Tuesday, July 29, 2008

No Better Place to Be ... In the Summer

People I know often ask, why Chicago? Something in my mind tells me that I have to give a long list justifying why I have chosen to live in Chicago. I don’t feel like my friends in New York or Los Angeles get this question as often. And if so, perhaps they can answer with a little more arrogance. Chicago is a great city, I tell them, but its people aren’t the bragging type. Chicagoans also seem to appreciate fun and efficiency over what’s flashy and trendy. Chicagoans tend to be straight forward. Perhaps this is why I like living here. So I give the long laundry-list answer about the world-class architecture; cleanliness of the streets, beauty of the Chicago River and beaches, accessibility of public transportation, diversity of restaurants, extraordinary museums and parks, Wrigley Field, the Bears, and so on and so forth. Yet all those things wouldn’t mean a thing if I didn’t like the people. I think this is why most residents I meet are so proud of Chicago. I have had the privilege of working as a doorman and bellman in one of Chicago’s best hotels and the visitors all seem to say the same thing: we love Chicago and we’ll be back.

I first discovered this trend four years ago while working at a fancy hotel in Aspen, Colo. Many Chicagoans liked to visit Aspen and they all seemed to have the same twinkle in their eye and pride in their praise of the Windy City. It all seemed so uncharacteristically positive that I took a long weekend in May 2005 to see it for myself. That was all I needed. If I had visited in the winter it might have been a different story. After all, there are not a lot of ski slopes close to Chicago. Yet, the winters fade away and the beautiful summers like this one remind me of Frank Sinatra’s lyrics, “Each time I leave, Chicago is tugging my sleeve.”

If you haven’t visited Chicago, I suggest you do. You may be pleasantly surprised. Today the Chicago Tribune wrote a story titled, “For better or for worse,” about a survey that found Chicagoans to be the happiest with their city compared to 14 other big cities across the globe. The survey was conducted by Veolia Environnement SA, a Paris-based environmental-services firm that is moving its headquarters to Chicago. I am not sure the validity of this survey. But I am sure most people who are in Chicago right now are glad that they’re here.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Jaime and Joyce

It was sensory overload. Everywhere I looked I saw someone that I knew, and many of them were the most important people in my life. Virtually my entire family was there, from my father’s side and my mother’s side. The minute I said hello to someone, there was someone else grabbing my shoulder and saying, “Brett!”

I guess this is what happens when your only brother is getting married. He had met Joyce in North Carolina, where they both attended Duke University and shared a similar passion for music and life. Coincidentally, however, they grew up just 40 minutes apart in Connecticut. So this was where the wedding took place. Many of their family and friends live in the New York area. I would say it was convenient except that some of Joyce’s immediate family lives around Seattle, not to mention my aunts and uncles who arrived from North Carolina and Texas. They were among the 200 people at yesterday’s hot and humid outdoor wedding. I can’t really complain though. Friday’s golf tournament organized by my father had to be one of the hottest days of the year, or at least it felt that way because I didn’t play very well. I didn’t do much better when we went bowling that evening. Though, I did have a blast. The next day started out calm, like most weddings do. Then things got just a little out of control on the dance floor when Donna (Jaime’s godmother) pretended to be a bull, using her index fingers as horns as she charged toward Buzz (Jaime’s godfather). By that point most of the men on the dance floor had their ties wrapped around their foreheads, Rambo style. That was probably the pinnacle of the evening. Then people began to leave when I started singing karaoke to the Old School version of “Total Eclipse of the Heart.”

I want to thank my brother and Joyce for being awesome, and dealing with my shenanigans throughout the years. The large crowd at the wedding was a testament to them both. I just wish I had more time to chat with everyone.

Friday, July 4, 2008

More Than Fireworks

It is an experience you won’t forget. Sure you will remember the fireworks going off from Navy Pier, and the bright reflections cast on the surface of Lake Michigan on a cloudless night. Sure you will remember the hundreds of boats docked in the lake. You will also remember how happy you were for bringing a heavy coat, gloves, and a hat. Or, in my case, wish you had more than a T-shirt and jeans as you sat there freezing on a windy night that felt more like November than July.

