I’ve been updating everyone about China news for the past few entries, trying to make up for the unreported happenings during the Fall semester. Now it’s time to start with more current events.
The most recent stories take place in America, where I’ve been enjoying some Mother-Daughter time with my mom in Illinois. Spring Festival, what we in America call Chinese New Year, is approaching and for my vacation time, I usually spend it in the States. Last year at this time, my father was struggling through his last few weeks before finally leaving this world on Feb. 6. It is a powerful, strong memory for all of us but one which I am so grateful to have had since I was already in my hometown for my Chinese holidays.
This year, my 1-month stay has been all about enjoying myself.
I celebrated my birthday with my brother and mom on January 12, re-united with our Chinese earthquake & street rescue canine, Xiao Lao-lao (Little Old-old), enjoyed singing with the choir at my hometown church, finished my winter newsletter (big accomplishment, with tons of volunteer help from office manager Kelley and congregation member Bev), managed 3 nostalgic swims at my alma mater’s Eastern Illinois University’s Ray Padovan Pool (my 4-year hang-out while on the university swimming team), published a few China articles in my hometown paper and, the ultimate biggie, a 6-day trip to Chicago.
Bargain Rates in The Windy City
Last summer, you’ll see posted on my website the adventures of me and my mom in the big city. It had been many, many years since we’d been there together, which made it all the more interesting to see all the changes. At the height of tourist season, affordable hotel options were a limited to settling for merely adequate accommodations. We stayed 3 nights only at The Congress (not all that great) for $450 total.
This time around, with off-season prices low enough for us to upgrade several levels, we had so many choices it was hard to make a decision. After checking city locations and figuring out what we’d like to do, we settled upon a boutique hotel (those are the smaller, upscale, refurbished hotels) which we’d never considered before.
Chicago Monaco was formerly a hat factory in 1912 and converted into the Oxford House Hotel in 1958. It was completely renovated in 1998 by the Kimpton group and was advertised as having coveted window seated rooms that overlooked the river. For me, it received a huge plus when I read that it’s pet friendly, with no extra cost added to the bill for bringing along your furry friend.
And get this! In a 2013 Chicago Travel article, reporter Megy Karydes adds this bit to her very favorable hotel review: “Or, ask for some Guppy Love. The Guppy Love Program offers travelers in need of a little extra comfort on the road a live goldfish to stay overnight in their room. Hotel staff will deliver the fishy friend to the guest’s room and handle daily feedings and care, allowing travelers to enjoy stress-free bonding.”
What a cool place to stay!
Plus at $90 a night (down from $130-250), the Monaco seemed a super bargain, with the theater district 10- minutes’ walk away, the Chicago Art Institute 15-minutes’ walk, and our absolute favorite Marshall Fields Department Store (now Macy’s) and Filene’s Bargain Basement (now TJ Max) only 5- minutes from our hotel’s front door.
Several other affordable boutique hotels were offered on the Net but we eventually chose The Monaco. And what a good choice we made! Excellent service, comfy rooms, good location . . . . Just a real treat to stay at for 4 nights.
A Visit to the Chicago Art Institute
Our first full-day stop had us at the Art Institute of Chicago. Prices for entry, which doesn’t include special exhibitions, were listed as follows: General Admission ($25), Senior Citizens ($19), Chicago Residents ($20), Illinois Residents ($22) and Students ($19, $14 and $16). Young people 14 and under are free, which allows plenty of elementary school and junior high classes to enter for field trips, bringing their lunches to eat in the cafeteria on the ground floor. (My mother did this when she was in junior high, she later told me, which would have been in the 1940’s.) Free passes are also given to educators. This includes teachers K-12, teaching artists working in schools and parents who homeschool their kids. (Such educator free vouchers must be applied for online for approval, however, and can’t just be picked up at the door without going through the online process.) The museum’s Fast Pass is a bit pricier at $35 but that includes quick entry and an entire viewing of all visiting exhibits.
My mom and I were ready to pay for our General Admission pass when the ticket cashier told us that, from Jan. 4 – Feb. 11, Illinois residents were free! After showing our driver’s licenses, off we went without paying a cent.
For $2.00, we checked our coats so we didn’t have to drag them all over the museum, picked up a brochure and followed the floor plan map for hitting the master artists we most admired: Seurat, Monet, Renoir, Degas, Cassat, Sergent, Picasso, the Chagall Windows, Grant Wood’s “American Gothic,” Edward Hopper’s “Nighthawks” and the Thorne Miniature rooms.
We have our favorites in this museum, which we hadn’t visited in perhaps 20 years, so making good use of our time we deemed absolutely necessary. There is just too much to see in one day so best to prioritize what to see first, we figured.
In between our artistic meanderings, we did stop briefly for lunch. We scouted out the museum’s 3 differently priced offerings for food (cafeteria self-serve, café and nice sit-down) and wound up in the cafeteria for a scrumptious meal. We had rich, creamy tomato soup and shared a variety of salads mixture. Best $30 we’ve spent on a meal for a long time.
The photos below show you what the museum has to offer. Recognize any famous masters? The Chicago Art Institute is known for having more premier painters, sculptors and world-renowned works of art than any other museum in the world.
The Field’s Museum of Natural History: Malvina Hoffman’s “Races of Mankind”
Day 2 had us at the Field Museum of Natural History. The Basic Pass was $22 for me, $19 for my mom (Senior). Unfortunately, no discount for Illinois residents and no free day but we didn’t mind due to the reason we were there.
