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Peregrine in Paradise: First Impressions of Life in the Sunshine State

Part One:

My first take on Florida (forget that I've been here before, that was vacation, this is a look-see exploration-do-I-maybe-want-to immigrate-again-eek trip) was supreme irritation at the idiocy rampant at Miami international airport. Damn trolleys! After trekking across the world via Amsterdam, I finally made it to Miami 22 hours later, only to arrive at arrivals (duh!) to be told by a big Island dude in a uniform, that you cannot take the trolleys (called "carts" I believe in US lingo) beyond the arrivals hall to your car. I was thrilled of course to see that Clive* was nowhere in sight either. So I stood around next to the dude wondering what the heck to do, I couldn't very well schlep my own suitcases outside to look for Clive. How on earth can an airport prevent someone from taking the luggage cart to his or her car? What do the never-ending influx of geriatrics do? How can they schlep luggage while walking their walkers at the same time? I was pondering all this as my clothes became sodden in the Miami humidity, when Clive appeared!

I barely recognized him - his hair had gone golden from the sun, he'd slimmed down and he was clutching a big bunch of red roses. I think the first thing I said to him was - "Americans are so dumb, how can we expected to leave the trolley here?" He looked perplexed - what was this exhausted looking lil' redhead mumbling about trolleys for?

Anyway, we dumped the trolley and my muscular boyfriend schlepped my luggage to the car. Well actually, he tried to; the problem was that we couldn't find the car! He remembered the name of the garage but it comprised 6 levels and was rather big. So we had a lovely walking tour of the Pelican Garage of Miami Airport. We even saw some wildlife -- a big rat. Nothing in this country is small. Well, one exception springs to mind - the brain of George W. Bush (can I get deported for saying that?). So, sometime later, we finally found the car and the exit. The drive from Miami to Delray Beach, where we were headed, took about an hour. Some other weird American perversions were spotted along the way. On Florida toll roads, instead of throwing money at a human trapped in a little cubicle, you just throw the money (and I mean throw!) into a sort of basin beside the lane. Somehow the falling coins activate the tollgate - a veritable marvel to behold. There is also a special lane on the highway for carpools (i.e. more than 2 people in a car) and G-d help you if you're caught alone in that lane! With no bomb scares or violence in these parts, the cops have nothing better to do than to be on the lookout for sneaky single drivers driving in the carpool lane.

Actually, come to think of it, there is one more thing top of the Police Force's agenda here: Trees! In Clive's parent's neighborhood, their ever-vigilant neighborhood residents association mandates how many trees you can have in your yard. There has to be a minimum of four! And God help you if you try to pass a shrub off as a tree. They'll tar and feather you in fertilizer, and don't even bother dialing 911, the cops uphold the bylaws set by the residents association. In addition to the tree quota, before you get out those axes and gardening shears, you better check the state law! Clive's parents have a huge olive tree in their front garden, which they are obsessed with replacing with a boring, characterless palm tree! Personally, I was horrified. It has nothing to do with our shared roots harking back to Israel - a Florida olive tree looks nothing like an Israeli one - it has to do with murdering a damn nice tree. Surely there are anti-tree abortionist organizations over here. Luckily, the state legislature foresaw the victimization of defenseless olive trees and stepped in to ban their uprootment. Yes, it is illegal to kill an olive tree in the state of Florida. It's okay to kill your ex-wife and her friend - ask OJ Simpson, he lives the good life in South Florida - but hands off those olive trees! I wonder if there is a death penalty on it? We are in Florida after all where they love to fire up the electric chair.

