Another lifetime ago (last week), I found myself in Chicago.  It is, as you may know, the home to deep dish pizza and a great many brownstones, Wrigley Field and Barack Obama, a couple of scenes from Boardwalk Empire as well as a namesake musical.

That all being said, I didn’t know to expect from Chicago.  Big?  Midwestern?  Only a few adjectives came to mind, and they were all very vague.

But then, I met the people of Chicago, and I was utterly delighted.  So … nice!  All the drivers so … generous!  I’d be sitting at a stop sign, and at each corner, my fellow motorists would be waving each other through.  “You go first.”  “No, you sir.”  “Oh I insist! Ladies first!” they all seemed to be saying, accompanied by chuckles and friendly waves.

Then, halfway through my visit, my Chicago spell was broken.

Ignoring the advice of well-meaning locals, I braved 8:00am traffic in Chicago.  It wasn’t a good plan.

“Take the train,” they advised me.  “Our morning traffic is horrendous.  You’ll be stuck there for hours.”

In my case, it was only an hour and a half.  Still.  I should have taken the train.  This is where being a Texan will get you into trouble, because you have a small motor transportation comfort zone, and it doesn’t reach beyond the boundaries of your car door. It’s always better to go public.  But it intimidates you.

On the way, my morning meeting canceled.  “Sorry,” he texted.  “Next time.”

I did the one thing you can only do in a car and not on public transportation: Burst into tears.

“My whole morning — ruined!” I wailed to Ross on the phone.  Surprising as it may be, I can be a tad melodramatic.

But I had to pull it together and get to my next meeting, which went fine.  I was hungry, and had a half hour until my next appointment.  Having skipped breakfast, I went in search of lunch.

I was driving around the outskirts of suburban Chicago, looking for something easy.  Starbucks, maybe.  But I spotted a Dunkin’ Donuts, so I pulled in, a teensy bit bedraggled and just a touch tearstained.

The cashier rang up my order, and I looked around for a table.  There were four, total, every one occupied.  I sighed, and waited for my coffee and sandwich, to eat standing up.

“Hey.  Hey girl!” I heard an old, leathery voice say.

“You.  Yeah.  Sit with us!”

I smiled politely and waved them off.

“Hey. SIT WITH US.  C’mon.  We don’t bite.  Alright alright, here she comes!”

Their names were Nick and Bruno, and they were both about 70 years old.

“That’s more like it,” they said, after I sat down.

“So. What’s your name?”

I told them.

“And what do you do, Tolly?”

I told them.

“Oh … a book girl!  A publicist, eh?  That sounds pretty important!  You from around here, Tolly?”

I wasn’t, but, I was genuinely enchanted by the people here.

“We’re not so bad!  Especially the Italians,” said Nick, winking behind his glasses.

“I studied abroad in Italy!” I declared, happy to finally have something to contribute.

“Is that so?  And do you remember your Italian, Tolly?”

I admitted that I didn’t, but that I wanted to go back, very much.

“And why is that, Tolly?  Good job, good family here, right?”

I told them that both of those things were true.

I also told them that I was only in Italy for four months, but that they were four of the most educational months of my life.  I told them it was ten years ago, but that a day hasn’t gone by when I don’t think about it.  I told them I lived in Milan, which really isn’t all that pretty of a city, but still showy in its own way.  That I lived three blocks away from Stazione Centrale, and would sometimes walk into the station, look up at all the destinations, pick one and go there.  That I came home dressing better.  And that if I could snap my fingers and take myself back, I’d go to this small town in Tuscany called Sienna, with a cobblestone plaza that dips in the middle like a bowl.

“Well if you do, Tolly, you’re gonna need some lessons. Language lessons, you understand. What do ya wanna know?”

I said I would probably need to ask for directions.  Following that, I would need to order some wine.

And then Nick told me how to do just that.