What is it like to live in Chicago? In this Expat Interview, Federica shares her expat life in Chicago, United States. She includes her moving procedure from Italy, the cost of living in Chicago, good and bad things about Chicago and more.
Often considered the third city, after NY and LA, Chicago has all of the ingredients of a wonderful American city. There are fabulous parks, museums and restaurants, world-class skyscrapers, entertainment, and even a Great Lake with beaches.
Built on a grid system, with Lake Michigan set as the natural border to the east, the Windy City, (to use one of Chicago’s better-known nicknames), is a favorite destination for many. Travelers from all around the world flock to this metropolis to discover the beautiful architecture and the great eateries.
Why did you move to Chicago?
The story of my move to Chicago is also the love story that has changed my life. I was dating Mr. P. on a long distance relationship within Italian boundaries. After a beautiful holiday in Thailand, he called me one day announcing that he received a job promotion. Good news! I thought before even knowing that he should have moved to Chicago. We spent the entire following weekend thinking about our future and we were on the edge of breaking up until I decided to move with him to America.
How to prepare for moving to Chicago?
Moving to Chicago was not easy.
I had my job in Italy and even if I was dating Andrea for two years, it would have been our first experience as a full-time couple. I was scared that sharing our daily routine could have destroyed our balance as the couple used to a long distance liaison. Because of this uncertainty, I didn’t want to quit my job.
Luckily, I asked for and obtained from my company a sabbatical year. The other most significant problem was the one related to my Visa. At the time of our moving, Mr. P. had a green card (a permanent permit to live in the US), while I arrived in Chicago with a touristic VISA only valid for no longer than 6 months stay.
Going back and forth with Italy was too risky and the border already blocked me twice letting me understand that I should have applied for a long-term visa. That’s why after 5 weeks in the US, I came back to Italy and I applied for and obtained a student Visa. In the meantime, I searched for schools since my final goal was to spend my American years studying for a master degree.
What is the cost of living in Chicago?
Coming from Rome, the capital of Italy, I found Chicago slightly cheaper than my hometown regarding taxes. However, I am aware that for American standards, Chicago ranks among the most expensive cities in the US with taxes over the 10%.
It was tricky at the beginning to remember that to the showed prices on every kind of goodies I had to add taxes, but after a while, I got used to the system.
Before moving to Chicago, I was driving my car daily from and to my office and the commute was really stressful. This is the reason why when I moved I pleased Andrea to search for a place downtown. I decided that I would have never retake the car. And so I did during my Chicagoans years. Of course, the real estate market is more expansive in downtown but I also looked for the safest area to move in and to enjoy my new life as a pedestrian.
c. Apartment in Chicago
To what pertains to the real estate market we found that buying a place would have been a good investment for us. Also taking advantage of the exchange rates it was even cheaper than renting and after a monthly search, we bought an apartment in September.
d. Entertainment and food
Chicago has excellent offers of entertainment and many festivals are beautiful and free for residents. Like other big cities, also the dining scene is vibrant and with a full spectrum of options, from the street food to some of the best restaurants in the world.
How to deal with difficulties when first moving to Chicago?
Chicagoans and Midwestern in general are very friendly and it was truly easy to overcome all the first-time difficulties thanks to their kindness. Even if when I moved, my English wasn’t perfect, everybody, from the porters in my building to the people I was stopping in the middle of streets asking for directions, spent a lot of time understanding my requests and making sure I would have found the answer I was looking for.
Moving to Chicago has been my first international move but not the last. I can easily say that moving abroad is always tricky concerning culture shock. The fact that Americans had to hidden alcohol when bringing it from one place to another was so unusual to me coming from Italy that I was shocked. And like this little thing to many others, in the beginning, I was staring at these differences.
It was also shocking the loud volume of the city. I have never liked the too loud sirens of ambulances and firefighters. As the time passed, I got used to them and I experience a culture shock the first time I came back to Italy after three years!
Did you experience any discrimination in Chicago?
In, Chicago has been one of the most welcoming cities among all the places I have been as a tourist and an expat. People are genuinely kind and it is effortless to interact with them. They made everything they could to help me and make me feel at home. I felt there very welcomed as part of their community and I have never faced any problem as a foreigner.
How to overcome culture shock while moving to the United States?
When I moved to Chicago, I had tons of small cultural shocks.
One was related to food. Every time I was entering a grocery store I was staring at the giant dimensions of fruits and vegetables and poultry and meat. I was scared of the American use of chemicals and hormones to feed animals. To overcome my fear of eating unhealthy food, I changed my shopping habits and started to transform my life into an organic one.
The second biggest shock regarded friendship. Contrary to Italian people Americans tent to move many times in their lives and to stay less attached to people. Italian people are lead a less nomadic life that brings them to stay connected to the same social group for their entire life!
In the beginning, I was shocked by this considerable flexibility of Americans with connections, but when I understood the social reason behind this way of befriending, I accepted it and lived happily with American pals.
What do you like about Chicago?
I love summertime in Chicago when the city flourishes. Sipping a drink on a rooftop bar or heading for a picnic in a park while listening to a beautiful concert is a delightful experience. I love the beautiful beaches on the lake and the daily festive atmosphere in this season of the year.
