American Cities: Chicago

I mentioned in my last post that we’re back in the US for at least the next two years. After that, we have every intention of returning to overseas life. But if Covid taught us anything, it’s prepare for the unexpected. So, while we’re back, we have a goal to visit major US cities together – so that should we have to stay in the US long-term – or should we find ourselves unexpectedly returning again – we have a good idea of where we might want home base to be.

So far, we keep finding ourselves in Dallas/Fort Worth. This is happening for 2 reasons: 1) It’s where our teaching certifications come from & 2) It’s nice to be around family and friends. However, DFW will always be more Chandler’s home than it will be mine. Just like Minneapolis will always be more my home than his (and let’s face it, neither one of us could handle a MN winter these days!). Which means we need to find something for the both of us.

We’ve got a lot of ground to cover: San Diego, Boston, Miami, Portland, Seattle, Albuquerque, New Orleans…this is clearly not an extensive list. But, we were able to cross one city off our list last week: Chicago.

I’ve loved Chicago my whole life. Growing up, it was the biggest city in the Midwest, and while not New York City, still impressive. I’d been in 2007 & 2010 and was excited to show Chandler around.

View from Navy Pier

We stayed at Hotel EMC2 in downtown Chicago – not exactly my favorite neighborhood in Chicago, but a solid central location for our adventures and close to a lot of vegan/vegetarian restaurants. If I’m being honest, this is why a lot of the cities on our “to see” list are quite large. As vegetarians, it can be hard to find good restaurants for us in smaller towns (I know there are exceptions out there!).

Our first day in Chicago, we decided to be full-blown tourists. We walked the Navy Pier (pictured above) and visited the Bean (apparently actually known as Cloud Gate). I love Millennium Park, but Chicago was experiencing a bit of a heat wave and if you’ve spent any time in the Midwest, that means slightly elevated temps with intense humidity and for me, that’s about the worst weather you can come by. We took our touristy photos and continued on.

Because we were already downtown, we also used the day for some shopping on Michigan Ave – you know, at those shops no one has anywhere else, like Ralph Lauren and Reformation haha. Actually, I just really needed some tanks after living in Jordan for the last 3 years and we discovered that Chicago has the largest Ralph Lauren store in the world, which was super fun.

That night we chose a quintessential Chicago activity: We attended a Cubs game at Wrigley Field. Chandler had warned me that the team wasn’t very good – but he was excited to see the pitcher and it is an iconic ballpark.

Well, we weren’t the only ones at the game – there were another 32,216 people with us. And we all got to see the Cubbies win! They beat the Cincinnati Reds 15-7. The only disappointing thing about the ballpark was their lack of veggie dogs and alcohol-free beer – apparently we’d been spoiled at Globe Life Park in Arlington. That said, we had an absolutely fantastic time (and were glad we had stuffed our faces with Ethiopian food just a few metro stops away).

The next day we managed to wake up early-ish (nothing in Chicago really opens too early!) to be at the Art Institute of Chicago when it opened. We hopped over to the Contemporary Art entrance because it had a shorter line than the main entrance and discovered that we had a blast.

When I first got into the art scene, I was obsessed with impressionist painters (and Italian/Greek statues): Degas, Monet, and Pissarro. I branched out, made a joke about seeing every one of van Gogh’s Sunflower still lifes in the world (haven’t quite). Fell in love with Middle Eastern art (before we moved to Jordan!). Discovered some amazing African artists: El Anatsui, Athi-Patra Ruga, Adia Muluneh, and Baro Sarré.

And I’ve made it to the (privileged) point of being bored with *most* art that isn’t contemporary (or sometimes just modern). Which isn’t to say all contemporary art is gold – a lot of it is real junk – but I appreciate when it comes with social commentary (that’s current enough for me to connect to). And I feel like my journey through art matches Wine Folly’s 7 stages of your wine palate: I started drinking with juicy Merlots and now I almost solely drink funky organics or salty whites from Sicily.

