Saturday, 1 September 2012

Day 3: All the learnings!

The jetlag appears to have subsided: this morning we rose at the nicely holiday-appropriate time of 8am. It seems wrong for me to have been in America for two days without having had pancakes, so that situation was swiftly remedied. Pancakes are one of my favourite things about America. Unfortunately, balancing out the carb-laden awesomeness was one of my least-favourite things about America. If any Americans read this, please, I beg you, if someone asks you for tea, do not serve them a cup of hot water and a still-wrapped tea bag. The number of ways in which this is unacceptable and wrong could fill a blog by itself, but I digress. On the bright side, at least the tea wasn't Lipton.

After blowing off the morning to get manicures and pedicures, we returned to the convention. So far, I have to say that the only thing Chicon has going for it is the fact that it's in Chicago. Teaching kids about rockets yesterday was fun - as was the planetarium of course, which I guess was technically on the con programme - but today I only felt inspired to go to one programme item, and that was disappointingly bland. We did wander around the dealers' room, but it's hard to muster the same excitement about obscure books that we used to when everything under the sun is available on Amazon. Also not helping our impression of this con is the fact that the recent blow-up in British fandom about gender parity doesn't appear to have crossed the Atlantic; in just a couple of hours of milling around the con, I overheard no less than four separate conversations bemoaning the dominance of white men on panels.

Fortunately, the convention wasn't the only (or in the end even primary) reason for the trip, and even if it was then Chicago has turned out to be worth the cost of the flight by itself.

There didn't seem to be much on this evening anyway, so we decided to take the Chicago Architecture Foundation's boat tour, which had come highly recommended. It's pretty pricey (about $45) but for that you get 90 minutes with a very informed guide, so it was well worth the investment.

A rocket, cunningly disguised as a building

Some cool things we learned:
  1. That Chicago once burned down, just like London
  2. That the flow of the Chicago River was deliberately reversed to stop it polluting the drinking water in Lake Michigan (this was news to me, anyway)
  3. What an "Art Deco" building is (hey, I've never pretended to know a thing about architecture, or anything designy for that matter)
  4. That those stolen rocks we saw yesterday were brought back (read: nicked) by reporters for the Chicago Tribune
  5. Chicago doesn't appear to be as big as we had assumed it was
We also got to see some of the things we're going to be doing in the next few days. This is the Willis (formerly Sears) Tower:

See those slightly bumpy bits sticking out of the top? That's the Skydeck, the transparent-floored capsule thingys we'll be braving before we head out.

And this is where our adventure west will begin, at the start of the original Route 66:

We also learned one disappointing thing: that amazing car park we saw on the first day? Apparently it's strictly valet parking only, which I guess explains why there isn't a pile of broken cars on the street. Alas, this has shattered my illusions about the mad parking skills of Chicago residents.

Friday, 31 August 2012

Day 2: Stolen Stones and Stars

Today started with a rude awakening. Well I say rude, but what I really mean is that there is only supposed to be one 5 o'clock in the day and it's not supposed to be before lunch.  Jet lag is a cruel mistress; however, since pretending to sleep didn't seem to be working either we abandoned all pretence of it in favour of an early start.

We decided to have breakfast at the Corner Bakery Cafe near our hotel where we sampled delicious french toast, something delectable called apple chicken sausage (no we don't know what an apple chicken is either but it was yum), as well as Cherry Coke on unlimited refill and this was all before 8:00am.

Having set ourselves up for the day food wise, we ventured across a bridge that makes the millennium foot bridge seem stable to find the Chicago Tribune building.  This was one of the Chicago sights featured on Billy Connolly's Route 66 program.  It's an office building that has small pieces of stone embedded in it from famous buildings from all over the world. Each has an engraved description and we photographed as many as we could find.  What is particularly hilarious is that some of these buildings are national treasures e.g. Houses of Parliament, the Parthenon, the Taj Mahal, Edinburgh Castle.  One wonders truly if they got given these pieces or if they were purloined in some fashion.  We could do an entire blog full of all the pictures but we won't.  Here are a couple of the most mindboggling and when we get a round tuit later we'll post a link to a facebook album where you can browse the rest.

After the exhausting work of photographing pieces of rock in the hot sun, we decided to get a drink and fell upon the Argo tea cafe which was helpfully also embedded in the Chicago Tribune building.  Rachael got very excited because they served "bubble" tea but lost me somewhere in the enthusiastic description so I chose a sparkle tea instead.  This turned out to be a mistake because whilst the sparkle tea (white tea with raspberry) was both refreshing and delicious it was no where near as fantastic as Rachael's White tea and vanilla bubble tea. I had never before heard of bubble tea but I shall be seeking it out back home in London.  It has chewy bits in the bottom and it's a cold tea that has milk in it. No really. And it's still amazing.

At this point we spotted a nearby Walgreens and decided I needed to prop up my meager nail polish collection (stop sniggering at the back) as well as pick up a few other bits and pieces we probably didn't need.  Somehow we experienced the absolute extremes of customer service within 5 minutes with one assistant who couldn't do more to help us and another who's answer to a polite question about stamps was "thats not my job". No really.  Next we wandered down to the Nordstrom mall and after a little more shopping in Benetton, where Rachael bought a belt and I had to be physically restrained from unfolding things, we headed back to the hotel in the midday sun as the convention officially started this afternoon.

