Second trip to Chicago

A man and a woman reflected with the city skyline behind them.
Adam and Lore and Chicago reflected in the Cloud Gate, Millenium Park

We decided last minute to go to Chicago for the long weekend. The Chicago Jazz festival was underway our first night but we skipped that to frolic at the Cloud Gate (a.k.a. The Bean). If you ever want to feel like a monkey amused by its reflection in something shiny, go see the Cloud Gate.

Two women admire a painting of a man and women in front of their home.
Two women admiring American Gothic by Grant Wood, Art Institute of Chicago

We spent the better part of the next day at the Art Institute of Chicago in the American Modern Art exhibit. As Iowans we were required by law to gaze at American Gothic by Grant Wood. We had company. Visiting American Gothic is a minor league version of Mona Lisa at The Louvre—in the sense that there’s a small crowd that makes it hard to stand and admire it. It was still fun to see in person.

Mosaic decorations in a building lobby include an inscription about books.
Inside the Washington Street Lobby of the Chicago Cultural Center

Near the Art Institute is the Chicago Cultural Center, in the former Chicago Public Library building. This is truly a wonder, not just because you can go in for free and look at exhibits but because of the mind-blowing tile mosaics and dome ceilings. I’m starting to suspect Chicago has something of a second city inferiority complex because everything is so deliberately over the top.

A woman waiting in a graffiti covered restaurant booth.
Lore waiting for Chicago deep dish pizza in Gino’s East

In addition to artery-clogging Chicago art and architecture we ate some unhealthful Chicago food: Italian sausage sandwiches and deep dish pizza. Our pizza dinner was at Gino’s East in River North, a place huge and busy but not crowded inside. The interior was divided by graffiti-covered wooden booths and partitions that preserved some intimacy. We didn’t have a marker to add to the graffiti so I borrowed the waitress’s pen to write our names on the seat cushion.

An illuminated ferris wheel at night.
Ferris wheel at the Navy Pier

We walked off the pizza at the Navy Pier, a schlocky Coney Island-like place but a good long walk. We got rained on pretty hard right at the end of the pier as we learned why Chicago is called the Windy City. It was a long wet walk back.

Ronald Reagan Boyhood Home

Chicago

Fine camping and exploring

Yellow-petaled flowers with large brown corollas backlit by the sun.
Ox-eyes on the fishing trail

We went camping at Yellow River State Forest in northeastern Iowa’s river bluff country. There was hardly anyone there when we arrived Friday afternoon, except for the camouflage-clad fishermen squatting in our reserved campsite. I don’t blame them; it was a nice shady spot under some big maple trees to set up camp on a hot afternoon. The nearby fishing trail led down to a sunny, florid opening on Big Paint Creek. We expected more weekend arrivals but they never came. We almost had the campground to ourselves.

Northeastern Iowa is hillier, rockier, and more heavily forested than the rest of the state. Lore loved the change in scenery. “This is so different from Iowa!” she exclaimed. “This is Iowa,” I said.

Carved wood scene from the Passion titled Jesus Meets Women.
Jesus Meets Women in Saint Boniface Church

We stopped in New Vienna on the way north. Lore noticed it as a “point of interest” on the map. There’s a big (for a little town in Iowa) basilica, Saint Boniface Catholic Church. More impressive than its limestone exterior was its interior with ornate woodwork and stained-glass windows. The carved-wood scenes of The Passion decorating the walls had amusingly succinct titles like “Jesus Meets Women” and “Jesus Gets Nailed”.

Shiny round saw blade in a sawmill.
Saw blade in the state forest sawmill

Near the campground was the park headquarters and sawmill. The state runs an active forestry program at Yellow River and apparently has its own sawmill. It was after hours and the sawyers were off-duty but there was a big round saw blade and some logs waiting to be sawed up into lumber on Monday.

