Fun Florida Facts (and Opinions)

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Oh, 2020…

This year has thrown a lot of surprises at the world (and some not-so-surprising events as well really), but for me and Tucker one of the most unexpected occurrences has been our prolonged stay in Florida. We were only meant to be here for a few months as we gathered our lives from various corners of the world in order to head north for the next few years. Of course, with a brief snag in our immigration paperwork followed by a global pandemic, we’ve found ourselves in a holding pattern since March. And while, like everyone else, I’m still struggling to figure out what this all means for our jobs, our future, our society, etc. I’ve also been doing what I do best in a new place: exploring. Even though this exploring has taken place mostly online (and occasionally from a socially acceptable distance), life in Florida has still been quite interesting, and in some ways enlightening. Thus, for this month’s post, I have put together a list of my newly gleaned facts (and opinions) to share about our temporary home.

Cartoon Florida
Hi, guys! Wanna be my friend?

The first thing I have to mention is the fact that everyone seems to have an opinion about Florida. People who have never even been here feel one way or another about it, and plenty of people like to vocalize their opinions (many of which are quite negative) without much regard to facts or feelings. I say this as a non-Floridan, someone who doesn’t have a strong feeling one way or another about this particular state, but sheesh, even I feel bad listening to the many tirades and verbal attacks on the Sunshine State, especially those that can be found online. In our brief time here, I’ve come to view Florida as the state that’s often picked on, but that everyone secretly likes and takes advantage of (like an annoying kid in school that has a really nice pool).

When reflecting on why there are so many negative associations with Florida and Floridians floating around out there, I feel it boils down to two things: 1) the Florida Man and 2) vacationers. Most everyone knows about the Florida Man trope nowadays. A long-lasting meme that has permeated the internet and beyond, it originally referred to the crazy headlines often found in Florida that always begin with “Florida man…” and usually end with his doing something absolutely absurd. But interestingly, one of the first things I learned about the Florida Man origins is that they were sparked by a change in state law. In the 1990’s Florida passed the Sunshine Law, which ensures public access to all government records, including police arrest records. As you can imagine, in 30 years, the spring break capital of the US has racked up quite a few crazy stories, which brings me to my next point.

 

Vacationers. Probably the first thing we noticed after a few months in Florida was the ebb and flow of the people. Renters in, renters out; snow birds in, snow birds out; spring-breakers in, and (thankfully) spring-breakers out. The state of Florida has approximately 22 million permanent residents, but sees 110 million tourists annually. That’s a lot of YOLOing for any place to deal with. I think I actually first noticed this phenomenon in grocery stores. People in bathing suits, vacation gear (lots of Disney paraphernalia where we are), and a general lack of care for their immediate environment. Many people are here for a short time and their mindset is to live it up; therefore, chaos ensues, sometimes in the form of drunken parties and possible police involvement (which is then publicly documented for all the word to see and share).

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Three Sisters Springs

Of course, I completely understand why so many people choose to vacation to Florida. It’s an amazing place for affordable and varied entertainment. We’ve got theme parks all over the place: Disney World, Legoland, Universal Studios, SeaWorld, Busch Gardens, (and for a select clientele) Gatorland. There is also an abundance of parks, lakes, and other natural features like the Everglades, hot springs, swamps, and of course, the many, many beaches. Florida actually has the longest coastline of any of the contiguous states, and the climate (especially in south FL) means beach-going is possible year-round.

Speaking of South Florida, another thing that became immediately clear upon moving here was the presence of three distinct regions. You have North Florida, Central Florida, and Southern Florida, and the people who live (and vacation) in these three places often differ as much as the geography. We’ve heard this said a few times now: the further north you go in Florida, the further South you are. This refers to the fact that northern Florida is very much like Georgia, Alabama, the Carolinas, etc. Demographically, linguistically, socially, north of Ocala is really part of the South. On the other side, you have South Florida which held onto its Spanish roots and still welcomes a large influx of immigrants from Central and South America. The influence can be seen, heard, felt, and tasted as soon as you drive south of Lake Okeechobee. And that leaves Central Florida, which is somewhat a mix of the two and also somewhat the result of many retirees from out of state. Orlando and many other cities in Central Florida are very much like any other major city in the US: professional, progressive, and a tad hipster.

