I spent last week in Key West, Florida. It was one of the most restful vacations I have taken. When I was moving throughout Europe I was either studying, or worrying about the safety of myself and my girlfriend – Where would we eat? What street is safe? How much money should we carry? How do you ask for help in the country’s language? – that sort of thing.
There is much to the Key West story, most of it humorous. But that’s not meant for here. I am currently drafting an essay about the experience. I want to make sense of the trip and what I felt there. The best way to make sense of my feelings about a subject is to write about it. I want to write about why I want to write about it. Slightly meta and slightly confusing.
2011 was a long, difficult, year. Facebook and Twitter seems to say that it was the same for a majority of people on New Year’s Eve. The trip to Key West was originally billed as a trip to Colorado last summer. However, I discovered a tumor on my recently adopted dog. His surgery and recovery forced our hand to cancel the Colorado trip. According to Southwest Airlines policy, we had to book our next trip with the credit from the cancellation within the year. We were able to find cheap airfare, book a four star hotel for $300 less during it’s peak season which started the week after we left. The trip became symbolic. It would start the new year (2012), it would be post graduate school for me and, though it would mean the beginning of unemployment, it would be the start of the next step in both our lives.
What You Call a Vacation
I have never considered Key West a destination. Growing up in New England, my classmates and neighbors would disappear during February and March only to return looking well rested, tanned, and with the most interesting stories about far away lands called Miami, Orlando, New Orleans, and Phoenix. I never saw the point, really. The brief time away was just that, a respite from the cold only to come back staring head long at the remaining days of cold and slush before it broke into spring. Even with the literary draw to Key West (Ernest Hemingway and Tennessee Williams) I was never chomping at the bit to go. Only once, as an undergraduate, did I take up the call for warmer climates. My aunt lives in Huntington Beach, California. I went in March my sophomore year with my best friend. We drank well and spent our time on the beach, Disney, Universal Studios, etc. We also drank. But still, when I returned to my college town after that week, the area received some of the heaviest snow fall that lasted into late April. Within days of returning, I forgot about the warmth and beach and returned to salt encrusted boots and a damp watch cap on my head as I trudged from my room to the newspaper office each night.
The Sunshine State
When we stepped through the airport doors out into the 77 degree Floridian air all of my preconceived ideas about how forgettable a trip like this would seem once I returned home slid away. HAving left on the day of the New Hampshire primary, I was checking in with Twitter, bought a few papers, and watched on the airport televisions (there was a connection in Baltimore) for updates on the voting. But once I felt the warmth of the outdoors, I recycled my papers, turned my phone off, and turned my back to the TV. This was a vacation after all.
We arrived early and the shuttle would be a while. We went back into the airport and drank at the bar. A few days later, while drinking my second screwdriver at an outdoor breakfast spot dressed in shorts, sandals, and a thin t-shirt, I realized just how much the infrastructure of the island was designed through the service industry. Everyone was a tourist or at least from somewhere else originally. It would be like living in Washington D.C., where no one is actually from D.C. and if everyday was labor day weekend. Of course, in order to have a place like this function people do have to live there and work there. It was these people, who appeared to have an ample supply of faux-gratitude for you and your vacation to give. These people are working class, serving drinks, bringing your towels, selling you cheap trinkets to take home as souvenirs. These people work at their jobs for the privilege to live in a place like Key West. To sit on boats on days off and sip sweet drinks. To watch the sunset at the end of the world as it burns out in a blaze of orange. To forget that in a day, or two, it will be back to watching others enjoy a week of that those precise hours they experience once in a while.
And I haven’t mentioned the retirees.
But now I am saddled with the fact that I took part in this. I somehow stepped over the fence to where the grass is supposedly greener. Who wouldn’t want to spend a lifetime in a place like this? Hurricanes be damned, this may be heaven. Hemiingway called Paris a “moveable feast,” but surely he must have felt the same way about Key West. Why else would he live here? And too many, I believe Key West is a moveable feast.
I grew up in a town settle along the Atlantic Ocean. It isn’t so much a destination area as it is a place people go in the summer because they can. Regardless, I know the type who come in expecting to waited on with everything. I worked in the service industry there through my teens and into college. Looking back on it now, I can say that it was good work. I was paid well hourly and received tips. But I did envy the people who came in for dinner as guests to the town. When I worked for the state run liquor store – precariously placed along Interstate 95 – I watched families from various states around the country come through buying bottles of rum, whiskey, and vodka to bring with them to beach houses and camp grounds. I was always looking forward to my hour lunch break and going home at 5 p.m., stopping for a quick swim at the beach before supper and going to the bar before waking up to do it all over again the following day.
I tried not to let the idea that I had transformed into on of these lucky-vacationing-people bother me, and, for the remainder of the vacation, I was able to put it out of my head. But, on that final day as I shuttled back to the airport, those thoughts returned. What do we expect of other people on these trips? What do we expect to gain? Do we become different people? I don’t know. More importantly, will writing about it save me from the internal struggle of my role in the conflict?
“I can see why people want to live here,” I said to my girlfriend.
She agreed with me.
“It makes sense to retire to a place like this,” I continued.
“Why wait until then?”
“Well,” I said. But I couldn’t come back with a better answer than that.
“People from New England feel like they have to struggle before they can feel any sort of relaxation,” she said. “Why not just move here now?”
Maybe she was right. Maybe I had never felt keen on moving to an area like this, or any warmer laid back type city, because at twenty-six I felt as though I hadn’t paid my dues. I considered this was we made connection flights home and as I scraped ice from my car windshield in the airport parking lot, the cold whipping my exposed flesh and my bare hands catching the sharp ice and opening wounds. There was, I thought, somewhere else I could be.