My kind of town, Chicago still is

When we arrived in Chicago, two days before Thanksgiving, the reception was neither warm nor surprising: The weather was gray and cold, and a steady breeze drove the freezing drizzle at a thirty-degree angle that felt on the bare skin like pinpricks. The 25-minute wait for an Uber taxi felt more like an hour. But despite that initially unpleasant hello, this trip, like others previously, reinforced our love for the city, where Stew and I lived for 30 years, before retiring in Mexico 14 years ago. 

“How beautiful leaves grow old. How full of light and color are their last days,” John Burroughs.

It’s not as if the city remains unchanged. Our old neighborhood around Wrigley Field is almost unrecognizable except for the venerable ballpark itself. And the city’s skyline continues to evolve, to the south and west of the Loop, and upward with ever-taller buildings. Even the landmark neo-Gothic Chicago Tribune Tower, built in 1925 and where I used to work, is being converted to condos. Ouch. And the iconic Crate and Barrel store on Michigan Avenue also has been transmogrified into the world’s largest Starbucks, though we decided to skip the long lines to get in.

Direct marketing, Chicago-style

Our comfort when visiting Chicago, however, is not just familiarity but instead a certain bond we feel with the city, its architecture, history and even the bicycle paths that I rode to work for two years, through even the foulest winter weather. Plus, of course, some long-term friendships we’ve have there.

It’s an affectional bond that neither Stew nor I, for some reason, have been able to forge with our present home of San Miguel or Mexico.

Yesterday morning we drove around San Miguel to distribute loaves of Stollen fruit cake to our German friends, and to take care of other errands, ending with lunch at our favorite taco restaurant. The city is a stunning colonial gem, fully deserving of all the accolades travel writers continue to bestow on it, even after some recent bad publicity about the rising crime rate.

When we first visited San Miguel, our reaction to it was overwhelming but hardly unique. We were struck by how the late-afternoon play of light and shadows magically made every old street lamp and old facade a photo opportunity, and turned the lowly street vendor with a donkey into the  centerpiece of a vivid diorama. San Miguel promised retirement in a postcard.

Urban wildlife in Chicago

In those days it was not unusual for first-time American visitors to be so taken by San Miguel that they would buy a house after only a week here. Indeed, we came thisclose to doing that ourselves, until our more skeptical guardian angel counseled us to curb our enthusiasm. We took our time, but eventually bought seven acres of land with a spectacular view of the landscape with mountains in the background, and built a home we really love.

It would be unrealistic to expect that initial frisson to last, though some friends profess to be as enthralled with San Miguel ten years after they moved here as they were when the arrived. Instead, we’ve had a few bad experiences in San Miguel, notably a legal brawl with someone intending to take a piece of our land, that have dampened our opinion of the city and Mexico.

And during the past three years, San Miguel has been going through a real estate development and tourist frenzy that threatens to transform it, and not for the better. Just yesterday we noticed that an enormous excavation near the Centro, at least 30 feet deep, being encased by walls and columns of rebarbed concrete. It’s a new boutique hotel by the Marriott Corp. that will include some luxury residential

In fact, there seems to be an epidemic of new restaurants and hotels, all haute, luxe or boutique. And that picturesque, sunlit vendor and his burro of our first visit have been shoved aside by one of several faux-antique trolleys that clog the streets, filled with tourists aiming their smartphones in every direction.

Memorial to the unknown Chicago cyclist. 

I’m not one to complain about our charming village being “ruined” by tourists and Starbucks. Lacking any beaches, silver mines or oil, San Miguel has to rely on tourists, and all the good and bad they bring with them.

And even amid the tourist and development rush, San Miguel’s ideal climate, architecture and colorful public festivals and religious celebrations remain intact, and continue to dazzle first-time visitors. I also feel blessed by the numbers of friendships we’ve made here, though only a couple are  Mexican.

Perhaps San Miguel’s large expat, English-speaking community is a mixed blessing, an isolating bubble, no matter how long we live here. It provides a ready-made and comfortable niche that also makes you a perpetual tourist in the country you’ve picked as your new home. In my post about the Day of the Dead celebrations I wrote how expats have even carved out even a walled portion of the cemetery where we can remain together—and apart from Mexico and Mexicans—even after we die. 

Sidewalk advice. 

I’m fluent in Spanish, even though a Cuban variety, so language for me shouldn’t be an impediment to communication or assimilation into the local culture.

But as much as Stew and I have tried—and tried—to develop friendships with Mexicans, we wouldn’t claim to have more than two or three Mexican friends, nothing like the hey-why-don’t-you-come-over-for-dinner-Friday friendships we have with dozens of fellow expats. Our gardener of ten years, Félix, is about as close a Mexican friend as we have. 

It may be that what Chicago has, and San Miguel lacks, is the big-city buzz of ethnic and cultural diversity, that makes everyone a foreigner but at the same time a native. In San Miguel everyone is either gringo or Mexican, and we all stay on our side of the street, cordial but hardly blended.

During our brief visit to Chicago we enjoyed not one but two opulent Thanksgiving dinners (one day apart!), plus visits to Greek, Lebanese, Italian and Swedish eateries, lunch at “The Bagel,” our favorite kosher joint plus a restaurant designed as a recreation of a Midwestern supper club. I wanted to sample a new Kurdish restaurant but there was no time, or additional holes in our belts. Stew gained nine pounds.

The best matzo-ball soup west of New Jersey. 

At The Bagel, the team of rickety Jewish waitresses have been replaced by, yes, an all-Mexican team, including a transgender cashier. I thought I recognized one of the busboys and introduced myself: Indeed he had been working there for 29 years, though now he’s something like a head waiter of sorts. I wanted to take his picture, but he refused. He will remain nameless, because I suspect he’s still working on his immigration papers.

At a Starbucks I met another Latin American import, Gerardo, who worked for a window-washing company and was squeegeeing the windows at warp speed. When we left, I congratulated him on his dexterity, despite the cold weather, and he melted. He thanked me profusely and said I’d made his day.

Gerardo, ace window washer. 

Chicago’s weather didn’t disappoint: It sucked, cold and windy, and overcast until the last day of our visit. I saw cyclists still cruising down city streets, bundled up like eskimos, and remembered how I used to do the same crazy shit.

We ventured for walks around Andersonville, originally a Swedish neighborhood, that is now gay, Middle Eastern, South Asian, and several other things, but this was not the time to walk around the city admiring new buildings or window shopping.  Using public transit cards we rode the el trains, feeling a bit like tourists, and one afternoon rode the Clark Street bus for a one-hour ride from Andersonville to the Loop, just for the hell of it, just to sit back and check out any new sights.

Our friends in Chicago, some from our working days, are, no surprise, older and gray haired (or bald) and some battling with their weight. But for our week there, the 14 years we have been away seemed to vanish.

We’re not moving back to Chicago, not to worry. The climate and the cost of living make the city prohibitive. But neither are we signing a lifetime lease in San Miguel, as tourists in paradise.

Chicago: An all-American kind of town. 

Parting thought.

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