Another part of life in Florida that caught my attention early on was the naming of the coasts. Most likely, at least in part due to tourism, each section of the coastline in Florida has a name and, for lack of a better word, a vibe. You have the Space Coast, which is the location of the Kennedy Space center and where all the rocket launches take place (which we can see from our driveway, btw). You also have the Gold Coast where the big cities (Fort Lauderdale and Miami) and the famous South Beach are located. There’s the Sun Coast with its beautiful sunsets, the Nature Coast with its natural springs and manatees, and even the First Coast, which is where you can find the first and longest continuously inhabited settlement in modern day USA.

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I sense another checklist forming…
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Castillo de San Marcos

Since our trip to Saint Augustine and the First Cost, I’ve been really interested in Florida’s history and particularly how it differs from that of the colonies. Perhaps most people remember that Florida was first claimed by Spain, which is why we still see so many names like: Boca Raton, Punta Gorda, Buena Vista, etc., but what I (having taken Georgia History, not Florida History, in school) found super interesting was the native American history here. Of course, it now seems quite obvious with place names like: Tallahassee, Kissimmee, and Osceola, but I never gave much thought to the tribes that called Florida home and were actually some of the first to be attacked and displaced. Indeed, the Creek/Seminole tribes, in particular, not only found themselves stuck in the middle of a fight between Britain and Spain during the Seven Years’ War, but went on to challenge the US settlers with what is now known as the Seminole Wars, some of the longest and most expensive in early US history. Historically, Florida has seen a lot, and I don’t think it gets much credit for its important place in US history, let alone world history.

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Daily torrential rain

Finally, the last surprising fact I am very pleased to share is about the weather. As cold weather people, Tucker and I were very much dreading our time spent in the humid and, yes, extremely sunny Florida, especially as that time started to stretch into summer. However, I’m happy to report that it’s really not so bad! Florida is really breezy, which certainly helps with the heat, and now that we’re officially in summer, I can say that there’s a bit of a rainy season here meaning the afternoon thunderstorms that happen almost every day also help to cool it down. We’ve both commented that while the warmer temps might last longer, they don’t feel near as oppressive as summer in Atlanta. Plus, the produce here is absolutely amazing! In addition to citrus, Florida produces significant percentages of the country’s tomatoes, watermelons, cucumbers, and sugar cane.

All in all, Florida has been a surprise in many ways for us (including the very exciting news that there is no state income tax in Florida!). Ultimately, our time here has really just been another lesson in finding out how much there is to discover/learn, even in a place you think you already know pretty well. So, what have you learned so far in 2020?

Florida Adventures

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Contemplating the state of the world

Have I already mentioned what an interesting year 2020 is turning out to be…well, anyway, as you may have heard, we should all be self-quarantining now. So what better time is there to write about all the adventures we had (and some we still have) planned for our sojourn in Florida, which has also been quite unexpected and rife with issues (more on that in a later, much longer post).

For now, let’s focus on Florida: the Sunshine State, the Family Vacation Mecca, the Hotbox of the East Coast. Of course, like most middle-class Americans east of the Mississippi, Tucker and I had been to Florida many times in our lives. Apparently my first ocean experience was as a two month old at New Port Richey Beach; Tucker and I both visited grandparents down here when we were little (mine in St. Pete and his in Fort Pierce), and of course, if you know my family, you know we’ve made our fair share of trips to the big WDW. We actually both remember separate trips to Pensacola for one reason or another, and as I have family in the Villages, we’ve made several stops there as well. But, when my parents officially moved down here back in 2017, Tucker and I planned and took a trip to Fort Lauderdale, Miami, and Key West (with his mom this time), which I believe truly marked the beginning of our new and focused Florida Explorations.

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Sunset Key

So, when we came back this year, knowing immigration would take a few months, we decided to really see what Florida has to offer. I made a list, shocking I know, and we’ve done our best amid the global and domestic catastrophes to explore our new state of temporary residency. Here’s what we’ve done:

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Butter beer!

