Over the next few days, I’ll be publishing installments inspired by a recent trip I took with my oldest friend, James to Chicago. Hope you enjoy reliving this trip, but if you don’t, find some conciliation in the fact that I will.
There’s an interesting dynamic to returning to a city you love that you’ve never lived in. If you’ve visited this city for years, it has probably become comfortable to you. You know how to get around without consulting the maps. You can change plans on the fly. You have your own little places that you claim that the other tourists are oblivious to. You have this great swell of pride when someone asks you how to use the subway or what direction a street is from here. You realize that you’ve blended in. You’re comfortable enough that people think you’re a local. You fit in here.
I’ve been going to Chicago for about 14 years now. If my wife, Allyson, ever got over her issues with cold winters and said we could move there, I think I could pick up work pretty quickly as a tour guide. There are times I will just pull out a map of Chicago and try to learn the streets better, try to remember as many addresses as I can. I don’t know exactly why I chose Chicago over say Boston or New York or even a closer city like Nashville. All I can say is that it has cast a strange spell on me and can do very little wrong in my clouded eyes. Part of it is that my baseball team plays there. Part of it is just that there is a lot of history hidden and on display there. Part of it is how so many of the radio and movies I love are centered there. But there’s still a part that’s completely unexplainable.
James and I arrived on the train, which is one of the early developments that made Chicago Chicago. If you look at old train maps, there is a complex spider web of rails coming out of Chicago. It is such a hub. There’s an excitement to coming into a large city, no matter how you travel, and they are all different. On a plane, you see the lights get closer and closer, bigger and bigger. The buildings look like miniatures, then they are there in your face. In a car, the speed of everything seems to keep rising, and you go from steady, boring interstate landscape to 12 lanes of all sorts of speeds and visual distractions in every direction. By train, you worm your way all the way to the heart of the city with no stops. On the ground you pass over, under, and beside roads, alleys, and buildings. You are inches from everything, and that is normal. In Chicago, you pull into this dark, dank terminal, then walk out into the grand hall of Union Station. You can’t help but feel small in this towering room. I’ve never seen it full, but I imagine the hey day of travel when this place bustled full of people connecting to the whole world. I bet even in such a crowd of people, this room still made them feel a bit small.
We stayed in a hostel, called the Parthenon in Greektown, an area that I’d never been to. The little bit of exposure I’d had to Greektown was many years ago walking next to a guy downtown who had clearly had way too much to drink who told us that all the good parties were in Greektown. So, when I think of Greektown now, right or wrong, I think of some kind of party capital of Chicago. Greektown is centered on Halstead Street–if you’re on this part of Halstead, stuff looks Greek. If you’re off, it really doesn’t look much different than the rest of the city. But this goes back to when Chicago was heavily divided by race and ethnic groups. If you were leaving Greece to start a new life, chances were you didn’t have access or money for an English teacher and you probably didn’t know how to do the industrial work that was available in Chicago, since your family had been shepherds for millenia. If you could find some people like you who’s talk you could understand, it would make that transition a little easier. So, you see all kinds of neighborhoods like this. Greektown got chopped up a bit when they put the expressway in, but it’s holding out on Halstead. It’s mostly restaurants, bars, hotels, and a Greek American museum, but there are still a lot of Greek people there.
We ate the restaurant affiliated with our hostel. They are known for invented some type of cheese that you light on fire. We didn’t splurge for the cheese, but had some gyros with this finely shaved meat that was skewer cooked over a fire. The stuff was mad good. I became pretty aware of the cultural differences between Chicago Greeks and Southern White Guys in this time, as well. The people we interacted with in the hostel and the restaurant, have a demeanor that is just really short and seemingly cold at first. For me, my initial reaction was that these people were kind of rude. They ask you a question, and if you don’t have an immediate answer, they may walk off or may go on to some other task. They were friendly with the people they knew, but didn’t seem eager to make friends. I was like, “what gives here? Aren’t these people wanting to make money off me?” That’s when I began to realize that this was probably a cultural thing I didn’t really understand. It also reminded me that a lot of times people are nice to me just for that simple fact–that want my money. So, in some ways this seemed a little more genuine, and I do like that. It’s just hard when you’re the traveler and a little insecure. Life becomes much easier in these situations when you just accept how things are. In a lot of cases, that gets you accepted too. It certainly helped make Greektown an enjoyable place (which it is, by the way). And, our day was just getting started.