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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Just like the sign says, the Randolph Street Market is held on its namesake street, in the West Loop neighborhood of Chicago. The festival occupies the entire block surrounding the historic Plumbers Union Hall.
During the summertime, the huge parking lot surrounding the Plumbers Union Hall holds vendors selling everything from antiques and art to flowers, clothing, and artisan-made furniture.
Looking for a cowhide to use as a floor rug? This booth is the best — they’ve got great hides at amazing prices.
You’ll hear everything from rockabilly to jazz to blues at the Randolph Street Market. You can kick back with a beer and a taco and enjoy the tunes while you give your wallet a rest.
Norwegians, take note of the latest American coffee trend sweeping the nation — the cold draft brew. You get your java fix on tap. It gives the coffee a head and a bit of fizz like a beer. Aficionados say it has “a smooth mouth feel.” I’m gonna smack the next person who uses this phrase; it’s just a little too pretentious for me.
If you’re into vintage and hand-crafted pieces, you’ll definitely want to wander into the Plumber’s Union Hall, where dealers selling clothing and jewelry congregate. It’s open year-round, whereas the exterior sales area for the Randolph Street Market is only open May – September. And during hot summers, the Plumbers Hall is air-conditioned, which makes it a great place to take refuge from the heat.
Check out this guy’s amazing antique posters — he comes to every Randolph Street Market year-round and can always be found in the basement of the Plumbers Hall.
Gotta love this WPA-style mural, which humbly reminds union members that “The plumber protects the health of the nation.” The White Castle-like building on the right is the old Water Tower — one of the few buildings to survive the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. In front of the plumber is Buckingham Fountain, known to Europeans as “Bundy Fountain” from the popular T.V. show “Married with Children.” The show still airs daily in Norway.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!)
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.
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.
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.
One of our favorite local restaurants pays extra to equip its bathroom with Trump toilet paper. It brings new meaning to the phrase, “Kiss my ass.”
The local bookstore posted GQ’s recommended reading list to survive the Trump era.
Check out the graffiti someone scribbled on this magazine at my doctor’s office. Got 15 minutes to kill in the waiting room? Use the time wisely to deface images of your president.
Each week, the famously irreverent Wiener’s Circle (often featured on the late-night talk shows) puts up a new opinion about Trump.
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.
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.
The Chicago skyline provides an urban backdrop for North Pond, a haven for wildlife in the heart of the city. We’ve watched beavers build dams here, a family of foxes run through the grasses, and an incredible array of waterfowl congregate in and around the waters. The Mississippi Flyway runs right along Lake Michigan, so during migrating season, this place is a birdwatcher’s paradise. The Audubon Society runs free North Pond Birdwatching Walks every Wednesday from 7:00 – 8:30 a.m. almost year-round. Incidentally, the skyscraper was invented in Chicago, and along the horizon, you can see the John Hancock building and the tip of the Sears Tower (now renamed Willis Tower), which at one time held records for the tallest buildings in the world.
One of my favorite summertime respites is the sleepy Alfred Caldwell Lily Pool, which is tucked away behind an Arts & Crafts archway across from the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum — another great spot to learn about the unique ecosystem of a Midwestern prairie. In the background, you can see a Prairie-style teahouse, and on the right you can just barely make out the end of the rock waterfall.
The LP Conservatory’s Palm House holds several species of palms as well as fruiting trees like cacao, coffee, papaya, and more. The lily pool here is a reminder of the days when Chicago’s famed lily ponds supplied rare seeds to places as far away as Egypt.
As the sign says, a small dinosaur would be at home in the conservatory’s Fern Room, which is modeled on Jurassic-era plants. The experimental sound studio Florasonic composes new pieces of music every few months to enhance the environment here. For example, one piece electronically imagined the sounds of insects that might have been heard during the Jurassic age. Photo cells registered the shifting sunlight, which triggered a constantly changing chorus of chirps, whirs, and clicks. Really, truly fabulous.
The entrance to Lincoln Park Zoo sits right across from the LP Conservatory. My morning runs often take me through the middle of the zoo so that I can say hello to the flamingoes, seals, swans, wolves, bears, and big cats just as they’re waking up.
