Snowbird secrets I wish I had known. Prior to being a first-time "40-something" year old snowbird, my perceptions of what it's truly like didn't match the reality of how it actually was. Especially our first season. Love, loss, life. Emotional highs and lows. Time marches on whether you are away or back at home. There are many facets of life as a snowbird that are not always outwardly apparent. Snowbirds have many secrets to unlock and these are a few I'm sharing from personal experience.
Snowbird Secrets: CELEBRATE DIFFERENCES
Be Inspired, But You Can't Take it With You
The most basic snowbird secret is understanding what is and isn't realistic. I don't have immediate family members who are snowbirds, so I had to unlock the secrets based on personal experience which definitely did not match my perceptions. Prior to my first snowbird season, I thought I could bring elements of home to our new beach home. And consequently that I could bring my Southern home back to my Midwestern home. It doesn't work like that. At all.
I have never actually been homesick, but I always wonder if I will be prior to leaving for a vacation or business trip. Having never been away for an extended time, I was a little nervous about making the adjustment for our first time as snowbirds. In anticipation of what I perceived would make me feel more at ease in our snowbird condo, I pre-packed some of my favorite small household items, kitchen appliances and "stuff" in an attempt to be more comfortable in our new place. We had never actually seen it in person, only photos online. I thought if I decorated the new dining room table with my favorite placemats, I would adjust easier. Looking back, it seems silly, but I was concerned about feeling homesick and thought I could combat it with my own belongings.
However, before our car was even half-loaded, I realized we were out of space to bring any non-essential items and much of what I thought were essential items. Of course, I was disappointed, but quickly shoved the five or six bags of stuff back into the house. After we spent time in our new place, it hit me. Our beach home should be celebrated for being entirely different than home. You cannot truly bring "home" with you in the form of things. Besides that, our beach condo already had a wonderful style of it's own and adding my own stuff would have made it seem out of balance.
When we returned to the Midwest, it also became crystal clear that the mementos I brought back from our extended stay could never imitate or recreate our beach home. Each community and special place is what it is, but they are not at all the same and never will be. Instead, I've learned to celebrate the differences of my homes and to bring out the best in each place rather than try to recreate one as the other.
Snowbird Secrets: IT'S NOT EASY AS YOU MIGHT THINK
Be Prepared for the Emotional Ups and Downs
Snowbird secrets also relate to coping skills. In retrospect, practically everything that could go wrong, did during our first season. Despite carefully planning and organizing, the first time was a bittersweet mixed bag of tricks.
While away for five+ weeks, we dealt with an escalating legal battle at home, issues with our accommodations, major car problems and the onset of a grave illness and subsequent death of a beloved family member--our sweet Golden Retriever, Reilly. I was absolutely second guessing if we had made a good decision to become snowbirds.
Truth be told, I wasn't prepared at all for the emotional issues that the snowbird lifestyle requires. In short, it was not easy to say goodbye, even for a short term, to our friends / loved ones, move our family and business to a completely new area with no support system and even much more difficult to return home unthinkably without our beloved sweet girl, Reilly. I had no idea of the emotional landmines that being a snowbird requires.
But for all of the stress and sorrow, we are very grateful and pleased with our gorgeous beach home, our adopted new Southern hometown and the wonderful, caring new friends we made, plus the special Midwestern guests we hosted, who inadvertently helped us cope with our first extended stay away. It wasn't an easy season whatsoever, but I learned more than I ever imagined. If nothing else, my husband and I both realized we are more resilient than any challenge we faced while away our first season.
Think Like a Local
Locals know all of the ins and outs of their region and so do seasoned snowbirds. This means you need to know your snowbird time zone, geography, weather patterns, regional counties, cities, tv stations, newscasts, nearest location of urgent medical care and so much more.
Why does it matter that much if you know your own and surrounding counties or hospitals? It doesn't, until there's a serious weather problem or other emergency. Our first two seasons, there were nightly news reports of criminals on the lam in Escambia County and our local area. A modern "Bonnie and Clyde" were on a multi state crime spree, which including taking hostages, robbing a Destin surf shop and robbing a nearby shoe store until "Clyde" was ultimately killed in a shootout. You betcha we quickly looked up where Escambia County is in relation to South Walton County.
