Writer. Traveler. Tourist. Addicted to sunlight and road trips.
A week ago today, just a few hours before I had to return to Jose Marti International Airport, I stepped into the backseat of a bicycle taxi driven by a twenty-something named Josue. I had no idea who he was, that he had a five-year-old daughter with big, brown beautiful eyes, that he struggled with asthma, that he lived in Old Havana. He didn’t stand out from the other Bici-taxi drivers—sinewy guys in secondhand T-shirts. There’s a look to the guys moving the gringos about. I asked him to take me to Fin de Siglo, a market not populated by gringos. He drove me there, and it was closed, even though my hotel concierge told me it was opened. That was twice in one week that I had tried this market with no success. But that’s the thing with Cuba—you don’t learn about what’s opened or closed by researching online, if you’re lucky enough to get on the Internet. You learn Cuba by asking around, and going there, either to discover the doors opened or closed.
Josue offered to take me to the San Jose mercado, a massive craft market on the waterfront that’s popular among tourists. Along the ride, we chatted in that broken, awkward way two people who don’t know enough words in one language do, but he had a warmth to him that I trusted. He coughed throughout the entire ride, and when I asked what was wrong, if he was okay, he said he had asthma. Our conversation was mostly in Spanish. I learned he was separated from the mother of his daughter. That soon, he’d be going to the pharmacy to pick up his asthma medication. That he didn’t smoke cigars because of his asthma. That the following day, Saturday, he would get to do his hair, drink some whisky, enjoy the weekend. Cuban men have a thing about hair. He showed me pictures on his phone of how he liked to style his hair. I wanted to tell him he spent more time on his hair than I did on mine, that my idea of going out was a shower and hopping into a convertible so that the wind could give me that beach-blown look I often have. He admired my eyes. I showed him a photo of my husband and daughter, said I missed my family but also enjoyed traveling alone. He jokingly said if I were his “chica,” he wouldn’t let me travel alone. I smiled, enjoying the sweetness of it all. Blonde ladies traveling solo from the Snow Belt are exotic in Cuba. I get it.
When we got there, I asked him where I could pick up a taxi to get back to my hotel; I didn’t expect him to wait. He offered to come inside with me. So we wandered the market together. We were about the same height. Me and Josue looking at baskets. Me and Josue looking at jewelry. Me and Josue looking at art. When I stopped to admire a painting, and the vendor told me it would cost fifty, Josue leaned toward me and whispered to only pay forty.
I wanted to spend more time at the market. I wanted to fly home with more Cuban art. I wanted to know more Spanish verbs so I could have a more meaningful conversation with Josue. But it was the end of my trip, I was running low on cash, I had used up the five or six Spanish verbs I knew, and I still had to throw my suitcase together and make my way back to the airport. That afternoon, I would be somewhere over the Florida Keys, heading north. I tried to explain to Josue I didn’t have enough to pay for both him and an artist. He kept putting his hands up, and if I understood him correctly—and, perhaps I didn’t—he told me not to worry about it. I got the impression he was giving me a free ride, and who anywhere anymore gets a free ride? I told him it was okay, we could go.
On the drive back, he began talking to me about Santeria and the “Santos,” or saints. I never mentioned Santeria, but he seemed to want to tell me more about himself. He pulled over to two different Santeria shops, gently led me by the arm or the shoulder, showing me inside. He started pointing at things, speaking in a slow Spanish, sensing I was trying to tune into each word, like recognizing a song. I didn’t pick up everything he said, but admired the santos beaded bracelets he wore, which he pointed out were for sale in the store. I didn’t get the impression he wanted me to buy anything, but that this was something that was cool to him because he darted from one section of the store to the other, explaining things along the way. He pointed to ceramic urn-looking objects that he said you put food and offerings in; he mentioned he had a few of these at home. I could tell he wanted to share more with me, but we were limited by language, and I kicked myself for not practicing more Spanish before my trip. I didn’t buy anything, at the San Jose market or the Santeria shops, and Josue didn’t appear to care.
