Sweet Home Chicago?

Orchestrating an overseas move isn’t for the faint of heart. Beyond the house hunting, packing, and other hassles that come with any relocation, there’s a mountain of immigration paperwork and legal logistics for every member of the household, both human and pet. I’d thought moving to Norway had been complicated. (Check out my earliest posts, The Move: Round 1 and Round 2.) But getting back home proved even more challenging.

Here’s an example of how Matthew and I like to complicate things. When we first bought our condo back in 2002, we didn’t just repaint. We ripped out all the 1980s “updates,” raised the ceilings to their original height, installed a salvaged 1800s marble fireplace, completely renovated the kitchen and bath, and restored everything back to its 1893 splendor. Which included crafting historic moldings. Matthew did the carpentry, and I did the sanding, staining, and sealing. It took us seven years to complete all the work. My Norwegian readers would have been proud of us — Norwegians are totally DIY.

Most of the hurdles were self-created, of course. Matthew likes to joke that we have the uncanny ability to turn even the simplest task into a Herculean effort. That certainly proved true when, in preparation for our move home, we decided to renovate our Chicago condo … while still living in Oslo. After 3.5 years of sitting mostly empty, our place required some sprucing up to repair the ravages of time. And frankly, we needed to feel like we weren’t stepping back into the past when we walked through our front door.

This is only shot I could find of our dismal basement. I’m in the process of trimming off the old lathe and plaster from the back of a ceiling medallion that we later reinstalled upstairs. Notice that I’m sawing towards my leg, which I’m using as the counterweight. Safety first, kids.

Our to-do list was a long one. Harsh Chicago winter winds had battered our storm windows, which threatened to come loose from their moorings and crash down onto the sidewalks below. The bathroom had also taken quite a beating and sported broken tiles, faucet handles, and a toilet that had somehow bizarrely shifted off its mount during our absence. Then this past February, our 1893 basement ceiling collapsed, covering everything in our storage room with coal dust and chunks of horsehair plaster. Not a fun cleanup job.

Our Lincoln Park place felt gloomy and fussy after almost four years of living in minimalist Scandinavia. Our Arts & Crafts flea market finds reflect the early years of our marriage, when we’d rented an apartment in a building designed by E.E. Roberts, a competitor of Prairie-style architect Frank Lloyd Wright. But after 25 years of hard use, every piece needed lots of refinishing and reupholstering. (Click for bigger view.)

Plus there were the aesthetics. Our dark paint colors and heavy furnishings reflected ancient history. The Arts & Crafts antiques that had worked well in our Prairie-style Oak Park apartment for nine years, then endured another 16 years of hard living after we moved to Chicago’s Lincoln Park neighborhood, were now decidedly the worse for wear. Our cats’ claws had left their mark, and the intense sunlight and radiant heating had finally finished off anything fabric in our home. Most of our leather upholstery had huge rents in it, and all the window shades hung in tatters. Definitely a “haunted house” vibe.

A few years ago, Marie Kondo introduced Americans to the KonMari method, “the Japanese art of decluttering and organizing.” Although we’ve never read the book, we used the basic concept of weeding out any items that made us feel weighed down.

To bring everything back up to livable conditions, we began by getting rid of clutter. Not only did we need to clear space for the various contractors to do their work (we hired out this time), but also living for years in Scandinavia has altered our design sensibilities, making us crave simplicity, lightness, and minimalism. So we reviewed every single item we owned — dishes, décor, books, furniture — in an effort to “Kondo-ize” our condo. If it didn’t “spark joy,” out it went. Including almost all of our furniture. When the quote for reupholstering ran into the tens of thousands, we decided then and there to sell most of our dark-n-heavy antiques and join the global “brown out” that seems to be occurring right now.

In the market for some Kuba cloth, African masks, or other ethnic items? Global goods abound at Randolph Street Market.

But how to get rid of everything and generate some cash? Craig’s List turned out to be a total bust; way too many scammers bombarded us with fake offers that always ended in an attempt to break into our bank account. So in July of 2017, we came home for a week to join the ranks of professional antique dealers by renting space at the Randolph Street Market. Here’s a tip if you’re visiting Chicago and you love cool vintage clothing, jewelry, furniture, and artwork:  Don’t Miss This Market! It’s held the third weekend of each month and promises everything from fabulous shopping, to great street food, to terrific live music.

