Over the holidays I made my first trip back to the States in two-and-a-half years. While I wasn't exactly returning home (I come from Maryland and Virginia), I did consider my trip a kind of return to my "mother culture". I was both excited and curious by how much might have changed, either in me or in the US, and I was not disappointed.
My visit took place over the course of about nine days, during which I spent most of my time with my mother in Florida and on a brief trip to Charleston, South Carolina (though I'll save that for another post). Here are my overall impressions:
- Holy moly, Americans drive a lot! Yes, Germans are known for their love of the automobile and the Autobahn, however, I never get the feeling that you have to drive in Europe. We don't own a car, and for all of our daily activities, the public transportation or our feet will get us there. In Florida, everything was so spread out that we had to take the car -- to get to the grocery store, to go downtown, and to travel between cities. This was a bit of a shock as I'd forgotten just how much I relied on a car in the States.
- Americans are super friendly to strangers. And this is not to say that Germans aren't friendly -- I find them to be very much so -- but they do avoid talking to people they don't know, because well, why would you? In the States, on the other hand, strangers would comment on my smile when I was ordering food or strike up a conversation with me at the airport or in a store. I had forgotten just how friendly, or rather open, we can be as a culture.
- Portion sizes are different. I say different, because in Germany some plates of food can be quite large on purpose (like the XXL Schnitzel at Onkle Otto's). However, I was surprised to see such large sodas and popcorn at the movie theater when ordering a small size, and by how much I ate everywhere between the appetizer and entrée that I I grew accustomed to ordering.
- It was a relief not to have to struggle with language. I do love that I can mostly get by with my German now, but I still can't do some things naturally, like have anything other than basic conversations in German or go see a movie in a regular theater. This was when I found going to the movie theater in the States to be a real treat. It was just so easy not to feel at least somewhat limited by my language abilities when out and about.
Otherwise, life was pretty much the same. My mom and I had a lovely visit, and made it out to see some cool things and eat some delicious food. I'd never been to the St. Petersburg area before, but I had a great time exploring a new city. If you ever happen to be in the area, read on for a few of my favorite sights and bites.
St. Pete Beach -- Of course you can't go to Florida without seeing the beach. And although it was a bit chilly throughout most of my visit (the temperatures stayed in the mid-to-low 60s), I got to enjoy a barefoot walk across the white sand on St. Pete collecting sea shells. The beach is quite long so you can go anywhere, but we started at the Bon-Aire Resort Motel and walked down from there. We also made it up to Clearwater Beach on the trolley, and while I would recommend that beach as well, the trolley timetable was rather unreliable by German standards.
Downtown St. Pete -- I really enjoyed the tiny, American-style downtown area of St. Pete. We went there to do some shopping and to see a couple of movies at the outdoor Sundial shopping area. I recommend making a stop at Kilwin's ice cream parlor for their delicious homemade ice cream and odd treats like the bacon truffles. I also recommend stopping by the new Locale Market at Sundial. They have an impressive selection of both freshly prepared foods and fine goods, like dry-aged steaks, a variety of spices and grains, and lots of wine and craft beer.
Dali Museum -- We spent one morning at the Dali Museum, which happens to have the largest collection of Dali artwork outside of Europe. I particularly enjoyed seeing his earlier work in comparison to later, more eccentric pieces. At the time of our visit, there was a special Dali-Picasso exhibition going on that was quite interesting. Our visit included an audio guide in English, though they have several other languages, as well.
Universal Studios Orlando, Florida -- I'd been to Universal several times as a child, but I absolutely wanted to go back again on this visit for one reason: HARRY POTTER WORLD! We had to squeeze our visit into an afternoon, but despite our limited time, we still got to see both theme parks -- the Hogwarts Castle area and the Diagon Alley area. We even got to go on the castle ride (despite the 1-1/2 hour line) and took the Hogwart's Express to Gringott's for the bank ride. I think I preferred the bank ride a bit more, but both were equally fun and the areas were very well done. Had I been a child, I would have cleaned out my parents savings buying all the candy in Honeydukes, getting a wand and a robe, and stocking up on all my stationery and feather pens at Scribbulus. As it was, I walked away satisfied with a chocolate frog, a box of Bertie Bott's Every Flavour Beans for Matt, a butter beer, and some pumpkin juice.
BellaBrava -- This Italian-inspired restaurant in downtown St. Pete was one of my favorite meals. To start, my mom and I split the ahi tuna carpaccio with fried capers, pickled fennel, chili, lemon, and basil. We then split the honey rosemary chicken panini with applewood bacon, provolone, arugula, red onion and a dijon aioli and the pistachio pesto flatbread with goat cheese and oven dried tomatoes. I love this style of American food that combines fresh ingredients with new flavor combinations, and BellaBrava certainly does it right.
Kona Grill -- This tropical-themed chain was a bit of a lucky find. We were at a shopping mall in Sarasota and needed a quick bite to eat. Most of the other restaurants were completely packed, but this one still had a few tables open, which was surprising given how delicious the food was! We started with some strong, fruity cocktails and dined on fresh sushi from their lunch menu. I particularly liked the shrimp + lobster roll (lobster, habanero cream cheese, cucumber, shrimp, citrus aioli, and cucumber salsa) and the coconut shrimp roll (toasted macadamia nuts, mango, cucumber, cream cheese, rose nectar, and soy paper). Yum!
VIP Lounge and Mexican Restaurant -- We really lack good Mexican food in Germany, so my mom took me to this delicious, tiny place on Treasure Island. We nibbled on fresh corn tortilla chips with homemade guacamole, salsa, and queso while sipping some very strong (and cheap!) Margaritas. I especially liked my cheese-smothered, spicy "Wet Burrito" with shredded pork. This was one place to which I wish we'd gone back!
Ulele -- I wanted to treat my mother to dinner on my last night in the States, so I took her to this new restaurant on Tampa's Riverwalk that I discovered on Yelp. Their food is billed as "Native-inspired". We had an amazing meal with okra fries and fried calamari, followed by my snapper filet with a spanish aioli and white truffle garlic spinach and my mother's meatloaf. It sounds odd to order meatloaf in a restaurant, I know, but the meat was super fresh and came with a delicious cabernet garlic demi place, Tobacco onions, and white cheddar popcorn mashed potatoes. That said, my favorite part of the meal was our Three Sisters Garden salad with squash, zucchini, corn, red onion and peppers, cranberries, sunflower and pumpkin seeds, and an apple-cider honey vinaigrette. It was just a super delicious combination of fresh vegetables that we both enjoyed. Note that this super-swanky place was jam-packed on the Thursday night we visited, so be sure to make a reservation well in advance.
It might not look like much, but between my time in St. Pete and our visit to Charleston, I felt like my visit was jam-packed. And this list doesn't include my first stop at Five Guys Burgers and Fries at the Atlanta airport for an American burger, or our lunch at Outback Steakhouse just so I could have a Bloomin' Onion. My suitcase was also packed to the brim with everything from dill pickles (I can't seem to find good ones in Stuttgart) to cured beef (for making good-ol' Southern chipped beef gravy).
And as a final note on food, no matter how many times I've said it, I really have to stop eating the airline food. I know airlines are working hard to make the food better, but it's still just not good. Plus, every time I eat an in-flight meal, I still think back to the food poisoning I got on our way back from Japan.
So this concludes my recap of my trip back to the States. Have you recently been to Florida or are you familiar with the Tampa/St. Pete area? If you have any recommendations, I'd love to pass them along to my mom!