The feeling is Proustian, and every bit as sensory as a madeleine. It is the way I exhale into the sultry, velvety Florida air outside the Fort Lauderdale Airport, as my diaphragm expands in a way it hasn’t for months.
It’s a rush of pure happiness that bears no concrete relation to, well, the concrete all around me — the overpasses and barricades and freeways that are the inevitable gateway to South Florida.
And it is not only because I have been flying into Fort Lauderdale for family visits since before I could walk.
Unlike the other scenery that has formed backdrops for my family’s episodic dramas, South Florida has, for me, virtually no negative associations. There is something purely anodyne about the blazing sunshine, manicured lawns, shiny-clean cars and faux Tuscan façades that lull us all into a seductive contentedness.
Certainly it’s the absence of responsibility — everyone’s either retired or on vacation — and possibly it’s also the absence of choices. How many things are there to do, really, and what consequence do our decisions have?
There are endless places where we can go out for dinner, but most of them are pleasantly, interchangeably mediocre in a way that obviates the kind of passionate dining debates you might have in Brooklyn or San Francisco. During the day there’s the pool, the mall, the beach, Publix. Who can argue with that lineup — for or against?
Speaking of Publix: You can buy wine in the grocery aisles in Florida. For the first 30 years of my life, I lived in places where you had to make a special trip to a liquor store to buy wine, and now I do again. I’m still waiting for the thrill to wear off.
The joys of South Florida, for me, are in those little thrills. And in saying this, I’m not denying the singular attractions of Miami, which I think is a hugely underrated city in many respects, or Florida’s world-class beaches, or any number of other ways in which the Gold Coast is a memorable destination.
But for a certain subset of Northeastern Jews, South Florida connotes family visits that involve a lot more 6 p.m. buffets than boutique hotels (or Mar-a-Lago-style weekends).
And for a child, those buffets were magical. Endless muffins! Heaping plates of pasta to taste and abandon at will (I know, I know). Salad bars with exotic items we never saw at home: sunflower seeds, croutons, chickpeas.
Equally magical was waking to the soft swaying shadows of palm fronds, the scent of hibiscus and the lazy hum of leaf blowers trimming the ficus hedge outside my grandparents’ condo. After a late arrival from gray, chilly New York, the sight of flowers in December always felt deliciously surreal.
It still does, even though I’ve frequently flown from sunnier climes, and even though my grandparents are long gone. But the rituals are in place: Spotting the rare Christmas lights in windows around the condo complex, where menorahs always predominate.
Testing the pool temperature to see whether the hardier Canadian neighbors won the annual heat-or-no-heat battle (they usually do). Squeezing fresh oranges for juice while the morning minyan-goers stroll by our window.
This year, I landed in Fort Lauderdale with 3-year-old Zelda in tow for her first Florida Passover. She stared up at the palm towering over the condo where the grandparents are now my own parents, and where I once towered over that same palm tree, then a sapling. We inhaled the scent of acacia and Poinciana, and listened for the familiar rumble and wail of the Miami train.
In the morning, I watched Zelda awaken to the hum of golf carts just outside the patio. She rubbed her eyes and then opened them wide as she took in the brilliant green landscape and the undulating palms.
At that hour, my grandfather would have been finishing his morning juice and heading for the golf course; by 5 o’clock or so, he was making dinner reservations, while my parents and I rolled our eyes at the early hour. Now it is Zelda who demands an early dinner, and there is something reassuring about the return of the early-bird mandate.
For an odd interval, the family was missing a generation. It was an absence we didn’t feel so acutely elsewhere, certainly not amid the bustle of New York or the cafés of Europe, where the introduction of a small child requires a thorough reworking of every schedule.
But my family’s Florida requires no such alterations. It was waiting, in its peculiarly languorous rhythm, for a new generation to show up and marvel at the miracle of winter flowers. And wine at the Publix.
This is the first of several articles this month focusing on the state of Florida.