So a few months ago I received an e-ad from Booking.com advertisinga hostel in Chicago that happened to be in the Wicker Park neighborhood, which is just a few blocks from my daughter Claire'sneighborhood in Bucktown. Reading the description of the hostel (and the price!)
lit a spark, (some residual ember, I guess, from the Camino and our hostel stay at Madrid) and I was suddenly jonesing to stay at this hostel when we went to Chicago for our annual pre-Christmas visit to Claire and her fiancé Miguel. It wasn't just that I wanted try out this hostel...it was that I might be standing on the cusp of the discovery of a new world that I hadn't known existed: the world of American hostels. The name of this place was IHSP Chicago and it offered a number of
accommodation options, from a bunk bed in a shared dorm room for about 9 euros per night (I guess it's a European outfit, all the prices were in euros), all the way up the ladder to 45.99 euros
for a private double room with a shared bathroom. The place sounded nice: Free wifi and computers, free breakfast, FREE PARKING! (In CHICAGO!) Free airport shuttle (which we didn't need but it sounded good, anyway), so held my breath, I crossed my fingers, and booked the 45.99 (or $63) deluxe room for Tom and me at this IHSP Chicago for three nights, Friday, December
13 to Monday, December 16.
We arrived in Chicago on Friday evening, a 7 hour drive from Columbus including a lunch break at Subway. (Whenever we eat lunch out, whether on the road or in town, it's always at Subway. Subway is "our place" for lunch and we always get the same thing: a foot-long with everything [except jalapeno peppers], oil and vinegar dressing, which we cut in half and share. We've decided that's what makes Tom and I right for each other: our constant, mutual, ‘til-death-do-us-depart craving for the same sandwich from Subway). Anyway, the IHSP Chicago hostel is located on Damen Avenue in hip, trendy, pricey Wicker Park next door to a magnificent, white stone, three-story Walgreens that used to be a bank building. This Walgreens offers, among other things, a restaurant, a yogurt bar, and, it’s most famous attraction, a “vitamin vault”: as in, all the vitamins are kept in what used to be the bank’s vault, and on your way into the “vault” you can stop to oooh and ahhh over the immense circular foot-wide door with its giant locking system. (Raises buying vitamins to a whole nother level!)
The lobby of our hostel was behind a glass store front on which was posted the Jack Kerouac quote, “Only damn fools pay no attention to visions.” ( I read that and immediately liked the place!).
There was a key pad next to the front door onto which you had to press the number of the front desk then state your business in order to be buzzed into the lobby. The hostel itself is
located on the second and third floors of the building, which appeared to maybe have been an office building at one time. The décor was bright, modern and homey at the same time, with white brick walls, hardwood floors, open staircases, artwork, and big windows overlooking the city. The front desk was in a cheery little area in front of a row of wooden cupboards and a shelf piled with mismatched bath towels, to which each hosteler was entitled one of during his or her stay.
The walls were hung with flags, maps, and announcements of things to do in Chicago. There was a
help-yourself plate of cookies at the desk which was manned by a friendly, gregarious young guy named Dan who gave us a tour of the hostel and a parking pass before showing us to our room.
I had noticed a sheet of devilishly complicated-looking piano music among the odds and ends cluttering the front desk so I asked Dan if he was a pianist and if the music was his.
It turns out that he was and it was. He said that he used to be a piano major in college, but it was so stressful and hard (no kiddin’!) that he decided to pursue something else, which led to his current job as hostel manager, a job he loves. But he also still loves playing the piano, especially the works of his favorite composer, Chopin. When I told him I was a piano teacher he immediately wanted to “talk shop”. He asked me who my favorite composer was and I choked…dang, who is my favorite composer? Geez, I’ve never actually thought about it, isn’t that awful!? Well, maybe it’s not awful, but I was afraid that Dan would think that it was, and in the bind of the moment all I could think of was my favorite song to sit at the piano and belt out, which is Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance”, so I said my favorite composer was Lady Gaga. “That’s awful,” Dan tsked. So now we’re in this weirdly
topsy-turvy situation of the Chopin-loving young kid chiding the grandma for being a Lady Gaga fan. Anyway, I immediately felt embarrassed for my gaffe and tried to right myself by rambling
on about how Lady Gaga is basically a very fine musician, a pianist first and foremost, classically
trained, her music is very pianistic, etc, etc, and so on. But Dan wasn’t buying it so my next move was to do an about face and say that of course I also loved Chopin and Bach, too. Which may be an
exaggeration. I mean, I like ‘em both but do I actually love either guy? Aw, well, I told the kid I that did. Just make him happy, really, and it did seem to smooth things over between Dan and me . I even added, just to beef up my classical cred, that one of my students was about to dive into the ring (so to speak) with the Chopin Waltz in A Minor Posthumous. (I’m afraid that’s going to be you, Marianne, so better enjoy your life as it is now). Anyway, Dan and me were tight after that and continued to talk music (classical – had to be classical for Dan, though I could have held my own with rock or old showtunes had we gone in that direction) while he showed us around the hostel.
