I know this smell. It brings back childhood memories of my Nana’s house and my uncle’s. And now here it is again, six years later, 15 years later, in my Airbnb host’s apartment and again at the shop were I buy a new cell phone because mine won’t pick up on the US network. Some type of cleaning agent? Would make sense. Only that it doesn’t smell like chemicals at all, it smells like homes that have been lived in for a long time, that take on their owner’s idiosyncratic scent. I don’t know what it is but it takes me right back to those childhood memories of the wonderful holidays my parents took me on to see our family this side of the Atlantic – and strangely and wonderfully, I feel a little bit at home here.
After just 24 hours in the states, naturally I’ve taken note mainly of the stereotypes that have been confirmed: Delta flight attendants are all senior citizens (pensions in the US not being enough to live on and all…). Only minutes in the country, waiting for the airport shuttle, I’m already involved in a conversation with the man standing next to me and given his number. People on the street greet me, just because I’m crossing their path (my readers back home who have not been to the US must be thinking “WTF?!”). The whole friendliness and customer service thing. Random smiles by passers-by: nice. First name basis with my shop attendant: Why? Then again, why not. Having to make conversation with nearly everyone I meet and fearing that they think I’m rude if I keep to myself: Somewhat exhausting. Are most of the conversations not intended to ever leave the superficial level? Yes. But only by making contact in the first place is there even the chance of meeting people with whom you might want to move beyond superficiality. So on the whole, I think all this chatting is actually a good thing.
Then there are the small quotidian pleasures and conveniences: My coffee’s just that bit hotter than back home; the guys are just that much buffer; the ocean’s just a few blocks away; Santa Monica’s streets are filled with the smell of exotic flowers, its white beaches frequented by flocks of pelicans; drinking fountains abound, as do public toilets with “foyers”, beaming “attendants” and even separate rooms for nursing mothers (unlike us shameless Europeans, Americans apparently do not tolerate the indecency of public breast feeding). And for those so inclined, the Venice beach front has an astounding number of “medical marijuana” parlors – tattooed and guarded looking dudes offering to “find out today if you qualify” for access to their goods.
But naturally it’s not just fun and games, even in sunny affluent Santa Monica. I see at least as many homeless people standing outside the sparkling mall as I do in the less shiny setting of my neighbourhood back home. And Venice! Not only the name conjures up beauty, the pictures I had seen of it always showed crowds of beautiful people having fun in the sun. What a shock to see it for real. The famous beach front is absolutely appalling. A run-down agglomeration of dirty looking shops, one after the other, all selling nothing but the cheapest and most boring souvenirs. And apart from the tourist and a couple of work-out fanatics at Muscle beach, most of the people hanging out on the promenade, some “performers” of one sort or the other but most literally just hanging around on the benches and sidewalk, have clearly recently been abusing one substance or another and do not partake in the happy shiny image of their hometown.
However, it wouldn’t be LA if it weren’t all redeemed in the end by the one thing this city is most famous for: the movies. Just as I am hurrying to leave Venice, I happen onto the film set of an NCIS installment. As a foreigner I didn’t know the show and was quite surprised to find the unlikely match of LL Cool J and Chris O’Donnell starring in this production. A crowd gatheres just a few feet from the set and watches on as LL, Chris and a homeless guy film a scene among overturned and burnt-out cars with FBI agents and firemen busy in the background. As soon as the take is over some female teen-aged fans yell at LL, who dutifully comes over to pose for photos. This apparently momentous event in her life is commented on by one of the girls saying: “OH MY GOD, I’m gonna throw up!!” Chris O’Donnell, sadly, has absolutely no one asking for his autograph.