Róisín Ingle: I walked 35,000 steps a day and queued for hours. What a holiday

On vacation in Florida, I found the the ‘real America’ while hunting for cheap reading glasses

I packed seven pairs of reading glasses and five books for my holiday in America. After I wrote about my tendency to lose glasses, a reader kindly sent me several pairs and I had ordered some extras online. I don’t know what I was thinking really bringing all those books and all those reading glasses to America. It wasn’t exactly a relaxing, reading, lying on a sun lounger kind of holiday. It was more of a queueing and walking holiday, but I genuinely didn’t realise that when I was packing.

Perhaps wisely, they don’t advertise Orlando and that city’s sprawling theme parks, which contain, for just two examples, a magic kingdom and the wizarding world of Harry Potter, as a queueing and walking holiday but both are an integral part of the experience.

And even though I'm extremely averse, you might even say allergic, to both walking and queueing, I am not complaining about this. Somehow, the people at Walt Disney and Universal Studios and Sea World have created a situation where you walk up to 35,000 steps a day and queue for several hours in baking sunshine and somehow feel elated at the end of each evening. Now that really is magic.

The walk to the taxi rank was a sweaty one so obviously I had to stop on the way for a frozen margarita the size of my head

A few days in to my American queueing and walking holiday I’d somehow mislaid the padded brown envelope containing the multiple reading glasses and only had one pair left. I reluctantly left the wondrous environs of Diagon Alley, where there is a fire-breathing dragon outside Gringotts and you can drink actual Butter Beer, to buy a spare pair of glasses and some birthday cards for a celebration the following day. The hunt for glasses and birthday cards, I figured, would also provide a rare chance to experience a tiny glimpse of the real America outside of the controlled theme-park environs.

The walk to the taxi rank was a sweaty one so obviously I had to stop on the way for a frozen margarita the size of my head. In the bar, I met two friendly, intelligent women from New Jersey. Talk got real and deep very quickly. We chatted about bereavement, about abusive relationships and about Biden’s America.

“I voted for Trump,” one of the women said. Then we talked about her reasons and regrets about that for a while. I asked them where to get birthday cards and reading glasses and they told me to find a Dollar Tree.

I’d got a taxi from the same place the day before and been charged $40 for a short trip because “it’s the price of gasoline ma’am, I can charge you $5 less if we stop at an ATM and you pay cash”. I couldn’t get the Uber app to work – they were much cheaper – so I was once again at the mercy of the taxis.

I sat warily into one and asked how much it would cost, surprised to hear the driver say “nine or ten dollars”. My taxi driver’s name was Eve, he said. “Unusual for a man,” I remarked. “Yves,” he clarified. “Like Yves Saint Laurent.”

Yves was in his 60s and from Haiti. He came to America decades ago and remembered when most of the land around these parts was swamps. His favourite US president was Jimmy Carter. “An honest man,” he said.

He was happy with the life he’d made in America. He had a house, a job, a wife and grown-up children who were well educated. “I remember hearing one thing about America,” he told me. “That as a country it can give you all the tools to succeed and can also give you all the tools to fail. I could have done better, I could have pursued my education, done better economically, I had the tools. But I am happy and I am grateful to this country.”

We talked about Ireland. About Dublin. He asked about “your second city, Cork isn’t it?”. He said he read a lot about geography and history. We got to the Dollar Tree, he dropped me off and we said our goodbyes.

I was sitting there sweating on the bench, trying to read my phone and thinking, 'if only I'd got Yves's number, I could call him' when the same man appeared in front of me, some kind of Haitian mirage

In the Dollar Tree I bought birthday cards, and mini-American flags, and a couple of fans and some balloons. At the till, when the cashier asked how I was doing I said “great” and when I asked how she was doing, she told me that she’d just “kicked a very bad man to the kerb”, so she was doing much better now thank you very much. We laughed and I paid.

Outside, ready to go back to the hotel, I still couldn’t get my Uber app to work. The sun was relentless so I walked next door to an air-conditioned TJ Maxx. There was a bench just inside the door, where I sat down and tried to figure out how to get a taxi. I’d completely forgotten to buy reading glasses in the Dollar Tree and realised, as I sat there, that somewhere on the way from the margarita bar to here I’d lost my only remaining pair.

I was sitting there sweating on the bench, trying to read my phone and thinking, “if only I’d got Yves’s number, I could call him” when the same man appeared in front of me, some kind of Haitian mirage.

Yves was clutching my cheapo reading glasses in his hand. “You left them in the taxi,” he explained. “You told me you were going to the Dollar Tree and so I went in there but I couldn’t find you. Then I thought, where else would she go, and I thought TJ Maxx, and here you are.”

There I was. Sweltering and elated in the real America which felt in that moment a lot like the real Ireland only much, much warmer. And I could not stop smiling in the coolness of Yves’s taxi all the way back to my hotel.