Tuesday, 12 March 2013

Killing time on Venice Beach while waiting for a night flight to London...

Like a lot of people in the UK, my impression of Los Angeles was coloured by the movies – in both a good and a bad way. The good part is easy to explain: Falling Down, you name them, all the decent movies appear to be set in LA. The bad bit, of course, is the crime and the fact that it’s supposedly possible to wind up in dodgy neighbourhood like Compton, which, to be fair to Compton, I only really know about thanks to a band called NWA, whose album, Straight Out of Compton (it might have been Straight Outta Compton) was one of the first major rap albums – or is it Hip Hop, I can never work out the difference. In fact, it might even be ‘gangsta rap’, who knows?

There is, of course, much more to Los Angeles that the city sprawl we see and hear so much of in the movies. I was glad to get out of the LAX Holiday Inn, mainly because it was in the midst of a kind of industrial sprawl not dissimilar to the area surrounding Heathrow Airport in the UK.

A big problem with LA is that people drive everywhere. It’s not like the UK where people can walk and stare into shop windows or dive into cafés for a cup of tea and a Millionaire’s Shortbread. A car is needed and this is a shame.

When I left LA central behind and found myself in Irvine, en route to Foothill Ranch, I was relieved and surprised by how nice everything was: palm trees, relative peace and quiet, a plesant, pristine environment of office buildings and hotels and, seemingly, nobody around.

The shuttle dropped me off at my hotel, the Hyatt Regency, which turned out to be the best hotel of the entire trip. It was classy not only in its overall service ethic, but it’s food, it’s environment, everything.

What I liked about Hyatt was its determination to encourage Americans not to eat a load of fatty, horrible food smothered in fatty sauces. They even had chicken sausages for breakfast, instead of the usual beef or pork that we’re all used to (in the UK and the USA). On my first and only night in the hotel I enjoyed a really pleasant grilled salmon with vegetables (sprouts) and rice, a glass of wine and a bottle of chilled, sparkling Badoit mineral water (Badoit is, in my opinion, the best mineral water around). Oddly, it tastes so much better from a glass bottle than a plastic one.

I settled into a very pleasant meal, albeit alone, which is never good, especially as I was feeling a little homesick. But the waiting staff were extremely pleasant and chatty and with the good food on top, I really couldn’t have asked for more.

Venice Beach, California. Pic: Thomas Alber.
It was Sunday – effectively my only day off – so I headed for the outdoor pool, which, I’d discovered earlier, was heated. I was a little anxious about taking a dip as I wasn’t sure how cold the water would be, but once I got there, changed into my trunks (which I’d put on underneath my trousers to avoid embarrassing moments trying to conceal myself with a towel like on a day trip to the beach in England).

As it turned out, the water was warm and once I’d gotten my shoulders under, which took all of a minute, I was in my element. I haven’t swam in an outdoor swimming pool since the summer of 2007 – six years ago – and I stayed in for a good 30 minutes swimming back and forth and generally enjoying every single minute. Surrounded by palm trees and gazing up at a blue and cloudless sky I really couldn’t ask for anything more – except my wife and kids who I really wanted to be there too. Sadly they were thousands of miles away in England where, I was told earlier, it had been snowing (but hadn’t laid).

Snow seemed alien to my current environment. In fact I don’t even think they have snow in California, do they? No wonder everybody’s so miserable in the UK, the weather is so lousy. And yet all the Americans want to go there – and all the Brits want to escape. It all made me realise how important it is to have a holiday, something missing in my house for the past six years or so. We all desperately need one.

I swam back and forth and kept saying to myself I’d swim another two lengths and then get out and dry myself. But I didn’t, I just kept going until I looked at my hands and noticed how wrinkled up they were getting. Time to get out and dry myself. I then decided to do the day tripper thing and take my trunks off while concealed by a towel, something I hate doing at the best of times. But it worked and soon I was dry and ready to return to the hotel.

I sat in my hotel room watching America’s answer to The Apprentice, with Donald Trump as Alan Sugar and a whole host of American celebs raising money for various charities. I kept nodding off, but needed to check my return flight to the UK as I wanted a seat with leg room. I managed to get one and then headed on downstairs for a late dinner. I was in two minds about eating anything but figured I should get a decent meal inside me; and and that's where the grilled salmon came in.

The next morning I was up around 6am and ready for business. I took a taxi to Foothill Ranch. LA was one thing, but this was something else, especially with the blue skies, the foothills – that's why it must be called Foothill ranch – and the sunshine. I was really taken by the place and envied all those people who lived and worked in the area. No wonder everybody was so cheery, I thought.

