Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Volunteer Spotlight: Linda Fuller

By Margaret Sheridan

Linda Fuller is in the middle of an interview when a guest in goose down parka approached her table in the dining room.

The guest using gestures similar to a symphony conductor raved about one of Linda’s recommendations. The SOFA Intuit, an art fair at Navy Pier , rated five-star accolades from the beaming hostel guest. Linda graciously nods acceptance, and smiles.

“Such feedback, I love it. And I’ve only been here since July.’’

The hostel is within walking distance of Linda’s neighborhood in the Loop. The native of California has lived and worked downtown since she and her late husband arrived in 1980. They couple have lived many places including Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., and Connecticut.

Recently retired from the CTA after nearly 12 years of working in planning and operations management, Linda says her knowledge of the city’s transportation system is a bonus in manning the information desk on Friday mornings.

What are some perks of being a volunteer?
The enthusiasm from guests, when I see them discover what Chicago has to offer, and how easy it is to get around the city. You don’t need a car. I try to make the city accessible. Some guests, unfamiliar with the city, are overwhelmed, at first. Other travelers, especially Europeans, seem more familiar with using public transportation. Many come from places that have great transit systems.

Want to share some Chicago secrets?
I urge people, especially if the weather is bad, to visit lobbies. They are architecturally significant, and warm in winter. Favorites include the Marquette Building (140 S. Dearborn St.), The Rookery (209 S. LaSalle St.), and the Art Deco elegance of 135 S. LaSalle St. (formerly known as the Field Building).

Another place to see is the Grand Ballroom on the second floor of the Blackstone Hotel. The detailed ceiling plasterwork is amazing. I encourage visitors to go to the Chicago Cultural Center. They offer free building tours. There’s always something going on…a concert, an exhibit, a movie. There’s also the Museum of Contemporary Photography (600 S. Michigan Ave.) right in the neighborhood.

Got a secret dining spot?
Yes. It’s a little Mexican place on the Pink Line at the Damen stop on the “L”. It’s called Abuelo’s Mexican Grill (2007 S. Damen Ave.).

How do you travel?
I love to travel. In Europe when I was younger, I’d just go to train stations and ask for referrals on pensions and little cheap hotels. About five years ago, for fun, I took the train from Chicago to Los Angeles and proved to friends you don’t need a car in L.A. The train ride took two-and-half days. Then I got around LA very easily. I stayed in Little Tokyo. All you need to understand is the network of bus lines, airport shuttles and the subway system. Yes, LA does have a subway system.

Any future trips coming up?
I’ve got relatives spread out across the States. I’m busy discovering this country for now.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

An Outing to Buddy Guy's Legends

At 8:30 last Wednesday, November 3rd, about 20 travelers set out for Buddy Guy’s Legends to hear Scott Holt and his band play some blues. Although I had signed up to be the local guide, I had never actually been to the venue myself. Although none of us knew what we were in for, everyone was ready to have a good time.

My role as the local guide was literally a little misleading since, upon exiting the hostel, I turned north towards State Street rather than south to Wabash. Lucky for the twenty of us, one of the guests immediately called this to my attention. Upon arrival, our efforts to enter the club were once again thwarted, this time by a crowd of inebriated businessmen and a large, gruff doorman, who notified me that the bar would be closed until 10:00pm for a private party. With an extra hour to spare, I looked at our eclectic bunch of world travelers, and I felt a brief moment of panic. Luckily, a friendly bystander directed us to the South Loop Club just down the street, and most of our good-natured guests obligingly followed.

As the extremely friendly staff pushed the tables together into one very long row, it felt a little like my own private birthday party-- only it wasn’t my birthday. Still, a few of the hostellers affably bid me a happy one just for good measure.

Despite my initial panic, our small detour provided us with a perfect opportunity to get acquainted with each other. At my end of the table, I sat among a group of people from Minnesota, San Francisco, Chile, Colombia, Germany, Scotland, and Ireland where the discussion led to a friendly debate on American social etiquette (the arguable verdict being that Americans are typically more polite than other cultures at the expense of sometimes being less genuine). As a Chicagoan, it is sometimes difficult for me to gauge what guests truly think of the city. Nonetheless, my companions seemed particularly impressed by the local music scene and by Chicago’s role in many classic films. In fact, one guest had recently been to the Art Institute and admitted to appreciating Seurat’s "Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte" as much for its significance to art history as for its cameo in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.

