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Cultural weekend in Chicago

Cultural weekend in Chicago

Old Mar 27, 07, 3:38 pm
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Cultural weekend in Chicago

Once in a while I get the urge to indulge in my ineradicable passion for travel. There are never enough vacation days and therefore time and good planning are of essence. In the midst of the last Canadian winter, I booked a mid-March weekend of opera, museum and business class travel to Chicago, the city that was exceptionally kind to me every time I visited. Air Canada simplified their North American fare structure, and as of March 1, it is possible to buy Latitude fare and request instant upgrade online. They also happened to have a seat sale and double miles promotion - an offer too good to pass. The internet bookings worked like a charm for my flights, hotel and opera tickets, and I could not wait for my first weekend escape this year.

Leaving Montreal

To maximize the qualifying segments and mileage, I opted for an indirect itinerary, changing planes in Toronto. As it often happens at that time of the year, a snow storm was heading for Montreal from the east, and flights to/from Boston and New York were already cancelled. I was heading west and was saved for now.

Online checked in for my flights 24 hours in advance and travelling with just a carry on, I made only a brief stop at the Air Canada counter at Dorval to make sure that they marked “certificate lifted in YUL” in my file. Only one certificate is needed per direction. Security was easy, they did not even ask me to remove my belt and shoes and I headed straight for the domestic Maple Leaf Lounge. After being there so many times since the opening in early 1990s, I have a little bit of emotional attachment to it and to my favourite corner seat facing the tarmac. A glass of pleasant French white wine and some vegetables and crackers on offer let me forget hard week and work.

Before long it was time to go downstairs and board the AC415 for Toronto. Since I had a carry on and the flight was full, I made sure to be among the first who board to find space in the overhead bin. Nevertheless, an off-duty captain was already there hoarding quite a bit of bin space with the in-charge FA fawning all over him. Smiling, I remarked: “Some things never change, it is always employees before passengers, right?” I was hoping for and XM (extreme makeover) plane but it was not meant to be. The interiors of most A319s are in need of refurbishment that is not coming fast enough. The usual service started quickly once we reached the cruising altitude, however it does not amount to much these days. They were offering chicken or shrimp skewers and some basic vegetables. Both the content and presentation looked cheap. Where is the “superior product” often advertised and to be had in the past? Opting for the chicken, I was handed two skewers that I washed down with Codorniu. That is acceptable Spanish cava sparkling wine. Again, I would welcome the return of something more classy, e.g. Chandon that used to be served before the cutbacks. Overall, the service was well coordinated and efficient for a full flight. More importantly, we arrived on time.

Transborder flights in Toronto now depart from Terminal 1. The US immigration and passport control was fairly easy and in no time I found myself in the newly opened and quite spectacular Maple Leaf Lounge of Air Canada awaiting my flight to Chicago. I had enough time to send a couple of emails and my call friends in Europe while munching on a bunch of fresh grapes. The AC511 was more then half empty. It was another A319, departing late due to missing flight attendant. Once in the air and with only four of us upfront, the service commenced. This time, they gave me three chicken skewers and more Codorniu. The male FA tried to do almost miracles, presenting what he had to offer as if it were pieces of gems. I wish that they brought back the full trays like Lufthansa does. The AC CEO Montie Brewer admires LH, so does the marketing guru Tyler Brule – where is the catch then? I decided to return to my reading material which was W. Somerset Maugham’s The Razor’s Edge. As it happens, it takes place in Chicago and Europe. At times I felt like Elliott Templeton (less his enormous wealth).

In Chicago

With all the border formalities performed in advance in Canada, there was no time wasted upon arrival. I headed straight for the CTA trains to the city. I still had $1 left in my transit card from last year, so adding another $3 was enough for the return trip – an incredible bargain. Travelling time to The Loop amounts to about 45 minutes of a comfortable ride with occasional scenic view of the Chicago suburbs. While in Chicago, I used to stay at The Palmer House (Hilton), the longest continuously operated hotel in the USA. This time it was not available and I took a gamble to spend two nights at the recently opened Hampton Inn Majestic (also Hilton). When you get off the train at Monroe and Dearborn, this boutique hotel sits just around the corner and is impossible to miss. The building was formerly the LaSalle Bank and theatre. The theatre, now renovated as well, is still there, the bank was recycled into a fancy hotel. There is not an inch of space wasted there from the corner entrance with a bellboy to the 4th floor reception and breakfast area to individual and well-appointed rooms. At $149 and expanded continental breakfast I certainly did not complain. Try to find a similar deal in Manhattan – impossible these days!

