A while back, my wife read a best-selling book called French Women Don’t Get Fat. One would hope, I told her, that the title of this “self-help” book is intended as a parody of social stereotypes, along the lines of White Men Can’t Jump or Important Blonde Inventors. After all, I have been to France several times and can personally attest that indeed some French women do get fat. I recall with fondness one Madame Renee, who ran a rickety five-story youth hostel in Paris: if one were going up the narrow staircase and Madame Renee was coming down, the one going up would have to retreat, considering the momentum she typically picked up during her descent. In the mornings, for the pleasure of her guests, she would perform a belly dance in the small dining room while we sat around on musty pillows and drank Arabic tea and ducked intermittently. It all made an interesting lesson in gravity and centrifugal force.
In any case, in the book my wife read, among the “tips” designed to help American women look and feel more like French women (armpit hair excepted) was the admonition that one ought to walk everywhere. Walk? I have friends who have actually paid me to carry them from the sofa to the bathroom. As a culture, walking is not our strong suit. We are much better at blowing things up from afar. Still, I thought, San Marco has often been compared to a European town – in fact, Southside Baptist church always puts me in mind of the Parthenon, and on given day, one can find strange, bearded men sitting at the sidewalk tables along the square across the way, gesturing wildly and quoting from Nabokov. So, I wondered, is there something to this walking thing? This might just be crazy enough to work…
I have found that if the hypothetical walker is really ambitious and in good condition, he can begin in the morning with a light breakfast, coffee, and a newspaper at the Metro Diner on Hendricks Avenue; then, tucking his newspaper under his arm and taking his ivory-handled cane in hand, he must purposefully head north. A compass is not required: all roads lead to Taverna. Or, if he wishes, the walker can merely have his wife drop him off at the northern fork of Hendricks and San Jose Boulevard, and with a hearty farewell and a bon vivant tip of his cap, our intrepid walker is off on his day’s adventure.
He can simply take the direct route and follow Hendricks all the way to the shopping district, or he can leave the roaring traffic behind and detour through River Oaks Park, to be found on his left after he has passed the lovely Southside Methodist Church. As a lover of nature, I recommend this, as the park is really an authentic Old Florida marsh, a narrow wedge of wilderness in the honking chaos of the city where, if he can only overlook the biohazard signs warning of bacteria in Craig Creek, the walker becomes hiker. He will traverse field and fen, thrilling to the sight of redwing blackbirds, great herons, egrets, and the occasional osprey. He will just catch a glimpse of the turtles sunning themselves on a log, who defy the stereotype and plunge quickly into the dark water when they sense human presence. Once – and this is quite true – my daughter and I saw a three-foot alligator hunting along the bank. It was early morning, and I think he was as surprised to see us as we were to see him, and we passed him without incident as he slipped into the stream. Although the pedestrian may emerge from the marsh at any of the streets which dead-end along its edge, he will take more pleasure in walking the length of the park, past the cattails and the shells of old trees which have become tenements for the cavity-dwelling birds (don’t miss the charming, half-sunken sailboat – someone’s retirement investment gone horribly awry) to where it opens onto the vast silver river. Here we find a small pier with a small dock, built, I am told, by a local for public use; the only clue to the identity of this altruistic handyman are the initials “G.H.” carved into the gate. Often I have wondered about old G.H. Is he Gabby Hayes? Gordie Howe? George Harrison? Gregory Hines? Or is he just some wonderful old soul who understands the importance of serenity in the urban midst? In any event, go on out to the end of the pier, sit, and gaze out over the St. Johns from one of the quietest spots in town. In a bygone era, a man might have enjoyed a good pipe from this vantage point, but of course, now that we know of the dangers of tobacco, one can only sit and imagine how much his father must have enjoyed a good pipe on such a glorious day.
When the walker has properly communed with nature, he will emerge over the lip of the marsh and find himself on River Road. Again, he might really take any of the roads to his right – Maple, Elder, Arbor – but his time will be well-spent if he remains on River Road, for here one finds some of the best examples of the old and sprawling San Marco homes. The architecture ranges from Mediterranean Revival to Tudor, with some post-modernist angles thrown in for good measure. And the canopies of oaks and magnolias, God’s own handiwork, provide respite from the sun, as the sojourner at last answers the age-old Floridian’s question: What did people do before air conditioning? They sweated, dummy!
Next, the walker comes to Sorrento Road, where he will turn right. This takes him past lovely Lake Marco, which sparkles like a postcard. Oh, those lucky people who own the big houses nestled around Marco Lake, with their carefully trimmed lawns and shrubs, their charming tile roofs, their high-tech boathouses. And those lucky children, whose parents have put their swing sets on those lawns, which are so lime-green they look as if they belong on the board of a Candyland game. I wonder that I have never actually seen any child playing on them.
Heading nearly due east on Sorrento, the walker will at last find himself in the heart of San Marco’s commercial district. Here he is on his own. I have brought him here safely, but he must now trust his own tastes to determine whether he will visit Peterbrooke’s Chocolatier, or treat himself to a cuban at Black Bean, or a cup of coffee at my favorite café. Perhaps he can procure a gift for his wife at The Ward Room or one of the other fine shops. Or, if he is thirsty, he can find a cold beer at one of the watering holes in the Square. Perhaps he will cross the street and peer into the big art gallery at the expensive paintings, or find an interesting tome at the San Marco Book Store. If he finds he still has energy and does not yet require sustenance, he may wish to press on, as Bistro Aix, Taverna, BB’s and other good restaurants are also within striking distance. Whatever his decision, he can congratulate himself and be assured of one thing: that if he can only adopt the San Marco walking tour as his daily lifestyle, he will soon be as fit as any French woman. But skip the cuban sandwich this time, just in case.