New Challenges and Opportunities

Now that I’ve returned home from my year in the UK, I’m faced with different kinds of challenges. For instance, paying off all those amazing weekend trips around the UK and Europe! Job hunting is never something one looks forward to doing. But I am grateful that I’ve found two temporary part-time positions that will keep me occupied into the new year.

So, my new life back home in Chicago-land is slightly less stimulating than my year abroad, but there are still things to boast about. Like cheering for Chicago’s soccer team (many of you didn’t even know Chicago has a soccer team, right?), attending ‘Open House Chicago‘ at historic sites across the city, and getting my own personal tour through the Sears/Willis Tower (it will always be the Sears Tower to me!). Even in the most familiar of places, there are always new things to discover!

The ‘Firehouse’ cheering section at a Chicago Fire game. Notice the Chicago skyline in the background.

The view from the rarely-open 24th floor office of the Tribune Tower.

View towards Lake Michigan from the Sears Tower.

Klas, reportedly the oldest Czechoslovakian restaurant in the US. Yum!


Happy New Year from Leicester!

Hello All,

After a surprise visit home and a week-long trip to Ireland, I have made it back safe and sound to Leicester, ready to start classes tomorrow. It’s been a fun few weeks, but will get very busy from here on!

Just before the break I had gone on another hike in Leicestershire, but winter weather has finally hit: average January high is in the mid-40s! Fahrenheit of course, I see no snow in our future. I missed the first snow in Leicester anyway as I was lucky enough to fly standby home on the 17th of December. My parents were there waiting for me at O’Hare! While I only stayed 10 days, it was truly refreshing to see friends and family, my home and my dog.

But alas, on the 27th I picked up and headed back to the UK, luckier yet this time to get in on Business class! I’ll avoid bragging here. And 2 days later my friend Erica arrived from Chicago to visit me on vacation! We saw some of Leicester’s sights (contrary to popular belief, there are a few), and spent New Year’s Eve with a few of my friends. Erica was expecting to meet plenty of British people but met only international students instead.

On New Year’s Day we headed for the airport to spend a week in Ireland and Northern Ireland. We spent most of our time in lovely Dublin, with a couple rainy days spent in Belfast, and two tours out into the country and along the Giant’s Causeway (look it up). While I don’t have enough time here to talk about everything we saw in Ireland, it was enjoyable to travel with a friend (and conveniently a good way to get over jet-lag). Since I got back to Leicester on the 7th of January I have been getting ready for my next essay, and my next trip. Don’t sound so surprised!

The complimentary pint at the end of the brewery tour!

More Chicago History: Clarke & Glessner Houses

Since I’m delving more and more into Chicago history these days, I thought I would comment on my most recent visit to two historic house museums in Chicago, the Clarke House, and Glessner House.

I took a 2 hour tour, one hour for each house. The Clarke house is said to be the oldest remaining intact structure in Chicago, long before the Chicago Fire of 1871, and even built one year before the incorporation of the City of Chicago in 1837. Although it’s no longer at its original location, the house is now part of the Prairie Avenue historic district, and stands as a monument of the fastest growing city in the nation.

Clarke House

Our extremely knowledgable tour guide went on to say that Clarke had brought his family from New York to Chicago in 1835 hoping to make his fortune. He built his mansion in the “country” south of Chicago on speculation of his coming fortune, but the Panic of 1837 soon hit, many banks failed, and Clarke’s finances never recovered. Our guide painted a mental picture of Clarke using his estate property to grow crops and animals, and hanging meat from ceiling hooks in his parlor, anything to make ends meet.

The Glessner mansion just around the corner, was designed by Henry H. Richardson, a genius architect who inspired our favorite Louis Sullivan, and whose picture still hangs proudly in the mansion’s hall. While the neighborhood residents thought his Romanesque revival building was an eyesore, and looked like a fort or prison block.

Glessner House

In fact George Pullman (of the Pullman train cars, who also lived on the block) was quoted saying “I don’t know what I have ever done to have that thing staring me in the face every time I go out my door.” However, another comment our guide shared followed that “if the Glessner house is a prison, I would like to be incarcerated here.”

Glessner was a partner in a farm machinery manufacturing firm, and after moving to Chicago, joined with others to form the giant corporation International Harvester, which is how he is connected with the McCormick family. The mansion is very Victorian and well decorated, but unlike the McCormick mansion in Winfield, also feels very livable. One other feature it shares with the McCormick mansion is a 24k gold leaf ceiling, in the dining room of the house. But like McCormick’s ceiling, the gold peeled away over time and was later replaced with gold wallpaper to achieve the same look.

CouchSurfing’s Greatest Show on Earth!

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Hey CouchSurfers, have you ever considered running away with the circus?
The Circus Open House is a one night event where you can have the opportunity to try your hand at circus skills like trapeze and juggling!
Circus performers will be volunteering their time to teach you a little of what they do.
You can learn ground skills including juggling, poi and two person stunts, or try out aerials like trapeze, hoop, and silks.
Come out and give it a try!

Rick Steves, Iran, and the Travel Expo!

Rick Steves talks about these Irishmen in his presentation on 'Travel As A Political Act'.