I always argued against leaving the night before but there is significant advantage to it when you wake up rested in your destination. Being an early riser, I enjoyed the first breakfast before returning to my room on the 9th floor to watch The Queen on a wide flat screen from the comfort of a hotel bed. Helen Mirren’s performance was surely Oscar worthy and the movie threw me back ten years; yes time flies! Before heading out to my usual haunt, The Magnificent Mile, I made a quick stopover on the 4th floor and ate more breakfast. By now, the area was overflowing with the St.Patrick’s Parade revellers with more of them in the surrounding area outside. I am not a fan of crowds of any kind. It must be the remnants from childhood spent in communist Czechoslovakia where forced celebrations and huge crowds were obligatory. The sunny Saturday morning turned out to be quite chilly forcing me to make warm-up stops in many stores along the North Michigan Avenue. A dear friend of mine who years ago nudged me to step out of my shadow and changed my life forever by moving to Canada acquired by miracle a palazzo-style apartment in Prague that he just finished renovating. Williams-Sonoma is perfect store to purchase an upscale American gift for his Czech kitchen, and that is exactly what I did, keeping in mind the current air travel limitations: It had to be unbreakable, not sharp (I had a carry on only) and not too bulky or heavy. Warm and happy with the purchase, I hopped over to the Oak Street Beach. Being in the city and so close to the huge body of water that one can actually touch makes your spine quiver. It was hard to believe then that in a couple of months it will be scorching hot and now entirely empty beach will be swarming with swimmers. I took another look over the blank horizon and wanted to stay longer but the chilly wind reminded me that winter was not gone yet. The fabulous Drake hotel (also Hilton) presides over this small stretch of the beach almost a century. While in the heavily decorated lobby, I decided against English tea at the stylish Palm Court, hoping for a drink at the Intercontinental lobby bar later. No luck, though, it was packed with participants of the Parade now returning to their hotels. That hotel (formerly an Athletic Club from 1928) is another architectural gem, and the only upscale hotel opening directly on the Magnificent Mile. Their semi-olympic size pool is what I needed but did not have at my inn after all that walking. Returning to The Loop, just a little further and close to the famous Wrigley Building, the Chicago River was turned vivid green to honour St.Patrick. It appeared to be a dazzling view. The main event was still to come!

To be continued.
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Old Mar 27, 07, 4:18 pm
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Reading with interest - I'm heading to Chicago next month with my 11 year old son for one of our father/son trips.
El Cochinito is offline  
Old Mar 28, 07, 6:13 am
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Originally Posted by El Cochinito View Post
Reading with interest - I'm heading to Chicago next month with my 11 year old son for one of our father/son trips.
I have read your California safari report with great interest and made notes for myself next time I have a chance to do the same.

Chicago is different, your son will have a chance to see some cultural things and even perhaps visit the Sears Tower and/or Hancock Observatory.

Not having any children of my own, I just assume that it must be a very fun and rewarding todo those father/son trips.
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Old Mar 28, 07, 1:50 pm
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Nice report so far. You write well!

I hope you enjoyed your time in Chicago as much as I do every day! St. Patrick's Day weekend is a pretty hectic time to be here, so if you liked it then, you will probably like it anytime!

One minor point of correction: Those neighborhoods you saw from the blue line train are not the suburbs. With the exception of the area right next to ORD, that is all part of Chicago proper! It's a big place!!

Looking forward to the rest of your report ^
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Old Mar 29, 07, 3:01 pm
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I can't wait for the next installment! I'm glad you also like Chicago, it is so much fun!
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Old Mar 30, 07, 6:39 am
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Here is the second and final part.

Night at the Opera

More than two years ago, The Lyric Opera of Chicago turned 50, inaugurating that season with Mozart’s beloved opera Don Giovanni. I was there to mark the same personal anniversary. This time around, I arrived for the last performance of the current season that turned out to be the most powerful production of the year, the first performances of Francis Poulenc’s intensely spiritual “Dialogues des Carmélites”. Premiered in 1957 at La Scala in Milan, Italy. The “Carmelites” is considered by many the only true masterpiece opera of the second half of the 20th century. It transports us back to the 1790s, the Reign of Terror during the French Revolution, and tells a true story of the martyrdom of sixteen nuns at the monastery in Compiegne, France. Some time ago, I enjoyed listening to the best choice on cd, Pierre Derveuax’s recording from 1958 with many of the original La Scala cast, however, nothing equals the live theatre, and this one better be good, I was hoping in advance.

