Friday, August 06, 2004

Florida for Northerners

It is very rare to meet a true, born and bred native of Florida. Almost everyone who I’ve met who lives in the Sunshine State originally came from somewhere else. Usually it’s from somewhere else in the United States, although I’ve met my fair share of Brits, too (which makes me happy because I can get a fix of real, brewed-from-the-leaf tea and scones with Devonshire cream at Sherlock’s in downtown Celebration).

I do know a few people who are actual native Floridians. One dear friend has roots that go deep in Key West that her ancestors are pictured in the history books making cigars. But most, like me, were victims of a mistake at birth. Somehow, we were born in the wrong state, but like a human version of a turtle or spawning salmon, we carry the instinct to return to the place where we should have been born.

Most of the transplants, like me, seem to come from places with bitterly cold and snowy winters. It’s easy to dream of a white Christmas when you come from a balmy climate, but after nearly four decades of digging out a buried car in sub-zero temperatures and scraping an inch of snow off the windshield, I’d be happy if I never saw another snowflake for as long as I live. Of course, in Celebration I can have my cake and eat it, too. All I have to do is go downtown during the Christmas season (along with hundreds of tourists) and watch the soapy snowflakes cover Market Street. That’s enough snow for me.

Also, I love to swim and bike, and being able to do it for only a small part of the year is not how I like it. Being able to hit the bike trails or go to a water park almost all year round is like Heaven.

But I did have to make some adjustments, and some were little surprising, even though my husband and I had traveled to Florida so often,. Visiting, even for a week or two at a time, is much different than living here 24/7. Here are some of the biggest adjustments that this northerner had to make:

No Basements.
Every home that I’ve ever lived in prior to moving to Celebration has had a basement, with the exception of my condo. Since Florida is basically swamp land, the homes are built on slabs, and basements are as rare as a non-soap snowflake in Celebration, I miss the extra storage space and the place to hide from tornadoes. I grew up not far from an area that seems to attract tornadoes like Floridians attract mosquitoes (which, by the way, are not much worse in Celebration than they were at my old home). Therefore, it’s been pounded in my consciousness than you need to have a basement as a safety zone,

I never thought of Florida as having a problem with tornadoes. In my mind, I’ve always associated it more with hurricanes, and Celebration is far enough inland to avoid most of that danger. But a few years back, a killer tornado struck the Kissimmee area. I don’t remember the exact year, but I recall that it was right around the same time that Universal Studio Florida was planning to open their new “Twister” attraction. The unintentionally poor timing caused them to delay the opening out of respect for the victims.

Just in case that ever happens again, I have already made a mental map of the safest spots in our house. We have a “Harry Potter” bathroom under the stairwell, so that’s where I plan to hole up with my husband and the menagerie (or at least the cats and bird…the fish are probably going to have to be on their own).

St. Augustine Grass
I am used to lush, plush velvety lawns that flow like seas of emerald and gently caress bare feet. But Florida is a state of extremes, with droughts part of the year giving way to monsoons for the rest, so grass must be very hearty to survive. Thus, throughout most of Celebration, you’ll find that the lawns are planted with something called St. Augustine grass. Unlike the grass I’m used to, this variety has tough, thick, prickly blades. It sends out runners and loves to invade mulch beds. It may be rough, but it certainly is hearty; in some quarters it is actually considered to be a weed. But I guess that’s a good thing, as it’s nothing if not persistent. It has the ability to make it through droughts and monsoons like. I was worried about my lawn this year because the spring was extremely dry, and many of my neighbors’ lawns developed huge brown patches. Mine stayed fairly green (I learned that the trick is to make sure that your sprinkler heads are not blocked so that the small amount of reclaimed water that you’re allocated reaches the widest area). But even the browned areas have sprung back pretty nicely now that the rainy season is upon us.

Torrential Downpours
Speaking of rain, that was another big adjustment. I’m used to droughts, and goodness knows we got some pretty vicious thunderstorms back in the Midwest too. But in Florida, rain has some traits that took some getting used to. Actually, I already knew about the first trait from my many visits as a tourist. During the rainy season, a thunderstorm comes almost every afternoon/evening like clockwork. The sun can be shining brilliantly, with not a cloud in the sky. Then, slowly but surely the cloud cover will ease its way in. Suddenly you realize that what was once baby blue is now a threatening shade of gray. Then you hear the ominous rumble of thunder and see Mother Nature’s fireworks reminding you that Florida is the lightning capitol of the United States. You know that the daily storm is upon you, so you’d better hunker down and deal with it.

