October 31, 2014
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Right at Home

In a community where everyone is from somewhere else, there's often the comfort of groups from your home area.

Erik Kellar

Let us set the scene for you.

Fed up with winter, you pack your bags. You bid a fond farewell to your family, your friends and the neighbors you’ve known for years. A For Sale sign goes in your front yard and a plane ticket goes in your back pocket. That’s it, you think. You’re heading south and you’re not stopping until the first sign of sunburn.

And at first, all is well. Here in Southwest Florida, the golf is grand, the beaches are beautiful, and it’s possible to order an umbrella drink without feeling foolish. But then one day, a terrible thing happens, something you never even considered possible.

You miss home.

So now what?

Well, first of all, know that you’re not alone.

When Diane Corcelli told her Cleveland friends that she planned to move to Southwest Florida, they wondered aloud at her decision, especially since it meant leaving behind her lifelong friends in the Buckeye State. Corcelli had an answer to that: “There’s so many people from Cleveland in Florida,” she told them. “You never really lose touch with your friends.”

She turned out to be more right than she knew. After relocating to Bonita Springs, she decided she wanted to reconnect with other Clevelanders. She briefly considered going to a sports bar on a night when the Browns were playing, but soon dismissed that idea in favor of another: She formed The Cleveland Club.

The Cleveland Club’s first meeting was held in 1998 at the Elks Club in Bonita Springs. Corcelli had no idea how many Clevelanders would attend, and was astonished when 270 people turned up to sip cocktails and swap stories of their hometown. Now, 15 years later, the club’s mailing list numbers around 300 and the group holds two parties annually.

Most of the members are seasonal, and although the majority of their year is spent living in Cleveland, it’s in Southwest Florida that they choose to connect. The lure is simple convenience, Corcelli explains.

“Cleveland is a geographically wide area, and there are maybe 80 or more suburbs,” Corcelli says. “They really don’t see each other that often.”

Another attraction is the element of surprise that comes with the club. Corcelli likens the parties to a reunion, but a city reunion instead of a high school or college reunion. It’s not uncommon for people who have lived in Cleveland for years without seeing each other to suddenly find themselves together again at The Cleveland Club. At one recent club meeting, Corcelli was examining the guest list and discovered that one of the attendees was a gentleman who lived on her same street when she was a child. She hadn’t seen him in 50 years, but soon sought him out to strike up a conversation about his family.

When it comes to Cleveland, it seems you never really do lose touch with your friends.

“It’s just mind boggling,” she says.

“I was just shocked. I thought, (growing up) they lived three doors away from me.”

Home away from home

Finding a group to keep you connected to your old stomping ground has its practical purposes, too. Consider the British American Club of Southwest Florida. For those who are navigating life in a new land, this 42-year-old Fort Myers social club often proves invaluable.

“There’s something nice about being able to talk to people who may understand the things you’re going through, especially people who are moving from one country to another,” says club past president Nick Gower.

Part of the club’s appeal is that the members often share the same émigré experience. Culture shock is always a popular subject when the group gathers, and it’s a topic to which Gower can relate: When he moved to the United States 15 years ago, it took him some time to reconcile the reality of American life with the stunt-filled Dukes of Hazzard and Knight Rider television versions he had grown up with in the United Kingdom.

“It’s not like that at all,” Gower says, laughing. “I was expecting a black van on every corner with people jumping out of it.”

Gower has long since stopped worrying about menacing men in mysterious vans, but he still sympathizes with anyone making a transition to another country.

“Some things are still kind of unfamiliar to me,” he says. “Even something as simple as driving on the other side of the road. That took a little bit of getting used to.”

The club also gives members a chance to talk over more serious issues as well, such as immigration. While the club is primarily geared toward British citizens, it’s open to all ex-pats, Gower says. Throughout its history, the club has welcomed members from Holland, Italy and other countries.

When homesickness sets in, the club has the remedy. Classic British fare, such as fish and chips or shepherd’s pie, is often on the menu at their gatherings. To keep things spirited, they’ll often celebrate British events, such as the recent Queen’s Jubilee, or play British games, including holding an annual darts tournament called “Darts for Dragons.”

“It’s just kind of a home away from home,” Gower says of the club.

Still, Gower recognizes that the club isn’t for every ex-pat. He has heard some Brits claim that they’d never go to a British social club, grumbling that they left Britain to get away from all things British. Also, in the Internet age, staying in touch with those you left behind has become easier than ever before. Ex-pats who once sought social clubs to connect with their countrymen may now turn to social media instead, Gower notes.

Then again, there’s something to be said about the allure of making a human connection, on either side of the pond.