A car and tent in a park campsite.
Our campsite

Lore and I were both annoyed that this was our first camping trip in two years (since our honeymoon in Hawaii). We’re out of practice so it took us a while to get ready, even though camping with the car means we can just throw stuff in the trunk and not worry about packing. We still forgot a couple of things, like instant oatmeal for a hot breakfast. Despite the early sun shining on our picnic table, Saturday started out a little brisk—the kind of chilly morning I associate with back-to-school time.

The sun shines through a spider web across a forest trail.
We found a spider web across the forest trail

We spent our day on a leisurely 6.5 mile hike in the hills and along Paint Creek. Forest trails can be lacking in nice views but they force you to look at the smaller stuff like spiderwebs, mushrooms, and frogs. Like the campground, the trails were pleasant and well-maintained. The state forest has a few backcountry campsites that we checked out for future reference. We broke for a snack near an old metal fire tower which we weren’t allowed to climb. Many of the trails are well-used equestrian trails that are not too messy except for right near the equestrian campgrounds, which were much busier than ours.

Two riders hitching their horses to a post in a forest campground.
Riders hitching their horses to a post in the equestrian campground

The day wasn’t all bluebirds and trail mix: I got caught in some stinging nettles. Not being a frequenter of forest trails, I am not very familiar with them (John showed them to me once in New Jersey). I had the good sense to back out when I realized what I was into so I didn’t get stung too bad but, man, they were painful.

A young green frog sticks its head out of muddy water.
One of the frogs we found in a puddle on the trail

The skies clouded up after we got back to the campsite and the biting gnats came out swinging. I wonder where they were on Friday night. One bugger gave me a welt about 50 times its own size. It was still quiet though; so quiet I hated to do anything like go to the toilet or cook a meal.

A courthouse and water tower on a hill overlook a small town main street.
Bridge Street in Elkader

We’re both out of hiking shape, so even Saturday’s moderate hike wore us out. Since we don’t have a yard at home, we took our time cleaning and drying the tent Sunday morning and, after a brief stops in the picturesque towns of McGregor and Elkader, we made it home for showers and naps.

I posted a full gallery of photos on August 28.

Around river bluff country

Paris to home

Charles de Gaulle Airport: I really dislike it. This time our gate was in a pod-shaped annex that resembled a flying saucer. The wasted space below the walkway collected garbage like a little gutter. Looking down through the puny round windows showed us only the pavement outside. Disgusting. Concrete must have been cheap and glass must have been expensive when the airport was built. Every time I walk through there all I think is “Ugh.” What a terrible last thing to see of Europe. I’ll just close my eyes and dream of Parthenon.

A male flight attendant on the plane to Chicago had “Stuart Hess” embroidered on his apron. We debated whether it was his real name or not.

Versailles and Chartres

We rode a train out of Paris to Versailles, one of the great monuments to excess, on a beautiful fall day. Trees here in northern France are in full fall color.

Gilding and stone sculptures adorn the exterior of a baroque palace.
One beautiful corner is a mere fragment of the majestic palace complex.

Saturday visitors swarmed Versailles. It is an intimidating and beautiful complex. I imagined myself as an American commissioner, arriving from the distant colonial world during our Revolution to negotiate with this great and ancient empire. I doubt if any buildings in the new United States were as large as even one wing of one of Versailles’ palaces.

Gilded sculptures of female figures support crystal candelabra.
We could use a few of these around the apartment.

As a museum, Versailles had an appropriately baroque bureaucracy. We visited two information desks, bought tickets at an automated kiosk, and bothered a couple of docents before we finally found our way to the royal quarters in the Grand Apartments.

Spacious as they were, the Grand Apartments weren’t designed to circulate such crowds, so we shuffled from room to room, each one as ridiculously lavish as the last. Our own apartment building could fit in the king’s bedchamber. Nothing in or out of the palace was under-decorated with gold or marble or crystal or mirrors. I could see why the French had their Revolution when they did.

Precisely manicured trees and white marble sculptures line the approach to a grand canal.
The afternoon light, the colors of the leaves, the white sculptures, and the blue water all came together for a stunning view of the Grand Canal.
Late afternoon sun and shadows fall on autumn leaf litter in an alley of trees.
An alley of plane trees glowed like gold in the fall afternoon.

