by Phoebe Blyth
On the last day of my fourth week in Chicago, it snowed. And not a gentle dusting across the bridge of one’s nose either: this was full on, vicious, biting snow, with a wind at its back that was ripping up flower beds and doing its best to steal my sleeping-bag-coat, which I had thought I wouldn’t need for at least another month. When I told people I’d be moving to Chicago from Sydney, most responded with a smug smile and a knowing wink (or, if they possessed a little less schadenfreude; a look of horror). They would then ask “do you know how cold and windy Chicago is?” or “did you see the coverage of the Arctic Vortex last year?” and especially “are you really going to spend four months of the year battling through snow to get groceries?” The nicer ones would then counter by saying “but I’ve heard it’s lovely in the summer.” Thanks.
I am the first to admit that I do not do well in cold weather. I turn into a whining, whimpering adolescent, convinced that the bad weather has been spitefully and unreasonably inflicted upon me. I am unable to comprehend temperatures below -10 degrees (Celsius) and see no point in snow unless is it packed onto a steep and skiable incline. Fair to say that Chicago (or for that matter, most of the rest of the United States) wasn’t my first choice. However, I had had the misfortune to get irrevocably involved with an American, and Chicago was the city of which he dreamed. You will never hear anyone claim that long distance relationships are easy, but it turns out that even when you remove the distance from the equation, there are still fairly significant barriers to your living a happy and harmonious ever after. In our case, those barriers were our unfinished university degrees, and our diplomatically incompatible passports. Safe to say, it would have been a lot easier to call it quits than to keep going, at pretty much any point of our relationship thus far.
I should pause here to acknowledge the following: I am aware of the great privilege we hold as two people for whom university education is a possibility (despite the declining applicability and rapidly increasing cost of said education). I should also make the distinction between having our relationship forbidden by international law or religion, and the relatively minor inconvenience of trying to negotiate the visa systems between Australia and the US. We got around these trivialities for the first year and a half with varying levels of creativity and initiative: Ronnie was able to live in Sydney, thanks to a combination of working and tourist visas, and a brazen disregard for his university’s expectation that he be present in any of his classes (or indeed the country) during semester. However, after a year and a half in Sydney, it was time to put the shoe on the other foot, dust off our suitcases, and switch places. Now Ronnie is the one working and studying, and I’m the one subjected to the whims of the Immigration department, with a lot of free time on my hands, and a new city to explore.
The first week was hard. The day I arrived it was cold and grey, and I hastened to unpack my biggest, thickest coat, which, while perfectly adequate (even excessive) for Sydney, proved ineffectual against even the early October chill in the windy city. I consider myself a fairly confident and outgoing person, but a strange thing happened to me in those first few days here – everything around me took on a new and intimidating quality. The people I passed in the street were all potential muggers. Every ally-way I hurried past emanated an unknown and threatening presence. The buildings loomed over me, seeming taller, darker, and stranger than the ones from home. The streets around our apartment were wider, the trains noisier, the neighbourhood more industrial than I was used to. I spent my first few days here after Ronnie went back to work, trying to get my bearings with a constant knot of adrenaline in my gut. I fretted that I wouldn’t make friends, find a job, or be able to fill my days with anything meaningful (if you know me, you’ll know I don’t deal well with free time).
Here’s the thing: this isn’t my first new city – not by a long shot. It isn’t the first time I’ve been in unfamiliar surroundings; in fact, in the past I’ve found myself there alone, and often without a place to stay. Those times I remember being cautious, curious, and excited, but not timid. “Pull yourself together, woman!” I reprimanded myself, feeling disgusted, as once again I crossed the street to avoid coming within three feet of another human being. After extensive self-analysis, I concluded that these feelings were being squeezed out of me by the weight of the decision that I had made in coming here. This is the first time I’ve come to a new place with the intention of making a life; the first time I’ve not given myself the option of moving on if a city isn’t a good fit, or if somewhere else seems more appealing. There is more riding on this place, and that scared me.
After the first couple of days, I went to a yoga class, and hung around afterwards, talking to the instructor. We chatted about how hard it can be to make friends in a new city, and how intimidating free time can seem. The next class, she stopped halfway through (I was unable to protest, since my left leg was wrapped around my ears) and announced: “Ok everyone, Phoebe here is from Australia, and needs friends, so I want you all to be nice to her.” I bought a month of classes and started going every day, giving my week some semblance of a routine. I went for a run along the lake front, and with the sun out it almost reminded me of running along Sydney harbor near our old house. I Skyped with some friends - negotiating the time difference and their work schedules – and told them I missed them, but that I was doing ok. As more days passed, I went from ‘ok’ to feeling an inkling of my old traveling sense of adventure and confidence. I went up to people at yoga and introduced myself, asked them to hang out, gave them my number. Ronnie and I went out on the weekends and made new friends. I researched different schools to volunteer at, hoping this would give me some contact for when my work visa is (eventually) cleared. I explored more and more, going for long walks and runs around the city. Our apartment slowly started to feel like a home, as we frugally and cautiously added a pot plant here, a table there.
It’s now been five weeks since I left Sydney. The days are getting colder: I’ve become adept at trawling the coat racks in thrift shops, and have amassed an impressive collection of knitting patterns for the coming months. Our apartment is still sparse and messy, but it feels like our home. I have a handful of contacts in my phone, and a reliable cluster of familiar faces at yoga. I have also had some bad days. Days when every little inconvenience seems like the last straw (taking an hour to get to the post office, only to get there and realize I left some letters at home, going home and finding out there is a different post office just around the corner; spending four hours online and on the phone trying to negotiate human resources departments, delivery services, banks, visa information, and achieving absolutely nothing). Days when keeping myself busy with “projects” seems like the most monumental and pointless waste of time, and I just wish I was traveling or working or ANYTHING.
But at the end of a bad day (or the start of a new one) I get an email from home, or I see something that makes me laugh, or the sun comes out from behind the clouds, and I start to feel that old sense of adventure and possibility that comes with being somewhere new. And if none of these things happen, we curl up in bed (our one piece of furniture) and watch some stupid TV, and I feel the comfort that comes with being anywhere in the world with someone who is worth all the trouble of getting there.
Phoebe intends to keep an ongoing (if sporadic) record of her transformation into a Chicagoan, and how she survives her first winter in the Northern Hemisphere.