“A Summer on the Southside”.
If I’m honest with myself and with the gift of hindsight, a J1 summer in the USA always seemed a distant unreachable dream. Amidst the hustle and bustle of my final year in university, the J1 was a happy after-thought as the reality of multiple deadlines and ever looming exams cast a shadow over my final days as an undergraduate. I had heard many great things about Chicago and done a fair share of research. I had thought it over and with my girlfriend and friends, talked about it a million times, but I knew in my heart that the experience of spending the summer in America would be all kinds of different to what I had imagined. And it was.
Having gone through the J1 application process, it came to long discussions about budgeting, where to live and where to travel following our stay in Chicago. My initial thoughts after some lengthy research were “this is going to be expensive”, particularly if we all wanted to live together. My college pals had gone out before my girlfriend and I because I needed to stay and watch my younger brother play in the Kennedy Cup inter-county soccer tournament. The boys had gone with the aim of finding us all a place to live in Chicago that provided sound living conditions, cheap rent, safety and a place that wasn’t a million miles from “everything”. Despite their efforts, most didn’t want to let to college students, didn’t do short term rental or were complete scammers! Any places that did accept J1’ers were fully booked up or just too damn expensive. Anyone who has been on a J1 to Chicago will tell you Wicker Park, Wrigleyville, Logan Square or Evanston. And although these are nice areas with lots to offer, many of our fears were later confirmed when we heard stories of several people sleeping on floors in single rooms and hordes of people being cramped into small apartments or houses. And rents still weren’t that cheap! With two days until our arrival and our friends still held up in a hostel in Damen, things weren’t looking good, that is until we found J1Accom Chicago, which in truth set the stage for one of the best summers of my life.
Having spent a summer in Chicago it is easy to see why it is one of America’s most favourite cities. The Windy City is a treasure chest of modernity, futuristic excitement and fuels the imagination! The food, the sights and the sounds, Chicago has it all. Downtown is elegantly dotted with a century’s worth of towers and spires but also pays homage to great modern architectural marvels such as Willis and Trump tower. The Loop is a daily jostle of people from all walks of life and the thrill of riding the CTA elevated trains to almost anywhere in the city is something I have never experienced in any other place. The various theatres downtown and just the general feel of the place make the everyday seem like a movie scene. One thing that must be said is that there is always something to do or see in the city. If you like shopping there’s the Magnificent Mile and in terms of food that isn’t very expensive, Chicago’s famous pizza joints do more than satisfy. The river walk along the banks of the Chicago River is epic and even better, you can kayak it if you are brave enough to find yourself amidst the numerous tour boats zooming up and down the river. A cycle or a walk to Navy Pier and along the shore of the beautiful Lake Michigan to feed the geese are a must. Bikes are easily rented all over the city using a mobile app and can be retrieved and dropped off almost anywhere. Millennium Park is home to an open-air theatre which must be seen to be appreciated and has orchestras or open-air movie nights regularly. Lincoln Park hosts one of the most wonderful zoos I have ever visited, and my mind was blown when I realised it’s free entry! There are also numerous beautiful beaches around the city, my favourite being North Avenue, which also offers jet skis, paddle boarding and is swimmer friendly! The city is rich in history and there are loads of museums that pay homage to this, my favourite being the MSI. The Shedd Aquarium and the Planetarium are also worth a visit. The nightlife is terrific yet unpretentious with numerous clubs, late night bars and roof top bars spread throughout the city, my favourite being London House. If you are a sports fan, all of Chicago’s teams play in the city and are all roughly within 15 mins of the loop. The city is culturally very rich and hosts several festivals in the summer, perhaps most notably Lollapalooza. The streets are so clean and Chicagoans so modest. Everyone wants to know what Ireland is like and everyone has plans to come here someday if they already haven’t.
