We’d been planning our trip to Chicago for ages — watching foodie shows, looking for the perfect neighborhood to settle into and connecting with anyone we remotely knew about open mic comedy nights and other fun things to do in the area. We had a laundry list of places we knew we should seek out — the Magnificant Mile’s shopping spectacular, the Field Museum, the Navy Pier, every food place mentioned in the TV show “No Reservations,” and so much more. We were armed and ready to live, eat and breathe Chicago for our one-year anniversary.
We arrived to Chicago expecting to see a breadcrumb trail of hidden gems. Chicago’s vast cityscape makes it look like a place that would like to show off. But the magnificent city is inherently humble in nature, having been built of wood before it was resurrected from the ashes of the Chicago fire with steel and stone. And like a big-hearted uncle who has all the time in the world to play host, the city welcomed us with open arms in and invited us to stay awhile.
Instead of staying at an overpriced hotel, we stayed at a lovely Gold Coast apartment on the most beautiful-tree lined street I’ve ever seen. Big old apartments were built of brick and sported gas-lit lanterns and little city gardens sprinkled with tulips and hydrangeas. We were blocks away from Lake Michigan, a mile or so from the Magnificent Mile and too close for our own good to the free Lincoln Park Zoo, which we visited pretty much every day.
Chicago came to be more about taking our time, practicing mindfulness, making meaningful connections and turning new places into familiar spaces. We started every day with a clean slate, a big cup of instant coffee and a discussion about what we felt like doing that day. We took our time to map out which route we’d take on the El train before leaving our abode and reserved downtime in the late afternoons to read and lounge. In between plugging away at a really funny and thoroughly enjoyable book The Big Rewind from a Chicago native, A.V. Club Editor Nathan Rabin, I’d read quotes from writers about Chicago and would scan through coffee table books about the city’s unyielding history. Over the course of the week, the Second City became our second home. Here’s a quote about Chicago that I love, which captures the personality we found there:
“Big-shot town, small-shot town, jet-propelled old-fashioned town, by old-world hands with new-world tools built into a place whose heartbeat carries farther than its shout, whose whispering in the night sounds less hollow than its roistering noontime laugh: they have builded a heavy-shouldered laughter here who went to work too young.”
― Nelson Algren, Chicago: City on the Make (More quotes and photos about Chicago live on my Kate Escape Tumblr feed.)
We did Chicago, but we did it our way. We met the Mister’s awesome Twitter friends in various neighborhoods of the city for good food and some heavy-shouldered laughs of our own at open mic comedy shows. We found shopping on the Magnificent Mile to be nice in theory but somewhat soul-sucking in practice, so on most day, we retreated our favorite place, the zoo. We went to the zoo a lot. Time and time again, we’d opt our of an expensive museum visit in favor of enjoying the beautiful outdoors with a 5-mile walk to the free Lincoln Park Zoo, where we could watch the brooding but personable gorillas and the show-off swimming polar bear. In finding the city this way, we came across some other cultural anomalies we would have never learned about otherwise, like an 1850s-style baseball game. We skipped the paid architectural tours and found more pleasure in mapping out our own routes past the incredible homes in our neighborhood and over to the city’s steel giants. We nixed the overpriced restaurants and found even better places, like dive-y gyro/hot dog place with amazing classic Chicago dogs and falafel burritos and a seal of approval from Chris O’Donnell featured in a “Playboy article” proudly displayed on the wall. You can’t make this stuff up.
At the end of the week, we were ready to go home. But the robust and welcoming spirit of the Windy City will undoubtedly stay with us. We left the city we’d always adored but had finally found our place in with new friends, new experiences and a fresh take on a great city that offered us a lot without asking for much in return. I don’t think we “learned” Chicago or got to know it through-and-through, so much as we succeeded in carving out a comfortable little space for ourselves to reside within the grandness of it all.
In the end, we wrapped up our anniversary knowing we could live somewhere else — anywhere else — with nothing but one another’s company, and still make it home. That, to me, was the greatest gift we could have received. So thanks, Chicago, for letting us sit back and stay awhile, so we could find ourselves in you.