This morning, I took a bus to Santa Monica and strolled along the sea front, but unfortunately was unable to see much due to a thick fog which had chosen to descend on the city John Carpenter style. The famous Santa Monica pier was almost entirely obscured from view, the twinkling lights of the Ferris Wheel on the end being the only sign that there was anything out there at all. It's always a shame when you visit somewhere as iconic as Santa Monica and find that the weather gods have conspired to ruin your day, but this is unfortunately one of the things you have to contend with wherever you go - I'm guessing that Sheryl Crow had a little more luck on the day she had all that fun 'till the sun came up over, well, here. Me, all I get to do is stare into the fog and make obscure references to films about zombies rising from buried leper colonies. It's not quite the same thing. I'm sure that Santa Monica is an absolute delight on a day when I can see my hand in front of my face, but venturing out onto the freezing boardwalk (that's a pier, to you and me) just didn't seem that appealing this morning, especially as I appear to have left my expensive Atlanta Hard Rock Cafe jacket behind in one of the many hotel rooms I've slept in en-route and I think my chances of getting it back are just slightly worse than those of me being selected as starting Quarterback for the Dallas Cowboys. Instead, I walked through the exclusive shopping district of Santa Monica Promenade, sat in a cosy streetside café hoping for an improvement in the weather, and browsed the shops at the indoor Santa Monica Place where I finally found a book I've been searching for since leaving England. So at least I got a good read out of today, if nothing else.
The promenade is a testament to America's love of all things big and attention grabbing. The pedestrianised street is lined on both sides with trees, so that you can forget for a moment that you're just down the road from the big city with all its gun crime and neon, and a central walking area is also home to cyclists who shoot by when you least expect it. The whole street is lined with boutiques, cafes, restaurants and theatres, and twin fountains are positioned half way along in such a way that water from one shoots over the heads of passers by into the other opposite, creating an arch of water. I didn't see a single scrap of litter anywhere, and I realised for the first time since I've been on this continent that it really is possible to travel just a few miles and stumble upon people living a totally different way of life. The atmosphere along the length of the third street promenade was laid back and relaxed, with people smiling at me and wishing me a good morning as I passed, something I certainly didn't encounter in Hollywood. By the time I left Santa Monica, I had already begun to warm to Californian hospitality. Perhaps I'll come back when the gods aren't emptying buckets on my head.
One of the things which stands out about the United States is the fact that you can buy virtually anything you want in the shops here. There are many products available stateside that simply don't exist in Britain, especially when it comes to confectionary and food in general - if you wish to get your hands on the same variety of delights back home, then you are expected to seek out a specialist store in London and pay a fortune in import duties. Who exactly was it that decided us Brits shouldn't be allowed to enjoy Tic-Tac in Wintergreen or Cinnamon flavours, or that the idea of M&Ms in Almond or Macadamia varieties would make us physically sick? We're denied the delights of Dark chocolate or Almond Milky Way, Reeses Pieces - essentially peanut butter smarties - or any of the hundreds of other things it's so easy to get addicted to over here. And woe betide anybody daring to sell Lifesavers, the sweet with the hole that seems to come in at least fifty flavours - instead, we have Polo which comes in three, all of them mint. However you look at it, variety is the spice of life over here - whereas Brits seem happy to take what we're given, the average American throws his dummy out of the pram (or should that be pacifier out of the stroller) if he can't find a new variety of his favourite candy bar every day. It doesn't stop at sweets though - when it comes to breakfast cereals over here, you can get honey flavour Honey Pops, peanut flavour Peanut Butter Rings, fruit flavour Fruit Loops, cereals made from chocolate bars, cereals containing fruit you've never even heard of, cereals with marshmallow in them, and cereals that pop, squeak or whistle for no adequately explored reason. Somebody, somewhere probably sells a breakfast product which cleans your teeth while you're eating it. A lot of these things pass us by in the UK, purely because the big corporations don't believe that we would embrace anything that could be seen as slightly different - but in reality, of course, we'd probably love it all if we were given the chance. Be honest - how many of you would've got excited at the idea of combining sausages with pancakes and syrup before McDonalds decided to add them to their breakfast menu? Even today, the idea sounds almost totally wrong in every way, but we're still happy to queue around the block before 10.30am to get our hands on them. And don't even get me started with cheese on fish - who the hell thought those two things would go together? Actually, I think I'd better leave it there before this blog entry starts sounding like an advertisement for McDonalds.
On the other side of the coin, there are also things over here which should be avoided like the plague. Grits, for example. Even mentioning this staple American breakfast dish to me these days is guaranteed to make me vomit, and I'm not kidding. For some time now I've been hearing people talk on sit-coms and American TV shows about this mysterious breakfast dish, and having generally found food in America far more tasty than the anti-fast food lobby would otherwise have you believe (they don't all eat fast food all day long and waddle about with fat dripping from the corners of their mouths over here, despite what you might've heard), I thought I'd ask my waitress at the hotel this morning exactly what they were. Grits, it seems, are a sort of corn based porridge which the Americans like to shovel onto whatever they're eating at breakfast. They turn up in a bowl, very much like ordinary porridge, but then get scooped up and dropped in sticky dollops on top of pancakes or meat or cornflakes or whatever else happens to be on hand, where they immediately give the impression that somebody has just regurgitated their breakfast in front of you. They really do have some amazing culinary delights on this side of the pond, but Grits are not one of them.
About Simon and Burfords Travels: Simon Burford is a UK based travel writer. He will be re-publishing his travel blogs, chapters from his books and other miscellaneous rantings on these pages over the coming weeks and months, and the entry on this page may not necessarily reflect todays date.