Mónica is 19 years old, is a cinema student and went to the United States with AFS, still in high school, for 10 months because after the 11th grade she felt she needed to broaden her horizons and live a new experience to learn more about the world and herself. In the AFS program, exchange students stay with volunteer host families, which means that anyone who applies for this program can end up anywhere in the country, from Alaska, to Hawaii, from New York to the smallest village of that state we’ve never heard of. Monica ended up in Chicago and will tell us about her experience!
What expectations did you have of the city and the country before arriving? Is the reality similar to these expectations?
As for Chicago, I didn’t know much about the city. The first thing that came to my mind was, unfortunately, crime and also because it is well known for blues and jazz, including the musical Chicago. In relation to the United States, I knew that it was a big and powerful country, a country that was always present, whether in the news or on television or cinema, and so I had preconceived ideas of what I had seen, although I knew that fiction rarely corresponds to reality, and for that very reason I wanted to go there even more, to break stereotypes.
What do you like most about Chicago?
Its architecture and proximity to Lake Michigan.
And what do you like least?
Crime and violence problems.
How do you characterize North Americans?
North Americans are a very diverse people and each state has its own culture. The North Americans that I met and that I established friendship with are very talkative, upfront, efficient, fun, adventurous, open and friendly. Chicago and its suburbs have very diverse and developed communities and are therefore more liberal than other places.
What was a normal day like for you in the United States?
I would wake up and do everything by myself, I would have breakfast alone because although my host mother got up at the same time and I saw her, she left the house a little earlier. My host brother, despite having to go to school at the same time, would take a shower and got into bed again and then we would go to school later than me. Then I would go out, walk to school, just 10 minutes away. I had classes and after classes I’d had a choir rehearsal, or theater, or was editing videos or doing homework, or going for a walk in a park next to the school, public library or doing something with friends, it varied a lot … but I’ve never been a sporty person. On Fridays I volunteered at a primary school and played with the children. Afterwards, when I returned home, my host brothers were usually already at home. I either watched television with them or waited for my host mother to arrive and was going to do yoga with her. After that we had dinner and I would go to bed right away because I had to get up very early every day.
If someone were to visit Chicago and had only 3 days what would you suggest seeing?
Millennium Park, with the “human fountains”, the Bean, or Cloud Gate, (next to which there is a rink for ice skating during the winter) and the Chicago Art Institute. The top of the Sears Tower (now Willis Tower) or the John Hancock Observatory have a 360º view of the breathtaking city. You should also visit the House of Blues, for jazz and blues concerts, the Shedd Aquarium, the Adler Planetarium, the Field Museum and the Buckingham Fountain. I also recommend a boat trip down the Chicago River! If you are more of a sporty and want to see the CUBS playing live, go to the Wrigley Field stadium. Visit Lincoln Park Zoo and go to the beach by the lake Michigan or take a stroll along Lakeshore Drive.
And what to eat and where?
At Lou Malnati’s or Giordano’s for deep dish pizza, Portillo’s for a typical American diner (order Chicago’s Hot Dog) or try Garrett’s famous popcorn!
Do you have any tips on how to save money in Chicago?
Yes! There are special days when museums are free. For example, at Chicago Art Institute we did not pay anything on Thursdays, I am sure that other museums do the same, just look at the museums’ websites for timetables. Millenium Park and Bean are outdoors, Lincoln Park Zoo has free admission and the Chicago Cultural Center too! There is a 3-day pass for 20$ that you can also enjoy on the “L”, the elevated metro that makes a “Loop” through the city, and the best way to get around in Chicago, which pays off.
What is the biggest tourist trap in the city?
The Navy Pier is a much talked about naval wharf but when we get there, there is just a shopping center with a few places to eat, and a store. It also has a ferris wheel but nothing much. Don’t feel sorry if you don’t go there, you are not losing much.
In which areas of the city should we look for accommodation and why?
I never had to stay in Chicago for lodging because I lived in the suburbs but wherever you are, avoid the southern part of the city which can be very dangerous and not recommended.
What are the best places to go out at night?
In the summer there are free concerts and movies at the Millennium Park’s Jay Pritzker Pavilion, outdoors. See a Blue Man Group show, a good comedy show, a good jazz or a musical concert. Those can be seen at The Chicago Theater, at Goodman Theater or at Broadway in Chicago!
What is your favorite place (neighborhood, building, café, bookshop …) or favorite activity?
Chicago is a vibrant city and has a lot to do and see, but I have to say Oak Park. Oak Park is a neighborhood 20 minutes away from Chicago, if you take the green “L” line. It is a very welcoming neighborhood, with a very diverse and friendly community. With many places to eat, cinema, bookstores, libraries, parks. It is also where Frank Lloyd Wright lived and spent much of his life. Most of the houses in Oak Park were built or influenced by him, and you can even visit his home and studio there.
What would you answer if someone asked “You can’t leave Chicago without …?”
Eat Deep Dish Pizza! Seriously, you can’t make pizza like that anywhere else in the United States, or the world … it’s a Chicago brand! Try it … you won’t regret it!
Thank you so much to Monica for letting us travel with her! And at the same time I would prefer not to have seen so many pictures of this Deep Dish Pizza while preparing the post, as I am now full of obese desires! 🙂 You can follow the Mónica’s work on her Youtube channel, here, or on her Vimeo, here!
If you liked this post and want to read more about my trips to the United States, you can visit the following posts: