Saturday, July 24, 2010

The lake is breathtaking, both in the winter when it’s almost all frozen, but also in the summer, when it attracts people to fun and frolic. And Navy Pier on the lake is a great attraction. A must see must do.

Well I was not actually on the Lake, but Chicago is famous for the Lake, so it seemed appropriate.

Chicago, glorified as the city of the Mafiosi, The Mob, Capi’s, Cappi de Tutti Cappi, Consigleri, the Hitmen, the garotte. I’d heard so many stories, seen so many movies, heard about the great fire that destroyed almost all of Chicago. The heart of Jazz, The Blues, music so close to my soul.

Anticlimax…. my first visit there was actually quite a let down.

I usually stayed at The Hyatt by O’hare airport, reputed to be one of the busiest airports in the world, and did so on this maiden visit as well. Someone pick me up  and drove me to the office in Mount Prospect. The drive from the vicinity of the airport, to what is predominantly an office cum residential neighbourhood, wasn’t spectacular.

It was only in later visits that I went downtown and saw the city of Chicago.

A popular misconception is that Chicago is just one big City, which its not. In fact it is called the Chicagoland area, and the city itself is is just a fraction of Chicagoland.

What I really love about Chicago, is that it has the best of both worlds, the downtown which is fast, vibrant, and suave, like most big cities, and then there are the suburbs, which are wide spread and far flung, and are so very different from the Downtown area.

Opportunity comes a’knockin

A longstanding need had existed for our company (a captive IT Development outfit) to establish a Relationship Management Unit to better manage it’s business relationships globally and in particular North America. Hitherto, we had worked under a rather strange arrangement whereby, an external vendor (strategic partner), managed North American  relationships on our behalf. The need was for us to bring Relationship Management with our customers under our own control. I was handpicked by my then boss, to relocate to Chicago for two to three years. It was great for my career, but I must admit that I had other motivations to relocate! He believed that there was a war to be fought, and the best way was to parachute one of his best Generals into the battle arena.

It promised to be brutal, and that was how he explained it to our management team, and to the wider corporate decision makers as well. So it was a great build up before I went off, but on the flip side, a lot of expectations had been built to succeed in a job that was bound to be demanding, at the very least. Blood promised to be spilled….

Hurdles Galore:

Obtaining a work permit to legally work in the US for a person holding an Indian passport is not always easy, regardless of the fact that I worked for one of the largest financial institutions in the world. Then there was negotiation of my contract, as there was no precedent under which we had ever sent a senior team member abroad on a assignment spanning multiple years.

As it turned out our company was on this fast track visa program with the US Consular Authorities Careless book keeping had made us run afoul and we were suspended from the program, and this meant that no longer could we send people to the US at short notice.

Our relationship with the US Authorities was not good, and this came to the attention to our CEO, my boss and dear friend, Ignacio. So through the good offices of his Executive Assistant Hazel (earlier my EA), who knew someone at the Consulate in Bombay, we secured a meeting with the Head of the Mission.

It was a great meeting, as they were keen to establish a direct relationship with us, and wondered why no one had been in touch with them before. They advised us of the steps we needed to take immediately and of future expectations and immddiately removed us from the suspended list.

They asked my boss if they could do anything for us, and to my surprise Ignacio said, “I ask for only one favor, that I want this gentleman (moi) to land in the US with a valid Work Permit on November 1, it is vitally important for the interests of our Group”. So they gave us an appointment for me to come and get the Visa required.

Since the appointment was about 15 days away, I was off again on yet another jaunt to meet and greet my fans, the customers. Turned out to be quite an eventful trip. The main event and attraction being that I’ve now lost my passport. I think I did I forget to mention before that my boss had committed to our main stakeholder in the US that Sumir will land in the US by November 1? This is a brief version of what happened, and you can read more in a more detaled Blogpost, elsewhere on this domain. Look for Loosing a Passport is Always Bad News.

Brief Version of Loosing My Passport

Travelling to the US, boss in tow…lost passport while getting off at O’hare. Visit to the Indian Embassy in Chicago….Emergency Landing Certificate issued. Land in India…..all hell breaks loose. Potential to disrupt getting a US work permit and visa on time….so no travel to the US on Nov 1 as comitted. Long story short….get a new passport, albeit after some (now) hilarious episodes, and the Visa, etc gets issued, on time, as per plan.

Landfall Chicago – Camp Woodridge

Finally I arrive in Chicago all set to go to work. I had a friend find a suitable apartment for me during a previous trip, and had paid the deposit and completed other related formalities, so moving into my own apartment was a breeze.

Then came the task of getting the place furnished, linen, kitchen equipment and the like. You get my drift.

The place was in Woodridge, a suburb of Chicago, in a so called resort apartment complex called Natural Falls. They were all ground plus one in height, and I got an apartment that had just been completely refurbished, and the view was great as well. Over looking the artificial lake, the pool, the ducks and geese. Noisy lot them, and very early in the morning at that.

The place was about an hour from Mount Prospect where my office was located, and I didn’t have a car, but the company would pay the car hire bill for out a month. I finally bought a car several months later, but that is another wonderful episode… elsewhere on my blogpages. Look up Buying a car in the US, My First Mercedes.