After the last bit of business was over, the PR for the company I’d been interviewing offered me a lift to LAX – why LA International Airport is called LAX, and not LAII, I don’t know and nor, it seemed, did anybody else. We – that is my new PR buddy Dave and I – went to an Inn-n-Out Burger restaurant for a spot of lunch. Dave is a fast food, burger joint connoisseur. He loves them and has been known to eat two of them in a day. Oddly, he’s not a great big fat person, but a fit-looking chap who puts his thinness down to cycling daily on stationary bikes in a gym, ‘spin clasess’, which I once considered, but never really got my act together.

The Inn-n-Out Burger restaurant – where they cook the burgers to order – was just next to one of the main LAX runways so we sat there watching the planes coming in to land. And when I say ‘just next to’ one of the runways, it was JUST NEXT TO one of the runways. The planes were very close – a few yards away – reminding me of my impending flight from LAX to London, which would be ten hours and 35 minutes and not something I was particularly relishing.

I had time to kill and Dave suggested I take a cab to Venice Beach, which I did. It was an amazing, crazy place that made me realise how that whole US hippy thing, characterised by the Beach Boys and Simon and Garfunkel, Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters and so on, was alive and well. Crazy people selling all manner of crazy craft items, such as dreamcatchers, painted skulls and framed paintings, lined the beachfront and there were equally colourful shops and stalls selling tee-shirts and shorts facing the Pacific. There were street entertainers, musicians and people supposedly trying to sell passers-by CDs of their own music.

I walked from Venice beach along the coast to the pier at Santa Monica where I stopped for lunch before walking all the way back. There were kids playing in the sea, women sunbathing on the beach, people cycling or using those two-wheeled Segways. After all the big breakfasts I'd been eating, I needed the exercise but none of the bikes had baskets – to place my laptop – so I walked instead. I'd left my camera in my checked-in suitcase back at the airport so I couldn’t take any photographs of this wonderful place. It was full of colourful, happy people – shiny, happy people – enjoying what in London would be a sweltering hot summer’s day – in March! Once again I began to long for a family holiday. I’d love my family to see this place and what a great holiday we could have here on Venice Beach. I thought back to Foothill Ranch, the palm trees, the peace, the blue skies and temporarily forgot that I had a long-haul flight ahead of me. There was a strong temptation to give it all up and become a beach bum.

It was getting close to the time when I should be finding a taxi and heading back to LAX, but I stopped off at Larry’s Bar first for a glass of beer. After that there was no escaping the fact that LAX beckoned. I found a cab, owned and run by Johnny, a pleasant Ethiopian man who sings in his spare time. Johnny and I chewed the fat as we drove through the sun-kissed streets of LA heading for LAX and then, after bidding him farewell, I was back in the hassled world of the airport with its perfume brands and premium spirits. I had to endure going through security: shoes off, laptop in a separate tray, pockets empty.

Right now, as I write this, I’m in a food court. I’ve had a cup of tea and a cookie and I'm waiting for the moment when I can board the flight (I’ve got about 30 minutes). I could do without the flight, but it’s what stands between me and my family and some lighter meals.

The flight leaves at 8.30pm and I will reach home at 2pm on Tuesday. Right now it’s Monday night in LA. When I get off the plane, it’ll be Tuesday afternoon in the UK – seven hours ahead in terms of time.

Back home, the mouse problem persists. There have been mice in our house since before we arrived back in 1998; somewhere, somehow, they’re getting in and I’ve heard that, while I’ve been away, one more has been caught. This means that life will continue to be upside down as my wife and daughter don’t really want to sleep there until the problem has been eradicated. My theory is that it won’t be sorted out until the kitchen is gutted and the holes in the floor sealed up. I reckon that’s where they’re getting in.

The rodent control man says they’re in the loft and that they get there via a cable that runs up the outside of the house by the conservatory. He says they get to the cable by crawling along the branch of tree that overhangs the conservatory during the summer months – are they really that clever? This seems very far-fetched to me, but he’s supposed to be expert. Once in the loft they get around between the cavity walls and enter the house proper through holes in the floor in the kitchen. I think that if we have any hope in hell of eradicating the problem, we’ve got to gut the kitchen, seal all the holes and then put a new kitchen in. I think we’re going to have to bite the bullet money-wise and get it done, otherwise life will continue to be upside down with nights round at the in-laws and our house remaining deserted. It’s all bad karma, that’s for sure.

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