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Published: October 4th 2010
The Green Man
Autumn Equinox at the Botanic Gardens
Sometimes, the unexpected things in life turn out to be the best ones, especially when travelling. Chicago is a prime example of that philosophy. It is mid-September, and I have surrendered to Great God Amtrak by submitting to going north to Chicago before I can go back south to Albuquerque. That however doesn’t mean that I’m particularly excited about my next stop. I have no expectations whatsoever about Chicago - just another big American city, right? - nor do I know anyone there. Two nights max, and I’ll be out of here again.
But then, one evening, while still in Washington D.C., somebody pops into my head during my evening meditation. Mary-Lisa Gauldin. Of course! Doesn’t she live in Chicago?! Mary-Lisa, like me, is a Priestess of Avalon. We started our Priestess training together exactly ten years ago in Glastonbury. Now this
changes everything. I track her down on Facebook, and not only does she still live in Chicago, she also has plenty of time during the week in which I’ll be there. I extend my stay to five days and hop on the overnight Amtrak train from Washington D.C. to Chicago, Illinois.
During this journey, I get to
sample Amtrak’s ‘roomettes’, the sleeping compartment I have booked for my trip for an additional fee of $279. This decision, I soon discover, carries perks. As a sleeping car passenger, I have access to the elegant First Class lounge and free refreshments, which is rather nice. But when we board and I am shown to my ‘room’, I take a step back. This is it?!
‘My God, it’s tiny!’ I exclaim. My ‘roomette’ is the size of a medium-sized wardrobe, or a large coffin. It’s basically comprised of two seats that stand closely opposite each other, and at night, they push together to make a bed. The elderly Canadian gentleman in front of me, who has observed my reaction, smiles. ‘Oh, for one person it’s not too bad. They’re designed for two!’ I look up to the ceiling and discover a pull-down berth. Hmmmm. Ok. My suitcase doesn’t fit into the compartment with me, so I drag it back to the luggage racks. I can now see why Americans don’t like to share these ‘rooms’ with strangers - the seats are so close together that my knees would be touching those of the person opposite me. And I don’t
even want to think about the claustrophobia of two people sleeping together in here. The person in the top berth must really be feeling as though s/he’s in a coffin.
However, the service on the Amtrak is pretty good. The sleeper ticket includes complimentary meals and drinks, free mineral water, coffee and newspapers. At night, an attendant comes to my roomette to make my bed with proper linen. The car has clean bathrooms and two showers, too. Surprisingly, even the food is good, and always includes a vegetarian option. There’s community seating in the dining car, which means that I get to meet some interesting people - many of which don’t like flying. I have breakfast with one couple from New Jersey who is crossing the entire US by train to San Diego, and lo and behold, they actually shared a berth last night in the roomette. ‘You must really be in love’ I say. ‘We slept head to foot’, they laugh. ‘But I think tonight we’ll be using two beds.’
The 18-hour journey itself is a pleasant experience, though I hardly sleep. Train tracks here are more bumpy than most: apparently they’re owned by freight train companies
Isn't this sweet?
(who always come first) and Amtrak only rents from them. The roomettes also have little privacy, as only a glass door separates your bed from the corridor. But it’s okay - it beats spending the night in a seat.
I arrive in Chicago bleary-eyed, but excited. On the train, we pass Lake Michigan and see the famous Chicago Skyline. At Union Station, which is almost as grand as the one in Washington D.C., I take a cab to Act 1, the downtown acting company where Mary-Lisa works. I am quietly amazed in the back seat of the car. The buildings in Chicago are HUGE. Seemingly infinite skyscrapers tower over me like a huge forest made from shiny glass, metal and stone. It’s totally surreal, and apart from New York, I’ve never seen anything like it. I didn’t think that I would like it but actually, I’m impressed.
After a joyful reunion cup of tea with Mary-Lisa in her office, I venture outward to get some lunch. I crane my head all the time to gaze up at the buildings, many of which are architectural gems. I like Chicago immediately: it has a great, vibrant and friendly vibe.
At Lake Michigan
The lovely Mary-Lisa and I
When Mary-Lisa finishes work, she drives me to my new abode. I’ve struck it lucky in Chicago. Layne, my Air B&B hostess, is a professional artist who lives in a stunning loft apartment in what’s known as the Ukrainian village. Her place is gorgeous, with fire places and art all over the place. Layne has renovated the building, which she owns, over the past ten years. Her equally spacious studio, in which she paints every day, is upstairs from the living space. She’s welcoming and interesting, and her apartment is a sanctuary. I have a small, cosy bedroom off the main living area. And as a nice synchronicity, considering I’ve just come off a cargo ship, she’s currently painting oceans and we share an interest in Ernest Shackleton, the Arctic explorer.
