We lived in Syracuse, NY for 25 years, and never once in that time did I set foot in NYC, except perhaps at an airport to make a connecting flight (I have a recollection of walking miles through a makeshift maze on the tarmac at JFK).
So. When our kids gave us tickets to the Chicago Symphony Orchestra for Christmas, I was quite excited, but also somewhat frightened and nervous. Chicago is not NYC, but it is a big city.
The day arrived, February 28, and we set out in our car, I clutching a file of information gleaned and printed off the internet: maps, where to park, where to eat, phone numbers, prices, addresses, reservation confirmation numbers, and of course the symphony tickets--which I had an intense fear of losing--securely fastened to the other papers in the file with the biggest, sturdiest paperclip I could find.
Shawn told me in no uncertain terms that I could not wear my new cowboy boots to the Symphony, so I had tried to put together an acceptable outfit from what else I had, ending up with gray and black and white, which turned out to be good.
We drove to Chicago, and the Saturday traffic was blessedly light. By some miracle, we got a reasonably early start, so when we sat at an intersection on Michigan for three or four light cycles, waiting for a jam to break up on the cross road, we could just relax and watch the happenings and not worry about being late to anywhere. One irate lady pulled around in a reckless U-turn and peeled away in the opposite direction, just seconds before the dam of cars gave way and traffic resumed its flow.
We passed our hotel and continued on to the Millenium South underground parking garage where we could leave our car for up to 24 hours, paying half of what it cost to use valet parking at the hotel. What a funny feeling to swerve into the middle of the street and swoop down into a secret parking lot under the city. We parked and then we sat there for awhile in our car together, breathing, feeling the victory of getting this far with no mishaps.
Slightly shaky, I emerged from the vehicle, still grasping my precious file, into which I had now also clipped our parking claim ticket. While Shawn unloaded our two small bags from the trunk, I photographed our car's location with my phone, for future reference. Together, we stuffed the six bottles of water we had brought into the larger of our two bags. And then we were ready to take on Chicago.
Our hotel, the Blackstone Renaissance by Marriott, was quite lovely, although the front desk was not immediately apparent. When we located it, the service was polished and polite, if not warm and friendly. I guess big cities just aren't warm and friendly. We did not pay the $40 upgrade to a room facing out Michigan Avenue over the lake, but accepted the room we got free with Marriott points from previous travel. It was on the 19th floor and faced south, so we actually had a very decent view of the lake if we were willing to look out an an angle.
The room itself was spacious for a city hotel, finished with a marble floor in the entry and bathroom, and sleek, artistic furnishings.
There is Shawn, checking out the view.
This was our magnificent marble bathroom: marble, glass, stainless steel, and black and white wallpaper.
I have written before about how the current popular style of kitchens done in cold white, gray and stainless does not appeal to me. Our hotel room had a similar effect. Although I could recognize that it was decorated with the most up-to-date design style, very nicely, I could not feel quite cozy there. We turned up the heat, but with marble floors and slick leather chairs, a chill pervaded.
The award winning, iron chef restaurant in the hotel, Mercat a la Planxa, was slightly tempting. Who is not intrigued by iron chef prepared tapas? However, the online menu was either written in Spanish, or else carried virtually exclusively items of which I had never heard. One can be adventurous in such situations when one is not forced to avoid gluten, peanuts and kiwi. Food allergies put a crimp in one's ability to try new things.
Eschewing the stress of the unknown, we walked a couple of blocks to Lou Malnati's, that famous Chicago pizza joint which, amazingly, offers gluten free options.
After we both warmed up with bowls of minestrone soup (mine sans pasta), I had sole piccata with spinach. Shawn had pizza.
We ate early, having missed lunch, which resulted in easy seating, good service and plenty of time to return to the hotel and get ready for the symphony. In fact, we had so much time, we turned on the Duke-Syracuse basketball game for awhile and tried to spot David in the stands. Being chilly, I looked for an extra blanket in the closet. There was none, but there was a sort of robe, so I threw it over my legs as I reclined on the bed, and it was a very decent solution to the issue.
I have to say that I like the type of hotel where they offer complimentary hot drinks in the lobby, where breakfast is included in the price of the room, and where they stock extra blankets in the closet. I just do. But I guess those kinds of hotels are not in big cities. I gather that in big cities there are two kinds of hotels: the ones where you pay for amenities, and the ones where there are no amenities.
Walking three blocks to Orchestra Hall, through a light drizzle of hazy snow, was festive. We were there before we knew it, and then up high to the balcony where we found our first row seats. My chest was a little tight at the extreme height of it, but it was very exciting.
Once I fell down the steep balcony steps in an auditorium at Eastman School of Music. We were there for an All-State concert, and I remember the stomach convulsing sensation of losing my footing, reaching out for something to steady me, finding nothing, no handrail anywhere, and landing squarely on the back of a strange man's shoulder, three or four steps below where I'd begun. This balcony may have been even steeper, but it did have handrails, which I held tightly, and I walked very slowly, and fortunately we were early, not holding anyone up behind us. I arrived safely at my seat.
That's our program sitting on the sort of shelf that was in front of our seats. You can see that there were two mezzanines and a ground floor beneath us. They even had seating behind the orchestra on the stage. And by the time the concert started, nearly every seat in the house was full!
Here is another picture, showing more of the beautiful architecture in Orchestra Hall.
I read the program notes while I waited. We were there for Tchaikovsky's 6th, Pathetique. The notes explained that this was his last symphony, and that he died very shortly after introducing it. At its first performance, it was so emotional and brooding, people did not know how to respond, especially at the end, which just faded away with basses throbbing a note with the unprecedented dynamic marking of pppppp.
The music began, and I listened. It did not sound much like Tchaikovsky, to me, but the program notes had said to expect brooding tones. These were certainly brooding tones, although every now and again I thought I recognized the glimmer of a phrase from The Nutcracker or Swan Lake. The clarinet was fantastic, and pivotal to the entire work. A middle movement began and ended with gorgeous, birdlike flute solos. A percussionist played the tympani, and a lone woman sat still as stone in a chair throughout, rising once to hit a large cymbal. As the music drew to a close in the final movement, the woman stood up and moved over to the cymbal once more. The orchestra crescendoed. As the crescendo peaked, the woman hit the cymbal, and the audience burst into applause.
I thought, "That wasn't right. Where were the basses? Where was the mysterious fading away of the sound?"
The lights came up and people got out of their seats. I sat, confused. Finally I asked Shawn, "Is it over?" He kindly explained to me that we had just heard Scriabin's Symphony #2 in C minor.
I had not had any idea that we were going to hear Scriabin.
That was the first hour of the concert. The second half really was the Tchaikovsky, and sounded like Tchaikovsky. Really, after the Scriabin, it hardly sounded brooding at all. Until the end . . . the basses at the end lived up to all that I had expected or hoped.
So it was a fantastic concert.
We walked back to our hotel, again through just enough snow to make it feel like a holiday. Upon our arrival, our room greeted us with a puff of warmth; our attempts with the thermostat had finally been effective. We downed a bunch of our bottled water and fell asleep on a supremely comfortable bed.
Sunday morning we arose, showered, and opted not to order oatmeal from room service for $15 per bowl. While I packed up, Shawn went down to the Starbucks in the lobby and procured a couple of cups of good coffee. It seemed rather anticlimactic to walk out of that room, but there you have it. Suitcases and coffee in hand, we set out up Michigan Avenue once more, this time to find our car.
Which we did! Without any trouble! We paid our parking fee with a credit card at a machine, then drove away without saying good-bye to anyone, making a right turn onto Congress Parkway and heading out to Chicago's northwest suburbs where we planned to attend The Orchard Church, church of my favorite broadcast preacher, Colin S. Smith.
Sunday morning traffic was relatively light. We arrived at the church in about a half hour, half the time the mapping programs had predicted.
We parked. We walked in. Shawn pointed over to the right of the entrance. And there he was, Colin S. Smith himself, in the flesh, chatting with someone. Shawn said, "He's taller than I expected."
I could not believe it. The church has four campuses, and Pastor Colin rotates among them without prior announcement. We'd visited once before, and he had not been there, only a taped broadcast of him preaching (which was still a blessing, and I still remember that he spoke on Joel 2, which on the heels of our move here was exactly what we needed). But last Sunday, there he was in the flesh.
I tried not to hope too hard. I thought they may have taped him earlier, and he might not hang around for the third service.
But he did. He preached. Live. Right there in the front of the church which is largish but not gigantic. He preached about Joseph, which is pretty much one of my favorite Bible stories (except that they are almost all my favorites).
And at the end, Shawn said, "Let's go meet him." I wouldn't have. I would have been content just to see him and hear him and stand across the sanctuary from him. But we actually approached him, and he was so kind, and interested, and not in a hurry.
I could not believe it. Could. Not. Believe. It.
When you've known someone through his books and tapes, been taught by him from afar, when you've used his CDs--ones you've nearly worn out--to play you softly to sleep at night with his lovely Scottish brogue speaking thoughts about the beauty of Christ, because your husband is away on a business trip and you are scared and lonely and need something to drive out the fearful thoughts, when you have used his materials in small groups and watched him on videos--when you meet this person, and he is kind, and he actually looks right into your eyes with compassion, it is so overwhelming . . .
So overwhelming that you think, "If it is this amazing and overwhelming to meet a teacher, a man, a mortal human, then how absolutely, unutterably, inconceivably wonderful and overwhelming and thrilling is it going to be to see Jesus Himself someday?" I cannot even imagine.
So. There was more to the trip. We ate a nice brunch and had a safe drive home, and finally arrived to discover nine inches of snow, plus all the extra snow that the plow had pushed into the mouth of the driveway.
But it was all good, and surely a weekend I will always remember. What a miracle that it went the way it did, everything working like clockwork. Shawn says, "If you are ever tempted to doubt the goodness of God, you will have to remember our Chicago adventure."