Three years away from our home country also meant three years away from our families. Turns out they kind of missed us? We figured it was about time we paid a visit. On to Chicago, America’s second city, but first in our hearts (after Seattle).
We arrived in Chicago on the littlest of planes after a quick layover in Toronto, the highlight of our short hop. Billy Bishop Airport sits on a tiny island right in front of the downtown and landing from the east gave us a stellar skyline view. The show was nearly as spectacular landing at Midway. Watching the city rise up all around us was far more thrilling a welcome than touching down at the more modern (but also more mundane) O’Hare.
Our literal first stop was to pick up some KFC, American fast food at its most mediocre. Sadly, despite years of inexplicably craving their mashed potatoes and gravy (every other KFC on Earth serves only fries, not mashies), Danielle was underwhelmed with the reality.
Even though we both grew up in and around Chicago, this was our opportunity to see it through the eyes of a tourist. The Christmas markets in Montréal↗ let us down this year, so we jumped at the chance to see Chicago’s long-running (by American standards↗) Christkindlmarket. Stepping off the train in Ogilvie Transportation Center, our first stop was the year-round but seasonally-festive French Market.
Christkindlmarket occupies Daley Plaza – the one with an untitled sculpture by Picasso known to many as just “The Picasso” – from mid-November to Christmas Eve. It’s a popular attraction for a reason. Many of the vendors come from Germany, bringing authentic sausages and other goodies with them. We slipped inside for mulled wine and a failed attempt to avoid the crowds. Maybe things have died down outside? Nope!
Despite the rush, we were still impressed with the authentic German goods. The prices were higher here, but the quality was in line with any of the markets we saw in Munich↗. Well worth a visit, though we would have preferred a quieter day earlier in the month given the option.
We strayed from the Christmas market to explore the city a bit. Just a few blocks down is Millennium Park. The centerpiece sculpture is known to most Chicagoans simply as The Bean. But getting up close helps reveal the reason for its official name, Cloud Gate. The plaza underneath is taken over by ice skaters throughout the winter.
Due south on Michigan Avenue is the grand Art Institute of Chicago. It houses a truly world-class collection of famous works, including American Gothic and Seurat’s pointillist masterpiece A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte.
The impressionist collection is a main attraction and displays works by Monet and Renoir, and there are several more pieces by Picasso. One of our favorite exhibits was an offbeat collection of miniature dioramas, featuring meticulously downsized architecture and furnishings.
Chicago is a beautiful city, from the air and from the ground. It rarely gets more tranquil than when walking along the river on a cold December night. But we’ll have to come back again to be sure.
Way outside the city, where the Metra line ends just shy of the Wisconsin border, the tallest things around are silos, not skyscrapers. We spent the days leading up to Christmas watching light snows fall on Danielle’s parents’ farm.
Danielle’s mom volunteers at the Historical Society of Walworth and the Big Foot Prairie↗, which runs a research library and local museum. It’s free and had plenty of photos and artifacts that highlight how much this little corner of the world has changed.
On the other side of the family, Kevin’s brothers arranged a day of bowling and laser tag. It was a great way to spend some time with the newest additions, who we could finally meet in person!
In turn we figured, what better way to share our love for castles↗ than to take everyone out to Medieval Times? This brick and concrete castle rules over a small corner of I-90 and Roselle Road, but authenticity isn’t really the point. We remembered it fondly from field trips in elementary school and gladly packed into the tourist trap of an interior.
Medieval Times is about the experience. First servers (“wenches”) dole out hefty servings of food. Part of the gimmick is that there are no utensils; they ate with their hands in medieval times, so you eat with your hands at Medieval Times! Never mind that almost everything on the menu – potatoes, corn, tomato soup, Pepsi – were New World foods that didn’t exist in 11th century Spain.
But that’s just dinner, there’s also the show. Horses are trotted around, a falcon is released to circle above the crowd, and above all, knights face off in contests of skill and daring. Our champion walked the walk and put up a good fight. Actually he seemed to have a shot at winning, until his awful heel-turn in the final act. As soon as he said he would never bow to a woman, we all groaned. Guess we’re the baddies! In spite of his sudden but inevitable betrayal, we had a pretty good time.
It seemed like our time in Illinois flew by. Partly because it did! Seattle↗ beckoned, and we had such a slight window to pull off our (relatively) affordable apartment and flight there that we just couldn’t spend much time here. We celebrated Christmas and rang in the New Year, then moved on.
Seeing our families grow and change in our absence, reconnecting and reminiscing, was fun for sure. But we barely scratched Chicago’s surface. Another time, we’ll give it the time it deserves and really go all out. For now, we go.