I really like the Ukrainian village. It’s just like in a movie. When I walk down the road, Hispanic boys with dreamy black puppy eyes smile shyly at me. Puerto Rican women with children sit on their door steps. There are Laundromats, rodeo horses outside shops, and quirky signs everywhere. A little further on, on Division Street, are many little boutiques, yoga studios, artisan bakeries and restaurants. That
evening, I have my introduction to what is to become a vegan food marathon: Mana. It’s a small vegetarian restaurant that serves the most delicious and inventive vegan food. Quinoa, seaweed, tofu, black beans, raw vegetables: it’s all there. And the service is fantastic: when one of the salads is too spicy for me, they simply don’t charge me for it.
The next day I venture out to Mary-Lisa’s place. She lives in North Chicago near Lake Michigan. First I take a bus downtown, and am already entertained beyond my wildest expectations by the time I sit down. A middle-aged lady, obviously not from Chicago, enters the bus behind me and purchases a ticket. As she goes to sit down, the young-ish bus driver calls after her: ‘YO!’
I half-expect him to add ‘Ma Bitch!’ The woman turns around. ‘Yo Ma’am! It’s two dollars twenny-five!’ he raps from behind the stirring wheel. The bedazzled woman pays the missing quarter and sits down again. On the seat next to me, a woman recites Hispanic prayers to a Saint called Horacio. I am in bliss.
I know. When I travel, I am just like a little child. I get excited
about everything. Reading mere traffic signs or vanity car registration plates that spell ‘Honey Bee’ can send me off onto a spiral of ecstatic pleasure. I love watching the people and their interactions and all the things that are so different in every place. Here, in Chicago, it’s in particular the L line (the Chicago version of the London Underground) that amuses me no end. Between every station, a happy male voice dispenses invaluable advice about travelling on CTA vehicles. ‘Soliciting and gambling’ it warns, ‘are not permitted on CTA vehicles’. Aha, I think. In further announcements, passengers are advised to keep their cell phones off, to neither eat nor drink, and to refrain from being a nuisance. Every station has a different message, and I listen to all of them with great reverence.
And then there are the accents. I’ve often said it, but I could marry a man just for his accent. In theory at least. In ML’s hood, we walk into her local gym to renew her membership. The trainer with the shaved head is as tall as he is wide and has biceps as burly as tree trunks. Yet, when he speaks, my nonchalance turns
One night at the Alliance Bakery in the Ukrainian village.
into acute excitement. Out of his mouth comes a Brooklyn-Italian-Chicago-gangster type accent that’s sort of comparable with Robert de Niro in The Godfather - only better. I am smitten.
While he talks to Mary-Lisa, I stare at the guy’s mouth like a hypnotized rabbit. ‘Please, Mary-Lisa, make him talk more!’ I implore her silently. ‘Membership’ and ‘working out’ - these mere words turn into holy phrases in my ears. I repeat them silently and joyously in my mind so that they may be engraved there for all eternity. Finally he turns to me to ask if I wouldn’t like to join his gym.
‘What about you?’ he drawls.
‘Where is your accent from?’ I blurt out, ignoring his question, still unable to take my eyes off him.
‘Oh, Brazil, I used to live there’, he smiles.
Well, it doesn’t sound Brazilian to me, but I’d join his gym anytime simply to hear him speak. I drive Mary-Lisa to despair over the next four days with my requests to return to the gym so that I can record the guy’s voice. Yes, I’m easily amused....
I didn’t think I’d have so much fun here. In
America, it’s so easy to kid yourself that you’re not actually abroad. Heck, we’re in the West, people speak the same language as us, the shops are the same. But actually there are many subtle and sometimes not so subtle cultural differences I pick up on all the time. For example, Americans use different words (trash can instead of dustbin, restroom for toilet, gas for petrol etc.), have a different tipping system, and overall, also live in a quite different way to Europeans. But America is growing on me. On the one side you have the stereotypical images, which certainly aren’t too far-fetched: the incredible obesity of some citizens I encounter on the streets, the overt Christianity, the super-sized cars, humongous meal portions and the enormously wasteful packaging. Everything is so much larger than it is in Europe.
