A Year and a Day #6: LA – the dream of the world – L.A. and San Diego, California, USA

LA – the dream of the world
Saturday, 16th August 2003


Hollywood Hills

Ben, Beth and myself flew to LA, to stay with a relative of Beth’s. Her cousin lived just off Sunset Boulevard, in an apartment eerily reminiscent of the setting of the film Mulholland Drive. There was something magical about living off Sunset Boulevard, with the hazy bright sunshine, the palaces of the modern day gods up on the Hollywood Hills, the rows of tall, elegant palm trees.

So many things in LA have been made famous through US film and TV, it was sometimes hard to separate myth and reality. We sat on the beach where Baywatch is filmed, watching the lifeguards go past in their red uniforms; I spoke to cops who work at the police station used in the Beverly Hills Cop films; we walked through the expensive and generally quite tasteless houses of Beverley Hills; we only saw one minor celeb, but so many people had the look of almost fame, I’d sit in a restaurant thinking, “Isn’t she…?” This is the place where a lot of the lifestyle we sell to ourselves and people outside the West originates from. The superficiality of this dream seemed very apparent now I was actually walking through the reality of the city. It is a lifestyle that only the very richest in our culture actually get to experience, but one the world is told we should all aspire to.

Pontificating aside, I liked LA a lot. The sunshine was fantastic, the nightlife and eating seemed great, and the I loved the whole “I’m not just a waiter I’m really the next big thing” atmosphere that parts of the city had. It seemed like a great place to go to as a young person, spend a few years there, have a party and try to make your mark on the place. But my suspicion is that, a bit like London, LA would in the end grind down a lot of the people living there. In the end, only a few hundred people get to live in those houses up on the hills.

The scale of LA is just mind boggling – none of the guide books can really prepare you for it. We spent an hour on a bus going a relatively short distance on the map of the city, and the entire journey was on the same street (Santa Monica Boulevard)! One evening we went for a drink in a Japanese restaurant high up in the hills, and stared out across LA. At the hazy horizon we could see the skyscrapers of downtown, but we knew that the megacity stretched on and on beyond what we could make out.

San Diego – where winter is something that happens to other people

“Hey Mickey, you’re so fine you’re so fine you blow my mind, hey Mickey!”

San Diego Zoo

The incredible San Diego Zoo

We took the train along the coastline, past miles of unbroken beaches with endless surfers and sun worshippers. We met up with my friend Blair, who I had met when we were both studying at the London School of Economics a few years previously. She and her flatmate Hana-Lee lived in a disgustingly nice apartment overlooking the entertainment centre of downtown – on Saturday night they took us around some of the bars in the Gaslamp quarter. After cucumber vodkas and raspberry margaritas, we ended up in a great live music bar called Jimmy Love’s. A crazy dancing thin woman with dark hair and black lipstick belted out instantly recognisable hits from the eighties. We danced like idiots.

Hostel California (a cliched title, yes, but read on…)

We stayed at a hostel somewhat inland from Ocean Beach, which was filled with a quite staggering collection of odd people (and I’ve stayed in quite a few hostels), most of whom had been allocated to my dorm room. The Man Who Knew Everything was an affable and extremely talkative American semi-retiree, who seemed able to start a conversation on any subject imaginable. He told Beth about hidden away beaches we could visit, decided Ben needed advice about boiling a kettle, and gave me tips on where I could meet US college girls as I travelled through Mexico… He also tipped me off about The Phantom Shitter. One morning, after I had just showered in the middle cubicle of the men’s bathroom, he told me that he had found out (through his intelligence network among the hostel staff) one of the hostel guests had been “relieving himself” in the middle cubicle of the showers. And not just once – the second time the culprit had smeared it over the walls and over the showerhead. “Best to avoid the middle shower, son.” “Cheers,” I tried to smile.

We never found out who it was, but Ben suspected it was The Complaining Man, a wiry white haired moustached man who complained from the moment he arrived in the hostel to the moment he left. I first met him as he came into the dorm room furiously muttering to himself – he waged a bitter and unsuccessful campaign against the hostel, who seemed to have messed up his booking; after a few days he had to leave, to everyone’s relief. But worst of all was The Snoring Man, a tall, scraggily bearded unkept man, who over the course of Saturday night, turned out to be the worst snorer of all time. His exhales were volcanically loud, his inhales a nauseous phlegm suckling stuttering drawl. All my dorm stayed awake furious at him, but I missed the whole show. I got into bed around 3am and immediately passed out. I woke up confused and hungover on Sunday to hear my floor laughing and crying simultaneously about how bad someone had been snoring; I spent ten very embarrassed minutes thinking they were talking about me…

Pacific Beach

BBQ on the beach

BBQ on the beach at sunset

We stayed in Ocean Beach (San Diego has lots of beaches) because the guidebooks recommend it as a laidback, funky, edgy area, less stressful than the more mainstream Pacific and Mission Beach. This may not make me a good backpacker, but I really just prefered Pacific Beach, and we spent most of our time there. Ocean Beach was certainly edgy, but seemed to have a large number of inhabitants who’s attitude was “Unpleasant arseholes like me give this area its special character, so smile while I be rude to you”. Perhaps I’m just a snob, but in Pacific Beach you don’t get approached about tours to Mexico, you don’t get a huge, muscle bound drunken man following you around asking why you didn’t like Germany (don’t ask me why), you don’t get a utterly drunk weasel-like guy in a bar, with a failed goatee beard, who stands in the way of every girl that goes past smiling at her with a “we both know you want me” smile and has to be thrown out by the huge English bouncer. On Pacific Beach you just get the stress of hundreds of beautiful tanned people wandering past you. Apparently San Diego won a competition for “best looking people in the USA”. Walking along the beach, the only thing surprising to me about that was that someone felt a competition was necessary. I don’t want to stereotype – clearly not everyone had a perfect tan or knew their cosmetic surgeon by his first name – but there were a large number of San Diegoeans that were just conversation stoppingly good looking. We had a great time on the beach, sunbathing, people watching, I got a three hour intensive surfing lesson (and was pretty rubbish), and on the last night the three of us cooked a great BBQ as the sun set.

What have I been doing in London?

I don’t think that I want to emigrate to San Diego, and am well aware that California has its own problems (eg: $38 billion deficit and the Terminator running for governor). But as I walked through San Diego’s perfect weather, through the interesting and diverse low rise neighbourhoods, and spoke to the friendly, relaxed people, I reflected that while I learnt a lot about life (and the world of economics) in the last few years in London, I suspect I could have picked most up of that in any major English speaking Western city. It is certainly possible to have too little security in one’s life, but it is also possible to purchase too much security (and as a result lose out on a lot of the magic and diversity of this strange experience called living). Now I have started travelling I wonder very much whether I have been erring on the “too much” side in recent years… I think that optimally, I perhaps should have left the UK a lot sooner, but hey, the situation and the money weren’t right, so I’m not too regretful. All in all, I’m just very glad to be travelling.