Winter, such as it is

In true RV fulltime fashion, Loops and I have, in some respects, become snowbirds – travelling when the weather is temperate and then heading south to avoid the harshness of a northern winter; which wouldn’t suit Belle, or Loops, at all.

So, in such fashion, we find ourselves parked for the two month winter season down in Florida; only someone forgot to tell the state of Florida that winter has arrived, it’s still 95oc by the time Christmas Day arrives.

I’ve actually been looking forward to sitting in one place for a while, just to see how I feel about the idea of a more ‘normal’ lifestyle here in the US. So I work out what are the most important things that I need to fit in – work, people, transport and a library. As luck would have it, I manage to locate all four of these things, in a manner of speaking.

Firstly, work. As I’ve mentioned a number of times I have been studying for my Veterinary Assistant qualification while we have been on the road, and the two final parts of this need to be carried out within a veterinary practice, my externship (work experience of 80 hours) and an exam (100 questions).

Luckily for me, I have been given the opportunity to complete my hours at a veterinary clinic just 10 minutes from Indian Rocks, where we are parked, at the Oakhurst Veterinary Hospital in Seminole. The clinic is actually owned by the gentleman who also owns the company my course is run through, which just happens to be a stroke of luck. It is a large practice with 5 full time vets working there and about 10 veterinary technicians, assistants and students. It also has a boarding kennel and cattery attached to it and I believe they also run training sessions for dogs somewhere in the complex.

So, I stock up on scrubs and crocs and set off to find out what working in the USA looks like.

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Aww, animal themed scrubs

 

And I struck gold.

Each and every person I met at the practice was, honest to god, nice as pie. And, a new thing for me in the working environment, everyone liked their job and each other. The staff regularly socialise outside of work, they pull together and help each other out and oh, I’ve discovered they all are now addicted to Moam sweets from England. You’re welcome.

I put in three days a week and, three weeks later, had completed my externship. I observed the techs as they went about their tasks, asked the students a mind numbing amount of questions about their schooling, and lent a hand wherever I could.

I restrained cats and dogs, held for blood draws (I even had the chance to try this myself once), watched surgeries and dental cleanings, learned how to pack and autoclave instruments and gowns and then how to unwrap them and assist in surgery. I even had the opportunity to empty a dog’s anal glands. Yep. And it’s a lot harder to do than you’d think.

It was a joy to be around people again. I liked the feel of having a use, a purpose, an active reason to get out of bed early in the morning. I liked the banter in the clinic, the many different personalities of the people there. It was fascinating to find out about their ‘normal’ American lives and have the opportunity to discover what a good working environment is and maybe what to stay away from. I learned that Americans work very long hours, don’t seem to take holidays and that their job seems a very large defining characteristic of themselves.

I would have liked to have stayed longer, and was very pleased when the owner came to let me know that should I want to apply for a job in future, I was welcome at the practice. That felt good. It felt validating that the people I had come to like and admire very much in the practice, liked me too.

And to top off the whole experience – I passed my exam and now get to call myself an Approved Veterinary Assistant!

In amongst my days of work I found myself trying to keep busy, to give myself some type of routine. Mostly this consisted of cycling to the local library, which brings me to two of my favourite things about where we are staying – first, the Pinellas Trail, and second, The Largo Public Library.

The Pinellas Trail is a cycle and walking path with runs between Tarpon Springs in the north and St Petersburg in the south, roughly 38 miles in total. For me, the path is a hop, skip and jump away from the bus (actually that would be a five minute ride on the Blue Bandit). It’s nicely tarmacked, has water drinking fountains along the way and even a little bicycle fixing station, where there are tools on chains for you to use if your bike breaks. They also have these small yellow floor tiles, so that if something happens to you and you need help (like police or an ambulance I guess), there is a phone and location number so you can tell people where to come and get you. You pass by the backs of people’s houses and can sneakily look at their gardens and stuff, as well as passing by a couple city parks. While I have heard some dubious things about using the path down in the south towards the city, where we are the path is well used and appears to have no troubles.

So for me, it’s the safest and easiest way to get to the library, a short 20 minute ride away.

I love libraries. I should just tell you that now. I used to work in a library, two, in fact. I love books. Books to me are home. A place you can go whenever you like, in whatever mood you choose, and they never turn you away. In fact, you can choose a book to suit your mood. Sometimes, if I am in need of comfort, I will pick up a book that I know will offer me that, maybe “Rosie is my Relative” by Gerald Durrell or perhaps “Homecoming” by Cynthia Voight. When I feel my life is lacking adventure or magic, I’ll reach for all seven volumes of either A Game of Thrones by GRR Martin, or Harry Potter by JK Rowling. Books are such an important part of my life that when I moved over here I donated half of one my precious, limited suitcases to volumes I just couldn’t leave behind.