The Lyric is situated in the financial district of the Loop and the area feels pretty deserted on late Saturday afternoon. Not passing by for the first time, I should have known better to plan for a pre-theatre meal in advance. A quickly eaten slice of pizza at the train station across the river because nothing else was to be found in the vicinity is not too stylish a meal before the opera. Well, next time… As I was returning to enter the opera house, I witnessed a funny scene: A group of youngsters was handing pamphlets “Do not wear furs” to heavily fur-clad society matrons stepping out of their chauffeur-driven luxury vehicules who did their best to ignore the irritants. I, on the contrary, was thanked for not wearing any furs. Honestly, I do not own furs, and cannot imagine how terribly I would look wearing them. Once in the lobby, I gave myself enough time to get in the festive mood by circulating among the patrons while sipping a glass of overpriced sparkling wine and reading the program notes.

Tonight, I splurged and purchased a seat on the main floor as close to the stage as the Lyric computer would allow me. It took some ingenuity, holding several seats temporarily in the website shopping basket and discarding at the end all but one that appeared to be the most desirable. The opera centers around Blanche de la Force, the role sung by our own Canadian-Armenian lyric soprano Isabel Bayrakdarian, an intelligent singing actress, making very affecting Blanche. The culmination of the first act was the death of the old prioress, with Dame Felicity Palmer offering mesmerizing portrayal of Madame de Croissy. The second prioress, Madame Lidoine, starring Patricia Racette, was most remarkable when she sang Ave Maria with the other sisters in Act II. Finally, all 16 nuns find death under the guillotine at the very end of Act III in deeply moving scene singing Salve Regina. Canadian director Robert Carsen created minimalist production, shattering in its understatements: No scaffold, no blade, no beheading. The Lyric artistic director Sir Andrew Davis showed complete mastery of Poulenc’s score of 12 scenes in three acts. What a joy! The audience started to leave only reluctantly after the final curtain call also for the season.

By habit and as a token of appreciation, I always wait for the singers at the stage door. Since this is opera, not a Madonna or Rolling Stones show, usually I see there only about a dozen of fans, many of them relatives of acquaintances of the performers, and there is always a chance for a brief chat with your favourite star. A year ago there I got a chance to meet unexpectedly Renee Fleming who came to visit her friend Susan Graham singing Octavian in Der Rosenkavalier. This time, I almost missed Patricia Racette who was being literally pulled out of there by her better half Beth Clayton (another diva to whom she was very publicly married several years ago) while signing just one autograph. Isabel Bayrakdarian came out next and graciously signed my programme while I begged her to come and sing for us in Montreal. What a classy young lady and human being she is besides her art! Dame Palmer was a little bit in a hurry, perhaps understandably exhausted after the great performance that she has just given. I almost missed her and caught up with her only on the sidewalk with another fan, trying in vain to hail a cab for her. She was saved by Sir Davis who just appeared as if from nowhere and offered her a lift home. With Poulenc’s music still in my ears and fortified by two glasses of sparkling wine (by the way, it was Chandon, blanc de noir, from California), I returned to my hotel to absorb the evening.

Sunday morning

Since I moved to the Plateau de Mont-Royal (bordering to downtown), I do not subscribe to cable TV and have therefore only a handful of basic channels and weak signal. I consider watching commercial TV mostly a waste of time - with one or two exceptions, and I get to see those only in a hotel room when travelling. To help me digest the early breakfast, I tuned to the Sunday Today on NBC. The weekend co-host, Campbell Brown, goes down like a well-buttered toast, and actually you would not mind sharing your breakfast table with her. When I returned to my room, she was just introducing a segment “Nice guys finish first” and was about to interview an author of a recently published book on that subject. We live and work in intensely competitive environment and it certainly does not hurt to (re)discover, that it is occasionally refreshing to give or receive “the kindness of strangers”.

My ultimate favourite, though, is CBS Sunday Morning, and my heart goes out to Mr. Charles Osgood. His show covers subjects not normally covered by mainstream networks: Opera, classical music, fine cuisine and travel. It is well known fact that Mr. Osgood himself loves “fine living” and owns a vacation property on the French Riviera. It was only appropriate for him do a segment on the French winemaker Chateau Mouton de Rothschild, the house that prides itself on high quality wines and trademark bottle labels featuring works by famous artists. Mr. Osgood’s guest was Baroness Phillippine who explained in lively and entertaining English her selection process. Apparently, she is still waiting for David Hockney (whose retrospective exhibition last year in Boston I did not get to see) who promised to paint something for her “one day”. C’est la vie, Madame La Baronesse. Like all good things, that program was about to come to an end, and I got ready for another planned event: A visit to the Arts Institute of Chicago.

