Friday, July 09, 2004

It's a Small World After All

One great thing about the Orlando/Kissimmee area is that it’s probably one of the most ethnically diverse areas I’ve ever visited Having grown up near a major city, I thought that I had been exposed to a wide variety of people and cultures. But once I experienced the area surrounding Celebration, I saw just how sheltered I had really been.

Celebration itself is pretty homogeneous, but we do seem to have a large British population. On my small block alone, two homes are occupied by families from Britain. Downtown, there is Sherlock’s, a wonderful English tearoom, and right next door is an old-fashioned British-style barber shop. Around town, you will notice that the number of Minis is disproportionately high for the size of our overall population.

I am very pleased about the strong influence of our neighbors from across the pond. I am a major fan of tea and scones, and I love being able to head downtown for an authentic afternoon tea experience whenever I have an urge. Nothing beats a cup of tea (brewed from real strained leaves, thank you) and a scone smothered in jam and Devonshire cream. Unfortunately, there are no chip shops downtown, so if I want an authentic fish & chips fix, I have to go to Epcot.

But while Celebration’s diversity may be limited, the gates to the world are hurled wide open the moment you leave our insular little town. The most visible population is Hispanic, due most likely to the number of service jobs created by the tourist industry and the construction work that is fueled by the ongoing Florida building boom. Celebration is almost built out, but new housing developments crop up with frightening regularity anywhere a buildable piece of land can be carved out of the swamp in Central Florida.

I love Mexican and Cuban food, so I am pleased with the strong Hispanic influence. Not far from where I grew up, there was a predominantly Mexican neighborhood. I spent much of my teen years babysitting for a Mexican family, which gave me a passable understanding of Spanish and a deep appreciation of real Mexican food (fideo, anyone?). I know that cilantro and goat cheese have entered widespread use in recent, but Mexican cooks have known about them for ages.

In Kissimmee, I have wandered into neighborhoods where the signs are all in Spanish and English is definitely not the language of choice. I have forgotten most of the Spanish that I once knew; it’s easy to forget when you’re not using it on a regular basis. But being in Florida will give me an opportunity to become halfway fluent again. I have a set of language CDs to help me relearn the basics, and once I get those down, I will have plenty of opportunities to practice.

There are also many transplants from Middle Eastern countries, many of whom work in the transportation industry. As you might imagine, it’s a big business to transport the thousands of tourists from the airport to their various hotels. This occurs via various means, such as buses, vans, taxis, towncars, limos, and even stretch Hummers deployed by a number of companies.

On our visits to Orlando, we generally used a towncar and had some wonderfully amusing conversations with our drivers. I asked one driver, from Iran, how he could be so calm when driving among the crazy and unpredictable tourists every day. He said that it was nothing compared to the drivers in his homeland, and he told us stories about everyday life in Iran that fascinated my husband and I all the way to our destination.

Down 192, a little ways from Celebration, there is a small bit of China that will probably disappear soon. There used to be a tourist attraction called “Splendid China,” but it was a victim of the downturn in tourism and the thirst for adventure that drives most people to try Mission Space at Disney or the Hulk roller coaster at Islands of Adventure. “Splendid China” was a more sedate, laid-back experience, sort of like the China Pavilion at Epcot on steroids. Even though it is closed, its legacy is still visible in the smattering of Chinese restaurants around the menacing dragons that guard its deserted gates.

Just about any other type of cuisine from around the world can be found in the Orlando/Kissimmee area, even when you don’t count World Showcase at Epcot or the other eateries on Disney property. You can eat food from India, Germany, Japan, Italy, the Caribbean or Australia all within a few miles. When you add the choices at Disney World, the map expands to several other locations, like Africa and Norway. I know that most of the food is an Americanized version that sometimes bears little resemblance to a true ethnic dish. I’d love to see hackpeter (raw ground beef with onions and a raw egg on top of it) at the German pavilion or goat served up at Mexico or real used newspapers wrapped around my fish in Britain, but it ain’t gonna happen. Oh well, it’s still nice to get a “sampler” of tamed down global cuisine.

But the diversity isn’t just in the food. Orlando/Kissimmee draws tourists literally from around the globe. Just as there are a lot of British transplants living in the area, there is a constant influx of British tourists. You can recognize them quite easily by their accents and their beet-colored skin. I guess the fog of London doesn’t prepare them too well for the relentless Florida sun. It never ceases to amaze me that many of them rent cars. I don’t think I could ever adapt to driving on the opposite side of the street so quickly, but most of them seem to do it with minimal mayhem.

You’ll also see that Brazil and Japan are well represented, and there are a fair number of people from the Middle East. Fortunately, all of the terrorism turmoil doesn’t seem to affect them too much. Although I try to respect other customs and cultures, it never ceases to amaze me that women will accept wearing black, full-body clothing and veils in the blazing Florida sun while their husbands traipse comfortably along in shorts and a t-shirt. The European visitors tend to take the opposite tack; you can spot them easily at the water parks, as they tend to wear white swimsuits (the women) and Speedos (the men).

But I don’t mean to imply that wearing revealing clothing is the exclusive province of foreign tourists. At Typhoon Lagoon, both my husband and I have spotted American woman swimming in their underwear. Yes, literally in panties and a bra! The first time I saw this, the woman had at least donned a t-shirt on top of the undies. Unfortunately, it was white and turned totally transparent the moment the first wave in the pool hit it. I did a double-take; surely that couldn’t be a bra. It had to be some kind of strange bikini top…didn’t it? Apparently not! I guess that’s what happens when you forget to pack your swimsuit. Mercifully, the panties remained below the waterline most of the time.

I’ve always enjoyed getting to know people and customs from around the globe. That is one of the reasons that I am such a major cruising fanatic (we’ve sailed on Disney Cruise Line 38 times as of this writing, and we’ll exceed 40 by the end of this year). Very few Americans work on cruise ships because vessels of foreign registry are not bound by U. S. labor laws. In our years of sailing, we have made from around the globe: Canada, Croatia, Trinidad, Australia, Jamaica, India, Italy, France, Chile, and Hungary, just to name a few.

So many of the people who work on board ships have fascinating stories to tell. Some have families back home and are working on a ship, spending months apart, in order to make a better wage than would ever be possible in their homelands. Some are brushing up on their English in a practical environment in order to enhance their career opportunities. Many are highly educated; we met one stateroom host from the Philippines who had an engineering degree. He had started out working in his field but switched to a service position because he could actually make more money. Some are doing it as an adventure and some because they genuinely love it. We always talk to as many crew members as possible on each trip because we never know what fascinating new story we might hear.

There are, of course, many international cast members at the Epcot pavilions, but Disney World is not the most conducive environment for talking to them at length. Life on the ship is busy, too, but there are more opportunities to actually get into a conversation without an impatient line of tourists behind you wanting to buy a t-shirt or ask where the bathroom is.

So, as annoying as the song might be, I guess it really is a small world after all, or at least in the area around Celebration. Where else can you meet so many people from around the globe and sample so many varied cuisines? And best of all, no passport is required.

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