Saturday, April 7, 2012

Chicago Adventure Time

They told me before I got here that it would be windy. Or snowy. I guess some people said both. And everyone said it would be cold.

No one told me that I'd spend all my time seeing only 1/100th of the city I'd live in for the next four years. But that fact seemed to be slightly more relevant than the tidbit about it getting cold and windy here. In reality, it might've been better had I been told that instead.

I'm not particularly adventurous, and it seems neither are the people I surround myself with for the most part. That isn't to say we're not the coolest people on the planet. Okay, we're not, but I've never once regretted the attachments I've made in college (or in high school for the matter). Concessions aside, it is very much the case that the people I surround myself with are creatures of habit. And I am too.

When my friend Dana and I went into the city - Chicago, that is - today, we were making our first spontaneous decision in quite a while. Sure, we'll occasionally venture outside our dorm to make a trip to the Starbucks on campus or to walk around by Lake Michigan, but we're more likely to stay in on a weekend than plan a grand trip by public transportation to the city for a few hours.

Today, though, we felt absolutely no desire to do anything productive. At least productive school-wise. We needed a day to be crazy - so we went to State Street.

State Street is not a crazy place. It is a commercial area of Chicago that allows us to shop, visit museums and Millenium Park, whilst staying perfectly in our comfort zone and experiencing nothing new. In our time at Northwestern, we've been on this same trip - by El to the city and back by campus shuttle bus - at least half a dozen times. In fact, it's been more than that.

We get complaints from our friends about it. All we do is go into the city to shop, we're told. We never go anywhere other than Michigan Avenue and the surrounding environs.

Yes, that's true.

Right now I'm in a reporting class that meets in Chicago. We are on the outskirts of the city in a slightly suburban, but still very Chicagoan neighborhood. Twice a week I make my way by public transport to the city. And even though I don't enjoy going in for class, just getting the chance to make a morning commute reminds me of all that a city - even one that has a lot of zones with different levels of comfort like Chicago - has so much to offer. So much more than its commercial shopping districts and museum campus.

I know this, yet I refuse to change.

In a few weeks we may venture out of our comfort zones and into a new environment that doesn't require us to use the same map drawn by Dana from freshman year. Instead, maybe, we'll write out new directions so we can visit new locales and experience new things.

But who knows whether or not that will really happen.

Since I was a little kid traveling near and far and even in my own city, I was always afraid of going anywhere that didn't seem absolutely 100 percent wholesome and populated. Granted, in Orange County those characteristics are not hard to come by. Nearly every spot in the city I grew up in was safe and clean.

But even going into Los Angeles, I veered toward trusted territory. To this day the only areas I'm mildly well-acquainted with in the city are Downtown LA, Santa Monica, Hollywood (by the Kodak Theatre) and the area by the La Brea Tar Pits. Suggest I go anywhere outside of those tried and true places and I may shudder and only do so with a companion.

The problem has seeped into my life in so many ways. I fear going out at night, especially walking in the dark by myself. When I'm walking around I will casually hold my purse to feel secure that no one can pick-pocket me. In some ways I've become OCD about protectiveness and my own safety.

A few years ago I went with my dad to Paris. We only stayed for a day, but after months of planning he reasoned it would be a good idea to use pouches we placed under our clothes to hold our money to avoid pick-pocketing. It was a frequent suggestion made by the inane travel books he used for research.

It took so much effort to guard ourselves, and even more effort to get our money out to use it for anything, that the experience was made all the more difficult. We reasoned the next time we went to Paris that it wasn't worth it to hide our money, just to be more vigilant about its placement.

That's how I wish I'd treat real life sometimes.

On those days when I choose to go on a trip into a city, be it Chicago or New York or Los Angeles or wherever, even though I treasure so much the opportunity to do what I know and love, I wonder what it would be like to be a more adventurous traveler.

It's so easy to stay in your comfort zone and never venture out to see what else a city has to offer. The one time I've ever been to what is considered the "south side" of Chicago was when I went to the University of Chicago for a rally Barack Obama held there in 2010. It's so ridiculous that the one time I've ever willingly gone into the more colorful - and I guess notoriously scary - part of town is when I've known that I'd be walking straight to a safe college campus populated by fellow political junkies.

I love spending time on State Street and Michigan Avenue. Nothing is more fun than enjoying a day - or I guess early afternoon - in the city with Dana to "see the sights," or what have you. But it's nice also to explore in a way that doesn't confine you to one corner of the enormous and expansive area  that you could choose to roam.

When people were giving me advice about Chicago, someone should have told me to conquer my fears and visit places that don't always have me feeling perfectly safe. But they didn't. So I guess now it's up to me.

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