Em and Stu do America Part 1: Chicago

Spoiler alert: we did nothing literary, unless it counts that we visited two libraries in a frantic search for wifi. It was enough for our first leg to come to terms with raging jet lag, culture shock and inevitable but still alarming logistical problems.

Free wifi with a side serve of book-related inspiration at Chicago Public Library.

Free wifi with a side serve of book-related inspiration at Chicago Public Library.

We arrived at 8pm at our AirBnB wondering why the hell the sun was still brightly shining outside. We crept confusedly into the small supermarket opposite our AirBnB. We had just spent 18+ hours on planes and it felt as though the floor was rocking as we walked. We gazed around in terrified wonder, bought a roast chicken with cash, devoured half of it from the plastic tub back in the room, then slept like the dead for 13 hours straight.

The three-day visit was intended to contain things like architectural river cruises and well planned DIY walking tours as well as, obviously, deep dish pizza and hot dogs. Actually, who am I kidding? The priority was the food. And that’s lucky, because while we did locate fantastic food thanks to meticulous pre-planning, we spent the hours intended for tourism locked in libraries frantically phoning banks that mysteriously stopped our debit cards despite us having completed all the necessary steps pre-departure. They reinstated them several days later, after StuMo emailed them in ALL CAPS.

We had neglected another necessary step, though; forgot to give the USA mobile number to our banks before leaving, and being unable to call them and unable to receive that miracle of modern technology, SMS confirmation codes, left us in a panicky pickle.

Free wifi with a side serve of public art at Chicago's West End Public Library.

Free wifi with a side serve of public art at Chicago’s West End Public Library.

Thus, attempting to book what turned out to be outrageously complex public transport options to reach our next destination turned out to be a four-hour nightmare spent in Chicago’s West End public library. Eventually we gave up trying to buy online and I spent 40 minutes on the phone to Amtrak cowering in the library vestibule, wincing at the street sounds and trying not to shout confidential credit card numbers into the phone too loudly. As it was, the automated voice recognition software enthusiastically picked up the sound of all the much louder Americans also on their phones in the same five-foot-square space. If you’re wondering why we didn’t get an AirBnB with wifi, we had – it just turned out to be not-as-advertised.

We headed downtown for deep dish pizza in a state of nervous collapse but the deep dish fixed everything, though the shock of the burgeoning realisation that we are privileged young adults with no conception of what it is like to have to do anything without the help of delicious free flowing Data Coverage remains and will take some time to adjust to.

IT'S OK, WE HAVE PIZZA. The deep dish marvel at Gino's on La Salle.

IT’S OK, WE HAVE PIZZA. Deep dish heaven at Gino’s on La Salle.

While problems such as these reduced our time in Chicago and we didn’t manage any river cruises or get to properly plan our DIY walking tours, we still managed to get around, doing hours of walking around the city and river both to save cash and take in the sights as best we could while rationing our Google Maps and general staring at phones.

We were staggered by the scale and grandeur of the buildings in this city, the largest either of us has ever seen, and it was StuMo’s job to keep an eye on my dangling handbag and keep me crossing streets at the appropriate time as I goggled amazedly upwards, freely pointing at and photographing everything, blithely uncaring of the tourist spectacle I was making of myself.

Beside gazing at Chicago’s stunning architecture we obviously visited the magic Bean, sorry, the Cloud Gate public art piece that draws crowds every day, and explored the Millennium Park that surrounds it, down to the beautiful shoreline of Lake Michigan.

Cloud Gate at Millennium Park

Cloud Gate at Millennium Park

We were taken aback by First Contact with the aliens themselves, by which I mean the American people, who are not only “just like on TV”, as we whispered to each other, but somehow bigger and louder and madder and more colourful versions of the stereotypes we had assumed until now were only stereotypes. And not only that but kind, friendly and cheerful in a way I was completely unprepared for, despite having been warned. I don’t mean this to suggest that I had thought Americans would be unfriendly – I had just always thought of Australians as friendly when now, by comparison, they seem incredibly quiet, laid-back and self-conscious. In a line, at the gym, out walking, on the bus, on an elevator – anywhere you can think of that an Australian would keep their eyes on the floor and attempt to pretend they are actually alone in that space, an American will already be smiling and greeting you, if not actually having a conversation with you and trying either to find out your life history or tell you their own.

