Monday, December 30, 2013

If think Christmas is a zoo where YOU live...

Merry Belated Christmas! It’s our first Noël in Chicago, and given the temperatures I would have happily spent the entire holiday hiding under a blanket pretending to acclimatize to the ice desert without.

However, this Christmas brought visitors in the form of my elder sister and her brood, which meant that Amynah commenced a two-month neurotic obsession with turkey recipes (and boy, did that ever pay off).

It also meant that we felt duty-bound to show them the best that Chicago had to offer. As usual with the first few guests that we’ve hosted in our various cities, these visits are as much an opportunity for us to learn about our new homes as it is to play tour guide.

Fortunately, our guests interests coincided nicely with my existing knowledge of Chicago: the Lego store downtown and the Shedd Acquarium worked well for the eight-year old, the local cafés pleased the 12-year-old, and the 92-year-old ice cream parlour at which the Beatles once ate worked for my older sister.

New to us all was the Lincoln Zoo Christmas Lights. The Lincoln Zoo is a fantastic Chicago institution – it is both free and within biking distance, so I’ve spent many hours there with one mini-Reynolds or another in the summer. In the winter the animals presumably summer in Florida or something and the trees are taken over by billions of Christmas lights.

We lucked out in a number of ways – the weather the day we ventured out was a full 17 degrees Celsius warmer than it is today, and our numbers precluded taking the car, meaning I avoided the mayhem of trying to park at what proved to be the most popular and crowded event in the city that day.  I can’t imagine what the cold-weather animals that remain make of the whole experience, but the people are fascinated – the night we were there, Chicagoans were shuffling around the place gazing up like a horde of stargazing zombies with no conception of personal space.

Best of all, the experience broke me out of my incipient cabin fever, meaning I got to take pictures of Christmas lights, instead of coming up with bizarre at-home art projects…. ahem.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Santa rides the blue line

Last night Sana and I ventured out into the frigid Chicago night, wading through a fresh load of 5 inches of snow that had settled onto the previous 5 inches. We were making our way to the local L-Train stop, to see one of the Windy City’s more elusive seasonal charms.
Once we made it to the station, I brushed off the detritus of the twenty or so snowballs Sana had mashed onto my bum, and we settled onto the platform to wait. On the platform with us were a number of other families with small children, and a smaller number of increasingly confused commuters.

And then it appeared: The Holiday Train. It was out in Christmas lights from stem to stern, windows plastered with festive decorations and crewed by green and red clad elves, but the highlight was, without a doubt, Santa.

Every year, Santa visits Chicago and rides every single one of Chicago’s many El Train lines in an OPEN CAR, waving at passers-by and talking to lucky kids at each station. Yesterday was his visit to the Blue Line.

We caught him on his way to O’Hare Airport. My initial idea was to ride for one or two stations and then hop on a regular train to get Sana in bed at a reasonable time. However, once we were aboard, it was too much fun to leave.

Sana rides the rails with her Mom every day, so the changes inside the train were more striking for her than for me – even the seat covers were holiday themed, and the grab-bars were all decked out like candy canes. Santa’s helpers were giving out candy canes, and the florescent interior lights were all red and green. The transit ads were replaced by cheesy Christmas themed jokes (“How do you brush snow off a Christmas tree? With a pine comb!”).

Soon after we got on, a large family group at the other end of the car started singing “Feliz Navidad” – most of the car joined in. A few stops later, and the whole car joined in singing Happy Birthday to someone called Lisa.

Sana and rode the whole way to the airport, at which point we were able to get out and Sana could talk to Santa (who had somehow managed to avoid freezing solid in his open car traveling at 45 mph in sub-zero temperatures). Sana was appropriately star-struck. We promised him cookies for Christmas Eve.

From what I understand, much of the decorations and a great number of the staff volunteer their time for the project, and the train delivers food to various charities around the city. Nothing is being sold, and the signs for the private sponsors are discreet. The whole thing really seems to have been done just for the joy of the season. As it happens, riding the Holiday Train was to be the first time Sana had encountered a real-live Santa – and I rather appreciate that it occurred in that context rather than, say, as part of a sales pitch for photo packages in a mall concourse.