Across The Pond - Day One

As if my trek across the Virginias with my father earlier this week wasn't enough traveling for one month, I found myself packing up the car yesterday for a little weekend road trip with Justin. His sister, Lizzie, is set to graduate from law school tomorrow in Michigan, so we set out for Ann Arbor, not only to support her and celebrate her special achievement, but also so that Justin could show me the town where he went to school. 

Though Michigan is only a few hours from Illinois, it was the only one of our neighboring states that I had never visited, primarily due to my father's overwhelming (and some might argue irrational) antipathy towards the state university there. Though he did not attend the University of Illinois himself, he is a rabidly loyal fan of their football and basketball teams, and since Michigan is their chief rival within the Big Ten, Dad hates them. He hates them so much that he actually forbid me from entertaining it as an option when I was applying to colleges a decade ago. He was willing to pay for me to go anywhere I wanted to go, but if I went to Michigan, he threatened to cut me off financially. 

Given the smack talk I'd grown up hearing my entire life, I sort of wrote off the entire state, and never really worked up much desire to see it, until I fell in love with a Michigan alum. I knew we'd be going there together some day (after all, I'd taken Justin to see St. Louis), but I didn't realize we'd be going quite so soon, until I heard about Lizzie's graduation. The next thing I knew, we were driving through a long, rainy night to arrive in Ann Arbor near midnight last night. 

Today was our day for exploring the town, which certainly didn't strike me as "the armpit of the universe" as my father described it. In fact, if any place deserves that title, it might be Champaign, home to the U of I, which always struck me as rather dull and unattractive when I was dragged there for football games with my dad's family. Ann Arbor is verdant and charming, lush with foliage, and the UM campus manages to come across as quaint, despite its massive scale. I've still never seen a prettier campus than Wash U, however.

We started our day with a driving tour of town, where Justin pointed out his old apartment, his former employer, and pretty much every library in the city. Justin took me took me to his favorite burrito place for lunch, a place that I'd heard much about, and I was happy to be able to share it with him, though I remain a confirmed member of team Chipotle. 

During the afternoon, we went to see the University of Michigan Museum of Art, which was actually quite impressive, far more so than the art museum at my alma matter, despite the fancy new building that houses it. UMMA was on top of all the latest museum trends, from interactive touchscreen technology to open storage. 

Open storage is a way for museums to give greater exposure to their collection by storing items in a place where the public can see them, without providing the context and information that are usually available in a traditional museum setting. As a museum-goer, it is exciting to see a greater swath of the collection, however, open storage isn't without its problems. For example, the pieces on display are exposed to more light than in a typical storage setting, which is damaging. Therefore, staff has to rotate the objects in and out of conventional storage, which creates greater demand on manpower. It was nevertheless cool to see an institution that is trying out new ideas, and it was neat to see some of the treasures from their collection.

Open storage.
UMMA also had a fantastic collection of African art that really captured my attention, which is unusual, because I don't think I've ever spent more than five minutes in the African art gallery back home at the Art Institute. They were featuring a special exhibit on the past, present, and future of African art, and the pieces spoke to me in a way that African art never has. I don't know if that was because my interest was piqued by seeing Fela! or because UMMA had a particularly unique collection, but it was refreshing to have my eyes opened to a new genre of art.

The Ancestors Converged Again, by El Anatsui, a contemporary Ghanaian sculptor.
Finally, I was excited to see an extensive collection of Louis Comfort Tiffany at UMMA. Many of the pieces were pulled from the H.O. Havemeyer House, the now-destroyed mansion of a wealthy New Yorker with a prolific art collection. He had hired Tiffany to decorate the inside of his 5th Avenue home, and while the majority of the art collection it contained went to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the decorations went to UMMA. For me, an avid fan of Tiffany's work, the collection was especially interesting because it featured not only the usual stained glass and mosaics, but other functional pieces created by the artist's workshop, such as fireplace screens and radiator covers, which featured bits of glass woven into a mesh that would not impede airflow. It was a unique insight into the artist's work.

A Tiffany air return grill from the H.O. Havemeyer House.
After the museum, Justin took me on a walk through the inner part of campus, and showed me not only the main undergraduate and graduate libraries (he's a librarian through and through, that one), but the building that houses the School of Information, where he earned his Master's of Library Science.

After our journey through the belly of the beast (at least in my father's eyes), we met up with Lizzie and Justin's mom for dinner at Zingerman's Roadhouse. Zingerman's Deli is a legend in the foodie universe, and everyone who heard I was going to Ann Arbor told me I just had to eat there. Justin and Lizzie, however, find the deli to be overpriced and overrated, so they humored me with a meal at Zingerman's Roadhouse, a more upscale offering in the Zingerman's restaurant empire, instead. I had an excellent, and exceptionally hearty meal of fish chowder, and got to sample the famous Zingerman's mac and cheese that is a fixture on shows like Unique Eats, and The Best Thing I Ever Ate. It was good, though not necessarily life changing; I happen to think that my two favorite mac and cheese recipes from home are a little bit better.

All in all, the day was a bit of a whirlwind, but we managed to cross off the most important sights to Justin, and therefore to me. I was happy to be able to put an image to some of the stories I've heard from him, and to get to learn more about a time in Justin's life before I came along. It was a special day for both of us, and I'm glad I had the opportunity to go.

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