One of the things that I love about this zoo is how close you can get to the animals. It’s a hot day, so the lions are napping in the shade, but often in the morning as I run by, the male will stand on his rock and roar like crazy. So cool to hear that sound in the middle of the city. The zoo itself also has one of the largest zoo-based conservation and science programs in the country. They’re helping to lead the way in protecting both wild and zoo populations of endangered species.
At the south end of the zoo, you’ll find South Pond, which features a Nature Boardwalk that introduces you to prairie and marsh plants, as well as migrational bird species and other local animals that can be found here year-round. The islands in the center host a rookery for the rare and endangered Black-crowned Night Heron, which you’ll see congregating in enormous nests built in the treetops. On the left of this photo is the gorgeous Cafe Brauer, where you can grab some food and take in the vista.
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.
If you’ve read my post “Biking along Oslo’s Fjord,” you’ll probably remember that Matthew and I ride a 1971 Schwinn Twin tandem. We had our first date on this bike 28 years ago and have ridden it almost every weekend since then. Kinda funny, as Matthew himself is a twin. (Hi Mark!)
Pretty much the entire lakefront is strewn with beaches. Some are quite narrow and close to the roadway, but others are broad and far away from the traffic on Lake Shore Drive. You can rent Divvy bicycles (the blue ones in the foreground, $10 for 24 hours) at several spots scattered all over the city and ride along the lakefront to any of the many, many beaches. The city is currently creating a second path so that bicyclists have a separate trail from the runners, dog walkers, and meanderers.
If you want to rent a boat, you’ll find sailboats, motor boats, catamarans, kayaks, and pontoon party barges available. Some you can take out by yourself, while others have the option to hire a crew.
In the distance, it may look as if an ocean liner has run aground, but that’s actually just North Avenue Beach House. It’s the meat/meet market, where all the young singles fresh off the binky go dance, drink, and basically troll for a sweaty hookup. If you’re over 25, forget it. You’ll feel really out of place.
North Beach always has some, er, interesting people showing off. This is one of the least pornographic poses this acrobatic couple entertained beachgoers with during their half-hour long exploration of “how freaky can two contortionists get in public?”
If you’re into beach sports like volleyball, a series of courts are available at several different beaches. The ones seen here are up by Montrose Beach, where the sand is really hard, so it’s much easier to keep your footing while playing. If you want team members to play with, check out Chicago Sport & Social online, which lists meet-ups.
Like I said, Montrose Beach is absolutely enormous. You’ll pretty much always find space for your beach towel, or even a tent big enough to throw a party in. I love this beach because it has the most cultural diversity. You’ll hear every language, see an amazing variety of bathing costumes, and find lots of different ethnic foods. Be sure to stop by one of “mango ladies” stands that sell unbelievably ripe mangoes sprinkled with hot pepper and lime juice — to die for! Or grab a taco from one of the guys frying up spicy meat on a hubcap. Sounds super sketchy, but the tacos are fabulous! And if you see a lady roaming up and down the beach with a cooler in tow, flag her down and try some of the world’s best tamales.
Each beach has a series of lifeguards. Some sit in towers as lookouts, while others patrol the shore in boats. They use the boat to mark how far out swimmers can go, because riptides can be quite common (and dangerous), so the guards won’t let you wade in over your chest.
Lots of little snack shacks and eateries are scattered all along the lakefront path, and most are really terrific. We often stop at Flat & Point, because they have some really creative tacos, burgers, barbecue, and other side dishes. The menu changes daily based on locally available ingredients. A true beach treasure!
Check out this amazing grilled avocado from Flat & Point — filled with roasted corn, queso fresco, and spices. Yummmmm!
Here’s another of my favorite things about Chicago’s beaches: the paletas sellers. They roam up and down the beach ringing a row of little bells that dangle from their cart to let people know they’re coming with frozen treats. You can see they sell all the usual crap that kids like, but the real paletas are far better.
So what’s a paleta? It’s like a popsicle, but instead of the typical fake neon colors and chemical flavorings, paletas are basically frozen blended fruit. My favorites are the mango (seen here) and the coconut. Just chocked full of real fruit — it’s a race to eat them before they melt in the sun. And at only $2.50, they’re the most flavorful beach bargain in the city.
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.