Picture above: 1) Acolo by Victor Brauner 2) Counter Composition VIII by Theo van Doesburg 3) Corpse and Mirror II by Jasper Johns 4) Wine Folly’s 7 stages of your wine palate

That night, we did another quintessential Chicago activity: Ate deep dish pizza. And I know this one makes no sense – deep dish pizzas are HUGE and Chandler is lactose intolerant – but it was actually his idea! His grandfather had spent his formative years in Chicago and Chandler felt like he had to experience true Chicago deep dish at least once. We settled on Labriola – it’s not the original, but their ingredients are fresh and they started as a bakery, which means their crust is heavenly!

Before you ask, no we couldn’t finish the pizza – but it’s the effort that counts, right? (Did I mention the only vegetarian option was the four-cheese pizza???).

The next few days included more museums and strolls through some of Chicago’s neighborhoods.

We went to the National Museum of Mexican Art – while fairly small, it was easily my favorite museum of the trip. My two favorite pieces were 1) Sun Mad by Ester Hernández (an incredible ofrenda dedicated to her father – a farm worker from California who joined the United Farm Workers and Cesar Chávez in the struggle against unsafe/underpaid farm labor) and 2) The New Awakening directed by Santos Motoaopohua de la Torre de Santiago (a mural made from chaquira beads).

That day we also strolled around the neighborhood surrounding the museum (with delicious smells coming from every corner! Too bad it was too early for lunch). And then we made our way over to another favorite neighborhood of mine: Lincoln Park. We walked our way through the park with the intention of visiting the conservatory, but you now need a reservation to view the flowers (a lot has changed since 2010!).

Our final museum on the trip was selected by Chandler, but I actually enjoyed it more. He chose the Museum of Contemporary Art based on an old exhibit and was bummed that one of his favorite artists was no longer on display. However, we found some pretty great (and also some totally lame) art to fill our time with.

Pieces that struck a note with me (speaking of art for the purpose of social commentary/change!):

1) The Last Thanks by Wendy Red Star (an amazing recreation of the first thanksgiving riffing on da Vinci’s The Last Super – because let’s be honest, the “first thanksgiving” was all about betrayal and death too)

2) Soundsuits by Nick Cave (created following the Los Angeles Police Department’s brutal beating of Rodney King in 1991 – the original garment was made out of twigs, envisioned as a suit of armor that would obscure his identity as a queer Black man while also amplifying his radical otherness. The sculptures continued in the wake of George Floyd’s murder)

3) Center of the Room by Michael Rakowitz (an Ishtar Gate replica made out of Arabic packaging and newspaper – commenting on how the real Ishtar Gate was dismantled in Iraq and relocated to the Pergamon Museum in Berlin and now all that remains where it once was is a 3/4 scale reproduction)

After that, our adventures in Chicago kind of petered out. We’d been traveling a lot and Chandler was starting to feel run down, so we had him take a Covid test: Positive. It’s quite likely the 4th time he’s had Covid (we travel a lot and are teachers). However, I also tested positive 3 days later (and it was the 1st time for me!). It was mild for both of us, but kept us in the hotel room for some forced relaxation.

The only other thing we did (once Chandler was feeling better and before my positive test), was celebrate our 6th wedding anniversary and (more importantly!) our 10th anniversary since our first date in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. A friend had suggested the Riverwalk Wine Garden by City Winery, so we got some fresh air and some non-alcoholic beverages and enjoyed the afternoon in the sunshine.

And with that, our time in Chicago was finished! Luckily, we were driving back to Minnesota, instead of flying – so Covid didn’t have too big of an impact on our travel plans.

That said, as much fun as we had at the start of our vacation, neither one of us felt that Chicago would ultimately be the city we end up in. We’re happy it’s been checked off our list and we’re excited to visit New Orleans at the end of July!

*Sorry about the quality of some of these photos – I actually hemmed and hawed about whether I wanted to start this series because I did the unthinkable: After 8 years of bringing my Fuji camera everywhere, I left my camera charger behind for this trip. Which means *shudder* all of these photos were taken with my iPhone. I know phone cameras have come a long way…but they just don’t hit the same for me. That said, Chicago was an important first city for us to visit on our American Cities tour!

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