With two hours of sleep under my belt, the only thing on my mind as I wandered throughout MCO Airport was a stiff bloody mary, cold brew, and 4 gallons of water.
Carousel 9A. Almost there… I can do this.
Stepping off a red eye in the middle of Central Florida left me in a transcendent daze as I roamed to baggage claim, mask stuck to my face.
I couldn’t exactly pinpoint what was so strange about Orlando. Could it be the overwhelming theme park adverts decked with kitsch cartoons? How they were used to cover up this flat, marshy wasteland?
Where the hell am I?
America has this way of making everything permanently child-like; as if the only way to maintain our youth is pumping everything with televised, propaganda faux-pas that taps into an inadvertently nauseating pop culture. Not to mention how sweet everything has to taste.
I sprinted to the hand sanitizer station, grabbed my bag and got the hell out of there. I was greeted warmly by my dearest friend Kaley and her mum Monica (dubbed Momica for fun.)
We piled into her brand new Benz and made our way to sleepy little Satellite Beach, also known as the Space Coast. I watched the shift of muddy wetlands transform into lush, abundant farmland right before we reached the sandy coastline outside my window. How could being no more than 50 miles away suddenly feel like a completely different planet?
Pulling up to Monica’s home was a blast from the past; a retro ’60s haven beautifully decorated down to the theme. Take any Palm Springs slice of paradise and place it nestled between friendly neighbors, a lack of street lamps, and no sidewalks; that’s how you knew it was safe.
The air smelled of sweet earth dancing amongst electric heat, flowing with the dampness that warmly embraced my soul, welcoming me to yet another spontaneous journey.
Welcome to Florida, friend.
It’s a shame this part of the country gets such a wildly blown off scale reputation. All it takes is a few bad apples, or in this case, “Florida Man” news stories to ruin the abundant tree of Hallmark small hometown hospitality, comfort food and soft powder beaches. The change of pace from my bustling Angeleno city life came to a standstill here in Southern Florida. Nothing could compare the pseudo-fame obsessed city folk to these humble, grass root neighborhoods.
Monica’s backyard was that of a sub-tropical oasis. Pool, lounge chairs, and every single kind of floaty you could imagine. Did I mention there was a bar in nearly every corner of every room in her home?
Lockdown could be worse…
The week I spent here was a busy one. From virtual work sessions with my NY team to celebrating new clients with pool beer pong, I found a steady flow of productivity and fun that made me all the more grateful for my remote job.
However, the biggest thing for me was the amount of introspection I had during this time. I was questioning everything to where I was currently living to where I wanted to set up my new base. Would it be in the sweeping hills of the San Diego coastline? Or would I venture up north to Seattle again to find an Evergreen sanctuary?
After a heart to heart with my Mum back in LA, she explained to me that instead of trying to find the next best place, the greatest gift I could give myself would be living in the present;
“You don’t need to have it all figured out right now. The world is your oyster. Let go and be in the present moment. Who knows what Florida can bring to you…enjoy where you are right now.”
And ever since that talk, I felt at ease with my surroundings. I discovered that I don’t need to seek refuge in my travels. I can explore with an open mind and meet some pretty cool people along the way, and that’s exactly what I did.
For instance, we brunched on my first day at a mom-and-pop spot called Morning Glory that also owned an Italian joint next door. There was a couple sitting at the bar near us that morning that overheard me talking about my LA roots;
“First time here? Welcome to Florida! I’ll send y’all a FB Group for the next rocket launch this week… you won’t wanna miss it.“
That Wednesday, we went to the Italian spot for “Wine Down Wednesday,” where we indulged in pizza, chopped salads, and $13 bottles of wine.
“Cheap, delicious wine and even yummier food? Ya know… I wouldn’t mind a condo over here,” I said sarcastically as we sipped on our Cabernet. Low and behold, guess who was sitting behind us? The same couple from brunch!
“I was wondering if it was y’all from Sunday! Hope you’re enjoying your stay.” the wife said. Part of me wondered if this would happen in LA, where we live in our own little bubbles whether it’s a car or a community. I couldn’t get over the Southern hospitality influence combined with the salt-of-the-earth, East Coast mentality.
Despite being a retirement haven, Florida is also known for its heavy government and space exploration roots. Via social media like Instagram and Tinder, I took it upon myself to do something I’ve always sought out to do; talking to military vets from all walks of life and age groups. These men from all over the country saw the world through an entirely different lens; they were happy with so little because of the hell they’d been through. I was surprised to meet so many that were already divorced with children. They were forced to grow up so much faster than the privileged surfer community I stem from.
An Army vet, who asked to remain anonymous, talked about being in combat in Afghanistan; “In the simplest of terms, when you’ve seen the world through the eyes of war or a sniper lens, nothing stays the same. There is no “normal” anymore […] I’m grateful for the little family I have left. I have my son, bought a home for my folks… simply because I can […] it’s the little things that keep me going… despite everything, life is good and God is even greater.“
Then a Coast Guard vet, who also asked for anonymity, talked about being divorced at a mere 23 years old; “I came home to another man in our house… a house I bought for us. I didn’t know what to feel… betrayal was an understatement. People joke about disloyalty in military marriages, but once it happens to you… man… it just hits different.
“Shit happens… but such is life… I’ve forgiven her despite what she did. We got closure, because in the grand scheme of things… shit could be worse […] ‘cuz when you wake up n’ see the ocean out your window, you forget all the small stuff you were sweatin’.“
When asked how they stayed so optimistic despite their strife, their response was unanimous and simple;
“Life ain’t so serious. Don’t rush through it. Watch more sunrises and sunsets, go fishin’, call your family, forgive easily, slow down… otherwise you’ll wonder where all the time has gone.“
These humble narratives spoke volumes about their character. The lifestyle I had in LA was a dream to half the people I talked to in Florida. Sure they loved where they lived, but meeting a California girl roaming through this humid paradise just because she could? That was some riveting shit.
On my flight home to LA, I thought to myself; maybe us city-folk can learn a thing or two from our Southern friends.
Maybe instead of jumping to some outwardly conclusion about where someone’s from, especially Florida, we can shut the hell up and listen.
Maybe we could actually put ourselves in someone else’s shoes for once.
Maybe we could stop putting people in boxes; determining self-worth through political preference, material possessions or wealth.
Coming from LA with a father from Mississippi and a mum from England, we were raised to give people the benefit of the doubt and that character would take you far in life. I used to feel jaded and cynical over my generation’s inability to see beyond their self-indulged lens, but once I stepped out of my comfortable beach-side abode, you didn’t have to go far to see that character is alive and well.
I learned the Floridian approach to life is anything but the twisted stories we see in the mainstream media. From country music and board games, bottomless wine and breakfast shots, to roaming the Atlantic coastline and witnessing a few tropical storms, I’m grateful for the experience I had and the remarkable young men I virtually met during this crazy time in the world. As worried as people were about me traveling, they were rest assured I had a safe place to lay my head in what felt like a personal resort.
Look, I’m not downplaying the catastrophic events of 2020; the pandemic, police brutality, race riots and economic downturn have truly rocked the world. However, I think there are a lot of us who could benefit from finding inner peace through the little things in life. By doing so, we can learn to let go of the things that are out of our control. I gained an entirely new perspective after speaking with these Millennial veterans; sometimes, choosing resilience and practicing gratitude is all you can do. It’s not about “strength” or ego, it’s simply understanding that if you have your health & a roof over your head, you’re a hell of a lot better off than the majority of the world.
My outlook? Be kind. You never know what people are battling. Take advantage of these moments while you can. You don’t know if tomorrow is guaranteed.