The journey home

We awoke to a very clear morning at 6.00am, with a full moon sitting high in the sky. The sun was only just starting to light up the sky, with a band of grey / blue light above the horizon followed by another band of pink – before that blended into an increasingly dark band of intense blue / black. The daily traffic buildup into the city had already commenced but it was still some time before the moving vehicles would grind to a near halt as they peeled off the freeway and into the city streets below our apartment.

The interstate and regional rail network was already bustling with the noisy diesel engines hauling double decker carriages into and out of the central Chicago station. We remain amazed how many apartments are built so close to the rail lines. Their possessions must move around inside their apartments when trains rattle by. 

Our UberX vehicle (booked yesterday) was on time and we exited the Level apartments to another cold day only for as long as it took to climb aboard our ride to the airport. The drive to O’Hare airport was stop-start affair. City-bound traffic ground to a standstill as we moved further away from the CBD. The snow we experienced at the weekend had obviously been heavier in the suburbs, as deep snow still remained on the ground. In places it remained deep enough to ski on.

O’Hare airport is large and busy, with a lot of commuters travelling today. Fortunately we were able to make use of the priority check-in and our connecting international flight meant we avoided extra charges for the 4 pieces of checked-in luggage (apparently domestic flights typically charge for check-in luggage in the USA, as Jetstar does in Australia). The security screening process was stricter than we experience in Australia. Boarding passed were scanned and a form of identification was necessary before passengers could proceed to the hand luggage and full body scanning steps. Shoes and belts off, electronic devices to be removed from hand luggage, jackets off then stand on the yellow foot prints inside the scanning machine before being allowed through to retrieve your possessions from the scanning tray(s). We all passed without any further checks.

The departure side of the security checks was very busy with people scanning departure boards for their flights, people queuing for take-out food as an alternative for non-existent inflight snacks / meals, and others making their way to their assigned departure gate. Our flight had been moved from its original gate to H14 – strategically located opposite an Intelligentia Café that served a vaguely acceptable cappuccino and where we were able to sit until the boarding call was made. We boarded without fuss to eventually find that a small mechanical issue was in need of repair and we would most likely be delayed about 15 – 20 minutes. Let’s hope that is the case, as we have a 2.5 hour flight to Dallas / Fort Worth where we have to retrieve our checked luggage before transferring onto our Melbourne flight that departs in the early evening.

Airports are always an interesting place to ‘people watch’. They appear to be a conduit for humanity, with all races, religions and demographics represented. Interesting fashion statements catch the eye, like the elderly gentleman waiting in the security screening queue with a garland of Christmas lights around his neck. To avoid drawing undue attention, the lights were not turned on until security screening was completed. 

The flight from Chicago was uneventful, landing a little roughly but with plenty of time up our sleeves to make our connecting flight. The landing was quite some distance from our final gate and taxiing from where we landed to the terminal building seemed to be of a similar duration to the flight itself. With our checked luggage retrieved, we caught a connecting bus to the international terminal (a journey of considerable distance) to find that the check-in counters for our flight would not open for a few hours. People watching again filled in the time. A young couple with young twins were dropped off by family and friends – they unloaded a double pushchair, twin car capsule and 13 pieces of luggage. When everything was packed on to 2 luggage trolleys they resembled a road train, as they headed off to the check-in counter weaving an unsure path through other passengers.

Eventually our flight check-in counter opened and we farewelled our checked luggage again, hoping to be reacquainted with it back in Melbourne. There was another security screening checkpoint to navigate before we were back into the world of fast food outlets, bars, souvenir shops, duty free alcohol, etc. 

We settled into the American Airlines Affiliates’ Flagship lounge and enjoyed a late lunch with other weary travellers waiting for their flights to depart. Our flight departed a few minutes later than scheduled as the final rays of the sun were still lighting the skies. By the time we took off it was dark and would remain so until we were over the Australian mainland to the east of Melbourne. 

Our flight went surprisingly quickly, given it is one of the longest legs you can fly in the world. A movie or two, a pre-dinner drink, followed by an evening meal. Another movie or two then a lengthy sleep. A stretch of the legs, a drink of water then another light sleep. Breakfast was served while flying over the Tasman Sea before our eventual approach into Melbourne. The arrival processing moved reasonably well and we connected with our taxi for the 60-minute drive home.

All was in order when we stepped from the taxi. Understandably the garden was in need of a tidy up, but it was good to see the veggie garden had survived and the seedlings we had planted were now well-established plants. A quick shower washed away the cobwebs and two loads of washing were soon hanging out to dry. A trip to the shops followed to replenish items that had been run down before departing. 

