Chicago, Six Months Later
As of next weekend, it will have been six months since I graduated from the University of Chicago.
Honestly, it's still a little bizarre to think that I'm no longer a college student, that I actually have my weekends free to do what I want without having to worry about readings or homework, that my life no longer revolves around tests and essays, that I'm - gulp - almost 23. But perhaps the weirdest thing of all is the fact that I have no idea when the next time I'll be back in Chicago is.
Just eight months ago, job offer in hand, it looked like Chicago might have been my home for the foreseeable future. And I think I would have been okay with that. Don't get me wrong, I absolutely love my life in Japan, and I can't wait to travel more and see what the future has in store for me, but there's just something about the Windy City that captivated me on a level that even I wasn't aware of until I found myself about to leave.
During my last quarter before graduation, I wasn't taking classes, and, despite having part-time job and a thesis to finish, I had quite a bit of free time to really enjoy my final months in the place that had been my home for the last four years.
One of the city's defining characteristics is its multitude of distinct neighborhoods. UChicago is located in Hyde Park in the South Side, and it's actually quite cut off from the rest of the city, so I made it a point to get out as much as possible. I found myself in Chinatown almost every week eating more (midnight!) dim sum that quarter than during the rest of my time at school combined. Sundays were spent in the South Loop grabbing brunch with my sorority sisters or hitting up Trader Joe's (legit the thing I miss most about mainland US life, tbh). On the days that I had completely free, I would take the 2 up to the Loop, making use of my free entry into the Art Institute or just wandering around shopping and admiring the architecture. And a spattering of evenings found me in the West Loop grabbing dinner at one of the city's newest restaurants or catching a concert in the North Side.
Even when I did just stay in Hyde Park, I was walking a lot more where I previously would have just ridden the bus. Earbuds in, phone in my back pocket, I did my best to take the longest possible route to get where I was going, weaving through the neighborhood, admiring the rows of ivy-covered walls.
With more free time than I'd ever had in the city before, I got to experience Chicago life as a resident rather than as a student for the first time, and it was like an entirely different place. I had already turned down the job offer in the city by this time, and I was starting to wonder if I'd made a mistake. Before, Chicago was just this place where I studied. Yes, I'd been off of campus. Yes, I'd "experienced" the city. But I had always been on a time-crunch, worrying about getting home to finish such-and-such paper by so-and-so time so that I could start on whatever I needed to do next. By mere virtue of being a student (at the school "where fun comes to die," no less), Chicago was this very stressful place for me - not to mention that I hate the cold.
But now, Chicago was suddenly a very livable place. I could see myself renting a studio in the South Loop, just a hop and a skip away from Trader Joe's, taking the El to my 9-5 during the week and going to concerts on the weekends, with the occasional indulgence in a dinner from a Michelin-starred restaurant. I could see myself signing up for fitness classes at a boutique gym and falling into a daily routine that would sometimes include a soy chai latte (from Starbucks or otherwise). With graduation looming and everything about my life in flux, this image of comfortable routine was incredibly alluring, and as more of my belongings were packed up or donated, and even as I made the decision to move to Japan, the thought of leaving was harder and harder to bear. As excited as I was for the future, I was also incredibly sad about what it would mean I'd have to leave behind.
I know now that my decision not to stay wasn't a mistake. I'd already been there for four years, and it was time to move on and do something else while I'm still young and have that kind of freedom. And looking back, I don't know if I would have appreciated Chicago the way I do now had I decided to stay and not made the conscious effort to do as much as I could in as short of a time as possible. But I can't help the little part of me that pops up every once in a while and asks what if.
When people ask me what there is to see or do in Chicago, or why they should visit, I always say that it's a beautiful city, definitely worth stopping in. And while I do admire its physical beauty, what I'm really talking about is its soul. Not the amalgamation of buildings in various architectural styles designed by the greatest architects of the last century, but the unique amalgamation of big city excitement and Midwestern sensibilities. Not the warm, orange glow that engulfs the city on a dark, cloudy night, but the warm glow that comes from its residents who'll commiserate about the cold with you as you wait together for a bus that was supposed to arrive four minutes ago on a Tuesday evening in February.
Spend but a moment there, and you'll know what I mean.