“Flushed Away”- Trials, Tribulations and Toilets in Chicago 

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You’ve got to keep looking up! Millennium Mile, Chicago
Are you worried about life? Do you think it’s all going belly up and/or down the tubes? Are you looking for help and a clear answer amidst the unfolding chaos? Yes? Well you won’t find one here BUT you will find some stories that might just  make you feel better about your own life, even if it is at my expense!

So it started like this; here we were staying in a fancy big house for our opening number in Chicago. I’d like to say that we were happy and cheery and embracing change but that would be a huge false positive and my current mood embraces honesty. So we were moaning, homesick and having adjustment issues. In desperation, Leo decided to fly in my sister Gemma and her son George to help us settle in. She has a soothing and gentle personality and laughs joyfully at ridiculous things, which is deeply infectious- so yes, her presence was an immediate and very gratefully received tonic.

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Cloud Gate, Chicago
Chicago, through her eyes, sparkled and shone and we all felt hopeful again. We took ourselves off to the lake, swam, frolicked on the beaches, hired bikes and ate in the elegant Lincoln Park cafe near the famous Chicago zoo. We spent hours in the incredible Art Institute, admired the sculptures in Millenium Park and wandered around our neighbourhood feeling happy and jolly.

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Striking architecture in downtown Chicago
We noted how smiley and friendly the people of Chicago were and our spirits lifted. We could make something of this time here! It was ok. Then they left and we fell into doom and despair. When would we see them again? We didn’t  know and our hearts bleeted like lost lambs looking for safety.

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Art inspection time at the Chicago Art Institute
A few sullen days later, I heard a huge shout from the scarily stylish sitting room in our air B and B house. “Mummy” screamed Anoushka “there’s water pouring through the ceiling” I ran in and there it was pouring all over the yellow velvet chairs. We dragged them to one side and found a bucket, but not before it had throughly soaked me.

I sprinted up the stairs to find the dastardly culprit, imagining it was an overflowing sink but to my horror it was the toilet-yes toilet! It poured all over my feet and wooshed and flowed like a tsunami over the floor and down the expensive polished wooden stairs, heading for the sitting room rugs with a horrid determination. I felt my insides flip over with fear and mild disgust. I found a plunger and whacked it up and down in the toilet like Superwoman (it’s remarkable the strength you have when in “fight or flight mode!) and thankfully the water resided.

I inspected the damage and saw a large crack beginning to appear on the sitting room ceiling. I would have to call the owners. I felt sick. I mustered up the courage and got on with it and was surprised by their very relaxed response.  Leo’s work were paying a very large amount of cash to them each week so I presumed that accounted for it! I managed to clear up the house and the ceiling didn’t cave in – we had had a lucky escape!

A few months later, when we had moved into a more permanent rental, I was woken up on a Saturday morning at 6am by enormous shrieks and shouts. I came flying out of bed in my nightdress, hair squashed to my head, glasses left beside the bed so the world was slightly out of focus and found my feet drenched as I ran up the recently cleaned, carpeted stairs.

There was my husband looking seriously stressed by the small ground floor bathroom and there was that water yet again pouring out of another toilet. Even without my glasses I could see he was wearing a frantic expression. “Plunge that thing down it!” I shouted “What thing?” I pushed past and grabbed the toilet brush “This!” I screamed, whilst bashing it up and down inside the toilet bowl. “Oh no!” I cried “What?” shouted Leo “the brush has got stuck!” There was nothing I could do – I plunged my arm down into the bowl to retrieve it. This was too awful. I handed the brush to my husband -“You do it!” I shouted again, this time adding a string of colourful expletives (well wouldn’t you? I hadn’t even had a cup of tea and my feet were soaked in wee!) He took charge (hooray!) and with enough pummelling the water finally retreated- the battle was won!

The kids by this time were standing watching us in bewildered bemusement. “Go back to bed!” I shouted at them too. It was a very shouty morning. “Where are you going?” Leo asked “I am going right back to bed myself. You can sort this out! That was the most disgusting start to my day ever!”

We recounted the story to our lovely upstairs neighbours “But” noted Andrew, a Pilot and all round brilliant and practical human with great cooking and gardening skills “Why didn’t you just turn off the valve?” Yes dear friends, next to the toilet was a little tap and if turned, the water stopped. Well you live and learn!

About six months later (yes, there’s more) just before we were due to move into our new and just decorated house,  I noticed that water was pouring through the bathroom ceiling. I rushed upstairs and knew immediately that it was the devilish toilet but this time I was too quick for it –  I reached down, turned off the valve and defeated it! Under advice we replaced all the malicious toilets, thereby averting any future potential catastrophes – what a relief.

The moral of this story is that sometimes life throws a pile of filth your way (in our case, literally!) but once it’s faced and washed away, things start to look a lot brighter. I’ve learnt from experience that there is normally a silver lining in most situations and if in doubt – laugh it out!

