When, on my first week as a Florida resident, a woman approached me in the local Target and told me I had pretty eyes, I knew it wasn’t southern charm that motivated her to reach out.And in a state whose majority politics border on fascist, I doubted I was being hit on by the same sex in a public arena.That coupled with the fact that I was not, shall we say, dressed to impress – German fashion maybe having sunk in a little too far – I was only mildly surprised to have that followed up with the offer of a make-over.Mary Kay was welcoming me to the south.

I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised at all.After fourteen wonderful and eventually heartbreaking months in Germany, I moved back to the United States jobless and devastated.Berlin changed me in more ways than I can count, and when it became certain that I would return home alone, I knew that New York City was no longer mine.Too much history, too many changes. Twenty pounds heavier, having traded in my stilettos for flip flops, and emotionally broken from the protracted ending of a seven-year love affair, I have no doubt I looked in desperate need of a make-over.

If you’d asked me even months ago if I’d be living in the state voted Most Likely to Secede during the last elections, I’d have called you crazy and kicked you in the shin for even suggesting it.But somehow the sun, the sand, the ease of living, the opportunity to teach the tiny people I love, and the image of sitting on a beach with my wobbly dog and sipping champagne took hold and I started having crazy thoughts like:

“Change happens at the local level!I can really make a difference here rather than just be another voice in the crowd.Florida liberals, unite!All three of us!”

Nine out of fourteen months in almost total Germanic darkness will lead to such thinking.The call of the sunshine was irresistible.

Somehow in my enthusiasm, I neglected to consider how difficult it might be to meet like-minded people in a situation like this.First of all, my hair was not at all big enough to earn the respect of the southern female.Neither did I have enough pink in my wardrobe.In fact, I didn’t have the right wardrobe at all!After years in New York and Berlin, I found myself staring daily at a sea of black clothes I could no longer fit into.Luckily, tight is en vogue in the Tampa area, so even though my clothes are the wrong color, season and style, nobody seems to notice they don’t fit.

My eventual landing was soft.I stayed with close friends for a month while getting settled and was introduced to several more wonderful people in the area.I began to feel on steadier ground and even found a cottage in a liberal enclave affectionately termed “the gayborhood.”

In the quest to restart my life, I started trying to fill in my social calendar a bit.I ventured out to a local club.Why do I never learn?The ultra lounge seems to be it in the Tampa Bay area.I can’t tell you what an “ultra lounge” is, other than filled with young women I can’t distinguish from prostitutes and buffed up, greased up, Ed Hardy-wearing guys, 15 years younger than I am and all ready to grind to the latest techno nightmare.Given my age and the almost allergic reaction I have to midriff tops and spandex, this was clearly not where I would find my Southern persona.

After that, I dragged some girlfriends to a fashion show, fashion being a loose term here as it was largely filled with silk-screened t-shirts we couldn’t see.The models who wore them were unable to find the glowing, orange X on the floor that told them where to stand. Not one of them stood in the spotlights, not one!Seriously?That X fluoresces, girls, I swear.

Since then I’ve tried art openings, wine tastings, a Cyndi Lauper concert – which was fabulous with a capitol F, by the way – a summer concert series, foreign films, opera and theater.These smack so much more of my previous life and I feel comforted to find them available here.But even so the flavor is different and I still end up feeling a fish out of water somehow.Maybe it’s my inability to slide into one category or another; not total crunch, not total chic, big dose of geek.It seems like I’d fit in better trying to don the Florida combination of not total redneck, not total corrupt politician, big dose of flatbed truck, but I’m not there and doubt I’ll arrive anytime soon.

I love my friends here.They have been so welcoming, and truly instrumental in my settling in. But as I’ve begun to heal, I’ve also begun to realize living in a gay neighborhood and having mostly gay friends, while great for my politics, my hair and my wardrobe, does keep me perhaps a bit insulated in some important ways. My first efforts to invent my new Southern self and move forward with my life have come up a little…bedazzled?Don’t get me wrong, I love the glitter, I’m just not totally me yet.Re-entering the community-at-large is something I’ll eventually have to negotiate, I suppose, and taking fashion cues from Trixie, my favorite drag queen, may not gain me the kind of attention I want.(Sorry darling, you know I think you’re fabulous!)What’s a woman to do?