The grounds were even more impressive with their fall ochers under the blue sky. The crowd had a chance to spread out along the long canal and in the maze of gardens. We rented an oar boat for a short and erratic row on the Grand Canal before heading into a cafe for lunch.

The cafe on the grounds of the Louvre was the opposite of everything I thought French food ways stood for. We were herded into a high-density factory feed lot and served swill at inflated prices.

A man rows a boat on a garden canal.
I took Lore for a row on Louis XIV’s personal pond, symbolically pissing all over royal privilege in the name of democracy.

The whole Versailles experience struck me as very funny. Louis XIV would have been appalled. The place was never intended for “the people” and there we all were trampling through his bed chamber, wandering in his garden, and paddling across his pond. Even more obscene than the sight of an unshaven American dipping rented oars in the regal waters was the temporary art exhibit of plastic anime-style cartoon sculptures displayed throughout the palace and gardens. The tacky sculptures were even more alien at Versailles than I.M. Pei’s pyramid at the Louvre. I think this reflects a healthy sense of irony in the French. It’s a suitably republican way of saying “This is ours” to the monarchy they left behind over 200 years ago.

A baroque palace behind squared hedges and gardens.
Another head-exploding view of the garden and palace at Versailles.

From Versailles we took the train a little further into the French Republic to Chartres. Lore and I can’t pronounce the town’s name correctly; nobody understood where we wanted to go until we finally pointed to the name in our Lonely Planet guidebook. “Ah, Shar-TRUH,” a man said before we nearly got on the wrong train.

Two dissimilar spires of a massive Gothic cathedral pierce the late afternoon sky.
I nearly jumped for joy when I first saw the cathedral.
Rows of wooden chairs in the dark nave of a Gothic medieval cathedral.
The parishioners cleared out after Mass, leaving behind empty chairs.

We arrived in Shar-TRUH late in the afternoon, as the sun was about to set. The monstrous cathedral greeted us with bells calling the start of Mass. Scaffolding and safety netting covered the famous eastern facade and signs prohibited photos during Mass. I was afraid I wouldn’t get any good photos, but as before it was an opportunity to look around without filtering the sights through my camera lens.

Detail of figures carved in stone on a choir screen of a medieval cathedral.
My camera flash revealed a small patch of the otherwise dark but expansive choir screen.

Chartres Cathedral is massive, spacious, and dark. The interior is pretty simple except for the stone-carved choir screen and of course the towering stained glass windows which glowed coolly in the late afternoon sun. I walked around the outside which though dingy and in need of a scrubbing, had plenty to keep me occupied. When Mass finished I had a chance to take some photos inside. The sun had set and the light was gone from the stained glass so many of my photos didn’t turn out very well. It doesn’t matter. I’ve always wanted to see this cathedral.

Columns of a stone archway carved in twists.
The twisted columns on the south facade looked like they were actually wrought by some powerful machine.

Back in Paris we had another un-French meal, but this one was better: chicken in a Cuban-style restaurant in Bastille. We are tired and ready to go home, and to sleep in our own bed. Daylight saving time ends here tonight, so we get an extra hour of sleep before tomorrow’s early start for Charles de Gaulle.

Everything we’ve seen on this trip, like Versailles, Chartres, the Temple of Olympian Zeus—even the Parthenon, which strove for balance and proportion—has been beyond the human scale, monumental and overwhelming.

Louvre

We had a good flight back to Paris but it took us a while to get out of the airport. The ground transport from Charles de Gaulle is not as seamless as it is in Athens; that’s maybe one thing Paris can learn from its older, less refined sister city. We even had a broken train, but eventually we checked in to our hotel and headed out to the Louvre Museum.

A Renaissance style palace seen through a steel and glass pyramid.
Lore and I debated the merits of the pyramid.

Lore really likes the Louvre’s glass pyramid. It is pretty cool but looks out of place amid the Renaissance architecture of the palace. Lore pointed out that the Louvre is a pretty impressive building and something similar but of lesser caliber would have been even more out of place.