After a few stops to Santeria shops, we were back in front of Hotel Parque Central, one of the city’s newest additions at only a decade old. Another example about how you learn Cuba at street-level: Hotel Parque Central sells five-hour Internet cards, a luxury in Havana where the telecommunications infrastructure is still embryonic. I discovered this by accident when my hotel, Hotel Telegrafo, informed me they were out of Internet cards, and offered no further explanation. I ran across the street to Hotel Parque Central, made my way to the “Business Center,” another rarity in the Havana hotel scene, and was sold a five-hour Internet card for $10, a much better deal than the hourly cards that cost $4.50. There’s your Cuba travel tip for you.
In front of Hotel Parque Central, I paid Josue more than the cost of the fare, and maybe he anticipated this or maybe he didn’t expect anything. I’ll never know. I hugged him goodbye, and he gave me a kiss on the cheek. I would miss him, even though I had known him for about an hour. We’re now Facebook friends.
And I knew why I would miss him. In New York, or when I’m visiting Los Angeles or when I’m pretty much visiting anywhere, I don’t chat up taxi drivers or allow them to join me at art markets. I don’t follow them into Santeria shops or ask them about their kids. I don’t tell them to be careful with their asthma, genuinely worried that bicycling through clouds of exhaust coming from vintage cars was exacerbating a medical condition. The U.S. trade embargo may have kept out Starbucks and McDonalds (though Starwood is making headway in Cuba), it may have made Cuba the time capsule that intrigues the rest of the world, but what it also preserved was Cuban hospitality, a warmth unmarred by relentless ambition to get ahead, which I see in abundance everywhere else. I would miss Josue because I knew what I was flying back to: a heads-down, self-involved affluenza neighborhood where moms at book clubs compare their wedding band upgrades; where, three miles from our house when my daughter had a bicycle accident and was crying loudly over her bloody foot, three people jogged past us as if we were in their way. I was flying back to Trump’s America, to rainy weather where the temperatures were in the 50s, to a dance studio where my favorite teacher no longer taught, to where no one would offer to take me to a Santeria shop without something in exchange.
Towards the end of our ride, Josue either said that next time I come, I bring my entire family or next time I come, I should meet his entire family. Either way works. Josue, if you’re reading this, muchas gracias. Espero ver ti próximo año cuando visito otre vez.
I have visited about 15 countries, which is quite a bit more than most Americans and paltry compared with the travel writers I follow on Instagram, like JetSetSarah, truly one of the funniest, most upbeat women I’ve ever met on the road, and Where’s Andrew, who somehow combines intrepid with mellow (and the two know each other because when you travel that much, your paths cross—it is known).
Some countries I’ve been fortunate enough to visit several times: three times to England; three times to France; three times to Mexico with a fourth later this year; and later this week, my third time to Cuba, a country I adore even though I can barely speak any Spanish. I’m returning with the Cuba Writers Program, co-led by the indefatigable Tim Weed, who knows everyone in Cuba, from one end of the island to the other, including the guy on the highway who sells fruit and who will slice off a sample for you with his machete. That’s right—Tim has friends who have machetes. He’s that kind of guy.
How to pack for Cuba? Well, it’s really hot there, so I don’t need to wear a lot of clothes. I can likely alternate through a couple of sundresses and survive in one pair of flip-flops and be okay. Though my first two trips to Cuba have taught me a few things:
– Pack Pepto Bismol, not because the food will cause problems—I loved the food and didn’t have any issues, but someone in the tour group will likely need Pepto.
– Pack toilet paper. I forgot this last year even though I meant to pack it. Then I endured a number 2 situation in the lobby of Hotel Florida in Havana last year where I had to go back to the abuelita sitting next to her basket of single-ply, single square toilet paper that she handed out one square at a time. Every time I asked for “Una mas?” in a pleading tone, she shook her head. I went back to her three times. So I’m not getting stuck in that situation again because let’s face it: one square of single-ply toilet paper doesn’t do much.
