Week 1 in Chicago (10th - 16th September 2007)

Monday, 10th September 2007: My journey to Chicago started at 4am this morning to catch the 6am connecting flight to Sydney. Today was probably the longest Monday to date - I left NZ on Monday morning and arrived in Chicago the same day in the afternoon, some 22 hours later! The longest connection was the flight from Sydney to Los Angeles (LA) which took about 13 hours. Surprisingly, I didn't feel like 'kissing the ground' when I landed in LA after so many hours on air - it was ok, just feeling tired from the lack of sleep.

Arrived in LA at 6.30am (this is LA time) and went through the customs and baggage checks. There were lots of people in this huge airport and part of me was afraid I would get lost but much like other airports I've been, it was just a matter of being alert and knowing where you have to be at what time. The customs officers were nice though the staff at the security checkpoint seemed to have already started their day as if someone stepped on their tail (they were shouting around at travellers). Oh, and I had to remove my shoes and put it in one of those trays that goes through the scanning machine - was a first for me! Photos taken in LA (in the boarding room and the other from the plane):

Hopped on the plane again at 10am to Chicago and arrived at 4pm at O'Hare International Airport. A photo of the airport:

Yay, I'm finally here! Met up with Antonio at the baggage claim area - it was great to see him again (the last I saw him was 3 months ago in NZ). You've been dearly missed!

Chicago is the largest city in the state of Illinois and the 3rd largest city in the United States. It is also nicknamed "The Windy City" for its breeziness - I wonder if it is windier than Windy Wellington...

Antonio lives in an apartment in Hyde Park, located on the south side. He had just moved in a week ago so the place is quite bare and he's still living from boxes - oh, poor thing! I had a short rest and unpacked a bit before we went out for dinner in the neighbourhood.

Oh my god!! I thought the serving size of a meal in NZ is huge - wait till you see the size they serve here in the States. Massive! We had to put half of what we ordered in a doggy bag. I think we should share a plate next time...Few other interesting things that I found out about the US was that the prices you see in the menu or in shops almost always do not include tax AND you are expected to tip at least 15% of the total cost at bars and restaurants. In NZ, almost everything is tax inclusive and you tip if you want to.

Antonio took me out for a drive in the city centre after dinner. It takes about 20 minutes by car to get from Hyde Park to the city centre on Lake Shore Drive (colloquially referred to as LSD or simply Lake Shore and is an expressway running parallel with and next to Lake Michigan through Chicago). A tip for you when travelling in the city: the lake is always on the east. By the way, Lake Michigan is one of the 5 Great Lakes of North America.

Wow, the city looks so beautiful with lights at night...So many tall buildings of unique shapes and sizes, all concentrated in one area, giving the most amazing panoramic postcard photo. Absolutely breathtaking!

My head still couldn't get around the road system here where cars drive on the right-hand side of the road. I kept looking at the wrong side when crossing the streets! Even walked to the driver's side of Antonio's car thinking is was the front passenger seat! It felt so strange not having a steering wheel in front of me where I was seated.

We went for a beer at Fadó Chicago, an Irish pub and restaurant. Have you tried a beer named Blue Moon? I thought it was very odd that they serve the white beer with a slice of orange. Citrus and beer?? You've got to be kidding! Blue Moon, however, is traditionally served with a slice of orange, as it is said to accentuate the flavour of the brew. Hmm, I don't know if the orange makes a difference but the combination tasted pretty good to me :)

Tuesday, 11th September 2007: Today was my first official day in Chicago and my training session on how to get around the city. Antonio and I took bus number 6 (Jackson Park Express) from 57th Street into town. The bus system here works a bit differently - you pay a standard fare for the ride regardless which stop you get off the bus route. However, you need exact change for the bus fare as the driver doesn't deal with cash. Antonio gave me a CTA Transit Card, one of those cards where you can reload credit and use on both buses and trains.

The street names in Chicago goes by numbers and compass directions i.e. N, S, SW etc. I'm already a bit confused with the road system plus jetlag and now this?? Will take me a few days for my head to get around...

We hopped off at Millennium Station to walk around Millennium Park. The first thing you would see is the 2 gigantic glass fountains called The Crown Fountain, designed by Spanish artist Jaume Plensa and inspired by the people of Chicago. Children and adults play in the shallow reflecting pool while the tower projects the 1000 faces of a Chicagoan (a Chicago resident) in a random order. Each face remains on screen for approximately 5 minutes and when the face purses its lips, that indicates a stream of water will flow from the mouth into the pool. Very interesting sight :)

When Antonio told me that we were going to "The Bean", I thought he meant food or coffee. Turned out to be the famous Cloud Gate aka The Bean (a big stainless steel bean to be exact) which reflects the city skyline and the clouds above. You can see your own reflection with the beautiful skyline in the background and if you go underneath the arch, your images is reflected back from a variety of perspectives - you will see more than 1 of yourself!

We headed to James R. Thompson Center to get a some sticker for Antonio's car but couldn't get into any of the offices in the building due to a protest. All the access areas e.g. lifts, escalators, doors etc. were blocked. What a bummer! We walked around town a bit instead and then went to The Magnificent Mile on Michigan Avenue - this is the shopping strip in downtown Chicago where you could get GAP, Kenneth Cole, Ann Taylor, Apple Store etc. We went to GAP and you know, the clothes there aren't as expensive as I thought they would be. Frankly speaking, if you earn a living in the States, food and clothing aren't very expensive. Photos taken this morning: http://www.flickr.com/photos/8070917@N05/sets/72157602500616352/detail/

We walked further north of Michigan Avenue to John Hancock Center (I've to remember that I'm in the States now and they spell some words differently - center not centre) where The Hancock Observatory is located. It has one of the best views in Chicago, spanning up to 80 miles, 4 states and 360 degrees at 1000 feet above The Magnificent Mile. Took us only 47 seconds to get to the observatory on the 94th floor. Had lunch at The Cheesecake Factory downstairs - another huge serving of food and no more room for cheesecake dessert...sob, sob...Photos from the rest of the day: http://www.flickr.com/photos/8070917@N05/sets/72157602502578132/detail/

At night, we went to a pub named Happy Village in the north were I got to meet some of Antonio's friends. Happy Village is a place where they frequent to have a beer and play table tennis. I know, you probably think pool and beer makes a better combo but the people here really get into the game :) Chicago pubs and restaurants have not yet officially implemented the "no smoking" policy so being in a smoke-filled pub was somewhat strange to me (NZ implemented that policy over a year ago). But it was nice to meet his friends and be able to put a face to the names I keep hearing Antonio mention :)

Wednesday, 12th September 2007: Headed back into town with Antonio today to get that sticker of his. Turned out that he was supposed to go to Chicago City Hall which was opposite the James R. Thompson Center – we could have done it yesterday! It’s ok, at least it’s sorted. Photos (the left is from inside James R. Thompson Center; the right is City Hall):

The rest of the day was spent at IKEA (cool – I love IKEA!) shopping for furniture for Antonio’s apartment. Took us about an hour by car to get there.

I suspect we had just zipped past the toll on the highway…we kind of missed it (we were on the left-most lane and couldn’t cut through 4 lanes fast enough to go through the cash-only toll and zipped past the I-Pass electronic toll collection system lane). Opsie…I hope we won’t get fined…

Came back in the evening with a carload full of stuff – dining table and chairs, study desk, bedside table, lounge chair etc. Wow, we spent nearly 4 hours at IKEA!! Oh, I forgot to mention that Antonio lives on the 4th floor and here in Chicago, the older buildings, usually 3-4 floors high, do not have lifts. Oh yes, we had to carry the furniture 4 floors up! Though tired after a long day, we continued on assembling the furniture. Vlado and Jonathan came to join us for supper (Antonio and I made them assemble their own dining chair :P). Jonathan was a lifesaver – he brought along his electric screwdriver and boy did that save us muscle strength putting the screws on! Antonio’s place sure looks homier now. Photos taken at home:

Thursday, 13th September 2007: Antonio works in the Maths department of The University of Chicago (thus Hyde Park is a student-infested area). I followed him to the university today to check out the place – it was a large campus with plenty of trees, old architecture buildings and grounds for students to hang out. Exactly like those universities you see in American movies. You probably feel like you have just stepped into a cartoon movie too (like Snow White) because there are squirrels bouncing and playing happily everywhere!

