Chicago, and all that Jazz

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There’s something quite exciting about arriving in a city like Chicago, a city that you’ve never been to before but have heard so much about. We had left Detroit after lunchtime on Saturday and arrived into Chicago around 5:30pm. As we cruised up highway 94 towards the city we crossed the Skyway bridge, passed the Chicago WhiteSox’s stadium and got our first glimpses of the city skyline in the distance, including the impressive Sears Tower, the tallest building in North America. The traffic got progressively worse as we approached the city itself, but thanks to Donna’s excellent navigation skills we soon found highway 290 and veered west towards Janet and Richard’s house.

I first met Janet back in 1998 when we worked together on the AT&T Virtual Classroom Contest, an educational initiative that connected teachers and students from around the world into crosscultural teams whose goal was to collaborate across the Internet to build websites together. The VC experience was very intense, and had a profound effect on my whole approach to education. Janet and I (and a wonderful guy from Japan called Hajime) mentored our team into third place – quite an achievement really. The next year, Janet and I (and another Japanese teacher named Mariko) again worked together with our students to create a global collaboration and this time we were rewarded with an overall first place, something that I know we are still very proud of. In the course of this program, Janet and I exchanged literally hundreds and hundreds of emails and spent many hours using ICQ to chat, share ideas and plan together. We finally got to meet each other in Hong Kong as part of our prize for winning the contest that year, although when we parted ways at HK airport I suspect neither of us really expected that we would ever meet in person again. However, when the teaching exchange really started to take shape I contacted Janet and we made plans to get together for dinner at her home just outside Chicago. So you see, it really is a very small world.

Janet and Richard were wonderful guests. We got to have dinner together on both Saturday and Sunday nights, and spent a lovely couple of evenings talking and eating. Richard’s culinary skills were fabulous, and he really spoilt us with a lamb dinner one night and the world’s biggest ham the next. It’s a nice feeling to be able to go to the other side of the world and have people there you can call your friends.

Janet’s home was not really set up for overnight visitors, so she had arranged for us to stay with a colleague of hers, Harla. Harla’s daughter Katy was one of the students from the winning Virtual Classroom team so we had met her in Hong Kong. Harla and her husband Jim very kindly offered us a place to stay at their home in beautiful Oak Park. Great people, so friendly and inviting, and we really appreciated their hospitality. I absolutely fell I love with their home! It had so much character and charm… I felt very privileged to have been able to stay with them for a couple of nights. For all the cynicism and negativity that exists in the world, it’s nice to know that there are still wonderful people like Janet and Richard and Harla and Jim. Thanks guys, we really appreciated your generosity during our time in Chicago!

On Easter Sunday we planned to enjoy a day in downtown Chicago, but first we attended a church service at St Giles Catholic Church in Oak Park. A wonderful old church, filled with people it was standing room only, but with great atmosphere. Oak Park is a beautiful village town, filled with tree-lined avenues and charming homes. The famous American architect Frank Lloyd Wright grew up in Oak Park, as did the writer Ernest Hemingway. I would have liked more time to look around Oak Park, it was a very interesting place.

However, it was off to the city of Chicago where we parked the car and headed off on foot. It’s a lively bustling city although, being Easter, many of the shops were closed. We had lunch in a very nice little Italian deli, then walked along “The Magnificent Mile” of Michigan Avenue. Donna found a place that did tours of the city in an open-top double-decker bus just like those in London, so we joined a tour – not cheap but a great way to see the place. The rest of the day was chock-full of interesting things – a trip up the Sears Tower, a walk around Millennium Park to see Cloud Gate (otherwise known as “The Bean”), a visit to Navy Pier, and a bunch of other things… it was a busy day! The weather eventually turned nasty and it poured with rain, but that didn’t dampen our enthusiasm at all.

Chicago is certainly a city that respects and honours architecture. It was wonderful to see the work of people like Frank Lloyd Wright and Mies Van Der Rohe in person. These are names that I have only read about in books, and to come face to face with great architecture was quite inspiring. One can’t help but feel that architecture in Chicago is more than just making buildings, it is the art of designing buildings that matter...

It’s a wonderful city and one we are keen to revisit.

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