– Pack snorkeling gear. This is a first for me, but I learned I’m snorkeling, and renting gear in Cuba isn’t a reliable option so I rush-ordered some from Amazon, a company I hate. My new fins arrive in a few hours. Because that’s America. Or, I should say, that’s Jeff Bezos.
– Pack dancing shoes. I can’t dance in flip flops, and I’ve become spoiled by my Italian-leather, suede-bottomed dance shoes. This will be their first trip anywhere—they’re excited.
And then there are the packing essentials that follow me no matter where I go:
– My pool floatie. The world is three-fourths water, and that’s not counting all the glorious, man-made swimming pools everywhere. So my odds of bumping into someplace swim-able are good. That means my pool floatie goes where I go.
– My bathing suit. I pack this whether I’m going somewhere warm or cold because someone somewhere will have a hot tub or a swimming pool, and being in water relaxes me, especially after a flight.
– Klonopin. Sad to say, but me and my benzos are inseparable at this point; I can’t fly or sleep without them, though know that if you hang out with me between the hours of 7 a.m. and 11 p.m., you’re getting the pharma-free version of me. It’s only on airplanes or in bedrooms where I’ve gotta knock myself out. When traveling, I will share from my stash the following: Pepto, gum, tissues, tampons, maxi-pads, Excedrin, Band-Aids, toilet paper (within reason), vitamins, probiotics, hand sanitizer (again, within reason) and lemon ginger tea. I will not share my Klonopin—I don’t care how wound up you are or what you’re willing to pay.
– Lemon ginger tea. This is true no matter where I go, and was quite handy during last year’s trip to Cuba. I brought plenty, and handed out tea bags like candy. Lemon ginger tea soothes almost anything except a gunshot wound or a broken heart, though I would even venture to say it can indeed help alleviate a bad mood. It’s physically and emotionally potent, and I trust it.
– Books. Pretty self-explanatory.
– Scarves. Even to hot places. You never know when you’ll feel chilly, especially walking on a beach at night, plus scarves are the most versatile item of clothing anytime anywhere. You can tie up your attacker with one, flag down a taxi, stash away some snacks you took from the breakfast bar, or wrap an abandoned kitten. Lots of options with scarves.
– Hats. Just because I like hats.
You’d think given past travel experiences I’d have some hard-won expertise in packing, but the truth is I suck at packing. I often leave packing to the last minute, though I have friends who take the packing process very seriously and tackle their suitcases like a puzzle. The contents of their luggage are as diverse and as thought-through as their retirement portfolios. I am likely to show up in Cuba or any country with a bag full of Klonopin, swim gear, and books, but missing essentials such as underwear or sensible walking shoes. This has actually happened before—me showing up to a destination without underwear because I forgot to pack it. This may make me sound like a fun person to hang out with (“Hey! She’s gone commando, and she’s got Klonopin AND a pool floatie!”) but at age 44 and the mother of a teenager, I should know better. When I went to Japan in April 2013, a friend of mine came over and took a C-suite level approach to packing *my* suitcase. She coordinated and laid out outfits for the different days of the week, sorted out which shoes were necessary, and showed me how to properly roll clothes to make everything fit. She brought her A-game to the task, and truly, my suitcase never looked so well-organized. For her, packing is as much fun as the flight and the trip. I want to aspire to this, and maybe on this trip, I will try.
A year ago today, I flew to Switzerland by myself to begin a 12-day journey that would take me through the chocolatiers of old town Zurich, to the train station in Milan, Italy, to the Amalfi Coast, and then back to Zurich. I had enough frequent flyer miles saved up to fly across the Atlantic in first-class, which I’ve never sat in before. I was bummed that as I popped a Klonopin and prepared for takeoff, the flight attendant came around with champagne to toast our journey. Obviously, this doesn’t happen in coach, otherwise I would have held off on the Klonopin and gulped down some champagne instead (I’m not gutsy enough to combine benzodiazepenes with alcohol as some do).
Today, I won’t be going anywhere. Well, maybe the grocery store, but that’s about it.