I hung out with Antonio and his friends for lunch at the quad before heading home. Was at the Theology building to buy lunch and the place made me feel as if I was in a Harry Potter movie! Dim lights, narrow corridors that seems to lead to unknown places...

Went to check out a bookstore on 57th Street on my way back. It was located in the basement i.e. the bookstore was below road level. How bizarre! I’ve never been to a basement shop before :) It was quite stuffy inside though and I couldn’t stick around for long.

It still feels weird walking on the right hand side of the road and see cars coming from the left – just not used to it! Photos taken during the day: http://www.flickr.com/photos/8070917@N05/sets/72157603481355201/detail/

Antonio and I went to this lovely Mexican place for dinner located near Chinatown in the Mexican area (there seems to be a clear division of areas here e.g. Polish, Greek, Mexian, etc.). Romantic setting and affordable good food – we got free entrée of tomato soup and nachos with dips and a sweet dessert with our main meal. I’m not sure if it was because we were the last customers there thus got extra special treatment or it was just part of the deal when you dine here.

After a full meal, it was time to work it off! We headed to the city centre to Excalibur for some salsa dancing. Wow, the place was quite packed with 2 rooms for dancing – one for salsa/cha-cha and the other for merengue/bachata. It was obvoius that there were quite a number of professional dancers around strutting their stuff and almost everyone danced LA-style salsa. Antonio and I were probably the only couple dancing circular/Cuban-style salsa. Hmm, I wished people would smoke outdoors instead – makes it hard on the lungs for non-smokers when dancing. I had a lot of fun though!

Friday, 14th September 2007: I left home around midday to catch Route 6 bus into the city centre. Hopped off the Randolph Street stop and headed to the Chicago Cultural Center to check out the free cultural event but got there too late. Ended up going on a free building tour instead. A volunteer guide who took a group of people (me included) around and talked about the architecture of the centre. The tour took approximately 45 minutes and was very interesting. Just look at the detailed mosaic and glass stained windows in the photos: http://www.flickr.com/photos/8070917@N05/sets/72157603480723180/detail/

After the tour, I went to the information centre (also located in the Cultural Center) to grab some brochures of places to visit in Chicago. Will need to sit down with the brochures and plan where to go and what to do during my stay here. Busy, busy!

A quick coffee and muesli bar for lunch and off I went to check out The Sears Tower Skydeck. It took less than a minute for the lift to get me to the 103rd floor! It is one of the highest observation decks of any building in the world today with a 360 degree view stretching over 50 miles in every direction. You could even see the Hancock Tower from here. If you look at the Sears Tower from afar, it actually looks like a bunch of rectangle blocks in differing heights bunched together (I recall someone in the crowd saying that the idea came about over a meal when the architect took his pack of cigarettes out to show the engineer his great idea by bunching the cigarettes together). Photos at the tower: http://www.flickr.com/photos/8070917@N05/sets/72157603494263851/detail/

I noticed that most of the buildings in Chicago use revolving doors (those that you push and go round). So scared I’ll get squashed in-between especially when there are lots of people going in and out!

Met up with Antonio at home and we headed out to Logan Square Auditorium to see Jose Conde y Ola Fresca gig, one of the many gigs held throughout Chicago City in conjunction with the World Music Festival Chicago 2007 held from the 14th – 20th of September. This band was one that played Cuban rhythms in funky jazzy Latin dance music – my type of music! There were 2 other bands that played before the main gig: Alla (psychedelic pop latin music) and Pacha Massive (funky version of traditional Colombian cumbia and Dominican palo). It was fantastic! Surprisingly not a lot of people turned up so there was plenty of space for dancing. A photo of Pacha Massive in action:
Some random woman told me that I danced very well when I was in the ladies’ room…This is not the first time this has happened to me, having random women walk up to me to tell me so or ask me where I learnt my dance moves. I’ll take them as compliments :)

We then went to Danny’s Tavern (aka Danny's) on Dickens Ave after the gig to meet up with Antonio’s friends. This is another regular place his gang hangs out on Fridays and Saturdays. It was very packed and smoky but played good house music. More dancing!

