Disney World and dappled sunshine beaches are what people tend to think of when someone mentions Florida. Sure enough, whenever I tell anyone in England that I’m from Florida these are the most common responses that are cooed back to me. That’s fair enough and I couldn’t possibly deny that I did indeed go to Disney World with a neurotic frequency in elementary school. I certainly never had a snow day. When I say I’m from Jacksonville, I usually get a courteous nod or a ‘hmm’ acknowledging that they’ve vaguely heard of the city in passing, but there’s a palpable disappointment that I didn’t say Miami or Tampa or Orlando. I can only imagine their heads were reeling with anecdotes of their own travels or tales of a second cousin who moved to a south Florida suburb.
Jacksonville has enough going for it for any mid-sized eastern city. I was dying to get out in high school and apart from one six month break between university transfers, I have never gone back long enough to get a good look at what I left behind in 2016. This year for Christmas, I went home for an entire month. I don’t even go home for that long during the summer as I usually have to move, work, or go off to an archaeological excavation. This winter I was gifted with a few weeks between semesters without serious deadlines, work commitments, or any urgent matters vying for my attention back in England. There would not be a better time to take a break in the sun and god knows I wasn’t seeing much of it in Northern England.
Culture shock is a funny thing. I almost always feel sick on the trip back to the states or in the following days. Three flights (the long-haul racked up a gruesome flight time of nine and a half hours) with a head cold proved as awful as I’d anticipated. To boot, the flights in the two weeks before Christmas are always packed with people like veritable sardines.
However much of an unpleasant experience the travel itself is, settling back into American life is like slipping off to sleep after you’ve woken up from a dream in the middle of the night. You are allowed to temporarily forget that you ever left. It’s a strange half-fantasy that you walk through with a bit of a foggy head for the first few days. I vividly remember my first Christmas back at home when I woke up in my childhood bed the morning after I flew in and for a brief second I thought that I had dreamed up the entire thing.
Florida is steeped in mysteries and southern nuances that I had always taken for granted. Being away in a foreign country for a few years has given me an entirely new perspective. While the house and city feel familiar, as I’m certain they always will, there’s a mysterious new element (perhaps a lesser known cousin of deja-vu) that snuck into the mix whilst I was away. I can barely put into words how spooky some days feel – waking up and blinking back sleep, still wholly unaware which continent you are on that day. What a categorically odd experience to not know where you are in the world and yet still be completely at home with it. Weird, I know.
With my new Super Traveler Perspective (as I’ve decided to call it), Florida took on a new persona in my eyes. The lines of palm trees along the pink and purple dusk skyline became iconic and magical. Southern oaks doused in Spanish Moss were all but haunting. Alligators and manatees and possums seemed both old friends and strangers waiting in the shadows.
Something I noticed I did while first trying to settle myself into a life in the United Kingdom was seeking out and reading local non-fiction. I devoured books on the National Trust, otters, badgers, shepherds in the Lake District, English history, etc, etc. When I returned back to the states, I found myself craving the same literature about Florida. I found it in Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’ Cross Creek. It’s a gorgeous ode to rural Florida in the 1940s that gives both the natural environment as well as the people and food their due reverences. While I was in Florida we got to visit her house which has now been preserved by the University of Florida and Florida State Parks, but that is another topic for another day as I couldn’t possibly give it the attention it deserves here.
I cannot say enough positive things about reading non-fiction nature or travel writing about the places you live or visit. It seems to give me a more three-dimensional perception of my surroundings and a deeper affection for these glowing places.
The trickiest thing about falling back into old patterns and routines is the inevitable process of drawing yourself out of them all over again. It is never an easy first week back in England after leaving. Jet-lag traveling east is crueler than its counterpart and it’s unsettling how easy it would be to just stay put.
Somewhere in the midst of the clouds of frustration, you can just make out a handful of silver linings, one of which is my possession of two homes. I have in my life not one, but two beautiful and cozy homes that I can walk into and exhale my worries or stress. What a wonderful and rare gift that is. There is, of course, also the argument that had I never left Florida in the first place, my appreciation for it now would be completely different.
The bewitching thing about my transatlantic life is I can live in England and love it dearly, but wear my deep affection for Florida like a light, floral orange blossom perfume.
Nevertheless, it’s a fine line between grateful and homesick. The tightrope walk straddling the two is unavoidable when you love people and places separated by an entire ocean. I have never been a particularly graceful person, but with stakes this high, I’ll just have to learn.