I’m not sure yet how I’m going to redefine my life and my wardrobe down here.Clothes have always been a part of the process for me.Make-up, too.Like Lawrence Olivier, I need to walk in the shoes to understand the time, place and character.In New York I auditioned in Jimmy Choos, in Berlin I taught in Dansko clogs.So far I haven’t found shoes to suit me here.Maybe that’s why I keep buying more?Food for thought.There’s so much yet to figure out.

Ten pounds down, a new business underway, single again and in a brand new city, my life is nowhere I’d ever imagined it would be at 39.But with the help of my new Mary Kay lady, Trixie and St. Pete fashion, it’s bound to be full of color, glitter and big hair.Right now, I don’t see anything wrong with that.

Colleen McGrath is a twice transplanted former New Yorker who, like all New Yorkers who don't know where to go next, ended up in Florida. Opera singer and teacher of small, drooling children, Ms. McGrath has written professionally about such interesting topics as PORON for a communications company and while she found it both interesting and fulfilling, (bald-faced lie), the call to a more creative style was stronger. She is happy to be flexing those muscles on The Nervous Breakdown.

53 responses to “Pink Shoes and Big Hair: A repat’s re-entrance into life in the good ol’ USA”

  1. “the state voted Most Likely to Secede”

    I do believe that is the best description I’ve heard of our fair state in ages…

    As for YOUR fair state – I just know you will be back on those two sparkling feet of yours in no time, regardless of how they are attired.

  2. Irene Zion says:

    Colleen,

    It will grow on you.
    I love Florida.
    Give it time.
    No place is
    home
    right away.

  3. You’re right, of course. And I do love it. How could I not? But I’m not going to pretend there’s not an adjustment. You are wise, as always, Irene. Thank you for the comfort.

  4. Matt says:

    Yaaaayyy!!! Colleen’s back! We’ve missed you!

    Sorry to hear that your return to the U.S. has not been under the most auspicious of circumstances. It’s never easy when a relationship ends, even without thousands of miles of international travel being invloved. But I defer to Kimberly’s opinion: you’ll be back on your feet soon enough.

    In the meantime, keep in mind that we’re all glad to have you back here in our little TNB cyber-country.

  5. Zara Potts says:

    My darling Colleen.
    I can imagine the struggle it’s been. Protracted endings carry with them their very own brand of grief. I am glad you are on home soil though – even if it is taking sometime to adjust. As Dorothy said: “There’s no place like home.’ Especially when you have to reinvent yourself.
    Don’t ditch all the black clothes though – black is the new black. My own wardrobe is bursting with non-colour!
    And Taxi – he is wobbly? I hope he is giving you lots of cuddles.
    I’m so glad to see you back here. You are wonderful. I hope you know that…

    • YOU are wonderful! I was so sorry to miss you two when you were in the States. Sigh, guess I will have to venture to you next time. What a hardship! 😉

      Thank you for your kindness, Zara. You are such a special woman. I’ll save my blacks for you as they are the new black and all. We’ll get them out together over a fabulous glass of wine in a fabulous bar somewhere fabulous. Good?

      Taxi is wobbly after his surgery last year but he walks and that’s all that really matters. He’s too proud to cuddle but he’s my love.

  6. Mindy Macready says:

    Almost heard Henny Youngman 🙂

    I began to feel on steadier ground and even found a cottage in a liberal enclave affectionately termed “the gayborhood.”

    Ohhhh , you are reading along ….you are smiling…this is nice…you are smirking..nice..more nice…then this sets me off to laughingland.

    Welcome back home…and go! Libs!

  7. Cara says:

    Welcome home!

    I’m sorry to hear about your heartbreak. If nothing else, sleep soundly in the fact that you did everything you could and went further for love than most would ever dare to do.
    Lately I too have felt that New York is no longer mine; maybe I’ve changed too much, maybe I’m tired of it beating me up.
    Perhaps someday I’ll join you in sunny Florida!
    So good to hear that you are surrounded by good friends. Soon enough, it will feel like home!

