When people ask why I take the train from Boston to Kansas City, I usually reply, “Because it’s eight times as long and twice as expensive as flying.” I’ve always been more of an economic contrarian than fiscal conservative.
I also like the sense a long train ride gives for the distance travelled (this country is big!), views of the landscape not accessible by car (Iowa is really pretty), and on this itinerary there’s usually a six hour layover in Chicago.
I pretty much refuse to eat the microwaved train food scheduled to expire in 2015 on offer in the cafe car (though this time I did succumb to the vegan burger recommended in Main Street Vegan by Kansas City native Victoria Moran). So, I had big plans for those six hours in the Windy City: Giordano’s pizza, Goose Island Beer, Intellegentsia coffee, Fox and Obel groceries.
Unfortunately, thanks to a snow storm and a freight train with a broken air hose ahead of us on the tracks, the journey that was supposed to take 22 hours took 27. Upon arrival at Chicago’s union station I had exactly one hour, just enough time, if everything goes right, to run across the street, order a Giordano’s, and run onto the train.
Nothing ever goes exactly right though: midwesterners – even city dwellers – walk slowly, the bar at the Jackson Street Giordano’s is not near the front door, the pizza which is supposed to take 35-40 minutes took 38 minutes (I was banking on 34), and then I learned Amtrak closes the gates five minutes before departure. In the end, I should have known when I was counting minutes that it was hopeless, but I wasn’t going to let some snow get in the way of my pizza (and I think I secretly wanted to miss the train; 36 hours of travel is pretty exhausting.)
The Amtrak lady chuckled, though I’m not sure she was amused, as she exchanged my ticket for a departure the next day. Then, I started prepping for a night in Chicago. Texts and Facebook messages went out to friends and family, old and new. I decided, though, not to wait to negotiate the availability of a couch to surf but to go ahead and book a hotel for myself; when you travel as much and stay in hotels as infrequently as I do, sometimes they’re worth a splurge.
I love the mystery of booking through Hotwire, which only reveals the name of the hotel you’ll be staying in after you’ve selected your neighborhood and star level and provided payment details. . . I’d be at the Sofitel off Michigan Ave for little more than I’d have to pay at the Best Western off I-70!
Sofitel is a French brand where they proudly fly the rouge, blanc, et bleu out front and greet guests with “bon soir.” Home sweet home.
When the knock at the door came for turn down service that evening, I had already lathered myself with Lanvin soap, wrapped myself in a Frette robe and made plans to meet a long lost cousin for dinner. I’m not used to so much luxury and so many brand names.
Growing up in the midwest, Chicago represented for me city-living, which was basically shopping and hotels. Luxury and brands. I’ve now been to and lived in many more cities, big and small, all over the world, and recognize the diversity of city-life. Luxury and brands are but one level of a generic urban lifestyle not accessible to most, mainly tourists.
In my new urban paradigm, New York has come to represent the 24 hour pursuit of affordable adventure, Boston intellectual vitality, and Paris exotic and eye-opening flavors. Train travel is pretty key throughout, too. Chicago remains, though, little more than an access point for luxury and brands. Maybe that’s because I’ve never lived here?
I’m sure there’s more (architecture, molecular gastronomy, economic theoretics?) but for now, perhaps the other reason I should cite for why I take the train: access to luxury in Chicago.
Is that bad?