Chicago: The Architecture City

So one of the perks of my job is that I’ll occasionally have the chance to go on business trips and do on-site support for my projects. I had my first opportunity to do so about a week and a half ago and had a chance to check out ASCO 2018, an annual conference about oncology, in Chicago.

I may write another blog post about ASCO some other time, but this post is going to focus on Chicago.

The main concourse for ASCO in McCormick Place.

Prior to this trip, I wasn’t actually sure if I’ve ever been to Chicago. I know I’ve been to the airport many times because of layovers, but I don’t actually remember leaving the airport. If I did, then I was probably so young I don’t remember it.

Since the primary purpose of the trip was to be at the conference, I didn’t actually have a lot of time to check out the city, but I tried to make the most of it every night after the conference. Luckily, my hotel was right in downtown Chicago right next to Millennium Park, meaning that I wasn’t very far from all of the major sights.

Coming off of another trip to America, Philadelphia, I was pleasantly surprised by how different Chicago was. If Philadelphia was Ottawa, then Chicago would be Toronto. Chicago just has that.. dominant and imposing feeling that Philadelphia was missing.

The view of Eastern Chicago from Willis Tower.

It’s hard to explain, but if you’ve been to enough large cities, you kinda know what I mean. Philadelphia is by no means a small city, but Chicago just feels different. It has more skyscrapers, a more visually dramatic style, and just seems busier.

One of the highlights of the trip was definitely the architecture boat tour I took with some of my coworkers. I didn’t know much about Chicago before and so it was kinda impressive to go to the river and just see a huge assortment of tall skyscrapers, all with different architectural styles.

Two hotels, different styles.

It kinda made sense though given the history of the city. It was, and still is, one of America’s biggest cities and it burned down in the Chicago Fire, giving the city a chance to rebuild itself any way it wanted. And apparently the way it wanted to be rebuilt was with a bunch of skyscrapers and nice parks.

Not a bad way to do it really.

Now, I’m no stranger to skyscrapers. Cities like Hong Kong and Dubai have plenty of amazing ones. But, the interesting thing about Chicago is that it has a similar feel to Dubai since it has a bunch of unique and impressive looking buildings. But unlike Dubai, it has had a bit more time to mature and grow and so the rest of the city had a chance to develop as well.

In that regard, it’s similar to Hong Kong just due to the density of tall buildings. Of course, Hong Kong is still both denser and taller, but Chicago brings this North American flair to it which is pretty neat.

Willis Tower from the Chicago River.

Overall, I enjoyed the boat tour a lot. It’s nice to learn about the history of the city and to obtain some insight into the context of the development of these buildings. I’m pretty interested in stuff like that so it was definitely worth it for me.

Aside from skyscrapers, Chicago is also well known for their parks. They essentially just have a giant chunk of land by the lake that are just parks and it’s a pretty nice hangout spot. One of these parks is Millennium Park, which is famous for having the Cloud Gate. I’ve seen many pictures of it and well, it’s pretty much exactly the same as the pictures you’ve seen. It’s interesting and different, especially when you see a cool reflection, but it’s not super super special in my opinion.

The Cloud Gate at night reflecting a bunch of buildings.

They had this other fountain nearby that was a bit more interesting since they were essentially two rectangular blocks that looked like mini skyscrapers that spit out water. They were illuminated and displayed a projection of some person’s face, which was super weird and too artsy for me. That said, I’m always a fan of seeing unique things, and that’s definitely something I’ve never seen before.

In generally, I really liked just walking around the parks and checking them out. It was a pretty relaxing area but it still had a good density of interesting things to check out and see and so it was nice to explore. I even rented a bike on the first day and just rode around the parks and along the lake. It was a pretty chilly and windy day (Windy City right?) but it was also really awesome to just bike around.

For one, I just kinda missed riding a bike. I rode a lot in Korea and haven’t had a chance to do so since coming back to Canada so it was nice to just be biking again. Plus, it was especially cool cause you really can cover a lot more ground on a bike so you can go to places that are a bit more out of the way. One of the favourite places I went to was this beach on Northerly Island. It was a pretty small beach, but it was quiet and all you could hear was the waves crashing along the shore and it was just so nice.

A small beach with big waves.