On the way back to the hotel we got a little sidetracked by a bar and decided to get another drink (did I mention today was really hot?). Sitting outside and watching the world go by we had good intentions of only getting drinks, but when we saw "disco fries" on the menu we knew we could not miss the chance to sample Poutine style fries.  For the uninitiated basically this is fries with melted cheese and gravy, but trust me when I say it's 100 times more awesome than that description suggests.

Worldcon is a strange and interesting beast.  Rachael spent the afternoon with children building rockets and then launching them. I blew off the opening ceremony in favour of more interesting things on the internet and a bit of a rest before the evening's outing to the Adler Planetarium where the convention had free run of the place for the entire evening.  The exhibits were interesting and the CGI on the planetarium show was fantastic.  Of course Rachael had a few quibbles with content but there was also lots of squeeing "that galaxy is one of mine... LOOK!". 

One of the remarkable things about the Adler is its built on a peninsular on Lake Michigan away from the city centre, and the views back towards the city are nothing short of spectacular.  We could have spent hours just photographing the city skyline from there alone.

Chicago is proving to be so much more than I expected and I love it.


Thursday, 30 August 2012

Day 1: Jetlagged in Chicago

I had an entire hour's sleep last night before being woken by an extremely rude alarm clock that seemed to think 3am was a reasonable time for a person to wake up. After hurriedly packing (yes, I like to do things last minute), my lift arrived at 4.20am (courtesy of Sarah, most awesomest friend ever) and a little after 5am I was facing the joys of airport security.

As airports go, I have to say that Newcastle is usually pretty great, probably the only one in which I consistently encounter smiley security staff. The guy working this morning, however, seemed to think it was hilarious to loudly leer at women passing through and suggest he might decide that their shirts pose a security threat so that he could make them go through topless.

Skeevy staff aside, I made it down to London without incident and met up with Fi, and even had a nicely quick dash across from Gatwick to Heathrow.

Fi and our mountain of luggage at Heathrow

The flight to Chicago was quite painful. It seems British Airways still have some planes with the old-fashioned entertainment systems where the movies play at set times only. I haven't seen these systems since about 2005 and had hoped they were extinct. The fun (?) part, of course, is that they don't tell you when the movies are starting -- I assume the point is that you can entertain yourself trying to work out what happened in the first half-hour of the movie? Lacking enough brain function to even follow a linear story after my lack of sleep, I tuned in for about an hour in the middle of something I'd already seen (The Hunger Games) and then, realising the resolution of the screen was only a fraction of what you can get on a phone, gave up and did some work instead. Now that's desperation.

Fortunately, we now don't have to get on another plane for three and a half weeks, which is a glorious thing indeed!

We took a shuttle straight from the airport to the hotel (in which every single passenger turned out to be going to Chicon), washed the plane off, registered for the con (the badges are very cool, although they do seem to contain an alarming number of lines from the address field of the database!) and then had a quick explore in search of dinner.

We only went out for a couple of hours, but already I have made two Startling Discoveries:

1. Chicago seems to have some sort of weird extra season that we don't get in England. It involves this yellow ball of fire high up in the sky, and the sky itself is this strange bright blue colour. And it's warm enough outside to walk around without a jacket! Although you still need to carry the jacket with you to cope with the freezing air conditioning indoors.

2. I can't believe this isn't in all the guide books, but Chicago has the coolest car parks:

I assume the bottom of the river is littered with the rusted shells of those that reversed too far?

And if we've learned this much within a block of our hotel, just imagine what the next 3,000 miles might bring!

Our final burst of energy of the day went into locating Gino's East to investigate the famous deep dish pizza. This is a restaurant with a brilliant approach to interior design: why invest in expensive painters when you can have customers decorate your walls for free?

I would probably look more enthused if I could remember what sleep was.

It also gives you something to do in the hour it takes them to make the pizza, besides the kids' puzzles on the back of the menu. We left our marks, of course, and I learned that someone from France visited this restaurant on my birthday nine years ago. I hope they had a good time.

I cannot speak highly enough of the food. We only ordered a small pizza between us, and even then I only managed one slice, but it was the best slice of pizza I have ever tasted. I've never tried deep dish pizza before, but I'm definitely a fan of putting the cheese on the bottom.

The 'deep' in the name is to be taken literally.

Chicago's made a good first impression, but right now I'm quite fond of the idea of sleep. Lots to see tomorrow, and I believe there's a convention starting as well...

Tuesday, 28 August 2012

Day 0: All systems go!

About a year ago, Fi and I were talking about going to the Chicago Worldcon in 2012, and she emailed to ask whether I wanted to stay a few days to explore.

I replied: "So, feel free to tell me this is a daft idea, but I've been wanting for years to drive the whole of Route 66 from Chicago to LA..."

Rather than do the sensible thing and discourage me, she said: "Oh shit I would LOVE to do that!"

Almost a year on, neither of us has seen sense, and so tomorrow morning we're off to Chicago!

We're staying in Chicago for the convention over the weekend, then taking a couple of weeks to drive the ~2,500 miles to Santa Monica (with a couple of detours to the Grand Canyon and Las Vegas), and then finishing off with another 400 miles or so up the Pacific Coast Highway to San Francisco to see the future site of Starfleet Headquarters.

Or perhaps our hire car will break down on the first day and leave us stranded in Illinois... Watch this space to find out!