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American Diary: Florida

America is a warm and welcoming country – once
you’ve managed to break into the place.  At
Miami International Airport
this takes us about two hours, thanks to stringent border control procedures
designed to deter or snare drug runners and illegal immigrants. Miami, we’re later told, is where many of these
miscreants, largely from South and Central America,
make landfall.

Do these measures actually work?  Probably, but I can’t avoid the thought that America is
already host to tens of millions of ‘illegals’. 
Most of them, unable to afford to fly in, simply walk across the border from
or, in more recent times, climb over the fence designed to keep them out.  Others arrive by boat across the 90-mile
channel that separates the US
from Cuba.  Many of them will sooner or later be given
leave to stay under a government amnesty. 
Meanwhile, we privileged and affluent visitors from Europe
are obliged to endure the kind of ordeal once associated with the check-points
of Communist states.  I’m not claiming it
is unfair, mind, merely observing an irony.  

As does our border control officer.  Finally waving us on our way, he cheerfully
enjoins us to “Have fun in our wonderful state”.  I refrain from saying, “So far, it’s been

We are staying with friends in Venice,
on Florida’s
Gulf coast.  They have a huge house standing
on 15 acres adjoining the Myakka River, which, with its banks of reed beds and palms,
reminds me of the Zambezi.  It’s a delightful sub-tropical setting, teeming
with wildlife, for which alliterations abound: we observe alligator and
armadillo, eagle and egret, skunk and snake. 

Florida is suffering an unusual cold snap, nighttime
temperatures low enough for a mild frost. 
At least it keeps the alligators turgid. 
This is just as well, as a bulky twelve-footer – which M names Matilda –
daily takes advantage of the midday sun by basking on the bank of the small
lake in the front garden.  It’s a little disconcerting
to stroll round the grounds knowing that one might come face to face with a
creature perfectly capable of eyeing one up for lunch.  Matilda, though, seems largely oblivious to
our activities, including our frequent photographic expeditions, though we
decline to venture closer than forty feet. 
These beasts can move like greased lightning, I’m told, fascinating but not
something I wish to witness at close quarters.

I find a round of golf similarly unnerving, since
gators enjoy bathing in the aptly-named water hazards.  At least half my tee shots inevitably end up
in the rough close by the water.  “What’s
the rule if a ball lands next to a dozing gator?” I enquire with studied
nonchalance. “Back off and take a drop on the fairway,” I’m told. “And be
prepared to run”.  My game improves miraculously
with each succeeding hole. 

Other creatures from the nearby Everglades
provide colour without the menace.  At
one green, a pair of Sandhill cranes refuses to give way.  We putt anyway and they stalk off
indignantly.  At another, a large flock
of turkey buzzards proves equally obstinate.  It’s all rather jolly.                

On the highway one day, I notice two huge roadside
hoardings advertising local hospitals. 
On each one an electronic meter, presumably updated real-time, tells us
the current waiting times.  One boasts of
two minutes, the other eight.  Can you
imagine similar National Health Service postings in Britain?  What waiting times would they be able to claim?  Two and eight days?   Two
weeks?  Eight months?    

The road is lined for miles with such signs, mainly
for oncology clinics, gynaecologists, hair restorers, orthodontists and plastic
surgeons.  Each features the handsome, smiling
faces of the practitioners.  The medical
commercialism is all very alien to us Brits, but perhaps not so strange in Florida,
a state in which the median age of the drivers passing the signs – at the infuriatingly
sedate pace common to these parts – is probably 65.  

We have coffee with a grade school colleague of
M’s.  “You guys ought to consider moving
here,” he says.  Well, everyone does, and
the thought has occurred to us.  The
weather is delightful – except in high summer – the scenery is fascinating, and
the kind of house in which we’d like to live goes for about a third of what
something similar would cost in southern England.  Our friends have in fact arranged some
viewings with a friendly and patient broker who is ardently convinced that he
can turn us into clients. 

The houses we visit would all do very nicely; each one
is in move-in condition, and several back on to a golf course.  But various objections hold us back.  The lack of access to the kind of diverse cultural
activities available in London is one – though theatre and ballet tickets at
£100 and rising is enough to turn us all into Philistines.  And Sarasota,
as locals take pains to point out, has a fine symphony, as well as highly
regarded and ballet and opera companies. 

Our last day in Florida
and the sun finally shines in earnest. 
Like the gators, we bask in the garden for a while, and after an hour in
70-degree cloudless sunshine my pigmentation turns from chalky white to hot
pink.  One more hour of exposure and I’ll
need attention from one of those gentlemen beaming down from the hoardings, so
we go inside and start applying the sun cream.       

And then it’s time to move on, from the marshlands of Florida to the deserts of Arizona.


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