You will also remember the hundreds of thousands of people gathered for miles along the lakefront to celebrate the festival. Many of them, you will recall, are families, couples, or friends, drinking, eating and enjoying the event. You will also remember the large masses of loud teenagers acting obnoxious after the fireworks ended.

It took me more than two hours to get home on the train and bus due to the large crowds last night after the fireworks. Luckily, I made it home in one piece. There was a shooting in the area where I had walked to catch the train. One teenager was killed and three others were hospitalized. It was the third shooting in five years in the area around the Taste of Chicago and the Fourth of July fireworks. The Taste is a free annual festival in Grant Park offering cuisine from more than 60 local restaurants as well as live entertainment. It is the world’s largest food festival and lasts 10 days (starting Friday before the Fourth of July and ending the Sunday after). Unfortunately, the event seems to attract lots of annoying teenagers and thugs, such as the ones I saw last night. I saw a young man get arrested inside the train terminal as well as a couple of teenagers after a fight broke out in the street. In all, 25 people were arrested last night around the event. But like most people, all I wanted to do was take some photos and enjoy the fireworks. It is a shame that during the time our country should be so proud, I am reminded of the obvious failings. This year in Chicago there is a 13 percent rise in the murder rate (Through June, Chicago had 229 murders compared to 203 for the same period last year). There has also been a rise in New York (250 murders compared to 231 for the same period in 2007) and Los Angeles, according to police department statistics.

Tonight I’ll enjoy the Fourth of July inside my bedroom.

Independence Day

While Americans are lighting firecrackers and gathering for barbeques today, Colombians and the French are celebrating independence, too ... the independence of Íngrid Betancourt. Since being kidnapped by the FARC – a left-wing guerilla group involved in the cocaine trade and kidnapping – in 2002, Betancourt had been held hostage somewhere in the Colombian jungle. At the time of her kidnapping, she was running for president against Álvaro Uribe, who is Colombia’s current president. Betancourt had quite the resume. She had duel Colombian-French citizenship, attended elite schools, and became a Colombian senator in 1998 at age 36. During her six and a half years in captivity she became immensely popular in Colombia and France due to publicity from non-governmental human rights organizations, as well as French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who has been very outspoken for her release.

The day finally arrived on the evening of July 2. Colombian military intelligence officers pretended to be a non-governmental organization that was sympathetic to the FARC. They arrived in an area of the jungle called “Guaviare” on helicopters, saying they were on a humanitarian mission to take the hostages elsewhere. Betancourt and three American captives boarded the helicopter bound for Bogotá.

The timing was ideal for this clever plan. In the last few months, the FARC’s top two leaders have reportedly died and hundreds of its members have left or surrendered. In a December 2007, a video tape was released on the news showing a frail-looking Betancourt in the middle of the jungle along with a letter she had written to her mother. Betancourt said she was losing the will to live and appeared very thin. In that video were three American military contractors, who were also rescued with Betancourt.

In the recent news videos, Betancourt seems healthy, mentally and physically. If there is anyone who appreciates his or her freedom, it is Betancourt and the other rescued hostages. Presidential hopeful John McCain had visited Colombia on Tuesday and told reporters that President Uribe and Colombia Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos had briefed him about the Betancourt mission.

Indeed Betancourt, her mother, husband, and two children were elated. “Nirvana, paradise that must be very similar to what I feel at this moment,” she told reporters. Upon her arrival in Bogotá, reporters asked her whether she would become Colombia’s next president? It may seem like an inappropriate question after living as a prisoner in the middle of the jungle for more than six years. However, her immense fame and high approval rating can only be matched by that of President Uribe, whose final term ends in almost two years. She deflected this question, saying “only God knows” about her political future and that “at this moment, I just want to feel like one more Colombian soldier serving the country.” She soon had to leave, however. Today, Betancourt flew to Paris to visit President Sarkozy and the myriad French supporters. Betancourt was raised in France.

Betancourt and Sarkozy acknowledged that there are many hostages still in the Colombian jungle. In the meantime, at least for today, Betancourt serves as an invaluable reminder of how precious it is to live in freedom.