Aside from its sights, Chicago is also famous for some of their food, namely their pizza. I had a chance to go try some proper deep dish pizza during my short stay there, and it was pretty good. It honestly looked more like a cake than a pizza, but it was still made of pizza ingredients and so it tasted wonderful. I don’t know if I could eat it often, but I’m very glad I tried it and would probably get it again if I go back to Chicago.

Chicago is also well known for their popcorn mix as well. I bought some at the airport on the way back home and it was actually pretty nice. The cheesy parts were super cheesy and the sweet parts had this nice caramel flavour to it. Pretty legit stuff.

Based on the meals I had in Chicago I can definitely see the appeal of just eating.. this type of food all the time. Can’t be healthy but damn does it taste good.

Deep dish pizza from Giordano’s.

So in conclusion, I really liked Chicago. It reminded me a lot of Toronto, which is a good thing. I love big cities, especially ones that have had some time to mature and carve out its own personality. Those are the most exciting because it’s interesting to just walk around and explore the city and figure out how it’s managed to differentiate itself from the thousands of other cities around the world.

I don’t know if I’d make a deliberate trip to Chicago anytime soon, but I know I wouldn’t be upset if I got sent there again on another business trip.

Philadelphia: The Birthplace of America

So over the weekend I had a chance to go visit Philadelphia, my first actual trip to America in a long time. I’ve been to America a bunch of times, but recently the trips have mostly been simple day trip border crossings to go check out a Trader Joe’s or something so this was a unique trip in the sense that it was an actual trip.

Which is also neat too, since as far as I can remember, I think this was the first time I’ve actually flown into America as an actual destination. Every other time I’ve flown there before was for a layover or something so those don’t really count.

The main purpose of the trip was to attend my cousin’s wedding. But since it was a long weekend for us in Canada, that meant we had some extra time to actually do some sightseeing and walk around. To be honest, I didn’t have many expectations for the trip going in. America isn’t typically a place that I’m too interested in visiting.

The very first time I’ve attended a wedding that was hosted in a museum.

I’ve technically been to Philly before, but that was over a decade ago so I don’t remember too much about it. So I decided that the best way to handle this trip was to just kinda go with the flow and check it out like I’ve never been before.

Now, typically when you think of America, I don’t think you’d normally use the words “historic” to describe it. Oddly enough, Philly was pretty historic. It’s pretty unique in the sense that America was pretty much founded there like 250 years ago. The Founding Fathers got together one day and signed a piece of paper that led to the creation of what is now the most powerful country in the world.

Not bad for a day’s work right?

Independence Hall, a place where some dudes a while back signed some papers.

But pretty much as a result of that, a lot of the older elements in the city were preserved since they are a direct link to America’s history. This means that you have buildings that are over one or two hundred years old, which in European or Asian terms is practically nothing, but for North America that’s pretty old.

One of my favourite aspects of cities in other continents is that they typically have an interesting mix of historical, cultural, and modern architecture. North America doesn’t normally have that so I was pleasantly surprised by Philly’s downtown core since it actually had old stuff in it. I have to say I am a fan of seeing the contrast between an old architectural style and modern skyscrapers.

The main tourist attraction in Philly would be the Independence Mall, which is a large park which contains the Independence Hall, the building where the Declaration of Independence was signed. The building itself isn’t extremely exciting, but the significance of the place is not lost on you. Between all the information kiosks and the statues hanging around, you are very aware of the events that once took place where you are standing.

A statue of John Barry, the “Father of the American Navy”.

Aside from that, if you check out a map of Philly, you’d see that around city hall there are four parks that make up a larger rectangle with city hall in the middle. The four corner squares are Franklin Square, Washington Square, Rittenhouse Square, and Logan Square. These, alongside city hall, were designated as public areas hundreds of years ago and still exist today.

The interesting thing about them is that when I went, they were all slightly different with a different feel and atmosphere. Franklin Square had some random Chinese Lantern Festival going on which was weird because it’s definitely not time for any Chinese Lantern Festivals, and so the atmosphere there was kinda.. cheesy and fake?

Washington Square is nearby the Independence Hall and carried a more somber tone. The square contained the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, which represents the fallen soldiers during the Revolutionary War. I have a great respect for soldiers, especially those who died fighting for their country, so these monuments are kinda neat. This was especially interesting since I visited another Tomb of the Unknown Soldier last year in Moscow, but obviously they were focused on different soldiers.

Freedom, what a word.

