For me, the National Park Service is easily one of the most amazing things about the United States. I am very fortunate to have seen many of these incredible places growing up, and even now when I plan trips back to the States, I always try to include a national or state park in my itinerary. The diversity and the beauty of North America is absolutely astounding, and I (and many others) can’t get enough of it. FDR once said that “there is nothing more American than our national parks”, and I really couldn’t agree more, which is why I want to share a few of my recent NPS experiences and ultimately spur others to get out there and see these beauties while we can!
Number and Size
The United States is a massive country. As the song goes, it stretches from sea to shining sea, covering a whopping 2.43 billion acres. Thankfully, in the 1800s, Americans realized that we might just need to protect some of our incredible land (mostly from ourselves). Thus, the first national park was born. These days, national parks make up about 80 million acres of the US, and when combined with state parks and other protected areas, represent about 14% of the total land area. As of January 2022, there are 63 congressionally-designated national parks and 423 national park sites located in the US, all chosen for “their natural beauty, unique geological features, diverse ecosystems, and recreational opportunities”.
What’s in a Name?
As mentioned, we have 63 infamous national parks, but what is the distinction between the parks and the national park sites? And what about national monuments or state parks? Well, the national parks can be seen as the big kahunas. They are what the other parks, sites, and monuments hope to be when they grow up. To be designated as a national park there has to be an abundance and variety of natural resources and large swaths of land or water areas that enable the protection of these resources. National park sites and monuments on the other hand are usually smaller and singularly focused (as in one element of a national park or a historic site completely separate from the national parks). They might also include things that are not so park-like, such as Castillo de San Marcos in St. Augustine.
State parks, however, are quite different. As the name suggests, they are run by each state as opposed to the federal government. This usually means that there is a lot more variety in how they are managed and upkept. Luckily, it also means that they are right outside your door (wherever that happens to be). Tucker and I really discovered the joys of state parks while we were pandemically pinned in Florida. Florida and most states east of the Mississippi are somewhat lacking in national parks, but they are not lacking whatsoever in state parks. Florida, for example, has 175 state parks, Illinois has 123, and Georgia has a still-respectable 46. While they might not be as big or famous as those in the NPS, they’ve also been chosen specifically for their natural beauty, historic interest, or recreational potential.
All Good Things
All of these protected areas are well worth seeing. Yellowstone, Niagara Falls, the Grand Canyon, the Everglades, and so many others are the epitome of America’s beauty, and the lesser-known names are no less so. Our national and state parks are extremely accessible and fortunately not cost-prohibitive. The most expensive entrance fees are $35, but the vast majority of parks charge only a fraction of that, making national and state parks not only an incredible experience, but also one of the cheapest you can find (so much better than a day at the movies, in my opinion). Not to mention, the money you spend at the parks goes to an amazing cause: the conservation and preservation of our incredible homeland. So, who’s ready to get out there and explore our amazing parks?!
Lots of holidays this week, no? Pączki Day, Lunar New Year, Valentine’s Day, and on Monday, Presidents’ Day! Yay! I know you probably feel like you’ve heard enough about US politics to last you a lifetime, but since I love a good theme AND I actually read a really interesting book about the US presidents last year, I thought I’d post some fun facts about our chief executives throughout the years. I promise these are solely amusing trivia tidbits – nothing that will make you want to smash your head against the wall or angrily take to Facebook.
1 – George Washington was an avid marble player.
2 – John Adams and Thomas Jefferson died on the same oddly fitting day: July 4th, 1826. James Monroe also died on July 4th (five years later in 1831).
3 – Thomas Jefferson loved pasta and designed and built his own “macaroni machine”.
4 – James Madison was the shortest president (Lincoln was the tallest).
5 – James Monroe ran uncontested in 1820 ushering in the “The Era of Good Feelings”.
6 – John Q Adams liked to swim naked across the Potomac.
7 – Andrew Jackson was known for dueling and occasionally taking a bullet for his wife’s honor.
8 – Martin Van Buren had the nickname “Old Kinderhook”, which many believe is where we get the expression “O.K.”
9 – William Harrison got sick after his long, outdoor inaugural address and died after only 1 month in office.