A crowd of museum visitors look at a painting.
Which is the spectacle, the crowd or the painting?

So we saw La Gioconda, a.k.a. the Mona Lisa. As I’ve said to pretty much anyone who would listen after my last trip: elbowing through a crowd to squint at it from 20 feet away is no way to enjoy this fine little portrait. On our way to it, we made sure to admire some of the other Italian Renaissance paintings in the same wing. A lot of people just blow right past these to get to the most famous painting on Earth, but the Louvre is just full of them, each one a treasure of Western civilization.

A turquoise figure in Egyptian royal dress.
Our photos of the Renaissance paintings didn’t come out very well but this little Egyption fellow did.

What’s really amazing is that this is just one museum’s worth of little treasures. I noticed the Italian painters were very ethnocentric. They managed to make Biblical characters, even Jesus, all look like Florentine burghers. We went up the Northern Renaissance galleries so I could show Lore what I liked about Flemish paintings. I get a little bored of Italian Renaissance renditions of Bible stories. Flemish artists painted more everyday stuff and images from nature.

We had dinner in Bastille again: this time my meal was duck, apples, and chevre. My head nearly exploded from the sensory overload of the evening.

Santorini

Our plane landed on Santorini Island (or Thira, as the Greeks call it) at night and it was too dark to have an impression of it. We do have a nice room for a great price in the middle of Fira, the main village.

Our day was off to a disappointing start, meaning rain and heavy winds. Looking for breakfast as the rain came harder, we ducked into an over-decorated and over-priced cafe with an underwhelming menu to be waited on by a brusque waitress. The Greeks have a direct manner that treads a fine line between endearing sincerity and snotty rudeness. I think they are also not morning people.

Pastel colored colored garments hang over the patio of a stucco house.
Even the laundry was colorful.

The streets of Fira are a maze of narrow but colorful pedestrian alleys that wind up and down the hilltop. Our wandering took us up to a place exhibiting reproductions of wall art from Ancient Akrotiri, an important Minoan-era  archeological site on the island.

What a view was revealed as we followed a street along the ridge that looked out over the town! We could see the circle of islands that were the volcano’s caldera. Painted stucco buildings cascaded down the hillside. The hilltop villages form a white rind on the scrubby brown island surrounded by blue, blue Mediterranean water.

A Mediterranean island village of white buildings perched on a hilltop over brown sea cliffs.
We didn’t know this was the view we came for until we saw it.

Our walk took us up to the adjacent village, Firostefani, where we had a lunch of Greek salads overlooking the caldera. Once back in Fira, we stopped at the Orthodox Cathedral and the Catholic Church before taking a cable car down to Fira Skala, the port at the bottom of the cliff.

The cables and towers of a cable car descend down a steep cliff to the sea.
We rode the cable car down and up the cliff again, to the chagrin of a local mule packer.

The cable car ride took about 5 minutes and we were the only passengers. The cliffs are more colorful up close; red, white, and chocolate brown rock layers with some dusty green plants. Fira Skala was quiet. The few shops were closed though ready for business when the cruise ships call. A man offered us a mule ride up the cliff steps back to Fira. We didn’t want to ride the mules and he got annoyed and a little too aggressive. “Why?” he asked, as if we owed him an explanation. The cable car is probably ruining his livelihood.

After we got back to the top we got on the bus to Oia (pronounced EE-a), another hilltop village on the north end of the island best known for its gleaming white church and sunsets over the Mediterranean. The bus was crowded and one of the passengers opened the emergency overhead hatch for ventilation. The driver and the conductor got really upset about that because the hatch nearly blew off on a winding mountain road. We had to pull over so they could secure it. “Malaka,” the driver kept saying.

Two conical white windmills with sails like bicycle spokes.
These are famous windmills; the sails are like bicycle spokes.

