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Paradise Found

We were headed to Paradise. But we wound up in Boca instead.

When a change in our host’s plans forced us to scrap a Cancun trip during spring break, my family decided to visit my 81-year-old grandparents in southern Florida — an area whose staggering dentures-per-capita statistic is rivaled only by the number of knee surgeons per square mile.

After months of envisioning ourselves on hammocks and surrounded by the romantic rhythms of the Latin tongue, it was startling to land on a firm Simmons BackCare mattress surrounded by the abrupt urban accents of New York expats. Instead of margaritas, they drink Manhattans. Instead of mariachis, they play Glenn Miller.

But, in truth, tropical Palm Beach County — and the infinite, identical retirement communities that sprawl across it — are among the most exotic places on Earth. Meet the area’s freaky fauna: oafish manatees, which look and act exactly like giant turds. Fire ants (not to be confused with equally vexing “crazy ants”), who hide in the grass and sting you. Purple man-o’-wars that lie dead on the beaches and lurk living in the warm, inviting ocean. And don’t get me started on the sea lice.

I let my kids scout for ducks in the human-made slough behind the condo, and a visiting aunt (not to be confused with equally vexing “crazy aunts”) informed me I was stupid.

“Sweetheart, an alligator can leap up 100 feet, snap up the baby, flip over and dive back down under water, roll him, drown him, and take him back to his lair to eat him up … Don’t you ever watch those shows?”

But Boca’s weird and wondrous ways extend far beyond its predatory species. It’s a strange and sweltering swampland with surprise sun showers, “dirty rain,” and customs dramatically different from our own. Should you decide to visit, here’s a guide to blending in with the natives:

Style: The local aesthetic is bright ‘n’ beachy, an artificial amalgam of rosy colors and seashore textures that scream “Relaxed!” as though their lives depended on it.

“Where are we?” my husband asked the first morning, opening his eyes to seashell frames, driftwood sculptures, and wicker tables bearing quilted coral tissue-box covers purchased (after much haggling) at a craft fair.

“Purgatory,” I grunted.

“Huh,” he replied. “I had no idea it would be so … pink.”

Women must dress in capri pants at all times; there is no occasion for which capri pants are not appropriate. Men are to wear short pants, belts well above the navel, and loafers with socks.

Weather: Outside, it’s stiflingly hot and humid. Indoors, air conditioners are set at “arctic” so guests can spend their days alternately sweating and sneezing.

Do not quietly, stealthily adjust the thermostat in an elderly couple’s home, as it will spark an argument between the couple. And since they are both deaf, it will be a loud argument.

Entertainment: Mornings are for reading obituaries and watching back-to-back repeats of JAG at wall-shaking volume. Afternoons are nice for bitching about “snowbirds,” those come-as-they-please residents who only come to Florida for the winter. At night, pray for a potluck at the clubhouse or a game of strip Mahjong.

Driving: Go slow. And when you think you can’t go any slower, slow the hell down. What are you, a maniac?

Avoid freeways as they exist only to lure you to your death.

You should occasionally plow your car through your garage door, claiming your foot slipped off the brake. We’re not sure why, but it’s a popular custom.

You’re really no one in Boca Raton without a handicapped placard for your car — but good luck finding a handicapped parking spot.

They’re all taken.

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