My week in Los Angeles passed quickly, very quickly. I spent a lot of time simply relaxing in and around the apartment in Venice Beach. I enjoyed the horizontal feel to the place, the friendliness of many of the strangers passing me on the street. I indulged in tasty Mexican food, prepared by real Mexicans who had settled north of the border, searching for a more stable, better life. I took sun-drenched strolls along the boardwalk, a pedestrian path running just beyond the beach, offering great views out into the sparkling surf, while retaining the sights and smells of the bustling bars and quirky shops crowding in upon the route from the other direction. I came to know Ben, Courtney and their friends more fully; to be challenged in my thoughts and conceptualizations, perhaps more fully - certainly in a shorter period of time - than in my previous adventures in South America. This past week was an exciting time, a treasured expanse that I hope to revisit one day, albeit from an inevitably altered stand-point.
I was able to indulge in physical exertion, besides that of the more mental direction referred to above. I shot a few hoops on the basketball court (well, I tried at least, although I realized swiftly that I preferred to sit out and watch the enviable skills of others rather than make too great a fool of myself in physical participation). I cooled off most evenings in the ocean, before the sun dipped out of sight into the waves: the swell near the shore was brilliant and I had a great time body-surfing with Ben and Troy frequently. I even took the time to learn a new sport, one created and trialled in Venice Beach itself. Paddle tennis requires patience and good technique, especially from one steeped in the tradition of "real" tennis. A paddle tennis court is roughly half the size of a true tennis court, the net is lower. Wooden bats are used in place of strung rackets and although a normal tennis ball is used, it has been punctured by a needle, rendering it softer and with a reduced velocity when struck. Otherwise, the rules and scoring are compatible with normal tennis (except that in paddle tennis, participants play to two sets, not three, as is the practice in male tennis in the Grand Slams): the sport is fun and swiftly becomes rather addictive. I played three full games during my week in Venice and I saw some definite improvement over the course of that period. Although I failed to defeat Ben in either of our closely-contested matches, I was able at least to take a set from him in our second encounter. I was able to defeat Troy in our only match together, which was my third and final game. Later in the week, ambling down the boardwalk, camera in hand, I was able to take some photographs of this quirky little game from inside the court (and thus uninhibited by the wire mesh surrounding these areas) of some skilful and very accommodating older players.
One weekend morning, when she was free from conducting any yoga classes, Courtney drove me out to the Topanga state park and we enjoyed an energetic hike among the foothills of the ridge formed by the San Diego fault-line, which runs so famously up the western side of the US. I was hearted to see so many people - both young and old - using the trails and also to note the almost complete absence of litter on and around the paths. The sun beat down fiercely and the dusty walkways puffed up clouds beneath our stamping feet. Hardy shrubs and cacti poked up from the crusted ground, interspersed among the occasional tree, offering a welcome, shaded relief from the heat. The sky was in places a striking blue - particularly looking inland - but, nearer the coast there was a haziness, a low-lying blanket of obscurity; a mixture perhaps of sea-fog and city smog. I enjoyed the walk very much and in particular the energy not only of our physical exertions but, also that of our conversation, Courtney challenging some of my less mindful comments and causing me to contemplate an altered viewpoint on more than one occasion. Such challenges occurred in a genial situation and were well-intended so, I revelled in the opportunity to engage in opinions often quite different to my own. Of course, some of my less tasteful aspersions I intended only in jest among friends and even in the case of "fattism", I am coming to terms with my apparent prejudice (!).
The opportunity to be challenged to think differently and perhaps more deeply upon topics that were quite removed from some of the issues I have dwelt upon earlier in this trip was refreshing and liberating. Surrounded by intelligent, articulate people with whom I could converse at length and in detail, I found that such verbal exchanges often left a strong impression upon me. Never before have I been in the company of so many artistically minded individuals: this was the case for both Ben and Courtney but, also for many of their friends. I met artists, dancers and musicians: everyone seemed to be following a dream, one based upon freedom of spirit, set within artistic license. These people seemed to be successful or on their way to success, celebrating the recent release of a new album, hosting a new exhibition, or awaiting a scheduled session in a recording studio. This positive attitude made a great impression upon me and I contemplated my own hopes and aspirations, fuelled by the energy within which I so often found myself. In the company of my new-found friends, I attended the opening of an art exhibition, the launch of a fashion magazine and I enjoyed a night's entertainment at a chic bar where a friend danced to music mixed by another acquaintance playing the DJ, while a local artist created bold, swift scenes upon a plastic canvass using acrylic paint and a metal file as his brush. My mind opened to these exotic possibilities and, if nothing else, I found myself exhilarated to be able to throw off some unseen, previously unfelt shackle of my mind and indulge in a different perception, an altered viewpoint. This intellectually inspired scene that I stumbled upon in LA, so vibrant, struck me as reminiscent of my days in Cambridge: there appeared a similar positive attitude, a confident sense of ability and the smell of success. Nonetheless, I feel safe to write that LA was quite unlike any city I have experienced before and I am sure in my hope to one day return, perhaps for a more elongated window of opportunity.
