Wednesday, January 28, 2009

My Two Chicago Trips: A "Wicked" Weekend

I've been to Chicago many times before but this journey was filled with "firsts". It was the first time that we took the train instead of driving. It was the first time I attended the final performance of a long-running show. It was the first time I mistakenly hailed a police car instead of a taxi and was the first time I found myself flat on my back on the sidewalk looking up at a sea of faces and hearing people yelling "Call 911! Call 911!". It only strengthened my opinion that Chicagoans are some of the most helpful people in the US.

We live within a six hour drive of Chicago and have always driven there. In the past our winter trips have sometimes been fraught with slippery and snowy road conditions. This has been an unusually bad winter already, which helped us to decide to take the train on this junket. I've taken the train many times in Europe, but seldom here in my home city. I was surprised that the ticket price was reasonable, which made the travel cost comparable to driving; even cheaper when we factored in the cost of valet parking at the hotel. There were a few positive aspects to taking the train and more than a few negative. As I said, the comparable price was a plus, as was the ability to sit and read and move about while enroute. All the Amtrak personnel were extremely helpful and friendly. On the return trip we were surprised to be taken out of the line of waiting passengers and shuttled directly down the tracks to our door on a motorized cart. Our luggage was taken on and stored for us. On the negative side was waiting in a cold shelter in Birmingham for the train to arrive, crying children, sneezing passengers, unexpected delays, incessant stops and subsequently a much longer travel time. It took us the better part of the day to arrive and we were tired from the long trip. Next time we would definitely drive again to Chicago, unless weather conditions prevented it.

Our hotel, the Embassy Suites on Columbus Ave, was comfortable and well located. We had two queen sized beds and a living room complete with flat screen TV. The hotel offered a daily cooked to order free breakfast and an afternoon happy hour with free drinks and snacks, which we were able to enjoy the first night since we didn't have theater plans for Friday evening. We had late dinner reservations at Le Colonial on Rush Street. I'd been there three times before and enjoyed it each time. The cuisine is French/Vietnamese and the decor is colonial Southeast Asia from the 1920's. The food is fresh, light and flavorful. My favorite was the tuna tartar appetiser.

I believe this recipe comes close to what I was served:

The next morning was the day of the fateful second "trip". We awoke to a brilliant blue sky and nippy zero degree temperatures. Not to be discouraged, we set out on an exhilarating hour long power walk to Navy Pier and back. The juxtaposition of the deserted summer recreation spot, the huge empty ferris wheel and the ghost-like pleasure boats with the frozen lake and the snowy backdrop of the skyscrapers made me wish I had not forgotten my camera in the hotel room. We returned for breakfast at the hotel and changed for a shopping excursion on Michigan Avenue. We browsed through Nordstroms, Macy's and made some purchases at Marshalls.
It was then, strolling casually down the sidewalk that my heel started to slide forward. I watched in horror as my leg continued to stretch in front of me until I was doing the splits worthy of a Dallas Cowboy cheerleader. I was unable to stop the slide and I landed on the ground in the most severe pain I have felt since childbirth many years ago. As I lay there, unable to move, I could see and hear a crowd forming around me. And I could see Jan's terrified face looking down at me. People were shouting for 911 and I was pleading for them not to call them. I wanted to be left alone and wait and see the outcome. A woman looked down at me and said, "We're doctors, can we help?" I turned them down as well. Jan tells me I must have laid there for 15 minutes, until a very nice young man from the Garmin store we were in front of offered to help me get up and get me inside to rest. He and Jan managed to get me up, but I started to see black spots and was afraid I'd go down again. Slowly, they managed to get me inside and on a couch. Back at the hotel I spent the afternoon resting, unwilling to let the injury spoil our weekend. *A postnote: I found out when I returned home that I had badly torn my hamstring muscle and I'm in for a long recovery.

We had reservations that evening at a renowned seafood restaurant called Catch 35 and tickets to the next to last performance of Wicked at the Ford theater. I can't remember what I had for dinner, not because the restaurant wasn't excellent, but because I was probably still in a bit of a shock from what had happened earlier. "Wicked" was wonderful, as usual. Jan and I had seen it a few years ago on Broadway with Kristin Chenowith and Idina Menzel and Jan has been hooked ever since. I love it too and we subsequently saw it several other times together. It was ending its four year Chicago run this weekend and that was whole reason for this journey. It remains one of my favorite shows (even though it is not an Eric Kunze show - haha). Each time you hear and see something you didn't notice before.

The next morning, sadly, didn't include a power walk for me. By this time the back of my thigh was purple and blue. We had tickets for the last performance of "Wicked" at 2:00, so I sent Jan off to complete her shopping while I lazed on the couch with some light reading. The final performance was very emotional. Each time an actor appeared onstage for the first time the entire audience erupted in wild applause. It was obvious everyone in the sold-out crowd was there for sentimental reasons. When Glinda and Elphaba hugged at the end of "For Good" they embraced for such a long time during constant clapping from the audience, I actually got teary. I remember those emotions from my years in community theater. The last show is always very heartbreaking. You can't imagine life without these people you have grown to trust and love. I can't fathom what that must feel like after four years together. There was a well-deserved, long and enthusiastic standing ovation for them all, followed by a thank you by the producer of the show.

Our reservations that evening were at Brazzaz, a Brazilian steakhouse. I had deliberately planned to come here after the theater that day, because I knew we would want to really take our time and sample all the possibilites. The salad bar was one of the best I have seen. It included oysters on the half shell and the best ceviche I've ever had. The waitress brought us a basket of tiny hot cheese popovers that were addicting, especially to someone who has been off of carbs for a long while. Waiters dressed in gaucho outfits came around with spears of succulent proteins: lamb, beef, shrimp, filet wrapped in bacon, chicken. One of our favorites was the grilled pineapple, sliced fresh and hot. The sweetness of the pineapple was a perfect foil to the savory meat. We ate too much, of course, but Jan insisted we try the traditional after dinner drink, made from 43 ingredients, appropriately called Licor 43. It is served from a bottle frozen in a block of ice decorated with various fruits. We both agreed our husbands would love it here and purposed to come back some day soon.
(A side note: Each trip is characterized by something that we laugh about for years afterward. This trip was no exception. Our story was typical of suburban gals in the big city. On our way to the theater we were frantically trying to flag down a cab in the extreme cold. Many of the taxis already had passengers and finally we saw one and both waved wildly until it came to a stop next to us. I almost had my hand on the door to get in when the window rolled down and a policeman (with a sardonic smile on his face) said to us, "This is a police car. Do you ladies want to go to the jail?")

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