That first weekend in Chicago… 

Botanical Gardens, Chicago

We arrived in the USA and for the time being, we were here to stay. Were we ready for this? No. Did we know what to expect; have any friends, family or ties – No. Yet here we were; every step we took would be a step towards creating  our new life. It was a daunting and interesting position to be in.  Suddenly we were in a city where people had no preconceptions about us. We could, if we wanted to, literally reinvent ourselves. I wasn’t quite ready for that but I did find myself wondering if there were outdated parts of myself I could eliminate and if fresh parts might emerge in their place.

With those thoughts pinging through my mind we arrived at our air B and B house, where we would be staying for the next six weeks. It was super slick and fancy. The walk in wardrobe was packed with colour coded shirts, post it notes with tiny instructions for us were affixed to every cupboard, a heated toilet seat graced the master bathroom (yuck! Who wants a hot bottom?) plus there were seven television sets scattered around the house including one in aforesaid bathroom… maybe TV watching whilst having a hot bottom was all the rage in Chicago? As if that wasn’t enough to worry me, downstairs in the beautifully decorated reception area were four elegant, orange velvet chairs nestled under a horrifyingly expensive looking chandelier. 

Now, we happen to have two very lively kids who quite like a spot of indoor ball throwing (when I’m not looking) plus occasional sofa gymnastics, so I felt mildly nauseous as I pre-empted all the potential disasters just waiting to happen, but my tummy cried out for food, which was a welcome distraction, so off we trotted, Skyla in tow, to find some.

The first thing I noticed was that Chicago was so hot and steamy it felt tropical 🌴, which really surprised me. We were staying in Bucktown, a trendy area bustling with life, people and activity. There were upmarket boutiques, vintage stores, record shops, guitar shops and enough bars, restaurants and cafes to keep us busy for years. It was heaving with strong young couples in fitness gear, some of them racing along with their prams (don’t those kids ever feel dizzy?), bearded hipsters (beards of all shapes and sizes from neat and trimmed to animal like long bushes!) tattooed ladies (I’ve never seen so many tattoos -ever!) and dog walkers – basically just my cup of tea! 

Gavin with his luxurious beard, at Goorin Brothers hat store

A friendly soul guided us to Big Star, the hippest Mexican restaurant in town, packed with humans of all ages, blaring rock music and super cool staff. It was here we ate our first Chicago meal, Skyla sitting comfortably by our feet.

That weekend we explored the neighbourhood, finding ourselves in a street festival, Chicago style. There was great live music, international food and various stands selling everything from clothes, organic toiletries and home made candles to cheeses and bric a brac. Chicago really comes alive in the summer and now I’m experiencing their beautiful but brutal winter, I can see why! Once the sun shines, the restaurants and cafes fling open their doors and dining al fresco becomes the norm. It was this Chicago that greeted us on those first days and looking back, I’m so relieved it was as we had, what you might call, a “soft landing.” 

Buzz cafe, serving the best coffee in Bucktown

We would spend August acclimatising to our new world before Leo started work and the kids started school. That month (and the ones after) were to prove challenging, in what had already been a challenging year, yet I remained resolutely hopeful and sometimes just a glimmer of hope is all you need.

Hugs at the street festival!

Featured here: 

The Chicago Botanical Gardens

This really is a place of wonder and immense beauty for all the family. You can stay there all day and it has a great restaurant serving healthy food. If the weather is good you can eat on the terrace overlooking the gardens. http://www.chicagobotanic.org

Goorin Brothers Hat Shop, Bucktown 

This is the best hat shop in Chicago. They host regular parties here, with food, live music and a great atmosphere. Their staff are well informed, interesting and great to talk to. It’s really worth a visit. http://www.goorin.com

Big Star

Fun, trendy Mexican restaurant with a large terrace that’s open for as long as the sun shines. This place is packed day in day out and always has a lively atmosphere. Dogs welcome! http://www.bigstarchicago.com

Buzz Killer Espresso 

Buzz has the friendliest young staff, great cappuccinos, fresh pastries and is dog friendly – heaven when it’s a brisk -15 degrees Celsius outside and you need a quick warm up whilst out walking your dog! 

Next up… Trials and Tricky Tribulations in Chicago…

What I’ve learnt in 2016

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At the lake in Chicago
What a year it has been – I’m sure for most people, not just me. I have to admit that I will look forward to putting this year in a box entitled “I’ve had enough of you already, go away and don’t come back!” then closing the lid and never looking in it again. Fortunately, there are some tiny nuggets of usefulness that have emerged out of the chaos and I have decided to share them, just in case anyone else needs a quick boost……

Be the change you want to see in the world. Really. You can do this.

You can’t make people like you.

Happiness is a state of mind. Take charge of your state of mind and your mind will take charge of your happiness.

Worrying gets in the way of progress, as does pettiness.

If you don’t exercise and you eat lots of chocolate, your bottom will grow. It has no choice.

True friends honour you. Honour them and honour yourself.

You can’t have a successful relationship with someone if you don’t share the same principles and morals.

Laughter is definitely and without a doubt, the best medicine. I definitely need more of it.

You can’t always help people, even if you want to. 

Sarcasm is a good tonic for the soul. If you are looking for some, find a Brit and tap them and out it will pour.

Get a really good hairdresser. A really good haircut will transform your mood/life. Same can be said for a really bad one.

You can tell a man by his shoes.