At about 10:00, we all paid our bill, tipped our waitresses, and trekked back to Buddy Guy’s. The private party which had just let out must have had an open bar, because the place was teeming with randy, middle-aged men in neckties and blazers. A few of them offered to buy drinks for the travelers, but as far as I know, most people politely refused. Ultimately, I think we were as amused by them as they were by us.

Although most of us had come to the club expecting traditional Chicago blues, Scott Holt’s style had a bit of a country twang. Still, he was a talented musician, and I was pleasantly surprised. The club was standing-room only, and many of the hostel guests began to disperse among the crowd shortly after we arrived. Nonetheless, it seemed that most stayed well-after midnight. As they made the last call, Scott Holt and his band finally succumbed to their apparently irrepressible urge to close out with “Sweet Home Alabama.” Meanwhile, a few of the remaining hostellers had made new friends and were even making plans to find another bar.

In the end, all of the missteps and unexpected surprises of the evening seemed to work in our favor. Although things did not necessarily go to plan that night, as Ferris Bueller would say, “Life moves pretty fast, if you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.”

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Traveler Spotlight: NIGEL

Nigel's back.


One of HI-Chicago's most devoted guests, Nigel Jenkins from Cardiff, Wales, beams on the topic of Chicago. "I feel at home here,'' says the 44-year old intrepid traveler. "The people are friendly. The city is easy to get around on foot, bus and "el". And for a cinema buff like me, there are so many theaters.''

A tourist hitting the movies? Nigel isn't typical. This is his 16th visit to the city in 18 years of travel in Europe and North America. He's enjoyed all the tourist attractions of the city, and prefers to live it as a resident. We caught up with him a day before he headed off to Los Angeles on what he calls his annual Fall visit to the US. This one stretched for 17 days. His work as a therapist for adults with special needs allows him to schedule vacations twice a year.

What's your travel lifestyle?

I've been doing hostels for years by myself. The people you meet are of all ages but have a similar mindset. I love the downtown location of HI-Chicago. I've know Chicago well before Millennium Park. The city has really changed, and it's beautiful. The hostel in Santa Monica, Calif. is a favorite. It is so close to the beaches. And in Los Angeles, you can get cinema passes like they have in Britain and France.

I stay in all sorts of hostels. But the network hostels have high standard of operations. The service and facilities are first-rate. I like such consistency and familiarity. I've had all sorts of experiences. I remember one in St. Louis, Mo., where I was the only one there. At another hostel in Santa Fe., NM. you were expected to do chores. Sleeping in a room with 10 bunks in Chicago is fine. I'm not sure if I snore or not. No one ever complained. A favorite hostel is one in France, in a little town of Saint-Malo (a walled port city in Brittany).

What's your take on Chicago food?

I'm a vegetarian, so in Chicago it is easy. There are so many grocery stores. I love to go to Kramer's Health Food Shop (230 S. Wabash Ave.). I love their veggie bean burrito and beetroot juice. When Cultural Kitchen students here in the hostel were cooking a meal recently, they invited me to dinner. It was Chilean food and really good.

What's special for you about Chicago?

Running the lakefront. When I'm fit, I do marathons. I've done five marathons. Three Londons and two Chicagos (1999, 2000). But I'm out-of-shape at the moment.

What are your travel must-haves?

I never go anywhere without packing a couple of my Spillers Records tee-shirts into my backpack. I have 23 in different colors. Spiller's is the oldest record store in the world, since 1894. It's in Cardiff. I take Welsh cakes (a type of fruitcake biscuit) to have with tea. I don't go anywhere without my cell phone. It's loaded with photos of my nieces and nephews. I have five sisters and one brother, lots of relatives. I always buy extra Air Waves, my favorite chewing gum (anise-flavored). You can't buy it here. I give some to the staff (at the hostels). We know each other, they're like family.

What's on your dream travel agenda?

Easter Island. Australia. China.

What's on your near-future agenda?

Coming back here next March or April. I'd better make reservations now. You get really busy here.

-Margaret Sheridan, Volunteer