Our main purpose was to see Malvina Hoffman’s “Races of Mankind,” a truly spectacular bronze sculpture exhibit which was commissioned in 1929 by Marshall Field himself. Hoffman was a New York sculptor who had studied with Rodin and was quite adept at taking on the job bestowed upon her.
This next bit I took from a New York Times article concerning the exhibits return:
“For this particular undertaking, Hoffman traveled the world looking for models with her husband, Samuel Grimson, who took thousands of photographs and made film clips of potential subjects.”
“The ‘Races’ exhibit, which opened in 1933, included both simple busts and elaborate life-size pieces showing people shooting arrows, climbing trees or posing with spears. In the center stood “Unity of Man,” showing noble figures representing what were believed to be the world’s three main racial groups shouldering the globe equally. But its overall thrust — driven home by diagrams showing different nose types and the like — was unmistakable: The world’s peoples could be arranged in a hierarchy, from the primitive to the most civilized.”
While an acceptable concept in the 1930s, this idea of “hierarchy” didn’t sit well coming into the 1960s and was considered flagrantly racist, as well as degrading to those of other cultures and nationalities. Hoffman’s bronzes were taken off exhibit in 1969 and stored away until just recently, when 50 of the original 104 were resurrected and restored to their former glory.
Now considered more as art than for portraying races accurately, they are being appreciated for their “incredible beauty of diversity” of the world’s people as seen through the eye of a very talented artist.
After seeing the bronzes, we made our way through the many other exhibits but certainly weren’t able to see everything. The new Egyptian wing might have been our favorite. It included a real Egyptian tomb, hieroglyphics and all, which had been brought from Egypt in 1911 and assembled to allow visitors a fascinating walk-through of an authentic tomb. The lower level included numerous mummies and explanations of embalming for the afterlife.
“Traveling the Pacific” was yet another astounding view of life among the natives of New Guinea during the turn of the centuray and other Pacific Island nations. An authentic Maori Meeting Hall, of the Maori tribal people in New Zealand, had been reassembled and placed at the end of this exhibit. It was probably my favorite because visitors were invited to remove their shoes, step inside, sit on the wooden benches and learn about the many purposes such a Meeting Hall was used for by the Maori people.
Other Activities We Enjoyed: The Theater
Aside from the two museums, we slipped in two theatrical performances in the evenings. Same day tickets at The Ford Oriental Theater for $25 orchestra seats had us enjoying the Broadway hit “Beautiful: The Carole King Musical.”
Half price tickets at The Goodman (a bit more avant- garde in performance productions) gave us a somber, sometimes humorous, look at South American women prisoners in “Another Word for Beauty” by playwright Jose Rivera. The story was inspired by a true event, a beauty pageant which takes place every year in an all-women’s prison, El Buen Pastor Bogota, located in Colombia. The inmates select women from each cell block to participate in the pageant, which includes categories of evening gown, Q & A, and talent before the visiting judges choose a winner.
What I appreciated most from seeing this particular performance was being enlightened to the plight of women in South America. These poor women of all ages, baring their struggles and hardships in a male-dominated society where women are often abused and marginalized, deeply impacted all of us as audience members. This was not your typical “feel good” musical. There was a lot to think about and mull over after that performance.
Shopping on the Magnificent Mile
Naturally, shopping topped the list for at least one day. I hit 80% off sales in Macy’s (formerly Marshall Fields), TJ Max and Burlington in both downtown locations, and later we hit Watertower Place, the more upscale area along what is known as Chicago’s Magnificent Mile, a mile-long avenue of shop after shop.
And a Splurge at Marshall Field’s Walnut Room
Good food was in abundance. Although we mostly hit the delis and department store basement eateries, we did have one lovely sit-down meal in The Walnut Room, which was a nostalgic trip back in time for both my mom and me. My mom and her mother dined there during their special Chicago trips, and so it is for me and my mom, whenever we land in Chicago as well. (No photos available because my camera’s batteries went dead on me.)
The Walnut Room, in the former Marshall Field’s Department store, is located on the 7th floor and first opened in 1907. This is a restaurant completely enclosed in beautiful walnut paneling, including a flowing fountain in the outer room. At the turn of the century, it catered to shoppers of all classes and, on certain days, had specials for those whose budgets demanded more careful attention.
The restaurant’s claim to fame is the hearty chicken pot pie, with huge hunks of chicken and vegies floundering in a creamy gravy, all enclosed in a flakey crust. There is also the half-a-head of lettuce salad, layered with sliced turkey, rye bread at the base and then the entire thing completely doused in thousand island dressing. (That was my grandmother’s favorite when she visited Chicago.)
For our splurge, my mom and I chose the grilled chicken breast with seasoned green beans and lovely roasted potatoes. It was served very hot, something that doesn’t happen often now-a-days at restaurants.
Our only disappointment was not being served Marshall Field’s famous Frango Mints after our meal ended. For years, this infamous chocolate mint was always bestowed for free upon each restaurant patron before the bill was paid. Each piece came on a pretty little doily, as I remember it, and was a complimentary completion to a lovely meal.
Not so anymore. You want your Frango Mint, you have to buy it yourself from one of the many chocolate kiosks that can be found throughout the store. 1 box of 4 small mints for $4.00, making that $1.00 a mint.
We were craving our mint so our splurge went a little deeper than just lunch in the Walnut Room. We hightailed it down to basement kiosk where my mom purchased a Frango raspberry chocolate mint box-of-four. After slowly savoring two mints each, that completed not only our trip down memory lane, but our trip to Chicago as well.
We hopped on the Amtrak an hour later and off we went, traveling 3 hours down south to return to smalltown living once again.
All in all, great trip, great company and a great adventure in the Windy City. Can’t wait for the next one!