The summer I turned 23 was a turning point in my life.
I grew up in a small town in central Michigan. Small as in two stop lights. College took me 100 miles west to a city of a few hundred thousand – a great place to adapt to life away from home. Five years and a wedding later, my husband and I packed up everything we owned and moved from a tranquil community in Grand Rapids, Michigan to a 3rd-floor flat on the north side of Chicago – a city with more people than the whole state of Michigan.
On our first night there our Grecian landlady, Rula, brought us a plate of homemade spaghetti and meatballs on fine china.
Welcome to Chicago.
Our flat was nestled between a small day care center connected to an old Lutheran church and the fenced in parking lot where the children played. Our 2nd floor neighbors played music too loudly and our landlords argued on a regular basis.
It was not uncommon to witness parked cars getting hit on the road outside our apartment and the drivers speeding away. Sirens from the nearby police station blared regularly. Church bells rang. Planes could be heard overhead as they made their final descent into O’Hare. Among all this noise was one constant sound…cars honking. ALL. THE. TIME. While hard to get used to at first, these sounds became the cadence of our everyday life.
Welcome to Chicago.
From the copious presence of homeless people to the insanity of rush hour in a city of nine million people, life in Chicago was an exercise in culture shock. Our first weekend there I witnessed a road rage incident where a man stopped his car in the middle of the road, ripped off a windshield wiper and threw it hostilely at the side of a mini-van. I had literally never seen someone so angry in my life.
The same week a creepy man in a black SUV drove slowly down the street cat-calling at me in Spanish while I walked to the local grocery store. He was still waiting for me when I walked out so I ran down alleys until I lost him. Probably not the best strategy, but I didn’t want him to know where I lived.
Welcome to Chicago.
There are many things to adjust to about life in Chicago. I remember my first time on the El train. I sat anxiously viewing the transit map, afraid I would miss my stop and have no idea how to get home. In that moment, I imagined what newcomers to our country must feel like- insecure in a large city not their home. Despite my initial apprehension, over time I grew to enjoy the views of the city from my train window.
Over time, I grew to love Chicago.
I love the sports. I love the food. I love the culture.
There’s something about being there that makes the world seem bigger and my place in it more significant. Things happen in Chicago that never happen where I grew up.
It was in Chicago that I discovered Korean barbecue and Amaretto Sours and National Public Radio. I saw my first professional play- “A Christmas Carol” at the Goodman Theatre. I visited a women’s prison where musical theater was used to help inmates deal with their abusive pasts. I fell in love with baseball at Wrigley Field.
In Chicago we attended an international film festival and toured an old manor house where actors spontaneously performed the greatest works of Edgar Allan Poe. We visited one of the world’s only large particle accelerators (nerd alert!) and one night, while taking a late night walk, we stumbled upon a movie set in an otherwise sleepy neighborhood.
Amidst all the enduring memories I have of our time in Chicago, the most significant are the people we met along the way. Eclectic and thoughtful people who opened my mind and expanded my worldview. It was a wonderful time filled with learning and community that I will always cherish.
This week I fly back to visit Chicago after a long, three-year absence and I cannot wait to reconnect with some of these friends who taught me so much about the world and about myself.
Thank you, Chicago- the city that changed me.
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