Walking alongside the beach in Santa Monica, I was jet-lagged out of my mind. The fresh scent of the ocean trickled up my stuffy nose. The sun was shimmering on the rolling waves and made me squint. The afternoon breeze shuffled palm trees’ leaves, yet it offered no respite from the heat. I had put my sun screen on too quickly while waiting for my breakfast order and could feel myself burn.
See them tumbling down
Pledging their love to the ground
Lonely but free I’ll be found
Drifting along with the tumbling tumbleweeds
…was all I could think of.
Tumbling Tumbleweeds features in The Big Lebowski’s soundtrack. Be careful about the films you watch on your way to Southern California. They might color your impressions. I had re-watched The Big Lebowski a few weeks prior and I adore that film. Mulholland Drive also looms large in my psyche. And I took the opportunity to watch Inherent Vice on the plane. For more films that capture the essence of the Los Angeles area, you may refer to this list.
In my haste to get an uncomplicated and rejuvenating vacation, I had decided that (a) I could handle jetlag well (without any evidence) and that (b) I wasn’t going to experience much culture shock because of US cultural hegemony
Countless US TV dramas watched, McDonald’s meals eaten, an addiction to Coca-Cola: I was ready to see the United States for the first time without a hitch. Beverly Hills 90210, Melrose Place, Baywatch, Baywatch Nights, and Pacific Blue are works of fiction, turns out. And travel is hard. I concluded I was a delusional moron as I struggled to put a foot in front of the other in the middle of the afternoon in Santa Monica.
Beating myself up and humming Sons of the Pioneers’ songs in my head could be done anywhere. So much so, you might wonder “Why travel at all?”. But then, I was doing that at the beach watching the Pacific Ocean.
That morning, jet-lag induced insomnia got me up at 4am. I listened to the cars go down the motorway and felt the hotel room vibrate while, seating at the desk with my travel guide, I planned my activities for the next few days. From my phone, I booked tickets to see the Space Shuttle the next day. As the sun was coming up, I decided the Pacific Ocean would probably do me good. I would head for Santa Monica.
Climbing on bus with lots of high school students, I could feel the Monday vibe. The bus trip from Aviation / LAX station to Santa Monica offered me the opportunity to live through Los Angeles traffic. Numberless giant billboards flanked avenues selling burgers, spirits, medication. Two or three times, sirens announced an ambulance or a fire truck trying to zip through.
Low buildings in strange pastel colors. Hills covered in olive bushes. Suddenly, the Ocean appeared in a flash of bright morning light and we passed Loyola Marymount University, went down over Ballona Creek, skirted Marina Del Rey and made our way to Santa Monica.
Once off the bus, I got my map out and that prompted the bus driver to ask me where I needed to go. She kindly gave me directions. Bus drivers, especially women, are very kind to tourists who look lost. Looking lost and confused is like my super-power. What would be great is to be able to turn it off sometimes when I need to look confident.
Anyway, I had very good green eggs and ham at Huckleberry (1014 Willshire Boulevard, Santa Monica). It was ham on biscuit with eggs on top and arugula salad. It was awesome. I drank San Pellegrino with that because American waters are confusing.
After my meal, I felt somewhat refreshed and walked down to Pacific Palisades. I had my first few encounters with few of Santa Monica’s many homeless people. A man suddenly appeared behind me as I was waiting at a crosswalk. His arm was extended and a bag full of pills was dangling from his hand. “Can you take my pills home?” he asked. I just walked right through without answering. Thankfully, he did not follow me.
An old couple fed squirrels right next to the sign that forbade it. There was a memorial honoring veterans from each branch of the armed forces. And homeless people under every tree. This juxtaposition made me a bit sad. It might say something about South California. Or maybe I was just tired.
Arriving near the stairs that went to the bridge over the road to the beach was close by. Excitement took me again.
A whole bus load of French tourists were standing around. They were laughing and joking among themselves having a jolly old time — being French. I stood there taking in the scenery and listening to their conversations. It was nice hearing my mother tongue even if I had only left less than 72 hours earlier. One of them was comparing the vegetation to the Côte d’Azur. Typical French move to compare every place with France all the time.
I reached the golden sands of Santa Monica. I took my shoes and socks off to feel the sand on my soles and between my toes. My last visit to a beach must’ve been more than 15 years prior. I walked to the ocean. People from another part of the country asked me to take a picture of them. I did. And kept walking towards the water.
Once I went down all the width of the beach, I toyed in the wet sand and let the waves lick my feet, letting my eyes get lost on the horizon for a long long time.
I turned my attention towards the pier with its Forrest Gump-themed restaurant, arcades, amusement park, etc. I found some kitsch and ugly postcards to send home to my family and kitsch aficionados friends.
I walked up and down the pier and watched the ocean and listened to the waves crashing and remembered Kerouac’s Big Sur.
I walked through downtown Santa Monica to the California Heritage Museum (2612 Main Street, Santa Monica) housed in a beautiful old home. I learned it is closed on Mondays. The Aquarium below the pier is closed on Mondays too — by the way.
I went to the 3rd Street Promenade where big metal dinosaurs spew water in flowery pools. There were people in red shirts collecting money for a charity. As I was coming out of Urban Outfitters, I was greeted by one. He said “Are you from Switzerland?”. As far as I know, I had no obvious tell. I was floored. So his ice breaker worked. I, obviously, asked how he could tell. He wouldn’t tell. I listened to his presentation about homeless children. He had heartbreaking pictures of blond children crying covered in slime. I answered that I didn’t consider a donation at this point.
At the end of the street there was a mall. None of the brands looked familiar at all. I visited the Disney store and walked through Bloomingdale’s. They were opening something called a UNIQLO. The sun was getting low — might have been 5pm — and I got hungry. The food court of the mall was deserted and nothing looked promising.
My appetite was still off — way way off. I knew I had to eat but didn’t know how much, so I settled for a crepe place on 3rd street. I always found francophilia intriguing. There were old French ad posters for Folies Bergères, the Côte d’Azur, sun screens, flours. I ordered banana crepes and a chocolate milkshake. I’d been parked in the loner spot. It was a stall, so I couldn’t do much people watching. The other clients were tourists just like me anyway.
I missed the sunset. In may, the sun doesn’t set in the ocean anyway. The picturesque sunset in the ocean as a constant is also a false idea planted in heads by television. This isn’t the way the solar system works.
I walked up and down the promenade once more. and started to inquire about bus routes to go back to my hotel. The rapid line was done for the day. The slow line, I didn’t know where to take. It was dark and my phone wasn’t much help. Using the timetables at the bus stops was difficult in the dark. I found the right stop but I wasn’t on the right side of the street. I missed a bus.
Finally, I went to the right bus stop and turned the looking lost thing to its maximum. I engaged in conversation with an newly wed Italian couple on their honeymoon. They were on an organized tour, coming from Las Vegas. We confirmed among ourselves that it was the right bus to take. We were joined in our conversation by a student from China who was studying in Northern California and came south for a vacation. We climbed on the bus when it came and sat. At night the bus’ windows were mirrors and there wasn’t anything to see. I just had to trust that we were going to the right place.
We talked about our lives and our travels. Every once in a while one of us would interrupt to ask the same questions about where we were, where to get off and will everything be all right in the end. After reassurances, we would talk again about life and our travels. I was headed for the terminus so I didn’t worry too much.
When I arrived at LAX Metro Station, I took the green line to my hotel in Redondo.