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Chicago. W Hotel. Chicago Art Institute.

This is way less exotic than writing about hotels and sites in Italy, but I need to begin somewhere. Almost in my own backyard. Julia and I are in Chicago for a short weekend to see her vision therapist and her naturopath, and to see the Van Gogh’s Bedroom exhibit at the Art Institute.

Caveat:  I am looking at travel from the perspective of traveling with Julia who is on the autism spectrum. Of course, no one has precisely Julia’s needs but perhaps as others find these posts, they will comment about how I can make my ‘reviews’ more to the disability community. Helpful to a wider range of families.

The W Hotel

“Life isn’t about finding yourself, it is about creating yourself.” This is my first hotel room with a motto and/or a slice of philosophy. Not a bad slice; however, I would add “…creating yourself over and over and over …” But then this hotel may be aimed at a younger crowd who actually believe that we only need to create ourselves once and be done with it.

W Hotel looks like an old hotel retrofitted to be cool. The lobby reminded me of a small scale version of the Palmer House a few blocks away. A reviewer I read found the lobby noisy. There is a bar on an open second floor balcony and at 7 on a Saturday when we arrived, it was hopping. The noise was a steady din of a crowd that echoed throughout the first floor. This was ok for us now but a few year ago, the echo would have driven Julia’s sensitive ears crazy. She didn’t even mention the din; however, Julia loved the color panels and lights in the elevators. In the pink elevator, she decided it was the first time her skin was the same color as Pinky Pie of My Little Pony fame. The blue car wasn’t as successful.

The standard room was small. Queen sized bed (2 beds or a kings was a $35 upgrade). Fine for two. The bed was comfortable, the TV mounted on the opposite wall was big. We are not a TV watching family and so big TVs in hotels are a treat. The BBC channel had a show about African rhinos late Saturday night that Julia enjoyed and I fell asleep to. A new amenity for me was the sound machine on a bedside table. I enjoyed the ocean waves whenever I woke up to tug a bit of blankets my way. The room also had plenty of plugs for electronic devices–a tiny power strip at bedside let me charge my phone and iPad within easy reach without unplugging lights or clocks or crawling under the bed. The bathroom had a smallish, but deep tub that Julia enjoyed on Sunday morning. There was a hefty charge for WiFi in the room although I think it is free in the lobby.

One thing that I missed, and I admit that this amenity is usually wasted on me, was there was no coffee/tea maker in the room. Perhaps it is that there are too many guests like me who never touch the tiny pots or perhaps the preferred audience for this hotel scorn tiny coffee pots. At one time, those pots were a lifesaver making instant oatmeal or noodles in hotel rooms when Julia could not wait for a restaurant.

Other reviews complained about room noise. We didn’t hear any at all.  The room decorations were modern and comfortable, Julia usually doesn’t like hotel art. There were little curly flourishes over the bed and in some quirky corners and by the ceiling. Julia approved.

And as it was about 4 blocks from the Art Institute and my favorite municipal parking lot, the locations worked (The Millennium Garages  are $32-40 for 24 hours. Hotel parking was $65.) It was a 40 minute walk to the American Girl Doll store, but considering that we had spent the day in the car ant at doctors offices, and it was a very fine early spring evening, the walk was lovely.

I pricelined the room for for $82 (plus tax and free), the book value for a basic room on the website is $180 (plus tax and fee).

A challenge I had not anticipated was that many coffee/breakfast shops were closed on Sunday. In Chicago, we usually go to a Corner Bakery if we are not meeting some one for brunch. I had scoped one out close to our hotel but Corner Bakeries are closed on Sundays, at least in that part of town. Julia is not really a junk food eater. She will eat a donut for breakfast on occasion but some protein or oatmeal or perhaps a waffle with fruit is preferred. In the lobby of the W, we found coffee and apples. We both indulged. Julia didn’t have coffee. We found a Pret a Manger across the street from the Art Institute. Julia ate oatmeal and fresh strawberries; I had a wrap of egg, spinach and Swiss cheese. We were ready for the art!

I had read that the Van Gogh exhibit was going to be mobbed. And it was. I tried what I did throughout Italy last year and bought tickets for the museum and show on line yesterday. Julia is much more tolerant than she used to be with lines but no need to begin the morning stressed. I looked for the least crowded door (the information was on the Institute’s website) and we showed up just before opening. All good decisions because we needed to use all our line patience in the show itself.

Last year, we skipped some of the most famous Uffizi rooms because of crowding. The Van Gogh was just as crowded as those rooms, and I decided to push Julia to see how she would do. I also had the audio tour phones. She enjoys listening about the art. I think the reassuring curator speaking in her ear steadies or centers her, giving her something very close by to focus on.

We still deal with Julia not paying attention to her body and inevitably she will desperately need to go to a bathroom at least once during any visit anywhere. Museum workers were helpful and kind when we needed to rush out. There was no question about allowing us back into the exhibit.  I also noticed that Museum workers paid attention to visitors in wheel chairs and on walkers, making space for them to get close enough to paintings to view them.  The two women I saw viewing the exhibit with walkers were amazing!  It could not have been easy maneuvering themselves through the throngs of art lovers.

The show is great! So glad I took the chance. The focus of the show is the three paintings of be Van Gogh’s bedroom in his yellow house in Arles, France. The house he shared with Paul Gauguin for a short time. There was a recreation of the actual room, a video comparison of the differences among the pictures and interactive computer demonstrations of the differences. For an artist who can get lost in detail, this was inspired. Julia played with the interactive computer for a very long time, reading everything.

When we finished the exhibit, Julia wanted to continue in the adjacent rooms; however, experience has taught me that some food and a break after a stressful excursion can lengthen a day by hours. Thus, we found the cafe, ordered a slice of pizza each and sat outside in the garden. We ate, she drew, I wrote, and then we got up and looked at more art.

There is not getting away from the sad circumstances of Van Gogh’s life. The exhibit did not shy away from them but presented a painter as a person who seriously searched for a home through out his life, found brief respites in a few places, worked through his good times and bad times and painted some of the same things many times. The last is a positive message for Julia who can draw and color the same subject for weeks at a time. There was also a very touching letter from Theo Van Gogh to their mother in which he acknowledged Vincent’s eccentricities, limitations and challenges and urged their mother to accept him as he was and to celebrate his unique artistic gifts. That was a message I hope everyone at the very crowded exhibit hears.