1 – Universal Studios

The first place I knew had to be on the list was Universal Studios. Tucker had never been, and the last time I was here was in 2006 with a friend and her family. Since then, they’ve added pretty much the only thing that could draw me away from Disney and into another over-priced theme park: The Wizarding World of Harry Potter. Long story short, it’s no Disney, but you really can’t miss visiting Hogwarts and Diagon Alley, can you?

 

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So amazing!

2 – Daytona Beach

We realized pretty early on in our Florida-life that everything in the state is between 1-3 hours away from Orlando, so it was easy to plan Saturday excursions in any direction. One of the first of such excursions was to Daytona Beach, which boasts the title of “The World’s Most Famous Beach”. And while I might not go that far, it’s always great fun to share a fishbowl drink overlooking the waves.

3 – Disney Brunches

Some of the things on our list are events rather than places, as with our plan to go to brunch with family on the first Sunday of each month we are in Florida. This was narrowed down to Disney-specific brunches because my parents get a discount and, well, we love the World. So far we’ve been to Chef Art Smith’s Homecomin’, Boma – Flavors of Africa, and the Whispering Canyon Cafe. Next up was going to be the Wave…of American Flavors, but I think April’s brunch might be an at-home affair.

4 – Cocoa Beach and the Space Coast

82989356_10221868133720808_9032252941439860736_nNext up, my dad wanted to try a famous seafood place (Dixie Crossroads) out on the Atlantic coast, which I quickly paired up with a drive to Cocoa Beach and Port Canaveral. Although it was a quick visit, we walked along the beach and the pier, looked for the cruise ships and the Space Center, and learned that Florida has a nickname for every single section of coastline.

5 – Crystal River Manatees

Of course, I had to include Florida’s friendliest sea creature in our excursions! Tucker and I took a drive up to Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge to see some free range manatees and were blown away by the large numbers of them. While they definitely kept their distance, and rightly so, it was incredible to watch them splash and float around in adorable aggregations (which I learned is the group noun for manatees).

6 – Downtown Orlando

Just as I spent a lot of time exploring Atlanta when we lived there, I knew I wanted to go through the different neighborhoods and attractions of Orlando as well, you know, aside from the theme parks. One day we took a lovely walk around Eola Lake and up around Church Street. We went to see Henry IV at Orlando Shakes and strolled around all the museums on the north side. We’ve also found our new favorite used bookstore in Best Used Books and have been back and forth to all sorts of Orlando hot spots since January.

7 – Hop Passport: Florida Edition89925318_10222367882414213_2624685322386014208_n

Actually, one of the main reasons we’ve been to so many random locations in Florida is due to our quest to get a stamp at as many local breweries as possible. My sister-in-law and her boyfriend gave us the amazing Hot Passport for Christmas this year, and we’ve had a great time checking off places and seeing new cities across Florida. We’re at 14 out of 96 so far, and you should definitely check out the Hop Passport for your state if you’re also a beer-lover. You just can’t beat half-off beers!

8 – Disney (free things)

Another more open-ended item on our list is to finally do some of the free things at Disney that we never had the time or energy to do on previous trips. We haven’t bought park tickets for our time in Florida this year, but we’ve had a great time attending free events, walking the Boardwalk, hanging out at Disney Springs (the free shopping and entertainment area), and so much more. If you want a list of fun, free, and non-kiddie things to do at Disney, please let me know. I’m practically an expert.

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The Boardwalk: my favorite Disney place!

9 – Saint Augustine

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Castillo de San Marcos

Finally, on our last day of freedom (pre-self-quarentine), Tucker and I drove up to Saint Augustine to learn a bit more about Florida’s very long history. We visited the Fountain of Youth, the Colonial Quarter, the oldest masonry fort in the US, and ultimately saw a completely different side to this seriously diverse state. I’d really love to go back and explore Saint Augustine even more one day; it’s really an awesome city.

And so that brings me to a few things still on our list for the oh-so-tentative future:

* Take a train

I absolutely love trains, and when I saw how frequently they’re actually used in Florida (albeit still over-priced and not terribly convenient), I knew I needed to try them out for myself. Probably after the pandemic though…

Train

* Naples/Everglades

The Naples area is deemed “Paradise Coast” and it’s one part of Florida neither of us have ever been to; therefore, it was an obvious choice for the list. We’ve also never truly been into Everglades National Park (we’ve only driven through parts of it), so we tacked that (and the obligatory airboat ride that accompanies it) on as well.