Once you have those facts figured out, learn the local street names, shortcuts and customs. As an example, we found out Mobile, Alabama basically shuts down during Fat Tuesday / Mardi Gras because it originated there. We also learned there are typically no earthquakes on the Emerald Coast. I was worried about the occasional loud sonic booms and our concrete building shaking / rattling until the neighbors told us it's actually the local military occasionally detonating old munitions.
Stoplights may be different than at home. On my first solo venture our first season, I was in the left turn lane and befuddled by a stoplight that had a green arrow sandwiched between red lights. My on-the-fly plan was to wait and watch or even turn around if necessary rather than get t-boned because I made the wrong choice of when to pull into traffic.
Even something as basic as ordering a pizza may be different. In our adopted area, pizza places will not process your order (even when pre-paid with a credit card) until they call you back and confirm your order. If they can't reach you or you don't answer the call, the delivery will not show up.
Seasoned snowbirds know the month of January is the off season for businesses in warm climates. That means be prepared for shorter hours of operation or being completely closed for remodeling, staff / owner vacations and other reasons such as it's simply the slow season. You and / or your guests may not be able to dine at your favorite restaurant, take a dolphin or chopper tour or a sunset dinner cruise. Restaurants may have limited menus during the off season. And fish markets will usually only have seafood that is in season. If you're planning to tuck into a bowl of fresh steamed crawfish, you'll likely need to wait awhile. The bright side is you will typically not have congested traffic, long lines or wait times for the places that are open. And there are great deals to be had at the local stores who significantly mark down their leftover holiday inventory.
Conversely, as the weather changes and spring break approaches, the traffic, beaches and local businesses get increasingly busier and more expensive. Parking and lines become more of an issue, as does noise and activity. Reservations for anything you might want to do should be booked in advance, especially during popular holidays such as New Year's Eve, Valentine's Day and of course, spring break.
During the busier season, seasoned snowbirds take the shortcuts to get to their destinations, which usually means travelling side streets to avoid main arteries. Sure, you can drive down the beautiful scenic beach route, but it may take 5X longer due to pedestrian and vehicle traffic. You can shop during the day during spring break, but seasoned snowbirds shop later at night to avoid the lines / crowds. Not only does the activity level increase, the prices also increase. Most snowbirds head home before spring break rental rates go into effect.
Last, but not least, some snowbirds who rent their winter homes store possessions locally. Instead of dragging golf clubs, BBQ grills, beach chairs, canvas wagons, bikes, pet strollers, area rugs, easy chairs and a bunch of other stuff back and forth every year, seasoned snowbirds lease storage units and save the trouble of overcrowding their vehicle or shipping items. It's not a perfect solution because the cost to rent a storage unit adds up and the items still have to be moved in and out of storage, but for some snowbirds, it's a good solution. Some property management companies will take care of moving / storage for you so it's all ready upon arrival.
Remember, you will forget things -- such as where you hid your keys and valuables, what you left behind at either place and so much more. Another snowbird secret is, "Write it down!"
If It Can Go Wrong, It Will
More snowbird secrets: be ready for solving problems. We were a few days from heading to our new Southern home the first year when we received the news we would not be moving into the beautiful 3 bed / 3 bath oceanfront condo we rented. The building was undergoing maintenance and because of a delay, the construction work now affected us. We would not have access to our unit and would be moved down the street into another much smaller place for about a week.
So we were displaced, which meant we moved into our condo a few days, then moved our essential things back out for 5 or 6 days, then moved back in again. And we had to pack / move our personal items, our dog, our business and office equipment as well. Not only that, but our friends from home came down for a long weekend and they were also affected, moving with us the last couple days of their stay. It was not the start I had hoped for by any means.
The first year we also dealt with major car problems. To condense a long story, after I walked solo 6 miles to two local stores to buy and replace a key fob battery (hoping that was the problem, it wasn't) we spent quite a bit of time finding a qualified local mechanic and tow truck.
Finally our car was diagnosed with a computer problem that required the dealer to handle. The nearest dealer was two hours away in Mobile, Alabama. The bill so far? $200 for the local tow and diagnostic evaluation, plus $700 for a one-way flatbed tow to Mobile.
The car sat many days in Mobile waiting a turn for evaluation. Why? The dealership was closed for Fat Tuesday, the last day of Mardi Gras, which originated in Mobile and basically shuts down the city.
