Saturday, 2 May 2015


Two teams met at the airport; the team from Raleigh, North Carolina and Boston Massachusetts. We were to take the bus from the airport to the hotel together. The team from Atlanta, Georgia had already arrived. And we were to find that of the three, they had had the worst time.

We caught up on the bum, trading stories in a lighthearted manner. I sat alone (as was becoming customary) and looked out of the window and the passing scenes. In between, I read whatever book it was that I was reading at that time. I think it was The Mockingbird Next Door which I would post to my friend Katherine while I was in San Francisco (She has already received it, she told me, and can't wait to get stuck into it).

Anyway, suddenly, somewhere along the bus ride, I realised it was Maundy Thursday and maybe we could make it to Mass. I turned to Alberto who was full swing into a conversation in Spanish with Felipe and asked him if he would like to go for Mass (Alberto is the good Catholic of the lot; he generally can be trusted to find a church). He said he would like that very much.

We caught our first glimpses of beautiful Chicago from the bus:

Little did we know that the next few days would be spent taking shots of all this incredible architecture.

As usual, our hotel was very centrally located. This was the best of the lot. The staff were super friendly and guess what? There was breakfast provided and even a light dinner from Mondays to Thursdays (which means that there would be a light dinner today, but we were people on a mission and would not make it in time)

Alberto called to say he had found a church which was an eight minute walk from the hotel (he could lead the way) but we would have to hurry as the service was due to start at 6pm. I think it was already 5.30. So I hurried, after a fashion, we found the church (Alberto being better than me and my sucky sense of direction) and we sort of tumbled into the church by one of the side entrances and found a place off to the side, near the front.

Wow. It was a beautiful service. The cantor was a soprano. The choir was up in the rafters. Their voices came to us, angelic and otherworldly. The Mass began. It was to be celebrated by the Archbishop. But of course. This was after all a cathedral - the Cathedral of the Holy Name:

It was truly a magical experience. We watched the Archbishop wash the feet of about 12 congregants. It as quiet and reverent. The sermon had to do with love. How Jesus loved all these flawed disciples although he knew what they were about to do to him, how they would betray and deny him. It was simple, short and it spoke to the heart.

After emerging from the Cathedral, we decided to go sample some of Chicago's famous deep dish pizza. Well, this took some doing. First you line up to put your name there. Then you give your phone number and are told that it will take 45 minutes to an hour. Then, if you have nothing better to do, you go for a walk around this block and that block and the other block marvelling at Chicago buildings and architecture. Then, as it gets colder, and it has already been an hour, and still, no call, you decide to make your way back to the pizza place, to check and see. And then, wait until one of the tables of other people waiting with drinks, frees you can bag a place.

Alberto went off in search of drinks. I listened to two Aussie dudes chatting away, letting their words wash over me, not really listening, until one of them suddenly turned and looked at me apologetically. "Sorry," he said. "What are you apologising for?" I wanted to know. "Swearing."

I burst into laughter. Firstly I swear the air blue over my head. Secondly, an Aussie apologising for swearing? I told him I had lived in Australia for three years. And we parted amicably. I wondered where Alberto was and how long it took to get drinks. Because he had been gone a long time. He came rushing at me with a hefty coke and a beer in hand...turns out he had received a sheaf of text messages all at tell him the table was ready.

And so we went.

Our deep dish pizza which we had pre-ordered arrived quick smart. It was vegetarian in line with my preferences on one of the last few days of Lent.

We bit into it, hungry for all the waiting and the build up and looked at each other quizzically. Although we did not express this at once - talked about everything else over creation first - neither of us liked the pizza. To be honest, it was more like a quiche. So much for the Chicago specialty. We packed the rest for Alberto to take back (I am not sure if he ate it), and made our way back to the hotel...time to unpack, take a shower, and sleep. Tomorrow would be a full day; three meetings.

Good Friday dawned bright and clear. I went downstairs to get me some of that breakfast but I figured I would fast the rest of the day...until after the Good Friday service which I intended to go to. This time, I would have no companion as Alberto and the rest were going for a basketball game (Chicago Bulls and Detroit Pistons) which they had been planning for some time. Two of the guys in the group - Petar (from Bulgaria) and Johan (from Sweden) bankrolled it first....the others would pay them back for the tickets.

After our first meeting with this guy from a freight forwarding company (Italian American, family company, really cool dude who spoke in that Al Capone accent) we went in search of lunch. The next meeting would be just down the road. Except that, I was not having lunch. So I just walked around. I saw a dude with a little doggie, sitting at the side of the road...any amount welcome. Now there is nothing that attracts me as much as the dogs. So I gave him a couple of dollars, asked him about the dog, then bought him a meal from a nearby chicken place and the dog some food (after ascertaining what kind of food she liked). He told me he usually begged for enough to get a hotel room to keep his doggie...and that he usually worked in construction. Since construction season was starting he would be able to pick up enough work for him and the dog to have food and shelter. He was very polite, called me ma'am, and let me pet his dog.

I saw another guy along the way, looking stricken. He was old and grizzled...and I gave him some money as well and said Happy Easter. Another guy was also begging, but he looked angry and entitled and I just skipped him, feeling I had done enough for the day.

I found the building our next meeting would be at. I was early but the security guard, Wanda, made friends with me and escorted me up...she was really nice. I met the guy we were coming to meet...he was funny and charming...and then his assistant (there were only the two of them for now) sat and talked to me until the others arrived.

We had the meeting, the presentation of yet another Chicago export promotion for small businesses authority. And then, we poured out of there and headed to the original building...for our third meeting of the day. This time it was Ambassador Carol Moseley Braun...and she was wonderful. The way she answered the questions (and this is a tough crowd!), the way she articulated her convictions...she left everyone gaping and aghast. In a good way.

Then it was time to go back to the hotel...and it was late...and I wanted to go for the Good Friday service which was due to start at I had to run, throw off work clothes, pull on some jeans and put on my coat (I had stupidly not taken my coat that day, thinking Chicago was warm. Huh!)

I made it on time, got a good seat in front...and again, the service was out of this world. Good Friday services are long and can be draggy...but this church handled it so well that you didn't feel the passage of time. Again, the choir. And then, the Passion.

Anyway, after the service, I went around looking for food and found a nice little diner near the hotel. I went to get something to eat...and the guy gave me a free cookie because I was new there...wonderful.

And then back to the hotel to read...or so I thought. I fell fast, fast asleep. We would be going for a river cruise the next morning, so it would not do to sleep late. They had already purchased the tickets for all of us. (Can I say that our liaisons were wonderful, in all this? They really were).

Anyway, the next morning, it was breakfast at the hotel again and we all met downstairs to take off for the pier where we would be catching the boat. Once we were all gathered, Norman ushered us in...some chose to remain below where it was heated. But the top deck offered the best views. And then there was our guide who was chockfull of information and something of a stand-up comedian.

Me posing with Abdallah from Palestine who was having the time of his life:

Some more views from the boat:

Did I tell you how cold it was?

Yeah, even zipping up till half my face was covered was not enough. My teeth and eyeballs were frozen, which had to be a first for me. The others had slipped downstairs to warmth and the bar, but I had not noticed. There I was determinedly clicking away, sharing my shots on Facebook and getting multiple "likes" and "comments". Addy had asked me to update regularly. I am not sure if I had EVER updated this regularly.

Naturally, each building came with a nifty little story, how it was built, who hung out there...there was the architect who chose to put Michelangelo marble on the building to make it classy...except that Michelangelo marble was not meant for harsh Chicago weather and started peeling off the building - they replaced it with concrete from (I think) North Carolina, much more suitable, but which cost $80 million more and the architect never worked in Chicago again. But I couldn't tell you which building it was. Although I did remember that this was the one Al Capone used to hang out at...

Personally, it reminded me of the Daily Planet, of Superman fame.

And then, we started pulling out into Lake Michigan where we got a good view of the Chicago skyline:

Finally, after more than an hour, the tour was over. Not that I hadn't enjoyed it. But I was near frozen by this time. I got off the boat and all but ran back to the hotel. A quick meal at the diner I had discovered yesterday and then it was time to get ready for the Easter Vigil which would be at 7 in the evening. The others had gone off for architectural tours of Chicago and seen more really amazing things that they would share with me.