I love traveling alone. I also love being married and being a mother. But traveling alone doesn’t jive well with motherhood in particular. It’s easier to explain to a spouse with his own needs and interests about your own needs and interests. Much harder to explain to a tween daughter where you’ve gone off to and why.
Working from home as a writer allows me to be more in the weeds with regards to parenting, and I wouldn’t go back to my office days even if you threw a high six figures at me. Most days, I am home doing what moms and dads do: driving my kid to school, driving my kid to swim practice, driving my kid to art class, driving my kid to the orthodontist, driving my kid to tutoring, driving my kid and her friends. When I’m not a chauffeur, I am a referee, nurse, tutor, coach, cheerleader, psychologist, events coordinator or annoyed office manager (though none of this appears on my resume), and evenings are capped with snuggles in bed, giggles, a download about the day’s events, a catch-up on who said what to whom, reminders of what’s on the calendar for tomorrow, or the occasional admonishing for dropping the ball on a homework assignment. In between all of this, I advocate digital detox: I tell my daughter it’s time to unplug and read a book or it’s time to put her phone down and finish her breakfast or that she has spent too much time on YouTube, which we’re all guilty of.
It’s mundane, but precious, and I relish all of it, for her childhood is whizzing by. But I also like to take off by myself. I started doing this when Anna was age 10. Why should I have to choose? Why should mothers be one thing and not another? When I was in Cuba last spring, my waiter appeared stunned that I was gallivanting the globe while my husband was home with our kid. I recognize cultures, social structures, households and all the expectations that come within those systems and environmental microcosms vary greatly not just country to country but even within the United States, from one family to another. I’m not assuming we all want or choose the same things in the same way.
However, my guess is that fathers who work, clean their houses and care for their kids aren’t asked about what they’re doing when they’re sitting alone on a plane or train. Women are. “Who’s taking care of the kids?” is a common question I get, as if my daughter only had one parent. When I’m traveling, Mike runs the household without me micromanaging affairs from afar. We aren’t some 2017 matriarchy. He parents, he cooks, he cleans, he feeds cats and chickens, he takes out the garbage, he puts in a full day telecommuting and getting his office job deliverables delivered. Honestly, it’s not complicated.
Being a mom, while very fulfilling, also means being tethered—this is especially true if your child is part of the school system, and you’re now under the tyranny of the school calendar and she’s got a big science project due soon involving hot glue and wires. During these days, which outnumber the days I fly to Switzerland first-class, or fly anywhere for that matter, I read about other people going places, usually guys globetrotting—and it’s *always* guys. I follow Andrew Evans’ travels, and really look forward to buying his book. I just finished Steve Hely’s “The Wonder Trail,”, who was making his way from Los Angeles down into South America at an age when I was running my toddler to daycare so I could get to the office on time. Before I read Hely, I read Ian McGuire’s “The North Water,” a fictional account of dudes exploring the dangerous North Atlantic. Now I’m reading “Astoria” by Peter Stark, about the doomed Astor expedition to Oregon. I’ve also been flipping through Darwin’s journal entries as he sailed the globe aboard the HMS Beagle from 1831 to 1836.
See a pattern here?
There are women travel writers out there, though the ones people often toss back at me when I mention this point are: Elizabeth Gilbert who wrote “Eat, Pray, Love,” which doesn’t interest me (sorry, Elizabeth), plus Ms. Gilbert doesn’t have kids, and Cheryl Strayed, author of “Wild,” which I did read and liked, though Strayed hiked the Pacific Trail before having kids, and wrote the book after becoming a mother to two.
Please don’t misunderstand. That I get to go anywhere is joy, though it makes me hungry for more. That I got to board a plane to Switzerland and ride in first-class is a privilege I am constantly grateful to have had. I know mothers who can barely leave their homes or routines because so much is demanded of them, they are too busy meeting the daily needs of others. I know this because I grew up in it, a single-mom home where cash flow was a constant problem. To have a flight attendant stroll past and offer me champagne, or later, on the return flight, roll up with an ice cream trolley and serve me a custom-made sundae with all my favorite toppings is a gift. I mean, listen to me—here we are an entire year later and I’m still gushing about the experience! I’m replaying the day in my mind even as I type this blog post.
We take international family trips, and those are awesome, too, but there is something special about jet-setting on your own. The focus centers on discovery, not making sure everyone is doing okay, getting enough to eat, is wearing seatbelts, has enough to remain occupied during the flight or car ride or wherever we might be going. Our daughter has visited nine countries in the past decade, with more to come. In fact, we have to renew her passport this weekend because without a current passport, we can’t even get to Canada, and the Trump administration has been pissing off so many countries, I’m worried Puerto Rico might close the door on us and we’ll be stuck.
But even as we go on these family adventures, I sometimes wonder if I was some European sailor in a past life. I get seasick easily, and open water terrifies me (maybe as a result of being a sailor in a past life?), but at the same time I have this constant tug to keep going, to see places where I know no one, to get on a train, a boat, a plane and go forward. Novelty lures me. Constantly. I can’t explain it. Wanderlust and motherhood are a tricky mix. I’m not sure I’m doing a great job at either, yet I swing back and forth between the two, perhaps one inspiring the other.
On the shuttle ride from Sedona to the airport in Phoenix, our driver shared with us the following:
— A rabid bobcat attacked a waiter in Sedona who was putting out the trash.
— How Arizona towns along the highway got their names: Bloody Basin; Big Bug Basin, Bumble Bee near Bumble Bee Creek, and the delightful Deadman Wash. As you can imagine, the town names came from bloody exchanges between white settlers and American Indians, between white settlers and deadly insects, and between white settlers who discovered other dead white settlers. You have to wonder if white settlers had stayed home, what the signs would say today—or if there would be any signs at all.
As he relayed these stories, an almost-full moon was peering from between the giant red rocks, those sentinels of mysticism that drew a couple all the way from Romania. They sat in front of us on the shuttle, on their way to catch a flight to London that night. Even in 2017, despite crystal shops and taquerias and psychics, the outskirts of Sedona—and the extraterrestrial landscape that is Arizona—still appear wild, and somewhat still dangerous. I have an insect allergy (hornets and wasp stings might kill me, though oddly, not bees), and wouldn’t dream of hiking anywhere in Arizona without my EpiPen in my back pocket, ready to draw like a 9 mm, which are aplenty in Arizona—an open-carry state. Not that guns keep you safe from everything in Arizona; there are towns named after folks attacked by bees, red ants, and other things that crawled. Even if you don’t have an allergy to anything, perhaps everyone should travel around Arizona with an EpiPen; the state’s legends alone made my antibodies flare up.
Still, I was safe in an enclosed shuttle where the windows were up and the air conditioner was on, even though it was February, about 60 degrees out, and I would’ve enjoyed an open-window ride despite the risks of bugs nearby. And I enjoyed the driver’s stories. All the passengers did. Including myself, there were four New Yorkers and two Romanians. A self-identified Brooklyn Jew who was in his sixties and worked as a commodities trader sat in the front seat next to the driver, and when the driver wasn’t sharing Arizona lore, the guy from Brooklyn was talking about himself. Because that’s what sixty-something guys from Brooklyn do, go on about how New Yorkers are “the strongest people in America,” though given what Arizona residents endured and live with, I beg to differ. My guess is Texans are pretty tough, too. And Alaskans. They are bad asses up there.
Suburban New Jersey doesn’t have stories like these. I live perhaps 500 feet from the British-Hessian Invasion Route trail, a path marched in 1776, so as you can see, it’s been a long time since shit went down in my ‘hood. More recently, black bears showed up hungry, suburbanites freaked out. The black bears don’t even get a chance to go rabid and taunt a waiter (or bite people). The very idea of black bears wandering about keeps the annual New Jersey Black Bear Hunt legit, some bullshit about keeping black bear numbers in check. Just another blemish on a state that lost any sense of conservation long before I reluctantly unpacked my bags here. Drive to Atlantic City or any spot along the Jersey Shore and you’ll see what I mean; every inch of road leading up to the beach has been commercialized with billboard after billboard; it takes forever to get a clear view of the ocean without something getting in your face to tell you to buy something. It doesn’t have to be this way; in Vermont, billboards are banned so as not to obstruct the lovely view. This has been the case since 1968. Only three other states do this: Hawaii, Alaska, and Maine, three states home to lovely views. New Jersey decided differently, going after commercial potential, as New Jersey does. As for Arizona, I saw a few billboards along the highway, but not as many as I see en route to the Jersey Shore. It’s as if Arizona businesses decided not to compete with the landscape because when towns are named “Deadman Wash” you know who’s going to lose.
I spent a week in Arizona earlier this month. The sunlight and lack of New Yorkers (until the shuttle ride), and the fact that New Jersey was 2,000 miles away were all very rejuvenating. Living here depletes me. We settled in a region we didn’t know to be a part of a blue ribbon school district and close to good jobs. During my 6 1/2 years in this snobby suburb, and my 13 years total in Bergen County, New Jersey, I have grown to detest this state the way I detest Donald Trump, who built up his name in the sandy cesspool that is Atlantic City. Both share a phoniness and materialism. I now try to arrange my days so I interact with New Jersey as little as possible: the traffic, the accents, the entitlement. Yes, those things exist outside of New Jersey, too, but here, those things are an inescapable rash, and I’ve tried every imaginable balm I could think of: getting involved, not getting involved, yoga, meditation, taking trips, staycationing, reading books, making friends, distancing myself from people. Living here is a constant state of coping.
If you read any of my earlier posts, like the ones written during my first year or two here when I thought New Jersey would just be another pit stop, I sound more like an anthropological observer than a resident. Six years in, we bought a house in a leafy burb (yes, they are always leafy—such towns take great pride in their trees) thinking quiet suburban living and great schools were simply the next phase of life, like getting your period or your losing your virginity, a milestone to get through. Honestly, we weren’t thinking of what we wanted in a community, but the education opportunities for our daughter. I had never lived in a suburb before—only farm towns and big cities prior—and genuinely thought “How bad can it be?”
I learned. Quickly.
There’s a discipline called environmental psychology, and as of late, I have felt like a subject in an environmental psychology experiment. Some grad student thinking he or she has a meaty research project is looking down on me thinking “How long will my mouse last in this maze? What if I build another Whole Foods? Will that distract her from her goal of getting out?” The term environmental psychology is self-explanatory—naturally, we are all shaped by our environments. But what happens when you try to fight against your environment? Or try to shut it out? Or try to pretend it’s not as bad as you think? Or try to find different environments to escape to periodically so you can enjoy a reprieve? And how long can you keep this up?
New Jersey is a soft place for soft people who don’t want their views challenged and who love to discuss retail opportunities. Consumerism is a competitive sport here, so I see where the New Netherland name comes from. When I first moved here, I thought jokes about New Jersey were unfair, just Manhattan elitism that people echoed to sound smart and otherize others. Now, I say joke all you want about New Jersey, for it’s likely true. There is judgmentalism everywhere in the world, but if there were a Judgmentalism Olympics, I would put my meager freelance writer’s earnings on the suburban moms who are my neighbors. They would kick ass, and walk away with all the gold medals. These women have an opinion on *everyone* especially people they don’t know very well. These opinions tend to come out after a few glasses of wine, or sometimes they are bandied about in school parking lots. Apparently, if you have a master’s degree, a house worth at least $600,000 (and that’s on the cheaper end), and drive a Honda Odyssey or Sienna, then you know things, the kind of things you can’t dig up at the town library. And these things tend to spill out when the booze flows. (I’m a lightweight, and actually not really all that interested in alcohol. I’ve learned I don’t need it to be interesting.)