    As always, your bravery is an inspiration. Let me know if you decide to visit NYC, I’d love to split a bottle–who am I kidding–a case of wine with you!

    My Love to you and Taximan! xoxo

    *C*

  8. Becky says:

    Florida’s fine, but it ain’t home, New York’s home but it ain’t mine nooo mooore.

    I am…I said.

    To no one there.

    And no one heard at all, not even their hair…

  9. amanda says:

    thanks so much for the catch up! I’m sorry to hear WHY you’re back but I’m glad you are.

    I, too, felt the sea change and knew it was time to move on. I’ve relocated to Raleigh, NC, where I *also* thought “Change happens at the local level! I can really make a difference here rather than just be another voice in the crowd” and in a way, I have!

    and then after I’ think, “eh” because things here are so much… smaller. I’m still thinking in NYC sizes.

    anyway, if you ever want to mosey up North a few hundred miles, you’ll be welcomed with open arms.

    We can discuss *my* closet filled with black clothes that no longer fit. ha!

    • You’re on, sister. And that invitation goes both ways!

      Yeah, one never really *leaves* New York. It leaves an indelible impression that’s hard to erase. Once a New Yorker, always, I think.

      Hope you’re enjoying Raleigh, though! How cool! You’ll have to tell me how you got involved in change up there.

  10. Simon Smithson says:

    Colleen! You’re home! In so many ways!

    Welcome back to the US, and sorry to hear about the circumstances that brought you back. You’ll make it through. Don’t worry about a thing 🙂

    Or, simply put:

    USA! USA!

    • ‘Cause every little thing…is gonna be alright now.

      Yeah, you’re right. It’s good to be home. But I’m not doing the nationalistic chant thing down here. I’ll be covered in gun-slinging rednecks before you can say boo!

      Thanks for the welcome home, Simon!

  11. Don Mitchell says:

    Re-entry is always tough, and you picked an outlier state for it.

    How’s the crack in your Mac doing, by the way?

  12. Haha! The crack in my mac is all gone to be exact as the apple folk fixed it right up! They took it away but came back the same day with a casing that’s clean and okay.

  13. Angelica says:

    Dearest, sweetest, wonderful writer Colleen,

    So glad you are back to blogging – I only read yours and was having serious withdrawal. Now I’m all better, thanks to you!

    Miss you terribly. Sending you tons of strength, inspiration, hope, and renewal! I can see the future and you will find your way. I know it.

    Love ya honey!

    Angelica

  14. Love you too! Thanks for being such a supportive fan and friend, oh New York neighbor of mine.

  15. dwoz says:

    You’re starting a liberal enclave in the belly of the beast? I’m in. Will there be sun and conch shells?

  16. No conch, I’m a veg-head. But sun and sand and rum, YES! Bring friends.

  17. dwoz says:

    In my lexicon, rum is one of the four food groups.

    So, are you singing? Tampa has a few houses, no?

  18. Wine is in mine.

    Not yet, except for my pets. I like to let the buzz spread a bit first. Ha! No, I’ll get there. Getting a start up off the ground is no small feat, even if it’s for those with little feet. In the works of starting a fab new art series for the area though and enjoying that process. Stay tuned…

  19. dwoz says:

    Me:

    Tenor.

    untrained.

    unworthy.

    unwashed.

    but I like rum! (why is it always gone?)

  20. Marni Grossman says:

    Colleen- it’ll get easier, hopefully. My life is a mess too so I’m counting on that. Welcome back!

