I sleep well on the sofa of my hosts' apartment. The sun begins to shine in through the curtainless windows early, and I retrieve my Amtrak-geek eye mask to remain subconscious for a few more hours.
I rise and have some breakfast. One of my hosts has had to go to present a paper at university (on a Sunday as well... I am impressed). So when I walk to the kitchen to get a glass of water, I am greeted by the other host, who was out yesterday. We eat some cereal, drink some tea, and through the wonders of the Hospitality Club two complete strangers get to know each other over breakfast.
I re-pack, clean out my lunch boxes and make some instant pasta to take with me for tonight's meal. I'll be scrimping on food for as long as possible to maximise my budget, so it'll be a few more Sidekicks in tupperware until the taste of them makes my stomach turn.
I say farewell, and leaving the bathroom and kitchen hopefully as I found them, I head off. It's another beautifully warm sunny morning, with a fresh breeze that carries me back to Thorndale CTA station.
It takes about thity minutes to get downtown. I'm more than happy to peer out of the window as the train rides along the suburban elevated sections, looking down onto back yards and onto people's balconies. The architecture of this part of Chicago is much like the part of Montreal where I live: brick built three storey walk-up apartments, with leafy avenues and broad streets. This is an attractive city that is already demanding a second visit. From time to time I feel guilt for not doing this great place more justice by staying for longer, but I suspect it could get another stopover later in the year.
The tracks wind in between buildings, and at the first available transfer station, I cross to the brown line, which will keep me above ground and take me onto Chicago's famous downtown loop of 'el' tracks.
I ride as far as Adams and walk one block east to the Chicago Art Institute. I've decided that with just a couple of hours on my side in Chicago, it'll be better to do one thing properly that try to cram too much in. So I'm here, climbing the steps of this elegant museum.
And it's not just because I'm art lover. The clockroom here costs a dollar per item, but that's cheaper than leaving them at the station for a few hours (and I won't be checking them in). Plus, although the admission fees might seem a little steep when you walk in, take note of that small bit of writing under the list of tarifs. Yep, they're 'Suggested Donations'. So, my take on this is that if you can afford $10, you should pay it and feel proud for contributing to one of the best art museums in the USA. But if you're a penniless low-budget traveler like me, give them a dollar and promise to donate a Monet when you become rich and famous.
Not like they need another one, though, because the Insitutue has one of the best Impressionist collections in the world. If you have just one hour to spend, then spend it here, in the collection of rooms in front of you at the top of the main stairs. Impressionist art has become famous through poster prints on students' walls around the world: it's sophisticated, delicate, entrancing to look at, and immediate to comprehend. The finest examples of Impressionist art in North America can be found here, where you can see just how innovative the brush strokes of van Gogh, Seurat and Pissaro were. I was particularly taken by finally being able to see Monet's 'Poppy Field at Giverny' for the first time, and one wall is occupied in one room by the instantly recognisable 'Sunday Afternoon at la Grande Jatte' by Seurat. I float from room to room, spending as much or as little time as I please ignoring the description cards and getting sucked in by the paintings.
I would urge any visitor to a gallery such as this one to be brave, and not to attempt to do the whole museum at once. Choose five specific rooms on the plan, and stick to them. Spend an hour, and take your time. Growing up close to London, where virtually every major museum is completely free to the public, I have grown used to this strategy when visiting museums. Although a paranoia did kick in as the minute had turned on my watch, I resisted the urge to run amock, trying to see everything at once. There will be much more for me when I come to Chicago next time.
Before leaving, I did have one more famous work to hunt down. Tucked away in a side room at the back of the building, is Edward Hopper's 'Nighthawks'. Nothing could have prepared me for the silence this painting brings with it. A stolen moment in a city diner is caught on canvas. Even though we are looking in to a brightly lit diner from the empty street, we can tell the room is quiet. Caught between moments, sentences and breaths, four people occupy a moment in time. It's a beautiful painting, even more stiking when you see it for real. The reproductions are good, but the sense of seeing it in it's natural habitat is even better.