I'm back from a reporting trip to Orlando, armed with a bunch of stories, a lingering sinus infection (because what would travel be without me getting sick) and one big realization: my heart is in Florida.
Oh how original -- you love a sunny, wonderful land of palm trees, right? It's a little more than that. And though I'm not packing my bags to leave Alabama, with each successive trip to my home state I realize that it's there I feel most at home.
This year I will be 37. Having living in Florida my first 18 years, this is the tipping point, in which I've spent more time out of the Sunshine State than in it. It may also be the year that I realize I would like to return.
We all must escape where we're from to learn to appreciate it, right? Growing up 10 minutes from the beach in 72 degree weather was not appreciate by this child. The landscape was flat, the buildings were replaceable, and I wanted out. Escaping to the *very far* land of South Carolina for college, I shivered in the cold, a first glimpse of appreciation for what I never knew to appreciate. A whole lot of heat.
In my early twenties I made a brief return to Florida, during an ill-fated year in Sarasota. I was a restless 22-year old, pushing my shopping cart behind snowbirds in Publix, sitting in my apartment by myself. When the chance came to move to Birmingham to be closer to my parents I jumped at it. The future was a wide open blur, and it seemed there would always be time to return.
In Alabama, people asked questions like "Where do you fellowship?" and "Did you go to Auburn or Alabama?" An awkward outsider at first, I stumbled over my differences, but then, building a career and a family, I became knitted in to Birmingham. I learned the Deep South traditions unfamiliar to a Yankee from the geographic but not cultural South. I started writing for the perennial Southern publication. And, fast forward these years later: a husband, a child, a career. Florida had become a distant memory, save for a quick weekend in Miami or Clearwater.
But in the past three years I've been brought back, for reporting trips and photo shoots and meetings. With each trip I turned my eyes to learn about the state I'd not understood as a child, or as twenty something. And each time, I've wanted more.
Why do I love Florida? For the same reasons everyone else does: it's hot, and beautiful, and wild in parts. It's where people go to escape from the brutal winters and their former lives. It's polished in places, it's rugged in others. An in the best parts it's all of these things at one time. It's a history of citrus stands and drag queens and cortaditos and sunsets that people line up to watch. It's mangrove trees and strip malls and crazy tales with subheads that read "Only in Florida." I sometimes think I could spend a life writing about this state, this literal and metaphorical state.
Exploring Orlando (the non-Disney parts, which yes, there are a lot of) with bare legs and my huge sunglasses, I fall into a rhythm that is comfortable and familiar. I walk into shops with decorations from my Florida childhood, mid-century modern that's come back in 2013. (This one is 1618 Something Different Retro in the Ivanhoe District.)
I walk around downtown Lake Eola, watching the geese. It's the closest I come to the water, but I'm decidedly happy. Did I mention that I was walking in a skirt in February?
I go to a lounge in a Best Western. Sadly, one of the lounge singers has died the week prior, but there are still women in snakeskin alligator pants and beehive hair, over 60. I love this state.
(I explore many other things involving fine eating, shopping, and exploring, and those things will go in the magazine, so shhh, for now.)
In the course of it all, I call my husband, sometimes several times a day, and proclaim: "Why did I ever want to leave?" and "I can see myself here again." I get on the plain sad to leave. I am still wearing a skirt when I arrive in the Atlanta airport, where it's raining outside, and I can feel the rush of cold air getting onto the jet way.
Then, in the airport, I run into someone I've always wanted to meet in Birmingham (that's another blog post). I drive home and sneak into my son's room, where he is sleeping. I talk with my husband, whom I met in Birmingham, and with whom I have built a life here.
The sun came out over the weekend. I've been corresponding with a new friend in Orlando, who is visiting Birmingham to learn about our community this week. And in the middle of doing that, typing away restaurant recommendations and spots to see the city, I think I'm glad that I landed here. But I also think I have another home, and that one day, I will return.