Sunday, August 24, 2008

from Chicago

I was going to give you a day’s respite from longer posts. I took this photo of a man on a break and thought – that’s it for today.

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But then I go for an early evening walk – up and down Andersonville (once Swedish, now – who can tell; it certainly known for its high concentration of gay couples, but the ethnic dimension is unclear), then west to Lincoln Avenue and south to Lincoln Park. I pause at a park there and watch men – some dozen or more, my age mostly – play a very, very good game of boules.

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The men speak another language. I’m not a Higgins, but I’m more than okay at placing languages and this one sounds familiar. But what is it?

One of the players comes over to chat. So it’s Croatian! They’re not recent immigrants. They all came between twenty and thirty years ago. But they get together every week in good weather. Fridays after work and Saturdays. And they play. And talk. It’s a good way to pass time, he tells me.

So are there still communities with demographic labels in Chicago? Do cities segregate in ways that are beneficial rather than simply exclusionary? The current thinking is that it's better to mix it all up, right? Sort of like this Swedish Andersonville Jewish Italian New York deli slash pharmacy that is also especially gay friendly?

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I go back to my favorite bakery, Natalina’s – the one where she bakes, inspired by her Sicilian grandmother’s recipes and he helps, with his Lebanese family bakers’ experience. It is a wonderful place, not only for its pasteries…

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Purchase photo 1985

…but also for watching what happens in the open kitchen, just behind the counter. The owners, Natalie and Nicolas are both so sensual, so deliciously focused on each other that it’s like watching an elaborate meal preparation in their own home, as she rolls the dough, slowly, with beautiful, strong arms, and he leans on the counter, waiting for another tray to come out of the oven.

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Purchase photo 1984

My visits to Chicago would be greatly diminished without a stop at Natalina’s and so I ask them, nervously, because I see the framed, glowing reviews from Food and Wine and other reputable magazines on their melon colored walls – will you be relocating someday? Downtown maybe?

No… he says this slowly, as if he’s just now mulling this over. Because really, it’s not only about the business of it, it’s also the place, their place.
No, he says again, not in Chicago. Maybe in Italy?
Sicily? I prod…
No.. somewhere else
Rome! I say, and he considers it and smiles.

I drink a shot of espresso, with a scoop of raspberry gelato at the side, I take a pack of cookies and head out, thinking that this is the new Italy, here in Andersonville, in this pasticceria. In an old Swedish neighborhood, in Chicago.