I don’t know how long it took me to get to Chicago from Sydney, I really don’t. Between all the flight delays, time changes, crying babies and lack of sleep, it took me a few days just to work out what day it was. All I know is that I left on Tuesday at 1pm, I got in at Tuesday at 9pm I would swear I spent at least a full day traveling. At least Qantas has House of Cards on its entertainment system, this was helpful as there was a crying toddler behind me and sleep wasn’t going to be easy.
After braving LAX (just!), I arrived in Chicago in time to fall asleep. Kudos to the hostel (Hostelling International Chicago) which was very full, but very well run over the course of the week.
After meeting the lovely Nicole from Kansas City in the dorm room, I then met the equally lovely Nicolette from Germany at breakfast (due to jet-lag I did worry I’d gotten the names mixed up for most of the first day). I ate a bagel (with Swiss cheese. Who knew! And understood why people like them so much). After a quick and easy (though not cheap) pit-stop at AT&T I was Google maps enabled. How did I ever travel without this?
Nicolette and I walked around downtown Chicago, visiting the lake and of course the infamous Bean in Millennium Park (a public sculpture by Anish Kapoor properly known as “Cloud Gate,”) which is very, very, cool. It’s basically a very smooth, seamless, shiny bean, that becomes more and more interesting the longer you look at it (mostly because Chicago is reflected in it, along with your, and everyone else’s reflection).
Chicago also happens to be in the middle of a heatwave (more on that later) and the bean became a good pit stop (with plenty of shade and a big reflective metallic thing to stare into) when it became too hot to do anything else.
I’d heard about Chicago’s architecture. Who hasn’t? But I hadn’t expected to be that into it! The skyline as a whole is spectacular, but so are the vast majority of the buildings, of all shapes and sizes. Every building seems to have some interesting shape or style or gorgeous facade. Walking around in the neighborhoods, they’re all gorgeous and unique. While the city is relatively young (almost entirely built post-Chicago fire) it all seemed to be built during that perfect niche time of post-fire/pre-great depression boom.
Nicolette, a braver woman than I am, was bussing it down to Washington, so I met up with Nicole and the two English boys she was showing U.S. too.
A big comedy fan, Nicole led to the way to Second City, meant to be one of the best comedy venues in the world and the home of Improv comedy. We caught the “L” out to ‘Old Town’ and signed up for the Second-City Comedy Walking/History tour.
It wasn’t great. Our guide was a very eager comedian in training at Second City. The tour was… a little misguided; the guide had a great deal of knowledge but she didn’t seem to know what the point of the tour was. We thought (Nicole in particular) that we were getting a tour on the history of comedy in the area (this is where Tina Fey got coffee. Here’s a funny story about that). Instead we got told about the Chicago fire and architecture… and it wasn’t that funny or anything Wikipedia hadn’t told me. And then tiny tit-bits of comedy history, just enough to realise how full of comedy history the area was, and everything the tour could have been. It confirmed what I knew about delivery of ‘Programs’ – you need a consistent theme and then substantive depth into that topic.
She did end up telling us about Twin Anchors, a local bar where the reveal of Two Face in the Dark Knight was shot. I saw the dents in the bar where Aaron Eckhart slammed down the glass over and over again. They were also filming Transformers 4 while I was in Chicago, so I might be in one of the aerial shots (they kept buzzing helicopters through the city, freaking everyone out). We decided to stay for dinner and I had my first “American” food – splitting a serving of ribs with Nicole. Delicious! And thus began the difficulties of consuming vegetables other than potato.
Second City and Twin Anchors Bar in Old Town
After dinner we headed back to Second City to watch an actual show, this place is the launching pad of famous comedians – basically most of the American comedians you’ve heard of started here. Of the five latest new cast members of Saturday Night Live, three came out of the main cast. We saw the current main cast and they were amazing. We’d also been told that the hour of unscripted Improv after the show was the best bit. The two skits they got through without sobbing were excellent. Unfortunately it was a cast member’s last night, and we (along with the half of the audience who hadn’t come to ‘say goodbye’) were trapped by over an hour’s worth of teary speeches, deeply personal stories and “in-jokes” we didn’t get. She’s off to shoot a pilot in L.A. apparently, so if Lauren Holtz (?) becomes famous, I’ll remember that hour of my life very differently!
I met San Diego Aaron at breakfast over another delicious bagel. I think Aaron was a bit confused as to why I was talking to him but it was quickly established that it was because I didn’t like looking sad and pathetic eating breakfast on my own. By the way its hotter on day two.
Armed with a recommendation from Aaron’s grandfather we jumped on the “L” and headed South, before walking to the Museum of Science and Industry (think Questacon). Apparently the South is exceptionally dangerous and I later found out the reason we didn’t feel unsafe is because the University of Chicago hires the second largest private security force in the world (after Vatican City). You couldn’t have known. The houses were gorgeous. This is President Obama’s neighborhood!
Chicago’s South Side Neighborhood near University of Chicago (and President Obama’s House)
The Museum was awesome, in an interactive, hands-on, science kind of way. Thanks to my handy Questacon membership card, I got 2 reciprocal entries, meaning the museum would now be judged as a freebie, not a $30 entry. They had everything from the first tank ever built, to tornado machines and Google-glass (on display, not to try). The highlight though was the only U-Boat ever captured by U.S. forces in World War Two (only 5 survived overall). There’s a long story involving capturing Enigma machines and codebooks (and it cost extra to go inside, which we did). The towed it from off the coast of Africa to Panama, and held the captured German soldiers in less than POW appropriate conditions to maintain absolute secrecy! This was very cool and hard to believe it was in a science museum, but this place seemed to have a philosophy of “we’ll take that” which ranged from Boeing Planes to exhibitions on foetal development.
The Museum of Science and Industry (and their German U-Boat)
Aaron also turned out to be a musical fan (yay!) and so we tried to get $25 lottery tickets to the national tour of Book of Mormon (widely rumoured to have a better cast than the current Broadway version). The lottery takes place two hours before curtain and was packed, at least a hundred people. Luckily they kept drawing even beyond the 20 front row seats and so we ended up in okay seats in the balcony. In the line I also met Liza, a lovely Canadian come Chicagoan, but more on that latter.
The musical was good, excellent even (and got a standing ovation from the audience). It wasn’t as subtly clever as I thought it would be based off the soundtrack though. I expected more Avenue Q and it was more South Park. Still awesome though!
After waking up very late (turns out I was jetlagged. Whoops). I headed off to the museum where Indiana Jones works:
Skipping the paid, touring, exhibitions I stuck to the permanent ones and barely squeezed it in to the 5 or so hours I had there. This place has been around for a long time and it shows. They are masters at what they do. A lot of the exhibitions are very old-school. This is the place that invented the diorama, but they do it so well. They’re so well constructed an in-depth that displays likely unchanged from the 1980s are still captivating with lots of the usual see, touch, hear stuff. Their more modern exhibitions use a lot of the same techniques of sensory submersion, rain-forest dioramas you can go into and self-explore, for example. The kids go bonkers for it!
An old-school diorama of the African Safari and a newer interactive diorama at the Field Museum.
It was hard to get situated, partly due to the size, both of the building and the collection. I tried to start at the bottom and ended up at the cafeteria I imagine they use for school groups etc. It was pretty cool, the kids would be surrounded by huge dioramas of museum quality. After exploring the animals I headed upstairs to what you would expect of a natural history museum (gemstones, dinosaurs etc.) and confirmed that most of what I knew about dinosaurs comes from the Land Before Time.
Finally, they had a two level Egypt Exhibition, the focus of which was a reconstructed to scale Egyptian tomb. They had lots of lots of hands on stuff (this is a replica of a rock Egyptian slaves pulled to build pyramids, can you pull it?), but these special/experiential exhibitions were by far the best. It was a very cool way to convey understanding of scale and space as well as putting the objects in their original context, as opposed to a glass case. Lots of people would leave that exhibition wanting to be Indiana Jones.
the infamous “Sue” – most completed T-Rex Skeleton in the world. and the Recreated Egyptian Tomb.
After that it was off to meet Liza, of the Book of Mormon Ticket Line, who very kindly took me out for dinner and showed me some of Chicago. As she was working at the Goodman Theatre, I got to hear all about their upcoming musical about African American porter’s on the Pullman train… unfortunately starting after I left.
She also encouraged me to see a Chicago production of the Colour Purple Musical, a little further out in the gorgeous old Mercury Theatre….
TO BE CONTINUED IN CHICAGO PART TWO…