I spoke too soon

Journeys home are always tedious but this one has excelled. We boarded in Chicago slightly ahead of time, with the pilot clearly wanting to get away before the promised thunderstorm. He failed, and we sat in the plane for an hour watching lightning strike all round the airport, and once very close to the aircraft, and then for a further two hours until we were able to pull back from the gate. The flight itself has been uneventful, but we will have missed our connection at Heathrow.

…. As we have. But full marks to Virgin: new tickets for another flight were printed and waiting for us as we got off the plane. Thereafter, no marks at all to Terminal 5. The transit from T3 was by a cramped bus, immigration was not lengthy, but is bizarre: why two passport/ photo checks? Security screening was awful, with long delays waiting for the X-ray scanners, with no apparent reason and certainly no apology. The terminal itself was vastly overcrowded, with most of the space allocated to named-goods stores and the food and drink outlets hidden between advertising hoardings. No tables to eat at or put your drink, inadequate seating at the gate. No easily-accessed free wifi – slow to respond and tedious loginin. This might be Heathrow’s latest and best but is comes last after all the other airport terminals I have flown through in the past few years. And this on a day where nothing particular went wrong in the world – just an ordinary wet Monday lunchtime.

I would not like to end on a negative note when we have just had the most wonderful holiday.  We had new and interesting experiences on every day of the trip and so many things will stick in our minds.  These include the Florida coast, longhorn cattle, Dealey Plaza in Dallas, the fiesta and riverwalk in San Antonio, the Galveston Ferry, houses on stilts along the gulf coast, the Mississippi at Natchez, some great TexMex food, alligators and – more especially – the bird life in the Louisiana swamps,  Ole Miss in Oxford, Memphis and Jackson (we could have stayed days more), St Louis Union Station son et lumiere, Chicago architecture, Eudora Welty, Larry McMurtry, William Faulkner, Ida B Wells, The Blue Man Group, Medgar Evers, lots of meals, even the slow train to Chicago.

All these and we didn’t even go to Graceland, or on a Mississippi steamboat, or to an opera or a concert, or out onto Lake Michigan, or into Kansas or Oklahoma (and only very briefly into Arkansas).  So much left to see and do another time!



The end is nigh

The weather in Chicago today is hot and sticky, with occasional light showers. After checking out we took an architectural boat trip on the Chicago river. It was fantastic: our volunteer guide spoke passionately and knowledgeably about the various buildings which you can see from the river, from the original Wrigley and Tribune buildings to the latest Donald Trump piece of (very tall) vulgarity. The tours are run by the Chicago Architectural Foundation and the guide announced that she was a volunteer and as such would not accept tips. You don’t hear that very often!

Everything we saw today reinforced our desire to return to Chicago. We did not attend an opera, go to Symphony Hall, visit the Art Museum or the Contemporary Art Gallery, ride the L to the airport, eat a steak, or take in a serious play. Last time we came it was a bit cold, so eating outside was not an option. This time we probably saw it at its best, although I would be intrigued to experience the extreme cold and see the river freeze.

We took a shuttle bus to the airport and saw solid traffic all the way (many L trains overtook us, going to the same place!). Check in and security were soon passed, so I am typing this in the departure lounge waiting to board. The only glitch was a couple of minutes delay at check-in as they searched unsuccessfully for Gwen’s name, before realising (to Gwen’s great annoyance) that the booking was in my name, so I was the lead name in their database. The clerk apologised to me, not to Gwen.

We will try to sleep on the plane, and hope to arrive home bubbling and alert tomorrow. Bye bye blog-readers.

Chicago, Chicago

Train was indeed the slow way to get to Chicago, but it was comfortable and relaxing. The day’s adrenalin shot was provided by the taxi driver who took us the few blocks to the hotel at breakneck speed. The Silversmith is a boutique hotel excellently situated next to the L (more later) and one block from the Art Museum, two blocks from the park and the lakefront and no blocks at all from lots of eateries.

We managed to cram a lot into our first day here: we breakfasted on porridge, crossed three highways with 4, 6 and 8 lanes respectively to reach the famous Anish Kapoor stainless steel sculpture and the new Frank Gehry auditorium (our third Gehry in a year!). We strolled along the lake front enjoying the inshore breeze, visited the Architecture Institute and then took a light lunch at a really innovative Italian Restaurant yards from our front door. On entry we were given a credit card which you swipe at each counter where you order anything, including at the bar. When you want to leave you simply hand the card to the girl at the checkout desk and pay. No calling for the bill, no hunting for the waiter when you want a coffee, you determine the tempo. I thought it was great, and the food was prepared in front of our eyes.

We then decided to experiment with a new theatre experience. We took the famous “L” (elevated railway) from right outside the hotel door to a suburb called Belmont, to see if would could get tickets for the Blue Man Show. We risked $6 on the train fare to save the $8.75 charge for booking on line, and it worked: They had tickets, so we went for a frozen yoghourt and encountered yet another new experience – self service yoghourt sold by weight. Walking to and from the yoghourt parlour we realised that we were in the heart of the gay quarter, and we even saw male table dancers performing as we passed a bar or two. The area made Manchester’s Canal Street look positively straight.

The Blue Man Show is extraordinary: three blue men who don’t speak for 90 minutes, but who conduct so many visual gags. We wished young Tom could have been with us to see and hear the variety of drumming. Since it is Mother’s Day here, there were many parties of two and three generations so we don’t think we were the oldest there.

