Just over a week ago we touched down in LA, the beginning of our latest loop of the world after having been planted in London long enough that dormant roots had started to unfurl again – our café loyalty cards were filling up, stuff was accumulating and our nomad label was starting to rub off. It was time to hit the road again.
So, after the wedding madness was over and we’d spent a mini-moon biking in the Loire, we shoved our surplus stuff into a backpack and stashed it atop a dusty closet above my clutter-sensitive (or should I say other-people’s-clutter-sensitive) mum’s eye level, I surreptitiously ferreted my wedding dress into her closet (please don’t throw that out!) and we tore ourselves away from the Ole Smoke despite being only one stamp away from a free coffee (dammit!).
Already after a week I’m missing my family, having a kitchen to cook in and the blissfulness of not having to repack a suitcase every morning but, hey, it’s fun to be back on the road. This time our travels feel imbued with extra importance – not only are we on our extended honeymoon, it may well be our last few months of travel before we settle down for a while. Stacker has kicked off the process of applying for my Green Card so, should I manage to prove that I’m not a disease-ridden, good for nothing, imposturous piece of crap and gain the right to reside in the US, we’ll probably want to stay put for a few years to make the whole process worthwhile.
The immigration process is already proving stressful. Before we left, Stacker’s lawyer told us that saying the wrong thing while entering the US for our honeymoon could put the whole thing in jeopardy. Not knowing what the “wrong thing” is and weighed down with my usual fear of border guards, I shakily handed over my passport to the bored-looking guy at immigration in LAX and submitted to the creepy fingerprinting and eye-scanning procedure.
“How long do you intend to stay in the US?” he asked me. “Err, about, err, a month” I stammered. That piqued his interest and his eyes flicked up, focusing in on my pale and sweaty face. I reached for my bulging file of supporting documentation – two wedding invitations for weddings I was attending during my month here, my hotel and car rental details, my flight to Hawaii, my onward flight to Australia, my Australian visa approval, every conceivable piece of ID and the exact coordinates of all my freckles – ready to prove whatever he should ask me next.
“And when did you last visit?” was his follow-up question and pretty much the only one I hadn’t prepared for. Perhaps he knew that. I attempted to access my memory but it seemed to have been temporarily misplaced “Erm, err, I think it was San Francisco in.. no! Erm, New York. New York in, err, in Spring,” I closed my eyes and against my will my mouth proceeded to add, “I think.”
I cringed and braced for the next impact but he had lost interest. His eyes defocused, dropped to the table and he stamped my passport. “Welcome to LA,” he said. I hurried through before he could change his mind and, like every time before, I had to hold back from doing an “I’m in!” victory dance.
Stacker had had ample time to recuperate my luggage and we emerged into the Los Angeles evening. The air was heavy with the day’s heat, the smell of gasoline, warm tarmac and food. Ahh, I thought, petroleum and food – yep, I’m back in the USA.
It always takes me a little time to adjust to the cultural differences between the UK and here. I have to remember to say coffee shop instead of café. In the bar, I’ve left behind the strict 25ml measures and entered the world of free-pouring. Shortly after arriving, we met our fellow world-traveller friend Patataco, who also happened to be in LA, in the Dark Room for a little tipple to combat the jet lag. I watched the bartender fill my glass with ice and vodka and, having run out of space, a tiny spritz of cola. Not meaning to sound ungrateful but I usually prefer not to be able to see through my vodka and coke.
I also have to remember to find a place on the puddled bar to plonk down the customary (read mandatory) one dollar per drink tip or the spirit-to-mixer ratio in my next drink may be altogether more reasonable. In restaurants they eye you warily when they hear your foreign accent and if they hear us drop any French into conversation they’ll discreetly slip a “tipping guidelines” leaflet (ahem, I mean flyer) into the pocket with our bill.
Language has it’s pitfalls too, despite the fact we supposedly share one. Although people do now seem to understand the term “cheers” when used as a thank you and are proud to show off their British slang like “wanker” (thank you Lock Stock) and “shag” (ditto, Austin Powers), I have to be careful with my use of many other Britishisms or risk being met with a blank stare or worse. I shocked a carriage worth of people on the tram up to the Getty Museum when I caught a glimpse of Patataco’s duty-free haul in his backpack and burst out with, “Man, that’s a lot of fags!” completely forgetting that here fag is a derogatory word for a gay man. Had I said “I want to smoke a fag” it would have been tantamount to a hate crime.
I was struck by how little resemblance LA bears to San Francisco, so much so that it’s hard to believe they are in the same state. Yet the clues are there – the ubiquitous yoga pants and tank top “just-back-from-the-gym” outfit, the noticeable lack of smokers, the abundance of juice outlets and the RIDICULOUSLY AMAZING AVOCADOS! When, on day three in LA, we were overtaken on the road by a tanned, yoked-out dude hauling a trailer filled with kegs of Kombucha I couldn’t help but think: Only in California.
Even before I arrived I was determined to hate the sprawling, car-centric, polluted metropolis that is LA but I was surprised to find that I did enjoy myself for the 1% of the time that wasn’t spent trying to find parking spots.
Patataco researched LA’s top tourist spots and took us on a whistle-stop tour of them. I was surprised to find beauty – in the collection and architecture of the Getty Museum, the sight of the sun setting and Venus rising from the Griffith Park Observatory and in the long sandy beaches. My negative expectations were also confirmed – getting around without a car is impossible but parking said car is even more impossible. The blah-ness of the skies is explained when, from the vantage of the Observatory, you see the brown haze of smog blanketing the city.
Our trip down the Walk of Fame was as cheesy as I expected. The day was a scorcher and as we breathed the syrupy air and felt our shoes become tacky on the tarmac, we had to fight off offers of tours and actors wanting feedback on their “improv” at every step.
Spotting our favourite names in the stars set into the sidewalk was fun but the idea that you could buy a map of celebrity addresses so you could go and stake out their houses was more than a little creepy.
We walked the majority of the street and then decided it was time to reward our touristy endurance with some fresh fish tacos in a restaurant helpfully named “Best Fish Tacos in Ensenada”, which we’d found because it was naturally coasting at the top of search results for the best fish tacos in LA .
Right now I’m finally recovering from all this culture shock over a Mai Tai in Hawaii and I’m looking forward to sharing our highlights of our time on Big Island in my next post but for now I’ll leave you with this last thing I’ve noticed on our latest visit – Americans are becoming more and more obsessed with smell in a way most of us smelly Europeans would find it hard to relate to.
Increasingly, every bad odour must be sanitised and everything must smell of artificial flowers. Now, I understand air fresheners in toilets but when our ocean-facing room in Hawaii was equipped with an industrial-sized air freshener regularly squirting a nose-searing burst of scent that resembled more the run off from a petrochemicals factory than a real flower, I lost the plot. What could possibly be better than the smell of the ocean and the actual real-life Hawaiian flowers I could see from my window?
Turn on the TV and it is dominated with infomercials on avoiding human smells – the usual suspects like mouth and armpits are there of course, but an overwhelming amount are now directed at women and their down-below parts. After just a few days here, I’m starting to develop a complex.
There is one ad though that has really caught my attention – Poo Pourri, the spray that seals your poop smell into the bowl so the person following you into the toilet has no idea just how many dead rats you’ve unloaded before them. Of course, I don’t poop but Stacker is definitely getting one of those for Christmas! Now if only they made a toot-trapping butt spray too…
Smell ya later…