Meeting Royalty


Sometimes getting in the car and driving in one direction for a couple of hours is all you need for a new perspective.

It felt like time for a road trip so we did what we normally do: pick a direction, find a town we’d like to check out and go for it.

This time it was Tarpon Springs and Dunedin, Florida.

Our first stop was Tarpon Springs, home of natural sponges and a large Greek community. I first came here when I was in my early teens probably. I remember doing touristy things like the sponge diving museum, I was fascinated by the heavy metal helmet. I also remember getting a Greek style gauze shirt that I wore until it was little more than an embroidered collar and some strings. I came back later a few times as an adult and I loved it then too. I did the dolphin experience boat ride and experienced no dolphins, but I was on the water and that always makes me happy.

This time I was sharing this sweet waterway town with someone who had never been. Plus, I also had natural sponge purchasing and perhaps a new favorite Greek shirt on my secret agenda. And maybe another chance at those dolphins. Oh, and Greek food!

What I didn’t count on was temperatures in the mid-nineties and searing sun. The boat ride was out this time, which pushed authentic Greek cuisine to the top of the to-do list. Full bellies make shopping easier. We ate at Hella’s because they had the ‘best gyro in town’, according to their menu. I opted for the Greek salad, Larry tested the gyro. Both were delicious. They do this sneaky awesome thing where they hide the tastiest potato salad under the Greek Salad. Got to get through the raw veggies to get to the good stuff. Challenge accepted. And aced.

Onto sponges and clothes. Just down the street from Hella’s we wandered into a store full of sponges – It’s Five O’Clock Somewhere (that’s the name of the store, not my personal mantra) – and it is here that I met the Sponge Queen. She was standing in front of a wall of bins full of natural sponges and said as we walked in, “Let me know if I can answer any questions for you.”

Usually I say, “Ok, thank you,” and move on. But not today. I simply asked if these were the real deal.

IMG_7373“Of course, they’re the real deal! They came from right out there,” she said gesturing toward the docks on the waterway that leads to the Gulf of Mexico. Now she was on a mission to educate me. She went on to explain that they have an exclusive contract with certain boats so they get first dibs on the best sponges. They clean them out, sanitize them, cut some of them down – only from the bottom, only with a bread knife – then prepare them to sell. They don’t mildew or rot and they last for 8-10 years if properly cared for. There are sponges for bodies, dishes, decoration, cars and horses. They’re not loofah, those are a vine but they have those too, ‘sponges are a sea creature’, much like coral. The divers that harvest them are very careful to leave the appropriate amount of base so that the sponges regenerate and they do not deplete the habitat or their own income.

There was so much more, including at least a paragraph on the history of the Greek population in Tarpon Springs. (They arrived around 1905 if you’re curious.) After talking to her and fondling no less than 25 sponges I found myself scrambling for a sponge strategy. Who to buy for, how many, what uses do I have for sponges at home, will I be able to buy enough or will I have to return? (Not a hardship, but still a consideration.)

In the end I walked out with 5 sponges for about $45. BUT, if I care for them, which is to say clean them with baking soda and water on occasion (kitchen sponges once a week) then I will not have to buy sponges or those awful plastic scrunched up things masquerading as loofah for nearly a decade. I will save the environment by not littering the landfills with used sponges or plastic and I will be using a totally natural product.

Feels like winning to me.

No clothes. I looked, but I suppose I was hoping for the same shirt I wore on my 14-year-old body at the same price someone paid lo those many years ago. There were some lovely gauzy shirts but most were made in China, and the line that was made in Greece seemed to be single-handedly trying to make up for the country’s deficit.

Wilting from the heat we decided to return to our air-conditioned car and head south to the other charming town on our list, Dunedin.

But first … there seems to be a little park right up there …



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