Updated: May 3, 2022
Traveling to a place unbiased is impossible. We take our biases with us wherever we go, unable to detach ourselves from the experiences that make us who we are. So as much as I try to travel without any preconceived notions or favoritism about this or that, my experience with a place is a bit pre-determined whether I realize it or not. Looking back on it, this is how I entered Chicago.
I’d never been to the Windy City before, never been to Illinois, but after only 3 days of roaming through the city and swimming in Lake Michigan, I knew that I liked it there. It’s a simple fact that some places just agree with you more, like a foreign dish that doesn’t upset your stomach after you try it for the first time. I just agreed with Chicago, and it seemed to agree with me, too.
The whole reason I went to Chicago was to visit my cousin during her summer internship. This trip was meant to be a reunion, and Chicago was our third wheel. I’m ashamed to admit that when it comes to the United States—my own country—I don’t feel well-traveled. I’ve gallivanted abroad more than I’ve visited major American cities. So naturally, my first instinct was to compare Chicago to the one major American city I have been to: New York City.
And I have a controversial opinion: Chicago is better than New York.
I realize that this very comment could send a mob of angry New Yorkers to my house. I hear echoes of the quote “New York or Nowhere.” But I stand by my opinion; because like any visitor, I came into Chicago with an unconscious mind of biases that were ready to hit the ground running in order to deem this destination “good” or great.
I grew up in a small mountain town. Over the years, I’ve learned that I prefer smaller cities to sprawling metropolises. Now it’s not lost on me that what I’ve just said makes zero sense in the context of Chicago; it’s literally one of the largest cities in America with a whopping population of 2.71 million. In no world or language is that a small number, but again, when compared to New York City, it’s smaller.
Wandering down neighborhood streets in Lincoln Park and Wicker Park, I felt the comfort of smaller communities. I didn’t feel lost or intimidated—I felt self-assured—regardless of the fact that my feet were tracing these sidewalks for the first time. Even while catching trains and buses, I felt an ease that I didn’t feel in New York. Maybe it's a metaphorical kind of lake effect because Chicago was gentler than I expected.
This brings me to my next point: Lake Michigan. It is my firm belief that if a city is near a body of water, I should be able to swim in it. I can’t tell you why exactly this is so important to me—I can’t even swim that well, I just doggy paddle—but being in a city with an unswimmable body of water somehow feels… restricting, like I’m stuck on a moat and can’t leave.
While strolling along the glassy, blue lake, my cousin and I joked that if we were to swim in the Hudson River in New York, we would certainly come out with extra toes. Thankfully, the same can’t be said for Lake Michigan. And despite the big city backdrop, the lake’s presence made me feel grounded and connected to nature.
But more than that, Lake Michigan has long been “my happy place.” As far back as my memories can take me, Lake Michigan has been synonymous with family. I’m not from Michigan, but for years now, my family has vacationed on its shores near the upper peninsula. Some of my happiest memories are of playing with my cousin on the beach while the sun set over the water. I think of sun-soaked days and silly games that ended with thrown-together family dinners and local cherry pies.
Even though Chicago is clear across Lake Michigan from my small vacation town, it still sits on Lake Michigan. As we walked down Lake Shore Drive, straddled between classic city homes and the water, my nostalgia and connection to the lake was impossible to ignore. Being near it made me feel instantly at home in a place I’d never been to until now.
As my weekend rolled by, another realization dawned on me as to why Chicago felt so comfortable from the moment I landed: the people.
According to Google, “midwestern hospitality” is a thing. And after scrolling through other blogs about the city, I learned I wasn’t alone in feeling Chicago’s friendly vibes. As someone who grew up in the south, I’m all too familiar with southern hospitality, even though I don’t say “y’all” or drink sweet tea and swear I don’t have an accent. I’m not always proud of the south, but I am from the south at the end of the day. I wouldn’t blink twice to ask a stranger for directions and I’ll have a conversation with the grocery store cashier like it’s nothing. The bottom line is that I’m used to the warmth from little acts of kindness, even when that kindness is from a stranger.
There’s a stereotype that exists all around the world that deems city people as “less friendly.” I’ve found this to be true in a lot of cases, but I don’t think it’s a matter of not being friendly, it’s just a matter of not being open to strangers.
I learned a long time ago that social expectations change according to a place, but I was surprised to find that everywhere I went in Chicago, the people were friendly—servers, retail workers, local baristas—you name it. I remember flying back from New York and not having that feeling. Nothing against New York, I just found that when it came down to all these little things, Chicago fit me better.
Now I understand that comparing Chicago to New York is like apples and oranges, but I couldn’t help but do it anyway. We each carry our own experiences that decide whether or not a place lives up to our expectations. We step into new cities and towns knowing what we like but still expecting different versions of ourselves to somehow emerge. And although that can and does happen—new places certainly bring us out of our comfort zones—we are still grounded in the places that have shaped us.
I don’t think I’ll ever stop finding comfort in the feel of a small town like some people need city sounds to fall asleep. Places influence us as much as people do and even though I’ve never lived in Chicago or New York, I know myself, and I know what I like.
And I liked Chicago.