10 – John Tyler was called “His Accidency” as he was the first “Act of God” president.
11 – James Polk banned alcohol and dancing (among other things) from the White House.
12 – Zachary Taylor laid the cornerstone of the Washington Monument while snacking on cherries and milk, which might have given him the bacterial infection that eventually killed him.
13 – Millard Fillmore married his teacher, Abigail Powers.
14 – Franklin Pierce was friends with Nathanial Hawthorne.
15 – James Buchanan never married, the only president thus far to remain a bachelor.
16 – Abraham Lincoln had the legislation for creating the Secret Service agency on his desk the night he was assassinated (although at the time it was an agency meant to stop counterfeiting, not bullets).
17 – Andrew Johnson’s wife, Eliza McCardle, taught him how to write.
18 – Ulysses Grant hated wearing uniforms and received many demerits during his time at West Point.
19 – Rutherford Hayes and his wife Lucy were given a Siamese cat from Bangkok, it was the first Siamese cat in the US.
20 – James Garfield was shot by an assassin in July 1881, but died 79 days later due to the misuse of the newly-invented metal detector as well as unsanitary conditions.
21 – Chester Arthur had Louis Tiffany of Tiffany & Co. redecorate the White House.
22 – Grover Cleveland was distantly related to the guy whom the city of Cleveland was named after.
23 – Benjamin Harrison was the first president to have his voice recorded.
24 – Grover Cleveland (again): after being diagnosed with mouth cancer, he had part of his upper jaw removed in a clandestine operation on a yacht.
25 – William McKinley used to be on the $500 bill, which was last printed in 1934.
26 – Theodore Roosevelt was the youngest person to assume the role of president at age 42.
27 – William Taft might have never gotten stuck in a bathtub, but he did install custom-made tubs throughout the White House and various US ships.
28 – Woodrow Wilson kept a flock of sheep on the White House lawn.
29 – William Harding’s death might have been caused by an intentional poisoning.
30 – Calvin Coolidge was sworn into office by his father, an official notary public. Also, Coolidge was the only president (thus far) to be born on the 4th of July.
31 – Herbert Hoover was the first president born west of the Mississippi.
32 – Franklin Roosevelt was extremely passionate about his hobby of stamp-collecting. (Bonus fact: FDR’s wife Eleanor once had the KKK put out a $25,000 reward for her assassination.)
33 – Harry Truman’s solo initial “S” was given to represent both of his grandfathers: Anderson Shipp Truman and Solomon Young.
34 – Dwight Eisenhower changed the name of the famous presidential getaway from Shangri-La to Camp David. He didn’t want to sound too fancy.
35 – John Kennedy was once marooned on an island and sent a successful SOS message via coconut in order to be rescued.
36 – Lyndon Johnson had to deal with the assassinations of JFK, MLK Jr. and Robert Kennedy although he, himself, was never targeted.
37 – Richard Nixon’s daughter, Julie, married the grandson of former president Dwight D. Eisenhower.
38 – Gerald Ford is the only person to have been both vice president and president without ever being elected by the public/Electoral College.
39 – Jimmy Carter was the first president born in a hospital.
40 – Ronald Reagan frequently consulted with an astrologist during his presidency, even keeping a calendar of “good” and “bad” days. Somehow the assassination attempt just wasn’t in the signs…
41 – George H W Bush considered asking Clint Eastwood to be his running mate in 1988.
42 – Bill Clinton has won two Grammy Awards (other presidential Grammy recipients include Jimmy Carter and Barak Obama).
43 – George W Bush’s daughters, Jenna and Barbara, were the first First Family twins.
44 – Barack Obama’s first job was as an ice-cream scooper at Baskin Robbins.
45 – Donald Trump’s wife, Melania, is from Novo Mesto, Slovenia (formerly a part of Yugoslavia) in Central Europe.
46 – Joe Biden’s German shepherd, Major, is the first rescue dog to reside in the White House.
