Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Happy Chanukah Florida Style!

Dateline: Venice, Florida

 Hubby and I went along to support our Jewish friends at the Chanukah celebration in Centennial Park on Sunday. It had been raining cats and dogs all day so things didn't look hopeful but later the skies cleared as the Rabbi MC was confident they would. 
  The gazebo was dressed up for the evening and there was music from a sax and electric violin (I hadn't known electric violins existed but the sound was wonderful) sported by a couple of excellent Russian musicians.

The girl on the left had a miniature blue Menorah on her head.

There was a children's choir and children on a bouncy castle and lots of families helping themselves to latkes and such. The mayor made a speech and later, as it grew dark, there was a commemoration of the eleven victims of the Pittsburgh synagogue attack in October, which was one reason why we'd wanted to come. Teenagers carried flaming torches to make a human menorah and made touching little speeches about each victim. A woman walked by wearing a Pittsburgh Steelers T-shirt. There's quite a big contingent of Steelers fans down here, where everyone's come from somewhere else, which is why everyone's so friendly. Though sadly there were other people wearing T-shirts marked "security"

Although we're not Jewish we felt very moved. There was so much warmth and a real feeling of solidarity. A lady gave me a little candle to light. I explained that I was just a visitor, "That's OK! Welcome!" she said.
  Later, a local policeman started the lighting of the big Menorah.

 Afterwards we drove down Tampa Avenue, which so far has dodged the horrendous roadworks (but not for long). The palm trees had their Christmas lights already. Surreal Florida.

Thursday, December 6, 2018

What's Happened at Golden Beach?

Dateline: Golden Beach, Venice, Florida

It was good to renew old acquaintance with Golden Beach, still serene on a cloudy morning.

A large cigar had been washed up. Well OK, a spectacular piece of driftwood.

 It has its own beauty in the fog. On this morning we couldn't even see the fishing pier. And best of all, not a soul around.

But alas, there had been trouble. While neither of the big hurricanes touched us, there was a menace lurking beyond the horizon.

This poor, huge fish - the length of a bicycle - had apparently succumbed to it, as had countless smaller fish whose sad corpses littered the sand. The culprit was the Red Tide of noxious algae - it's always been there but this year it's particularly bad, causing coughs, sneezes and breathing problems for people and death and destruction for fish, dolphins and manatees and there is, apparently not a thing they can do about it. People are blaming it variously on too much fertiliser, global warming and politicians but in truth even so-called experts can't agree on just what causes it and just why it's been so extensive and immovable lately. It differs from day to day. If the wind's from the east, things are fine, if from the west, you can pick up the rotten fishy smell as soon as you open the door.  They say it may be dispersing into smaller sections. Lets hope so.
  But it hasn't deterred people from wanting to live here.  Here's yet another monstrosity going up in what used to be a bit of wild jungle.

What's with the huge, high entrances, like some sinister faux-cathedral from some nightmare dystopian future?  They seem to be getting higher and higher. Everywhere there are new, big houses on the way.

People are no longer content with the small, pastel-coloured island cottages that made this beachside community so charming.  More are being pulled down every year and replaced with something three times as big. Even retired couples with no children around want some gigantic vanity home. And all over the county, all over coastal Florida, more and more housing estates are going up, cramming more and more people in and more and more cars on the roads that are death traps already. (One local development, built hastily of wood, which is not a sensible material to be toying with in Florida,  has already had to be demolished before it was even finished because the wood got too damp. Serve them right. May the termites get the rest)
  What's to be done? Well probably nothing can stop so-called progress. Sadly, one of my neighbours bumped into some people looking to buy, who said they'd read that this was top of the list of places to retire to. Which cad and bounder compiled that list? Please! Send people to Orlando, Miami, The Villages, anywhere but here!   Lies. It's all lies. This is a terrible place. Keep away!

Friday, November 30, 2018

Road Trip: Home Across the Sunshine Skyway

We stayed overnight in Gainesville - an attractive university town and again the only place we could get a hotel room - and sampled a Japanese restaurant with a weird ordering system, which was surely not a successful tactic because that's all I can remember about the restaurant, except that I had softshell crab that was more soft than shell.  
  We drove though the strange little village of Micanopy, sleepy and shrouded in Spanish moss, not much there but antique shops and we always seem to pass through first thing in the morning when nothing's open. 

