Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Notes on My Trip to Florida

So as I intimated in my last posting, I was recently away for ten days, about a week of which were passed in Sarasota, Florida. This is the second year in a row that I have partaken in this New England ritual of taking a winter vacation in the Sunshine State, though prior to that I had certainly not thought of myself as the Floridagoing type. I have not yet been corraled into going to Disney World, my children being still small and unaware of its existence; but can anyone doubt that I will be there someday soon, happily relieving myself of fistfuls of cash and failing to feel properly the visceral recoil any serious-minded adult must experience when confronted with such a place? I didnt think so. This however is a matter for another time.

My image of Florida, which I had only been to once, when I was eleven, a time of my of life of which I remember virtually nothing, was that whatever might be said of it, it did not appear to exist for the likes of me, nor I for it. Intimidation, in my teens and twenties at least, I must confess was a factor: I was not affluent, nor did I have any particularly rabid ambition to appear so; I did not have an appropriate physique for hanging around attractive people my own age in the sort of attire customarily worn at beaches, yachts or trendy nightclubs in that region, which I imagined to be the only places in Florida that existed for socializing with young people; besides that I did not have any of the aforementioned suitable attire and my general appearance tends to wilt in heat and humid conditions anyway; having seen too many episodes of COPS set in Miami and Jacksonville I feared I was in no state to survive a likely encounter with one of Floridas innumerable well-built, often shirtless or tank-top sporting criminals (I am uncomfortable with displays of toned flesh generally, as one scarcely ever sees such a thing in New England. Such scary people as do exist in Boston are at least always dressed and are wearing parkas half the year, which makes them much less forbidding to cope with). This was combined with a general apprehension of the hostility I supposed from listening to too much right-wing radio anybody who enjoyed hanging out in France and Vermont could expect to meet with in that faraway and very mysterious region known as The South. This last of course seems absurd on reflection, but it is true that when we first got down past Richmond on the first trip, I felt very strange until we stopped somewhere and everything went off pretty much as normal. Still though, I was more comfortable and felt more attuned to people and the psychological environment when I was in Poland, than when I was in South Carolina. The real South psyches me out. I dont get it.

Sarasota, as anybody who has been there knows, is not the real South, and in my unscientific opinion, once you hit Gainesville going the western route or St Augustine on the eastern, the northerner is actually back in a somewhat recognizable milieu, indeed among many exiles from his own country, albeit with palm trees, a much greater community commitment to football, and at least in the wealthier areas along the coast, a much healthier-looking population. Sarasota and the keys that accompany it constitute one of those areas where not much nature apart from the actual ocean has been preserved quite as one might expect to find it. Insects, for example, appear to have been eradicated from large areas, including the--I dont know what to call it, development, I guess--where we stayed (we were lodging with some older relatives). The average age of people on the beaches is about 74, which greatly relieves the pressure on ones physical vanity. It is also a wealthy town, though one thing I have observed over the years is that if you are actually poor but vacation in the same place as upper middle class people the tendency is for most of them, even if they still consider you to be not so wonderful as themselves, to assume you are wealthier or more substantial than you really are, which of course causes to quiver a little the same ego I have just been relaxing on the point of physical beauty. There are about a thousand restaurants and bars there, not that I went to any (the children you know), so I cant gauge how much fun they would be, or different from the same type of place anywhere else in America. There are actually some decent tourist sites around Sarasota itself, which for somebody like me who can tolerate about a day and a half of beach time, is a happy circumstance. The Ringling estate (see top picture, which I fear I have stolen illegally from some professional), formerly owned by the circus mogul, is rather an extravaganza: with the outrageous mansion, which resembles a circus version of an Italian palazzo (I nonetheless like it), beautifully set with a great 1920s Gatsbyesque terrace right on the water; some circus displays and artifacts which can at instants offer one distraction from complete existential despair; and a very good art museum--really--from Ringling`s personal collection, of which I was only able to see about 40%, though I did at least get to see the Poussin, which was the closest feeling to a triumph I experienced the entire trip. The Spanish Point estate and grounds, quite extensive, was another good site for people like me who feel like they ought to spend time outdoors if they go somewhere warm, but like their nature subdued by the landscapers and engineer`s art. St Petersburg, about 40 miles away, is supposed to have 2 or 3 good art/culture museums too, though I didnt make it there. One of them is a Dali museum, which is not the sort of thing I would go out of my way to see, but would go to if I were in town for a week with nothing else to do, which is a state I am never in at this point of my life, but...
So Florida is starting to grow on me a little. I still would not want to live there, but if I had a lot of vacation time I could tolerate going for a week or two most years. Most of what there is to do there are not the sorts of things that I generally like doing, or seem not to be done at least in a way that I would like; but while this attitude might be tolerable in a Parisian philosopher, in me it only confirms my longstanding reputation as an incurable stick-in-the-mud. In other words it is not getting me anywhere.

It is moderately exciting to be in vacationland Florida during spring training (the Reds are the team in Sarasota nowadays) since this is about as aged a tradition as Florida has. I haven't been to any playing sites, but it is amusing to be around them, you know, and know that Yogi Berra and Bob Feller are somewhere in the neighborhood, and I also can better appreciate any stories I come across where somebody is feigning injury to skip out on the bus trip to Ft Myers and go on a bender (of course no one does this anymore).

In keeping with the ethos stated in an earlier chapter, we drove down. According to this guy, such adventures for people at my level of society will soon be distant memories, and I can expect within a few years to be toiling in a field within walking distance of my house (assuming I have one) alongside my fellow members of a revived native peasantry. As I dislike it when people go on a vacation and tell you all about the restaurants and hotels they stayed at, however great or awful they were, I dont want to go too much into that, but the state of things along I-95 between basically D.C. and Florida is pretty grim in that regard. I put a picture of the Waffle House up here because there about five hundred of them on the way south, and I had never heard of the place in my life before these trips. I have a high tolerance for inferior chain food compared to the sort of people who ought to be my friends but are not for such reasons as this, but this place, and its doppelganger in crimes against cookery, the truly execrable Huddle House, were too abysmal and depressing even for me to endure. Imagine Denny's at 2am on Saturday night, but half the size, and the chairs and counters smaller/lower and more cramped as well (and of course you are not drunk either). Our New England chains (Friendly's, Papa Gino's, D'Angelo's Subs, etc) are almost elegant and relaxing in comparison. Though I enjoyed the idea of driving through these faraway states, I still felt slightly cheered when we got back to Washington, and then we had dinner in Annapolis (where we went to college) and then we went on to Philadelphia where my family lives and has lived for a very long time, and returning to these scenes of youth and--I won't lie--more sophisticated areas cheered me of course even more, for I had been a little melancholy just before we got back to that familiar region.

I have lamented about the decline of the affordable but not completely gross and dispiriting American hotel elsewhere in these pages, which decline is of course felt most drearily along the far-flung outposts of our highway exits. Some have tried to persuade me that it was always thus, that the rathole motel is embedded in American lore and so forth, but I am talking about something else. Something else that still exists in Canada, by the way, that is a place where you pay $50-$70 for a room, no fripperies but reasonably comfortable and not brutal aesthetically, a la the Motel 6 model, which appears to operate under a policy that people who don't want or can't afford a $150+ room deserve to be spiritually punished for it; where the coffee and muffins probably lack dynamic flavor but someone has at least bothered to check that the milk isn't rancid or the donuts stale before setting them out; where the sheets have been competently laundered and the blood entirely mopped up from the bathroom floor. Now in the current economic and cultural climate, I know that I run the danger of implicating myself as impoverished or beyond the pale of respectable society merely by indicating knowledge of such places, letting alone confessing to having stayed at them. I have to plead nolo contendere. I do not think it is seemly for the likes of me to have to spend hundreds of dollars a night on unnecessary luxuries to be assured of avoiding squalor; though to be honest, if Mrs Bourgeois Surrender, who is a frugal Yankee of the old type, were not even more adamant on this point, I would assuredly be doing just that (So you see I could never have married anybody from Texas).

It seems pointless not to comment on what everyone must observe, that a great many, if not almost all, of these ramshackle hotels in the boonies are managed/owned (I'm not sure how it works) by persons who appear to be of a Subcontinental origin, most of whom exude a singularly indifferent attitude towards most of the traditional and noble functions of hostelry apart from collecting the fees. Not that this isn't all innkeepers' favorite part of the profession, or that native hotel employees are noted for their enthusiasm; but the these are usually not displayed quite so baldly, without even feigning to care about anything else, and especially by the proprietors. I know these motels are just roadside pit stops. There are however a lot of bad elements/vibes/what have you coming together in this trend that bother me a lot. The main thing being that, in large swathes of the country, these are not lowlife places you can just avoid and easily look elsewhere, but are the dominant accommodation. Therefore they set a standard of attitude and effort and attention to aesthetics for most travelling life in this country that I would prefer the nation to find wholly unacceptable. The Indian model of business/professionalism, as well as its attitudes towards services, seems to be ideologically an even more ruthless and extreme, status-obsessed version of the American one, which is the last thing this country needs at the present time. I did notice somewhere on the way down a hotel rather brazenly advertising itself as `American owned and operated` which I assume addresses a more widespread sense of discontent with the current state of affairs in this area. These are such touchy issues of course, when you feel compelled to criticize some identifiable group of people, something or other about whom just annoys you tremendously. These hotels are awful, though. In the old world you can get away sometimes with a nasty bathroom and sheets because you have other compensations; you are overlooking an ancient street, the food is good, the bar is lively, the other guests are attractive people of some parts and learning, and most importantly probably, you are in no way at home. But obviously I am beating this to death.

I had been getting excited because every time I checked by profile my visitor total was going up...by 1. I finally realized that the only person visiting it was me.

No comments: