Neighbors can make or break the place you call home. When I moved to Oregon in 2002, I experienced culture shock. I’d easily lived and traveled in Germany, Italy, Japan, England, Switzerland, a handful of other European countries, and most of the US, but Oregon just took some getting used to. People didn’t smile at me in passing the way they had growing up. They didn’t drive on the freeway like they were trying to get somewhere. Towns turned away progressive moves like adding a much-needed Wal-Mart or paving more entrances to existing shops so you could actually access them. This southern girl who didn’t leave the house without my makeup on discovered vast numbers of women who never wore it at all, and managed to look polished anyway. And don’t even get me started on having to let someone else pump my gas! It was a confusing time. It took me about five years to begin to understand the people and the culture, and getting to know the people around me is what allowed that to happen. I came to think of Oregon as my home, and I know now that Oregon and Oregonians will always hold a very special place in my heart.
And then there are other places where I’ve felt like an instant native – places that speak to my soul right off the bat and warmly welcome me with their friendly vibe. It’s been a match made in heaven on just about every Caribbean island I’ve ever visited, as well as in Italy. And now I can add Jacksonville, Florida to the list. Jacksonville is a place this Texan never ever had any desire to go. It sounded like a “meh” kind of city with a “meh” kind of beach… well, actually I’d never heard anything about it so I guess that’s just what I pictured in my head the entire .25 seconds I gave it any thought.
But hallelujah, I’ve seen the light! …And been quickly converted by its culture, its bottomless variety of things to do, and not least of all, its people. JAX also happens to have The Mayo Clinic, and that’s what took my sister and her hubby there late last year for some stays which were extended enough that they up and bought a condo for when they needed to be there.
A beach condo no less, which, happily, needed to be furnished and decorated! And that’s where I come in. My sister and I both love shopping for and slapping some pretty onto a place. We have the same taste (in shoes, food, decor, and vacations) so we’ve had some fun with it. On the few visits we’ve made there, we’ve hit nearly every beach-cottage-furniture place on the east side – some so many times they know us now and dollar signs flash in their eyes when we walk in the door. As that phase has wound down and the couch now holds an array of throw pillows deep enough to lose yourself in haystack-style, we wanted to just relax there a little and enjoy the fruits of all the labor, so my sister, our mom, and I, along with all three dogs, took a trip over recently.
Now, one of the loveliest things about Jacksonville Beach (the specific community of Jacksonville where the condo sits) is how much it feels like a tiny little hometown, set down in the midst of this vast city. Looking down from the balcony, the street below is thick with bicycles, runners, and people walking their dogs at just about any time of day. There’s too many restaurants and bars within walking distance to shake a stick at, and neighbors get together on the beach or in backyards for barbecues, pulling in whoever happens to wander by. There’s always something fun going on!
When we arrived this time, we immediately got the news that an upstairs neighbor’s welcome-to-the-neighborhood party was the thing going on for that weekend. And we were the guests of honor (well, really my sister, but us too since we were there).
On the heels of our furniture-rearranging and taking the dogs for long walks and trying new places for dinner, it sounded like a fun evening. We stacked some fabulously fluffy cookies on a platter and walked upstairs. And were immediately welcomed enthusiastically into a frenzy of southern accents. Each of us had drinks slapped into our hands and were peeled off into different clusters of people where we chatted away as if we’d known each other forever.
I listened to the raucous lady with the cute, sassy hair who had me bent over laughing at the brazen stuff coming out of her mouth. The smiling older woman with her gray hair pouffed on top of her head who drives a red corvette and asked my sister about me “Sugah, why is she single? She’s perfect!” The sweet single mom who is the newest member of the bunch. The adorable couple made up of the friendly blonde and her ukulele-strumming New Zealander hubby. The spicy, pretty one from across the street who said she’s looking for someone to help keep her out of trouble on nights like this when she’s having fun (not romantically – she’s happily married). Our wonderfully friendly and gracious hosts, who feel like family members to all of us now. And so many others. More than one of them is the type you look at and think “Oh she/he is a mess!” And you love them for it, because they’re so much fun and so genuine.
If you’re not a Southerner, it may sound odd… or not. For us, it felt like home. The air was thick and loud with the clamor of stories and jokes and calls for drink refills, and we flapped our tongues until our throats were worn out from the effort of being heard above the din. It’s a good thing everyone in the building was in the room, because if they hadn’t been we would have kept them awake four floors down.
The food was fantastic. The drinks were cold. The company was warm and fascinating. The panoramic view out the wall of windows and off the 6th-floor patio was breathtaking. These people of all ages and origins had ended up together here and now called each other friends. Friends who wanted us to join them. Friends who began working on ways for us to relocate and become a part of their clan. Friends who hug and have coffee together and help each other out. And let me tell you, it’s a tempting notion.
Between the sheer number of things to do and restaurants to try (every single one of which is just amazing… amazing!) and shops to find everything you need or want, the inexplicable and foreign feeling of elbow room as you drive through the city, the easy access to downtown if you ever get an itch for more serious culture, the friendly warmth of the people, the surprising affordability compared to where we are now, the sidewalks and bike paths and outdoor lifestyle, the way JAX sits in a spot that’s somehow not a hurricane magnet… it makes for a very interesting bit of pondering.
One thing’s for sure: I’ve never met a place I was so stuck to I wouldn’t consider moving on when the next right place came along. So who’s to say Jacksonville isn’t in my future?…