I stood in front of the Buddha statue at the Art Institute of Chicago and learned something new and profound, something that resonated deep within.
“Aha,” I thought to myself. “Now I understand the Buddha’s message.” I don’t think I would have gotten the message if I hadn’t been in a new environment, a place where my senses were sharpened, my mind open to new thoughts and experiences.
That’s why I love to travel. While wandering down an unfamiliar street or exploring a museum, I might learn a new fact or feel a connection to another time or place. Suddenly I have an “aha” moment, and I understand the world—or myself—a little better.
Back in front of the Buddha, I contemplated his blissful expression and wondered if I would ever find the right path. Then I read on the exhibit placard that the Buddha’s mudra or gesture—his lifted hand with palm facing outward—means “Fear not.” I smiled to myself after reading it. I needed to hear that message at just that moment. It was as if someone were telling me not to be afraid to move forward, to be patient and the path would open up before me.
That message came during a recent solo visit to Chicago. I was there to attend a writer’s conference, but truthfully I needed some “me” time. I wanted to get lost in a big city, and Chicago is the perfect place to do it. Don’t get me wrong: Chicago is amazingly easy to navigate. Just figure out where Lake Michigan is, and you’ll know where you are.
What I mean is Chicago is the perfect place to have a big city experience on your own. Shopping, museums, restaurants, and nightlife abound. On top of that, the city is safe and clean, and its public transportation system is efficient and easy to use. And even though I left my family behind in order to enjoy some “me” time, I planned to look up a few friends while I was in town so I was in no danger of getting lonely. Whether I was strolling along the city streets alone or hanging out with my pals, Chicago was exactly where I needed to be.
FUN, FUNKY DIVES
One friend I planned to connect with in Chicago was a writer I met nine years ago at another conference in Alabama. Amy lived in Cape Cod at the time and had since moved to Florida, Utah, and finally Chicago, her hometown. We hadn’t set eyes on each other since 2003, and I was a little nervous about reconnecting with her again after all these years, but I needn’t have worried. The instant I saw her I felt the natural kinship we’d experienced in Alabama.
Amy picked me up at my hotel after a long day of seminars, and we headed to the Northside for dinner at a trendy restaurant called Ceres’ Table, which specializes in Italian fare. I loved the trendy, sleek décor and knew Amy and I were in for a treat. After being seated at a cozy booth, we ordered yummy cocktails: a Blackened Cosmo for me (peppery with hints of clove) and the Pear Bay for Amy (pear liqueur with a touch of bayleaf). For an appetizer, we couldn’t resist the fried risotto balls with braised goat, which we devoured. For entrées we ordered the duck leg confit served with duck sausage and lentils (wow!) and the Snake River sturgeon with braised baby fennel (double wow!). But our favorite was the side of carmelized Brussel sprouts with balsamic vinegar and parmesan cheese. Cheers to Ceres, the ancient goddess of the harvest, and to Ceres’ Table for a lovely Italian feast.
All during dinner we never stopped talking about everything imaginable. Amy, who’s single and doesn’t have kids, was nevertheless all ears as I chatted on about my family and career. She shared her adventures during the previous nine years as she moved from place to place and job to job, taking an extended break to spend time with her dad after her mom died. Amy and I talked as if we were possessed, and in a way we were. It was like we each had a chance to define a decade of our existence, then place it into a context, and try to make sense of it all. After a few drinks, however, we didn’t worry too much about what made sense anymore. It just felt great to be hanging out and enjoying each other’s company in such a wonderful city.
The night was young so Amy and I headed over to Green Mill, a jazz club frequented by Al Capone in the 20s. It’s a funky place, stuck in a time warp, but well worth a visit for its big band sound and historic ambiance. In fact, our waitress confided that she prefers to visit Chicago’s funky dives when she goes out. “They’re much more interesting,” she said, “and fun!” Amy wanted to show me another favorite hangout, the Hopleaf, where we ended up chatting ‘til midnight.
I was happy to be dropped off at my hotel, the Essex Inn, conveniently located on Michigan Avenue. Perfect for families, it features a rooftop pool, as well as a fitness center and sauna. I loved my corner suite, which was spacious and offered a million-dollar view of Lake Michigan, Grant Park, the Navy Pier, Field Museum, Shedd Aquarium, and Adler Planetarium. One morning I did some yoga poses overlooking the peaceful vista of sea and sky.
By contrast, the writing conference was a zoo. There were nearly 11,000 writers shuttling back and forth between Hilton Chicago and the Palmer Hilton, attending seminars, drinking Starbucks, and scribbling notes on how to write the next great American masterpiece. I learned a lot and enjoyed being in the company of other writers, but I was always glad when it was time to leave the hordes of conference-goers behind and disappear onto the city sidewalks.
One night I took in a show all by myself. I hopped on the metro and headed to the Briar Street Theatre on the Northside to see Blue Man Group, a multimedia show that is dazzling crowds in big cities across the U.S. A snow flurry fell as I hurried along the city streets, worrying about being late for the performance. Luckily I was right on time and joined the noisy crowd of mostly young people for a very entertaining evening.
What is Blue Man Group? Well, a clue can be found in the quote displayed on stage, “When meeting people from a foreign culture, offer a few gifts that reflect your interests as a gesture of friendship. Better yet, give things you’ve created yourself.… Ultimately, the best way to forge a lasting friendship is to create something together. Whether it’s a meal, an art project, or a spontaneous dance party, when you create something with others, you build a connection that lasts a lifetime.” That quote set the stage for a wild evening of disco music—think “Shake Your Booty”; interactive art; marshmallows and Captain Crunch; huge, floating orbs; toilet paper streamers; and music festival moves. It’s a feel-good show, and there’s even a message mixed in with all the madness. I loved it!
INVENTIONS & INNOVATIONS
Saturday morning after one final seminar at the conference, I hopped on a bus to the Chicago History Museum by Lincoln Park. It’s a great place to learn about the history of Chicago, its many cultural groups, musical roots, and historic disasters. I enjoyed the exhibit called “Second to None,” which highlighted the myriad inventions and innovations that began in the city—birth control pills, social reform, and products like Wrigley’s gum, Lincoln Logs, and Morton salt, for example. The Chicago History Museum also offers walking and trolley tours with a variety of themes.
Back on the bus, I headed downtown to meet my cousin Don and his wife, Val, at Rockit Bar & Grill for a Bloody Mary brunch. I’d dined at Rockit’s while visiting Chicago on a girlfriend getaway a couple years ago and remembered the amazing Bloody Mary bar with dozens of AYCE garnishes (shrimp, olives, cold cuts, cheese, peppers, capers, roasted garlic….), and it was just as tasty as I remembered. I hadn’t seen Don in years, and we had fun catching up in spite of a rather loud singer crooning in the background. Don and Val live in a neighborhood a couple miles to the west, and when I raved about Chicago, Don wrinkled up his nose and said he rarely leaves his neighborhood. “It has everything I need,” he said. I was glad he and Val made the trek downtown to have lunch with me. Next time I’m in town, I plan to venture out into Chicago’s many diverse neighborhoods to see what they’re like.
Sunday was my last day, and I packed it full. First I walked to the Adler Planetarium from my hotel, where I met a woman whom I’d interviewed via email about a stargazing story I was writing for another magazine. Audrey Fischer, a native Chicagoan, impressed me so much with her passion for the night sky, I knew I had to meet her, and Adler Planetarium was the perfect venue. The building itself—on the edge of Lake Michigan—is stunning: a 12-sided polygon made of rainbow granite from Minnesota with a copper dome. Founded in 1930, it was America’s first planetarium and houses one of the finest collections of astronomical artifacts.
Audrey and I immediately headed to the Grainger Sky Theater, one of three theaters at the Adler, for the newest show, Deep Space Adventure, an amazing encounter with outer space. Afterwards Audrey showed me an exhibit dedicated to reclaiming the night sky, which she inspired. Audrey is founder of the Global Star Park Network, which encourages cities and municipalities to reduce light pollution to allow for optimal night sky viewing. The exhibit shows how light pollution affects our ability to view stars and shows examples of lighting fixtures that are night-sky friendly. I’m a big fan of stargazing, so meeting Audrey inspires me to get more involved in this issue. (You can, too. Visit www.onestar-awb.org.)
My next stop was Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry, where my former yoga teacher, Michele, joined me—along with her twin four-year-old daughters. Michele was my first yoga teacher and moved to Illinois last year, so I was thrilled to see her again. Her daughters, Miley and Elena, were an added bonus. We careened all over MOSI, looking at exhibits about the human body, stormy weather, farm innovations, and more. The girls loved the Idea Factory, a kids’ area with waterplay, plastic balls, and Rube Goldberg-type machines. The museum closed at 4 p.m., which seemed way too early, so we found a Starbucks in a cute neighborhood nearby and hunkered down for some girl talk. Miley and Elena took turns sitting in my lap and commemorating our meeting with a digital camera. I told Michele later I was in pink heaven and realized how much I need to have a girlie-fix every now and then—especially since I live in a house with three guys.
AN ODE TO LIVING WELL
A quick bus ride and I was back downtown scurrying through another flurry to meet Amy at Custom House Tavern, a restaurant recommended by a friend. I actually didn’t mind the cold weather in Chicago. I was bundled up well with a scarf and mittens, and the stinging feeling of cold wind on my face made me feel alive. OK, maybe if I lived in Chicago for an entire winter I wouldn’t be loving it so much, but for a few days, it was a nice change of pace. Actually, that’s what traveling is about, isn’t it? A chance to change your pace, to slow down and look around, to take in new sights, renew old friendships, and live in the moment.
I sat at the bar sipping a nice Malbec when Amy walked up with a happy smile on her face. We immediately started gabbing again and pretty much talked our way through dinner, a long, drawn-out affair, the kind of meal that lingers like a poem in your memory. Taking your time while dining is something people have forgotten how to do, I think. They need to remember that it’s about savoring the flavors, the moment, the person you’re with. The evening becomes an ode to living well when you take your time, and the Custom House Tavern proved to be the perfect place to enjoy a culinary experience of epic proportions.
Our appetizers served as a prelude for a stellar meal. Amy and I shared grilled octopus with a touch of Old Bay aioli and fennel— tender and perfectly cooked—as well as a handmade pork sausage, plump and juicy, served with a yummy cranberry mustard. For our entrée we wisely shared a 20-ounce dry-aged all-natural rib eye, which had the most exquisite flavor, served on a bed of braised short rib hash with cauliflower and fingerling potatoes. We had to try the roasted beet risotto featuring walnuts and ricotta cheese, which was amazing, and a potato boulangerie with potatoes, carmelized onions, and bacon—sinfully good. Dessert—no way. We were so full, but very happy.
That day I’d enjoyed the company of five extraordinary females, and I truly felt blessed. As I walked home, I thought about the value of friendship and how it helps us put our lives in perspective. I looked up and saw the pedestrian traffic sign: a red hand telling me to stop. I remembered the Buddha, smiled, and waited, knowing that this adventure in Chicago was part of my journey, and the experiences and lessons I learned here would deepen and grow and merge in time. n
For more information, visit Explorechicago.org.