Wednesday, February 9, 2011

A Tale of Two Chicagos…and lots of snow

Snow Angel. Heck Yes.

Monday of last week was the day that we finally left our ‘home base’ of Dearborn, Michigan, for the start of our big tour. I was excited for a number of reasons: A new place to see every few days, slowly warming temperatures, and no more wading through reams of cables to plug in the internet. For a few days, my first prediction turned out to be true, as we piled in and out of our van for consecutive four-hour plus trips. On the other two, however, less luck was had. From Tuesday-Thursday of last week, I stayed with a lovely old couple in the middle of nowhere. Lovely, but their idea of a wild night was a bucket of popcorn and an NCIS marathon. So, on my first evening there, after most of the popcorn was eaten and the credits of NICS: LA (apparently television programmes are at the point where their names are merely a jumble of letters) began to roll, I politely enquired if they had wireless internet.
            “No my dear, I’m sorry,” was the response. No matter, I thought. I could just use their plug in line.
            “Oh no, we don’t have that either. We really don’t need it except for work, so we just use it there”. Okay. This wouldn’t be a problem. Most of my time here would be spent out working anyway. I declined the invitation to watch another NCIS episode – I didn’t want a hangover – and excused myself for bed. The morning, however, held a new surprise. Overnight, 18 inches (or 46cm in that ridiculous metric system the rest of the world uses. I mean, what kind of idiot thought of using powers of ten as conversions? 12 inches to a foot, three feet to a yard, and 1760 yards to the mile makes so much more sense) had fallen – the most since 1976. There was no way school would be held in those conditions. A full 24 hours of daytime talk shows and soaps laid before me, I started to feel a little overwhelmed and isolated, until I received the good news: my hosts had just had a new grandson born. We were going into town to visit him. As you could expect, I couldn’t contain my excitement. Who doesn’t want to go and meet the four-hour-old grandchild of people I have known for 12 hours? Still, it was nice to get out of the house, and seeing piles of snow taller than me really was quite a sight.
            When I arrived at the hospital, my host mum told me that only family would be allowed into the room. Partly I was pleased with this. No awkward “Hi, I’ve never met you before, but congratulations on your new arrival”. Plus, I had made sure I was prepared for a wait, and had brought a book and my laptop. I made myself comfortable in the waiting room (as comfortable as one can be in a maternity ward where you are confronted with the sounds of childbirth every time a door is opened) and opened my computer with baited breath. And then…the Holy Grail. A guest wireless network. I spent the next two hours blissfully emerged in the glories of Skype, Facebook, and The Age Online. I practically had to be dragged out when my host mother had had her fill of doting.

            Apart from being returned to the technological Dark Ages, and the strange hospital visit, my snow days (the storm was bad enough that school was cancelled for two days) were really quite fun. The scenery was beautiful, and I took a couple of late-night snow walks, which is a really beautiful thing to do. The highlight, however, was my snow angel. The snow angel is a rite of passage for most Americans living north of Nashville, and so of course I had to take my turn. With my host mum photographing every moment, I lay down in 50cm-deep snow and flapped my arms and legs around for a few seconds. I pulled myself out (painstakingly) and looked at my perfectly formed angel. For the next few minutes, I morphed into the Aeroplane Jelly kid, running around with my arms widespread, shouting “Look at the snow angel! It’s an angel! And it’s in the snow! And I made it! ME!” Eventually I calmed down enough to head inside park myself on the couch – tonight’s offering was re-runs of 1960s police dramas. Joy.

A snow pile nearly my height - Downtown Chicago

            Last Friday, after six weeks, we finally left the state of Michigan. Destination: Chicago. The five-hour drive was not particularly awe inspiring, and in fact quite body-stiffening, but by the time the city became visible through our car windows, all our ailments were forgotten, as we had another snow angel moment, whooping, jumping (as much as our seatbelts would allow) and uncontrollably singing Chicago by Frank Sinatra. On arriving at our hosts’ homes, the feeling only escalated. We were stationed right in the city, just minutes from the ‘loop’ (Chicagoan for the main CBD), with families who were welcoming, knowledgeable, interesting and excited about hosting us. They also turned out to be incredible tour guides – we had the weekend off, so we braved the piles of snow and -20˚C ‘heat’ to see the sights – who could name the architects, years of construction, and current use of all the buildings. The experience was brilliant – to finally be in a major centre, seeing historic and internationally important landmarks, viewing globally acclaimed art, and eating food from every culture known to man was simply phenomenal. Time spent in the host family homes was equally as wonderful, with a sing-along party, Super Bowl party, and plenty of socialising organised for us.

            When it finally came time for us to work, we were immediately confronted with the fact that Chicago is quite a divided city. Our families were residents of the North Side – comfortable, affluent and leafy, with a great many opportunities for students (our host families’ children, all of whom were 16 or under, were already virtuosic musicians, stunning dancers and near-fluent in another language), whereas our first assignment, a high school on the South Side, was rough. The students were mainly from minority groups and poor families. Many had never left Chicago, some never ventured beyond their own neighbourhood. Due to escalating violence amongst the students, ID tags were compulsory for everyone, all bags had to be see-through so they could be easily checked for weapons and drugs, and knives, including plastic or silverware, were absolutely prohibited from campus. The students we worked with generally fell into two groups: those who obviously couldn’t care less, and those who were just so enthusiastic and grateful for the opportunity to work with us. So it was difficult – performing to an audience with even one disinterested spectator can be difficult, to two-thirds of an audience can be absolute hell. Yet for the hope and joy we instilled in maybe just a few students, hope that there is more in the world than the South Side of Chicago, it may have been the most rewarding, humbling experience we’ve had.

            Given the not-so-light nature of the end of this blog, I feel it’s only appropriate to end with a joke.
A woman goes out for a night out on the town. Having promised her husband that she would be home by midnight, she stumbles in just as the clock in the hall chimes three times. Thinking on her feet, she quickly adds nine chimes of her own, before getting into bed next to her still sleeping husband. Job well done.
            The next morning over breakfast, the husband says to his wife “What time did you make it home last night?”
“Midnight,” the wife lies. “Did you hear me come in?”
“No. Slept right through.”
Pleased she has dodged a bullet, the wife smiles and continues with her breakfast, until the silence is broken again by the husband,
 “I think we need a new clock.”
“Oh! Why is that dear?” the wife replies.
“Well, last night, our clock chimed three times, said ‘oh no’, then chimed another four times, farted, chimed three more times, took a swig out of the flowerpot, chimed twice more and fell over the coffee table.”

            Reminds me of my mother…

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