Which is why as we were heading south on Interstate 17, with the Tonto National Forest on my left, and hints of the Prescott National Forest to my right, where rocks are so big that they have names, where stars—even the Milky Way—are actually visible in the night sky, I felt jealous of the white settlers who came this way. Yes, they faced infection, illness, starvation, wild animals, American Indians, or simply being lost in a place that was too vast, too lacking in borders to be real. I envied the singularity of their journeys, the uncertainty of their possibilities. For here, back in the Northeast, amidst all this 21st century affluenza, when you have everything, there’s apparently nothing left to do but to strive to keep everything and pass judgment on those who don’t have what you have. Maybe this is what Scottsdale, Arizona, is like today, I do not know. But I would have loved to have walked around one of those Arizona ghost towns with the unfortunate names, listen to the breeze move through dilapidated buildings, think about what people were trying to forge then, what they were risking, and why.
When it snows out, I play John Coltrane’s “My Favorite Things,” a tradition that dates back to 21 years ago today when I returned to my apartment on Bleecker Street, got caught in a blizzard, and watched the city go silent. I owned two CDs back then: John Coltrane and The Black Crowes, and snow in Manhattan felt more Coltrane than Chris Robinson, plus “My Favorite Things” is a 17-minute song, so that’s ample time to sit by a large window and watch the snow fall. More than 20 inches fell on New York City between January 6-8, 1996, still among the best two-plus days I’ve ever enjoyed in Manhattan. I ordered Indian takeout. Outside, I walked Greenwich Village and watched people cross-country ski down Bleecker Street, as if they had been waiting for this moment for years. No one honked their horns because the cars were stuck. People threw snowballs and waved at each other. It was the most laid-back side of New York City I had ever seen.
I am playing Coltrane now, though we woke up to barely an inch of snow. As someone who grew up in the Snow Belt, this is quite unimpressive January weather (so far). During my childhood, winter wasn’t so much a season but a state of mind, one that involved time, preparation and equipment: the extra five or ten minutes to get into a snowsuit and boots; how I had spent all fall stacking wood for our wood-burning stove; the purchasing of rock salt; making sure the shovels could take another round; ensuring the snow-blower still worked; that we hadn’t outgrown our boots yet; that we had cans of Campbells soup somewhere in the cupboard in case we got snowed in and the grocery store was closed, because at the time there was only one store in town (and yes, it was Campbells—I can’t even look at the Warhol version without thinking of how salty that soup is). Snow piled up in feet, not inches. There was a hunker-down mentality to my childhood winters that I’ve always resented, and I’ve spent years distancing myself from them, despite the fun I had sledding down huge hills.
Last Friday, I was in Ybor City in Tampa, Florida, where it was around 65 degrees, and folks were bundled like the “Big One” was coming. Heavy scarves, long sweaters, hats, boots, coats. I get that Floridians, and Southerners in general, don’t do snow. They hunker down for hurricanes, a shared, but different mentality altogether. One of our waiters, who was originally from Georgia, joked with us how he keeps meaning to drive north to see snow, but when it gets to be around 60 degrees, he chickens out. I thought about this notion—driving a long distance to see snow, and here I was having just driven 1,300 miles to warm up on a beach. A friend of mine who lives in Phoenix drives her kids 170 miles north to Flagstaff to take them sledding. When I was a kid, I was always jealous of my classmates who could afford to go to Florida for school breaks (and it was *always* Florida). Intense sunshine, powdery beaches and palm trees were as curious and exotic to me as snow was to this guy.
So here I was, living out my Florida fantasies over the holiday break—doing exactly what I had always wanted to do as a kid. Originally, I had wanted to stay on Sanibel Island, but the rates were too high and the restrictions too many, so instead I lucked out with this awesome house attached to a private pool in Cape Coral, only a half-hour drive from Sanibel. I loved the Cape Coral neighborhood because it wasn’t travel brochure-Florida—it was Florida-Florida: manatee-shaped mailboxes, plastic flamingos everywhere, dolphins etched into glass doorways, very tanned, white-haired people walking dogs. Florida was my happy lamp last week, so I spent mornings walking around the neighborhood, and once, a young guy heading towards a pickup truck greeted me hello while holding a rifle in each hand. Yep. I had the real deal.