Later – with Georges

The Arts Institute can be counted as yet another iconic institution of The Loop, along with The Lyric and Chicago Symphony, to name a few. Not to have to be in a hurry, prior to leaving the Hampton Inn, I secured a 2 pm late check out and was left with four more hours to spend at my leisure before heading for the airport. Knowing that Georges will always be there, I did not look in advance to find out who else might be there as a temporary companion. To my delight, till May 12, the Institute is hosting a special exhibition “Cézanne to Picasso, Ambroise Vollard, Patron of the Avant-Garde”.

Actually, their system works well for early risers. Special exhibitions are open from 10 to 11 am for museum members only. That leaves us, out-of-towners, ample time to admire and explore the other exhibits. For many years, I have been hooked on the magic of Georges Seurat’s Un Dimanche Après-Midi à L’Ile de la Grande Jatte (Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte). Seurat was a neo (or post) impressionist painter who devised the pointillist technique of painting with tiny dots of pure colour. Imagine all that before the computer era! La Grande Jatte, a bigger-than-life canvass is considered the flagship painting of the Institute, and as such, it never travels. Shortly after 10 am, the museum was all but crowded and I had the luxury of sitting on a bench alone just in front of that masterpiece for quite a while. No-flash photography is permitted, and I am actually looking at a reproduction bought at the museum store and a picture of it that I took myself last year. It helps my concentration on task at hand!

At 11 am on the dot I was queued at the entrance for the special event. The main goal of the whole event is to emphasize the ways how Monsieur Vollard, art dealer, shaped the careers of our favourite artists and to help us understand the history of art from a fresh perspective. The highlight of the exposition is Paul Gauguin’s Tahitian masterpiece “Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?” It is here on loan from the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. It is another longer-than-life work of art (122 ft long). Nowadays, it is hard to believe that the painting did not sell until years later, to Gauguin’s dismay at the time as well. Somerset Maugham’s novel “The Moon and Sixpence”, inspired by life of Paul Gauguin is next on my list.

Another advantage of the Institute besides being manageable in size during a single visit is the restaurant facility. There is a choice of a very reasonably priced cafeteria where I lunched on corned beef, cabbage and baked potato, or a full-service restaurant for those not pressed for time to return quickly to the collection. For it was well past noon, the museum started to fill up and I wanted to go for a stroll in the adjacent Millenium Park, it was time to say good bye, à la prochaine and head out.

Back to O’Hare and home

Outdoor mass events, often held on Sundays in major North American cities, can cause unpredictable traffic havoc and one could easily miss a flight. I learned that the hard way in New York City and only then took time to figure out how to get to the LGA airport by subway and bus. Riding on CTA trains is even easier, and I knew exactly how much time to set aside. My apology to those who noticed me calling erroneously parts of Chicago proper “suburbs” in the first part of my report. I stand corrected now! Knowing that all flights to Canada were oversold long time ago due to the end of the Ontario school break and considering the potential delays as a result of the earlier winter storm on the east coast, I did not want to take any chances to miss my return flight. Nver mind the confirmed upgrade and Elite status, I did not care to be bumped this time and deal with all the hassle.

My prediction proved true. It was mayhem in progress at ORD. Air Canada had many flights cancelled or severely delayed due to mechanical issues with their new Embraer aircraft flying in cold weather, other airlines were operating in “service recovery mode” as after the storm effect. I was offered an earlier flight but wisely refused , reconfirmed my web check in and returned to the ORD Hilton for a swim and sauna. Hilton Honors Gold qualifies you for half price day pass, and at $6 it was quite bargain with huge locker and towels supplied.

Refreshed, I returned to the terminal and headed for the E concourse gates. Before long, I was on the other side of the fence ready for the lounge hopping. At ORD (in contrast to MIA or BOS) it is possible to walk among the concourses going through security only once. My first stop in line was the Delta Crown Room at concourse L. Entering with my Priority Pass, I settled in a corner seat with a glass of complimentary cabernet sauvignon and a travel magazine. Outside, an American Airlines MD80 (why do they still operate those gas-guzzlers?) was being pushed away from the gate with another one ready to pull in. Many other guests were talking on cell phones, dealing with cancelled flights.

The time came to return to concourse E and check the latest situation for my flight AC512. It was the only one listed “on time”. With almost two more hours to spare, I walked completely on the other side to concourse B and to the United Airlines Red Carpet Club. Entering with my Air Canada Elite (Star Alliance Gold) card. Their lounges resemble the most miserable places you can imagine. It was not only crowded but they had almost nothing on offer. I ate an orange, grabbed a bunch of candies and Twix chocolate bars and returned to my gate. Now all flights were delayed. I was talking to some passengers admiring how they took the situation in stride, like a group of tradesmen from Prince Edward Island, returning from a training course. They spent the whole day (!) at ORD, being shifted from one oversold flight to another. I gave them the candies and chocolate bars and decided to check more lounges. I could take in one guest but they were three and did not want to leave anybody behind – fair enough.