Rittenhouse Square was the least exciting square in my opinion. This is probably also due to the fact that it was pouring rain during my walk to there and so not only was that an annoyance, but the park was also fairly wet when I got there. It felt more like a typically European park with some paths and fountains, but it was wet and I was tired so I didn’t stay long.

Logan Square was honestly more of a circle than a square, but it contained a giant fountain in the middle and it was pretty nice. They had a lot of signs saying no swimming but there were a ton of people swimming in the fountain. I guess America is truly the land of the free.

City hall, in the center square, is probably the best square. But at the same time it’s totally cheating since it has city hall there so it’s not a true public square. Regardless, the city hall looks absolutely beautiful. You have this giant intricate building and right in front of it there’s a few grassy areas, small water spouts, and some chairs for sitting. The atmosphere was very relaxing and wonderful.

Despite being a bit squished, I’m pretty happy with this panorama.

It was a long day of walking around and so I just kinda sat there for a bit to take it all in. It was really nice. I definitely felt some of the similar ambiance that you’d feel in some parks in Europe, with the people chilling in the grass and the big fancy building in the background. It would’ve been the perfect place for a cold drink and a book or something.

Considering how nice city hall looked and how modern the subway entrances there looked, it was a pretty big surprise for me when I actually got down to the train platforms and saw just how uh, different things were down there. Not only was it run down and old, but the subway service was pretty garbage and people were literally smoking on the platform. That genuinely surprised me a bit since city hall looked so nice, but it was a pretty stark reminder that Philly is in North America, the continent with terrible public transit.

And of course, you can’t talk about Philly without talking about Philly Cheese Steaks. They’re delicious so I made it a goal to have some legit cheese steaks during my trip. I asked a friend of mine for recommendations and he pointed me to a restaurant that he said was good and so we went and tried it. It didn’t look super great but it tasted pretty ok. Would probably go back.

A non-photogenic, but pretty good, cheese steak.

Overall, Philadelphia was pretty ok. As far as North American cities go, it was actually pretty interesting. I liked how there was a good mix of modern, historic, and open spaces in the city and it was definitely very walkable. Might be a bit of a random trip to go there just to visit the city, but it would definitely be a list of places I’d recommend as part of a road trip or something though.

PyeongChang 2018 Olympic Winter Games

I’m not really a big sports person, but the one sporting event I do follow is the Olympics. When I was a growing up I remember checking the newspaper for the results and medal standings in the morning and watching the events on TV after school. I always thought it would be super cool to one day be able to go and check out the Olympics.

There’s just something magical about the passion and pride that goes into competing (and cheering) for your country.

Fast forward to a couple years ago when I was applying to study in Korea, I remembered that they would be holding the Winter Olympics in 2018. I quickly did the math in my head and realized that I would graduate in the summer of 2017 so I’d miss the Olympics unless if I stayed longer or went back to Korea or something. That kinda sucked, but hey, that’s life I guess.

The Gangneung Olympic Cluster under construction in 2015.

I didn’t really want to go back to Korea so soon after leaving, but I knew that I wanted to visit my friends that still live there. That was the main point of the trip but the chance to go check out the Olympics was a huge bonus. So, I planned my trip to Korea and coordinated with some of my friends to go check out an Olympic hockey game as well. Finally, I had the opportunity to actually go to the Olympics for the very first time.

Every Olympics has their own set of problems and issues, and Korea is no exception to that rule. Leading up to the Olympics there was a lot of things that directly influenced the event. For example, there weren’t going to be any NHL players playing in the hockey tournament, Russia had the whole doping scandal going on so they couldn’t play as Russia, like everything about North Korea, and so on.

There was essentially a whole slew of drama and politics that really overshadowed much of the event itself so I didn’t really know what to expect from it. Regardless, me and four of my friends took an early train to PyeongChang on a Sunday morning to start our own Olympic adventure.

The Olympic Mascots by Jinbu Station.

I honestly already felt kinda excited from the moment we got off the train. The train station we got off at was called Jinbu station but they added in parenthesis “Olympic Station” and seeing that simple addition already made me feel kinda giddy.

I was actually going to be able to check out the Olympics!

We started the day by heading over to the Olympic Stadium. After going through security you walk out into this plaza where you are greeted by the flags of all the participating countries. That was a pretty cool moment. Of course, I had to look for the Canadian flag and it was also pretty neat to see the North Korean flag there too considering we were in South Korea.