On Sunday, January 30th I attended The Travel and Adventure Expo at the Rosemont Convention Center in Chicago, which was exciting but not necessarily geared towards someone without a couple thousand dollars set away for their next vacation. My main motivation is going was to see one of my travel heroes, Rick Steves, as he gave a presentation on relating to his latest book, “Travel as a Political Act”.

As a first impression, Steves’ talk was filled with the kind of fun anecdotes that many have come to expect from his guidebooks and his TV series. A favorite was his interaction with two old Irishmen he met. The exchange went something like this:

Rick: Were you born here?

Irishman: Well, uh, about 5 miles down the road actually.

Rick: Well, have you lived here all your life?

Irishman: No, not yet…

Steves used other amusing or surprising anecdotes about life in foreign countries to impress upon his audience the point of his book; that the best souvenir we can bring home from our travels is a broader world perspective. In fact, I am surprised to admit that his worldviews are far more liberal than I imagined them to be, including his views on legalizing marijuana. But more importantly Steves used the premise of broadening our perspectives to introduce one of his more recent projects, a TV episode and booklet on Iran.

In typically candid fashion Steves stated he thought it was important to know more about people we are going to bomb, so that we feel bad when they die. Well, yes, I suppose so Rick. I probably would not have said it that way, but his intention was to humanize a people and a nation that the media has largely demonized, and that remains dangerously mysterious to the average American. And yet to do it through the same lens as every other Rick Steves TV series and guidebook, through art, culture, history and just simply talking with people.

After I returned home I watched the Iran video online, and read through the free booklet he had handed out after his presentation. It felt like an eye-opening experience, even though I’ve done my own reading on the country and had an Iranian friend in college. I suppose whenever a foreign country seems a lot more like home than you expected it to be, it’s striking. And then with my new revelation I turned to tell my mother what I’d learned and she promptly told me she hoped I’d never go to such a backward place. Waa waa.

Some other photos from the Expo:

Camel rides are what tourists really want.

See what it's like to scuba dive in the middle of a convention hall!

Mexican Dancing and and some beautiful dresses.

The Most Awesome CS Events

Rachel Smith might have not become so hooked on CouchSurfing if her first experience hadn’t been a really magnetic event.

“What catapulted me into the CS community was a Chicago museum day with travelers and other locals like me. That led me to becoming more involved, and finally to volunteering for CS.”

What are her favorite CS events to this day? Below, she lists her top 5, and tells us what was so awesome about each one of them.

My top 5 CS events (in no special order):

1. Cookie Party

The most creative and indulgent CS event I’ve ever been to was a holiday cookie party. At a CouchSurfer’s apartment, we made and shared Christmas cookies. I brought my own recipe — special apple spice! Later, we played some intense rounds of Wii bowling. What a night!

2. Circus Open House

Since circus arts are both a hobby and a part-time job, I decided to host an open house to teach these skills to CouchSurfers. My talented friends volunteered to help for an evening, and everyone had fun juggling, swinging on the trapeze, and hanging upside-down in the air. Lesson learned: CouchSurfers are willing to try anything!

CouchSurfer hangs upside down at Rachel’s Circus Open House
3. Museum Day and Picnic

The first event I ever attended was a Chicago museum trip. We visited the Museum of Science and Industry and had a picnic by the lake. The adventurous ones even went swimming, but a violent storm caught us by surprise and forced us to take shelter in a local bar where we waited out the storm over a few pitchers of beer.

Tea drinkers inside Special Edna

A great day in Chicago – Rachel Smith is the smiley girl in red.

4.  St Louis City Museum

Visiting the City Museum was part of the St Louis Couch Crash, but it was by far the best part of it. The museum is like a giant playground for grown-ups and kids alike, made out of reclaimed building materials from the city. The best way to get to know a group of CouchSurfers is to do an activity with them, and we had fun climbing through caves and airplanes and going down the stories-high slide.

5. Chicago Couch Crash

With all the creative minds in this city, the Chicago Couch Crash turned out quite spectacular. There were visits to the museum, comedy shows, a fire performance on the beach, an arena concert, a board game night for those who didn’t wish to party, and a huge bonfire barbecue for those who did. Chicago has more to offer than I imagined, and I grew up here!

Chicago History!

McCormick Museum

I’ve started volunteering at the Robert R. McCormick Museum this summer as a way to get some experience in museums. Since I wanted to work in museums, I figured this was a good way to get my feet wet!

The museum lies in the middle of McCormick’s large estate, which is now Cantigny Park in Wheaton, IL. The museum is the home of Colonel McCormick, who was best known for being chief editor of the Chicago Tribune during the first half of the 20th century. It was an era when the news was more about personality than objectivity.

So, I volunteer as a tour guide leading groups on a half hour tour of the first floor of the house. I talk about the Colonel and his two wives, about the rooms, the artifacts, and the history of the family. Knowing all this Chicago history makes me love the city even more. For instance, the Colonel’s grandfather Joseph Medill started working at the Tribune when it was only a small paper. He championed the creation of the Republican Party, and helped get Abraham Lincoln elected president. He later became the mayor of Chicago after the Fire of 1871 and penned the famous editorial “Chicago Shall Rise Again!” Cool stuff, right?

Reflecting Pool on the South Lawn