When I moved to Chicago in the summer of 2021, I was looking for a new adventure and a jumpstart in my travel writing career—not love. Still, it would be cliché and a lie to say romance was the last thing on my mind. After so long in Covid-19 self-imposed isolation, I was longing for human connection. That wasn’t a priority, though (I moved for work), and I certainly didn’t expect to find love in the Midwest. Like so many people, I’d wrongfully written off the area as a tad bland, a place where love wouldn’t find me. In the end, it brought me love in all its forms.
My first Midwest travel assignment was researching wineries in nearby Wisconsin and Michigan. The man I was seeing at the time, who is now my partner, spontaneously suggested that he come along for an extensive week-long road trip around Lake Michigan. I was hesitant but decided to be adventurous. During our trip, we stopped at the greatest hits: we drank beer in Milwaukee, wandered around Green Bay and camped in Sturgeon Bay, where we awoke to deer licking our tent and built fires to cook our dinners. We took a ferry across Porte des Mort or Death’s Door—a stretch of waters in Wisconsin formerly known for its preponderance to shipwrecks—and stayed at the kitschy Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island, where cars are banned and everyone has to travel by horse or bike.
One night, on a whim, we drove through the remote areas in Upper Michigan, reaching the crystal clear, mirror-like waters of Kitch-iti-kipi. It was dusk—he’d meant for us to arrive when the sun was high and kept apologizing for us arriving so late. But I loved it even more at dusk, when the sun was elusive and the moon was displaying its first glimmers, where I had to peer a little deeper into the waters to see the fish below, where I had to search a little harder to find the reflection of his eyes staring into mine.
As we drove through 1,240 miles of the most beautiful Midwestern landscapes, I found myself falling in love—so subtly I didn’t notice it at first, but when I finally did, it caused an irrevocable, seismic shift in my life. When we came back to Chicago, suddenly the city wasn’t just a stop in the trajectory of my fast-paced life. The Midwest finally felt like home.
But just having a partner by your side doesn’t really make a place home. It didn’t take long for me to realize that while I loved my partner—and spending time with him—I needed other forms of love to feel whole, to feel complete. And to truly call the Midwest home, I needed to find a greater sense of community. My travel writing endeavors, which facilitated many of my regional adventures, helped with this.
As I was falling in love with my partner, exploring the Midwest also helped me deepen friendships, including one with a friend I could finally visit via a short train ride now that I was closer. We planned wonderful days for each other for the time I was in Minneapolis—I took her to James Beard award-winning restaurant Alma where we had duck confit and the most exquisite Wisconsin cheese with a currant mostarda, and she took me to Anda Spa and the Basilica of Saint Mary in downtown Minneapolis. Neither of us are Catholic, but admiring such beautiful architecture with your best friend and discussing human existence made the entire day feel hopelessly lovely. The best part? Neither of us felt the need to pressure the other to do non-stop sightseeing, so we took it easy for the rest of the weekend. We had hearty Swedish meatballs at the FIKA Café, tentatively walking on the ice in Lake Nokomis while I watched others literally pitch tents in the middle of the lake. We binged HBO’s White Lotus while we ate Popeye’s chicken tenders on the couch, snuggled in her daughter’s cozy mermaid blankets.
After some time, I learned that the final piece of romanticizing my new home would have to come from within. Especially on days when the old me comes creeping back in, when I feel an itch to leave, to start over. When this happens, I take myself on dates—walk to coffee shops like Oromo Café and drink Korean Honey Citron tea while reading Louise Erdrich. I take myself on solo trips to AIRE Ancient Baths and sweat out all my stress or venture out to Detroit and Ann Arbor. Sometimes, I’ll hike in Starved Rock, a nature oasis just outside of Chicago. I push myself to re-discover new places to remind me why I’m doing this, why I choose to live here.
It’s been two years, and I’m still living in Chicago. In a short period of time, I discovered a deep love for the Midwest (my potential forever home) and, in the process, a deep love for myself.