I had a choice on another RCC which is a joke and a combined Continental/North West President’s Club, entering once more with a Priority Pass. The place has a nice view of the tarmac, quiet area (no cell phones), and complimentary refreshments including wine. None of them however beat Maple Leaf lounges of Air Canada. By now I had enough of the lounges and wanted to get going home. The incoming A320 of AC511 was slowly (and late) pulling in.

Shortly before boarding AC512, I saw that the tradesmen from PEI got their boarding passes for the same flight. One of them wanted to call his wife but changed his mind, saying: I will believe it when I am board and the door closes. With so many stranded passengers, some travelling with children, boarding was little bit disorganized, with only two overworked and overstressed agents handling it all. Obviously, it was a full flight. Settled in 2D, ready for another glass of Codorniu and chicken skewer – by now, I knew the “menu” by heart. This A320 was not yet XMd but I found it in remarkably clean and in shape. When the service started, I was given only one skewer and asked how it was possible that the quantity varied from 1 to 3. The in-charge FA replied that they did not expect a full flight. She was misinformed because all flights were full or oversold for days. Anyway, more chicken skewers were found and seconds were offered. Again, with the little they have to serve nowadays, the service was very good.

The arrival to Toronto was late and then they could not find the ground crew to pull the bridge. I was among the first who deplaned, running like a lunatic across T1 to the Canadian Customs and Immigration hoping somehow to make up a one hour delay. The young female officer was sympathetic, handed me back my papers fast and said: Run, you may still make it. I consider myself in excellent shape relative to my age, had only a carry on and I am used to travelling. So if I am not familiar with the particular airport, I can quickly figure out how and where to proceed. Many others probably did not make their connections and it is a shame.

Sprinting again across the whole place and going through another security where they wanted to see the inside of my carry on, I finally reached the gate of AC434 that happened to be delayed due again to the missing flight attendant. As I was standing very close to the gate, I noticed that the in charge FA came out and was interested in the passenger names. Then he had some of them upgraded. I was just wondering how many were his friends – or more employees perhaps? Well, finally the missing FA showed up and we were allowed to board. Being still in good mood due to the cultural events experienced in Chicago, I decided to continue reading my novel while having more Codorniu and chicken. At this time, it did not really matter what they had or did not, so I did not even bother with close to mediocre service. It was past midnight and they all must have been tired.

All ended well in Montreal. I was parked in a covered parking and was thus spared shovelling the snow. In an hour I was at home and in bed, since Monday was a working day for all.

I hope that you have enjoyed a little but my long report. Next time, I will try to upload some pictures. My upcoming itineraries: Vancouver for Easter and later in the month Czech Republic.
Vaclav is offline  
Old Mar 30, 07, 6:14 pm
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Thanks for a wonderful report.

I saw the Carsen production of 'Carmelites' in Amsterdam in 2002 - it is indeed a masterful portrayal that allows the powerful drama to unfold in a very naturalistic fashion, without interference from distracting sets, etc.

Like you, I'm also a fan of Isabel Bayrakdarian, who I saw a few times in NYC with the Opera Francais when her career was first starting out - I wonder if you've had a chance to see the DVD of the 2006 Salzburg 'Don Giovanni' - she sings and acts an excellent Zerlina, and more than holds her own amongst that very starry cast.
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Old Mar 31, 07, 8:39 am
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Originally Posted by Non-NonRev View Post
Thanks for a wonderful report.

I saw the Carsen production of 'Carmelites' in Amsterdam in 2002 - it is indeed a masterful portrayal that allows the powerful drama to unfold in a very naturalistic fashion, without interference from distracting sets, etc.

Like you, I'm also a fan of Isabel Bayrakdarian, who I saw a few times in NYC with the Opera Francais when her career was first starting out - I wonder if you've had a chance to see the DVD of the 2006 Salzburg 'Don Giovanni' - she sings and acts an excellent Zerlina, and more than holds her own amongst that very starry cast.
I am pleased that you have enjoyed my report. Robert Carsen's opera production amount to a revellation. Actually, I was at the Lyric for the 50th season opening night on Sep. 18, 04 and I heard Miss Bayrakdarian as Zerlina there. On the same night, Karita Mattila cast as Donna Anna was annouced indisposed at the last minute, creating an opening for her understudy, Erin Wall whose career took off on that night. I will look for the 2006 Salzburd D.G. dvd.
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