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Postcard from NATO summit: What are all these people doing in Chicago?

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Carolyn Kaster/AP

(Read caption) Norway Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg, center, poses with NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, left, and President Barack Obama on his arrival at the NATO summit in Chicago, Sunday, May 20.

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The young woman at the H&M counter held back the bag of merchandise. “Can I ask you a question?” she said. “What is NATO?”

I had stopped in at the H&M on State Street after earlier discovering that my hotel had a swimming pool. I figured the Swedish budget emporium would have a swimsuit that wouldn’t break the bank (mission accomplished: basic trunks, $12.95). The sales clerk had her eye on my press credential, and the lanyard emblazoned with “NATO 2012 CHICAGO” that held it around my neck.

“It’s the military alliance that unites the US and European countries. They agree to defend each other from outside threats, and once in awhile the leaders meet,” was my paltry and unsatisfactory answer to her question.

She wanted to know more. “You said military?” she continued, still clutching my bag. “So why are they in Chicago?”  

It's a fair question. This is only the third time since NATO was formed in 1949 that the US has hosted a summit, and it is the first time ever for one to be held in an American city other than Washington.

Outside on State Street, the Chicago police were three or four to a corner, just in case a rogue anti-NATO protest flared up. Large swaths of the young clerk’s city were cordoned off, urban ghost towns set aside for President Obama and his guests. I could see what it was that had filled her with questions, why perhaps she had seized on the word “military.”

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