NOTHING tops the feeling of comfort when you’re deep into an international trip, except perhaps finding it almost impossible to draw a clean line on where the feeling comes from.
It’s the sensation that washed over me every minute I spent in Chicago, America’s second city and a spiritual relative to Newcastle.
Both cities have their troubles, one with trains and figs, the other with a murder rate that has become national news. It sort of puts things in perspective.
But in both cases, the bad rap is unwarranted. Just like a Sydneysider expecting lumps of coal poking out of sand at Nobbys, the parts of Chicago that unfolded in my week of exploration were nothing short of spellbinding.
Known for its savage winters, Chicago in summer gleams when it’s not shrouded in mist blown across the rolling parklands fronting Lake Michigan, or it shines when frosty rain washes it clean, its many lights catching in the moisture all night.
But most of all, and most like Newy, it sparkles when it fires up for sport.
As I stumble around the city without my bearings, there’s one constant. From backyard fences to skyscrapers, there’s a simple flag fluttering in the breeze or gale – a simple W on a white background.
It doesn’t take too long to link to the Chicago Cubs, the baseball team that broke one of the longest hoodoos in sports to sit as reigning champions when I land. They are defending that title in the playoffs when I arrive, so I snag a seat at Wrigley Park.
Baseball nuts soon tell me the roundhouse pavilion where I sit is in the grand final with Boston’s Fenway to be the most iconic place in baseball. It’s not hard to see why: even as rain falls, ultimately forcing the game into a replay the next day, no-one moves. Not the trainspotting grandfathers marking down every play, and certainly not the wide-eyed kids who genuinely believe the World Series to be a global event. The city gleams behind, and I’m pleased to be cheering amid a sea of red and blue.
As the Washington Nationals finally line up to drub the Cubs a day later than expected, it’s hard to remember that you’re not in the centre of the universe. Eddie Vedder tosses out the ceremonial first pitch, and from the top of the pavilion behind the catcher you can see the skyline on a clear day. It’s a packed house on their feet for every moment of what is a particularly dour match-up within an incredible series. It’s a weekday, but the passion has me hooked when a bored fielder waving away a patch of pigeons roosted near second base is bombarded with a universal boo. “Those are our goddamn pigeons!”, goes the genuine outrage of one of those trainspotting old blokes.
In a week on the ground I find my way to a few halls of pivotal moments of masterful athletes. Every one, whether in a playoff or garbage time, delivers a roar that would stun even the most devoted Knights fan. The Chicago Bulls half-fill their United Centre for a pre-season trial despite a roster that makes the past few Knights teams look star-studded. The Minnesota Vikings head back to their longships with a win after downing the Bears at Soldier Field, a stadium literally built as a momument to those who fought. It’s all but full despite their ultimate 5-11 record for the year.
But the fields of dreams are just part of Chicago’s appeal. It’s a cultural dream and an architectural marvel. The Art Institute, housing Nighthawks and American Gothic, rivals any other gallery on the planet. It’s nestled in waterfront parks that also boat a world-class planetarium and the Field Museum.
Rock and comedy venues are common, including the storied Second City, while a production of Hamilton does justice to Broadway. Breweries abound. The food is unique and its fans parochial. Deep dish pizza is a mild let-down but the Chicago-style hot dog (celery salt, mustard, tomatoes, sports peppers and not even a glance at ketchup) offers one of the most balanced bites you could devise.
It's America, so everything is a franchise, but Chicago has its own ecosystem. Deep dish pizza, an inch-thick pie of bolognaise sauce, comes in two varieties: Giordano’s or Lou Malnati’s. Nobody can tell you which is better, you have to eat it for yourself.
Weeks later, I point to the absence of Yankees logos in New York trying to explain my passion for Chicago’s passion. My New Yorker friend explains they’re “a bit more fashionable” out on the east coast.
It’s enough to make you wipe the ketchup off your hot dog for life and hope Qantas deliver those direct flights from Sydney in time for the playoffs.