Diversity. /dɪ.ˈvɹ̩ː.sɪ.ti/ n. Varying cultural and linguistic backgrounds, skin tones and body piercings; the reason to travel, or, in cases like Chicago, to never set foot outside the city.
Although my re-entry into the U.S. was a gradual process of confusion and burritos, what I was most taken aback by was the diversity in my home country.
I’d forgotten, living in a relatively homogenous society as Spain, that varying skin tones, languages, cuisines, and cultures coexist.
In Spain, you see Spaniards. Lots of them. In Madrid and Barcelona, and to a lesser extent in some Southern capitals, you’ll see Americans, and on the Mediterranean coastline you’ll encounter many Brits and Germans. There are growing African immigrant populations, particularly in Andalucia, and a large Pakistani presence in Barcelona.
But what I’ve gleaned after two years in the country: Spain is pretty Spanish.
This isn’t to say that homogeny is inherently bad. Just like diversity, it can help define a place. When you think of Spanish food, ham and paella come to mind—but just what exactly is American food? People travel to Spain specifically because of its strong cultural identity, or basically, its Spanishness.
But after a year, I was ready to dip back into the melting pot.
So when I planned to visit Chicago for BlogHouse between Spain and home in California, I knew I’d love the Windy City—I haven’t heard of anyone who’s set foot there and not fell for it. What I didn’t realize was that after a grueling 10-hour flight, I’d not only be arriving in the Midwest, but also every single continent (ok, sans Antarctica), all via the neighborhoods of Chicago.
World travel, for the price of one transatlantic ticket.
When I was fresh off the airplane and riding the El train to the city center, I blessedly heard English conversations all around me. And I’m not talking about the broken kind from my much-missed students, along the lines of “I has girlfriend who his favorite thing be Playstation.” I’m talking fluent, native English. With a bit of a Chicago accent.
But I also heard German, Mandarin, French, Spanish, Russian, Italian, Arabic, and a slew of other languages that I won’t pretend I could identify, even as a linguistics freak.
(#FunFact: Did you know that the U.S. has NO official language? English ISN’T our national language! Though some people campaign too hard to make it so.)
And while most U.S. cities boast diversity, it’s the neighborhoods of Chicago that make the midwest metropolis stand out. Not all of them are ethnic districts—Wicker Park’s boutiques and cafés could fit in most cultures, and Old Town’s stately homes could be anywhere with millionaires—but a great proportion are, and it’s those districts that make your round-the-world-tour doable in a few short days.
My mom came and met me in Chicago, and as we rejoiced in each other’s company after nine months apart, we also saw the greater part of the globe in four days, with just our own two legs, a Divvy bicycle rental, and an El pass. Of course there is still so much left to do, and I feel like I barely grazed the surface, but I secretly planned it this way so I’d have an excuse to revisit Chicago.
Globetrotting Through the Neighborhoods of Chicago
During my stay in Chicago, it was clear that I was in the U.S.—thanks to donuts the size of truck tires, getting carded for beer, and interactions with some of the most overwhelmingly friendly people I’ve ever come across. (They’re not kidding about Midwestern cheer.)
But then, at 10 a.m. on a Wednesday morning, I walked 2 blocks out of our AirBnB rental and into Greece. I could tell I’d arrived because a Walgreens sign was written in an alphabet I didn’t understand. I was reminded of my stay in Ithaca seven years ago, where I developed an unhealthy reliance on stuffed tomatoes.
My mom and I then crossed border control into (Little) Italy, where I inwardly cried that I didn’t grow up with an Italian grandmother pressing fresh pasta every weekend. (Though at least I’ve been taught the secrets to Italian cooking.)
After that a quick jaunt to Mexico, via the neighborhood of Pilsen. There I goggled at the street art and heard slang like “güey” and “¿qué onda?” I also embarrassed myself while speaking Spanish with a waiter, when I let my lisp squeak out in the form of “GraTHias.” Not so sexy this side of the Atlantic.
In the afternoon, after a pristine bike ride around Lake Geneva (which looked a whole lot like Lake Michigan), we got hot and hungry. So we had ice cream in Sweden, via the nordic neighborhood of Andersonville. Quick question, are you really not going to visit a place with a name like Andersonville? Although it didn’t quite compare to Stockholm’s charm, this neighborhood of Chicago boasted adorable vintage shops, quirky beer halls, and elm-lined streets where I would want to raise my hypothetical half-Swede child.
We thought about jetting over to China (town) the next day, but the El train took too long and we weren’t going to walk trans-continentally to Asia. We could have also gone to the Ukraine, as Ukranian Village was just to the West of our apartment, and to Germany via Lincoln Square (but been there, done that ;) Instead, we headed to the Polish Triange, where I satisfied a craving of Pierogies and sausage that I’ve had ever since my Easter trip to Krakow.
On our final day we took a brief African Safari through the Lincoln Park Zoo, because lions are photogenic and it was free. (Unspoken rule: if something is free in the U.S., you have to do it, because nothing in the U.S. is ever free.)
But just to remind myself I really had returned to the U.S., we did a few iconic Chicago things.
Like navigating electric boats on the Chicago river.
Or contemplating the reflections on a very large legume, the Chicago Bean.
And standing over glass at the Skydeck of the tallest building in the Western Hemisphere, the Sears Tower—because round-the-world travel is great and all, but on-top-of-the-world travel is the new it thing.
Experiencing such diversity through the neighborhoods of Chicago gave me a renewed pride in my home country. We have a long way to go in terms of immigration policy and opening our doors. But I was reminded of what a rarity it is to get such a worldly blend in one nation. It’s the U.S.’s biggest selling point, and I’m happy Chicago could host my re-entry from the world abroad to the world back home.
Have you ever been to Chicago? What’s your favorite neighborhood? I’ll be back someday to check them all out (and also because I never tried deep-dish, oops).