On Thursday May 2nd, Claire drove us to Heathrow Terminal 5, to catch the 11.50 flight to Chicago. We were flying standby again, but there were empty seats on the plane, so we were able to check in straightaway. The bad news, though, was that we could not fly without obtaining ESTAs, and we’d completely forgotten these are now required for trips to the USA. Luckily Ian was able to complete the applications online, just in time for us to catch the flight. However, in so doing he managed to lose a notebook containing important information, like the address of the hotel where we were staying that night!
The flight itself was uneventful, but when we landed in Chicago we had to queue for a record THREE HOURS to go through immigration. The next day we had business to transact, before being able to relax and enjoy ourselves. We drove out to Evanston, a suburb of Chicago, found a branch of our US bank, and arranged to have money wired back to the UK, to pay for the flat we are buying.
A weekend in the Windy City
We arrived in the city centre on Friday afternoon. We checked into our hotel and parked the hire car. It was cold and wet, so we spent the rest of the afternoon in the Art Institute of Chicago. This is one of the greatest art museums in the world, with a huge collection of paintings, sculptures etc, so we were able to see only a fraction of the highlights before the Institute closed at 5pm.
The next morning there was a dramatic improvement in the weather: it was warmer, with no rain and even some spring sunshine, so we spent two very enjoyable days exploring the city. Chicago, ‘the home of the skyscraper’ is famous for its architecture. The buildings reflect a fascinating mix of styles, which we were able to admire on foot, and also in the context of an Architecture River Cruise.
Our only previous visit to Chicago was in 1976, during out first ever trip to the USA. Two memories in particular had stayed with us over the intervening 37 years. One was an evening boat trip out onto Lake Michigan, which gave us a splendid view of the fantastic city skyline. The other was a visit to the famous Marshall Field’s department store; what made the greatest impression on us there was not the elaborate Tiffany ceiling, but the beautiful ice cream parlour, all pink and green glass tiles and mirrors.
Over 37 years, things change. Marshall Field’s has been taken over by Macy’s, and sadly the ice cream parlour is no more. We did however take the evening boat trip, and once again enjoyed the amazing views, although we spent part of the time huddled in the bar, as it was cold and windy out on the lake.
Other memories came back as we walked round the city. In 1976 the splendid Buckingham Fountain was not working, but this time we were able to admire it in full flow. In 1976 we went to the 94th floor Observation Deck in the John Hancock Center; this time, following a tip in the guidebook, we went to the Signature Lounge on the 96th floor; you get the same great views, and although the cocktails are not cheap, they cost less than the entry to the observation deck.
Chicago was not all nostalgia, because there were several new things to see and do. In addition to the skyscrapers built since we were there last, Chicago now has an attractive Millennium Park, which incorporates beautiful gardens, a stunning reflecting sculpture called the Cloud, and the striking Crown Fountain, where video images of local people appear on two glass-brick towers, and water cascading over them forms a shallow lake where children enjoy playing. Another new (to us) development is Navy Pier, which re-opened to the general public in 1995. As well as shops, restaurants and other attractions, there is a giant Ferris wheel and an exhibition of beautiful stained glass.
In 1976, we visited Chicago in August, which was of course much warmer than May. But one advantage of our present visit was that the city was full of spring flowers – tulips everywhere, in all colours, and trees covered in may blossom.
While in Chicago, we decided to take the opportunity of going to the theatre. We chose a production on Woman in Mind, because we are Alan Ayckbourn fans, although we did not consider the play one of his best. The Athenaeum Theatre was out in the suburbs; we travelled by (partly underground) train, but had a longish walk from the nearest station to the theatre, which gave us the chance to see some of the attractive suburban housing.
On Monday we checked out of our hotel and retrieved our hire car. But before leaving Chicago, we visited another suburb, called Oak Park. This is an affluent area, with several streets of large, beautiful and doubtless very expensive houses. Its main claim to fame is that several of the houses, as well as the Unity Temple, were designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, a famous American architect. We did a short walking tour, with a map showing which of the houses were his. It seems however that we are lacking in appreciation of fine architecture, since in general we tended to prefer the houses that were not built by the great man!