At a get together last weekend a friend came up to me with a big hug and said “I didn’t realize you moved back home!” It caught me off guard. ‘Moving’ is too settled of a word to describe what I’m doing. Moving implies establishing ties. Getting a new driver’s license, a local job and an address update with the bank and postal service. I am not doing any of that because I didn’t move to Chicago, I am not moving anywhere. I am living a nomadic lifestyle in an effort to become a citizen of the world. Chicago is my first stop on my open ended world travels!
When I moved to Las Vegas in 2008, my time in Chicago had expired. Between rough high school years, sick family members, broken relationships, changing friendships and being denied admission to the University of Illinois- Chicago, I needed a change. After living in Las Vegas for nine years, I came back to Chicago with a new outlook and an open mind.
This isn’t the same place I moved away from nine years ago. There is a health foods grocer where the middle school used to be. My friends from high school have children and mortgages. I get lost on roads I’ve driven down hundreds of times. What was once recognizable and routine is now fresh and foreign.
Without the familiarity and judgement that used to accompany thoughts of Chicago, I’m free to take pleasure in everyday things. I am free to treat Chicago like any other foreign city I visit. Going places I’ve never gone and doing things I’ve never done. Revisiting places I’ve been before to see how they’ve changed, soak them in, and build new memories. I am immersing myself in the the local community and strengthening the relationships the defined my youth.
Not taking one moment for granted here is an update of what I’ve done with my first month in Chicago!
1. Haute Hairstyle
With plans to be in the Chicago area for almost 6 months, I had to find a way to make money. I contemplated working at a “chop shop” hair salon a few days a week. I even went so far as to interview for a job. But at the end of the day, I couldn’t stomach the thought of being tied to someone else’s schedule. I am here to spend time with family and friends, work on my website, and prepare to go overseas.
I emailed a few people who do hair in the Chicago area to inquire about daily salon rentals. Renting by the day means only paying for a station on the days you actually take clients. I figured this could be a way to secure a bit of income without having to commit to full time rental or a “real job.” But daily rentals are not as common in Chicago as they are in Vegas.
My cousin owns a hair salon in Elmhurst, Illinois called Haute Hairstyle. I discovered she’d be going on maternity around the time I arrived in Chicago. We worked out a deal where I can rent her station on Sundays and Mondays as needed. Those are her typical days off so I will be able to continue working after she returns to work in early 2018. The timing, the space and the flexibility couldn’t have worked out more perfectly. I swear, the stars aligned for this arrangement.
P.S. I’m still taking appointments for November and December. Text me if you’d like to make one! 702-237-1519
2. Oak Street Beach
I was not expecting to see 80° days on the forecast when I arrived in Chicago at the end of September! Summertime Chi stuck around just long enough for me to enjoy a beach day! Lucky for me, my sun loving friend was keen to take a sick day and join me!
We met in the city and went “avocado toast hopping” as we walked towards Oak Street Beach. I do this thing that resembles bar hopping, but instead of getting a drink at multiple bars, I stop at multiple restaurants and order a small dish or appetizer to share. It’s a great way to try multiple hot spots without breaking the bank.
The first place, Slightly Toasted, was unusually quiet for it’s trendiness level. Then again it was 11am on a Monday. The avocado toast was delicious. Sourdough bread, whipped avocado, whole avocado, tomatoes and an egg. Yummmm!
The second place, Goddess and the Baker on Wacker and LaSalle, had a more casual vibe. You order at the counter and they do not accept cash. We sat on the sidewalk patio and watched the Monday business crowd hustle by. Quick to look down when someone resembling Jen’s coworker walked by. We were only blocks away from her office after all. This avocado toast was just as delicious as the last. Sourdough bread with smashed avocado, seasoned ricotta, lemon and red pepper. I was stuffed.
Oak Street Beach
As we continued towards the beach, we grabbed a bottle of Champagne from Walgreens. Alcohol is not allowed on the beach so we emptied it into an opaque water bottle before heading down. Sneaky sneaky.
We were not the only ones who decided to take advantage of the last nice day in Chicago. The beach was filled with volley ball players, sun bathers, and swimmers. We picked a spot near the water to lay down our towels. With 2000’s Hip Hop playing on the Jam Box we chatted, sipped champagne and soaked up the sun.
I’m not usually one to actually get in the water at the beach. 99% of the time I think the water is too cold. This time was no different but after half of a bottle of champagne, nature called. The water was more appealing than the public restroom so I ran full force into the lake. Not stopping until I was all the
way in to avoid chickening out. Surprisingly, the water was lovely!
We stayed at the beach until the sun dropped behind the skyline and the shadows from the buildings brought a chill.
With dusk fast approaching my friend suggested we check out a few rooftop bars near by. Cindy’s Rooftop overlooks Lake Michigan, Millennium Park and the Art Institute of Chicago. The panoramic view of the lake and the chic rustic decor is breathtaking. We watched the sun set but opted to move on without ordering anything because it was so busy.