At Lou Malnati’s Italian restaurant in downtown Chicago, ‘Mike’ heard our Australian accents at the bar as we bought drinks while waiting for a table. He struck up a conversation while he waited for his ‘buddy’ to go and see a band, offered us his spare two tickets for said band, helped us work out the accepted way of tipping the bartender, warned us to order our deep dish while we were waiting and then told us which one to order. When we went to our table and his buddy arrived, he bought us drinks and sent them over.

Merchandise Mart, one of the largest buildings in the world.

Merchandise Mart, one of the largest buildings in the world.

As an Australian, behaviour such as this makes you only suspicious that you have been marooned with a Crazy Person and you frantically plot your escape. But the behaviour of everyone else we had already encountered had prepared us to believe that Mike was actually just a Really Nice Guy like absolutely everyone else. A quick ‘sorry’ to someone you bump in a crowd meets an ‘oh no, you are totally OK!’ Everyone you meet tells you to ‘have a great day’. Waitstaff you are scamming free sachets of mayonnaise off because you are a povo traveller say “oh no, I got ya.”

The highlight of our visit was undoubtedly returning to Millennium Park on Friday night, our last night, for the first headliner of the three-day Chicago Blues Fest, a free three-day concert that draws big names every year.

Nightfall at Millennium Park's main stage.

Nightfall at Millennium Park’s main stage.

We saw the sun go down over the park’s massive amphitheatre and city skyline to the sounds of Billy Branch & the Son of Blues with guests Lurrie Bell, Freddie Dixon, J.W. Williams, Carlos Johnson, Carl Weathersby, Bill McFarland and Chicago Fire Horns and Mae Koen & The Lights. Locals, meanwhile, treated us to impromptu dance performances that ranged from charming to breathtaking. If you have a spare four minutes check out the video at the end – it’s worth it.

Mum, plastic cups of Chardonnay come with lids on. Genius!

The final day we spent much of trying to locate currency exchanges as a safeguard against our stopped cards, ducking into the relative quiet of airconditioned supermarket aisles to escape the sheer cacophony of the streets outside as we spent more time wrangling with banks on the phone.

The blues fest continued to rage inside Millennium Park, audible across the city, competing with countless deafening conversations of passersby and the sounds of young shirtless men stretching the music festival into every street corner, banging out drum solos on upturned buckets with the kind of talent and showmanship you should really pay to see.

A must-do destination, gleaned from Gabriel Iglesias' stand-up, was Portillos' Cake Shake - yep, whole pieces of cake smashed into drink form. I can't believe I ate-drank the whole thing. Totally worth it.

A must-do destination, gleaned from Gabriel Iglesias’ stand-up, was Portillos’ Cake Shake – yep, whole pieces of cake smashed into drink form. I can’t believe I ate-drank the whole thing. Totally worth it.

Later we braved the most insane food-hall scene we have ever seen in the maelstrom of Portillo’s hot dog emporium – an utterly bewildering experience, but the best way ever to close off the night before heading to Union Station to catch the overnight Lake Shore Amtrak east.

As magnificent as the river and architecture were, it was the blues fest and these chance encounters more than anything else that made us feel like we at least managed to glimpse the soul of Chicago.

Postscript: Stu did want to draw more attention to the entertainment reference in this post title by calling it “Emvis and Buttstu do America” but I said no.

What we’re reading
Em: Walden, Henry David Thoreau (seemed appropriate); Closed Casket, the second of the new Hercule Poirot mysteries by Sophie Hannah; Radical Acceptance, Tara Brach.   
Stu: the first draft of Em’s novel (gah!) and The Red Queen, Isobelle Carmody.

What we’re listening to
Audiobook: The Silkworm by Robert Galbraith (aka JK Rowling)
Music: songs from the 1969 Woodstock Festival, because we’re soon to visit the site!

What we’re watching
Reruns of The Simpsons and Community, smuggled aboard by Stu.

Gallery

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