This post finds our writer on a short visit in the vicinity of Tampa, Florida. Specifically, Clearwater Beach and a little time in St. Petersburg. The Tampa/Clearwater area is a strange place. It’s not bad, but it’s different. Well, okay, it’s a little bit bad. I fear I am going to offend my friends in Florida, but honestly, there’s a lot about this place that I just don’t understand, and some stuff I understand but just cannot condone. Florida is a state that seems defined by its contradictions. There are so many different communities living sort of on top of each other but somehow managing to keep completely to themselves, never apparently integrating. For example, on the one hand, the Tampa urban area is the home of both the original Hooters restaurant and this year’s Republican National Convention. On the other hand, there’s a big Latino contingent in Florida, with its own restaurants, grocery stores, nightclubs, and radio stations. These places are completely separate and distinct, culturally. There is no apparent integration. And there seems to be some insular snobbery that goes with it, a sort of “we don’t mix with them” vibe (fill in the blank for “them”). Cultural borders and traditions are carefully maintained despite the impracticality, or even offensiveness. Tampa Bay is a glorious natural watershed coastal landscape and Clearwater Beach is a beautiful beach, but the most popular restaurants seem to be steakhouses – lots of them. The advertisements on the radio were geared for people who were perhaps of retirement age. Yet there were several billboards advertising “mommy lifts” for women who’d had babies and might want plastic surgery. It’s tropical, humid and fecund with vegetation, but the lawns are impeccably tidy. Maybe this tells you something about the place. It’s sort of like watching ten television channels at the same time, all of them rather extreme.
Another thing: I am still a little concerned about my weight these days and I brought my one-piece swimsuit out of concern for modesty, thinking perhaps my two-piece was risking too much on Florida beaches. I was worrying over nothing. I was stunned by what passed as “acceptable” levels of body fat for a bikini. There were people on the beach and in the hotel who were so overweight that they had trouble walking – and there were a lot of them. Of all ages and from all walks of life. I know how hard it can be to lose weight and that sometimes eating gets out of control – I’ve been fifty pounds overweight and it’s not like I can’t sympathize. But the obesity here was an epidemic, and fifty pounds seemed like a drop in the bucket. It was kind of sad.
Fortunately there were still beautiful things, including a pretty beach, golden sunsets, the lush greenery and wide waters of Florida. There were yachts in the St. Petersburg harbor and long, long bridges across the Tampa Bay. Pelicans were everywhere along with other elegant water birds such as ibises and egrets. I could see the rain rolling in in the afternoon, and it was strange and wonderful to see it coming and then drive into it in the car. All of a sudden, you went from dryness to giant drops hitting the windshield with a Splat! so hard that the wipers couldn’t keep up. Then, on Saturday night at dinner, sitting on the edge of the water, a big lightning storm was visible next to a cloud that was bright pink, reflecting the sunset to the west. My dinner companion had the better view, but what I saw was awfully pretty (naturally this was the one time I didn’t have my camera with me!). And flying over the bay on the way in I could see the clear, peaceful waters of the Gulf of Mexico stretching on and on, bordered with little islets, cays, bays and intercoastal waterways. The sand looked like lace edging on a blue and green cloth. The color was so saturated, so vibrant, like something only mother nature can make.
Nearby St. Petersburg was largely empty when I visited. I thought I’d see the Chihuly glass sculpture exhibit there, set in a building designed specifically for it. I was really looking forward to seeing it and taking pictures. But I am afraid the people there were very snobby. They also were quite particular about not allowing any photography because some of the pieces were privately owned and it was claimed therefore those owners had legal right of distribution under copyright law. After taking a seminar on copyright law for photographers, I found this a stretch. Now, if the artist himself had asked that we not photograph it, that I could understand. This was a bit harder to swallow, especially since there were DVDs and books for sale, expensively, with the photographed work in them. Clearly this was about control. And they were not nice about it. Maybe it is their right, but it seemed just a little mean. I wish I could show you the beautiful installations but I obeyed the rules. Afterward, feeling a bit stymied, I went out to the public park and sat on a bench there for a while. There was the cutest little lizard living under the bench that came out to see about me and he let me take his picture – without requesting a model’s legal release! I walked along the marina shore and tried to enjoy the slight breeze off the Gulf, but it wasn’t until I called my mom that I started to feel more like myself. But I wasn’t there yet. As usual, it took the Cuban American community to save my Florida day. I ended my trip by having a lengthy, enjoyable dinner with an old friend at the best Cuban restaurant in the area, called Columbia. I had some wonderful black bean soup, some smooth sangria, a nice salad and beef empanadas. Delicious! We finished off by sharing a piece of key lime pie and watching the lightning storm across the water. At last, something I could truly enjoy: good food, good company and natural beauty.
The next morning, I bid Clearwater farewell from my seat on the airplane. I did my best to take in the view and remember her for her lush, rambling natural beauty. Fortunately, you can’t see the Hooter’s sign during the initial ascent!