Saturday, 15th September 2007: Headed out on my own again today as Antonio has work to do. Went into the city centre to check out the 11th Annual Celtic Fest Chicago – it was packed with people! There were men in kilts, bands, dancing, sport, food and beer all around Grant Park in this 2-day free admission event. Check out the photos: http://www.flickr.com/photos/8070917@N05/sets/72157603498694899/detail/

I just had to try out a side stall hotdog – it was calling at me! Cost me $3.50 for the hotdog (nothing fancy, just the sausage, bread and ketchup). At least I can now say I’ve tired the American hotdog :)

Was walking aimlessly and stumbled upon the Cycle Center in Millennium Park where a group of people were about to begin their Segway Tour. I’ve always been intrigued by the machine (how it works) and wanted to ride one. So I did! Paid my $69 and joined the group. We were given a helmet and Segway each, and began with a short safety video and a crash course on how to work the machine. It was so cool – the vehicle moves with your body weight so you don’t need much effort to make the machine go left, right or in circles. Our guides Joe and Roy took the group on a 2-hour tour around the Chicago lakefront, stopping at sites including the Museum Campus, the South Loop Lakefront, Millennium Park, Grant Park, Shedd Aquarium, Soldier Field etc. It was SO MUCH fun! However, I would suggest that you come prepared with gloves and perhaps a sweater or windbreaker – I could feel the chill from the breeze and don’t be surprised to find your legs somewhat numb (it was just because I was in a standing position with knees slightly bent – this was how we were taught to position ourselves). If you were planning on racing, beware! You could jolly well tip over and hurt yourself. I was moving on an average speed of 11 miles per hour. Hmm, we should get some of these for Wellington’s waterfront…We got so many stares from people walking down the busy streets as we swerved and navigated among the crowd. I had SO MUCH fun (sorry but I have to say it again)! Definitely recommended :) Photos on the Segway: http://www.flickr.com/photos/8070917@N05/sets/72157603498878465/detail/

I went grocery shopping with Antonio in the evening at Co-Op on 53rd Street. You can buy pretty much anything from Asian to Western food though I must say, it was quite expensive to shop for groceries. It works out cheaper to eat out and cook your own. And you know what food is real cheap in the States? FAST FOOD!

Antonio was invited to a party at his friend’s and I tagged along. Met the hosts Felipe (Chilean) and Sheila (Portuguese) – nice couple who lives in a posh apartment called Flamingo On-The-Lakes Apartments in Hyde Park. It was more of a drink-and-chat party though a few of us grouped together to do a rueda (a particular type of round dancing salsa). Felipe and Sheila teaches salsa at the working/studying at the university. It was nice to meet a few more people from abroad who are living in Chicago - lots of travel stories to share :)

We left the party to meet up with Antonio’s gang in Danny’s again. The music was different this time round. Hmm, interesting – I guess the music here is themed (reggae one day, 80's the other etc.).

Sunday, 16th September 2007: Had a lazy Sunday today. Slept in and went for a run along the lake in the afternoon with Antonio. I needed the exercise but still found that running was definitely not for me. I was huffing and puffing just running for a short 5-10 minutes, my ribs/lungs hurt and I kept stopping and starting. And it was hard on the knees too. True, it’s an exercise you could do anytime and anywhere but I just never enjoyed it. Walking would do me fine :) Besides, it was a beautiful day and I want to enjoy the view (I’m so full of excuses..haha!).

I see a lot of these vending machines where you can get the daily papers - something different and peculiar (we don't have these in NZ):


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