After five weeks of travel in China, New York, and Israel, somehow it’s not weird to be back in Chicago. I adjusted to the banalities of everyday life –doing dishes and laundry, cooking, riding my bike to work, work –a lot faster than I would have hoped. Then again, this is my town. I grew up in the suburbs of Chicago, went to college in the city, where I am now a post-graduate, pseudo-employed adult male. This is not to say that I am entirely the same person as I was before my travels.
One thing I realized after traveling in China, New York, and Israel is that I can only thrive in a city. I like the energy of cities and feel they are necessary for inspiration. For the most part, natural landscapes just don’t do it for me. Likewise, the concept of a global city has retained new meaning to me. Having been to the #1 global city in the world, as well as one in the mid-ranks, to one that has no interest in such a concept, I’m wondering if Chicago’s obsession with global recognition might not be a bit misguided. While there are many issues inherent to cities (overcrowding, class-segregation, etc.), the fact that the world as whole has pushed and continues to push into urban life means we will discover new ways to resolves these issues.
Further, I’ve been wondering about the notion of exclusivity. At the start of this trip, I contrasted the exclusivity of Beijing with the inclusivity of New York (Manhattan nightlife notwithstanding) Going back and forth between these two poles – exclusion and inclusion–eventually the boundaries began to blur. Could it be that there exists a paradoxical relationship between exclusivity and connectivity? Herein lies the tension of cities – each city has to cultivate its own identity while simultaneously adhering to the needs of a global society.
Another unexpected delight of travel was the simple yet profound differences in language. In Beijing, there are hutongs, in New York, boroughs, in Israel, the co-op Kibbutz. It’s fascinating to find the bridge between language, and living spaces, or more specifically, how people live, as no two hutongs or boroughs or kibbutzes are alike Similarly, no two books are the same, even the ostensibly similar books I read during my trip: Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay and Saul Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March. Two epic novels, centered on Jews, with the word “adventure” in the title. (Yes, I did that on purpose.) Ironically, I appreciated Chabon’s masterpiece more than the Chicago Jew’s adventure, a tale more similar to my own. While March encountered more life-threatening situations, they never eventually fulfilled some greater purpose, like Clay’s adamancy in joining the army to kill Nazis. Wheras the cousins Kavalier and Clay lived with a sense of purpose, Augie March often took the passenger seat, which is ultimately how I spent my time.
In my second essay on Beijing I pondered lingering questions, but omitted one: did I smile enough? This seems sort of hackneyed, but I’ve realized that sometimes it’s ok, if not unavoidable, to be a tourist. In my case, a tourist goes on late night bike rides through the hutongs of Beijing, goes to shows at Glasslands and 285 Kent in Brooklyn, and races around markets in Jerusalem in search of the best local food establishments. (If you’re sick of falafel and shawarma by the end of a trip to Israel, you’re doing it wrong).
Now I’m back in Chicago and exploring my own city again, with the same enthusiasm and sense of wonder, if not the same naivete, as a tourist. Already I’ve had the pleasure of seeing Thurston Moore, Guardian Alien and Supreme Cuts as part of the Neon Marshmellow Fest (just because it’s cold doesn’t mean we stop with the music festivals), saw Parallax Sounds at the Gene Siskel Theater, watched Good People at the Steppenwolf Theatre, caught up on some reading, have ridden my bike around the city, have consumed at some of my favorite eating and drinking establishments, have stayed out until all hours of the evening with friends and wasting entire days recovering in front of Netflix, and I’ve got food poisoning, and I’ve gotten frustrated and enamored and bored and enthralled all in the same day. I’ve seen the weather rise to the 60s and we’ve already gotten our first brief snowfall.
In the course of my travels, I saw 13 airports in 32 days. While most people offer their sympathy at this fact, I can’t wait to see 13 more. I’m glad to be back home, but nothing compares to the freedom of travel: I’m already planning my next trip(s). If this piece seems rambling and inconclusive, it’s because I’m not done quite yet. The traveler craves one thing: more travel. You may get some funny or cute or disgusting stories along the way (I can still taste that slimy, salty starfish), but traveling is less about escapism than it is exploring, discovering both facts and truths, about the self and others. It’s an imperative to not only saying you have lived on this planet, but to discover what it means to exist as a human being.
Finally, here’s a coincidence I can’t shake: after leaving New York an unprecedented storm hit the city. After leaving Israel, Tel Aviv and Jerusalem get bombed. While the coincidence is bizarre, it seems absurd to think of these events in terms of myself. To everyone still dealing with hurricane relief, and to everyone in Israel dealing with what we in America can’t possibly understand, my heart and thoughts go out to you.
Andrew Hertzberg is a staff writer based in Chicago. His previous essays in this series discussed bikes, beer, and baozi, Beijing nightlife, New York (before Hurricane Sandy), and 10 days in Israel. Photo courtesy of Windy City Eye.