Our next stop on the memory highway was Chicago, a city known to Manny as the home of his college girlfriend and first serious love, Brenda Brisch. Although we wouldn’t be visiting Brenda because she presently works and lives on the Cote d’Azur in France, Manuel announced that he wanted to look up Steve Miller, Brenda’s boyfriend in high school, a guy he met and knew for one weekend at a party forty years ago and hasn’t heard from since. Now, I consider myself adventurous —hell, I wouldn’t be on this journey if I wasn’t— but with limited time in Chicago, I thought “do I really want to try to find this guy who today could be somebody with whom I have absolutely nothing in common?”
However, Manny was so excited when he found him and so emphatic about what a great guy Steve was and how much I’d love him and Joyce —Steve’s then girlfriend, now wife— that I really couldn’t say no (at least not without starting a huge fight.)
The plan was made. Manny and I would take the train on Saturday from the Zion station, near Illinois Beach State Park where we were camping for 3 days, and meet Steve and Joyce at the last stop at the Ogilvie Transportation Center in downtown Chicago, then they would show us around the city. “It’s only one day”, I thought.
Imagine my surprise and delight when from the moment we embraced at the train station, I liked them. Steve’s winning smile and Joyce’s warmth told me we would have a wonderful time together. Because two of their four children have married into families from abroad, Steve has made a point of becoming an expert tour guide of Chicago.
We began our tour at the Palmer House, an iconic grand hotel visited by an untold number of celebrities since 1871, its ornate lobby one of the most beautiful I’ve ever seen.
We spent time at the huge Millenium Park marveling over its centerpiece, the Pritzker Music Pavilion, a unique open air bandshell designed by Frank Gehry, the architect responsible for the Guggenheim Museumin Bilbao, Spain. All rehearsals of the various musical entertainment performed here, ranging from rock bands to opera singers, are free to the public. The Grant Park Music Festival, a ten-week program, is the nation’s only remaining free outdoor classical music series.
Although the park is full of public art, the stainless steel Cloud Gate —affectionately nicknamed by Chicagoans “the Bean”— is probably its most well-known, most photographed, and most alluring piece, as it continually beckons people to interact with it. It weighs over 110-tons, and is 66 feet long and 33 feet high. Cloud Gate’s seamless surface is the result of thousands of hours of polishing. We took some great shots of the city reflected in the shiny sculpture.
Despite the fact that it was the end of October, the temperature that day was a balmy 60 degrees, so we decided to celebrate by lunching on the patio at the Park Grill, a trendy upscale restaurant at the entrance to Millenium Park. The four of us spent hours enjoying fabulous wine and great food, talking and laughing as if we had known each other forever.
We learned that Steve and Joyce love to travel and adore everything Spanish, so we had a great deal in common. It was almost uncanny that their son’s in-laws come from Mutriku, as it is known in the Basque language, a tiny village in Northern Spain, the same place Don Cosme Damián de Churruca y Elorza, a distant uncle of Manuel’s, was born in 1761. He was a cartographer and Spanish naval officer who mapped the West indies and was highly respected by the British navy. He fought valiantly and died in the Battle of Trafalgar. Manuel and I even saw Don Cosme Damián’s statue in Motrico’s central plaza when we visited in 2007.
Chicago has such a European feel. Cosmopolitan, yet accessible. And very walkable. I continued to feel like I was strolling through the streets of Paris as Steve led us past Michigan Avenue’s picturesque French metro stop, a gift of the Parisian transit authority to Chicago, one of its three sister cities. This reproduction, with all its lovely curves and intricate lattice work, was made from the original molds used for the Parisian Metropolitain entranceways in 1900, designed by Hector Guimard, said to be the quintessential Art Nouveau artist and architect.
Needing to rest our weary feet after our marathon walking tour of Chicago, we settled down in theArtist’s Café, a local bistro on Michigan Avenue since 1961. As soon as we got comfortable in our well-worn booth, we were greeted by Amy, one of the best waitresses I’ve ever had. She is warm, with a wry sense of humor, totally interested in her customers and anxious to please.
Cafés des Artistes, made famous in 1920s Paris, are often basic, down to earth, unpretentious places. So when I wanted cracked pepper for my meal, Steve was sure they wouldn’t have pepper mills. I bet him that they would. We made our request. Amy didn’t miss a beat. She walked into the kitchen and returned beaming. I was ready to collect on the bet. She placed a little dish with cracked pepper on the table. They did have cracked pepper, but alas, no pepper mills. We roared at her efforts and called it a tie.
When Irene, the owner, learned that Steve had been one of the Artist’s Café’s first patrons in 1966, she came over to chat. Apparently Irene took a liking to us, and proud of her Greek heritage, at the end of our meal she generously offered us complimentary digestifs of Ouzo and huge portions of baklava.
The Artist’s Café of Chicago sure knows how to make their patrons feel special. If you are ever in Chicago, tell Irene we sent you. And be sure to ask for Amy!