We returned to the hotel via a different L line and decided (very untypically) to return to the same Italian restaurant, from which we have just returned having had pizza and wine (Gwen) and pasta and beer (Peter).

Now we are blogging and unwinding with good in-room coffee (a smart capsule machine with both caf and decaf coffee available) and hoping that tomorrow’s weather will permit an architectural boat trip.

Flying home tomorrow and still so much we could do and enjoy.

St Louis blues

What a shame we only booked one night in St Louis. Waking up this morning to a free breakfast (recompense for the internet problems) made a good start. We then strolled downtown, through the remnants of the morning’s “women’s 5k”, to the riverside park and The Arch. When you see pictures of the St Louis Arch, it looks wide, fairly small and solid. It is actually quite narrow at the base, immensely tall (632ft) and hollow with a “tram” running up both sides. There is also (like Stonehenge) a vast underground visitor centre and museum. Of course we went to the top, from which there are wonderful views of the city (one way) and the Mississippi and Illinois (from the other side).

Today is (we learn from the badges many people are wearing) Is St Louis Train Day. This probably accounts for the profusion of model train sets in and around the hotel. I actually found it quite interesting, I am afraid to admit.

After a quick lunch (again, one toasted sandwich and one iced tea between the two of us) we went to the Amtrak station for our train to Chicago. I am writing this in my comfortable seat, with working free wifi (Virgin take note) with plenty of leg room, a buffet car and a friendly ticket collector who scanned our ticket with his hand-held device and then addressed us by our names (Virgin take note again). However our average speed for the trip is scheduled to be about 50 mph, and several miles seem to have been covered at no more than 15, so we shall see how we keep to time (more marks to Virgin on this score).

The train-using public seems to be about 50/50 black and white, but its average age is lower than ours (not difficult, I agree).

St Louis

Today we drove hell for leather out of dry Kentucky, through Illinois to St Louis, Missouri. The drive was fine, without the rain which had been forecast, the car drop-off went smoothly at the airport and then a very friendly welcome woman told us about the Metrolink train from the airport direct to Union Station. This worked fine (and was a lot cheaper than the airport shuttle bus) but dropped us a couple of blocks from the “Union Station Hotel” where we are staying. This proves to be in the old Union Station buildings, which are utterly splendid, but several blocks from the current actual train station from which we leave tomorrow. The hotel, a Doubletree Hilton, is also a bit tired, and has the worst internet connection we have experienced on our whole trip. I am typing this in the corridor, outside our room.

St Louis is not dry, but is hot, so we had a naughty mid-afternoon beer in a bar overlooking what used to be the train tracks. Today it houses the layouts of five local model railway clubs. The nerd level is very high.

Tonight we will try to find a restaurant which serves wine, but despite the apparently touristic location there is a dearth of restaurants within walking distance. But we shall overcome!

And we did, having a good steak in the hotel restaurant, after which we saw the most fantastic sight of the whole trip: The delightfully restored main hall of the station is now the foyer and bar of the hotel. It is vast, with astonishing detail. This evening they premiered a light show projected on to the ceiling and walls. It was spectacular. I have never seen a better son et lumiere, and this was free and we stumbled upon it serendipitously. Hurrah for unplanned holidays!

St Louis appears to be, perhaps because we have used public transport, the blackest city we have visited on this trip, but friendly with it.

Kentucky is dry!

We have just entered Kentucky – another new state – but we may regret it. We have booked into a very cheap lodge in a beautiful State Park but it appears that alcohol is not available, even with meals. Gwen is in particular need, in order to recover from the excitement of seeing our first snake of the trip. In the words of a passing dog-walker it was “only a rat snake” but Gwen does not appear to be convinced that this is a strong recommendation. However there is also a profusion of woodpeckers here, and they don’t seem to mind showing themselves, so our wildlife quotient is quite high.

Tomorrow we drop the car in St Louis and begin the public transport phase, so we have to pack everything away, a discipline I could do without.

… And more Memphis

We could stay here for a long time. The city is so comfortable and easy-going, Today we had five quite different experiences:
We tried to get up late, but only succeeded in reaching the hotel lobby just before the “march of the ducks”. We were persuaded to sit and watch this age-old ceremony (as if we did not see ducks every day at home!) in the company of a couple of American tourists. Meanwhile the hotel has been filling up with the dregs of American society, otherwise known as a Republican National Convention.

Next we went to Memphis Botanic Garden – a delightful spot, although the edge was slightly taken off by the presence of about a thousand school children and major re-construction works. We did however find a perfect light lunch.

Returning to the city we took the best-value trip – a one-dollar ride on the circular tram route. This revealed what seems to be a universal truth: it is a very short distance, in most cities, between the plush areas and the run-down streets. We got off at Beale Street (which manages to be both fashionable and run-down simultaneously) and went to the Museum of Rock ‘N Soul. Again (see yesterday) we were impressed by the quality and presentation in a small museum. A nice feature was that everyone was issued with an audio set, and part of its content was a “juke box” so you could choose to listen to your selection of 1950s records as you went round.

Fifthly, and finally, we treated ourselves to a meal at a restaurant called “Flight”. Everything was available as a flight of three, so we had three wines, three small portions of different salads and three small portions of our main courses. Even so an American “small” defeated both of us and we could not finish!