A work trip to the US. Immediately upon arrival there’s a slight refreshing difference to the UK. Instead of signs saying “Don’t offend our staff. We’ll press for the highest charges!”, we can read “Our pledge to the visitors”.
Welcome to the new world!
My assigned immigration officer speaks German (“You’ve got to learn something on this job!”) and although Omar doesn’t drink alcohol he loves German beer and lists a few non-alcoholic brands from the top of his head. After translating for a French tourist in search of his suitcase (picture me standing between two massive black guys, one French and confused, the other one American and longing for shift-end), I head out.
Here I am in JFK, longing for oxygen and four hours until my connecting flight to Chicago. Waiting at the gate looks like wasted time and with the sun up and shining a trip to the waters surrounding Long Island is enticing.
150 bucks for a brief beach return trip? The casual way the taxi driver offers it shows that somebody spending this much is in the range of the possible.
Well, I head to the trains instead, immediately mingling with local blue-collar workers. I get tips on the best beach views, and after hearing I flew in from London, a guy asks me “Did you English ever forgive the Germans for what they did to you?”. What a package to receive! I replied putting on my best London accent.
I caught some breathtaking glances at the ocean before going back to the airport on a train with around 150 school kids – why am I mentioning that they were all black? Because I thought I was going to the US, not to Kenya and I can’t help but noticing the huge split between communities: who lives where, who eats what, who takes which jobs, who transports themselves how. I’m wondering how many decades it will take to see changes on this one.
The first day in Chicago was amazing. It was sunny and warm, so I explored the city walking between the skyscrapers, relaxing at the Magnificent Mile with a Salted Caramel Mocha, taking in the exchange between tourists, shoppers, beggars and business people. I went along the harbor and the pier past the Museum Mile. I even took a (refreshing) bath in Lake Michigan and ended up sunbathing while watching the skyline. People on the street looked me straight into the face (difference 2 to London, where staring at the pavement while walking is socially acceptable) and after just few hours I felt home and welcome.
During dinner in a great Italian restaurant I chatted with a lady sitting next to me (a kindergarden teacher well above 50) and we had such a good chat she ended up giving me a gift from the Chicago Institute of Art. I wondered when last I had such a random conversation with no influence of alcohol 😉
For the second day I decided to be a bit more adventurous and use the DIvvY city bicycles. This meant I could get around much faster, so I went to see the lions in the zoo, to the 95th floor of the Hancock building, the Chicago History Museum and a lot of other things.
Cycling is easy because most roads are one way streets and people are much calmer and more relaxed than in NY. I found the best part about the traffic rules to be junctions with stop signs on all four entries of the junction (only Germans may relate to this).
If you want some tech nostalgia, watch the bridges go up at 9am for high boats to pass. Two teams of 20 engineers each pull up the 28 bridges every day and thus stop traffic in the city for a good 30 minutes.
I was able to secure a reduced ticket for a blues musical about Pullman porters. A great evening about work and livelihoods, racism and conflicts between generations, about fatherly love and a lot about the Blues spirit. On leaving the theatre, I was back to reality: Dozens of homeless were getting ready for a night in the park or on the riverside walk while a dad with his 7-year-old son still hadn’t given up hope to collect the 42 USD he needed for a hostel for the two from passers-by.
For my last day I had plotted how to get to Indiana Dunes State Park for a more “rural” experience. (Google “Indiana d” and see what pops up… that’s some bad marketing for a state, I’d say!). I’m starting to give directions to tourists on Chicago’s streets, so getting on a commuter train to ride to Indiana feels like holidays on holidays.
We ride through bleak looking suburbs, where many houses remind me of the “ultimate house makeover”. We pass steel factories. In Ogden Dunes I get off and take a 20 minute stroll through the village to reach the beach.
I nearly can’t believe it, extremely white sandy beach with a Baltic Sea feel. From this wonderful beach we can see Chicago’s skyline at the horizon. I read the 7 habits of highly effective people and have loads of chats with locals who are enjoying their weekend on the beach (and gave me cold beer – gift 2 in three days).
After I just decided to stay for an extra two hours before catching the train back, an old fragile looking couple comes to sit with me on a bench in the shade. We have great conversations about politics (he had followed the German elections closely), the world and my job (he was not surprised to hear about VC investments and Social Businesses in Emerging Markets). He had even heard of Stephen Covey’s book I’m reading!
I’m invited to spend the night at their house which I can’t because my flight to NY is at 6am the following day. At least I have to go to the village chilli cooking contest and take a glass of red wine at their house and look at the paintings (she’s an artist!). Well that sounds great I say and we drive off. A lovely house, speaking of a successful industry career and attention to detail as I haven’t seen it in years.
At the village party where I taste hot dogs with at least 10 variations of chilli con/sin carne, I realize what a big heart the lady has: Many people tell me of her acts for them and their families.
The lady tells me that she loves her husband of 49-years like on the day they met, when she was 16. She also tells me that he is dying of brain cancer and she takes him to the lake every day for the remaining three or so months. More than by hearing the details of the disease and seeing the comfortable life they created for and with each other I’m inspired by her commitment to him, to the community and to her art. She later thanks me via email for the wonderful gift of sweet distraction I gave to her husband through the discussions we had.
Back in Chicago I’m having lebanese takeaway dinner seated outside the hostel, it’s such a warm evening! I’m lost in thought until drops fall on my hands and I come to senses pondering if they are tears or rain.