Each Randolph Street Market has a theme, and July’s was Tropical Luau. You can see that Matthew isn’t thrilled with the costume I bought him to wear in keeping with the motif.

To ready ourselves for Randolph, I’d organized our efforts as only a true anally-retentive person can do: I’d rented a truck and hired a couple of brawny young men to help us haul everything; priced and packed all the items beforehand; advertised our “estate sale” through every conceivable online portal; set up Paypal and Square Reader accounts; and brought my niece and sister into town to help man the tables. But the one thing you can’t control is the weather. The weekend of the event, temperatures soared to over 100º F (38º C) on the hot asphalt where we’d rented our display space. It was a real sweat fest.

I, Ruthie, and McKenna show off our tropical theme. As you can see, we had lots of merchandise to move — our booth stretches all the way to the tent on the far right. (Click for a bigger view.) Getting rid of so many possessions that just weighed us down was amazingly freeing.

Despite this, my sister Ruthie, whose charm knows no bounds, managed to flirt several men into purchasing many of our most expensive items. My niece concentrated on hawking the small stuff and haggling like a fish vendor on Good Friday. But the heat took its toll on buyers, and by Sunday night, we still had a pile of crap to get rid of. So we gave the market a second shot in September and managed to unload the majority of stuff, with any leftovers going up at auction a few months later.

Voilà, our renovated living room with lighter, brighter colors and a more modern, Scandi vibe.  We kept only a few family pieces and purchased most everything else on clearance at our favorite store, Jayson Home — another must-see if you’re visiting Chicago. The place is an eclectic mix of modern, vintage, and global goods that, in my opinion, even beats out ABC Home & Carpet in NYC for style.

By the time we were scheduled to move back in mid April, we’d sold most everything and used the proceeds to complete repairs and refurnish the place with lighter, more modern pieces. Most Norwegians won’t find our complete style overhaul odd, by the way, as redecorating seems to be a household ritual performed every 3 – 5 years in Norway. Both Chicago and Norway share long, harsh winters, meaning people inevitably spend lots of time indoors, hence the need to refresh the interior landscape regularly to stave off the winter blues.

And truthfully, if we hadn’t done the work, I don’t think we could have made the move back home. Having a refurbished place that reflects our overseas experience is one of the few things that has made the idea of returning to Chicago bearable — yep we’ve loved Norway that much. And we’ve been dreading the political climate in the States, which doesn’t feel even remotely welcoming right now.

But the date of our move marched relentlessly forward, all while we scrambled to finish work obligations in Oslo, complete U.S. and Norwegian taxes, and tackle school preparations. Three days before the move, we almost pulled the plug on the whole thing. Matthew’s classwork had proven far more rigorous than he’d anticipated, meaning we were nowhere near ready for the movers.

Remember this photo? It shows the pile of luggage from the last of our three Norwegian immigration trips. Looks like a ridiculous amount? You try culling all of your necessities for a year to a few suitcases and see how far you get.

Let me back up for a minute. When we first relocated to Norway, you might remember from my earliest posts that we thought we’d be gone for less than a year. We’d accomplished our move via suitcases and boxes that came with us on the plane in three trips, each made a few weeks apart during our “commuter” phase of the project.

But that one year abroad turned into almost four, during which time we accumulated a lot of stuff. To be precise: 16 boxes of books, 12 boxes of clothes and shoes, 20 boxes of dishes and crystal, and another 30 boxes of artwork, stereo equipment, computers, household files, and items leftover from closing down our business office in Norway.

If you’ve ever wondered what goes into an overseas move, read on. All moving companies require a detailed inventory for insurance purposes, so we photographed our belongings and catalogued their value in a series of spreadsheets. Then we subdivided stuff into piles based on the item type and speed of the move. Everything except clothing was to travel in sea crates, which usually take about 5 – 8 weeks. Clothes and shoes were to go via air, which takes about two weeks and is necessary if you don’t want to wear the same suitcase of outfits for two months.

Fortunately for our move back to Chicago, we’d hired professionals, the fabulous Crown Relocations. They supplied boxes and shipping materials, packed everything, and organized the entire endeavor with amazing precision. And good humor. While we all worked, the Crown team entertained us with tales of extraordinary past projects. There was the story of the ambassador who’d collected four truckloads of antiques that took a month to pack. There was the legend of the fashionista businessman who expected the team to polish all his shoes before packing them.  And then there was the one about the hoarder, whose stash included several dead pets.

We returned the favor by telling the Crown team of the one and only time we’d hired movers back in the States. We didn’t have much money as we’d just bought our condo, so we’d hired the cheapest firm we could find. The day of the move, five guys showed up without a truck. They explained that they were all recovering alcoholics with DUIs, meaning none had a driver’s license. Matthew ended up having to pick up their truck and drive the huge thing himself.

All went surprisingly well, except for the case of Talisker single-malt whiskey that we’d brought back from a trip to Scotland. Most of the bottles broke when the box “accidentally” got dropped on the concrete basement floor. You’ve never seen five men hit the ground so fast in an effort to lick up the splash zone. But then the time came to return the truck. The tipsy guy directing Matthew as he backed out onto the street somehow didn’t see the parked car with its butt sticking out into the alley opposite. And its back end went bye-bye.

Yep, the moving truck did quite a number on the back-end of the stolen car. Should’ve known something was up, as no self-respecting Chicagoan would have ever left his butt hanging out into an alley like that.

We reported the damage to the police, expecting to receive a huge bill from the car’s owner. Six months went by. Nothing. The sedan slowly disintegrated as others hit it over time. Eventually, the police got to the bottom of the situation. The car had been stolen in Pennsylvania more than a year prior and had apparently been dumped in Chicago with fake plates. The owner had already claimed his insurance reimbursement, so we had no bill to pay. (Whew!)

We picked up this painting of the Oslo Fjord because it reminded us of the ocean view from the end of our street. An oil-on-board from 1960, it’s the work of Harald Risberg, a well-known Norwegian artist who started painting after he fled to Sweden when the Nazis invaded Norway.

But I digress. No such calamities befell us with Crown. The shipments went out that day without any casualties. Only one hitch: it turns out that several paintings we’d bought for between $25 – $50 at the Vestkanttorvet Flea Market were actually painted by relatively famous Norwegian artists more than fifty years ago. Customs officials had decreed that a curator from the National Museum needed to review our purchases before they left the country to ensure that we weren’t absconding with Norwegian national treasures. Nope, we had no priceless gems in the bunch. But the process of getting an export permit added a three-week delay to the sea shipment, making us glad we’d air freighted our clothing.

Our cat Jess has an EU passport, so it’s easier for her to travel back and forth between Norway and the U.S. than it is for me. She’s a totally relaxed flyer, as you can see here.

In any case, after the movers left, we spent the next two days furiously cleaning our Oslo apartment before our flight back to Chicago. Re-entry into the States went surprisingly smoothly for a change. No hassles, no “lock her up.”  Let me explain. In these days of ridiculous immigration issues, I’m often hassled when we come back to the States. I always get the dreaded “Black X” over my photo printout from the security kiosk in front of Customs. Twice I’ve been taken to a detention room, cursed at, and repeatedly shoved physically as part of the standard intimidation process, all because my one of my surnames is Smith.

It doesn’t matter that my family immigrated to America almost two hundred years ago, or that I was born here and have a U.S. passport. Homeland Security officers tell me that Smith is often an alias for criminals and illegal aliens, hence the need to bully me to ensure I was authentically born with a boring last name. Fun fact: 2,376,206 Americans share this name — it’s the most common surname in the States. If TSA treats every re-entering citizen named Smith this way, that might explain a lot about airport delays.

Carol Aldape had to move into a tent city because the condo she was renting no longer offered a Section 8 discount. There’s currently a several month waiting list both for Section 8 housing and homeless shelters. As a result, enormous tent cities like this have popped up all over Chicago. They’re not just for the mentally ill, the alcoholics and addicts, or the jobless; they house the sick and elderly, and families where the parents sometimes work two and three minimum-wage jobs but don’t make enough money to afford typical Chicago rent and daycare. This is what America has come to.

So how has our homecoming been? Pretty rough, actually. While we’ve enjoyed seeing family and friends more frequently, we’re going through considerable culture shock. During our absence, it seems an unprecedented number of homeless tent villages have popped up under the viaducts and parkways bordering Lake Shore Drive. And the number of GoFundMe requests we’ve had from friends and family to help pay medical bills for those who are struggling with cancer and other diseases is frightening. These are things you just don’t encounter in Norway, where healthcare is free and everyone is paid a living wage.