The second rooftop, Raised | An Urban Rooftop, offers an industrial ambiance and views of the Chicago skyline. We sat at a shared table with a couple who was on a first date. The awkwardness of their conversation provided us with unanticipated entertainment while we snacked on a variety of cheeses and sipped red wine. The Chicago skyline lit up at night is by far one of my favorite views on earth.
3. Sonny Acres
My best friend has an almost 5 year old daughter. In an effort to spend quality time with her while I’m here, I watch her on Thursdays. In late October I decided to take her Sonny Acres, a pumpkin patch in West Chicago, Illinois that my family has gone to for years.
We fed farm animals, went on the haunted hay ride and had a picnic under the fall leaves. I totally forgot the only restrooms on the property are Porta- Potties. Helping a small child use a Porta-Potty is not a task I’d wish on my worst enemy. But we managed! The visit was nostalgic and a great time for both of us.
4. Lisle Library District
One of the first days I watched my friends daughter she asked me if we could go to the library. Unsure, I googled the closest library and discovered there was one less than a mile away. That afternoon we bundled up and walked to the Lisle Library District.
The kids department is fantastic! Not only do they have a large selection of books but toys and a regular schedule of interactive activities!
The next day I went back on my own and discovered the adult area was equally awesome. Flyers for a book club caught my eye. Ghettoside: A True Story of Murder in America by Jill Leovy was listed on the sign. I downloaded the audio version on Audible and plan on attending the club meeting in November!
5. Downtown Downers Grove
My mom, sister and bother-in-law all live in Downers Grove, Illinois. My sister and her husband live in a beautiful two story apartment right in Downtown, walking distance to everything.
In early October my brother-in-law, celebrated his 27th birthday at Another Round in Downtown Downers Grove. The cubbies were playing. At the time it looked like another World Series was in their future so the bar was packed. People were dressed in blue and red, screaming at the massive televisions covering every wall. “Sweet Home Chicago” I thought as I got swept up in the energy of the game.
My mom’s favorite spot in Downtown Downers is a wine bar called The Cellar Door. It’s a intimate space with bar seating, dim lighting and an entire wall of wine bottles. We’ve enjoyed the charcuterie, cheese and red wine on a few occasions now!
6. Chi-Town Chinatown
Per the suggestion of yet another one of my close girlfriends, we spent a day in Chi Town’s Chinatown. I had never been before and was stoked for the cultural experience.
After missing the train we decided to take an Uber from Downers Grove to Chinatown. The $40 ride was more than two $6 train tickets but not as much as I anticipated.
The Uber driver dropped us off in front of the Chinatown archway. Having been to Chinatown in San Francisco, California and Sydney, Australia, archways such as this seem to symbolize the entrance to Chinatown.
We created our own food tour based on one we found online. We did it in the restaurant hoping manor I mentioned previously.
Tripple Crown was our first stop. With a pond in the lobby and linen covered tables upstairs, it’s on the formal side. We grabbed a table near the window where we could look out over Wentworth Avenue, Chinatown’s main street. We split vegetarian dumplings and a small saki.
Lao Sze Chuan
For the next place on our list we had to cross Cermak and Archer, heading away from the Chinatown archway. Lao Sze Chuan is on the corner of a two story strip mall. With a small dining area and plastic chairs, the atmosphere is laid back. We split the Chef’s Dry Chili Chicken, it came highly recommended by the waiter. And of course, another saki. The chicken was on the spicy side but for two spicy food lovers, it was perfection.
We spent the next few hours walking off our food. We walked through a residential side of Chinatown. There were brick homes with front porches nearly flush with the sidewalk and laundry drying on lines. By this time school was getting out. Small children with big backpacks and tiny voices speaking in foreign tongues flooded the streets.
Dolo Restaurant and Bar
We wanted to split one more saki before heading out so we stoped at Dolo Restaurant and Bar. The Cantonese restaurant is on Archer, upscale and seemingly new. We ordered a saki from the bartender. He looked at us blankly. “Saki is a Japanese thing, we don’t have any.” He said. I felt dumb. I know Saki is Japanese but since it was on the menu at the two Chinese restaurants we were at previously, I didn’t think twice when I asked for it.
The bartender looked to be our age, late twenties, maybe early thirties. He gave the impression that he controlled what alcohol was stocked as he kept referring to it at “his” bar. He offered to make us something with tequila. I wanted to say, “isn’t tequila a Mexican thing,” but I held my tongue. Not a fan of tequila I asked him for another suggestion. We ended up with two very well made Old Fashions. He lit the orange peel with a match, slightly caramelizing the oil. I am not much of a whisky drinker either, but was impressed.
7. Los Angeles to Chicago
A friend of mine from Los Angeles came to visit Chicago for the first time. With less than 24 hours we packed in as much Chicago as we could!
His Uber driver told him Au Cheval had the best cheeseburger in town so that’s where we started. The hostess said it’d be about an hour and a half long wait. We opted to put our names down considering other restaurants would be about the same at 11am on a Sunday. As we turned around to leave, a woman seated at the bar leaned towards me and said “we’re leaving and these seats are first come first serve.” Score! We split a single cheeseburger with bacon. I haven’t tried many cheeseburgers in Chicago, but at this point I have to agree with the Uber driver- best burger in town!
