April 29, 2005

Chicago's your final destination? Welcome Home

April 28, 2005—CHICAGO—As my plane pulled up to the gate at Midway International Airport yesterday morning, the captain's voice came over the loudspeaker to thank us for choosing ATA. "If you are continuing on to another city, we wish you a safe and comfortable journey. If Chicago is your final destination, welcome home."

I felt relieved, excited and anxious; after eight months in Paris the time had finally come to go back and visit my home in Hyde Park.

In the cab, I confidently asked the driver to take me to "55th and Greenwood, please. Don't bother with Lake Shore, just take 55th all the way there." So we drove down 55th Street, past the Red Line and the Green Line and Manny's deli and all of the streets whose names I used to be able to recognize, until I saw the masts of Ratner rising in the distance. Never in my life have I been so happy to see a gym.

The rest of the daytime was spent hugging everyone and staring at everything. As I sat in Hutch courtyard reading a book, waiting to meet a friend for dinner, I looked around at the still-familiar buildings and felt like I hadn't been gone for a single day. But sitting in Bartlett, eating my makeshift kosher for Passover meal, the unfamiliar faces of hundreds of new students had turned the dining hall into an alien planet. Dorothy Gale might be right—it's true that "there's no place like home"—but as all of my friends scrambled off to rehearsals and study groups at 7, I had the awkward realization that for the duration of my six day visit I will have to be content being a guest in my own home.

Maybe it's the fact that I don't have my own room, or maybe it's that for the first time in my three years as a University of Chicago student I have absolutely nothing that I have to do. I have no classes, no homework, no job, no extracurricular activities, and no real obligations—a kind of existence not usually possible on this particular campus.

When I was an active Chicago student, I was so suffocated by my classes and other commitments that I couldn't make plans to see a movie without first consulting my Filofax. Certainly, I didn't expect that this week would feel just like spring quarter of last year, but now that I have the complete freedom only a vacation schedule allows, I don't fit in and I don't really feel like a part of anything.

I was warned that after spending a year on the other side of the ocean my Chicago homecoming might make me feel like "the ghost of second year past", and it's true. With the exception of a few very close friends with whom I have remained in constant contact, most of the people I knew in Chicago haven't stayed in my life the way I had thought they might. When you go abroad, it's easy to forget that while your world is going on without all of the people you left behind, their world will go on without you.

There will not be enough time between now and Monday to re-establish myself as a present U of C student; it wouldn't make sense for me to try, given that as I am returning to Paris in 2 weeks to finish out the year.

But if "home is where the heart is" then Chicago, as the base station of my youthful universe, is more my home than my house in Connecticut. It is the center of my academic career, the chunk of square mileage containing almost all of the people I have ever loved (or lost), the place where I feel the most like myself, and the jumping off point to the rest of my life.

As this paper goes to print, I might be sitting in the Med, having a very un-kosher coffee with a friend, elatedly fantasizing about how busy I'll be this summer when I'm taking Western Civ, working on my BA translation, looking for a job, applying to grad school, and who knows what else.

So while I have not yet reached my "final destination" (and do not intend to for some time), Chicago remains the hub. It's good to be back.