The first floor (which was the second floor) ran in a circle around the front desk, with the rooms on one side of the circle and a big common area on the other side. The common area was warm and inviting with the look and feel of a college student center: big comfy sofas, computers, tables, a TV
with Netflix and a shelf of DVD’s to choose from, more flags hung on the walls along with a beautiful floor-to-ceiling map of the world that was Dan’s labor of love, his pride and joy. We passed young people now and then during the tour, some of them chatting in foreign languages. (In fact, the ISHP Chicago hostel is open to foreigners and Americans, except those who live in the Chicago area, who are not allowed to stay there. Why are Chicagoans not allowed to stay at the ISHP? Well, I’ll tell you: I don’t know).
At the far end of the common room was a well-stocked kitchen where the coffee and tea were free round the clock, and where, we were told, all-you-can eat pancakes were offered for breakfast.
There was also a roof-top deck with a view of the Chicago skyline, but as the weather was freezing we declined to check it out. Our room was on the second (really third) floor. If the second floor was a circle, I can’t tell what shape the third floor was, except that it seemed to be made up of hallways that just zigged and zagged this way and that, with rooms, bathrooms, reading areas, washers and dryers, and unhung wall-mirrors scattered randomly about. Some of the hall ways were lit with
soft colored lights so they looked blue or pink. Each of the areas was named after a section or street in the area: there was Bucktown, Wicker Park, Damen, Milwaukee, and Uptown, which was
a pink-lit hallway where our room was located. Our“double” room turned out to be a four-bunk-bed room but for only the two of us. It was very basic but cute and functional, white walls and wood floors, having besides our four bunk beds a futon, two small tables and a beautiful picture of the Chicago skyline hung on the wall. Our window looked out between two buildings, on the side of one of which was painted an ad for “Red Hen Bread”. Between the two buildings ran the Elevated train tracks, so now and then we’d see the train running by. And so what if the blinds only closed half way we decided not to bother Dan with that. We decided we liked the place fine, and I must admit that after seven weeks spent in the Camino albergues I felt right at home when I walked out into the hall and was passed by a girl zipping from the shower to her room wrapped in a towel.
After we settled in we set out to look for some food. Since Claire and Miguel were both working late we were fending for ourselves this night, which was no problem, as we were on Damen Street, a busy street full of boutiquey, hipstery restaurants and shops with names like “Goddess
Grocery”, “T-Shirt Deli”, “Belly Dancer Maternity Wear”, “Sublime Sushi”. We walked a block to a little bar/grill-type place full of young folks, Christmas lights and indy music called “Silver Cloud.” Nobody seemed to mind that we were by far the oldest patrons in the place, any more than anyone seemed to mind that we were probably the oldest folks ever to set foot in that hostel, either.
Anyway, the food was good: Salad Nicoise for me could have passed for one of our first-course pilgrim meal salads (potatoes, eggs, green beans, olives, lettuce, and a few other things) if not for the piece of fresh grilled tuna in the center instead of the canned tuna that always topped our Camino salads. When I bit into an olive I was programmed for a pit (never met a pitted olive in Spain!) and so was a little taken aback (but in a good way) to find this olive was pitted! (Little things mean a lot!). Anyway, it was hard to believe that this salad would have merely been the
opening act of a pilgrim meal, whereas here it was to be the main event. (Still can’t get over how I managed to shovel in all that food on the Camino!). That being said, this one was a very good salad and I must admit, a piece of “real” tuna in a Salad Nicoise wins over canned in oil hands down! Tom
started with a side salad (hard to get used to these small side salads!) then had a piece of mustard-encrusted salmon with roasted red peppers and small potatoes, to which he likewise gave a thumbs up! Of course, during the meal we found ourselves reminiscing over those good old pilgrim meals, especially the desserts. Which made us feel like we had to orde dessert here, too. I ordered
apple pie with ice cream, not expecting anything beyond a merely adequate slab of store-bought stuff, but was happily surprised at how home-made and appley the pie looked and tasted. Tom
ordered a slice of chocolate cake – and boy, was it chocolate, so dark it looked almost black, and generously frosted with dark, swirly icing over which was drizzled a criss-cross of even darker icing.
“Great cake” was his assessment. All this accompanied by two beers for Tom (no more all-you-can-drink Pilgrim wine!) and a couple glasses of diet Coke for me (which likewise caused us to reminisce about the tiny, tiny, one-ice-cube-if–you’re-lucky, not-to-be -refilled -unless -you -pay-again glasses of coke in Spain – some things we do right in this country!) the bill came to around $65. (Add
a 20% tip to that). Not cheap. But oh, so satisfying!
Hence we were a couple of happy tourists walking back to our hostel along the street brightly lit with stores and Christmas lights and full of bundled-up but stylish young people out enjoying (hopefully!) this cold Friday night in Chicago. After we arrived back in our room snow began falling, looking so pretty between the buildings against the city lights and the passing El trains. But our room was nice and warm and the sounds of the comings and goings of our fellow hostelers eventually simmered down as everyone settled in for the night, and I must admit it was a pleasant sensation to be lying in my bottom bunk watching the snow fall outside the window with the blinds that wouldn’t shut.