So my housemate's name is Tom, he's 34 and a very cool dude. He was with the coast guard for 10 years - his whole house is done up in the sea motif and filled with stuff he's collected on his travels to Australia, Far East etc. Tom is a great chef and loves cooking - much to delight of me and Clive! If we wash up he is happy to keep cooking for us. Anyway, I have my own room and bathroom and the whole house is air-conditioned. We also have a hot tub (jaccuzzi)! I have had the pleasure of meeting Tom's sister and brother - a real adventure into meeting different Americans. His brother is a fertilizer salesman from North Florida, and his sister (Betsy) and brother-in-law are real characters! The brother-in-law is the spitting image of Willy Nelson, complete with US flag bandana, tattoos, long braids etc. He is often mistaken for Willy and usually plays along. He gets mobbed now and again too. Now Troy (that's Willy's twin) and his wife are from rural Tennessee - and they are the kind of folk whom I have never met in my life. The real salt of the earth rural Americans. He was a steel miner, and is in the American Militia! They also believe considerably in the legalization of marijuana. I found it fascinating talking to them, seeing pictures of the cabin they live in, in the middle of nowhere. Of course, they couldn't understand a word of my accent, but they nodded politely and kept talking to me. It was quite scary emerging from my room in the morning to see Betsy brushing out Troy's waist length hair and braiding it. I enjoyed their visit immensely - especially after I realized Betsy had totally cleaned my bathroom. Tom mentioned afterwards that she is a compulsive cleaner. I hope she visits again.

Being out of the war zone is truly amazing. It took me a week to unwind and stop jumping every time I heard a bang. July 4th was still a challenge for me! People seemingly live here without a care in the world. My favorite comedy on TV here is the local Five 'o Clock news. They are extremely dramatic in describing the silliest news story. Last week, amidst much seriousness and puckered lips, they announced a big breaking story that police had arrested a prescription drugs gang! Middle age housewives... The only other news is usually the weather...."and in breaking news this hour, it's been confirmed, today is HOT." or "we now go down to the hurricane center for the latest hurricane update. Scott, how does it look?"
Scott: "Still no hurricane Sally. But one is forecast in the next three years, so come back to us every half an hour, just in case."
I haven't had much time to watch TV - but what I did manage to see is the much talked about "Weakest Link" quiz show and the ridiculous "Fear Factor." For those of you lucky enough not to have seen the latter show, it's about six particularly stupid people who compete for $50,000 by agreeing to do particularly stupid scary things like lie in a coffin full of maggots, or eat human flesh. Is there nothing that Americans will not stoop to do?

No.

(I hate rhetoric questions.)

I'm still looking for a car -- seems cheaper to buy than rent; cell phone - also cheaper to buy than rent etc. It's misleading to think that everything is easier here! The language may be English but there is such a plethora of services and variety, that it takes forever to decide on anything. For example - Bellsouth does my local phone line, but they have no long distance plan. There are 300 long distance telephone companies here - all with varying rates and you have to sign up with one. Hence the reason I still have not made any overseas calls! I long for Bezek, can you believe that?

It seems the general populace delights in schlepping around to the various mega stores such as Target, Kmart, Publix, Albertsons, 99c Store etc. Shopping is very much part of the culture here - people seem to live in these stores always on the hunt for a bargain, armed with their little bargain coupons. Floridians spend many an hour stooped over their local newspapers clipping and saving their precious coupons. I think to be a cashier here requires an MBA! Even Israelis could learn from Floridians! Another psychosis I've discovered centers around food storage. After a meal in a restaurant, Floridians bring any leftovers home. That includes half a slice of cake, a few lettuce leaves or a quarter baked potato. Of course this poses a huge problem for me. I have never eaten everything off my plate, so Floridians look at my leftovers with jealous delight as they coerce me into bringing it all home for tomorrow's lunch. How do I tell them that I have no use for three French fries in a state of advanced rigamortis?

My greatest happiness here is undoubtedly the ocean! I am now the proud owner of flippers and goggles - I go swimming a few times a week around sunset. The waves are gentle and beautiful; I have never swum in the sea before. I mean I have jumped around and been thrown about by big waves, but I've never really swum with flippers and a board. I love it! I enjoy going in deep and swimming around. And don't get your tits in a tangle worrying about shark attacks. One kid had his arm bitten off last week and I already had dear Mom on the phone urging me to beware of the sharks in Florida! No shark is going to go for me, I'm not even a snack worth, and he'd have nothing for leftovers the next day!

My work colleagues might be interested to know, that I finally attended a reform "shul" service last night. I went for the cultural experience. Well, it was certainly an experience. Not a very long experience mind you, as I couldn't take more than about 10 minutes. I still haven't processed it all - it was extremely weird. I felt like I'd entered a hybrid matriarchal coven and geriatric church. On the raised "pulpit" were three women -- the chazan in a red robe, some elderly matriarch in bright green, and some other old chick in bright orange. I kept asking questions as to who they were, but the congregants didn't seem to have a clue either. Most of the service was in English with people in their dotage (mainly) reading aloud in unison. Frankly, it was hilarious and I stood biting my lip throughout. Then I lapsed into deep thought. Is it better that these folk recognize their Jewishness in this way? Is it more logical for English speakers to do a service in English rather than rattle off stuff in Hebrew without knowing what we are saying? If I had a choice between this and nothing, what would I choose? It felt so foreign to me, so devoid of spiritual upliftment. It felt cold, like a church service, and the chazan's singing was eerie. And yet, this was a huge population of the world's only experience of Judaism. The whole experience left me with lots of questions....


Part Two:

I am now MOBILE. I have taken to the roads in my rather bizarre-looking Toyota Echo rental vehicle. My family once owned an over-pedigreed Scottish terrier named Cleo (the name was not my idea!) who used to suffer from the aptly named disorder, Scotiasis. What has this to do with the Toyota Echo you ask? Well, as a consequence of Cleo's scotiasis, she would run a few meters and then trip over her own little front legs sending her rear end up into the air. The shape of the Toyota Echo looks like it is caught in a perpetual Scotiasis spasm - it has a very high rear end. This abnormality took some getting used to. As you all know, I am not accustomed to having a big rear end like most Americans. I have, as a substitute, acquired a pseudo rear-end for driving with the help of a rather large velveteen pillow which enables me to see over the dashboard and beyond the boot (read trunk for Americanese).

At first, I was rather nervous driving. Actually, I was panic-stricken. As you know, we drive on the left in South Africa, and though I have my Israeli license, I have never had the balls to drive there. So there I was, back in the driver's seat, repeating my mantra nervously under my breath: "Right and right, not left not left...." Having gotten used to the weird proportions of my Echo, I am now feeling extremely confident behind the wheel. It is fabulous to be independent again and not to have to "manually" drag home my grocery shopping. In Israel I could only buy what I could carry, which given my matchstick frame, is not much alas! So you can imagine my joy, driving 3 minutes to a choice of 16 supermarkets, selecting what I want in an orderly, air-conditioned store, and driving home. G-d Bless America!

One thing I have noticed however about living here, is that in many ways it is far more dangerous INSIDE the supermarkets than on the roads. You've heard of road rage, well, it seems to me that all the geriatric inhabitants of South Florida express their pent up rage with their shopping carts. It's like kamikaze bumper-cars in there! Just today, as I was doing a pre-shabbat shop in Albertsons, I was side swiped by a trolley belonging to a 3-foot woman with a goiter the size of a golf ball on her neck. Not two minutes later, I had a head-on collision with an old man who looked like a cemetery escapee. He had bi-focals as thick as George W. Bush's skull, but I still don't think he saw me. Perhaps the scariest apparition to haunt the isles of American supermarkets, is the elderly in motorized shopping carts (in effect a wheelchair joined to a cart). They tear down the aisles with gay abandon frightening other geriatrics, no doubt in revenge, who are still able to push their carts. One has to be especially careful when proceeding from one aisle to another, as these lunatics take corners at top speeds. I can well understand that these elderly folk don't get out much, but I seriously think they should not be let loose on the innocent American public. At least not unless they have been properly sedated. The luge-wannabees, not the public.

Oh the joys of living in America! I was flabbergasted to learn that not only do the mailmen and women deliver the mail to your mailbox; they also COLLECT ready stamped mail you wish to send out. What a fabulous, logical idea! I was terribly excited to learn this, having always been fixated on writing letters and receiving mail - that just yesterday I decided to take advantage of this radical postal offer. I wrote and stamped a letter, and placed it in our mailbox. Excited, I checked throughout the day to see if our mailwoman had collected it. AT 4pm, oddly enough, it was still there. Enter Tom; the esteemed housemate praised in Part one, who informed me that in order to alert the able mailwoman to the outgoing mail, one is required to hoist the little red flag on the mailbox. Could this be one of the reasons underlying the psychosis evident in the "Going Postal" Syndrome (when postal employers crack up and murder a few of their colleagues)? How many red flags does it take to drive a postal worker nuts? It only takes one to get a Spanish bull pissed....

Floridian kiddies go back to school soon, and perhaps as a reward to their poor suffering parents who have had to survive the long summer vacation keeping their spawn entertained, Florida is launching a free tax week next week. The good news is that no tax is payable on school supplies, clothes under $50 and related accessories for a week! As an outsider, I of course see through this whole charade. The whole thing is a double bluff! First of all, obviously this is just another ploy to get the ever-eager consumer public to buy more crap made by slave laborers in the third world. And secondly, we all know there are no kids in Florida! Hell, I've been here over 3-weeks and I have yet to see a school age kid. The state is a massive retirement home bordered by scenic cemeteries disguised as golf courses.

My time here has been immensely educational. Having grown up in the insular little South African Jewish community of Victory Park; having never had a proper non-Jewish friend; and having had a pretty conservative upbringing, I am learning a lot over here. And it's all pretty much thanks to Tom, the esteemed housemate, praised in Part One. I can't divulge everything that I have learnt from being around Tom - my parents are at an age where they scare easily - but I can tell you some stuff. Last week, I took a ride with Tom to go drop off a paper in Boynton Beach (about a 20 minute drive away). On the way back, we stopped off at a bar/restaurant called Old Key Lime House. I'd never been to such a place, but for the first time I felt like I was truly in the American South. The dive overlooks a big body of water (I'm forever questioning my companion as to the identity of a mass of water -- is it a pond? dam? sea? intercostals? canal? There are a plethora of options like everything else in Florida), and is frequented by extremely um, interesting people: mainly white trash and crackers (the term for Floridian rednecks, so Tom tells me, so-called because of the way they spoke/speak). There was the classic pool table, jukebox, and two drawling guitarists belting out songs. I found the whole place mesmerizing - there I was, definitely the only Jew, sitting in this surreal atmosphere, gazing at working class Americans replete with tattoos, and lots of body hair, out having a pleasant time with their families or dates. Tom ordered something that sounded like Quasimodo in a taco (I forget what the dish is called) and I had some deep fried shrimp with fat chips (read French fries for Americanese).

Back at the bar, our poor waitress - never mind that she had a pronounced limp - was working alone, battling to serve the odd 20 tables and 20-something people seated at the bar. Tom informed me that she was "in the weeds." Not wanting to appear dumb, I took a few seconds to ponder the meaning of that expression. She didn't look stoned to me! "okay okay," I confessed, " I have no idea what the f*** you're talking about!" The saying "in the weeds" apparently means something akin to really really busy/ up to your eyeballs in.... The waitress was "in the weeds" - she couldn't cope with all her work. Speaking of expressions, another new one a la Tom this week was "bait and switch." For those of you who care, this refers to advertisements that for example say "Buy a TV for $50," and then you get the store and ask to buy that TV and the salesman convinces you to rather buy a better one. Get it? Good!

Still on the American language -- now that I have a car, I have had grave trouble communicating my transportation needs. I have discovered that you go to a gas station to get gas (petrol). And surprise surprise, it's all self service (a new skill I have acquired - my car takes $14 to fill up the entire tank!) and that is ALL you can do there. You can't check your tires or get any assistance whatsoever at a gas station. For any assistance or servicing, you need to head over to a service station! I haven't had that pleasure as yet. And as for a "garage" - that is the shelter you have attached to your home to store your car in! Oh, life in South Africa is so much simpler. You go to a garage where you get gas, you have men there to do it for you, you get any service you need and when you go home, you park your freaking car in a garage too!

One aspect of Floridian life I have yet to get accustomed to is this business of eating dinner at 5.30/6.00pm! Every time I go out to dine, my digestion gets all screwed up. Who can eat a huge meal in the middle of the afternoon? Restaurants try to lure people to eat early by publicizing their "Early Bird" specials - meals that are much cheaper if you are seated in the restaurant by 6pm. I usually enjoy the beach at that time of the day when it's cooler -- but I am forever being warned that that is shark-feeding time! In Florida even the sharks eat early.

* All names have been changed