* Devil’s Den

A place that has been on my travel to-do list for years now, Devil’s Den is an underground spring with clear waters and an abundance of ancient rock formations and fossils. It looks so cool, and I really want to go! Once the water gets a bit warmer though…

Den

* Tampa/deep sea fishing

And for now, the last thing on our list is a trip over to the Gulf Coast for a deep-sea fishing excursion (during which I might just have to close my eyes or ask that we be allowed to catch and release). We’re also planning to do a more thorough exploration of downtown Tampa on this particular trip. I really love the whole two birds, one stone idea.

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Making lemonade!

Well, that’s our Florida bucket list! Fingers crossed that everyone stays home for the next few weeks/months, so we can get back to exploring once everyone’s healthy again. Until then, I might add a few more things to list now that I have such ample time for research! I also challenge everyone reading this to do the same for your state/region – it’s a great way to pass the time and make the most of our days in the future!

Viva La Mexico

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Chichen Itza

Another month, another amazing country explored! Have I mentioned how nice it’s been working entirely online? No, but seriously, we’re incredibly lucky to be able to support these explorations as Tucker and I continue to make plans for what we want to do and where we want to be in the future. For the past 30 days, we’ve been in Mexico, sussing out the situation in three amazing cities, and learning all we could in the process. When planning our Mexican adventure (while happily freezing in Canada), we narrowed our focus down to Merida, Guadalajara, and Mexico City. Through online research and word of mouth, we felt that these were the three most likely candidates for a potential future home that fits our particular set of needs/wishes. So we set out to see which city would reign supreme (in our eyes anyways). Of course, we were also very interested in what living in Mexico would be like in general, having never visited any part of Latin America, and also how much tourism we could possibly squeeze into this already packed month of international inquiries! Here’s what we learned:

Merida

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Our first stop was the city of Merida, which is the capital city of the Yucatan peninsula. We arrived fairly late at night and were quite surprised when the first restaurant we came face-to-face with in Mexico was a Carl’s Jr. Haha! From that moment on, we were constantly reminded how much the US and Mexico have influenced each other over the years. From the abundance of Coke products to the variety of Christmas songs, there were so many things that made us feel like we weren’t too far from home. Some things, however, were very different. For example, the colors of Merida were unlike any city I’ve ever been to! Every building was painted a different, yet equally vibrant shade: coral, sea foam, cyan, olive; I lost count early on. All the color was even more surprising when we learned that Merida’s nickname is “the White City”! Apparently that has more to do with the traditional clothing than a description of the city itself, because Merida is nothing if not colorful.

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Pure art!

Merida was also incredibly clean! Everywhere we walked we could smell the scents of soap or laundry detergent wafting out of the various doorways. I had also (wrongly) assumed that in such a warm climate, bugs would be imminent, but we saw none during our 10 days on the peninsula. We what did find was a lot of extremely helpful strangers. As we stood in front of famous buildings or walked back and forth trying to find the correct bus stop, so many people approached us and gave us advice and information. We learned a lot about the Mayan people from locals who kindly shared what they knew in English, just for us. They didn’t ask for tips or for us to buy something from them, they shared because they’re proud of their heritage and wanted foreigners to also soak up some of their history and culture. Overall, Merida was incredibly laid-back, absolutely unique, and unequivocally friendly.

Guadalajara

74469092_10221331106775470_6605481842357305344_nOur next stop was Guadalajara, the capital city of Jalisco (I’m really beginning to think I must have a thing for capital cities…). Anyway, when we arrived in this, larger city, I realized just how much all the negative hearsay (like the number of well-meaning warnings I received before our trip) can really affect first-time travelers. I immediately felt uneasy, like everything was an unforeseen danger. Of course, after only a few hours, that was all wiped away. The people of Guadalajara were just as friendly and carefree as those in Merida. Our Uber drivers, especially, greeted us and patiently listened as we stumbled through Spanish to ask questions or give any necessary additional information. We also noticed that in Guadalajara, and perhaps Mexico as a whole, the timings of things are quite flexible. We often found ourselves checking the hours of one place or another, only to arrive and see they haven’t quite set up yet (even a few hours after opening). We really felt the struggle of coming from a China mindset (up early, asleep by 10pm) to the Mexican way of life, where nothing really gets going until after 8pm at least!