Don’t make excuses.

If you have to lie, make it convincing or don’t bother.

Learn to forgive but don’t forget.

Forgiveness is the best form of revenge (success helps too- never give up!)

Life sometimes throws a pile of 💩your way. See it as fertile manure and grow something good out of it because within every pile of 💩is a lesson.

Your thoughts create your world. Literally. So clean them and make them sparkle! Get them shiny and ready for 2017. As I’ve been taught this year- “what you focus on you get more of!” So change your focus!

A bit of moaning is a good thing. Relentless moaning is really dull.

If you are feeling down, here are my top tips for instant mood enhancement:

1. Eat dark chocolate (70% does the trick) One small bar is enough to lift your mood and get your heart racing. 2. Eat eggs – any style 3. Eat hot chilli. You can even have the chilli in your chocolate or on your egg! 4. Watch a comedy. Anything with Bill Murray, Martin Short or Michael McIntyre works for me. 5. Call a friend who really likes you and doesn’t mind you moaning. Just remember, they will need to be able to moan back. 6. Have a good cry and/or shout (preferably somewhere private) and then walk in a park or go to a beach or hug a tree- just get outside and exercise! 7. Find a pet to stroke 8. Find an old person to help (not stroke). 9. Give to charity. 10. Every single time you walk past a mirror, give yourself a compliment – not just of the superficial kind, although they are pretty good too.

By the time you’ve done that lot, you will be too tired to moan. 

And that folks, is what I’ve learnt this year.

 

Chicago Calling! 

Cantabria, Spain

So here we are in a blog about Chicago and yet here I am telling stories about Madrid! It’s definitely time to pack up this part of the story and shift countries, but just before I do, let’s just neatly close this European chapter of my life….

Four months into our stay in Madrid and life was beginning to go well; we had all made friends and somehow I could make myself understood in my odd pigeon Spanish with accompanying wild gestures and vivid facial manoeuvres. Leo bought himself a fancy car and his new man mobile seemed to improve his happiness levels by at least 90 percent. Meanwhile, mine were increased by all things botanical- namely our gorgeous garden bursting with colour from the red roses clambering up the walls and the striking green ivy worn proudly by our house to the fresh rosemary and mint growing in abundance around our pool- yes pool! It may have been small but it provided enormous amounts of pleasure to the kids, who threw themselves with joy into its refreshing waters each sweltering day after school.

Our tiny but delightful pool

Friends and family were starting to visit from London and did I mention that the food was great- I mean mouth wateringly,  exceptionally, extraordinarily delicious. Eating was almost a spiritual experience! So all in all things were looking up and that’s the moment that Leo got the call from his Chicago based clients, inviting him to join their team and take off for yet a(nother) new life.  It was an offer he couldn’t refuse but it meant uprooting ourselves all over again.  How many new lives can one have in a year, I asked myself. I thought one was quite enough but now we had to tell the kids, who had finally started to settle after months of tears and drama. It certainly wasn’t a conversation I was looking forward to.

“No!” they shouted in unison, followed by more shouts and tears of disbelief. This was definely going to take some serious persuasion on my part. These kids were not happy, no, not happy at all. “We can’t move again! We’ve got friends! We like school!” Their anguish made my heart hurt.

We were heading to the land of dreams, myths and legends. This was the country where you could reinvent yourself, start from scratch and carve out a whole new life, yet here were we, a middle aged couple with two kids and a small dog – did we really have the stamina to pursue the “American dream?”

Leo could see we needed some encouragement so decided a virtual tour of Chicago would awaken our yearning to move there. We squeezed around him as he charged up the computer to show us Chicago in all its glory. “Look” he cried enthusiastically “there’s Chicago freezing. Can you see how cold it gets. Oh wait -here are photos of Chicago snowing- just look at that – can you see how deep it gets? Oh wait- here’s some of Chicago with really terrible Arctic winters. Do you know, last year they had to  close down the schools as it was so cold.” We all looked at the screen then looked at him. Was this supposed to inspire us?  Really? I hate being cold and have avoided ski trips passionately throughout my life. I’m what you could call a temperate girl – I like being luke warm and this was definitely not luke warm weather. “Look at this site” he cried with vigour, undeterred by our lacklustre responses, “it’s dedicated to showing you how many layers to wear in Chicago winters so you don’t get hypothermia! They even have balaclavas! Do you know that your eyeballs can freeze when it gets really cold?” Leo laughed – yes laughed, in a slightly frenzied way as he dispensed this information like an unsavoury tonic.

“What’s summer like?” I asked desperation gently bubbling up and threatening to break the surface, “It’s great! It’s so hot! Really hot and humid but pretty short! You’ve basically got eight months a year of winter!” Now, I’m not sure about you but this tactic wasn’t working for me. “Leo, for goodness sake, show me something positive!” I was probably a touch shrieky by this point. “Look Abigail, they have loads of beaches and the people are really nice. It might just be the friendliest big city in the States and I won’t get another chance like this- ever. We have to do this.” “Oh” I replied, at a loss for words.  And that, dear readers, is how we ended up moving to Chicago.

Next up… those first chaotic weeks…