photo by Flickr user johpan
New Englanders are not flocking to Florida’s sunny shores right now. This is probably because they are trapped by snow up to the dormers on their Capes and Colonials.
Eventually, the drifts will melt away in places like Beacon Hill and Cambridge and Pawtucket. When that happens, marking the end of the Northeast’s second consecutive brutal winter, I expect to hear a lot more of those funny accents asking where to find a good lobster roll in Orlando. I must sadly report that the answer is to not bother trying.
This column is not a lament, however; it is a welcome. As a New York native who now spends a lot of time around the citrus belt, I think Florida is a wonderful place. You just have to understand how things work. So here is my guide to Florida for shell-shocked New Englanders, especially Bostonians. Every New Yorker knows they need all the help they can get.
Diversity: The term means something entirely different in Florida. At campuses along the Charles, it means people who look different from one another but who think alike, specifically that Sen. Elizabeth Warren should be declared president by acclamation. In Florida you will encounter real, live Republicans as well as Democrats. Since they are apt to live in proximity to each other, and occasionally even intermarry, they do not reflexively detest one another. Consider the possibility that your neighbor across the street is not evil just because he put up a lawn sign for a candidate you oppose.
Language: Florida’s diversity is obvious in the conversations you will hear around you. Spend a day walking along Ocean Drive and Collins Avenue in Miami Beach and you will hear at least the following: English, Spanish, Portuguese (mostly spoken by Brazilians), Russian, Yiddish, French (mostly spoken by Canadians) and German. Miami is truly bilingual, with Spanish and English used nearly interchangeably. You almost have to consciously avoid picking up some Spanish if you live there long enough. But why wouldn’t you want to speak a bit of the language of Calle Ocho (Eighth Street), the heart of Little Havana, where the last Friday night of every month brings a rollicking street festival (“Viernes Culturales,” or Cultural Fridays) and restaurants that stay packed into the wee hours? It’s fun, and nobody judges you for trying. Spanish fades away when you get north of Fort Lauderdale, except for a few areas around Tampa and Orlando, but even English will sound like a foreign language when you hear it spoken in the state’s northern counties. That’s the Deep South, where people make wine from wild grapes called scuppernong, and “boxing pine” means cutting boxes in the pine bark to collect sap used in making turpentine. Sounds a little like maple sugaring, right?
Food: Speaking of maple, you’d better have breakfast at home if you insist on using what my wife calls “real syrup.” You can find maple syrup in any Florida supermarket but in few of its restaurants, and you might even be charged extra for it. Sorry, but most Floridians just don’t know any better. You also cannot get the aforementioned lobster roll in most of Florida. But apart from these shortcomings, you will generally find Florida cuisine both delicious and varied. There is fresh local produce all year, along with meat and an abundance of fish that is at least as good as what you’ll get up north, though the species differ. Our ethnic diversity means you will find almost any sort of cuisine in the state’s big cities. In many rural areas, especially near the Gulf of Mexico, there is a pronounced French and Cajun influence, imported from Louisiana. And every breakfast joint north of Lake Okeechobee serves grits.
Summer weather: In New England you are apt to hear such ill-informed statements as “I could never take Florida’s heat in the summer.” Actually, apart from San Francisco and maybe Down East Maine, you pretty much can’t find a chillier summer than Florida’s – indoors, of course, which is where you spend most of your time anyway. Almost every public space in Florida is air-conditioned to bone-numbing levels. Two essential accessories for a Florida summer are an umbrella, to keep you dry in the daily afternoon shower, and a sweater, to keep you from catching pneumonia when you reach your air-conditioned destination after forgetting your umbrella. Apart from the air conditioning and the rain, summers in Florida are more than tolerable. Evenings are often remarkably pleasant for strolling after the rain stops. And most of the tourists are gone, which means traffic is lighter and restaurants are less crowded. You will probably come to enjoy the season much more than you expect.
Driving: Boston drivers are terrible. Florida drivers are also terrible. The difference is that in Florida we drive much, much faster than you do in New England. In town or in the countryside, cops usually ignore anyone doing less than 80 on the interstates or Florida’s Turnpike. Typical speeds in the outlying areas are even higher. These would be suicidal behaviors up north. What makes Florida driving survivable is that the roads are much better than New England’s. Not only are there virtually no potholes (since there is virtually no frost), but Floridians expect a lot of safety features, such as left-turn lanes on city streets and acceleration lanes on highways. Here is how it works: When getting onto a highway, you get a long stretch of road in which to get up to traffic speed (meaning at least 75 mph) before you must merge. Up north, you often have to come to a complete stop, then pull out abruptly into traffic and hope no incompetent Boston driver slams into your rear end. Florida’s way is better.
Overpasses and tunnels: In New England you dig holes and bury stuff, like basements and tunnels. Nobody digs holes in Florida, except to watch them fill up with groundwater. So where you have tunnels, Florida roads have overpasses (also called “flyovers”), and the most elaborate interchanges this side of California. We build them to keep traffic moving, but also for the view. They are the highest hills our cars ever need to climb south of Georgia.
Seascapes and landscapes: The familiar hills of New England are not the only things you’ll miss when you get to Florida. Colorful fall foliage does not exist here, either. But a lot of other things will be surprisingly familiar. North of Tampa and Daytona Beach, remnant stands of beautiful longleaf pines resemble some of the forests of northern New England. The seashore and pleasure boats will remind you of Cape Cod and the islands, but Florida has much more shoreline than the Cape, with beaches at least equally fine. Florida has thousands of freshwater ponds, too. But when you see fresh water in Florida, you should always assume there is an alligator in it. Keep close to children and pets. That’s something you never thought about back home.
Finally, of course, there is the snow. You are sick of it. Floridians celebrate it. It does, in fact, snow in Florida, on rare occasions in the north and extremely rare occasions as far south as the Miami suburbs. It is practically a state holiday when it snows. But here’s the thing: when you move to Florida, you can give away your shovel and snow blower. No matter where you settle in the Sunshine State, you’ll never need them.
See you after the spring thaw.