Being bombarded daily by stories of greed, corruption, shootings, and hate crimes in the news isn’t helping, either. The mood on the street is hostile. Folks are short tempered, fearful, and exhausted. Our warm summer nights are often punctuated by the sounds of police sirens, honking horns, screaming people, and occasionally gunshots. The din just ratchets up the stress level, already in the red from the political situation. Things are beyond tense and most people clearly blame Trump. But at least Chicagoans keep their sense humor, as the photos below show.

My niece McKenna and I show off our “fascinators” from Dee’s, the famous milliner who supplies all the Kentucky Derby hats. We’re entering the Drake Hotel for their champagne brunch and viewing of the wedding of Meghan Markle and Prince Harry. The brunch was a duplicate of the meal served to Princess Diana when she visited Chicago and stayed in the hotel in 1996.

Matthew and I have tried hard to reclaim our love of the city. We’ve spent some time bicycling on the lakefront path, enjoying the sandy beaches, eating at our favorite old haunts, and wandering through the parks, zoo, and gardens. We’ve been to a couple of street festivals and art fairs, and we even celebrated the Royal Wedding with other Anglophiles at the famous Drake hotel. Check out the photo galleries below to see a few of our favorite diversions.

The Lincoln Park Conservatory, built in the late 1800s, lives up to its moniker as a “paradise under glass.” It’s one of the great Victorian greenhouses of the era, complete with a Palm House, Fern Room, Orchid House, and seasonal Show House. Matthew and I take refuge here almost every weekend during Chicago’s harsh winters, but during the summer, you can also wander through lush gardens that surround the buildings.

Lincoln Park
Lincoln Park is Chicago’s answer to NYC’s Central Park. It runs along Lake Shore Drive and houses gardens, the Lincoln Park Conservatory (free), the Lincoln Park Zoo (also free), the Alfred Caldwell Lily Pool (again, free), the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum (not free, but well worth the money), and several ponds and lagoons for fishing, boating, kayaking, and paddle boarding.

Our condo is just a few blocks away, and I usually try to start my day with a run that takes me through these gorgeous, hope-inspiring vistas. They’re a reminder of a time when the wealthy really invested in their city to ensure that everyone had free access to nature, beauty, and educational opportunities. Most people target the ultra-modern Millennium Park when touring Chicago, but Lincoln Park is really worth a visit for its tranquility and expansive Victorian elegance.

It’s kind of surreal to see some of the world’s tallest skyscrapers looming over a sandy beach, but the nice thing is that you can go from city to shore in just a few minutes. Oak Street Beach can be seen in the distance, which is where most of the tourists go since it’s right downtown. But I actually really like it because they rent lounge chairs, have great DJs on the weekends, and three nice bars where you can get your drink on, and a burger if you’re hungry.

Chicago’s Lakefront
Believe it or not, Chicago is a beachfront city, despite being located smack dab in the center of the country. It sits on the shore of Lake Michigan, one of the five Great Lakes created by glaciers during the last Ice Age, which means its waters are refreshingly cold during Chicago’s sweltering summers. (This background info is for my European readers, who might not have a great handle on Midwestern geography and geology.)

For scale, Lake Michigan is almost half the size of the entire country of England — it’s the largest freshwater lake in the U.S., plus it possesses the largest freshwater sand dune system in the world. The fabulous beaches along the city’s lakefront are why Chicago is called “The Third Coast.” And all along the shoreline, you can enjoy boating, swimming, cycling, golfing, dining, volleyball playing, fishing, sailing, and even surfing when the waves are intense.

No doubt about it, Chicago can be lovely and there’s never a lack of things to do. But I still find myself wondering whether I’ll survive my repatriation, and I’ll be honest: at least once a day I find myself longing for the peace, egalitarianism, and stability of Norway. Good thing our next trip back isn’t far away.

2 thoughts on “Sweet Home Chicago?”

  1. Hi Kimberly! Glad to see you’re back “home”. My how things have changed in this country since you guys headed over the pond. I’d love to get together some time Matt is back in town to visit.

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