Thursday, November 16, 2006
The other day I was walking from the train station to work, bent double against the nasty wind pouring across Lake Michigan, and onto my iPod rotated Elizabeth Schwarzkopf singing "Vienna, City of My Dreams." It hit me like a punch in the gut.
I've spent all of four days in Vienna and count them among the four best in my life to date. I didn't walk through the city, I floated through it. I danced through it. And not just the spectacular bits within the Ring, either. My inveterate passion for seeing the commonplace wherever I travel took me out via the subway, randomly, to see neighborhoods that don't attract group tours. And those places, too, I loved. I enjoyed the everyday gemütlichkeit of the Austrians, whose attitude seems to be, "Yes, we used to rule half of Europe, and now we don't, and who cares? Have another cup of coffee."
As Schwarzkopf's voice swelled into a perfectly-pitched crescendo near the end of the plaintive waltz, the whole panorama of Vienna came surging back into my head and I almost cried.
Lately Chicago has begun to chafe. Part of it is upbringing. I was raised in a military family, pulling up stakes to head to a new base every four years or so, and the instinct to Get Up and Go refuses to leave me, no matter how much I like where I am.
And part of it, frankly, is Chicago. The climate aside, this is not a city founded on impulses I can embrace. The pioneers settled where the Native Americans would not, stubbornly enduring all manner of pestilence and plague in order to make bucketfuls of money from a strategically located swamp.
And Chicago, at least as I've come to know it, remains a city that above all cares about money. Nothing, no matter how beautiful, noble or holy, is ever permitted to stand in the way of commerce. While I appreciate the comforts that come with a nice paycheck, I also appreciate being allowed an occasional break. And I find myself in a place where even the universities won't close for national holidays because it would interfere with the bottom line.
Given these objections, you might question how the hell New York City could possibly be on my wheel of possibilities. It's not exactly a monument to Higher Motives. I suppose it comes down to differing ambitions. When I've been in New York and met New Yorkers, everybody is trying hard to be something. Whereas in Chicago, a depressingly large portion of the population is working non-stop in order to own something. My own tendency is more in line with the former. No judgment. Just an observation.
There are no plans, mind you. And I lack the temperament to put my books in storage, throw a dart at the map, and buy a plane ticket. I'm just daydreaming, but the dreams are getting more frequent and vivid as we plunge further into our signature dismal winter.
So what the heck do I want?
I want a better climate, which means any place where winter doesn't begin in late September and end in early July. I want the creative vibe that comes from at least a small, active population of artists or artisans. I want, if at all possible, a good Japanese Zen training center. I need some sort of street life, rather than the usual American model of strip malls bounding a gridlock of identical houses. Or, I need countryside–genuine countryside, not Lake Forest. It absolutely does not need to be in America. Wherever it is, I'd like it to be a place with a real sense of itself, a character of its own.
Today, on the way home from the train station, the wind coming off the lake blew over a large, steel-and-concrete trash can in front of my building and slammed me into the wall. A few more days of this, and I may buy a dart and a map.