I got off the boat and all but ran back to the hotel. A quick meal at the diner I had discovered yesterday and then it was time to get ready for the Easter Vigil which would be at 7 in the evening. The others had gone off for architectural tours of Chicago and seen more really amazing things that they would share with me.

I raced back to the hotel and whiled away the time till it was time to go to church for the easter vigil at 7pm. I thought to go with Alberto, Alesandra and Ruby but missed them and had to make it alone. This time, I got lost and went in the wrong direction...turning back only after I realised that I had run out of road and still not come to the one I had intended to.

Anyway, the vigil was beautiful but it lasted three whole hours. By the time it was done, we were famished and there were few places open. We ended up at this Japanese place and managed to sneak in the last orders before they closed. Sushi topped off with sake as I took my first alcohol to celebrate the end of Lent.

We made our way back to the hotel in the cold, crisp night, light of heart and head.

The next day it was Easter. I had intended to have my breakfast and take a leisurely stroll out, or maybe a cab to go see some art museum. But I bumped into Alessandra at breakfast and she invited me to join her and Shyam and Ruby for a stroll to Millennium Park to see the drop of mercury and maybe take in a museum or two.

We were going to walk all the way. We set off at a brisk pace, chatting 19 to the dozen and arrived at Millennium Park in no time at all. Of course, I had to take a picture in front of the drop of Mercury. Alessandra did it for me.

If you look carefully you can see her taking the picture here.

We walked, talked, took a lot of pictures. A lot!

The others posed for me:

Alesaandra and Ruby did some impromptu yoga on the field fronting the Field Museum...

And then we went to the Field Museum. This is about the only picture I took there. Because bluebirds are a symbol of happiness. Of course it had been a while since these particularly bluebirds had burst into song:

But I find it significant that in the myriad things to photograph, I only chose these two. Makes you think...

I had to leave the museum (which was wonderful but there is so much to see that you could spend an entire day on just one category of exhibits, for instance, birds...I was meeting Dr Ian Williamson's brother Eli at about five or six and would have to take off for the hotel to get ready.

Eli texted me and then came to pick me up. Buddy Guy's where he had wanted to meet was closed for Easter Sunday. Seems like a lot of places were. So we ended up going to this posh hotel and having five different kinds of meat and a single malt whisky (smoky not sweet) whose name I can't remember...Eli loves his single malt. Eli used to be in the service and he runs a non-profit called Leave No Veteran Behind. What they do is hook veterans up to temporary jobs and education to transition into a more permanent well-paying job. If the veteran happens to be suffering from PTSD and homeless, he knows who to connect them to for shelter and the like. I told him I had seen veterans with signs, begging on the bridges we crossed and asked if they were the kind of people he helped. He said they were exactly the kind of people he helped but it was not as simple as all that. Many of the homeless, when rehomed, chose to be out in the streets again in a short space of time. Some had mental illness. Some thought they made a better living begging. He was feeling low because two of the veterans who had been trained to counsel other veterans against suicide...had just committed suicide.

"What do you even tell their families?"

I asked him if he was proud of what he did and what he achieved. He said he didn't "achieve" anything and what he did was akin to damage minimisation. Basically it was a case of, you do the best you help the people you can help...for as long as you can without getting disheartened or disillusioned. And I think that is the strength of these organisations...their staying power. It takes so much out of you.

Basically Sunday is Eli's time out day when he does nothing at all. But Ian had emailed him and asked him to "take care" of me.

"You see how powerful my brother is?" said Eli.

I texted Ian this photo and he called at once...Eli said he wouldn't mind going to Malaysia now...and Ian was over the moon. He had been trying to get his brother out here for a visit and Eli always refused; having served in Afghanistan and Iraq, he had had enough of hot countries to last him a lifetime.

Eli walked me back to the hotel (which was just down the road). I was tired and pleasantly full of meat and whisky and ready for bed. And even if I was not...well, there was a library of books in my bags, right?

Well Monday was another working day. Morning breakfast (we loved the breakfast at this hotel) and then it was out for our meetings. I think there was one meeting with a trade promotion authority (who was advocating the TPP and TTIP) and a lawyer. The lawyer was quite rude about the way these agreements have been covered and when I objected to what he said, he looked smug and dismissive. Surprisingly, two of the guys from our group leapt to my defence which was nice. But he was a waste of space and I don't even remember his name.

