Every now and then, I spend a lunch break with my daughter and her friends from her 4th grade class. We sit outside in the courtyard, eat our lunches, and talk. The talk usually involves funny family stories, weekend outings, and boobs (I can’t wait until their awkward fascination with – or anticipation of?? – boobs is over). Occasionally, there is gossip about other kids in her grade but I usually nip this in the bud, unless it’s something I have deemed worth listening to in order to prevent the girl hate/drama from escalating.
But yesterday, a girl named Meredith said something pretty insightful. After swatting away at a bee, she just sat back and declared, “I wish the real Florida was like it is in the movies.”
And she got me thinking…
When I was a teenager and my family decided to retire to Florida, I immediately flashed back to memories I had of spending time at a condo with my aunt and two cousins, scouring the beaches of Sanibel Island for seashells and pulling a live starfish out of the Gulf of Mexico with my bare hands. There was also a picture in my mind of the tall and sophisticated palm trees that lined the streets leading to Thomas Edison’s winter home in Fort Myers. And then there is always Disney World.
Because no kid’s incredibly wild misinterpretation of life in Florida is complete without believing that every day is filled with Mickey Mouse. Oh, and space shuttles. Because THAT was an awesome time to be a Floridian.
I moved to the state in 1996, to a town that isn’t even on the map and in a county most Floridians have never even heard of. Instead of spending time at the beach drinking foo-foo umbrella drinks, soaking up the sun, and learning how to surf, I found myself having to adjust to life in a cypress swamp. It is so hot here in the summertime that all outdoor work must end by 10am. The Suwannee River is a real place and it floods over quite often. Mosquitoes eat you alive, as do the biting red ants. Alligators lie in wait for small dogs to go on afternoon walks then ambush them and gobble them up in one fell swoop (seriously, it was a regular problem in Gainesville). Venomous snakes dangle from the trees here, people!
There are three regions in Florida that I’ve been lucky enough to call home: The Nature Coast, North Central, and the First Coast.The Nature Coast is exactly what you probably see in your mind when you imagine an old southern fishing village, complete with pelicans, oceanfront seafood shacks, and houses on stilts over water. North Central Florida boasts rolling hills and more prize-winning thoroughbred horses than any place in Kentucky can ever claim. The First Coast, which includes St. Augustine, Jacksonville, and Fernandina Beach, is the gateway to Florida via Interstate 95, which is to say we’re just like South Georgia but with nicer beaches.
Television portrays Florida as a paradise and, for me, it is a sort of paradise. I fell in love with Florida after many years of saying I wish the real Florida was like it is in the movies. Well, folks, this IS the real Florida, for the most part.
This weekend, I’ll be traveling to South Florida. There I will live the Florida lifestyle I see on television by being lazy in my hotel pool and drinking Creamsicles with my friend from the 7th grade. If I’m lucky, I’ll see a manatee swimming in the water as I cross over the bridge to Cape Coral. I will visit with my grandfather in his concrete home nestled away on a typical post-war era neighborhood block, the kind that cropped up after it was discovered that Florida was, in fact, not such a bad place to live. Henry Flagler had the right idea, after all. So did Ernest Hemingway, Thomas Edison, and Henry Ford.
As flawed and blemished and imperfect as Florida comes off to be, she is everything I love about her.