Phone calls to family and friends followed on our return from the shops. A light meal and an early night ended our first day back home.

Some Observations

Travel provides an opportunity to observe and participate in a different way of life. It can highlight better ways of doing things, while also confirming how well off we are when compared to insights gained while away from home. In no particular order we noted the following during our time in the USA.

  1. Cash is nearly dead

It became very clear that cash is very much on the way out. Tapping smart devices or cards is the preferred financial transaction mechanism, and many retail outlets have no way of receipting cash. Food courts engaged customers via kiosks that allowed potential diners to place their order and make payment online. An alert would be sounded when the items ordered were ready for pickup. We found it amusing that online payment for a kiosk ordered meal included an option to include a tip. We could never work out who might receive the tip, given we had done nearly everything except cook the meal.

2. Speed limits are little more than a suggestion

While driving from Dallas / Fort Worth to Chicago we got to experience first hand how drivers respond to the speed signs. Clearly the official speed ‘limit’ is just a suggestion. The rule of thumb we eventually landed on is to take the official speed limit and add a further 10 mph to determine the real minimum speed for that section of road. Hence, where 55 mph was the limit, we travelled at 65 mph to blend in with the surrounding traffic. Where 65 mph was the limit, we travelled at 75 mph – and so on. We noted a number of highway patrol vehicles during our travels but clearly policing drivers exceeding the speed limit was a low priority for them. 

3. The holiday season has clear boundaries

In the USA there is a sequence of national holidays and events in the build up to the end of one year and the beginning of another. There seems to be an unwritten rule that says you celebrate each holiday or event before any recognition of the next holiday or event is permissible. We noted on arriving in Dallas / Fort Worth that Halloween had been celebrated the night prior to our arrival. There were very few signs that it had taken place, however, as everyone had moved on to celebrating Thanksgiving (which has its origins in centuries-old harvest festivals). It was common place to see ‘harvest’ themed displays including full stalks of corn, pumpkins and squash. 

In the build-up to Thanksgiving no Christmas decorations or related festivities took place. The day after Thanksgiving, however, Christmas decorations began appearing in the stores and on the streets. From our apartment we could see colourful lights on balconies, and on the street people would wish one another ‘“Happy holidays”. 

We assumed that if such an approach continued through and beyond Christmas Day, there would be no hot cross buns in the stores until after New Years’ Day. 

4. The democratic process appears to be failing

Political parties of all persuasions seem to invest more time and effort into getting themselves into office and far less on serving the people who elected them. Effective debate does not have a place in what appears in the (increasingly online) media. Topics that might once have brought people together are being politicised and are now driving people apart.

Editorials in the USA were increasingly talking openly about the failures of the current version of democracy the country has in place. There was talk that both major parties were failing the voters and as a result voters were looking for alternative candidates. It may not be their ‘teal’ moment at the end of 2024, but it may signal that change is coming.

5. Electric vehicle take up

The USA that we saw has embraced electric vehicles, and the number of electric vehicles on the roads is well ahead of what we experience in Australia. Tesla are the most easily recognised all-electric brand, whether out on the open road or in the cities. 

Rivan have established themselves as a provider of all electric delivery vehicles. They have arrangements to provide Amazon Prime with a large fleet of delivery vehicles that were kept very busy during the Black Friday / Cyber Monday shopping spree. 

6. Gas cooking is still king

Gas cooking in family homes remains the dominant form of cooking fuel. Induction is being taken up but there remains a ‘fear of the unknown’ to make the switch. When we mentioned that a ban on providing gas in new housing development projects has been put in place in Victoria, we were told that any notion of banning the use of gas in a similar fashion in the USA is unlike to fly.

7. Graffiti is on the downturn

Chicago is quite noticeably far less impacted by graffiti than is our experience in Melbourne. Apparently one part of the strategy to address graffiti issues in Chicago was to ban the sale of aerosol paints. Commissioned ‘graffiti art’ appears around town, but tagging and meaningless scribbles are almost non-existent.

8. We are Melbourne coffee snobs

During our time in the USA we struggled to find a decent coffee. The names given to different coffee styles is not consistent between the USA and Australia. Wendy never attempted to order a ‘Magic’ and café lattes were a hit-and-miss affair. The size of coffees varied from a large cup through to bucket size – these could be used to douse dangerous commercial fires. Sometimes we would find a decent coffee, only to go back on another occasion to find the barista had changed and subsequently the coffee served was entirely different.

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