Then I went with Oranuch, Noah and Paul for lunch and we talked up a storm. Most of it was on the wrong side of risqué after which Oranuch decided that I was interesting, and I was her friend. Paul was quiet and circumspect. Noah was his garrulous self and Oranuch led him to share stories she had already heard; about how he inadvertently ordered "extra services" from a masseuse in China without knowing what they were and some other similar incident which I can't remember now. Noah told me how he "converted" a lesbian from Jamaica who now wants to have a baby with him. And suchlike stories. (There wasn't even any alcohol to justify this feast or reason and flow of soul).

Anyway, we decided it was time to make our way to our next meeting. And here is where we got lost. We just walked and walked...and overshot the place and turned back...luckily Norman joined us and we eventually found our way to the Chicago Federation of Labour office.

And this was the view from outside the window:

That was our last meeting in Chicago; and this was our last night in Chicago. I was determined to go to a famous blues bars (possibly Buddy Guy's which Eli had talked about) because how could you go to Chicago without going to a blues bar right? And then as I was walking the streets back to the hotel I saw a Facebook update from my friend Z. She asked if I was going to visit some of the good bookshops in Chicago and had sent me a list of the top 10. Doing a quick download...the one I really really wanted to go to was Cellar...where you could browse the books and have a wine. Problem is, I had promised to go with Alberto to Buddy Guy's. What to do?

Well, Alberto is a bookshop guy too. Not as much as me. But not enough to resist being dragged on expeditions to bookshops. So far, he had come to Shakespeare & Co and the Harvard Book Shop. So I called and asked him...I said there were some awesome bookshops in Chicago that we could go see...and we could go to the bar later. And that's what we did. We invited Aleksei from Russia to come with us but he had work to do first. So Alberto and I shared a cab to Cellar which was far out of downtown (it was more like in suburbs, which Alberto liked, because it gave us a chance to see another part of Chicago)
and we picked our books, ordered our wine, and settled in for the read. I found a book by Hampton Sides which Kate had been going on about. But it was the kind of book you wouldn't want to drop on your leg. Around this time, I decided that maybe, a Kindle would be a good idea. And I could order Sides' book online.

We wanted a sweet wine...they were out of Moscato and Rhine Wine and we finally opted for one that was not too dry...actually not bad and I thumbed through my Joan Didion book, A Year of Magical Thinking, which I had seen millions of times in KL for sale at that, but which I suddenly wanted now. As luck would have it, I left it in my hotel room...which meant that I would have to get it on the Kindle anyway. Alberto found a huge coffee table book on the history of architecture. Have I already told you he is an architecture junkie? Well, he sank into his cushiony armchair and thumbed through the pages in perfect bliss, taking a sip of wine, once every so often.

Anyway, Aleksei texted to say he was too tired...I asked if it would make a difference if we swung by and picked him up. It would. So that's what we did. Paid for our purchases and wine (and as much as Alberto wanted to buy the heavy book on architecture, he refrained) and caught a taxi by the side of the road. Alex was waiting outside so we scooped him up and off we went to Buddy Guy's. They carded us and Alex and I had our passports on us so no problem. Alberto didn't and although there is no mistaking him for under 21, the guy hemmed and hawed and created a bit of a ruckus before stamping us and letting us through.

So there was this old man on stage, 72, having the best time ever with his band.

And there are Alberto and Aleksei:

The first band was great. But then a woman took over and although she was larger than life and had a great voice, she tried too hard to sell her CDs...and it was a little too risqué for us. She was raw pulsating sex...which is OK I guess, but not when you are trying to sell your CDs along with it.

She got off stage and started harassing the patrons (it was not that kind of bar). And another band took over the stage. And we left.

Back to the hotel in another cab, all agreeing the first band was the best. I was a little tipsy. I wanted to read, in fact, took out my book and tried to decipher some lines but it was not to be. I fell fast fast asleep without packing. And forgot my book the next day when I did actually pack.

The next day it was the usual; breakfast; bringing down the bags, weighing said bags and then loading it up into the bus to head for the airport.

Goodbye Chicago!

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