  21. Thanks, Marni. I’m sorry you’re going through some hard stuff too! We’ll survive together, yeah?

  22. Nina Perino says:

    Wow Colleen. What a Fantastic, funny, and engaging read! I wouldn’t worry about fitting in here, 11 years away from NY, I love it here, but I still miss Long Island, and sometimes still feel like a fish out of water. People don’t always ‘get’ me, my sense of humor and take on things. I will always poke affectionate fun at Flori-duh(my niece & nephews phrase)! Yet it is probably the best thing I ever decided to do. I have met nothing but awesome and amazing people and keep meeting them all the time. I’ve met some of my closest friends since moving here. There is always something to do and see and it’s a lifestyle I would not trade right now. What Florida lacks in progressiveness they make up for in billboards and strip clubs! We do need more minds like yours here, especially since we lost 4 amazing people to Cali and Maryland. And by the way, though I’m no fashionista, you fit in wonderfully and your gorgeous, beautiful, and your clothes(and shoes) do work sweetie!

    • Thank you, Nina! You have been one of those people that let me know as soon as I meet them that I’m in a good place. You’re right, there are good folk here, you among them, and St. Pete has a lot to offer. Just never imagined in a million years I’d be living in Florida. Italy, yes, Germany, yup, New York again, if I had to, but Florida??? Still, it’s pretty damn good. Who’d a thunk it?

  23. andee says:

    Colleen, we are living opposite lives! after 11 years in Tampa I fled to NYC and left an ex-husband in Florida!!! wow….Growing up in the Northeast I never got used to Florida, missed the 4 seasons, but I sure got used to the single life again real quick!!! and so will you. You are so talented and sweet, he must have been outside of his mind…better now than with that piece of paper darlin…”Curly girl” is all I need…She misses her friend taxi and we both miss you. Take care, and have fun in the sun! andee

    • I miss you and Curly too, Andee! Actually, I’ve begun to miss aspects of New York, although not the life I led there. Working two full time jobs just to make ends meet was, shall we say, not good for my mental health. But I can imagine what brought you back. Thanks for the good words too. They are much appreciated. And Taxi and I are hoping you are so well in NYC and we send hugs and licks respectively to you both!

  24. Nathaniel Missildine says:

    They say being a repat is much harder than being an ex. I’ve been abroad for seven years now and even settled down and started a family, but it hasn’t stopped me from entertaining ideas of coming back to the States. So it’s interesting to hear the perspective of someone like you. We even had a chance last spring to spend a week’s vacation with family in Sarasota. All the locals we met seemed great and overall the area made a pretty good case for starting a life down there.

    Good luck with the readjustment, you’re probably in the right place.

  25. Thank you! I think you’re right. There’s a lot to be had down here culture-wise. But it’s interesting, what you say about repats. It might be true, I’m not sure yet for me. But I can say I am pulled in three ways all the time now. Gets confusing, but I do think I’m in the right place in the end. I’ll just have to earn enough to travel a lot so I don’t go nutsy coo coo.

    Where are you and your family? How long have you been expats?

    Thanks for reading!!!

  26. Erika Rae says:

    It’s so good to read you again, my dear. Here’s what impresses me about this post (other than the obvious honesty and great humor in the midst of crisis): that you can write this post at all being in the middle. You know – not on either side, just in the middle. So often, I have to wait things out to see how they turn out to be able to write about them. I seem to need more processing time. I always WISH I could have written about something as it was happening, but it seems I never can grasp the big picture. But you seem to have done this, and with grace, no less. Impressed as hell, am I.

  27. Erika Rae, thank you! It’s good to see your gravatar! Thanks for all the supportive words. The middle is indeed hard, although easier than the beginning, and this post was waaaaaay harder to write than I think any prior. AND it took me months and months to even think about it. So don’t give me too much credit here. But getting back to the things I love, like writing for TNB, goes a long way toward helping me feel normal again. I’m so happy to hear from you and can’t wait to read YOU again!

  28. Joe Daly says:

    When I lived in Sweden, my friends and I used to go to the Central Badet on the weekends, to shock away our hangovers. We’d hit the sauna until we couldn’t stand another second, then dive into the pool, which was pretty cold. Then we’d run to the steam room and get back to normal, and then swap cold showers with sauna/steam room respites until we were right as rain.

    I have to think Berlin to Florida has produced the exact same result for you. Way to celebrate the differences between the experiences and carve out a pretty cool little niche for yourself. I’ve heard it said that our species’ greatest strength is its ability to adapt. You are proof positive of this truth.

    Rock on!