My new friends, my exciting escapades and the altered vistas opening into my mind all combined to give a sense of exhilaration and anticipation but, they left me confused and reeling somewhat as well. The adjustment from South American backpacker to partaker of intellectual pastimes was a little harsh in hindsight, despite the stop-gap offered by my sojourn in Panama. I find myself relieved that such a process has begun in California, rather than back home and hope that by the time of my eventual home-coming, I have managed to accept more readily my current situation, to have assimilated more fully, more rationally and, therefore, with better understanding my experiences of the past seven months, if not in their entirety (which, after all, may never be possible) then at least to a level whereby I am able to dwell comfortably upon any such memory. In some sense, arriving in California, famous for its liberalism, is one of the least controversial adjustments after such relaxed ease that often met me travelling around South America: in another sense, California's own informed cultural identity is enough to challenge any open-minded person profoundly, regardless of their previous experiences.
Speaking of past experiences and of Cambridge a little earlier, it was something of a welcome relief from this electrifying circus of sorts to rendezvous, quite unexpectedly up until some twenty-four hours prior to the actual event, with an old friend from the Classics faculty beside the Cam. Graham was a good friend in those days of the masters programme and it was great to be able to meet him here: trawling through his Facebook feed one day, Graham discovered that I was here in LA and got in touch. He resides currently in Santa Monica and we passed an enjoyable evening catching up upon recent news and reminiscing about days of old: the chance to be reminded of those Cambridge days and some of the ways that such a cultural and intellectual hotbed stimulated me even before my trip was something of a reassurance. Past, present and future: I think about them often in these days.
Well can I imagine the surprise that some readers may be feeling at this point: am I truly describing LA, the centre of the film industry and all the insincerity, shallow characters and profane dealings that reside here? Of course, there was evidence of these lowlier touch-stones also: LA is full of peacocks; here there are many beautiful people and many people who think themselves beautiful. One friend mentioned to me that while it is very common to be confronted with a gorgeous girl or handsome hunk strolling down the street, it is at times more difficult to find true substance as well. My experiences with Ben, Courtney and their friends aside (all of whom I found to be remarkably witty and good-natured), I did catch fleeting glimpses of a less savoury, less stimulating under-belly to the LA scene. One episode springs to mind especially readily: eating ice-cream on the street in Venice one afternoon, I was alerted to a fight breaking out a little way down the sidewalk over the issue of one man snatching some chips (French fries) from the plate of another male. The situation was petty and trivial but, it offered both men the opportunity to flex some muscle and some choice verbal abuse. Happily, such dealings remain few and far between.
My time in Venice Beach and in LA drew swiftly to a close and I began to search for a method of transporting myself and my belongings north to San Francisco, where I was due to meet up with some more friends from the recent and not-so-recent past: folk I met while travelling and Abra, whom I befriended while we were both graduate students at Downing College in Cambridge. I had time for a second, final stroll down the canal tow-paths that give Venice Beach its name: some years ago the whole area was a network of canals, creating a scene very reminiscent of the enduring blueprint in northern Italy. These days many of the canals have been filled in to make way for larger constructions but, a small section remains, set back a little way from the beach-side. Here, I meandered peacefully down narrow by-ways, over quaint bridges. I soaked up the sunlight and soaked in the pretty scenery and architecture hedging the banks of the waterways. The canals left me with an enduring memory of Venice Beach; a physical reminder of just how confusing a place LA can appear. Peaceful, shaded, quiet canals resting but a few blocks from a fraught, busy beach-side crammed full of people watching and being watched. Los Angeles: a city of many peoples, of many places, of many seemingly contradictory movements, emotions and airs; a city of many cities.
Best wishes to all!