You should understand, before I start going on about the unsurprisingly lovely climate of Los Angeles*, or rather of Santa Monica, that it’s The New Year. Not only is it The New Year, but we were enjoying the first few days of The New Year in the northern reaches of the east midlands, so think generally grey and cold. Not Canada cold, but good n cold, minus two to plus five Celsius.
We essentially walked out of the depths of winter, sat in a cold tube of farts for ten hours (oh the glamour of air travel) and stepped out into (by UK standards) a balmy summer evening. It’s like time travel, with some interesting cultural differences thrown in for good measure.
The first thing we noticed, uncommonly wide-awake and head-achingly tired at seven in the morning, was the sky. Yes, it’s blue. A happy blue. The perfect foil for the golden sunlight which warms everything so it glows with self-satisfied well-being.
The second thing we noticed was that warmth, walking in the sunshine in our shirtsleeves in January. It’s not oppressive though, maybe because it’s apparently (we were told a number of times) without humidity. As a sweaty lady I appreciate this. Sure, I sweat in dry heat from a gentle stroll, but humidity is the enemy, making me seemingly melt before simultaneously concerned and disgusted passers-by.
The third thing we noticed was the ocean. Adi pointed to it, “See there Effie? Where the buildings stop and there are palm trees?” I did see, and with every step closer to the gap in the buildings I felt a swelling wave of joy. I don’t mean to be melodramatic, but I bloody love the sea. It’s probably from those car journeys to summer holidays in sea-locked Britain. These inevitably culminated in the game where the winner was the first one to see the sea, and shout “I can see the sea!” shortly followed by a chorus of “Oh, yes! I can see the sea too!” and then a period of quiet contemplation where everyone (except the driver) just looked at the sea with a look of gormless contentment on their faces.
I used to live in a city by the sea in the south of Italy. Santa Monica is known as ‘the city by the sea’. The city in Italy was surrounded by hills and mountains and had a beautiful lungomare or promenade, with palm trees, trees with gnarled roots, benches and viewing platforms, and underneath, connected by steps, the beach and the beach path. Santa Monica also has a raised promenade, called the Palisades, with a park of sorts made up of palms, gnarled-rooted trees, benches, and viewing platforms from which you can see the surrounding hills and the beach and beach path. Only here the scale of it is slightly (hugely) grander, and the beach path is down some steps, then over a bridge which crosses the Pacific Coastal Highway. I’d always felt at home in that city in the south of Italy, and taken quiet contentment from walking, jogging and gaping in awe along the lungomare. I was deeply sad when I realised my time there had run its course and I should move on, so to be standing in a place which offers so much more opportunity for me (I hope) professionally, with the man I love, and to feel the same contentment was very special. Although it could just be the jet lag and its bone deep tiredness.
The fourth thing we noticed was the homeless population. Well, the fourth thing we noticed was a man, dressed in a red T-shirt, gold chain around his neck, anorak tied around his waist, standing on the corner of Ocean and Broadway. He had a bag wedged between his feet, his hands deep in his trouser pockets, and his chin tilted skywards as he let forth a stream of ululating, incomprehensible lamentations, the sound of which followed us up Broadway to the Third Street Promenade. The fact that there is a sizable homeless population revealed itself as we drank American strength (horribly weak) coffee and wandered further around the neighbourhood: the man we had seen on the steps down to the bridge, staring wistfully out to sea, muttering gently to himself, had just woken up from his sleeping bag bench bed, and was homeless; the beautiful, stoic, middle-aged woman who had been slowly pushing her laden shopping trolley, grasping her many layers of cardigan about her, was homeless; the man still ensconced on his bench-sleeping bag throne in the middle of the promenade outside the generic coffee house where we’d got our coffee, and who shouted and railed against the abhorrent music whining from the café’s speakers, was homeless; and the little old lady, endlessly hacking into a free napkin trying to dislodge some illusive scrap in her throat, was homeless. Apparently the scale of this is due to Santa Monica traditionally being very liberal (and this in a state renowned for being liberal), and having been subject in its entirety to rent control. This meant that people with lower incomes were able to continue living in their rent-controlled apartments while around them the neighbourhood gentrified. When rents were deregulated many apartments were no longer subject to rent control and people who were able to live here were gradually pushed out.
The fifth thing we noticed were the fire trucks. As a child I’d played with tiny American vehicles which were heavily chromed and shiny, rolling them along countertops, down table legs and over rugs gripped tightly in my chubby little fists. They were different from the serious, life-size, red, British fire engines I occasionally saw on the TV, or when the firemen came to visit the school fete. Standing, post-coffee, sweating gently in a glass-fronted, airless phone shop we watched three all-American fire trucks wail by. They looked odd, blown up to full size with no hand guiding them along. The same inordinate amount of spotless chrome and white and red paint shone in the sun, and they wailed in a very un-British way. As if they weren’t screaming loudly and proudly enough that they were good and clean and American, each truck was topped with an American flag which trailed and snapped frantically behind. Later on we walked past Santa Monica Fire Department Headquarters. All three of the bays were open, the fronts of the trucks looking out onto the street, about twenty uniformed fire officers stood in line, smiling proudly at a camera held by a legging-ed woman, while another directed them take a step here and tilt a chin there.
At the end of our first day, we’d had coffee, bought groceries, set ourselves up with mobile phones and orientated ourselves in our new, immediate surroundings. I was left with a familiar feeling of the potential of a place, which is also different every time. Getting to know Santa Monica and Los Angeles; getting to know where to buy coffee which isn’t piss weak, mass produced and served with a tired smile; getting used to the sound of sirens and look of fire trucks; getting used to such a stable and present homeless population; getting used to seeing the sea every day; getting used to putting sunscreen on in the morning, because it is going to be sunny.
Sitting on the roof, watching the sun go down, Adi said “I know this feeling will wear off, like, we’ll get used to it, but just look at where we are.”
“It won’t,” I replied. “You’ll notice it less frequently, and you’ll have to do mundane shit, and you’ll notice things which piss you off about life here, but you’ll like that you get to be annoyed by them, that you’re not a tourist. And then you’ll be sitting with a group of friends, your LA friends, friends you’ll have made here, and you’ll be in a restaurant by the ocean, and you’ll look at yourself and the life you’ve established and the fact that you’re under a palm tree, drinking a beer and it’s a normal fucking Friday, that you’re not on holiday, and you’ll feel the same joyful, disbelieving smugness you feel now.”
Adi sipped his beer, unsure if he was convinced. I sipped mine, completely certain.
*Los Angeles has five distinct climates: Coast, City, Valley, Desert, Mountain.