CHICAGO, IL—I wish Chicago would love me back.
For four weeks now, my fellow interns and I have embarked on a whirlwind tour of beaches and piers, restaurants and cafes, architecture foundations and art museums – all recommended by our respective guides to Chicago. But it is now weekend number five and I am becoming indignant. Now, look, Chicago, I want to say to the city, I am doing all this despite my 80-hour-work week and a total lack of directional sense, so if this isn’t love, I don’t know what is. Why can’t you just show me something cool? And yet, the city remains unwilling to offer up its hidden neighborhoods that would yield summer travel stories to rival those of my blockmates, who are off in cities like Paris and Athens.
This weekend, however, my friend Kelly visits and insists that we take ourselves on a trip to Evanston. Kelly is the opposite of me. She buys no guidebooks but seems to instinctively know her way around the city. She explains to me that the coordinates at each L stop tells us how far we are from State (0 W/E) and Madison (0 N/S) and that we are heading away from both, to visit one of the largest art festivals in the Midwest.
There, we walk between the stalls selling paintings and pottery and jewelry too expensive for us to afford. While I check my phone for any missed calls from the office, Kelly absent-mindedly points out some color in a photograph she liked, or the way the sun glints off a brass ring. Her arrival brings a sense of nonchalance, a realization that for her, time means nothing and the mornings might as well creep into afternoons that fade into evenings. And for the first time this summer, I slow my pace. I realize, after a while, that I did not need to know what my guidebook said about the genre of these paintings or the architects of these buildings.
I simply absorb the sounds and sights of the day—the couple dressed in fiery yellow and green African fabrics, selling paintings that resemble those of Salvador Dali; the stall displaying photographs of white houses that slope up from a blue Grecian ocean; the tent filled with vases of different shapes, all painted the same turquoise and golden-brown. On a cross street, vendors sell Italian ice and Spanish coffee and bread warm from the summer sun.
Today, I am not planning what I ought to do with the few free hours of my weekend, or summer, or life. I think, instead, of other summer days.
I think of last summer, when Kelly and I were back in China, back in the land where we felt foreign and naïve and happy to accept the smallest things the country had to offer. That summer, we would often stop walking in the middle of a street simply to stare—at the food vendors in Shanghai, the gardens in Suzhou, the black-roofed, white-walled villages in Anhui.
And this summer day, I, too, stop in the middle of Evanston. I sit and feed myself spoonfuls of shrimp and feta and spinach in caper aioli sauce bought from some street-side cafe. The whole thing melts against the roof of my mouth and I let it sit, tasting its texture, listening to the voices of the crowd rise and fall.
It is then that Chicago opens itself to me. I think, then, that this is Chicago. It is the wind that threatens to pull artworks from their perches. It is the food – Mediterranean and Cuban and Italian, and all wonderful. It is the hint of a brilliant blue lake that lurks inconspicuously beyond these streets filled with art.
The patch of sunlight shifts slowly from beneath me as the morning melts into afternoon and I give a quiet thanks to Kelly for reminding me what it is to be idle and blessed, and to Edna St. Vincent Millay for giving me the words of this day:
And all the loveliest things there be
Come simply, so it seems to me.