  29. Oh yes, the sauna. Can’t live in the cold, dark places without it. We did it in the buff in Berlin, an experience I’m not sure I’m over yet. (It’s in Naked Berlin, http://www.thenervousbreakdown.com/cmcgrath/2009/06/naked-berlin/, should you want to compare notes.) But yeah, really good analogy! Thanks for the kudos. I’ll take ’em.

    Rockin’ away!

    What were you doing in Sweden? I love my Swedish New York neighbor. She’s one of the nicest people I’ve ever met.

  30. Patricia-Maria Weinmann says:

    Colleen, darling, WELCOME BACK! I’ve loved reading your posts! You are brilliant and will have Florida figured out in no time! Take good, good care.
    xoxo
    Trish

  31. Thank you, Trish! Hope you’re right and very much hope all is well with you, busy lady!

  32. Judy Prince says:

    ” Florida liberals, unite! All three of us!”
    HAHAHAHAHA!

    Truly giggled at your descriptions, Colleen!

    Especially at this: ” . . . my hair was not at all big enough to earn the respect of the southern female. Neither did I have enough pink in my wardrobe . . . ”

    And this: “I can’t tell you what an “ultra lounge” is, other than filled with young women I can’t distinguish from prostitutes and buffed up, greased up, Ed Hardy-wearing guys, 15 years younger than I am and all ready to grind to the latest techno nightmare. Given my age and the almost allergic reaction I have to midriff tops and spandex, this was clearly not where I would find my Southern persona.”

    And this: “It seems like I’d fit in better trying to don the Florida combination of not total redneck, not total corrupt politician, big dose of flatbed truck, but I’m not there and doubt I’ll arrive anytime soon.”

    Colleen, sometimes a person simply needs to move to another place that’s more congenial to her wants and needs. And, fortunately, you’ve already recognised that “gayborhooding” is lovely for cocooning, but one of the last places helpful for your meeting hetero males (DUH!). On balance, then, maybe your fish-out-of-water feeling in sunny Florida would be solved by moving away from Florida, and heading for a place that your urges tell you will fulfill some of your most important desires. Places seem to have positive or negative auras, and often it’s initially tough to figure out why you respond negatively (or positively)…..but it’s a very important reaction to note and carefully consider in your plannings.

    For example, until I’d gone to England, I never knew that I LOVED seeing lots of lambs and cows and horses grazing in the fields next to every town, village and city. But I knew that I loathed seeing big box stores and mini-malls in and between cities such as I’d habitually seen in the USA. Ditto about loving the spectacular skies in England . . . the gorgeous old buildings . . . the antiques . . . and the lovely dialects.

    You’re processing a lot right now as well as getting yourself “out there” bravely and wisely. Therefore, I believe you’ll be especially attentive to hints and nudges and clues that come to you and lead you to new ideas, places and people.

    Have fun, Colleen!

  33. I love English countryside. Sheep with big green and red splotches painted on their sides. Dogs and men with walking sticks shooing them around. It’s so pretty. Yorkshire in the fog. Sigh…

    I’m glad I could make you giggle. Giggling is underrated!

    Yes, processing takes much time, agreed. And I’m adjusting to many things. A new life, a single life, a new business, new town, repatriating, it’s a lot. But I did pick St. Pete on purpose. I’m able to do what I love here. Life is slower, easier, but still has accessibility to culture I need, opera, theater, ethnic food, etc. Yeah, it’s different and no, I’d never say I was born to it, but there’s enough I truly love for me to know I’m where I ought to be right now. I’m going to stick with it for a while, even if my hair is wrong. 😉 They’ll have to love me anyway.

    Thanks for reading, Judy!

  34. OMG, I got “hit on” by Mary Kay at a Target too!

    Welcome home!

  35. Haha! It must be in the training. Thanks, Gina! It’s good to be back.

  36. Dana says:

    Welcome back Colleen! So nice to see you here again. Like Kimberly, I loved “voted the state mostly likely to secede”!

    Florida seems like a good place for healing. Much luck!

  37. Nick Olcott says:

    So sad that I laughed a lot. You’re one amazing person.

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