August in Chicago: Reflections on a Whirlwind Year

Pedestrians cross Chicago's Kinzie Street bridge in the sunshine. ©KettiWilhelm2019

It’s almost Labor Day weekend, which in the US culturally marks the end of summer. But my mind is still on August 15, known as Ferragosto, which marks the middle of the Italian summer vacation season – not the end.

Yet it was right around Ferragosto that Chicagoans started reminding me to enjoy the very end of summer. At first, I didn’t get it.

Then I started to notice a little chill in the air – strange for the middle of August, I thought. The temperature still hits 80 degrees most days (27 C) and most people still walk down the street in shorts and sun dresses… but there’s this little wind starting to whip around that can give me goose bumps even when I’m lounging in the sunshine.

If this is August, what is October going to feel like? This week I’m in typically hot, sweaty Atlanta, Georgia, but I’m still almost worried I’ll come back to snow in the Windy City.

We just moved to Chicago in late May and I’ve already gotten the idea that life here revolves around the weather and the fear of weather. Maybe I’m exaggerating, but people talk about it all the time. (And I wonder if that’s part of what keeps the cost of living so much lower here than in other huge cities in the US.)

Kayakers paddle under a bridge in downtown Chicago; skyscrapers glisten in the sun behind them. ©KettiWilhelm2019
Skyscrapers seen from an architecture boat tour of the Chicago River. ©KettiWilhelm2019

When we arrived here, it was frigid. I stood in line for the bus at the airport with my hood tugged around my face, feeling like I’d traveled back in time to January. We spent those first weeks apartment hunting in the freezing spring rain and wondering where in our 10 suitcases we had packed our warm clothes. Yet nearly everyone we met told us (forebodingly) At least you picked the right time to move to Chicago!

Three months ago, summer in Chicago hadn’t even started and now it’s already fading.

I think living here will be a good reminder to live in the moment, because everything is temporary. (Both the good weather and, hopefully, the bad. But also the jobs we work and the countries we call home.)

The brevity of summer here may be part of what’s making me reflect on this crazy-busy past year. Not that busy is a bad thing for me. I get bored when I stick with the same routine for long, which is probably why I’ve lived in four different countries in the past five years.

The Chicago skyline at sunset seen from Lake Michigan aboard an architecture boat tour. ©KettiWilhelm2019

Most bloggers do a yearly recap at the actual end of the calendar year, but for me the end of summer always feels like a more significant transition.

Maybe it’s because the change from sweaty summer to crisp autumn feels so much more obvious than the other seasonal changes (unless you live in place without seasons – sorry LA friends). Or because my birthday is in July, or because I’ve been conditioned by all those years of back-to-school.

Whatever the reason, this feels like the end of a year has been particularly full of change, even for me, and the beginning of a new phase.

So here’s a recap of the winding path that got me here, and never gave me a chance to get bored:

Last July:

I can hardly believe it, but a year ago I was just taking final exams for my master’s in sustainable business in Milan. For a while there, I was back to being a student, although it already feels like ages ago as I very quickly fell back out of the habits of studying and spending an hour on the bus every morning to get to class.

July & August:

Our trip around the US and up through Iceland, where we did capoeira with a group of Icelandic, Chinese and Italian capoeiristas. (Technically our honeymoon!)

A barren hill sweeping into a bay in Western Iceland. ©KettiWilhelm2018
Both photos from western Iceland.
Dark layered clouds over a row of mountains over a bay in Western Iceland. ©KettiWilhelm2018

September:

We came home to Italy and I started my visa application to work in France. (You might think – like I did and my French employers did – that being married to an Italian citizen lets you legally work in Europe, but it turns out that’s not necessarily true.)

I did the paperwork, and took two trips to the French embassy in Rome in the course of one week. Then I scoured the French Craigslist to find an apartment to sublet, moved across the Alps, and started my first full-time office job that I’ve had since… ever.

The Isère River in the city of Grenoble, France, with the Alps glowing in the background. ©KettiWilhelm2018
I wrote copy at a desk in this small Alpine city for several months. The experience was definitely worth the hassle of yet another move.

All winter:

Back and forth between Milan and Grenoble, France, what felt like a hundred times. (It was probably more like a dozen… Still a lot of train rides through tunnels under the Alps.)

