A Different World

Moving from South Florida to the DC/Maryland/Virginia area involves a bit of culture shock. Following are a few of the areas where I’ve had to adjust. These are just my initial impressions, so salt them as heavily as you’d like.

Autumn trees, Maryland
Autumn trees, Maryland

Geography

  • When you break it down, nothing is straightforward here, least of all the roads. Everything curves and twists, moving through odd arcs and angles: up, down, left, right, and every variation between.
  • There isn’t any street grid (except in DC itself). Particularly in Maryland, the streets curve back on themselves with reckless abandon. I can’t prove it, but I am fairly certain I went through an intersection where a road crossed itself.
  • This twisty pattern is further complicated by these things called “hills.” I would try to explain it for the education of native Miamians, but I suspect their brains won’t be able to grasp the concept of higher elevation without being in a condominium. Everything is above sea level. I think the sea is above sea level.
  • The cities are spread out across land, rather than running from one right into the next. Paradoxically, you can drive through several states in the time it would take to get from South beach to Boca Raton. Since moving here I’ve been to Maryland, DC, Virginia, and West Virginia, and I’ve been a comparative homebody.
Winter yard
Winter yard

Environment

  • Bear in mind that I’ve only been here through the end of summer, fall, and the start of winter, I’m sure this will change.
  • One of the first things I noticed is how green the land is. As weird as it sounds, there is more access to nature here than in all of South Florida. It brings home what my British friend said on her visit last year: Miami smells like concrete. There nature is something you use to sell condos; here, nature is built into the culture.
  • Seasons aren’t defined by the arrival of northern tourists. You can see the passage of time all around you.
  • The sun sets at 3:30pm and doesn’t rise until around 10am, but I hear that varies by time of year. Again, it isn’t always the same! How do they cope with all this change?
  • The humidity ranges from “Did I fall in a creek and not notice?” to “Hang on, I need to patch the cracks in my face.” This can be disconcerting.
  • This leads to something I had only heard about on television commercials: static cling so severe that two pairs of slacks and three polo shirts can be removed from the dryer with two fingers.
  • There are corner bodegas older than Miami. History is respected and honored, not paved over for a new mall.
Sunset over the Potomac
Sunset over the Potomac

Food & Culture

  • Many people are multilingual, although relatively few speak Spanish only. With the extremely large Ethiopian community, you’d think I’d hear plenty of Amharic, but they all speak English, too.
  • “Spanish” isn’t a synonym for “Cuban” here, even among ignorant Anglos. In fact, Cuba is generally seen as just another Caribbean nation, not the center of the universe. Interestingly, from this direction, Canada is located between DC and Havana.
  • I haven’t found a place to get a cafecito or some masas de puerco yet, but delicious pho and wat are everywhere. In fact, by comparison, Miami’s culinary options are positively provincial.
  • Being an intellectual isn’t automatic grounds for mockery, perhaps because intellectuals are in the majority (in spite of the presence of Congress).
  • There’s a baseball team which is actually admired by the locals, perhaps because it doesn’t sell off its best players every year. I can’t tell you if they are any good, but how well they are playing doesn’t affect the amount of support they get, unlike Miami, which only supports teams when they are winning.
  • People wear clothes in public, even when they are going out to clubs. I wondered why the women looked odd to me, but then I realized I hadn’t seen a bare midriff since I arrived.
  • Did you know breast implants come in cup sizes smaller than DD? I’ve seen occasional ads for plastic surgeons, so I’m sure someone’s buying them, but I have yet to see a woman displaying a prow ready to be christened with a bottle of champagne. As opposed to, well, basically all of Miami.
  • Just as in Miami, many people take themselves far too seriously. However, instead of arrogance based on cosmetic surgery and national origin, locals get snooty over job titles and living in the right neighborhood.

The single biggest difference between the areas, though, is their attitudes toward change. Miami is a young region — America’s obnoxious teenage daughter with her daddy’s Platinum AmEx — and still doesn’t know what it wants to be when it grows up. Most of its energy is focused on the ephemeral and superficial, and it turns up its nose at the past the way a kid rolls her eyes at her parents. But it is filled with creative potential, and once it stops staring into the mirror it will be a creative powerhouse.

Conversely, DC is a moderately successful middle-aged white guy who thinks he has it all figured out, as long as no one changes things around on him. There’s a reverence for the past, but it’s so comfortable with the status quo it has developed an unfortunate tendency to resist change. Regardless of what you might hear, Washington is extremely conservative: even the liberals are skeptical of anything too radical. However, it’s adult enough to recognize the value in progress. And when it takes off its Brooks Brothers suit for a while it knows how to shake things up. Remember, 1980s Washington was the birthplace of the hardcore punk movement.

In the end, though, maybe it’s the weather. In DC seasons change, leaves fall all around us, constant reminders of the inexorable passage of time. In Miami, nothing really changes, so tomorrow never comes; it’s always summer vacation.

7 thoughts on “A Different World”

  1. Very insightful. Having lived the opposite way – grew up in New England and moved to Miami – I agree with your assessment. You didn’t mention that people in DC will probably say hello and be friendly – (They do in Boston) where in Miami people are just rude. I overheard a security guard talking to a couple tourists downtown this week – he said “People in Miami are not nice, trust me: Be careful” The sad truth is he was just being honest.

  2. lAst time I was in DC I was amazed at the ethnic and racial diversity everywhere, and How comfortable everybody seemed to be about it (as opposed to Miami). I stayed in a hotel with a south Pacific themed bar that attracted a largely western European trade — while the bartenders and waitstaff were all Hungarian! And you’re right about the Asian cuisine — it’s all over, all different, and all good.

    PS You’ll love the mid-Atlantic spring, which comes early.

  3. I’m so glad you haven’t lost your writing style up there … it must be positively bizarre to adapt after so many years down here with Amex girl. 🙂 I can’t wait to read your posts about snow!

  4. You named most of my most often cited Things That We Broke In Miami. I miss having cultural diversity…food, people, customs, languages, attitudes…and nature, of all things. I miss you, too.

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