We used Enterprise for our rental because they will "pick you up." Add $300 for that to the tally. And another $1,900 for the dealer's repair bill. The bright side is we visited Mobile for the first time to retrieve our repaired car and found places we wanted to visit on the way back to Destin. It brought us to picturesque and charming downtown Fairhope, Alabama on Mobile Bay. We developed an appreciation for a new place we would have not otherwise sought out.
Don't Knock it 'Til You Try It
It didn't take long to notice the retired neighbors in our building carrying crock pots of food up and down the elevator at 4:00 pm every day. They get together for social hour, sundown and an early dinner on a regular basis. By 7:00 or 8 pm everyone is back in their own homes for an early evening. Sometimes they dine in and other times they go out.
Soon they invited us to their early dinner party. And our initial reaction was, "We don't think this is our thing..." for all of the reasons such as, "It's so early, we're still working; We don't eat dinner until late; We're too young for this," and on and on. But, we decided, "Don't knock it 'til you try it."
So we tried it and loved it! Aside from stepping outside to field business phone calls and being late a few times because of work, we actually enjoyed the early social hour -- there's enough daylight to watch the winter sunset, socialize with friends, eat a wonderful meal together and get back to your own place to continue your evening and get to bed at a reasonable time.
Socializing at an earlier hour also applies to restaurants/ entertainment. Snowbirds know which local restaurants offer off-seaon "two for one" dinners or other great deals simply by ordering your meal before a designated time, such as 5:00 or 6:00 pm. And snowbirds know where to go for "hungry" or "happy hour" specials if you show up mid-day. Really, what's wrong with seeking a great bargain? Especially because in the winter, the sun sets earlier and oceanfront dining is not as appealing when it's dark and you can't see the ocean. Book your table and dine early!
More Leisure Time
Our second year as snowbirds, it became very evident to my husband, especially, that he had much more leisure time in our winter home than he had ever prepared for. Why? Our snowbird condo requires zero of his time for yard work, maintenance, tinkering in the (non-existent) garage and/or helping others with their projects or supporting their community events and so forth. Actually, the "others," who include friends and loved ones, aren't able to drop by for a casual chat like they do at our Northern home. So it was during our second snowbird season that my husband fully realized he needed to find new activities and hobbies for his leisure time.
Two of our retired neighbors play golf on a regular basis and they set and achieved a goal to play 50 rounds of golf during their most recent snowbird season. Another secret? They know which golf courses will negotiate better rates for snowbirds.
Think outside your usual constraints and develop leisure snowbird goals of your own. For me, pursuing my photography hobby and creating this web site and blog became my snowbird passion. I / we also spend more time visiting art fairs, shopping, lunching with the ladies, going out for breakfast with "the boys" and exploring new areas because of the influence of snowbird friends and having more leisure time.
"Life Goes On, Within You and Without You"
-- The Beatles
Seasoned snowbirds know they cannot possibly be everywhere for both the joys and sorrows of life at home. Logistical, financial and time constraints force snowbirds to make difficult choices. Illness and loss of loved one/s are beyond anyone's control, and they can happen at the worst times. Our second season, a close family friend's 26 year old son died unexpectedly. We could not return home in time to support our friend and his family as we wanted to, nor attend the funeral. It was difficult. Instead we honored Jay's son the morning of his funeral with a beach tribute.
Weddings, milestones, holidays and other special occasions occur while snowbirds are away. Grandchildren grow up. Friends and loved ones move on with their lives, too. Many snowbirds can and often do return home to celebrate special occasions with their loved ones. There's no way to make it home for every occasion, so do your best to let them know you care and miss them with texts, phone calls, postcards, social media updates, video chat, care packages, online videos and more.
To sum up, it's not easy for loved ones left behind or the snowbirds who are away while life goes on without them. Each has a special set of needs and circumstances to work with. Give yourself time to start the process of emotionally letting go of your Northern home before you leave and mentally moving into your Southern home. And vice versa. It's a transitional process involving your mind and body. Be prepared, do your best and try not to have regrets.
The purpose of life, after all, is to live it, to taste experience to the utmost, to reach out eagerly and without fear, for newer and richer experiences.
--Eleanor Roosevelt, 32nd First Lady of the United States