One of my favorite things about traveling to places I’ve been to before is no experience is exactly the same. A few years ago, I spent a week in Chicago while my boyfriend was working there for a film project. I loved my time in The Windy City and this round I was excited at the thought of going back with a new set of eyes: the friends, acquaintances, and strangers I was going to meet during my 48 hours in town. Plus, this time I had the honor of staying with the one and only Brigitte Lyons, her husband, Lucas, and their two cats.
Without further ado, I’d like to introduce you to some of Chicago’s finest!
Up, Up, and Away:
What better way to start off the trip to Chi-town than with an official Chicago tour guide? Fortunately for me, Margaret Hicks, founder of Chicago walking tour company Chicago Elevated, took a break to chat about her favorite biggest small town.
With Margaret’s extensive knowledge of the city, it should come as no surprise she would choose a hidden gem to meet up at: The Cultural Center. The space was built after the Fire of 1871 when Queen Victoria sent 8,000 books but we didn’t have a space for them, so Chicago had to build one. Totally free (including the WiFi), the space is a perfect example that in Chicago you can find peace and quiet.
Naturally one of my first questions for Margaret was: How does one go about starting their own Walking Tour company? Her solution came from experience (she volunteered for Chicago Architecture Foundation for four years) and necessity. I finally made it happen after I lost job as a legal secretary for a Real Estate Development Company. I was the worst legal secretary ever!
It turns out a background as a Second City Improviser and writer proved helpful as well. That go-with-the-flow mentality is a must, since as she meets all kinds of people on her tours; like the mom who brought her seven-year-old on the Red Light Tour or the homeless guy who tried to take over as tour guide. It’s never the same tour twice. Ever.
It’s impossible not to be excited about Chicago in the presence of Margaret. Her pride in the city is palpable as she declares: Chicago keeps moving forward without getting the accolades it should. It doesn’t care about the praise even though it’s doing the work. It doesn’t give up ever. I take a lot of inspiration from the city.
As a woman who trusted her gut and started a business in the city she loves, I take a lot of inspiration from Margaret.
A Serious Case of The Funnies:
I have to confess, I really really wanted to interview a current member of Second City. The list of SNL alumni who had their start on the Second City stage is staggering. On a whim I reached out to friend of a friend, Michael Lehrer who agreed to a coffee date in between rehearsal and the evenings performances.
In addition to being an actor with Second City for the past five years, Michael is a former ultrasound model. Yep, you read that correctly. I can’t make this stuff up.
Hailing from Flushing, Queens, Michael says he stumbled into the improv world. I saw a few Second City shows since my brother lived out here and I knew immediately that I wanted to do this. Seven years later, the performers are now my directors.
And Michael has plenty of positive things to say about the Windy City itself: Chicago is great because it’s not impossible to afford to live here but it has everything you could want– culturally and more. A lot gets exported from here to NYC, like productions from the Steppenwolf Theater Company, for example.
Living in NYC, I have to admit that I’m often curious to hear what former New Yorkers (and performers in particular) have to say about comparing life in both places. Michael’s take was intriguing: Here you don’t have to be afraid to fail and experiment- that’s why there are so many great small theaters. People never use words like “networking” here- it’s so grounded and real, which inspires me and my work.
There’s that word again- inspiration. And after talking to Michael, I was even more inspired to see a show at Second Stage that night.
I’m happy to report that Michael and his fellow cast mates of Sky’s The Limit were hilarious.
Isn’t She Lovely?:
Lest you think the entire purpose of my visit was to stalk improvisers, the next morning’s interview was with popular designer blogger, mom, and Roller Derby skater, Nicole Balch of Making It Lovely.
Over some delicious breakfast burritos at Buzz Café (with our server wearing a fun homemade birthday hat), we chatted about life in the Chicago suburban area of Oak Park, a place Nicole is more than happy to call home. I’m really proud that Oak Park is really diverse- Racially, economically, and politically. And it’s really artsy, which of course I love.
That passion for all things creative fueled Nicole’s first artistic love affair: a stationary shop. In fact, she says she started the blog to build a community for the shop.
So how does one go from a blog for her customers to full-fledged design blogger? When I got started, very few other people were writing original content in the design community. Thanks largely to some good press, my blog got some attention and I haven’t really looked back since.
It was about this point in the conversation where I just had to ask about her pastime of being on an all-female roller derby team for the past year. (I mean, come on! How awesome is that?) Her answer, like most of her responses, was more than modest: Well, just to be clear, it’s called Derby Lite, meaning it’s not nearly as intense as what the women do in the movie “Whip It.” We’re mostly all moms… I’m not in any immediate danger.
Ok, so maybe there’s not many broken bones or bloody noses, but they do get dressed up in fun and eccentric clothes for practice. I don’t usually wear my roller derby outfit out in the real world. But one time I did and a mom and daughter asked me where to get fishnet tights. So I suppose you never know.
Naturally, I begged Nicole to let me watch her post-breakfast roller derby practice. And to her credit, she said yes! Perhaps I have her local upbringing to thank for the opportunity: Chicago is down to Earth. People here are good people. I guess because we’re mid-westerners.