Yet, on the other side, you have the friendliness and openness of the Americans. Most of the people I meet are so nice and helpful, and also have a directness that I, as a German-Italian, really appreciate. Americans are very clear about what they mean and want and possess a communication style which is often in stark contrast with England, where
I’ve lived for almost twenty years. It’s refreshing, and I love it. Most days, I am engrossed in interesting conversations with complete strangers.
Another thing that surprises me is how accommodating America is towards vegans, at least in the cities I have visited so far. There are many good and inventive vegan restaurants, and even in ‘normal’ carnivorous restaurants, vegans are generally well catered for. When you think about how much we in England are obsessed with animal welfare (or shall I rephrase that to pets?), then our choice of vegetarian (let alone vegan) restaurants is pretty poor. To find these amazing vegan food places and markets here has been a totally unexpected revelation and I commend the citizens of the United States of America highly for their initiative on that.
But back to Chicago. On Monday we go Vintage shopping on Milwaukee Avenue, and I pick up some great clothes, whereas ML finds a luscious red velvet meditation chair. Later on, we sample more vegan food at Loving Hut with Karen, one of Mary-Lisa’s friends. This place is really the most amazing of all. Sometimes I get the idea that if people really knew just how delicious
and nutritious vegan food can be, they wouldn’t eat meat anymore.
We also go on an ‘Architectural Cruise’ on Chicago River, to look at all the tall buildings. Chicago River runs right through town and a cruise is an awesome way to really see the city. Apparently, the word ‘skyscraper’ originated in Chicago when the first one was built here in 1885. We pass Sears Tower, the tallest building in the U.S., and, amazingly, one skyscraper that has a statue of Diana, Roman Goddess of the Hunt, on top of it. I’d seen her before and wondered at first whether she was an angel, but soon see that she is holding her bow and arrow. Another skyscraper has a golden statue of Ceres, Roman Goddess of Abundance, on its roof. Mary-Lisa and I smile at each other. It seems apt and reminds us of our Goddess-focused Priestess years.
The buildings really are amazing. Some of them are art deco masterpieces, probably built to outdo each other. I’m not sure if I’d like to live in one, but to look at they are splendid, especially for a forest and mountain girl like me. My favourite is the Aqua building,
an 86-story residential, postmodern skyscraper. It was designed by Jeanne Gang and team, and, at 262m, is the tallest building in the world to have a woman as a lead architect (funny that we still need to mention that...). It’s very unusual, and features balconies that look like waves.
On Wednesday, my last day in Chicago, it’s the Autumn Equinox. Mary-Lisa and I venture North to Chicago’s Botanic Gardens to celebrate the balance of night and day, as well as the upcoming Full Moon. The Gardens are set in a wonderful wide open space, in the midst of which sits a large sparkling lake. We marvel at the trees, plants and ready-to-harvest kale and pumpkins. It’s a perfect autumn day, sunny and warm, but with a crispness in the air. We do a small equinox ritual beneath a tree by the lake in which we connect with the land, and mark the importance of the dark as well as the light.
It’s a great opportunity for me to ground. I’ve been more or less constantly on the road (and on sea) since May and am looking forward to be stationary for the next nine months in New Mexico.
The Goddess Ceres...
... blessing Chicago with her abundance
As I say so, I dig my hands into the soft earth, as if to draw the grounding strength of the tree’s roots into my body. It’s only a small ritual, but it feels really lovely to celebrate it with my Priestess sister and thus keep also my connection with Avalon alive.
Afterwards, we visit the rose gardens and spend some time smelling the many beautiful flowers. It’s an explosion of white, red, yellow, orange - very lush. When we’re about to leave, a large Indian family approaches. I can tell they’re Indian before we even see them by their cries of delight at the roses. I give them a big smile. Why can’t more people get so excited by the simple (and yet magnificent) things in life?
After some more vegan food and a visit to Mary-Lisa’s friend Sarrah, who introduces me to the enchantment of crystal fireplaces, it’s time for me to leave Chicago. I’ve had an awesome time here, mainly due to Mary-Lisa’s and Layne’s hospitality. Thank you both, and to Great God Amtrak for unexpectedly sending me here! ***PLEASE SEE THE FOLLOWING PAGE FOR MORE PHOTOS*** If you visit Chicago, make
sure you visit the Ukrainian village (especially Division Street and Milwaukee Avenue), and the following vegetarian/vegan restaurants:
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