This past weekend I did something I haven't done since summer of 2004: I took a vacation. I went to visit Chicago with my very good girlfriends Lindsay (above, left) and Kate (above, right). It was a blast of a weekend, such a one that for me has been a very long time coming. Sure, I go out of town occasionally on buying trips--I know, I know, rough life--but it's been quite a while since I've had a vacation designed solely for the purpose of fun and relaxation. I'd like to share some of the highlights of our trip with you.
But first, a bit of background. Kate and Lindsay and I, along with two other girls named Laura and Annie, have known each other forever, it seems. We grew up dancing at The School of the Canton Ballet and as young teens, we were invited to join the performing company. By the time we were in middle school, we were already apprenticed to the company, and between classes and lengthy weekend and evening rehearsals, we devoted up to thirty hours a week to the study of classical ballet. This kind of rigorous schedule and disciplined lifestyle grooms a very unique adolescent--often more focused, centered, mature, and sometimes higher-achieving in all areas of their lives. (Not saying we are these things--it just tends to be a byproduct of the dancer's lifestyle.) Also, spending so many hours a week with the same people for years at a time bonds you together in a way that is pretty special. So suffice it to say that the two girls who went to Chicago with me know me pretty well--and vice-versa.
The occasion for our trip was actually to attend a performance of the Chicago Ballet. One of our old friends, Sean (also a Canton Ballet-alum), was dancing his final performance with the ballet company last weekend, as his wife has had an out-of-state job transfer and the two of them are off on a new adventure.
Its rich history aside, Chicago, to me, represents that gleaming urban metropolis of possibility that so many recent college graduates feel drawn to when they're envisioning a new life for themselves. It's big enough to hold more promises than you could count and more people than you could possibly meet. It's a beautiful place to start fresh or start over or raise a family. It's accessible and easy to travel through and around. It's exciting--full of culture and fine dining and shopping--but has the laid back vibe of a Midwestern city --after all, it's still in Illinois! In my experience, it's the kind of place where you feel right at home on your very first visit. In short, I love Chicago.
Ah, so where should I start? I know...the food!!! I am, by all accounts (including my own), a big foodie. I love to cook and I appreciate great food. I have never been known to turn down a good meal (ask my boyfriend). [I flatter myself to think that this is one similarity between myself and Giada deLaurentiis--on her Chefography she says that growing up, her family would be eating breakfast and one of them would say, "What are we having for lunch?" and at lunch they'd be saying, "What are we having for dinner?" But I digress.]
On Friday evening, Kate and her friend Shawn (not the dancer) and I checked out Vintage Wine Bar on Division Street in the Wicker Park area. Vintage has a non-snobby attitude about wine and encourages its diners to ask lots of questions and not to be afraid to make "mistakes" with pairings. Red wine with fish? Right on! Their on-the-small-side menu features a limited number of entrees and desserts and a fuller array of tapas--small plates meant to be shared around the table. Now, being a somewhat stingy sort of soul when it comes to eating, a part of me dislikes the idea of tapas. What?! Small plates? How is that a good idea? I actually like the feeling of being a little too full. But you know what, the right bites in small portions can be oh so satisfying. Kate and Shawn and I shared a trio of crostini topped with different pestos (yum), calamari (the best any of us had ever had), and a flight of cheese. A flight of cheese!--that's just fun to say. And then we got entrees. Mine was a decadent pasta of linguine, asparagus, portobello mushroom slices, and shaved egg whites in a light cream sauce. The waitress told us that the secret to this dish was the truffle oil used in the sauce. So much flavor. The shaved egg whites lent a fluffy consistency to the dish. It was like eating pasta on a cloud.
But you didn't sign on for a food column, did you?
On to the shopping! Oh, we walked the Magnificent Mile, dallied for a few moments in H&M, marveled at the hugeness of the Crate & Barrel, hightailed it past Chanel & Louis Vuitton (sorry, girls--too rich for my blood!), and gaped, horrified, as a silver-painted street performer got aggressive with a camera-toting tourist. I have to be honest and tell you that Michigan Avenue does not hold a lot of allure for me. My interest lay more in the off-the-beaten path districts of the city, where independent retailers and locally owned coffee shops and restaurants rule.
In Wicker Park, one of my favorites was Tatine, an interesting little shop that specializes in their own line of candles. In addition to the candles, there are lamps, journals, petite zipper sacs, and all kinds of rich, handmade salves and body butters. And great music to shop to! It was fun for me to see some of the same merchandise as we have at The Blissful, only displayed completely differently. It helps to get ideas and a fresh eye. Tatine has our metal bottle drying rack, only instead of the conventional use (we hang glasses on ours), they used the spokes as little shelves on which to balance greeting cards. Perfect!
Another discovery was Porte Rouge, a South of France-inspired shopping experience. I enjoyed their wonderful collection of elegant tabletop, candles and body products, loose tea, and upholstered furniture. There was also this to-die-for blue mariage armoire from Normandy, circa 1880s. [sigh] I would've loved to have snatched this up and had it shipped back to my own shop.
My time in Chicago this past weekend really got me thinking about the art of branding, something I'm sure I'll want to explore in a later blog. Each shop we visited made its own particular statement and left its own singular impression on me. I love and appreciate a shop (and a smart and savvy shop owner) that somehow can pull everything together so well--not only the merchandise selection, but the bags, the tissue paper in the bags, the product tags, the signage, the music, the fragrance of the store, even the employees' outfits and the manner in which they greet customers. All of the above and more goes into creating a brand and communicating that brand clearly and powerfully to every customer who comes in the door. I am obsessed with these ideas at the moment. So maybe I didn't, um, take last weekend off after all. But why should I? When you're passionate, you're passionate.