For a chunk of my life, I traveled to escape.
Living in a city* that wasn’t a right fit meant that every trip I took felt like a gift. Leaving town — even for a short business trip — allowed me to breathe. I could take off the mask I felt I had to wear to fit in. I could be myself. Exploring a new place felt comfortable, energizing, life-giving.
It was returning “home” that always felt foreign.
In the years I was there I tried my best to adjust. I made friends, tried new things, investigated my surroundings — I tried to see the city through a different lens like we do when we’re traveling. The more I learned about the city, though, the less I seemed to understand it. I felt like I was wearing a pair of socks that were two sizes too small. I wasn’t necessarily in pain; I just felt restricted, uncomfortable, and itchy. No matter what, I always seemed out-of-step and off-kilter.
Eventually, I found friends who let me take off my mask and made the city more tolerable. Those precious ladies opened my eyes to an important realization – cliche alert – it wasn’t the city, it was me. My friends were, and are, in love with their hometown. They see it very differently than I do, and feel much more content with what it has to offer. I eventually figured out that the city and I were a bad match. We’d given it a try, and it didn’t work. It was time to move on. It was time for us to see other people.
My realization was proven true only days after arriving in Chicago. As I unpacked my things I could feel myself exhale. In five short days I felt more at home here than I did in the five long years of my previous “relationship.” Chicago immediately felt like a pair of warm, fuzzy slippers.
Just like every love affair, I wanted to learn all that I could about my beloved. With the help of Google maps, I was all over the city; checking out every neighborhood and trying to get a taste of what each had to offer. I followed the little blue line, hopping on the bus or train as directed, and voila, I was exploring another facet of Chicago’s personality. It didn’t take long, however, for me to experience my first public transportation snafu. Eager to discover what Pilsen had to offer, I jumped on a bus and watched as it followed the blue line toward my destination – until it suddenly veered off track, taking me in an entirely different direction than I wanted to go.
Although I had noticed the temporary route adjustment flyer posted on the bus when I boarded, I didn’t know enough to realize that I should pay attention to it. As the bus continued off course, I started to panic. My fear must have been apparent because a kind gentleman leaned over to explain what was happening and help me figure out how to get where I was going.
I’ve lived in all kinds of cities in my life. I’ve spent time in the kind where residents get annoyed by people who are in the way or don’t know where they’re going. I’ve also lived in the kind of cities where people will stick their noses deep into places they don’t belong in line at the Piggly Wiggly. This encounter on the bus was like neither of those. He was helpful for the sake of being helpful, a spirit that I’ve found all over the city — Chicagoans get excited when they can help you discover and explore their hometown. They are welcoming without getting into your business. It’s a special Midwestern hospitality that I cherish.
After five years here, the love affair continues. The more I learn about Chicago, the more endearing it becomes. Warts and all, this is a place I want to continue to explore. That comfortable, energizing, life-giving feeling I used to have only when I traveled is now mine every day. Chicago is a place where I don’t have to wear a mask. It’s a place where I fit.
Although I’ve always been drawn to cities, it seems as if Chicago is one that suits me well. Over the years my travel photos have always focused more on buildings than my travel companions. But it wasn’t until I took an architecture tour that it dawned on me: I was an undiagnosed architecture geek. And let’s be honest, for an architecture geek, Chicago is Mecca. Some consider this city to be the birthplace of the skyscraper. Its residents are mad about architecture, and visitors come from all over the world to see and learn about Chicago’s built environment. In Chicago, I am among my people.
I continue to remind myself that I’m fortunate to live in a city people choose to visit. They seek out the place that I call “home,” to explore and experience something new. With that in mind, I consciously try to live every day of my life like a tourist. I crane my neck in awe as I gape at soaring skyscrapers. I make reservations months in advance to eat at new restaurants. I take tours, read books, explore new neighborhoods, and drink in as much of the city’s culture and history as time allows. And I hope that never changes.
Don’t get me wrong; I still love to travel outside Chicago — exploring the world tops my list of favorite things to do — but now, traveling is a very different experience. Far from an escape, travel is now a bonus. And I no longer dread the end of my trip – instead, I always look forward to coming home. And now, after five years, I’m the one happily helping lost visitors or Chicago newbies when the bus veers off that little blue line.
*I won’t share what city it was to protect the innocent. After all, it truly is a lovely place to visit, and if you’re that curious, Google knows.