AT the same time President Obama was visiting the United Kingdom I chose to travel to the United States.
I suppose the president travelled here because of affairs of state, however, I travelled to America because of another affair, an affair of the heart.
Having fallen in love with Chicago in one evening and a morning last year, the point in returning for a few days in May was to discover more.
The big surprise was the Art Institute. Quite simply it was one of the best art galleries I have ever visited.
The collection of impressionists and modern works was mouth wateringly good - so good it blew apart the schedule I had planned because I spent a whole day there!
To come alive good collections require good displays and the gallery presented itself as fresh and interesting.
By contrast the Field Museum, which boasts the most complete Tyrannosaurus Rex skeleton yet discovered, was disappointing.
Much of what is exhibited is acknowledged to be in need of updating but even the updated areas seemed to lack something.
I found the Corner Bakery downtown on East Monroe, far more stimulating. It was not only good for breakfast but great for people watching.
Not so good was being harassed by street people; not just those rattling coffee cups with loose change but others demanding “donations” loudly and persistently.
I had a chat with a cop about one particular incident.
A “lady”, who said she was aged 60, needed money to get her home because her car, “Look I can show you my licence!”, had been towed away by the police.
Without my giving a description of the person the cop described her exactly and went on to tell me about the other scams that I might expect!
He gave me a useful run down on street etiquette and warned me where not to go. The bottom line is that tourists are seen as rich pickings.
But I never experienced anything like the attempted robbery by a gang of children that I suffered in Rome. I walked on and, following the advice of the cop, I steered clear of alleys and areas under roadways.
The visual challenges came when the clouds and mists rolled in and I couldn’t see anything above 25 stories, sometimes even lower!
O’Hare Airport also supplies its own visual challenge with frankly diabolical signage of the “now you see where to go and now you don’t” variety!
Don’t blunder around like I did – ask!
But back to the good: apart from the brilliance of the architecture and excellence of the Art Institute my abiding memory will be of the people I met.
There was the Morgan Freeman look-a-like who worked for the CTA and patiently explained how to get a ticket to return to O’Hare by the highly efficient and inexpensive rail network.
On a very busy holiday weekend a young waiter in the Corner Bakery remembered which breakfast I wanted without being told.
The police officer who took time out to give me street safety advice whilst leaning back on his quad bike, right foot resting on his handlebars, like a young Victor Stallone.
The cheerful (possibly unofficial) taxi driver I used from O’Hare gave me an encouraging welcome and some tips on what to see.
The numerous river cruise staff who patiently explained that I couldn’t go where I wanted when I wanted because there was too much water in the river – don’t ask!
The lady airport security officer who, finding me wandering in a restricted area rather than arresting me, took me away from the prohibited zone and right to the start of the walkway that led to where I needed to go.
She did that even though it meant she had to ride a glass lift, which she hated.
She was so scared of it she closed her eyes and covered her face with her hands for the time it was in motion, which must have been all of twenty seconds!
Chicago is a living catalogue of late 19th Century and 20th Century architecture.
Staying on the 17th floor of my hotel in the downtown area the office block opposite had detail that could not be seen from ground level.
There is a lot of that in Chicago and it reminded me of the medieval builders who included decoration on cathedrals where only God could see it!
Those medieval builders wanted what they did to please God so they wanted to make sure that he could see the best bits!
I don’t know about the motivation of Chicago’s architects but I do know that I experienced some of the best bits of people’s lives as they took the time and trouble to make sure that a stranger had the best possible visit to their city and that’s an attitude that the Bible tells us God loves.
I guess it could be summed up as a practical example of loving your neighbour and that is far more important than loving the concrete blocks of a city.
By Peter Hellyer