Driving in The US

Getting used to driving in the US, left hand drive, other side of the road (The Americans call in the Right Side, and its not just about Right-Left, its about everything to do with America being right), freeways, new rules…. turn right on red, speed limits were actually strictly enforced, paying toll, getting an automatic toll device linked to my bank account, so I didn’t need to stop frequently and hunt for change, getting a driving license, that was all a trip.

I was so used to driving in Bombay, where you need to be a tad aggressive if you actually want to get someplace in reasonable time, and so getting used to driving in the US was an adventure to begin with, but I soon adjusted. I’m a good driver by any standards, all I needed to do was tone down the aggression.

Love Chicago

Now I’ve probably seen more of the US than most Americans or for that matter more than most people have. I’ve seen 30 of the 50 states.

My first visit to the US back in ’78, was as a Rotary Exchange Student, and I stayed a year. The highlight of that visit was the “Americana Ramble” where about 150+ exchange students from all over the world got on to busses and traveled over 8000 miles by road. To read more about my life as a Rotary Exchange Student read my blog, which talks about how we traveled by road through 30 of the 50 states. Look for My Life As A Rotary Exchange Student.

Because of this, I’ve pretty much seen every major city in the US and then some, but somehow I love Chicago. I’ve never been much of a New Youk guy, but Chicago and I connected right away. It has, to my mind, the best of both worlds, the downtown big city bits and the far flung suburbs as well. Navigating around the Chicagoland area is so easy, if you just remember that Lake Michigan is to the East of the City. That information along with a knowledge of the North-South Freeways and the 3-4 diagonals, and you can get almost anywhere, or at least find your way to a major freeway to get your bearings. The people are nice as well, more friendly, less aggressive than a typical New Yorker. It has all four seasons, except that its so dammnnnn cold five months of the year when its frozen. The windchill factors are daunting, to say the least. I’ve seen -17 on the car tempreature guage on more than one occassion, and that was without windchill.

But, come summer you completely forget the winter blues, as the city and the surrounds come alive with color, summer activities and fun! Lots to see, lots to do.

All of Chicago is so beautifully wooded, so much greenery all around. Downtown is not very big, and the main avenue is Michigan Avenue, where most of the shopping is concentrated, with the fashion brands, restaurants…. there is Rush Street with its bars, nightclubs, sidewalk cafes. My favorites, PS Chicago, Cayote Ugly, Ice Bar, the Ralph Lauren restaurant, Club Euro, to name just a few.

As far as shopping goes, the Nike Town, North Face store, Louis Vuitton, Burburys… can all lead you to spend a small fortune is just a few hours. Further into the suburbs, and really close to my apartment, just down the I75 is the Oakbrook Center shopping mall, which is really a collection of several buildings scattered around a huge complex, beautifully landscaped. Then there is the Aurora complex, a collection of retail outlets of the fashion brands.

The Rock Bottom Bar and Grill,is an amazing place to just go and chill. They brew their own dark bear and several other varieties, the music is great and a great crowd which is a mix of students and the after office hours variety.

Plenty of Tennis Courts, biking trails, parks, wooded areas, the Chicago Zoo at Brookfield. And that is where my cycling for sport and fitness started.

Making our way back downtown, there is the Shed Aquarium, The Chicago Art Institute where I saw my first Monet. Navy Pier, is one great attraction, with its theatre, rides, boat cruises and from the rides and from the sea a fantastic view of the Chicago skyline. So yes I loved it.

In and Around Woodridge

Mr. Nagar’s apartment at 2650 Burr Ridge Court is in the City of Woodridge, a far flung suburb, but its so well connected to all the freeways and downtown is just 40 minutes away. In Woodridge or nearby are so many cinemas, restaurants serving all kinds of cuisine, even Indian. Why just down the road on James Avenue, at a distance of about 3 minutes is an Indian grocery store, and they even have their own family run kitchen, where you can order all the yummy Indian delicacies. So that became a lazy Sunday afternoon tradition.

The Brookhaven Marketplace was where we did all our fresh grocery and produce shopping. Being a strict Vegetarian and queasy to a fault, I prefer to cook my own food, and don’t even like the idea of eating in a place that serves meat, fish and the like. God alone knows if they maintain the strict standard of separation between meat and vegetarian, in terms of separate cooking sections, supplies, utensils and so on.

Now Vegetarian is something not many people understand these days. I started hearing the word Vegan a lot, and on looking it up saw that a “Vegan” is a person who does not eat dairy products and does not eat meat. WTF….When I tell people that I’m Vegetarian, I need to elaborate…. no meat, no fish, no eggs, no chicken. Otherwise they don’t get it. Most of the time they assume that Vegetarian is Vegan, or then they assume that I eat eggs, and fish, that’s not meat they tell me.

So I’m at pains to explain, listen I’m Vegetarian, I don’t eat meat, fish, eggs, chicken, and oh by the way if the gravy or the base is made of chicken stock or turkey stock then I’m not eating that dish either! Talk about being insensitive to the preferences of a customer.

Other facilities around Woodridge, Sports facilities par excellence, Tennis, Recket Ball, Skating, Golf, BasketBall, bowling, you name it, we had it. The WallMarts, the KMarts, the Wallgreens, Best Buy, Circuit City, everything possible in a 2 mile radius. I loved it!

I could go on and on, but lots more topics to write about, so will bid adieu on this post, and get on with the other pieces. Lots, more to come….watch this space.

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