Oia was really windy—strong winds that we had to lean into to move forward—and dusty. The wind blows dust right into your eyes.  I was shaking it out of my hair later in the hotel. Actually it was more like coarse sand than dust.

Oia was also amazingly beautiful. The sunset observation area at the north point (it was too overcast to see the sunset) also looked over Ammadou, another cute little village with windmills on the cove below.

We got back to Fira for a late dinner. I had a yummy lamb gyro. There is a thunderstorm tonight. Will it bring sunny weather behind it?

Ancient Athens

Marble seats and risers of an ancient amphitheater.
People sat in these seats over two thousand years ago.

We headed up to the Acropolis today, starting at the bottom of the hill with the Theater of Dionysos. Restoration work everywhere in the Acropolis makes it looks as much like a construction site as a tourist attraction. They’ll probably be restoring it for decades if not centuries.

It’s hard to get an overall picture of the Acropolis without a map or a guide, but we didn’t really need one or want one to admire the marble ruins. There were some waysides with decent illustrations.

Hundreds of people gather on the steps of an ancient Greek ruin.
We encountered multinational crowds on the steps of the Propylaia.

At the top of the hill it got crowded. The steps of the Propylaia, the gate to the hilltop, was crammed with polyglot visitors. The cruise ships brought their passengers up hundreds at a time. There were lots of Americans, French, and Spanish; even some Argentinians. It reminded me of the South Rim of the Grand Canyon.

Then I finally saw the Parthenon! All architects should be forced to stare at the Parthenon until they develop good taste. I wish it wasn’t so crowded. What is it like during the busy season?

Tourists wander among massive marble ruins.
The Parthenon and Erechtheion stood their ground but the hilltop was trampled.
Stacks of scrolled capitals with a Greek flag in the background.
Everywhere pieces of the Acropolis were stacked up as if in a super classy flea market.

The Parthenon is massive but we tried to pay attention to the details. What was so amazing about this building, I realized, was not just the Parthenon itself but what was scattered around the entire site: Acropolis chunks. Ancient columns and pedestals and capitols stacked up like warehoused merchandise to be used later in the restoration. A close look at a random capital on the capital pile reveals beautiful and precise hand-carved decorations. There is not just one of these little masterpieces, but hundreds of them.

Stone foundations and parts of columns describe the sites of ancient buildings.
We enjoyed walking the more serene grounds of the Ancient Agora.

The Ancient Agora, below the Acropolis was much more tranquil. It was park-like and quiet, better organized and less chaotic. The grounds aren’t trampled to death and there are actual blades of grass. Much of the Acropolis crowds didn’t venture down there, or at least the herds of cruise ship passengers didn’t.

Marble frieze carvings depicting wind gods on an octagonal tower.
The Tower of the Winds stuck out as weirdly Roman even though it was.

Then we went to the Roman Agora, amid the maze of streets in Plaka. I thought it was interesting that though it was Roman they still built in the Greek style with no arches.

We took lunch on a quiet, sunny street in Plaka: lamb and potatoes and Greek salad. The meat was very tender and tasty, cooked simply with lemon, oregano, and olive oil. We’ve been lazy about learning Greek pleasantries; everybody in central Athens speaks English. Even traffic signs are in English. Sometimes I feel like I’m in a Greek neighborhood of a big American city.

Marble column sections rest like a stack of fallen poker chips.
A windstorm blew down this column not so long ago.

We wrapped up the day at the Temple of Olympian Zeus. What little was left was even bigger than the Parthenon, built to the mind-blowing scale of the gods. One fallen column looked like a giant stack of poker chips someone knocked over.

Yesterday I didn’t think Athens had any charm but after our tour and our pleasant lunch this fine day, I think it does. The weather was sunny and pleasant, almost perfect, though a little muggy in the morning after last night’s rain. Athens is somewhat ragged and without the elegance of Paris (it’s not even close), but its roughness matches the partially restored remains of its ancient civilization.