So to find, practically on my doorstep, a fabulous, giant, two-storey library that I could visit, hang out in and peruse through any time I liked, it was a godsend. Not only do they house adult fiction and non-fiction, but have a sizable teen and children’s library, a genealogy section, large print, audio books, DVD, newspapers and magazines. Everything you could possibly require for an all-day session of library mooching.

Obviously I found myself cycling back and forth as a regular activity in a vain attempt to stay a little fit and to quench my thirst for new books. I should also mention that there is a fantastic second hand book store in the library complex that the older discontinued library books make their way to, and can sell for as little as 50 cents each. Needless to say, I took full advantage of this opportunity to supplement my UK books for our 2017 travels.

This is the beginning of my collection…all for $5.50 – I plan to use them in book swaps as we travel once I finish reading them.

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As for people, well, I met some lovely ones at the vet clinic, but we also had a chance to renew our acquaintances with Ron and Dorinda and a friend of theirs (another Bluebird owner, what a surprise!), Alan. We all spent a pleasant afternoon and evening having a healthy dinner from a buffet/salad bar called Sweet Tomatoes (every possible type of salad ingredient you can imagine) and then heading over for the Christmas light celebration at the Florida Botanical Gardens, only two minutes from our bus. And yes, we seemingly did pick a pretty good place to park for the winter, plenty of stuff around us within cycling distance.

I will say that I don’t think I can ever find it in my head and heart to experience a proper Christmas feeling in Florida; the sunshine and palm trees just really ruin it for me. But I will admit I was surprised that the lights at the botanical garden made me think, hmm, this is a little bit more like it. Part of that was the fact that they didn’t shy away from celebrating a Florida winter lights theme, and by that I mean rather than snowmen and Santa Claus, there were alligators and flamingos and pelicans as well as the palm trees wrapped in lights. For me, that put the right spin on it. I find it totally ridiculous to see traditional Christmas winter settings in people’s gardens here; I’d rather they tried to celebrate what they have.

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In addition to our Bluebird friends, we spent time with Loop’s family, I visited my grandparents and we met a new character, who fleetingly pops into our story along with our next theme – transport.

While the Blue Bandit has served faithfully this year, with our plans for 2017 focussed on the west with its sweeping mountainous scenery, Loops and I spent time debating if we wanted to take the leap to having a tow vehicle. Towing a vehicle comes with its own pros and cons. It’s nice to have the ability to travel further afield and over harder terrain than a bike would allow, but it is an extra hassle and cost to be sure.

After much deliberation and searching, we would like to introduce you to the newest member of the traveling clan….The Beast.

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The Beast – technically a Jeep Liberty

 

We found The Beast over at a local car dealership in Plant City, where we met Buddy. Buddy is not his real name, but upon meeting him, he struck me as a Buddy (though I mostly believe this is down to me watching Friday Night Lights at this time and he reminded me of the second hand car salesman in that, so I gave him the name from the show – great TV by the way, you should try it).

Buddy is what I will call a good ‘ole boy. We pulled in to find him on the front porch of his dealership, relaxing in his rocking chair, watching the world go by. He talks as if he has all the time in the world. At one point the garage across the road had music blearing from somespeakers, f-ing and blinding lyrics, and Buddy picks up his phone to call the owner and tells him to please turn it down as he has a lady over here and doesn’t feel the music is appropriate for me. This is Buddy.

Buddy gives us the keys to The Beast, and points out a route for us to test drive and off we go. He’s not worried about where we go or what we do, he doesn’t need to sit in the back seat and tell us all about the greatness of the car. He goes back to his rocker instead.

So we drive around and fiddle with everything in The Beast, being a 2005 we expect a couple issues, but happily find that mostly things are working and in good order. When Loops asks if it’s possible to take it somewhere to have a look underneath, Buddy points out his mate’s garage behind and we drive round for Loops to check things out.

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Loops checking over The Beast

 

Meanwhile I am invited by one of the mechanics, dressed in his greasy overalls, smoking and missing most of his front teeth, to sit on the sofa in the outside ‘staff room’. He looks slightly shy about this invite and apologises about the state of the sofa and absentmindedly wipes at his clothing with his hands. It makes me just want to hang out here all day, the people just ‘feel’ nice.

Well, Loops needs to deliberate, and of course Buddy’s response is served up laid back and comes with a side order of a recommendation of a lunch spot to help us ruminate. He points out directions and five minutes later we are enjoying the largest, most delicious (and slightly carb laden) home-style fayre at a place called Frank’s Market. It’s good. It’s real good. I give it a thumb’s up and pass on the recommendation to anyone in the area.

The next day, we drove The Beast home to meet Belle.

And with the exception of the three weeks that Loops worked solidly on maintenance, changing oils and belts, replacing coolant hoses, adjusting the exhaust and servicing, fitting the towing and breaking system to The Beast; that’s was pretty much it for winter.

On one hand it seems to have flown by and on the other it feels like forever since we’ve been on the road. I wonder how it will feel to start moving again?

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Ready to roll….
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