Thursday, February 14, 2019

A Cracker of a Fair

 A local friend recommended a novel about old Florida,  A Land Remembered by Patrick D. Smith, a rollicking tale about pioneers in the Sunshine State. Reading it is de rigeur for anyone spending time here - while you're idling in your swimming pool or working up an appetite on the golf course it's salutary to remember the people who first came to Florida in the days before air conditioning, battling snakes and alligators, mosquitoes and maddened bulls, bears and jungle. You could make a fortune driving cattle to the coast. If you survived. Which was a big if. The cattle drovers were called "Crackers" which became both a derogatory term for those hard-bitten southern cowboys and a badge of honour for people with real Florida ancestry. 
  Last weekend we went to a "Cracker Fair", a "Celebration of Old Florida". Sadly we could only get there fairly late and had to miss the whip-cracking demonstration. I'd been hoping to see horses (Patrick Smith vividly described tough little Cracker horses called Marshtackies) but they'd all gone home. There was, however, an owl. 

This gorgeous creature was a barred owl - not a barn owl as I at first thought. The wildlife rescue people had also brought along a turtle and a red-tailed hawk called Alistair.

 Here's the red tail.

Some years ago, I made a programme for the BBC on falconry with falconer, Dan Butler and his red tailed hawk. It was good to see one again. 
 Otherwise there were rows of stalls, ranging  from arts and handicrafts to the Sons of Confederate Veterans in their costumes.

Of course Florida was part of the Confederacy though you wouldn't think it these days. Almost everyone in our neighbourhood has moved down from somewhere Up North. But no one seemed to be giving the Sons of Confederate Veterans a hard time. Good to have some live-and-let-live in these prickly times. Hubby's ancestor was an officer for the Other Side but that didn't stop them chatting away about history. In Britain we are often unaware of how complex the Civil War was. The Sons had a book on their stall about an Indian (ie a Native American) one of many who fought for the Confederacy. He was promoted to General, survived the war and lived to a ripe old age. That was a new one on me. A fascinating story.
  Another stall was selling what I think were mermaid costumes. Well each to their own.

And lots of people were enjoying some country music.

 Too bad about the horses but I did come away with a very large jar of home-made pickles.

Saturday, February 9, 2019

Little Places by the Sea

There are few things more interesting than nosing around someone else's house. That's why those "home tours" are so popular. I went on one up in western New York where the owners were actually there in person to show off their houses. Here in  Florida, they are more businesslike - the trusting owners leaving the house to volunteer guides who urge you to put on cloth overshoes, direct traffic and lay down the law about "No Touch, No Photos". Hence no photos. Sorry. Though here's one of the gazebo in Centennial Park to get you in the mood.

The one historic (by American standards) house on the tour was built in the 1920s for the Vice-President of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers, original founders of the City of Venice. The company went belly up during the Depression and the house endured periods of neglect and different owners. The present ones have tried to restore it to its authentic state. The floor tiles were all different colours as it was once a show house for the newly planned town. As in, "Have a look at our floor and choose your tile colour". It had a real Spanish feel, with a tinkling fountain out back and breezy corridors for the days before air conditioning. My favourite was the steep, narrow servants' staircase of pretty curving wood, lit by tiny, exquisite stained glass windows.
  The other houses, sorry, homes (houses are called homes in America, especially if they're for sale) were newer, some of them brash replacements for the old small island cottages now deemed impossible to insure against hurricanes.  Well that's part of the story. The other is wanting a bigger and better place than your neighbours. They all had similar open plan kitchens, soaring ceilings, state-of-the-art bathrooms, many with chandeliers, the outdoor kitchens by the pool with massive, gleaming barbecues, the cushions meticulously arranged three-deep in perfectly symmetrical rows taking up half the bed - a very American thing, I've found.It was the same up north. What do you do when you want to go to bed? Throw them all on the floor? No lumpy British duvets here.
  The queues to get in and out of the houses were slow but friendly. People like to chat about the time they went to London. As we shuffled around in our elasticated overshoes - reminders of the slidy slippers they used to give you in museums in the old Soviet Union  (not to be worn upstairs, I suppose because we might fall on the stairs and sue) it was almost more fascinating to see what the visitors were interested in. Some enthused over the strategically placed photos of radiant grandchildren and/or  family dogs. Some snooped at the strategically placed books. ("Ah - Bill O'Reilly/Louise Penny. Must be our sort of people".) I didn't see "The Art of the Deal." Others were intrigued by the open ceiling-height walk-in wardrobe, complete with tiers of hanging clothes.  Was I the only one astonished that someone would want to let strangers ogle their wardrobe like that?  Another house had the contents of the drinks cabinet out on display, "Quick", I whispered to my friend, "See if they've got Pappy Van Winkle!" No, sadly, nothing fancier than Jack Daniel's. From the balcony, we spotted an out-of-bounds room with closed door and shutters covering the window. "Aha, that's where they've stashed the Pappy!"

Tuesday, February 5, 2019


 It's not enough worrying about stragglers from a zombie herd crossing the road in front of you. Here on the island anything goes. Today, two squirrels scampered across in front of us, one from each side, involving us in a precarious slalom. But, wonder of wonders, neither of them stopped and turned round the other way at the last minute. "It's the survival of the most intelligent here", hubby said.
Earlier there was another procession. Ibises. A whole flock of them, nosing around with their bright orange curved beaks. Periodically they descend on our roads, gardens and roofs. Here they are, safely on the the other side.

In some parts of England it would be ducklings.

Friday, February 1, 2019

Here They Come

Speak to any of my neighbours who live here year-round and you'll hear a lament about the perils of "The Season". No, we're not talking Royal Ascot and Henley Regatta but the months of January, February and March, peak times for bad weather Up North, when, it seems, le tout eastern half of the USA descends on Florida. January was bad enough; it was but the prelude.
   Built as it is on little more than sand and swamp, I imagine the state groaning under the incomers' weight, the encroaching armies of RVs, caravans, pickup trucks,  cars, plus the odd kayak...

...thundering down Interstate 75, past Tampa, St Petersburg, Sarasota and on to swanky Naples, (plus places in between like Fort Myers, Port Charlotte - and Venice)  some day disappearing into the one huge sinkhole mentioned below. I suspect some of my year-round neighbours hope they would. Alternatively, they'd like to pull up the drawbridge.

  The laments include the impossibility of getting theatre tickets or a restaurant table, or room for your yoga mat, or indeed, if you've been lucky with those, a parking space. This has been made much worse by the roadworks still groaning their way through downtown.  The addition of severe iron railings to stop pedestrians wandering aimlessly across the road like the stragglers from a zombie herd has miffed a few people but come as a huge relief to others.
  The influx spawns wild behaviour. Drivers swerve across four lanes, jumping lights, diving in front of you, the culprits a fatal cocktail of disoriented visitors, exasperated locals and people of a certain age who really shouldn't be driving at all. My neighbour, trying to do a legitimate left turn,  was confronted head on by a giant SUV  transfixed to the spot like a deer in her headlights, totally at a loss for which way to move. Elsewhere, hubby and I were nearly done for by a driver cutting across the road in front of us. We saw him teetering at the edge,
"Surely", said hubby, "He's not going to go is he? No, surely not...."
We were right upon him when he accelerated.
"Good Lord he IS going!"  With a screech of trusty Volvo brakes, hubby managed to save our necks.This time. The road to Sarasota is an everyday battlefield of flashing lights, sirens and general carnage.
 The seasonal visitors, locals complain,  persist in believing that they're exempt from all rules, not just those of the road. They walk their dogs on the beach and into the supermarket. They come into the library and happily help themselves to books that someone else has reserved - and walk out with them before anyone can stop them.
  Yes, this just happened to me. And I'm hopping mad.
  We could solve the problem by retreating up north. But it's forty below there and we won't.

Saturday, January 26, 2019

Dollars and Shells

The red tide is still a lurking presence; I haven't felt it in the air but there was one dead fish on the beach this morning. It was a windswept day and the sky was particularly lovely.

Not to mention the Gulf of Mexico,

especially as there was no one else on the beach save a lone walker and a lone fisherman, a bandanna over his face against the north wind. (They need a bit more than a bandanna up in western New York right now, where "life-threatening' conditions are predicted. I'll never complain about red tide again, though it has, according to the man at the local cable company, led to some nervous and half-asphyxiated people selling their beach view condos. Might be a chance to pick up a cheap one!)
  But the wind served a useful purpose, chucking up a great crop of shells.

I can't resist collecting shells but what does one do with them? There's just so many jars you can fill and I can't stand the kitschy things people make out of them, the picture frames and necklaces and model lighthouses. Someone in our neighbourhood has a mailbox made entirely out of shells. Often I scatter them on the flower beds, just for fun.
  But today I found my very first sand dollar.

All the years I've been walking along Golden Beach and I've never found a sand dollar before. I almost thought it was a fake, studying the almost too perfect pattern of petals that look like an etched flower - you can just about see it on the photo below.

 But it was real all right. The remains of a sort of flat sea urchin.  In its bare and bleached state, the  sand dollar, I discovered, takes on some extraordinary symbolism. Among other things it's said to represent the Star of Bethlehem, the holes the Five Wounds of Christ and the flower an Easter Lily. As hubby would say, how about that!
Now I need to think what to do with it. The flower bed is probably not a suitable place.

Monday, January 21, 2019

Barking Mad

Dateline: Golden Beach, Florida

  I don't know what it is about me and dogs - or rather dog walkers. Back in Blighty, I've had trouble with them on Wimbledon Common, I've had trouble with them going up to Holy Communion at Brompton Oratory (yes, really!) and here I've had  trouble with them on the beach. I was sitting happily reading and minding my own business when along came a woman with a dog on a lead, trotting right past me along the water's edge. "Do you know dogs aren't allowed on the beach?" I asked helpfully.
 "Thank you",  she said and continued on her way.  "There's a dog beach just down there", I pointed. She didn't seem at all interested. The rules, of course, did not apply to her.
  Due to the dog beach and such, this place is already canine heaven.

The van we saw on the road the other day was advertising a pet resort, with every luxury. "Pets so Pampered You'll Wish You Could Stay". They know their market. So often you see dogs in push chairs, or little trailers where there'd normally be a human baby, dogs wearing babygros (onesies to Americans) raincoats, sunhats and bright bandannas. It doesn't take a psychologist to work it out.  So many people here are retired and lonely and far from their families and grandchildren. Dogs become baby substitutes.
  I have nothing against dogs - in fact I like them a lot - in their place. And their place is not the beach. And it's especially not the supermarket. I was in our local one last week when I spotted a woman with a dog on a lead. She appeared to be in fine fettle and in full possession of her eyesight and was happily trying samples at the tasting counter, the dog, with nothing to identify it as a "service dog", snuffling at her heels. When I complained to the management, I was told there is very little they can do. They are simply allowed to ask if the dog is there because of a disability (not what the disability might be) and what the dog does for its owner. The popular answer these days is, "He's an emotional support dog. I need him because I'm anxious going into the supermarket." Apparently you can buy the little official jackets on the internet. And there's darn all the supermarket can do about it for fear of being sued.
    Now this was probably a perfectly nice woman and a perfectly sensible dog. And for all I know she may have had a genuine  problem. But my argument is that if everyone decided to bring their dogs into the supermarket for emotional support, (and heaven knows, we all need emotional support in the angst of the checkout queue) there would be mayhem. Aside from the hygiene issue, it's hard enough, in high tourist season, manoeuvring your trolley around other people's without getting it tangled up in dog leads too.
   I believe the airlines are starting to fight back on this. (On any flight to Florida you'll be lucky not to be sitting next to a dog providing emotional support and getting  a free ride for its trouble.) And more power to their elbows. And the sad thing is, that the more people's goodwill is abused, the more difficult it will be for those with genuine disabilities - which may well be hidden ones - to be believed.

Saturday, January 12, 2019

Dawn and Dolphins

As the "snowbirds" all pour in and Florida gets so crowded you think it's going to collapse into one huge sinkhole, there are still the quiet places.

I wasn't the first to walk on the beach this morning - there were footprints in the sand but I had it mostly to myself.

Except for a solitary figure who seemed to be looking for prehistoric sharks' teeth.

I haven't seen so many sharks' tooth prospectors lately, though the red tide seems to be far less of a problem now. I didn't spot any dead fish - although it's possible there just aren't the fish numbers any more. The pelicans haven't returned in force - that's meant to be a sign that all is well.
  The other evening we heard a talk by someone from the Mote Aquarium - they do sterling work with the local sea life. Though I wonder at all the trouble they go to with dolphins, for example, taking blood samples, (which get sent to the human hospital) putting tracking devices on them, monitoring their diets and so on. It's mostly funded by donations, so people obviously support it. I wonder if the dolphins see it as an invasion of privacy. Sadly six dolphins have been lost in the red tide. The speaker told a story which proves there's no end to human stupidity. A dolphin called Beggar used to hang around our local coastline, scrounging for food, despite Do Not Feed signs. It proved irresistible to sightseers and obsessive feeders who turned up in droves. The Aquarium staff spotted one man actually holding his baby over the dolphin's jaws. They just rescued the baby in time.