As a mother of two (born in Chicago!), I have to say that it is also a very child-friendly city. Restaurants are big enough to welcome parties of several families with young kids, and there are many activities and classes for children of different ages.
Are there bad things about Chicago?
On the negative side, one thing is a true nightmare: the cold winter, which sometimes lasts 9 months. It is brutal and it is tough to cope with. My tip was to leave Chicago for a warm destination every 40 days. The good thing is that Florida is at a 2 hours flight distance and Puerto Rico at 4 hours!
What are your favorite things to do in Chicago?
I love going out for dinner with friends and try new restaurants. The dining scene is exciting and new eateries options open very frequently. The concert season of the Symphonic Orchestra presents high-quality programs. When I am alone, I used to escape as much as possible to the Art Institute. For an art lover like me, this is the best escape that Chicago can offer.
Where do you recommend to visit in Chicago?
I love the beautiful architecture realized by great firms. Mies van der Rohe and Frank Lloyd Wright are just two of the most famous architects that designed the important building in and around the city.
An experience I highly recommend is to take a boat ride with the Chicago Architecture Foundation and explore the city from the river. Or, if you are not familiar with America, you should go south and visit the historic campus of the University of Chicago. For a full list of recommendations, you can check my posts.
How to make new friends in Chicago?
a. Being a student
My first network was the one I build around the English school firsts and the graduate program then. Attending schools is the easiest way to make friendships. I also took a watercolor class to meet ladies with whom I could share my artistic interests.
b. Through the Italian community
Another easy way to meet friends was through the Italian community. Andrea is a member of the Accademia della Cucina Italiana, the Academy of the Italian Cuisine, a Cultural Institution of the Italian Republic since 2003.
Founded in 1953 with the aim of safeguarding the traditions of Italian Cuisine, the Academy has branches around the world, and its members meet monthly at a different Italian restaurant. Through this club, I had the opportunity to meet beautiful people with whom I could share my language and my cultural habits while away from my country of origin.
c. Through parent community
The third way that allowed me to reach people happened later in my Chicagoan years when I became a mom. My first daughter music class was where I met other lovely families that became our friends over the course of the years.
Do you hang out with locals or foreigners mostly?
With a mathematical proportion, I would say a 60% of international people and 40% of locals.
Where is your favorite place in Chicago to meet friends?
I love the rooftops of Cindy’s and Cerise when we are large parties and I prefer the Shangai Terrace and NoMI when I go out with just one or two friends. I also enjoy dining out at North Pond. To discover more about my favorite places you can check my guide to restaurants and bar here.
Do you interact with any expat communities in Chicago?
As I mentioned, thanks to the Italian cuisine academy I interact with the Italian community of expats and of Italians living in Chicago. Besides the Italian community, I know some other foreign people through my graduate studies and my Italian friends’ studies.
A memorable experience in Chicago
I still remember my first fourth of July there. It was a few days after I moved there and I was so excited at the idea of watching a beautiful show of fireworks. But it revealed to be my biggest disappointment.
Our temporary flat was in a skyscraper and from the window on the 83rd floor, everything looked so far away and incredibly small. Instead of seeing spectacular fireworks displays, I was watching a show of little, colorful bubbles, like tiny blinking lights appearing and disappearing in the darkness of the night.
Did you change your perspective of Chicago after living here?
I liked Chicago as soon as I arrived but never liked some aspects of being there. I never felt in love with the weather – too cold for me- nor I ever wanted the loud sirens and the acoustic pollution in general! Besides these aspects, I loved living in a city facing a lake as big as a sea!
What are your advice and tips for moving/ living in Chicago?
If you need to move as a family, make sure that every family member has a proper Visa. To survive the brutal cold, forget fashion and buy a snowsuit.
You might need to wear it over the regular clothes during the coldest day. And buy all the equipment for wintertime there – it’s truly cheap compared to European prices.
Would you recommend others to live in Chicago?
Living in Chicago has been a truly enjoyable and enriching experience. I had the chance to discover and integrate with another culture which I consider a fantastic opportunity in terms of personal growth.
People in Chicago are so enthusiastic that their enthusiasm is now part of my way of being. I would recommend moving to Chicago, even if only for few years, to experience Midwest at his best.
What have you learned from living abroad?
I have lived in Chicago for four years before moving to London. For work reasons, Mr. P. has always led a nomadic life and since I became Mrs. P. (but by chance I was born as Miss P.!) I am living across the globe.
Living abroad is the most enriching experience of my life. No matter the country or city where I stay, I always learn something different. People across the world have their own rules and academic system and the more I move the more I get to know on my skin how these systems work.
It is a great opportunity because at the end of every experience I understand what I like and dislike about one system. The more I move, the more I create in my mind Utopia, an ideal place with the very best from each country I have lived.
More about Federica
Curious by nature and wanderer at heart, Federica is an Italian Journalist and Digital Media Storyteller. By chance, by desire, and by the love, she is leading a nomadic life since she met, almost ten years ago, Mr. P., the man she eventually married. Travel after travel, move after move, Federica is now based in London where she manages her travel and lifestyle blog, A stroll around the world. You can follow her adventures also on Instagram, Facebook, and Pinterest.