Tuesday, March 20, 2012

The 312.

Every once in a while, I find myself struck with awe and overwhelmed with little-girl giddiness when I'm traveling. I could be watching the sunset in a secluded island or I could be walking under the canopy of concrete and glass skyscrapers, but that feeling is unmistakably the same. I would go from being so caught up with the place - its smells, its sounds, its energy, until slowly everything just dissipates and you're just paralyzed, completely absorbed and one with the place. It's difficult to describe.

I was walking hurriedly home on a Wednesday afternoon after spending the day listening to discussions about governmental budget crunching so I can change into my running clothes for a dusk run. It was a wonderful feeling to temporarily and momentarily belong somewhere foreign and unfamiliar. I chose to walk right next to the Chicago river. Midway to the hotel, I froze. Standing there, I felt extremely lucky. I realized that everything that happened in my life, and I mean every single thing, led me there, to that particular moment.

Isn't that awesome?

Wonder is an amazingly beautiful thing, along with its twin, curiosity. I sometimes imagine what it would be like to lose all interest in the world and other cultures, or to lose the ability to be mystified and fascinated. The idea of a life devoid of the ability to welcome a new adventure makes me shudder.

Chicago is not especially beautiful, I don't think. I'm certain there are more exceptional cities in the world, but at that moment, it felt exactly the right snug fit. It was the sometimes elusive intersection of big city and small community, of industrialism and nature, of power and sobriety, of form and function. All you need to do is look up at the skyline on the east and you will be transfixed by the nobility of the Chicago Tribune tower and disgusted by the Trump Tower next to it. (What do they say again about men who drive big trucks?). Yet, it somehow works! Downtown Chi-town is clean, safe, and walkable. Public transportation works and is pretty dang inexpensive ($2.25 each way from Midway to downtown on the orange line of elevated train, playfully dubbed as the "El"). The city is surrounded by water and there were old bridges and canals and riverside walking trails that sells itself to an attractive lifestyle. I was told that it's the Midwest flair that distinguishes Chicago from any other big city out there, though, and I could not agree more. The Chicagoans you pass on the street look healthy and alive (as opposed to the zombies in other cities of similar size). They even smile!

The 312 by Foot (in Running Shoes)

Downtown Riverside is a great place for a run. Whether you head east or west on Wacker Drive, it's a great way to get intimate and integrate with the City. This is precisely why I love running when I'm visiting a place. When you're on foot, and in this case, in running shoes, you are unafraid to explore and to get lost. In this age of hypertechnology, I find that running in a foreign town presents a rare opportunity to use your gut feel and instinct as your guidebook and compass anymore. The sweet reward? Literally running into some pretty amazing sights you would not otherwise see!

The 312 in Two Wheels (in Two Hours)

Especially if you're traveling for work, it can be a quagmire to try and be everywhere and see everything in a limited window. I tend to try and get on a saddle when this happens (actually, even when I have all the time in the world, my preferred mode is the bicycle). It gets you places quicker without having to worry about traffic, parking, and getting run over while you stop for pictures. Chicago was perfect for an afternoon bicycle ride since they have a trail right next to Lake Michigan. P.E.R.F.E.C.T.

I rented a hybrid for $20 two hours before closing Bobby's Bike Hike on 465 N McClurg Court. NPR was blaring when I walked in, my bike had a name ("Gus"), and the guy assisting me punctuated his sentences with "Right on!". I felt right at home! :)

I did an 8 mile loop heading north first to Lincoln Park, then south to Millenium Park. It was easy breezy (literally), the sun was glistening on beautiful Lake Michigan. Again, I cannot help but feel happy for the privilege to be alive and well enough to be pedaling my way in this vibrant city.

My 8 mile loop on Lakefront Trail

Thanks, Gus!

I didn't expect Chicago to be this beautiful.

.. and playful! Ferris wheel on Navy Pier

The Art Institute of Chicago

Millenium Park art

Chicago is recognizable by the Cloud Gate, but more known as "The Bean"

The Jay Pritzker Pavillion designed by Frank Gehry

Gastrolicious in 312

When in Chicago, eat what the Chicagoans eat.. at least once, then move on. The bellhop sent me to Giordano's for some authentic deep dish Chicago-style pizza. After I had walked for at least two miles, this "slice" was a guiltless treat. I ate at the bar to skip the very long wait.

Publican is great, local food on the Fulton Market where you can rub elbows with locals and if that's kind of night, celebrity chefs. The food was hearty and was oozing with quality. I loved the convivial atmosphere of this place!

For coffee, I would not go anywhere else but Intelligentsia, where a good cup of joe is both an art and passion.

For some serious mixology and radical libations, treat yourself to a unique Chicago experience and trot to Aviary on West Fulton. It's not a bar, but more like a science lab where cocktails are being reinvented. Think a cosmopolitan with marshmallow-esque balls served on a small steel bowl, sipped with a spoon. It's genius! According to my Chicagoan friends-slash-epicurean gurus, Dean and Eliza, Aviary is owned by Grant Achatz of El Bulli in Spain, one of the world's most prestigious restaurants.

I sadly passed on any culture during this trip, but then that just gives me legitimate reason to return. Chicago was a wonderful experience and if you can't tell yet, the Windy City blew me away.

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