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Arco de Zapopan

Once it gets going though, it’s impossible to deny the liveliness of Mexcio! Guadalajara in particular has an amazing bar/restaurant street that has so much activity it would take more than a year to see and do everything just on that one strip! From festivals and live music to pub crawls and lucha libre tours, the people in the city know how to party (even on weeknights, which was incredibly impressive, and something I wasn’t quite able to do). While in the city, I was also surprised by the extreme variety of Mexican cuisine. I love Mexican food in the US, but what we typically see is a list of the same 5-6 items with various customization options. In Mexico, the food-scene is much more diverse. From the taco stands and torta kiosks to traditional Aztec/Mayan dishes that look like they came right out of a Top Chef episode (not to mention all the international options). In 30 days I’ve added countless new dishes to my favorites list, and I can now be absolutely sure that Mexican is my favorite of the world’s cuisines. Of course, my favorite among favorites is still the humble taco, and I feel no shame in admitting that Tucker and I kept track of the 75 tacos we ate in Mexico!

Mexico City

78976206_10221463131596008_7786060591298248704_nOur final stop on this scouting mission was the infamous Mexico City. One of the largest cities in Latin America with about 9 million residents, and easily one of the most welcoming mega-cities I’ve ever been in. Sometimes in cities of this size, the expectations for speed and efficiency can be extremely high, which poses a problem for travelers who are clueless as to how things are usually done. However, I never felt any impatience from the locals in CDMX (Ciudad de Mexico). Things were just as easy-going and friendly as the other cities we visited. Of course, Mexico City is quite big, which does bring about some challenges. For example, it typically took over an hour to get from one side of the city to the other, even with the super convenient (and cheap) metro. A sprawling city combined with loads of commuters, holiday shoppers, and tourists definitely made for a chaotic transportation situation. However, because of that large and diverse group, we were also able to get some Kansas City BBQ when we wanted something a bit different one night. It’s the eternal struggle of city life!

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Busy, busy!

Aside from the sheer size and diversity Mexico City (and really all of Mexico) has to offer, I was also really surprised by the openness we saw and felt. Mexico is a Catholic country, and having lived in Poland, I remember the conservative lean that often goes along with that. However, Mexico proved again and again that if it’s not bothering anyone, who cares? We immediately noticed all the pda (public displays of affection): lots of kissing, hand holding, etc. anywhere and everywhere, by all sorts of couples: old, young, gay, straight. We also saw more skin than we had grown used to in China (although that is pretty much necessary when it’s still in the 80’s in winter). And finally, the language used was a bit freer as well. I’ve never seen so many kids shouting curse words as when we went to the lucha libre match (all in good fun though). Ultimately, Mexico had the “anything goes” approach that we sometimes found in China and Poland, but here it was definitely more strongly connected to social issues, and we ultimately found it very refreshing.

Mexico In General

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Incredibly lush!

As I’m writing this, I keep thinking of things I want to add. All the information we got in Merida about the Mayan people and the way it influences the modern culture there, all the flowers and fruits of Jalisco that surrounded us even in the middle of a huge city, and all the people in Mexico City, who just like in NYC are trying to make it big in one way or another. As is typical when we travel, we learned so much about the places and people around us, but we also learned more about ourselves: like how strong preconceived notions can be (even in experienced travelers), how many American exports are actually really unhealthy (sugary drinks and fast food), and ultimately, how similar we all really are. We often found ourselves bonding in limited language over traffic, wifi, cute animals, and delicious food: you know, the important things in life.

In short, Mexico was absolutely amazing, and we could definitely see ourselves living there in the future! We felt safe and welcomed, and we had a great time getting to know our southern neighbors a bit better. As it stands now, we’re muddling our way through Canadian immigration, but at least we now have a solid plan B (Guadalajara won out, by the way). Or, who knows, maybe after a few years in the frigid north, the desire to thaw out in Mexico will draw us south of the border sooner than we think!

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