“From a personal point of view, I like going and meeting British people. But I also like meeting American people. Full stop,” Gower says.

Pints all around for members of the British American Club of Southwest Florida. Clockwise from bottom left,
Sharon Cohan, Paul Landers, Nick Gower, Bob Cohan, Marci Gower and Stephen Stedman.

Corned beef and crow

But nostalgia can be a tricky business. As we find ourselves hungering for home, we just might get a little more meal than we can comfortably digest.

Neapolitan and Minnesota native David Dorle is a member of the Minnesota Men’s Breakfast Club, a group founded in 1964 by a handful of Minnesota men who enjoyed having breakfast together once a week. Now, the group numbers more than 100 and meets Friday mornings throughout season at the Naples Beach Hotel and Golf Club. Ostensibly a social club, the meeting also draws a speaker, often from a Minnesota organization, who helps to keep club members connected to what’s happening back home.

Not that this group needs an official update to stay on top of events in their home state, Dorle notes. Indeed, the club’s love of chitchat is even mentioned on the club’s website, where Minnesotans are described as having a “thirst for companionship, fellowship and to catch up on the latest gossip from back home.”

Like an Ole and Lena joke, it’s all in good fun—at least until the punch line doesn’t go the way you’re expecting.

At one club meeting, Dorle ran into a family friend who gently inquired about the welfare of Dorle’s niece’s; Dorle wasn’t even aware she’d had a car accident. The friend seemed to believe it was a serious incident, although Dorle soon learned it was just a fender bender.

Such is the Minnesota Men’s Breakfast Club gossip grapevine.

“It can be a lot of fun, and it can be a little disturbing because you’ll run into somebody who will tell you something that you didn’t know,” Dorle admits.

In a tight-knit club where many of the members know each other for so long, even something as seemingly benign as visiting the buffet can be fraught with peril. Dorle graduated from the University of Saint Thomas in Saint Paul, and the school’s president, Father Dennis Dease, recently attended a club meeting.

Unfortunately, Dorle had forgotten that Lent had begun a few days before. When he lined up for his breakfast, Dorle loaded his plate with corned beef, bacon and sausages. Then, he blithely sat down for a pleasant morning meal with his friend Father Dease. Dorle didn’t realize his mistake until after, when he called his wife and she mentioned the dinner she planned to make that night, one that reflected the Lenten season. Mortified, Dorle called Father Dease and apologized.

Father Dease displayed great tact, telling his former student, “Obviously, it’s an accident or you wouldn’t have gone back for seconds.” Dorle laughs when he recalls the priest’s words, because let’s face it: It’s funny.

Far too funny to stay hidden here in Southwest Florida, Dorle knows.

“Here’s the bad thing about this,” Dorle says. “He will think that story’s amusing, which it is, and he’ll go back to the Twin Cities, and tell that story.”

Then it’s only a matter of time until he gets a call from a member of his family, which means the only thing Dorle will be eating for a while is crow.

And while he’s on the subject of making amends, Dorle wonders if that may be the final, missing piece that draws many of the members of his group together. Reconnecting with old friends and making new ones that share your past experiences is always a joy, but for those who traded a snow shovel for an umbrella drink, there may still be just a little bit of guilt about their good fortune.

Dorle notes that it’s fairly standard to begin the Minnesota Men’s Breakfast Club meetings with the Minnesota and Naples weather reports. The disparity between the two usually prompts cheers.

“I think people miss Minnesota,” Dorle says. “I think they really feel like they’re turning their back on the winter and this is a way of atoning.”

 YET MORE CLUBS

New York Capers: Two Yankee women formed this social group— “a place to feel comfortable asking for a ‘soder’”—to create fellowship among people who relocated to Cape Coral from New York or other northern states. Launched in April, the group meets monthly and supports the community through fundraising. For more information, visit nycapers.com, email nycapers@ yahoo.com or call (704) 936-6847.

Chicago Police of Southwest Florida: The club is open to all retired members of the Chicago Police Department living part time or full time in Southwest Florida. Active members of the CPD, plus family and friends, are welcome to partake during visits to the area. The group meets monthly in Cape Coral and frequently updates a blog to keep members abreast of all things Chicago. For more information, visit heritagepalmswindycityclub.webs.com, email hpwindycity@hotmail.com or call “The Cop Shop” at (239) 549-7223.

Swiss American Club of Southwest Florida: Roughly half of the club’s residents now live full time in Southwest Florida, with the other half being a mix of seasonal residents from up north and abroad. Members join together once a month and host events from Marco Island to Englewood. For more information, visit swissamericanclub.com, email info@swissamericanclub.com or call (239) 596-5071.

—Cayla Stanley

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