December:

Lele accepted a job in the USA!

In Chicago. A city where I had previously spent six hours (he’d spent zero) and which had not been part of our Honeymoon USA tour just a few months before. Go figure.

Also, my first Christmas in Italy!

An small shop in Mantova, Italy, decked out with lights and garlands for Christmas. ©KettiWilhelm2018
A little shop (formerly a drug store) in Mantova, Italy, at Christmas time.
Downtown Mantova, Italy, hidden by fog at Christmas time. ©KettiWilhelm2018
Downtown Mantova in the fog.

February:

Lele was between jobs and thus free to travel, so I used my generous French vacation allowance and we took off to Thailand, to sip coconuts and get massages on the beach. It was worth it.

But seeing the beaches and jungles overflowing with plastic reminded me that sustainable tourism may be closer to what I want to work on than my French office job would ever be.

Even though I’d traveled in Southeast Asia quite a bit before this trip, and had just finished a masters in sustainability where I learned a lot about the global plastic system, I was still shocked. And my heavy-traveling lifestyle makes me even more interested in finding ways to make these systems better.

A clean, orange-sand beach on the island of Koh Libong, Thailand. ©KettiWilhelm2019
A perfectly idyllic beach on the not-very-populated Thai island of Koh Libong. And yet…
A dirty, trash-covered beach near a resort area on the jungle island of Koh Libong, Thailand. ©KettiWilhelm2019
…You only have to go about ten feet (three meters) from any resort’s property line to realize the garbage is everywhere.

Spring:

We sold most of our belongings in Milan, gave up the sunny little apartment that had been our home base for three years, and got ready to fly across the Atlantic heavily laden with Italian and French jams, cheeses, and alcohols (plus an excess of other, less important stuff like our clothing).

May:

I proposed that it might “make sense” to spend the month of June homeless, instead of rushing to find an apartment that was available on short notice.

June:

Was this a good idea though? We were homeless. Our suitcases lived in a storage unit that we occasionally visited to exchange our dirty clothes for whatever we were able to dig out first. We lived in Airbnbs, hostels and hotels in Chicago, Michigan, Indiana, Houston (Lele), and Boston (me).

July:

We moved into a new apartment! We now live about 30 floors above the ground. For the first couple of weeks when I woke up to the view of sky and skyscrapers, I had the distinct sensation of dangling from the side of a cliff in a rock climber’s tent half way up a mountain.

Waking up bleary-eyed in a tent dangling from the side of El Capitan, in Yosemite National Park. Photo ©SamuelWilson2018.
I wake up in Chicago like this.
(Yosemite National Park, ©SamuelWilson2018)
Waking up stoked, in a tent dangling from the side of a big rock climbing wall in Kyrgyzstan. Photo ©SamuelWilson2018.
Then I look out the window like this!
(This photo is from Kyrgyzstan, also by my mountaineer/ photographer friend Sam – I highly recommend you check out his great photos on Instagram, too. ©SamuelWilson2018)

(I’ve never actually done this (yet!). But luckily I know someone who has.)

And summer is beautiful and fun here in Chicago! Even if I’m not clinging to a cliff. We dive into Lake Michigan from a path between the water and the skyscrapers, and take sweaty bike rides exploring this sprawling city.

August:

Apparently summer is over.

I’ve lived in three countries in the past year, which has been exhausting and overwhelming, but also a refreshing restart. This is the first time in five years that I’m living in the US, and the reverse culture shock is real. But it’s also fascinating to get to better understand the culture I grew up in and the ones I’ve gotten used to in the past years. It’s all given me a lot of inspiration and writing material, and I’m looking forward to many more adventures to come.

The downtown Chicago skyline glowing at sunset. ©KettiWilhelm2019

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2 Comment

  1. Kara says: Reply

    Sounds like a whirlwind year for sure. As a New Englander I can relate to weather being a topic of discussion, but there’s a beauty to the bond it gives people and the appreciation it gives you. Every season has something new and beautiful to offer. Good luck with your first Chicago fall and winter !

    1. Ketti says: Reply

      Thank you, Kara! And that’s definitely true. I don’t know if I could do life in a place without seasons.

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