The West Loop to Lake Michigan
From Southern California, he found the concept of a beach, on a lake, in downtown Chicago to be comical. I had to show him. We walked over two miles from the West Loop to the lake. Passing through Millennium Park and Grant Park we of course had to take touristy photos of The Bean and city skyline. We made it to the marina where we sat and watched people get their boats ready for a day on the lake. It was 75° and sunny, a perfect day to be on the lake. We continued walking along the water, past the marina and Navy Pier until we reached Ohio Street Beach. “See, there’s sand!” I announced. Jason chuckled at the pathetic excuse for a beach according LA standards but walked out to touch the water.
With nearly three miles of walking under our belts, we took an Uber to The Book Cellar. It’s a quant bookstore, coffee shop and wine bar in Lincoln Square. We perused the books for a few moments. I was looking for the book Vagabonding: An Uncommon Guide to Long-term World Travel. It was sold out. I’ve listened to book on Audible at least three times but want a physical copy to use as reference when I write. We sipped a chai tea and a coffee while flipping through a local city guide and charging our phones.
By this point we were pretty hungry. It’d been hours since we split the cheeseburger and we’d done a lot of walking. We went to Lou Malnatis, a classic Chicago style pizza place, a few blocks away from the bookstore. On the corner of two streets that meet at an acute angle the building mimics the thin triangular shape. The wall between the main dining room and patio was open on the beautiful fall day. We chugged a few waters, chatted and enjoyed the nice weather while waiting the thirty minutes it takes for deep dish pizza to cook. I forgot how delicious the crust is on a deep dish pizza!
That evening we went to Money Gun, a speakeasy style cocktail bar off of Saint Lou’s in the West Loop. My friend Jen recommended it because they play hip hop music, my favorite. The bar is quite small with a handful of bar stools and a row of booths against the back wall. We settled into the booth in the corner. The music was poetic and smooth, the lighting dark and the cocktails well made.
A 24 hour trip to Chicago would not be complete without a Poritllo’s stop! It was close to midnight when we arrived at Chicago’s classic retro styled fast food restaurant. In true Chicago form, we ordered a Chicago Style Hot Dog and an Italian Beef.
P.S. “Chicago Style Hotdog” means the hot dog is topped with yellow mustard, chopped white onions, bright green sweet pickle relish, a dill pickle spear, tomato wedges, sport peppers and celery salt. NO ketchup!
8. Friends & Food
Two friends of mine from high school got married the summer we graduated. The wife adopted her new husband’s Islamic Somalian heritage by converting to Islam and adopting Somali culture as her own. My fascination with religion and culture led me to many nights at their house reading the Quran and experimenting with Somali recipes back in 2007/2008.
2017 is no different! Shortly after arriving in Chicago, they had me over to cook Somali food with them. We made what they kids call “Daddy’s Dish” because it’s my friend’s favorite. Makarooni Isku-Karis is a beef rib, shell pasta and fresh tomato sauce dish. The final touch of fresh jalapeño hot sauce sets it apart from any beef or pasta dish I’ve ever eaten. Good thing we made a lot because I had 3 helpings!
I had the opportunity to meet up with a friend of mine I have know since fifth grade after not seeing each other in years!
We caught up at Fattoush, a Middle Eastern restaurant in the south suburbs. I ordered a lemon and mint smoothie called “Relax” and the Shawarma Plate complete with beef, grilled veggies, rice, falafel and pita bread. There were so many things on the menu I wanted to try, I will definitely be back!
Earlier this year her travels caught my attention on Instagram. A picture of her in the Middle East prompted me to reach out to her. Her mother in from Yemen and her father is from Somalia. I told her about my extreme interest in visiting the Middle East, especially Iran, a country she has not been to either.
I learned more about her travels over lunch. What was supposed to be a short work trip turned into several months of exploring overseas! She went to the United Arab Emirates (Dubai and Abu Dhabi), Qatar, Bahrain, Oman, Turkey, Jordan, Kuwait, London, and Germany!
Upon her return to the states Ahlam turned her focus to her entrepreneurial endeavors. Opening up two businesses, a medical transportation service and a courier service. Get it girl!
9. International TEFL Academy
One of my main goals while I’m in Chicago is to prepare for my upcoming overseas travels. Becoming certified to teach english abroad was on the top of my to do list. I downloaded an ebook from Nomadic Matt called How To Teach English Overseas to figure out what exactly I needed to do.
The International TEFL Academy offers one of the best certification programs in the world and is based right here in Chicago! I immediately contacted the school. Amanda, a student advisor who taught English in China, suggested I attend an information session at the school the following week.
I took the Metra train from Belmont to Union. Then I hopped on the Brown Line to Diversey. It was my first time ever taking “The L,” Chicago’s internal train system! I fell in love with Lincoln Park and the school instantly. The thought of spending four weeks working towards a goal, surrounded by fellow world travelers, taking public transportation, and eating lunch in city restaurants excites me… I start class on January 8th, 2018!