It’s December! Only a few days from the official start of winter! You might already know this about me, but I absolutely love this time of year. Of course, I know not everyone feels the same way, and I also know that this year is different (in about every way possible). Typically, during the holidays, Tucker and I do some traveling: we disconnect, explore someplace new (often somewhere we can play in the snow), but alas, 2020 has kept us pretty tethered…in Florida of all places. So, for this month’s post, I ask you to humor me as I look back at some of my favorite winter destinations of years past. I’m aiming to turn this pining into planning, and I invite you to do the same. There’s always another winter coming!
Tatra Mountains, Poland
This is the trip I always find myself looking back on around this time of year. Magical is the best word I have to describe our snowy hike in the Tatra Mountains. It felt and looked exactly like a fairy tale (well at least until our inadequate clothing choices had us pondering the effects of frostbite). Zakopane was the little mountain town we based our trip around, and the mulled wine, grilled oscypek (a mountain specialty), and the handmade wooden crafts in the local markets made it all the more beautiful.
Even if you don’t like the cold, you should still be able to appreciate the incredible Snow and Ice Festival in Harbin, China. I’ve never been to the North Pole (or any city that associates with it), but I definitely got Santa’s Village vibes while we were there. Snow sculptures as far as the eye could see, entire buildings and playgrounds made of ice, and, if I recall correctly, there was even a VR experience with penguins. Definitely worth the icy eyelashes!
New York, USA
A post about winter trips must include New York City. It’s truly lovely any time of year, but bundling up on a ferry crossing the Hudson, drinking hot chocolate while watching the ice skaters at Rockefeller Center, and feeling the fierce winds tunneling through the skyscrapers are some of my favorite memories of this iconic destination. I also feel pretty strongly about the fact that it smells much better in winter – no baking garbage or sweaty subway seatmates. Bonus!
We actually booked our trip to Bergen on a bit of a whim because we found cheap tickets from Warsaw and we had the time off. In hindsight, I can’t believe we hadn’t already had such an amazing place on our travel list. We loved strolling down the snowy cobblestone streets and the fjords and scenic train rides were absolutely breathtaking. If you ever find yourself in Norway debating whether or not to do one of the “Norway in a Nutshell” tours – do it!
Perhaps a somewhat surprising winter location, but as Chengdu is known as one of the “Furnaces of China”, I vowed to stay away in summer or anything summer adjacent. Thus, we visited in January and had the most amazing time! Pandas are adorable year-round, and I found the outdoor tea houses and consumption of extremely spicy food much more enjoyable in cooler temperatures. The mountains (and yaks) just outside the city were also extremely beautiful covered in a pristine blanket of fresh snow.
Just for fun, let’s say you’re like me and would love to have TWO winters in a given year. A trip to Australia can grant this wish! The Southern Hemisphere, of course, has their winter from June-August, so one year, we spent July in “wintery” Sydney. It was a mild winter to say the least, but the general vibe was there as we walked by ice rinks and snowflake décor all around the city. Like NY, Sydney is an amazing place to visit any time of year, but the less touristy off-season was perhaps even more enjoyable.
Another, slightly warmer location we really enjoyed one winter was Lisbon, Portugal. The city is incredibly gorgeous, but really hilly, so we were very happy for cool weather/less sweaty hikes. The local wine and food we had was also very fitting of the season: thick stews, warm egg tarts, and strong vinho verde, just to name a few of our favorites. I’m also a big fan of quiet oceanside walks in winter, and Lisbon’s coastline did not disappoint.
Chiang Mai, Thailand
And finally, because I realize many people take vacations to hotter climates in order to escape winter, I’ll include Chiang-Mai on this list. We were there in January one year, and let me tell you, it can definitely be considered a “hotter climate”. While Bangkok and Phuket might be the more famous of Thailand’s must-see destinations, Tucker and I fell in love with CM. The temples, the mountains, the food (omg), and the small-town feel with some of the friendliest, calmest locals we’ve ever encountered, Chiang-Mai is a great place to relax during one of the most stressful times of the year.
So many memories, so many possibilities! My mind is spinning thinking about future winter trips! But for now, I’ll make do with reminiscing and enjoying a quieter, calmer winter. Happy holidays everyone!
It’s hard for me to believe, but this month marks five years from when Tucker and I first embarked on a long term, overseas adventure. It’s hard to say when exactly we decided that life abroad was something we wanted for our future, but I do remember asking if we could just stay in Finland indefinitely when we took our first international trip, just after our wedding/university graduation. I was immediately hooked on the adventure, but for Tucker, I think having a set plan and an entire, relatively stable year of not only living but also working in another country gave him the insight he needed, which ended up shifting our life plan pretty drastically.
At both Dalton State and Georgia State we had wanted to study abroad, but it was just way too expensive, even with scholarship help. However, in grad school I learned about Fulbright. An exchange program that provides grants for individual research projects, or in the case of the ETA program, specifically assigned teaching posts. It was obviously an amazing opportunity to not only experience another culture, life abroad, professional development, etc. but to also make money in the process – something extremely valuable to those graduating with student loans. However, before you can apply for a highly competitive Fulbright grant, you first have to choose a country/placement that interests you (and that will hopefully give you a good chance of success). For us, this was another easy choice and an incredible opportunity; we chose Poland.
My heritage ties, solid grades, and excellent letters of recommendation (thanks again mentors!) eventually pushed us across the almost year long application/waiting process. We got the “congratulations” email in March, with a departure date in September. It was our first experience with a State Department exchange program, and it made a lasting impression. Meeting my fellow Fulbrighters, the Fulbright Commission staff in Warsaw, and eventually my mentor and colleagues at the University of Łódź completely solidified my respect for cultural exchange and soft diplomacy. I learned so much about Poland, the United States, history, politics, teaching, you name it, but I think what surprised me most was how much I learned about myself.
Being in a completely new environment always shifts one’s focus, and I would argue that living in a new environment (such as in a new country/culture) shifts it permanently. I absolutely loved that every day was an adventure. Going to the bank, setting up our internet connection, grocery shopping: it was all exciting and gave us new insights into everything from security and privacy to historical ties and familial influence. For problem-solvers like me and Tucker, it was a constant string of puzzles and challenges to work through often with the most amusing results and exciting successes. It also allowed for exceptional personal growth – interpersonal skills, patience, dealing with ambiguity. These skills I now cherish were addressed and honed day after day as an expat.
Then there is everything we learned about Poland and about my family and my heritage. Seeing some of the “quirks” of my family represented by an entire culture, experiencing the long-lasting effects of World War II, celebrating Wigilia with new friends, eating as many pierogi and kopytka as humanly possible – we tried to soak in as much as we could. In fact, there are many habits we picked up in Poland that are still a part of our everyday lives. I discovered my love of both herbata (tea) and piwo (beer) in Poland. Tucker and I developed an interest in history and politics that we didn’t really have before. We saw firsthand how important fresh, wholesome food is and we learned how to shed some of our homegrown laziness, both of which have influenced our daily lives ever since.
Another unexpected gain from my time with Fulbright was a shift from a strong interest in teaching language (an obvious passion of mine) to an even stronger passion of teaching and discussing culture as well. After Fulbright I learned about the English Language Fellow Program, which allowed me to continue this combined effort of teaching English/language skills while at the same time learning from each other as our mutual understanding and friendships grew. Tucker and I are now considering taking this idea one step further and potentially joining the foreign service in order to continue developing meaningful intercultural relationships with people from all over the world. Fulbright gave us a glimpse into the many incredibly powerful things exchange programs can do.
Looking back at this seemingly small part of my academic/professional career, it’s clear to see it definitely had a huge impact on my life. It changed the way I view myself and my culture as well as how I see the world. From Fulbright 2015-2016 right up to the craziness that is 2020 and hopefully beyond, I plan to continue sharing my experiences in exchanging culture and shifting perspectives, whether with the help of specially designed programs like Fulbright, through my online teaching of international students, or throughout my life as an expat anywhere in the world. These five years have absolutely flown by, but I will forever be grateful for every step along the way. Thank you, Fulbright, and dziękujemy, Poland.
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.
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.
Not a Florida Man…
Not really vacationers either…
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).
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.
Daytona Beach (North)
Lake Eola (Central)
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.
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.
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.
Lime trees one street over
Local community garden pineapples
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?
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.
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:
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?
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.
Caramel, pecan, bacon doughnuts
4 – Cocoa Beach and the Space Coast
Next 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).
Three Sister Springs
Look at ’em all!
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.
Best Used Books
7 – Hop Passport: Florida Edition
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.
9 – Saint Augustine
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…
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…
* 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.
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!
Earlier this year I read China in Ten Words by Hua Yu, which I would highly recommend! It’s a short collection of personal stories centered around ten words that the author feels represent China and its history, people, culture, etc. As someone who (at the time) was living in China and had spent the previous two years learning all about said culture, I absolutely loved reading from the perspective of Yu, a native Chinese. He touched on so many of the things I have shared in my various posts and gave new meaning to some of the things Tucker and I experienced ourselves as residents in China. In short, I loved it so much that I thought maybe I could join Yu in sharing a bit about my own culture or at least how I, one American, view it.
Honestly, this is a slight departure for me because I typically choose to write about my discoveries and observations on places and cultures that I am newly discovering myself, but this required a different sort of reflection. Even though I definitely can’t live up to Hua Yu’s work with one short blog post, I hope to share a few of the traits and characteristics (in no particular order) that, for me, make America, America.
As an English teacher I’m often asked to describe the United States and Americans, and for as long as I can remember, the first word that has come to mind is: independent. We love to feel independent! Independent financially, politically, emotionally; in our families, in our workplace, and in the world. Many of us longed to “be out on our own” at a very young age, and most Americans follow that course throughout their lives. We love expressions like “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” and “stand on your own two feet”. In our culture, there is an immense pride in (and often an expectation to) figure things out on our own. Whether this comes from the pioneer spirit of our history or from Hollywood’s “steal the spotlight” mentality, we can see the strong value placed on independence in all aspects of American lives. From our first declaration as a prospective country to our preference for ordering individual, non-shared meals, we focus every day on our individuality and personal independence, and if ever we feel it’s being threatened, look out.
You might have noticed that I didn’t get very far into this post without mentioning Hollywood. As much as many Americans like to think of that place as somehow “other”, the truth is, we are massive consumers (and producers) of entertainment, all thanks to Tinseltown. In fact, many of my students from all over the world have surprised me with facts and details about life in the US that were gleaned entirely from our movies and TV; some have even confessed that’s how they started learning English or even why they continue today. Of course, what they see in the movies is not always true to American life, but there are definitely many of our values and perspectives shared through our obsession with entertainment. It’s hard to imagine America without movie trailers, award shows, film conventions, and dedicated fandoms. As someone who hasn’t seen such American classics as the Godfather, Stars Wars, or Top Gun, I’ve been described a few times as “simply unamerican”, but I promise I’ll get to them eventually!
Being told I’m unamerican (even jokingly) to my face brings me to my next Americanism. We are a direct people. After living in China for a few years, I know this to be absolutely true of Americans. We like to be told upfront, no matter what it is, and often regardless of how it’s said. I’ve heard people refer to Americans as blunt or straightforward, and although we aren’t always trying to be, we are often quite direct in our daily lives. Imagine communicating with someone (a family member, a colleague, or even a stranger) and not being able to figure out what they mean. You would probably want to shake them and say “stop beating around the bush” or “just break it to me”. We have a certain intolerance for ambiguousness coupled with the idea that things should be said and done as efficiently as possible, feelings be damned. This is why in our culture it’s perfectly normal to decline invitations or to challenge a superior. We would rather ruffle some feathers right off the bat than leave things vague or unclear.
Another trait that I associate with America is our deep patriotism. We love our flag, our national anthem, and the values that we have long attached to our country, such as freedom, perseverance, and justice. Although patriotism means something a little different to each of us, as Americans this is our home, and we feel a certain pride and responsibility in that. Whether we show these feelings by hanging a flag outside our house, voting in every election, or representing our values abroad, we all like to feel that we have a role to play for America, and we’re happy to do it. Perhaps because we grew up with stories of how hard our forefathers, suffragettes, and civil rights activists fought for us to have what we have today, the sense that we need to take up the baton and continue to work for a better homeland has been deeply instilled. Or who knows, maybe it was just hearing that Lee Greenwood song year after year.
Although this word has taken on new meaning and significance in the last few years, the American Dream and the people who embody it are not new, nor I think are they bound by political lines. America was founded on dreams: dreams of a new nation, dreams of equal representation, dreams of prosperity. We can still hear the US referred to as a “Land of Opportunity” from both inside and out. We love the fact that “if you can dream it, you can do it”, and thanks to our lack of a formal class system, many Americans have been able to make it happen all throughout our history. Most of us have immigrants in our ancestry, which is maybe one of the most classic versions of the American Dream. Others have seen their dreams come true in regards to socioeconomic status or overall success. Just like independence, Americans value people who dream big and work hard to make it happen. In short, we believe dreams can come true.
Dreams are wonderful, but all dreams are based in some sort of reality. And for Americans, right now that reality is a strong division. Party lines are more evident than ever, generation gaps and racial divides exist, and there’s no doubt that whatever the topic of conversation, people tend to divide up into various groups or “sides”. We have the Left and the Right, Boomers and Millennials, white collar and blue collar, Black and white, gay and straight, religious and non-religious, and so many other labels that, like it or not, separate us in some way from our fellow Americans. Although we are the “United” States and a supposed “Melting Pot”, many events have recently been shining a spotlight on our divisions and differences instead. Diversity can often beget division, or at least the perception of division, but I think we’re all also aware of the classic “United we stand; divided we fall”. Trends change everyday, and we can change as well.
Another American feature that stands out to me is our penchant for privacy. On the whole, Americans are quite private (even with the growing popularity of oversharing on social media). We like privacy fences and secure passwords, and we fear Alexa and Siri are gleaning too much information from us. We have all sorts of privacy laws and generally feel that keeping things to ourselves is one of our inalienable rights. I often have students ask me “how old are you?”, “how much do you make?”, “why don’t you have kids?” and other such questions that, as an American, leave me feeling like my privacy has been breached. We talk about “personal boundaries” and “invasions of privacy” fairly regularly – both in the physical and figurative senses. It’s typically very clear to Americans where “the line” is and our use of small talk often demonstrates it: weather, sports, family members – all good; religion, politics, or anything “too personal”, strictly off the table.
Although we might like keeping things to ourselves at times, we are usually still quite good at small talk and making friends. From the outside looking in, Americans are often viewed as very friendly. We’re often smiling for no reason, making jokes with strangers about the broken elevator, or lending a hand in the form of opening doors for others or picking up something that has been dropped. Basically, we’re masters at “Meet-Cute Stories”. I think the reason we often come across as overly friendly is because we’re all pretty much willing to do these things regardless of where we are, who we’re with, or what we’re doing. We also tend to retell these little anecdotes throughout the rest of our day: “I ran into a man at the gas station, and you’ll never guess what he said…”, “Sorry, I’m late. I was chatting with a woman outside.”, etc. And don’t even get me started on what it’s like when two Americans meet while abroad; you’d think they had just met their long-lost cousin!
The US is big and only has two neighbors, a bit of a rarity in terms of geography, and these facts play into my next feature of “Americanness”: isolation. A large portion of Americans never feel the need to leave their homeland (and why would they with the bounty of things to do and see right at home?) or even keep track of what’s going on outside of their immediate surroundings. However, this tendency to face inward seems to contribute to a bit of ignorance about the rest of the world. You might have seen Jimmy Kimmel testing Americans on world geography, which as a geography nerd, definitely makes me cringe, but unlike other countries whose histories and even present day dealings have required a much more thorough knowledge of their surrounding nations, for Americans, it has rarely mattered (of course with increasing globalization that is changing every day). However, regardless of the underlying reasons, Americans can definitely be said to be “in our own little world”.
Perhaps because we’ve always been in our own little world, the US has also been a hotbed for inventiveness and creativity right from its start. From Thomas Edison and Clara Barton to Bill Gates and Katie Bouman, Americans have contributed a great deal to global innovation. Even the average American likes to think and talk about the future, and we always, as Walt Disney famously said, “keep moving forward”. It’s no wonder our people were among the first to take to the skies, race to space, and create all types of digital media. We simply love to take risks and try something new. We have the phrase “necessity is the mother of invention”, but in America, it might not even require necessity.
So that’s my list. Of course, there are about a hundred words I sifted through before deciding on these ten! America is complicated; culture is complicated! And we can’t always fit everything into ten neat little categories. But maybe we can agree that reflection and openness can be great for developing a better understanding of ourselves and our communities. I would love to see some of the words you would add to your “America in 10 Words” list, or if you’re from another country, what words would you assign to your culture? We have a lot we can learn from each other’s perspectives, and I can’t wait to continue shifting mine!
Tucker and I eased our way back into Western culture this summer by spending three weeks in Australia followed by almost a month back in the States, and while we happily gorged ourselves on some of our favorite food and drinks, we also noticed some distinct changes in our behavior and perspectives this time around. This phenomenon is typically called reverse culture shock (when you return to your home culture after getting used to a new one), and although we had actually experienced this a bit in the past, this time I was determined to not only experience it but also take note of what things stuck out to us as clear effects of living immersed in a different way of life. As usual, in my head I’ve grouped these things in some arbitrary way in order to more clearly share them, and the three main areas of change I’ve come up with regarded: our eating habits, our annoyance at inefficiencies, and a shift in our manners.
Eating Habits: One large area of difference between American and Chinese culture lies in the food and eating. Upon our return to the US we realized there are a few things that we found it hard to get used to again when it comes to food and drink. Ice in water, for example, is way too cold, and it feels like you get less water (ugh, waiting for the ice to melt – who has time for that?). Another thing we immediately missed upon ordering in an American restaurant was that we didn’t order and eat together. It’s sort of an every person for themselves situation, which now feels a little lonely and much more complicated when the bill comes. Tucker also realized he had picked up some Chinese habits when we were out to eat in Australia one night. In the middle of dinner, he started putting his discarded food items on the table rather than in a napkin or on the edge of his plate. I laughed, knowing his reasoning was because that’s what we do in China, but I’m sure the Aussie waitress was thinking, “what is wrong with that guy!”
Annoying Inefficiencies: Another somewhat general category I identified had to do with the speed/way some things are done in the US. Maybe we wouldn’t have ever noticed if we didn’t spend a year in China, but there were some really obvious points of frustration for us upon our return. First, having to pay with a credit card felt as bad as standing there and writing a check. It’s so much slower than the simple scan of a QR code! We were also surprised at how inconvenient it was to have to drive everywhere. Traffic became much more irritating, someone had to shoulder the responsibility of driving, and without practice, we found that we even forget to monitor the gas situation! The third inefficiency that really grated on our nerves almost as soon as we got back was the ineptitude and inefficiency of lines. Say what you will about the crowds in China, but this place knows how to move people! We waited in much shorter lines in the US for much more time than it would have taken in China. At one point, I was also reminded that Americans are not quite as independent as I had previously thought because the airport staff in multiple US cities chose to herd every single individual into the designated waiting areas (slowly and somewhat apathetically) rather than just letting the masses fill in the available spaces naturally.
Forgetting Our Manners: The last bit of reverse culture shock we noticed revolved around our manners. There were several instances where we completely missed our public duty of saying “bless you” because in China (like many other cultures) it’s a bit rude to comment on bodily functions. I was also caught a few times using language in public that perhaps I wouldn’t have used in the same situation a year ago…it’s amazing how being surrounded by people who don’t understand you can desensitize you to that sort of thing! (To the lady I startled in Target with my English swear words, I’m so sorry! And to the people I perhaps gave too much information to on the flight home – sorry again!) Finally, the last difference that completely took me by surprise was the choice of small talk topics. In China we pretty much stay on subjects like family, hometowns, vacations, etc., but immediately when surrounded by those heading back to the US, it was back to politics, the news, and lots of really direct questions that after a year of light, indirect conversation felt super personal and sometimes rude.
Of course, now that we’re back in China I suppose we’re undergoing reverse, reverse culture shock (like forgetting to carry toilet paper with me everywhere I go and ignoring the slight hand cramp I have after using chopsticks for the first time in months), but overall the more we go back and forth, the more I notice about all the cultures with which I’m familiar. It’s a huge part of why I prefer living abroad to traveling abroad – there’s so much deeper we can go when learning about ourselves and all the amazing customs in the world, and lucky me, I get to do it all again with another year immersed in the Far East!