Two European capitals

Charles De Gaulle Airport is the ugliest thing I’ve seen so far in Paris. It’s concrete and steel and has ceilings made from some weird plaster covered with mesh netting. It looks like it was designed in the 1960s and is way too small for the amount of traffic it has. We can’t hear the announcements, and there are delays. There was a flight to Nantes before ours that took an hour to board. I doubt it takes an hour to fly to Nantes from here.

But the flight to Athens was on a nice, wide A320 with plenty of baggage space and leg room. The seats are smaller, perhaps because Europeans aren’t as fat as Americans on average, but it worked for us. Air France’s food was quite good.

The Athens International Airport is much nicer than de Gaulle. Metro workers are on strike, so there is no train from the airport, but the city is providing plenty of buses. We are staying in the Koukaki neighborhood, about a 15 minute walk to the Acropolis.

An ancient Greek temple in lights glows against the night sky.
Seeing the Parthenon up there at night made us anxious to visit the next morning.

There are a lot of tourists here even though this is the end of the busy season, including lots of Americans and even some Argentinians. The weather is in the 60s, making a great night for walking around. The Acropolis is lit up from its dark perch on a bluff overlooking the city. All the Greeks here speak English. The city of Athens seems to be lacking in charm except for the stunning ancient ruins sprinkled here and there.

A city plaza at night with ancient buildings lit up on the hill above.
We came upon this lively square below the Acropolis.

We wandered around Plaka, the old neighborhood of central Athens looking for a good place to eat, and found one. I had a very good moussaka, which is like a ground beef, mashed potato, and eggplant layer cake. Our waiter looked at Lore’s unfinished plate of stuffed bell pepper and said, “What?” We assured him it was very good as well. At the next table, amid the several tables of tourists, were some unhurried old Greek men chatting and occasionally bursting into song.

Eiffel Tower

We had a good flight to Paris. Everything was exactly on time with a take-off and a landing so smooth we barely felt them. We did a passable job of transporting ourselves around the city.

A tower casts a long shadow over a large city.
The Eiffel Tower casts a long shadow over Paris.

We needed a nap at the hotel, so we got to our first order of business in the very late afternoon. The Eiffel Tower was crowded and had long lines. It was also very cold and windy. We got to the second level for sunset and to the top as the city lights blinked on in the dusk. The passengers who crammed into the lift car to the top rode in total silence. We heard only the clanking of the lift car cable. Perhaps we were all in awe of the legendary city dropping from the copper-colored steel beams.

When we descended the steps to leave the tower, we were greeted by the legion of immigrants who sell cheap tower souvenirs on the plaza; five for €1, which they could say in many tourist languages. They displayed their wares on cloth blankets with straps, and simply scooped them up in one move as they scattered at the sign of the police, who passed by often.

A man in front of the Eiffel Tower lit in gold at night.
The obligatory Eiffel Tower photo.

By the time we got down it was night and the tower was lit in gold. For a few minutes at 8 o’clock the tower sparkled with thousands of bright white lights like camera flashes. It was literally and figuratively brilliant, as if the tower was taking pictures of us taking pictures of it. An amusing bit of playful mockery, I thought, probably dreamed up by some Paris intellectual to make a statement about spectacle-gawking.

We wrapped up the night with crepes and coffee in Bastille. My crepe had Roquefort cheese and walnuts. The flavor was unbelievable. We didn’t see any strikes or protests, though there were some disruptions to train service. I did see more nudity in five minutes of late night French television than in my whole life on American television.

Frank Lloyd Wright

We visited Frank Lloyd Wright’s home and studio in Oak Park this morning. Lore is a big fan and I’ve always had a casual interest in his work.

The interior is a bit dark in places, as there is not a lot of direct sunlight, but it also has a warm, soft, greenness. There were lots of surprising views from one room to a next, as if no room was really separate. You could tell he was a bit persnickety about the design of his home. He paid a lot of attention to detail and designed his own furniture. He even paneled over a couple of windows to block the view of a house next door which he detested.

Because I couldn’t take pictures indoors, and because the midday sun was too bright, and because I can’t operate a camera very well, this building is ill-served by these photos.

Chicago, part two

A rust-colored bridge crosses a green river among skyscrapers.
Our water taxi ride was fun, like a ride through an urban canyon.

We started our second day of exploration with a water taxi ride up the green Chicago River up to the Sears Tower, now known as Willis. The view from the 103rd floor was a bit hazy and the windows were a little dirty but we saw some great sights nonetheless. Against my better judgment, I walked out onto the glass-bottomed ledge for a look straight down.

We spent the afternoon shopping along the “Magnificent Mile” of North Michigan Avenue. We went to a Macy’s—not exactly a quintessential Chicago experience. I think they bought Marshall Field’s a while back because they occupy a couple of Marshall Field’s old buildings.

Irregular stainless steel panels adorn a band shell.
It didn’t take long for us to warm up to Frank Gehry’s band shell.

For the evening, we walked through the Loop and down to Millennium Park, which is more of an architectural and cultural park than a typical city park. Frank Gehry designed the band shell at the outdoor concert pavilion. At first we thought, “oh, another lopsided Gehry building” but we had to admit it was pretty cool after checking it out up close. Gehry also designed the adjacent meandering bridge from which the brilliant skyline can be seen. The most intriguing part of Millennium Park is the Cloud Gate, which I can only describe as a gargantuan stainless steel kidney bean. You can walk under the concave part and look at your many distorted reflections. My camera battery crapped out halfway through our tour of Millennium Park. I’m thankful for that because it reminded me to look at the city around me as it lit up after sunset.

Our dinner at the Green Door Tavern was as good as the half-pound hot dog on my plate was heavy.

Chicago

Chicago is only four hours away and now I’m wondering why we haven’t gone before. We’re staying in the Near North neighborhood at the Ohio House Motel. It looks a little outdated from the outside but it is clean and in a good location for walking or catching a train around the city.

A trapezoidal black skyscraper alongside other skyscrapers and a limestone water tower.
Hancock Center reminds me of Minas Morgul.

Lore is blown away by the variety and quality of Chicago’s architecture. The broad streets and sidewalks, along with the open space along the lakefront make it easier to admire the buildings than in New York, where you really have to look straight up much of the time.

Woman seated on museum steps painted red, yellow, and blue.
Lore is hard to spot but looks right at home on these colorful steps.

Our first order of business was the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA), which had an exhibit of sculptures by Alexander Calder. They didn’t let us take pictures of that exhibit but we saw many of his delicately balanced mobiles. There were some other exhibits, but not many, including works by sculptors influenced by Calder.

A stegosaurus skeleton displayed in front of a painted mural of the same.
I liked how the museum incorporated old murals into the contemporary displays of the fossils.

In the afternoon we took a train (underground, not elevated) to the Field Museum of Natural History for my dinosaur fix. I love dinosaurs and always have ever since I was a kid. The dinosaurs are among the many fossils in the Evolving Planet exhibit. I suppose we could have skipped the exhibits on cyanobacteria and synapsids but I happen to like learning about evolution. Some of the videos weren’t working, which is one of the pitfalls of high-tech multimedia museum displays. The exhibit’s emphasis on biodiversity and extinction ended with a rather simple but stunning mosaic of our planet’s many beautiful life forms.

We walked from the Museum Campus back to the Near North for a dinner of deep dish stuffed pizza from Giordano’s. It was good, not great, pizza—a little lacking in garlic and onion for my tastes—but the crust was really soft and delicious. Our small pie was still massive and probably good for about four meals.

Mobile

My assignment as a public information officer to the oil spill was my first return to the Gulf Coast in four years. After a week staying in Covington, Louisiana I transferred over to Mobile, Alabama, where I stayed for two weeks. I had been there a couple of times when I lived in Mississippi, but didn’t explore the city much.

Mobile is a smaller, less demented version of New Orleans. It has the same kind of French colonial buildings, a scattering of anachronistic modern high-rises, and you can see Mardi Gras beads hanging from the live oaks along Government Street. I stayed at a downtown hotel delightfully named for Admiral Raphael Semmes. Semmes is just obscure enough outside of Mobile to make it fun to know who he was.

