How to Survive Winter in Chicago

Actually, I have no idea how to survive winter in Chicago. I've been unsuccessful in my attempts these past two years, at least when it comes to keep my sanity intact.

But this year, this year! This will be the year that I will not be defeated by Chicago winter.

First Snow Chicago_b

My first winter here was dreadful. I moved to Chicago from Los Angeles in September of that year and caught the last warm vestiges of summer. The city was beautiful then, with big, green, leafy trees lining the sidewalks and the lake was the deepest, most perplexing blue. Greg and I went for walks in different neighborhoods every weekend, holding hands and talking about the life we wanted to create together.

I was living in a truly awful apartment, having signed the lease impulsively when I only had a day or so to find a place. Seriously, it was the worst place I've ever lived. The building was crumbling and unkempt and my apartment was sandwiched between a young couple who were prone to nightly drunken fights and a group of college boys who stayed up all night smoking pot and playing Guitar Hero. Gone was my airy little one-bedroom by the beach in California. Gone were the ocean breezes through the screens, the row of cacti in my sunny kitchen window. The windows in my apartment on Wolfram St. looked out on an alley and hardly let in enough light to read by.

I tried to make the best of it in the beginning. I was in a new city, I was in love, my whole life was changing. I thought that surely I could overcome this temporary home. But as winter set in I was forced to spend more and more time indoors and the reality of the place I was living in really sunk in and I became depressed. I picked at the flaking paint on the window sills and watched the snow pile in drifts on the little wooden deck off the kitchen.

Winter in Chicago is hard. It's dark and isolating and it can really be depressing if you're not careful. I remember hearing a report that year on Chicago Public Radio that there had only been 11 minutes of sunshine in the first two weeks of February. After five years in Los Angeles this was a shock to my system. There were so many evenings that winter that I spent lying face down across Greg's bed, crying while he rubbed my back. Neither of us were sure we would make it through.

In December my apartment was broken into, a mixed blessing since I was able to break my lease. In late January we found the apartment we now live in and it changed everything. We didn't move in until March, but knowing that we would soon live in this peaceful home by the river made all the difference. All that February we schlepped carload after tiny-Honda-Civic-carload over to the new apartment. Before we returned to our respective places each night I would stand in the quiet looking around at the space, the windows, the fireplace, the trees that lined the river outside. I thought about all that we would become in that space together.


Anyway, that was my first winter here. It was hard. No money, terrible place, too many cold, dark days. Did I mention that snow storms in Chicago are frequent and that temperatures are easily in the single digits for days on end? I didn't mention that, did I? Dreadful details.

Summer comes eventually, and with it a faded memory of winter.

My second winter here was a little different but my memories of those months are hazy, even though they weren't so long ago. I found out that I was pregnant in October, just as the leaves began to change and the air grew crisp. I felt heavy and tired and I came home most afternoons to slumber on the couch, my knees pulled to my chest in an attempt to quell the nausea, as the last dregs of daylight seeped away outside the windows. The weeks continued to grow colder and darker and my belly swelled with the baby inside. I wanted to sleep all the time, heaping covers over myself at night until I was a small furnace burning through the dark hours.

In December last year when I was only three months pregnant I found out that I had a very large ovarian cyst and would have to undergo some risky surgery while pregnant. This only served to compound the dark and snowy days and I drew into myself, chilled even more by fear of what would happen to me and the baby. Winter is truly its own force here. And it permeates everything in its path.

In early January there was ice storm the weekend I was in the hospital for the surgery. I stared out the hospital windows at the cakes of snow and crystal icicles and I thought about the little creature growing inside of me. Hard to believe now that it was my Veronica in there. Veronica Sweets and Spices–my latest nickname for her.

I was home on bedrest for two weeks after that and again,I lay on the couch day after day reading Anne Rice novels and watching old Friends episodes. The windows were frozen over with ice Greg came home from work every day at 5:30, stamping the snow off his boots, snow crusted into his collar, along the brim of his hat.

Frozen window

Winter in Chicago is a long, drawn out event. It is an experience, something to work up to, to plan around, something that requires effort and delineation. But this winter will be different. I am not broke, nor new, nor unhappy in home. I am not pregnant, nor sick, nor feeble. This winter I will stand up against the brunt force of snow and sleet and ice.

In early January I'm headed to West Virgina for a long-overdue visit with a friend. That trip will, in no way, provide an escape from winter but it will at least break up the monotony of dreary post-holiday weeks. In February Greg and I are going to New Orleans, Veronica in tow (more on that to come), a little family adventure that is sure to come at just the right breaking point. And in March we have plans to go to Florida to visit Greg's parents who vacation there each year.

As I write this it's a cold, grey morning. 27 degrees with no promise of coming warmth. The worst is yet to come, yet I already feel hopeful that this year will be the one in which I do not feel defeated. I know that Veronica will make things different this winter. And I know that I can make things different this year.

How do you deal with winter? Have you had a particularly great winter? A terrible one? Any tips or suggestions for how I can keep my sanity intact this year?



  • Kate
    Posted December 21, 2009 at 10:27 am | Permalink

    I grew up in Northern California before moving here for college. I was used to snow only be trekking on the weekends to Lake Tahoe for skiing. Living in it was entirely different.
    I was terrified of driving. I also didn’t know how to properly dress for the winters here. I heard so many times that year “bet you wish you were in California huh?” But I didn’t.
    The snow seemed magical from the dorm room windows. Later when I moved into my own apartment, I would sit on my couch staring out at the large windows watch the snow accumulate in awe.
    I think some people are intrinsically built for the colder weather, and some are not. Fortunately, I love the cool weather, walking into the loop each morning, fighting the wind and slush as if it is my daily morning journey.
    On those days that are brutal – with negative temperatures, I think of our Chicago summers. How gorgeous this city is and how lucky we are to live in it. And I reflect on a little piece of wisdom someone told me a few years ago, which still makes me smile. He said, “If Chicago winters weren’t bad, more people would want to live here. The winters keep out the riff raff.” And I think that man was right – only the heartiest of souls could live here, and so our common denominator is the compaints we share about winter.

  • Posted December 21, 2009 at 1:27 pm | Permalink

    Ha…good thoughts, Kate. Im glad you enjoy the winters. I think learning how to dress for winter is definitely a big part of it. This year I finally got myself a proper down coat. 🙂

  • sg
    Posted December 21, 2009 at 2:43 pm | Permalink

    scotch. lots of it.

  • Posted December 21, 2009 at 2:44 pm | Permalink

    Hahaha…that or a wine club membership to Beckman.

    Posted December 21, 2009 at 11:10 pm | Permalink

    How to survive a winter in the North: go outside. It’s so hard to do when it’s freezing and gray, and a really terrible idea when it is sleeting. But, on those days when it’s sunny, get out there. When I lived in Boston, I cross-country-skiied my way through the winters. Others would lament the endless snow falls and I would annoy them even further with my excitement about one more afternoon of skiing. Sadly, I haven’t found an adorable farm 30 minutes from my apartment with hills and a lovely area of pine trees and a barn where you can rent cross-country skis in Chicago, as I did in Boston. Let me know if you find one. So far this winter, I haven’t gotten out as much as I would like to. But I am pledging to try.

  • Posted December 22, 2009 at 10:09 am | Permalink

    You know Anne, I think this is really key. And its something that I really havent made enough of an effort to do. Getting outside more often is my new goal this winter. Thanks for reminding me!

  • Lyssa
    Posted December 22, 2009 at 12:33 pm | Permalink

    Scotch? Let me guess…sg is Shawn 🙂 I’ve never met a bigger Scotch drinker!

  • Posted December 22, 2009 at 12:38 pm | Permalink

    Ha…good guess. Of course its Shawn. 🙂

  • Lyssa
    Posted December 22, 2009 at 12:41 pm | Permalink

    I remember when you first moved to Chicago–Shawn, Josh and I came for Bill’s wedding (you’d been there I think a week you said), it was my first time. The weather was great and I told Josh I loved the city and wanted us to move there. He said it’s because it was a beautiful 70 degrees out and he’d bring me back in february and I can see how cold it gets. We met up with you and greg for a cocktail and greg told me to gush your way about how much I loved the city because you were having a hard transition…and I did 🙂
    Even now hearing about how harsh the winters are it’s still in my top 5 places I’d want to live. Of course I’ve never lived outside of California so it could be a wreck.

  • Posted December 22, 2009 at 2:31 pm | Permalink

    Thats so funny. I never heard that story about Greg getting you to talk up Chicago. So sweet. Gosh, that feels like a long time ago. You know, I think that since youve never had it any other way, you might find snow and cold SO novel that youd like it.

  • Kristi
    Posted November 13, 2010 at 3:24 pm | Permalink

    I found this blog when I was searching for how to survive the winter in Chicago. I actually grew up in Chicago but moved away for about 5 years living in California for about a year and South Florida for the rest. When I moved back to Chicago on Christmas Eve in an ice storm last year, I thought I was going to die. I thought I knew what I was getting into having grown up here, but I felt like a fish out of water.
    I’m not saying I have figured out how to survive here either. As winter is creeping in this year, I am consumed with a feeling of dread. I, too, am pregnant and wish I could just hibernate until May. All I’m saying is that I feel your pain and wish you the best this winter. And, if you figure out what the secret is to surviving (and even loving?) winter, let me know…

  • Posted November 15, 2010 at 7:19 am | Permalink

    Hmmm, I actually think theres something nice about being pregnant during winter. I felt very much like I was incubating, all during the winter I was pregnant with V. However, now that she is a fearsome and tireless toddler this winter is going to be MUCH harder, I think. Good luck to all of us!

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