And thanks to Nicole for being such a good sport, both on and off the rink!
Walking the Talk:
After getting fired up watching roller derby practice, it was time for some serious site-seeing. The always brilliant Brigitte pointed out that the Frank Lloyd Wright walking tour was nearby, so off we went.
First, I should back up here and say that I only met Brigitte last spring, and yet it feels like we have been friends for years. She has endless energy and enthusiasm for life which is evident in her writing and in person. Plus, she’s an all around awesome hostess. (Her husband is pretty darn terrific as well).
Ok, back to the interview…. In between listening to the self-guided audio tour, I asked Brigitte to share her thoughts on the city she clearly loved so much and she happily obliged: I feel like a total cornball for saying this, but Chicago is a near-perfect city. We have some of the best and most diverse food in the world, public transit, theater, music, the lake. The only downside is the location. The Midwest is large and sprawling, so it’s not easy to completely change your scenery in a day.
Since Brigitte and Lucas are moving to Sacramento at the beginning of 2012 for Lucas’ work, I wondered how difficult it is for them to say goodbye to a place they love so much. Ever the optimist, Brigitte is taking it all in stride. For years, Lucus and I have talked about moving. We planned vacations that let us scope out other cities (San Francisco, Austin), but somehow no other place felt right or there were significant challenges to moving (London, Cusco). In a way, I’m grateful that his job is moving us, and we have no choice as to location. We want the adventure and the change in perspective that will come with it, but Chicago is such an amazing place that it’s hard to leave just for the sake of it.
Yes, Chicago is an amazing place, but I have no doubt Brigitte will fit in wherever she calls home.
Hooray for Handstands:
Rob Modzelewski and I met at a conference last spring, kept in touch via social media, and share a passion for travel (though he has about a bazillion more frequent flyer miles than I do). We got to catch up at Soupbox near Michigan Avenue.
While many people claim they want to become entrepreneurs, Rob clarifies he’s working towards being a serial entrepreneur. I want to make things that provide value to the world and continue to do so again and again.
According to Rob, these creations don’t all have to be massive undertakings. There are so many little things you can do to help people right now.
It’s that same can-do attitude that Rob uses to describe Chicago in general. It’s a World-class city but with a Midwestern feeling and a focus on practicality that I like.
But don’t think Rob is all work and no play. In fact, he is a self-described handstand enthusiast. Of course, I tried to change the subject when he asked me about my acrobatic skills (or severe lack thereof). But Rob insisted he could teach anyone to do a handstand, so naturally it followed suit that post-soup slurp, we’d head to some empty concrete and I would learn from the master.
There is video of this endeavor. Albeit extremely shaky video because our lovely videographer (ahem Brigitte) was laughing so hard at my attempts that she couldn’t hold the camera steady for longer than two seconds.
We’ll just leave it at that.
An Artist’s Way:
I may not be good at handstands, but I’m excellent at drinking coffee with new-found friends. Thus, I was thrilled for my final Face to Place interview of the weekend with Pet Portrait Painter extraordinaire, Adriana Willsie at her local hangout, Filter.
When Adriana was fired out of the blue last year from her job at a non-profit organization, she knew it was time to re-think her career path. Her college degree from Princeton in Cognitive Psychology and Spanish and her subsequent certification from Cordon Bleu weren’t proving tremendously helpful either.
That’s when having a life coach for a best friend came in handy. She gave me a stern talking to and I realized I wanted to try selling my paintings, and I put up a website a week later. (For the record, said life coach is our mutual friend, Kylie Springman, and she’s really really awesome.)
It turns out, Kylie isn’t the only person we have to thank for Adriana’s creative contributions to the world. I started painting because my boyfriend purchased me a paint set because he thought I was a painter because I had done a bit of drawing in the past and I didn’t want to disappoint him. In December of 2008 he asked me to paint a portrait of him in the style of Van Gogh. I sat down to paint and didn’t get up for nine hours. That’s when I knew I had found a creative outlet I could pursue further.
Combing her love of painting with her love of animals, Adriana began specializing in painting pet portraits, and business has been booming ever since. Further proof that doing what we love isn’t a pipe dream after all.
I was super lucky because Adriana even gave me a painting lesson in her own kitchen! We painted a portrait of my pup, Kenya, drank some pumpkin ales, and talked about how much living in Chicago has taught her about resilience. My proudest Chicago moment was during Snowmaggedon last year. Everyone had a right to be upset. But people were the friendliest they’ve ever been. When times get hard, the people of Chicago really do come together.
Talking with Adriana, I was immediately struck by how well she’s able to tie in so many seemingly incongruous passions into a life that suits her well. Even her description of Chicago connects to another concept- her former culinary background. I’d describe Chicago as being Tender Crisp: a term to describe vegetables that are tender and biteable but still have body to them.
Well, I’d describe Adriana as being delightful, and I’m so grateful she took the time to tell her story.
After my weekend in Chicago, I’ve reached the conclusion this city like is the Little Engine That Could. The people, architecture, culture, and energy leave little doubt this place is second to no city.
(For more photos of my trip to Chicago please take a meander over to my Flickr page. )