The hotel was a better location when the Area Command was at the downtown convention center. But it moved to suburban office building so I had a little bit of a commute. Several people on the oil spill response stayed there but not many. The hotel was a little old and broken down. Still, it was a good location; I could go walking when I had time, though usually not because I worked long hours.

On my one R&R day it was very convenient, however. I confined my strolls to the Lower Dauphin Area (LoDa as the downtown association pretentiously calls it), in between naps and lounging at the hotel pool. I acquired a copy of “Never Cry Wolf” by Farley Mowatt from a used book store, and I read it until it was time for an evening film (“City Island”) at a little art-house theater. In other words, downtown Mobile is a very good place for taking it easy.

While in Mobile I made a little routine–and there wasn’t much routine on this assignment–of taking dinner at the hotel restaurant. The restaurant was never busy and was very quiet so I took my time to read and write. The restaurant had excellent shrimp po’ boys and crab cakes. As with the steamy weather, I about had my fill of fried seafood after three weeks on the Gulf (though it was good).

Parade of historic homes

Peeling painted flower decorations on a wooden cabinet.
The fact that the paint was peeling made this cabinet even more interesting.
We enjoyed our afternoon of looking inside other people’s homes. The Friends of Historic Preservation held their annual “Parade of Historic Homes” today. There were about six homes on display. Most of them were American foursquare, a style I’ve been mistaking as large bungalows. There are a lot of them around here.

These homes are historic in the sense that they are old and restored. Two of the homes are in the Woodlawn neighborhood, a 19th century suburb along a private drive overlooking the Old Capitol. One elaborately decorated Queen Anne house was famous for having a couple of lions in captivity for a while. It was a nice opportunity to visit this private area and to go inside a couple of the buildings.

On display more than the local history was the astronomical taste and matching budgets of the homeowners. There was a lot of cool antique wooden furniture. I guess a house is only as awesome as its furniture, otherwise it’s just a big fancy ape habitat.

Iowa City

A child's yellow chalk drawing on pavement depicts a shark eating a boat.
Shark eats boat
The weather is getting better and though it was a little cool and cloudy today, Lore and I took some photos for houses for her to draw. Yet the most memorable sight on our walk was a child’s chalk-on-pavement rendition of “Jaws”.

You can see that Iowa City has some nice houses. You can also see that as I get older I have more and more trouble keeping the camera level. Everything tilts a little to my right.

As always, if you want to help with the architectural description, please leave comments.

Córdoba in photos

Asado

This afternoon was for more asado at Lore’s family’s house. Miguel and Chucha fired up the asador to cook up some matambre (from the flank of the cow), chorizo (beef sausage), and cabrito (a baby goat). We also had pata (a cow leg) left over from last weekend’s party.

The garage at this home doubles as a patio. Where I grew up, garages aren’t for cars, they are for storing the accumulated crap of American suburban life. There is absolutely nothing in this garage when a car isn’t in it. The rear opens up into the backyard, which is enclosed by a wall. Argentinians seem to like ceramic tiles on the ground, floors, sidewalks, and sometimes even instead of grass. The floor of this garage is therefore very clean and suitable for tables, chairs, and eating outside in warm weather.

This of course was another opportunity for our families to socialize. I think politeness, hospitality, and generosity go a long way toward making these occasions go well. I also realize now that Lore is a very good interpreter. I know it is hard because I occasionally had to interpret when she was not available. There are few good grounds rules for these situations:

  1. Get the people being interpreted to be succinct and to then be patient.
  2. Avoid relaying jokes unless they are really funny.
  3. Don’t translate idioms literally.

An illustration of the third rule: Lore’s parents gave my parents a DVD about Córdoba’s history. My mom said, and I translated word for word, “Thank you. I can’t wait to watch it!” Lore’s sister unwrapped it and went to put it into the DVD player. We had to explain that my mom meant she was looking forward to watching it later.