I was sure there used to be a good second hand bookshop there but if there had been one, it had gone. There was an armour shop though.

As hubby would say, how about that! There's a slightly overgrown, middle-of-the-jungle look about Micanopy, which, no doubt, it cultivates to the fullest extent of its Old Florida credentials..

This is the land of oak canopies, the Spanish moss trailing like Miss Havisham's rags.

 But pretty soon we were into posh equine territory.

 I always wonder at the horse farms of Ocala, the place where racehorses from up north spend the winter. There are miles of them. Each with identical fences, each field home to a few dainty thoroughbreds. Each entrance grander than the last

And the last

Some Irish connections here maybe?

This time we did see something different - an interesting cross-country course, all fashioned from wood.

 "Pull over!" I kept urging sister-in-law, always trying to capture that Stubbs-perfect horse scene. In a moving car with a cheap mobile phone this isn't always easy. We kept overshooting the best ones. Then finally I saw this. I think you get the picture.

 Then south and west and over Tampa Bay on the Sunshine Skyway bridge. This is always a heart-lurching moment - not far to go now!

 Then the obligatory stop to take a pic of the bridge. I must have umpteen of these.

An old man sat selling baseball caps in aid of old soldiers. We are indeed in one of the few places where youth doesn't reign supreme and quite right too.

Friday, November 23, 2018

Road Trip: The Wrath of Michael

A happy belated Thanksgiving to all my American friends and family. We are certainly thankful that Hurricane Michael avoided our little house in Golden Beach. But our hearts went out to people who were hit, in the Florida panhandle but also in Georgia. 
  So back to the road trip and sis-in-law and I were about to get a taste of just how bad it had been.  We drove south past peaceful cotton fields

And bucolic pastures

    Michael, unlike Irma last year, had ploughed a narrow path.  But as we neared its trajectory, our first clue came.  We couldn't get a hotel room. Normally it's not hard finding accommodation and we don't do much booking in advance, waiting to see how far we're going to get on the day. This time we realised we'd made a bad miscalculation. Everything we tried was full - with people who'd lost their homes, with electricity workers and builders, with insurance agents and all the accompaniers of the aftermath of a major disaster. We were intruders in someone else's troubles but we had to find somewhere to sleep. Eventually we located the last remaining room in a place called Cordel,  Georgia, much further than we'd intended to go. Along the road, we started to see ripped up billboards, trailing rags and tatters of what had been signs. The hotel in Cordel proved to be in one of those conglomerations of hotels and fast food places that grow up around highway intersections.  Our room smelt of damp and mildew. We went out to find something, to eat, walking past past uprooted lamp-posts and debris. In one nearby hotel, ranks of utility trucks, come to help from all over the country, stood, weirdly illuminated, in the car park.

We did find somewhere decent for supper, where they had the excellent Widow Jane whisky on the drinks menu. Evidently it wasn't popular in Georgia. The barmaid was so happy that someone had ordered it that she came out personally to thank us.
  On the road the next morning we passed ranks of uprooted trees.

Virtually every second house had the tell-tale blue tarpaulin on its roof, covering damage.  One had a tree right through its roof and there were more shredded billboards. This house, in a tranquil forest setting that must have seemed such a good idea at the time, was possibly one of the luckiest in the state.

We counted some half-a-dozen uprooted trees in the front garden but the house appeared untouched.

Further along, two weeks after the hurricane, utility workers were gallantly still fixing downed cables.

It was all a reminder of how relentless and capricious nature can be. Soon afterwards, we were out of it and life was normal again. For us, that is.

To be continued

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Road Trip: From Ville to Ville

From Nashville to Hunstville, Alabama, driving a little way along the Nashville-Natchez Trace, a scenic highway whose natural beauties began to pale after a while.  We got off at a place called Columbia, in search, as always of a decent latte. The coffee shop was closed as it was Sunday but the owner was there doing some maintenance and directed us to Hattie Jane's Ice Cream opposite, where, I presume, they were a little less strictly observant. The coffee was fiendishly good, though the friendly server had never made a latte and I had to explain, having taken a sip, that she really needed to put hot milk into it, not cold. Continuing the fiendish theme, the burnt caramel pecan ice cream, if not quite good enough to sell your soul for, was fairly delicious.
    At Huntsville , we had some difficulty finding our hotel. We kept coming up against ominous-looking security barriers and had to make frequent rapid U-turns, discretion being the better part of valour. It turned out that large parts  of the outskirts of Huntsville  were taken over by military bases of various sorts, some involving rocket science, which we would have needed a bit of to get ourselves out of the maze.   
  Early next morning, sunny but chilly, we hit the Botanical Gardens

Set around a gracious-looking southern mansion. Maintenance crews of eager volunteers ("he's a retired professor, likes to help out") were out and about setting up Christmas displays.  That sort of thing is probably more important than the flowers these days. (Remember the Florida Reindeer last Christmas?)  Currently we were in full Halloween mode, with displays like the dragon you've already met below, made of tiny pumpkins 

And a series called "Creatures of Myth", where we met unicorns, mermaids and another dragon

Cleverly the signs described each myth as if it were real. Latin name, habitat, distribution, lifespan ("more than 400 years"), character, ("Sleepy  and treasure-hoarding. Easily enraged.") etc.

What would we do without Walmart?
There were flowers too, including these fellas, which were rampant. I wish I'd scribbled down the name.

Among the attractions is a Biblical Garden, appropriate for the Bible Belt and a herb garden with medicinal plants - apparently Daniel Boone used the stuff in the foreground for tummy ache.

And there was a charming Trading Post Tree House

All in all, it was very elegant

And everything looked good enough to eat

(Those chrysanthemums could have come straight out of Hattie Jane's.)

And autumn colourful

There was the requisite souvenir shops run by enthusiastically welcoming southern ladies with wonderful accents. A delightful experience, if only it hadn't been so cold.  We needed to get further south.

To be continued.

Thursday, November 15, 2018

Road Trip: French Toast and Fast Horses

 First of all, a big thank you to the chef at our Nashville hotel breakfast who was making omelettes and such to order. I said that sadly I wouldn't have the French toast because I didn't eat cinnamon and it was bound to have cinnamon, wasn't it? "Yes", he admitted,  "But I can make you some without!"  It made my day. I was never so phobic about cinnamon till I came to America and realised they put it - and far too much of it - into everything.
  We were headed for Belle Meade, a stately home on the southern outskirts of Nashville. These days it's surrounded by large, expensive houses - a little like some parts of Surrey,  though at one time it had huge expanses of land and was, in the 19th century, a renowned Thoroughbred stud farm.

Just a couple of horses in a field left now for the tourists to look at but the house didn't disappoint. A costumed guide in bustle and bonnet launched into an elaborate history of the family and led us around the dark Victorian interior...

...the walls hung with equine paintings, the rooms full of delicious Victorian knick-knacks such as elaborate china "parlor vases", ordered from Paris no less, bedecked with  turtle doves and flowers and fruit and coiling snakes, one symbolising weddings, the other funerals.   A room in which a son of the family had expired of some Victorian disease was especially poignant, with gloomy drapes and dark greens, vintage sports team pennants on the walls and riding boots still standing in a corner.
  Interesting to hear that American Thoroughbreds in the 19th century were sent to race in Britain. Most were far too seasick after four weeks on a ship to perform but one, called Iroquois, actually won the 1881 Derby and St Leger and came second in the Guineas. 

  They had trained him on an English-style grass track and presumably coddled him carefully through the 19th century equivalent of jet lag.  The owner of Belle Meade was so taken with him that he spent thousands of dollars to buy him, which eventually bankrupted the family and cleared the path for the Surrey-style suburb and the mansion's eventual takeover by the state of Tennessee, which seems to be looking after it very lovingly.
  Our guide, a proud Tennessee-an, claimed that Kentucky pulled a fast one on them by relaxing its drinking and gambling laws just when Tennessee was tightening its own and thus enticing the lucrative horse-racing industry over the border. Where American horse racing and breeding is concerned, Kentucky now reigns supreme. My Florida neighbour, who is from Kentucky, vehemently denied any skulduggery.

To be continued.