The flags of the participating nations of the 2018 Winter Olympics.

Aside from having the actual Olympic Stadium and Cauldron, the PyeongChang Olympic Plaza had a few stages for performances and a few other art exhibitions. There was of course, a merchandise store as well. That’s pretty much where we went to first and there was a ton of people inside. There was a lot of popup stores in Seoul selling Olympic merchandise but the store there was gigantic and was selling much more stuff.

Next, we checked out the Olympic Cauldron which was next to the Olympic Stadium. Unfortunately, we weren’t allowed to go into the stadium but you could kinda just admire it from the outside and take pictures with the flame. It was a bit hard to see the fire so I feel like it was a bit of a wasted opportunity there, but regardless, it was cool to see.

The Olympic Cauldron with a tiny flame.

Oddly enough, the highlight of the PyeongChang Olympic Plaza was the art and technology exhibition they had. They had a bunch of cool looking installations you could check out and it was pretty awesome. I have no idea how any of that stuff was related to the Olympics, but hey, it was there and was interesting.

Afterwards we grabbed a quick lunch out in the city before taking a bus to the Gangneung Olympic Cluster. It’s weird because you’d imagine the PyeongChang cluster to be the main one but the Gangneung cluster actually had more things to check out and was the overall more atmospheric area. Our timing was pretty good too because as we were walking through the plaza we saw this random parade go by which was pretty neat.

Most of the major indoor sporting venues were there and so you had a lot more people there. A lot of the major sponsors had some representation there as well. For example, Coke had a giant “vending machine” you could go into and get some cool souvenirs (I went to the one in Hongdae), McDonald’s had some cool burger and fries shaped buildings, and so on.

A traditional Korean parade in front of a giant hockey stadium.

They even had a building talking about the next Olympics which is going to be held in Japan in 2020. That was really weird though since they had some weird scanner thing where you could scan yourself and see a projected cartoon version of yourself walking weirdly down a street. You could also even use some 1990s era camera technology to badly photoshop yourself onto a skateboard. That was weird.

After checking out as much as we could, we tried to get into Canada House since it was supposed to be open to public. Unfortunately I didn’t realize you had to buy tickets ahead of time so we couldn’t get in, but it ended up being alright cause we found this awesome restaurant somewhere else and got dinner there before the hockey game.

The Canada House I unfortunately could not get into.

Originally we wanted to watch a hockey game between Canada and South Korea but by the time we actually got train tickets that event was sold out so we ended up getting tickets for Finland vs Sweden instead. Before entering the hockey stadium we were given the choice of some free cheering tools. Some of my friends went for the Finnish flag but I thought that was weird so I got some Olympic branded face masks instead.

In hindsight that was also kinda weird.

Anyways, it was exciting because not only was this an Olympic hockey game, it was also my first real hockey game. I know, I’m a terrible Canadian who never actually went to a hockey game up until very recently.

Seconds before the puck drops in my first ever hockey game.

It was actually a really fun game. Sweden was obviously the better team but Finland put up a solid fight. Plus for some reason like 80% of the fans in the stadium were cheering for Finland and so there was some real hype in watching the underdogs play. Every time the Finns did something the stadium would go crazy. It was really awesome.

After the game we went back to the train station and took a late train back to Seoul. By the time I actually went to bed it was like 4 am and I was tired as hell but it was totally worth it.

After literal decades of just watching the festivities from afar, it was really surreal to actually be there. Once you’re actually there and standing in the Olympic venues, it’s really easy to just get lost in the moment and bask in the excitement and atmosphere that is the Olympics.

The Olympic Rings by Gangneung Station.

Korea doesn’t typically have a festive mood because they don’t really do decorations or festivities. Even with big holidays like Seollal and Christmas, Korea just kinda stays as grey and unexciting as it always does. The Olympics were different though.

They actually had a lot of decorations going around. Be it banners and posters featuring the athletes or mascots, or just flags of the world displayed along the road, it really did feel like the country was celebrating something. Plus, you saw a lot more foreigners on the streets and a lot of them were wearing symbols of their countries, which just added to the overall environment. I really appreciated that since that kind of festive atmosphere was something I thought the country sorely lacked throughout the three years I lived there for.

People keep saying the Olympics are a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Well, I’m hoping it’s not because I had a great time and it would be awesome to be able to go check out another one in the future.