Sometimes these storms are mere spit, with the light show in the sky far outweighing the pitiful amount of water trickling down to the earth below. At other times, they are an absolute monsoon, enveloping you in a fall of water. At times like those, visibility is maybe as far as the tip of your nose. That’s not a good thing if you happen to be driving, as I can personally attest.

The first time it happened to me while I was in a car was on I-4, heading to Orlando. The local Best Buy didn’t have the type of computer that my husband wanted in stock, but supposedly another location did. Traffic was bumper to bumper due to construction, and we needed to get home within a specified amount of time because we were expecting a delivery. It soon became apparent that we’d never make it to the store and back quickly enough, so we exited the expressway and changed direction for home. We had only gone a couple of miles when the wall of water hit, It was as though we had suddenly been teleported to a location somewhere beneath Niagara Falls. It was all I could do not to panic, but I knew that would be a fatal mistake. I snapped on my flashers and prayed fervently to God. He got Noah through the flood, so I prayed that he would guide me and my modern day ark safely through to dry land.

It seemed like the rain would never end, and I spent the whole time in abject terror that someone was going to rear end me. I followed the dim glow of taillights in front of me and hoped that my flashers were visible to whatever poor slob was doing the same behind me. Eventually we made it home and discovered that we needn’t have worried about the delivery because the truck didn’t show up until around 10 p.m. (but that’s another story).

The next time was on the way to the airport. We were driving down 417 was Niagara Falls let loose again. Once again, it was on with the flashers and out with the prayers. I stayed in the right lane with the rest of the wimps while people roared by us on the left, doing at least the speed limit (65 m.p.h.) and probably more. I was amazed that they thought they could see well enough in front of them to go that fast and that they thought they could ever stop in case of emergency. Once we got to Boggy Creek Road, we stopped at the Circle K and waited for the storm to cease. My husband said, “But what if we miss our flight?” and I pointed out the obvious: With the thunder, lightning, and wall of water, there wouldn’t be any aircraft taking off or landing for a while.

Thus far, those are the only two times that I’ve been caught out on the road in a downpour that bad. Most of the time it’s just a storm of normal ferocity. The only other challenge when we have heavy rain is getting in and out our back door. We like in a Craftsman style home, and we almost always park in our driveway and use the back door rather than the front. Unfortunately, the builder installed a squared awning over the back door but no gutters to divert the water. Thus, every time it rains, we have to run through a sheet of water any time we want to go in or out the back way.

The rain actually has a benefit for natives: sometimes, if it sticks around for a while, it chases all the tourists out of the theme parks. After an hour of two of storming, they give up and return to their hotel rooms. Then the sun comes out like nothing ever happened, and you can head to Disney World or a water park and enjoy the almost non-existent lines.

Another odd things about Florida storms is just how concentrated they can be. It can literally be storming like blue blazes over Typhoon Lagoon or Disney-MGM and be sunny and dry at the Magic Kingdom (or visa versa). It reminds me of “The Truman Show,” where Truman is on the beach and the rainmaking equipment malfunctions. A downpour starts, but it is concentrated only over his head. In Florida, it might be raining on one side of the street and be bone dry on the other.

Pnemonia-Including Air Conditioning
It goes without saying that in the summer, air conditioning is an absolutely necessity in Florida. The summer heat is often the kind that rips your breath from your lungs the moment you step outside. When you climb into your car, you feel like you’ve just sat down in a blast furnace.

But then you enter a building and brrrr! You’re suddenly transported to the Antarctic. For some reason, it seems (or at least to a wimpy Midwesterner like me) that Floridians tend to keep their air conditioning set at pneumonia level. Once you live in Florida, I think you develop some kind of super resistance that allows your body to withstand the hot/cold extremes with no ill effects. I guess that I need just a little more time to get used to it.

Wearing Coats on “Warm” Days
Back when we used to visit Disney World in the November/December/January season, I used to laugh when I’d see Floridians bundled up like Eskimos when the temperatures were in the 60s. If, God forbid, the thermometer hit the 50s or below, they acted like it was the Ice Age. My husband and I would head over to the water parks on 70-something degree days. Having come from below zero temperatures, that felt downright balmy to us, but the poor lifeguards would be huddled with jackets over their swimwear.

Everyone keeps warning me ominously: “Someday it will happen to you.” But currently I think we return to the Midwest often enough to keep up our northern heartiness. Although it will be nice to know that I’m turning into a true Floridian when it finally happens, I will miss enjoying those half-empty water park days in the winter.

Before we bought out place in Celebration, I never knew what a lanai was. Soon I learned it’s the sort of thing that northerners would consider to be an outdoor patio. But they usually go far beyond that, with elaborate outdoor kitchens, spas and/or pools and perhaps even an outdoor fireplace. They are usually screened in to keep out the bugs and allow for year ‘round use. Many are like entire outdoor home extensions. We went on the 2003 Holiday House Tour, and many of the homes had gorgeous lanais. Some of them were almost as big as my house!

Before we decided to move to Celebration, we figured that we would move to Florida in ten years or so, and part of my dream was a house with a Florida room (I didn’t know about the whole lanai thing back then, but I think that’s what I would have gotten). Unfortunately, my triplex is not conducive to that sort of set-up, but I still admire the ones that I see around town.

Creepy Crawlies
Some folks complain about the mosquitoes, and I’ll admit that they’re plentiful, but no more so than they are in the Midwest. I must have been born with sweet-tasting blood, because I’ve always been a target for the little blood suckers no matter what state I happen to be in. On the flipside, my husband rarely gets bit. I look like Pleakley in “Lilo and Stitch,” with masses of welts covering my body, and he has nary a bump.

But the bugs that I had to make the biggest adjustment to were the “saw palmetto bugs,” i.e. cockroaches. Back in the midwest, having roaches in your house is a surefire sign that your housekeeping skills have plummeted to the dregs. In Florida, I’ve been told that roaches are relatively common, and also supposedly larger than the variety that I’m used to.

To combat this, we’ve had Terminex spray our house on a quarterly basis from the moment we moved in. It must be effective because I’ve never seen a bug anywhere inside, with the exception of those that occasionally fly in with us. I think they treat the yard for fire ants, too. I had my first experience with those at Typhoon Lagoon, when I inadvertently stepped on one of their hills in my bare feet. Trust me, those little buggers can bite!

Termites are another big danger in Florida. We had them in the midwest, too, but they were not nearly as common. Perhaps it’s because the homes there are made of brick, while in Florida they use a lot more wood. Thankfully, since we’re in a triplex, regular preventative treatments are part of our association dues.

We also get assaulted by love bugs in the fall. During our first year in our home, I learned that something about its beige color seems to attract them more than the neighboring buildings. Every day I would be out on the porch sweeping the pesky little critters away, and by the next morning they would be back with a vengence.

The lizards take some getting used to, too, although thankfully I’ve not afraid of reptiles. They are actually rather cute as they hop around on the sidewalks. They are small and shy, so they won’t bother you, but they do get suicidal when they see a bicycle approaching. Something about seeing that tire heading their way makes them want to jump right in front of it. I’ve never actually splattered one, but I’ve come close on countless occasions.

I’m getting used to ‘gator sightings, since I know which lakes to find them in, but the “wow” factor hasn’t worn off completely yet.

Mold and Mildew
When we did our walk through, our builder warned me to always pour Simple Green into the drainage line of the air conditioner unit to prevent the mold from getting a foothold. But it still attacks my sidewalks, and I imagine it will reach the exterior of my house someday. Thankfully, so far it hasn’t invaded the interior, and I hope to keep it that way. Sometimes while biking through town, I see houses with that tell-tale greenish hue. Hopefully the power washings that are supposed to be included in our association dues will keep it away from our place.

Pervasive Fading
Before we lived in Celebration, I used to notice faded siding, flags, and decorations and wonder why people would put out such old things instead of throwing them away. Then, once we moved in and I erected a flag pole, I quickly learned that the items I saw were probably not old. The Florida sun fades things almost instantly. Back in the midwest, I could put out a seasonal flag and reuse it for several years. At my Celebration house, it’s noticeably bleached out after only one season.