Looking back on the whole Chicago experience, I cannot stress enough the importance of the accommodation. Hostels are a good short-term solution but as my pals found out, they can eat through your money! To have a base of operation so to speak, is a key platform for any J1 to live up to the hype. It is hard to not to sound bias, but J1Accom Chicago provided so much to us as a group in comparison to what other places had to offer, and with no hidden surprises. The J1Accom building itself sat right in the middle of the IIT Chicago campus, literally a 50-yard walk from the nearest CTA station of 35th Bronzeville IIT, which itself was only a ten-minute ride from downtown Chicago. CTA buses also ran outside the door straight to the city centre and Navy Pier. Not only was it located in the middle of a modern college campus with loads of amenities, the building that housed us J1er’s was modern, comfortable and provided superior living conditions.
Our group got to live in the same apartment, each with our own bedrooms which had storage for our things and could be locked for safety. The apartment had a shared bathroom and a kitchen which came in handy when trying to save money as we cooked our own food from the nearby supermarket. There were washing machines and driers on every floor for use by everyone which was very helpful as it made laundry less of a task. The wi-fi was super quick and there was loads of common areas to chill out with tv’s, a pool table and ping-pong tables. The whole security of the building itself was second to none as key cards were used to gain access to get inside and again to get into our apartments and bedrooms. Not only this but the front desk of the J1Accom building was manned all night and campus security patrolled the area 24/7. Moreover, the buzz around the building was top class as over 100 Irish J1’ers from all over Ireland mingled, partied and hung out together. Everyone was so friendly and there was always someone to go do something with or just hang out on the roof-top deck and chill with in the sun. Groups were heading out for pints in town every night so all we had to do was pick nights of convenience, especially when work was early the next day! Most importantly the accommodation was value for money at the price, considering all the facilities! You can easily pay the rent online too with no worries. A deposit of €150 didn’t break the bank either and was sent back to us as soon as we left. Paul and Brian were great to keep everyone updated on what was going on in terms of nightlife and what was happening around the campus. I must hand it to them, they never saw anyone left out and were great to invite people along on nights out and even organised trips to the nearby White Sox stadium to see a ball game for everyone in the building. The lads even ran a fantastic competition to give J1 residents the chance to win Lollapalooza tickets. They were also very accommodating when it came to my brother coming to stay with us for a few weeks. For me it was the little things that put J1Accom above all other lodgings. For example, one morning our toilet was on the fritz, so I informed the lads about it and within an hour or, so they had organised an engineer to come up and fix it. It’s something so small when you consider others were sleeping on the floor in rooms wedged with people in other parts of the city, but I must say the lads were always so helpful, informative and most importantly approachable. It was a bonus to get to work with my friends every day and after a tough day or night at work it was always so reassuring to know that we had a place to call home that we could easily get back to on the CTA and were safe, comfortable and happy in.
The end of our trip saw us travel to Las Vegas, Yosemite, Lake Tahoe and San Francisco with a pit stop in Denver along the way. These places were also unforgettable as one could imagine but if I am honest it is the time and the craic I had in Chicago that I will remember most. The J1 turned out to be everything I thought it would be and more. It shaped my outlook on life if I am honest and fuelled my sense of adventure. It taught me about the vast world that exists beyond the realms of my small home town in Cork. It was also a privilege to meet so many interesting characters not only in my time at J1Accom, but also in my work as a banquet server. I worked at and visited places that I could never have honestly imagined. Meeting people from all walks of life each day made me appreciate other cultures and ways of living but also made me proud to be Irish. Being away from home for so long helped me grow as a person and depending on myself taught me more about the way the world works. It might not be for everyone, but I guess you will never know until you try. It was the best decision I ever made and now I have the travel bug so hopefully I can make it back to the states next summer again for a visit.
My advice to anyone would be to get a group or a few friends together and just go for it. Life is to short not to and I can guarantee it will be an adventure to remember. I would also take advantage of the J1Accom pre-booking system and have a place for yourself and your friends before going out to Chicago as it takes a lot of pressure off once you get there. Trust me you will not be disappointed! Starting a job immediately can be nerve wrecking and looking for accommodation at the same time while living out of a suitcase full of your worn clothes is not a nice experience! Take advantage of what is a real community vibe! I can safely say with J1Accom, what you see is what you get, a top class living space for the summer of a life time. Living with other Irish people made me more at ease and it was easier to have the craic. The J1Accom experience not only made living in Chicago a wonderful experience, but also allowed me to make lifelong memories and lots of new friends!