate?! “This cannot be!” we thought, but oh yes, this store was selling chocolate made in Australia. We bought a couple of the hand made chocs which claimed to use Belgian chocolate. Filthy. The fondant was grainy. Totally 3rd class. We wondered whether a letter to the Australian government might assist in having this shop closed down. What an embarrassment! Good people of Chicago, don’t learn the hard way. I should note that, we are starting to get some truly superior chocolatiers here in Aus. Koko Black is a case in point (albeit owned and managed by European chocolatiers) I understand they were at the Spring Fancy Food Show in Chicago in May....
Crofton on Wells for a 4 course dinner. Expensive but great service and very nice food completely different to what we get back home. Modest portion sizes were a welcome change. My son wasn’t too wrapped in his starter. The wait staff noticed and insisted on replacing it. He enjoyed the replacement. Wandered around the area a bit after dinner then a cab back to the hotel.
DAY 4. Late start. Caught the red line to the Magnificent Mile. Shopped all afternoon. Bought jeans at Saks 5th Ave. Fantastic service there from the young woman assisting us. Her prancing off-sider was pretty hopeless though and neglected his client which our lass didn’t let go unaddressed. To my surprise the prices covered a broad range which wasn’t what I expected at all. Bought shoes and Ray Bans in Nordstrom and booked tickets for a ball game via phone while we browsed. Great shoe department! Son thought one of the sales people seriously hot. Just what you need when Mum and Sis are browsing the shoes, a comfy sofa and some entertainment. Son was very enthusiastic about GAP and bought heaps of clothes. This was the great value clothes buying we’d heard about back home. Lucky we brought extra suitcase space. Walked back to the hotel. Red Line back out to Wrigley field. Wished we’d worn more warm clothes. Great atmosphere. Perfect game to catch, the Cubs won after a tight game. We ate a hot dog from the vendors (pretty horrible, but how could we not try it?) and enjoyed seeing all the famous ball game stuff. Tried to figure out why for no easily discernable reason the entire crowd suddenly got up and sang Take me Out to the Ball Game. Someone struck out? They didn’t sing again on strike out later…. Who knows?
DAY 5 – Architecture river cruise. COLD. Very interesting though. Some content overlapped previous tours. I thought it would be a good one to do as a general overview, but the subject specific tours were best as they were more detailed.
Caught the bus to Lincoln Park zoo in the afternoon. Lunch at Cosi nearby which was OK but nothing to write home about. Public transport is easy to use and navigate. Wonderful to visit a zoo with so many things we just don’t have back home. The Aadvarks and armadillo were a massive hit. I was excited beyond description to finally see real live hedgehogs. An excellent facility and free entry. Very impressive. The zoo was also quite disillusioning though, especially for Son. They had some weird animals from China we’d never seen or heard of before called takin. We thought someone at the Star Wars set had a great imagination, but turns out there’s animals just like the ones they used. Well who’d have thought?
Art Institute in the afternoon. I made a be line for the American section, which was great. Some great English cameo glass too. A bit of a maze to navigate though and as we got separated daughter missed American Gothic which she had been keen to see.
Dinner at Bennigans. OK. Great waiter. Very cool. Starting to suffer withdrawals from lack of vegetable matter.
Well mannered tidy beggars on street corners. I must say you let your beggars off lightly. They just stand there politely and discretely holding a cup, having nice chat with a mate or something. Generally looking happy enough. Here in Sydney we make our beggars earn their keep. They must look really really scruffy, have a cardboard sign fashioned out of an old cardboard box with some heart rending hard luck story written on it. Extra marks for trying if they also have an appealing little dog with a sad expression, and some old blankets to sit on. And none of this happy chatting business. We expect them to sit there looking particularly dejected for as long as they expect people to drop coins. We demand value for our money!! (Seriously though, here in Aus even the charities who work with homeless people request the public not to give to beggers. It’s really just a tax free business that pays very well indeed and that undermines attempts to get these people back to a proper working life. The hard luck tales are usually fictitious and there have been many, many investigative stories and articles showing just how much you can earn and just what the beggars actually do with the money – eg feed it into poker machine or buy booze etc).
DAY 6 Separated this morning. Offspring to breakfast. I walked over to Shedd Aquarium. AWESOME. Not to be missed. Very interesting indeed. I finally got to see real life amazon frogs I’ve admired so long. Kids shopped and ended up joining me at the Aquarium after my raving about it, so I went around twice. Strange information and name labels on the Aus lizards though. Komodo dragon was just a baby. This was amusing considering the big build up he got. Water taxi to Navy Pier was an enjoyable perspective on the city. Rode the big ferris wheel $5 for 1 revolution. Bit of a rip I thought. Bought some fabulous cinnamon nuts. Wish we could get them in Aus.. I've been lobbying our local hot nut vendors to this effect. Browsed a bit. Ho hum. Walked back to hotel. Stopped at Fox and Obel and bought some lollies (candy) and some fresh fruit – first outlet for fruit we’ve seen (which turned out to be strangely tasteless). Meat in this store is really expensive.
Tried to cab it to Steppenwolf Theatre to see the Pillowman. A big procession of bike riders had other ideas, and we ended up getting out and walking the last section in light drizzle. The show was excellent. I wonder what the London production was like in the characterisation of the police. We stayed for the discussion after the show. We must have stood out like sore thumbs as the (very very impressive) artistic director leading the discussion was keeping a close eye on us, seeming to want us to say something. Summoned the courage to actually speak when someone made a comment I didn’t agree with. I was totally out of kilter with majority sensibilities I think. Steppenwolf is definitely a highlight of our trip for our final night in town. Dinner at Hooters, which the offspring were pretty happy about. Really craving some healthy food now (none on menu of course). Daughter bought a T shirt. Missed out on Gino’s (which had been recommended) as it was closed.
Juggling our luggage weight. We’re off to Kansas City in the morning, harbouring a not so secret quest to find good quality dairy foods and some fresh fruit and vegetables somewhere…..
Overall, we felt very much at home. Thanks Chicago, we had a really wonderful time!
…ps we did end up finding some steamed vegetables at the Outback Steakhouse, fell on them like our lives depended on it! Outback steakhouse is a laugh in most respects, but god bless them for the veges!!

No comments: