A French posture in Florida
When you Google the word Florida the first three suggestions that show up are lottery, DMV and unemployment. Then comes Gulf Coast University, Everblades, fishing license and food stamps.
It paints a murky, not entirely pleasant picture of a state that master tweeter comedian Jenny Johnson once called America’s creepy white trash uncle. (She also called the state bird of Florida the duct, establishing herself as a true wit). Digging deeper doesn’t reveal particularly good news, although it shows a state struggling to overcome its demons in an admirable sort of way. A recent bill in the legislature may bar food stamps as a means of payment in strip clubs. Florida Gulf Coast University has burst on the sports scene with its stellar NCAA performance raising the chances that people might realize the place offers classes. Statewide unemployment has fallen to 7.8 percent. All in all I’d say things are looking up.
I don’t know when France became the lens through which I saw the world, probably sometime after my daughter Francesca was born and I became tied to the country by the blood of not one, but two children. Over the past seven years–happy, hard, maturing years in which I learned how to love, how to mother, how to write a book—the Parisian way of life became my reference point for adulthood. I have become tolerant of some behavior–complaining about work, flirting with the boss, erratic postal service–and intolerant of others: children under the age of five who make their presence known in restaurants, people who wear running shoes to cafes, food that is sweet when it ought not be, women who mistake personal slovenliness for devotion to their children.
I cringe at any obvious lack of restraint now, unless it is related to driving in Paris in which I relish the chance to scream like a madwoman. I dislike shows of wealth. I become indignant at signs of income inequality, old folks working, visible plastic surgery, obvious drunkenness and mid-afternoon snacking. In short, I dislike everything the sunshine state stands for—the freedom to have an enormous mansion on an estuary and encrusted diamonds into your gunrack.
And yet, Florida, like most things American, is immediately and inexplicably endearing. It is open, joyful, multi-cultural, confident and blissfully unaware that anyone should judge it. This is paradise! I am told fifteen minutes after my airplane lands by my Scottish taxi driver. Even the summers are glorious! It reminds me of citizens of the Soviet Union who were asked, after it crumbled, whether they were relieved to be able to travel. Who says I couldn’t travel? some retorted. I had the world from Vladivostok to Berlin.
And so we have the world from Pelican Bay to Fifth Avenue in Naples Florida where my parents now live. I am visiting to see how they are settling into their retirement years and see the new house, new town, new doctors and the like. It is a sad business set in a cheerful place full of refugees who want more than anything else to feel at home. No one wants to hear about how you feel blue or alone or old. They only want to talk and establish a brief moment of connection which they will string together into a series of moments that will become an overall sense of well-being. If margaritas are needed to create the desired effect well then so be it. They are available everywhere from 10 AM onward–cold and sweet and cheap as dirt.
“ThisistheloveliensslittleoutfitIhaveeverseenforalittlegirlinmywholeentirelife,” gushes the lady at the Gap as I hold up a pink frilly thing I am pretty sure my daughter shouldn’t wear if she ever wants to become Angela Merkel. She touches my shoulder and leans in (did she read the book too?) her grey hair shining, her love of commerce evident. “There is every reason to buy this,” she whispers, almost seductively.
Across the street rich old white people are eating nachos in an Italian restaurant that specializes in “fruity Manhattans.” It is 4.30 in the afternoon and the sun is high and hot, adding sparkle to the parking lot full of Jaguars and Bentleys. The old people drink their drinks and look contentedly out at their vehicles. They have made it. The Dow Industrial average is back above 14,000. Death lurks, but for the moment there is nothing more to want.
I wander the store and the saleslady is always there, coaxing and encouraging. Buy this pair of pants get the second pair free. Open a card, get 30 percent off. Know a code and summon a sale.
I try to think like a French woman. What is it that my children need to be adequately clothed through the summer. Why specifically did I walk into this store? I think about the crisis in France, the erosion of income and wealth. I think about French salesladies who tell me, with a sour frown, that my boy should be fine with one pair of nice sandals this summer. That two is perhaps too much.
But it is hard in this bright place where success is everywhere to remember austerity. The money doesn’t feel real. The air is cold and condensed. The saleslady talks and talks, revealing more and more intimate information about herself. Soon I sense desperation in her voice. I buy two khakis for Theo and a shirt he probably doesn’t need. France may be the lens through which I see the world, but it is no match for this relentless American sunniness and the quiet anxiety that lies beneath.