Swapping Culture Shock

The stark differences between the landscapes of the Midwest and the Southwest.
By Nick Blumberg, Tracy Greer
September 28, 2012

Photo by Nick Blumberg
Frozen Lake Michigan in January 2011.

PHOENIX -- TRACY GREER: My cubicle-mate, Nick Blumberg, and I have a lot in common. We’re both journalism nerds who enjoy baseball and strong coffee. But we also share in opposite ends of a geographic spectrum. I spent the first 22 years of my life in Las Cruces, N.M. (save for 18 months in Tucson) before moving to Chicago’s North Shore.

NICK BLUMBERG: And I spent the first 18 years of MY life on Chicago’s Far North side before moving to Tempe to attend Arizona State University.

TRACY: We were bantering back and forth about the culture shock we experienced upon uprooting and moving to the other’s locale: midwestern lakefront city versus the desert southwest.

NICK: One of the first things to come up was ... the tap water. I’d just finished reporting a story on how wildfire season was affecting the quality of tap water in Tempe, where I still live. And I casually mentioned to Tracy that I think Arizona tap water’s kind of gross anyway, as compared to tap water in Chicago, which comes from Lake Michigan AND IS AWESOME.

TRACY: But the concept of a water supply that froze mid-winter? Crazy. There were certain days when local cafes served with paper plates and plastic utensils because they didn’t have enough water to run the dishwashers. I came from the drought-stricken desert, so I understood water restriction, but had never seen a frozen lake.

NICK: Memories of that frozen lake are what help me soldier through 115-degree summers in Arizona -- it makes me remember that eight months out of the year here are gorgeous. Now I know people will think I’m crazy for saying this, but despite the variance in geographical proximity, I think the Mexican food in Chicago is better. I’m sorry everyone, don’t hate me.

By Jacob Pomrenke
New Mexico green chile roasting.

TRACY: But it’s not Mexican food! In Chicago you can get fantastic Guatemalan food, Puerto Rican food, Brazilian food. But it’s hard to find authentic Mexican food in the Sonora/Chihuahua style that I grew up on. And don’t get me started on what happens when you ask for green chile and are served jalapeños.

NICK: It IS Mexican food! And all that other stuff too! (And Cuban food!!) But I have no comment on the green chile. I will say that driving in Phoenix vs. Chicago is interesting. Everyone in both cities is completely terrible, but in different ways. In Phoenix, since there are sooooo many transplants, everyone brings the driving style of wherever they hail from. The resulting mashup is awful. Whereas in Chicago, everybody just drives like an overcaffeinated aggressive basket case...but at least EVERYONE does it, so you’re accustomed to it.

TRACY: By the time I moved to California for work a few years later (before I landed in Phoenix), I was an old pro at aggressive freeway driving. And driving in Chicago made me an expert at parallel parking. There’s a difference in how people refer to freeways, though. In the West it’s by number: I-10, the 405, Highway 78. In Chicago it was the Dan Ryan, the Bishop Ford, the Skyway. Took me a while to learn the Edens and the Kennedy were the same thing.

NICK: And if we DO refer to the number, there’s no preceding article. If you told somebody in Chicago to take “the 94” you’d get a pretty funny look.

TRACY: I have a funny story about taking “the 94” and ending up in Kenosha, but that’s for another time …

Photo by Nick Blumberg
Betty, the Blumberg family lab-rottweiler, understands "Midwestern reserve."

NICK: The one thing that continues to amaze me after years of living here is how beautiful the Southwest is. I’d visited Arizona many times before I moved, but the notion of driving down a street with mountains in the horizon (with mountains inside an actual city!) is still kind of mind-boggling. Illinois is a very, very flat place. We barely have rocks, much less mountains. And anytime I drive outside of the Phoenix area (going north or south in Arizona, driving to California or New Mexico) it blows my mind to see how much gorgeous, unusual, unspoiled natural landscape we have in this state.

TRACY: For sure. And even though I love the old, tall buildings in Chicago, I really missed seeing the horizon and gorgeous sunsets. Speaking of those buildings, I remember walking down Michigan Avenue and thinking, “Wow, these are all the stores you only read about in magazines. They do exist!” I know that sounds really small-town, but it was a big deal when Las Cruces got a Target. Tiffany’s doesn’t exist within a 400-mile radius.

NICK: Yes, those stores really do exist...and they’re usually full of cake-eater suburbanites or hapless tourists.

TRACY: I never actually bought anything at those stores, but still, it was nice to window shop. One big difference I had to adapt to was the nature of the people. People are very friendly in New Mexico. In the Midwest, people are nice but reserved. And in the city you spend a lot of time in very close proximity to people (think of a crowded El car) but never make eye contact.

By Jacob Pomrenke
Wrigley Field, home of the Chicago Cubs.

NICK: I don’t think that’s necessarily true when you get into the residential neighborhoods. I feel like walking down the street near to where my parents live, people are pretty friendly to strangers. Except for when I was walking our 90 pound black lab-rottweiler. I got a WIDE berth then. As for politicians, I think in all three states they’re all at least slightly nuts and lots of them are investigated and/or go to jail for something shady. So that’s a nice constant.

TRACY: Some things never change in this country. At least there are interesting stories for us to cover.

NICK: And at least we can agree on one thing...go Cubs.

TRACY: Go Cubs!