The day after we arrive in Florida, we’re relaxing by the water in Bradenton Beach, listening to the sounds of the waves and the seagulls. Our four chairs are propped up in soft white sand alongside a tall umbrella, with a cooler and bags packed with books and snacks and iPhones nearby, and I think to myself, “You know, there’s just something about the ocean…”
We’re here on a four-day getaway with our friends Terry and Carrie, who had a client with a house that that she’s sharing with us. Free of charge, she gave us her keys and her fridge and her pool, and her king-sized beds and balconies, and let us call this place home for the long weekend.
This vacation was a sort of belated birthday present for Tim, whose one birthday request was to take a trip with these friends. This is the longest vacation and first time we’ve been back to beaches since our honeymoon, and we almost can’t believe it’s happening.
The thing I always feel when I stand next to the ocean, hearing the lapping waves and staring out at the unending blue-green waters, is how small I am compared to it, how I am barely noticeable.
It’s like driving through a hailstorm or watching a flood: what you’re looking at is so much bigger than you are, it’s almost overwhelming – but in a way that humbles you and makes you feel grateful, rather than making you feel insecure.
I say to Tim when we’re driving in on Wednesday, “It’s weird to think I lived here once, for my entire freshman year.”
We go up to Clearwater Beach on Friday, the beach I used to drive to with friends, and I think of my old Volkswagen Jetta, the one with maroon paint and a broken bumper that I’d have to pull off the road to re-duct-tape when it came loose in the wind.
We find the spot where Terry and Carrie got engaged, and it’s just behind Leverock’s, a restaurant in St. Petersburg that has since closed, that I used to go to when out-of-town friends came in to visit, long before I knew them, before I knew Tim.
We drive through my old campus, and I see the dorms that gave me bedbugs, and the dining hall where I made waffles, and the field where I watched soccer games that my roommates’ boyfriends played in.
Seeing these old sites is a little like looking at the ocean, or flipping through old yearbooks, or mentally going back in time. They remind me of my small place in this world, of how hindsight often dwarfs things, of how some memories get cloudy with time.
It’s also like looking at a former version of myself, one that was terribly unsure of life and the future, what I would study or what I would pursue, and feeling glad that I am different now, with degrees and a job. Yet, at the same time, I’m looking at her and feeling sad to be the same in many ways, sometimes unsure, sometimes wondering where I belong.
We visit Tarpon Springs, a town I remember for its historic town square and trees covered in Spanish moss. But today, it gives us sponge docks, tourist shops, and a wide stretch of Greek cafes that remind me of the Mediterranean.
I think about how different things look when you’re 18, when you haven’t traveled much outside of a one-off high school trip, and vacations with your family. I think about the gift of learning to explore, and how that gift gives you new eyes and perspective, enough that it changes places you thought you once knew.
We scout out cool places to eat, from smoothies at Eco-Bean Coffee House and Juice Bar, at 501 North Pinellas Avenue in Tarpon Springs, to fresh orange juice from a random roadside stand that puts “orange grove” in quotation marks.
There’s dinner one night at The Refinery, at 5910 North Florida Avenue in Tampa, where the dining room is fully booked but we have our pick of seats at the empty upstairs patio off the bar.
And my favorite meal, hands down, is Saturday night at Mi Pueblo. Located at 8405 Tuttle Avenue in Sarasota, it’s a Mexican restaurant that offers both a traditional and an organic menu, as well as a festive interior of star lights and Mexican tiling, with bold colors everywhere you turn.
Tim and I split a burrito made of sunflower seed “beans” and vegetables in a citrus sauce, wrapped in a giant collard leaf that makes me feel like I’m eating a garden, and we drink a licuado de chocolate made of macadamia nuts, cacao, banana, and spices.
We read, and we watch a movie, and we walk a few blocks from the house to see the sunset along the water, and our pace slows down as life becomes more simple.
And Tim takes my hand, and I tell him I’m thankful for the ways God changes us over time.
That first day by the beach, we packed a cooler full of food, including four tumblers of this tropical lemonade Tim whipped up at the house. A few hours of sand and sunshine later, they were the perfect refreshment and treat – great for sipping by the water while we soaked up more sun.
I hope you try it yourself at home, and that maybe you’ll get to visit and enjoy this beautiful place yourself someday. And who knows – maybe you’ll even reflect and learn something about yourself while you’re there.
Photos by Shanna Mallon, © Ask the Experts, LLC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. See our TOS for more details.
About Shanna Mallon
Shanna Mallon is a freelance writer who holds an MA in writing from DePaul University. Her work has been featured in a variety of media outlets, including The Kitchn, Better Homes & Gardens, Taste of Home, Houzz.com, Foodista, Entrepreneur, and Ragan PR. In 2014, she co-authored The Einkorn Cookbook with her husband, Tim. Today, you can find her digging into food topics and celebrating the everyday grace of eating on her blog, Go Eat Your Bread with Joy. Shanna lives in Nashville, Tennessee, with Tim and their two small kids.