Sanibel Island didn’t disappoint either. We went to the beach a number of times last week, including a beautiful stroll on Christmas Day. This was my first “warm” Christmas, and I reveled in Florida’s quirky mix of inflated polar bears and palm trees, its plastic candy canes jutting out of sand. We saw egrets trying to wait out the fishermen, and we saw dolphins swim past every time we went to the beach. Sanibel is known for its seashells, and there’s a posted guide displaying different shells and their names, which reminded me of being in the cosmetics aisle reading lipsticks thinking: “Which is more me, Red Hot Lover or Pretty In Pink?” I found an Atlantic Kitten Paw and a Florida Spiky Jewel Box. I only took a few shells home as souvenirs; I saw people carrying buckets of shells on the beach, and the roads in our Cape Coral neighborhood were a mix of asphalt and crushed shell, so perhaps seashells aren’t a limited resource—I don’t know. But I didn’t want to be greedy. I “shelled” because “shelling” on Sanibel is a very active verb, and I walked the edge of the Gulf of Mexico admiring the variety of shells. The waves off Sanibel weren’t ideal for boogie-boarding, so Mike dragged our kid across the water the way he used to pull her on her sled across snow.
Throughout the week, the Sunshine State lived up to its name; it was in the 80s, abundantly bright out and warm enough to use our private pool almost all hours of the day. Except for last Friday, the day we went to Ybor City because I wanted to take my half-Spaniard husband to Columbia Restaurant, a Florida institution I had visited the previous year. This time, Columbia felt far more touristy than I had remembered. Maybe this was because of the holidays? We had reservations for dinner and flamenco dancing. At the table next to us, an older gentleman loudly asked his companion if it was “Flamingo or Flah-min-coh” dancing, and the companion had to correct him: “It’s ‘flah-mehn-co, not flamingo like the bird.” I kid you not—that was said out loud—very out loud—at the table next to me, and I was amused and slightly nervous because I knew then we were in for something marketed to tourists. Sure enough, the lights dim, the dancers come out dressed in bright gowns and wearing bright silk flowers in their hair, and they start dancing to “Sleigh Ride” blasted from an aging soundtrack system, keeping the rhythm of “Sleigh Ride” with their castanets. I burst out laughing, and then did all I could to maintain composure during the performance. My husband, whose father was born in Madrid and apparently didn’t speak any English, look horrified, which made me laugh even harder. We honeymooned in Spain, and had seen gorgeous flamenco dancing when we lived in Washington, D.C., and a troupe from Spain passed through. I had also recently seen beautiful flamenco dancing while in Havana in May. None of these past experiences involved a soundtrack. Flamenco dancing is a few women in dresses that crest and fall like ocean waves, castanets strapped to dancers’ fingers, and usually one guy dancing with them, another guy playing a box or a chair or some makeshift drum, and always—always a dude furiously strumming a guitar like it’s his last day.
Our daughter, who had never seen live flamenco dancing, looked confused and kept asking why I was trying to stifle my laughter. Repeating “Mom, what’s so funny??” while dancers are on stage trying to do their job is as awkward as it sounds. I had brought my family to a tourist trap. Playing castanets to a Muzak version of “Sleigh Ride” was meant for guys in the audience who can’t pronounce “flamenco.” The dancers were quite good, and the whole thing would’ve been better if they shut off the cheesy soundtrack, which, they eventually did. A skinny guy in a red shirt and tight black pants came on stage and saved the day with his singing and dancing, and my husband’s posture softened. A few minutes of something authentic-ish.
Honestly, I wouldn’t trade the experience for anything. It just added to the weirdness that is Florida. And, it humbled me. I can take my family down Seventh Avenue in Ybor City, past its bars, the hookah lounges, the tattoo parlors, I can buy a cloche hat from La France, crave a Cubano sandwich I can’t eat because it’s not gluten-free, and convince myself I’m having a cool, authentic experience only to spend that same evening sitting before a stage of flamenco dancers working their assess off to “Sleigh Ride.” It was the perfect Friday night in Florida. You should try it sometime.