Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Florida, Man

I'm counting down the days until I go home. It's been almost a year, and I need to revisit the cycle of sitting on my dock, laying on the hammock, and dipping my feet in the pool while the heavy air of year-round summer makes everything languid and lovely.

But seriously, let's just talk about Florida for a minute. When you're north of the Mason-Dixon, that state becomes a bit of a caricature. Beaches, snowbirds and Disney aside, it's synonymous with weirdness. Just check out "Florida Man" on Twitter, or this "Weird Florida" section of the Huffington Post if you  need proof.

Part of this was obvious to me growing up between the glorious Pasco and Pinellas counties along the western coast of the state. There's a particular stretch of U.S. 19, a frenetic highway by my house, that I call "where culture goes to die". It's home to the ugliest of strip malls and most unnerving of gas station owners. The road is flanked by skeletons of would-be adorable downtown areas, huge, uninspired malls, and chipped paintings of manatees.

Oh, yes, I've had plenty of memorable weird Florida moments: landing up in front of the confederate flag store at a Waldo flea market; a young mother who told me her son was crying because he wasn't used to dark people. That time that my friend  told me that I had to be a conservative Republican because my dad was a doctor. Or when my sixth grade English teacher once marked my correct grammar wrong until I made her pull out the teacher's manual.

But none of this obscures the fact that Florida is awesome, on so many levels.

It's a diverse, amazing home to some of my favorite people in the world, and for good reason. Because sometimes you live on an old orange grove, and find out your neighbor was one of the mermaids at Weeki Wachee Springs. You can buy the best key lime pie at a place that looks like a warehouse, or walk to a restaurant that serves turtle and alligator. There are pockets of southern hospitality at its finest, and a spray painted BBQ joint alongside a biking trail that hasn't been shut down by authorities.

The town I'm from, Tarpon Springs, is also home to a huge Greek population with beautiful Greek Orthodox churches lining a small bayou off the Gulf of Mexico, with people that know how to pronounce, and make, a gyro. And you can drive and drive and drive, through Alligator Alley and to Miami, or back up through the forested almost-hills of north Florida, and discover communities that are each so different you wonder what will happen when their dirt roads happen to cross. Just read Jeff Klinkenberg or Carl Hiaasen if you need any more convincing.

When you live in D.C., or really any city in this region, you're often surrounded by people who read the same articles, watch the same channels and build some of the same conclusions about politics and society and abortion and gun control as you do. As a journalist, it's actually helpful to have Facebook friends who think the exact opposite -- reacting to every piece of news and election in a way that you both despise and need to understand. On a personal level, it's just easier to respect different ideologies when they're embodied in that kid who drove through a hurricane to watch a movie with you in tenth grade.

But that doesn't mean I'll live there again. Nah, I'll leave that wild, tangled swamp to the people who can handle it, and hope that I always have a home to visit.

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