Originally, our house was supposed to be painted gray with dark blue trim. I’m not sure why, but somewhere along the way the color got changed to light beige. After seeing how much fading the darker colored homes in town have undergone, I’m glad that ours is a light color. I know that it will fade, too, but at least it won’t be noticeable.

Tile Instead of Carpet
I’m used to houses with wall to wall carpeting, with tile only in the “wet’ areas (bathroom and kitchen). In Florida, I was surprised to discover that many homes have tile throughout their first floors, with the exception of maybe one or two rooms. Our house is all tile, except for the formal room. It seemed really odd to me until we had lived there for a little while. Between the sand and the continually damp grass, we are constantly tracking in dirt and wetness. I can’t even imagine trying to keep a carpet clean. We have an area rug in our family room, and the formal room can be closed off with French doors. The stairs and the upstairs bedrooms are carpeted, too, but the tile in the downstairs living areas is a necessity.

Sweetened Iced Tea
Once upon a time I used to drink iced tea with as much sugar as I could cram in without overflowing the glass. But during a diet I stopped adding sugar to my tea and coffee, and I totally lost the taste for it. Now, if there is even a spec of sugar in my iced tea, I absolutely cannot drink it.

I quickly learned that down south, sweetened iced tea is as common as grits and sweet potato pie. If you want tea with no sugar, you’d better specify that when ordering it or you’re liable to get a drink sweet enough to make your teeth jingle.

But in Florida, the danger of sweetened tea at restaurants is far outweighed by the smoking regulations. Smoking is prohibited in the interiors of all Florida restaurants. Most have outdoor seating areas where you can light up, but inside there is no smoking allowed. It’s such a treat to go out to eat and not have to specify “No smoking,” only to wind up in a booth right next to the smoking area, with absolutely no separation. Or better yet, you never have to hear, “There’s an hour wait for non-smoking, but we can seat you in the smoking area immediately.”

It’s probably only true in touristy areas, but in the Kissimmee area you can purchase luggage at almost any store. I don’t just mean places like K-Mart or Target, where you would expect to find it. You can find it virtually anywhere, from the grocery stores to the pharmacies. I can’t imagine who would buy it, as I would think you would already have brought all the bags that you need with you. But my husband theorizes that people probably load up on more souvenirs than they expected and then have to buy an extra suitcase or two to haul all the Mickey paraphernalia home.

Besides the proliferation of luggage, there also seems to be a Disney ticket outlet and a Sony outlet on every corner. I know that the Disney ticket booths are generally timeshare scams, illegal sellers of partially used multi-day tickets, or both. I haven’t figured out why there are so many Sony dealers yet, but I know it has to be some kind of tourist trap.

Insulated Grocery Bags
On one of our first trips to the Publix grocery store, my husband and I noticed that they sell insulated grocery bags. We bought one on a lark, and I’m glad that we did. When you buy frozen food and transport it home in 90-plus degree heat, it can quickly dissolve into a soupy message. Even if your car is air conditioned, you might get stuck in traffic and the pitiful amount of cold air being pumped out of your vents is no match for the oppressive Florida sun. Having an insulated bag buys you a little more precious time to get your frozen food to the freezer intact.

Legal U-Turns
This was one of the biggest adjustments for me, especially in view of the fact that drivers in Kissimmee would make a New York cabbie shudder in fear. Where I come from, U-turns are always illegal. If you are really desperate, you might try to sneak one in, but if a cop is anywhere nearby you’re going to get a ticket.

In Florida, they are totally legal just about anywhere at any time. When you are in a left turn lane, you can count on the fact that at least half of the cars in front of you are making U-turns rather than going left. I was always used to turning right on a red light when the traffic on the cross street had their left signal. In Florida, that’s a bad idea, as it’s a great way to get creamed by a U-turner. Unfortunately there is no way to signal a U-turn, so you’re better off waiting for a green light.

The good thing about this is that you never have to worry about blowing past your destination. Oops, passed it by? No problem! Whip your car around and you’ll be right back there.

These are just a few of the little quirks that I am still getting accustomed to. But the one thing that takes no adjustment at all is the year ‘round weather. The sugaring tea, invasive insects and crazy drivers are no match for the appeal of never seeing snow again.

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