Growing up with the scent of Old Bay wafting in the air on any given evening, knowing what lily-of-the-valley smells like, or hearing the sound of a fog horn on a nearby creek in the morning, probably means you're someone who spent a lot of time in the MidAtlantic. Anything south of the Mason-Dixon is considered, geographically, southern and Maryland has an interesting history as both a border state and as state divided on its culture.
Born in DC and raised in Maryland in a house full of Pennsylvanians, I knew exactly who I was at an early age. My brother, several years older than I, referred to me, the toddler, as the family's "southern bowel" - an accidental mispronunciation the adults in the family still think hilarious [insert eye-roll].
Not much of a rolling stone, I stayed in Maryland, attended the University of Maryland in College Park where I could walk to classes from home, and across campus to my sorority house. I was so enamored of my state that I even took a zoology class my freshman year entitled History and Zoology of the Chesapeake Bay.
My touchstones were the Smithsonian Museums and monuments in Washington, the Naval Academy in Annapolis and long drives to hidden vineyards and ice cream stands. Since growing up, I've spent a great deal of time in the Baltimore area, where the scent of Old Bay is even stronger and local history is that which is shared with a nation - from Francis Scott Key's penning the Star Spangled Banner during the War of 1812 just off Fort McHenry to literary masters like Edgar Alan Poe, Gertrude Stein and John Barth.
I thought I would spend the rest of my life, somewhere on a creek not far from my beloved Chesapeake Bay, watching full sails kiss the horizon just off the Severn River. But a few years ago, when my husband accepted a job in Jacksonville, Florida, I went from blue crabs to Maryport shrimp and cherry blossoms to orange. I've landed from the northern most state just below the Mason-Dixon to the southern most state in the deep south.
How does one make this kind of transition?
I can tell you: for me, very slowly.
I'm terrified of walking near ponds or lakes - I used to take our dogs well away from the edges of any water when we moved here. Alligators have ruined the concept of boating for me and native Floridians laugh at me, genuinely mystified. I mean, you can get stung by a jelly fish in Maryland waters, but it isn't going to cause you to lose a limb! Maryland is a small state, but it's coastlines are many. You can swing a broom and hit a burger joint or a fine dining, white tablecloth restaurant with a waterview nearly everywhere, but dead center of the state. Springtime in Maryland is the prettiest - the scents of honeysuckle, wrapped and draped over fencelines, lily-of-the-valley in our heritage garden and the gorgeous fringed petals of the tulips, from bulbs friends sent us from Amsterdam, are dearly missed.
The adjustment was not easy, but we landed in north Florida, which for my southern sensibilities, has been a blessing. So close to the Georgia line, it's the absolute truth that in Florida, the further north you go, the more southern it is! The people in this area are among some of the nicest, most genuinely helpful and polite I've met in my entire life. Our first apartment on the St. John's River, across from downtown Jacksonville, had me on our balcony riveted while I watched dolphins feed under the 'blue bridge' in the evening.
We now live in a home where the honeysuckle is replaced by jasmine which, unattended by the former home owner, has grown to a fifty foot veil that drapes from a tall cypress tree in our back yard. Now, when outside in April, the breeze picks up the scent of jasmine and delivers it where I sit on the patio. It reminds me of the honeysuckle in my parents' yard, the scent of which would trail down the hill and hit my nose while I was reading a book in early summer. It's a nice, and comforting, experience.
Fashion is different here, too. My classic blues and preppy wardrobe still translate, but with, maybe, less classic "nautical" and more of a "beach" vibe. Style is dictated more by the weather and, frankly, mood which carries with it a much more casual vibe seen in most places in Jax. I still enjoy dressing up, though, and I'm much more comfortable being who I am (not a surfer!) while adapting, and appreciating, local culture.
One evening, I stood in the surf, looking back at Jacksonville Beach. In that moment of the gloaming, the last bit of apricot sunlight, with the amber lights coming on from the homes along the beach, I looked up and realized that it was time to embrace the new. That one cannot fully engage in one's purpose, where we are, if we are trying so hard to hold onto something else. We need to make room. Moving on doesn't mean forgetting. It simply means we live with all we have to give in the moment. A tree can have strong roots, but the best trees grow enormous branches that bask in the sunlight, flow in the breezes and stretch as far as they can.
Jacksonville, genuinely, has the most gorgeous sunsets I've ever seen - including those I've witnessed along coastal Spain and Greece. They are stunning - with shows every single night. The constellations appear brighter away from city lights, the football fans are fiercely loyal, but kind and friendly to everyone, including visiting fans (both refreshing and unusual). I enjoy seeing people drive around in golf carts - I feel like every day I'm at a resort - and while I'm having difficulty locating blue crab, the grouper and local shrimp, caught daily, are fresh and delicious. I still have it all with Old Bay, though - some things will never change!