Saturday, July 15, 2017

Lost Paradise: My Story about L.A.

"The whole place is a glaring, gaudy, nightmarish set, built upon the desert." (Ethel Barrymore)
There are very few things that are more intrinsically American than a drive through the desert. Just long, empty roads, unfolding like slick, enormous snakes, winding through thousands and thousands piles of emptiness.

There is hardly any American roadtrip movie ever made that does not include a long and hot ride through the middle of Nothing, USA, and more specifically the Southwest. Where else in the world do you have millions of miles, it seems, of perfectly paved roads connecting emptiness and no one?! Even bad, actionless roadtrip movies go through the desert. Because the desert always speaks for itself while it makes room for any possibilities.

Driving through the Arizona desert, somewhere between Salt Lake to Las Vegas

The most talented painter of the Southwestern desert is, in my opinion, Charles Bowden. I do not possess an iota of his brilliant talent and mind to even attempt to describe it, so I'll quote:
The Southwest is a place where everyone slips their moorings and just drifts. The cities and towns are ugly, the populace footloose, the crime frequent, the marriages disasters, the plans pathetic gestures, the air electric with promise. There is so much space and so much ground that no one can for a single moment doubt the basic American dream that it is possible to make something worthwhile of life. Everything a desert tortoise is – calm, a homebody, long-lived, patient, quiet – the people of the Southwest are not. […] The landscape comes from the far side of the mind – black slopes, blue sky, burning sun.” (“Blue Desert”)

How you know you have reached the end of the Last Frontier and possibly of the world. When settlers and trail blazers have named new places everything there is to name a place they run out of inspiration or sense for what to call the last one. So, they just string some random letters together and they come up with Zzyzx Rd

The only thing more impressive than getting lost in the desert is coming across a huge metropolis springing out of nowhere in the middle of it, a huge chimera of a lost dream. Las Vegas is such a chimera. And so is Los Angeles.

I think that no matter where we are from, we are all a little bit fascinated with LA. It's an undeniable platitude to say that this city is at the very least intriguing for all of us. Some of us love it, some hate it, some are puzzled by it, but we all can tell at least one story that started there. Movies alone are great ambassadors of this.

As for myself, I feel like I grew up with Los Angeles as a distant constant in my life. My whole existence has been dotted with LA stories, movies, and music. Like the decorated chest of an old vet, little pictures of LA, old and new, are forever engraved on mine. 

When I was too young to even know how to read a map, I remember my dad telling me that his friends' daughters emigrated to the States and now they live in Los Angeles. He reminded us every day that we should aspire for that: that one day, we would grow up and move to LA. It was never “move to the USA”. It was always “move to LA.” And this LA was established in our young minds as this place people go to that offers wide open possibilities and opportunities. A place where you work your butt off, string a few dollars and live paycheck from paycheck, but you get to live next door to the very privileged, and get to absorb the culture it offers endlessly. That place where miracles happen and lives are made.

Later, in my teens, I saw “Pretty Woman” for the first time. We could not afford a VCR, so some of our friends invited us over to watch it on tape. Our friends' son was about 10 years older than us and he commented on the opening as well as the closing scene of the movie which shows this homeless (I think) guy who says something like this: “Welcome to Hollywood. What's your dream?! Everyone comes here. This is Hollywood. The land of dreams. Some dreams come true, some don't, but keep on dreaming ...” ( Our friends' son said “this is the definition of LA and the definition of America. It's a place where you are free to dream." Some dreams come true, some don't, but they make up the fabric of the real world, just like a McDonald's burger. I continued to live into my young adult years to still wish that one day I will reach that land.

Later on, during my college years, I watched “Beverly Hills 90201” - another “American made” dreamsical piece, another story of people starting up in the world, trying to find an identity in a big, foreign city, right next door to “plastic” people.

We had arrived

In college it is when I also discovered the music of The Doors and Janis Joplin – listening to them, watching them took me back to no other place but LA. Again. Like a perpetually spinning record, LA kept coming again and again into my life. I dreamed of one day walking the sidewalk on Venice Beach and listening to the sounds of the homeless bands there. Watching the standstill traffic on Hollywood Boulevard, and watching the roller-skaters gliding gently on The Hills “until the sun comes up over Santa Monica Boulevard.”

Then, it was the religious watching of The Oscars ceremonies, complete with the red carpet interviews, every year – even when I lived in Romania and had to get up at 3 AM.

During my whole 42 years of life LA and Hollywood have been part of my life. There has been something, at every point in my life, that connects me, albeit remotely and most times virtually, to this chimeric place, rising from the middle of the American Southwestern desert. Like a giant cobra, dancing in the heat. Appealing and wild. Scary and so seductive, at the same time.

But till a couple of weekends ago, I have never seen it in real life. Although I have been in the US for close to 20 years now, my travels have not taken me there. After driving in 111F delirious heat through the Mojave Desert from Salt Lake City and then from Vegas, we reached LA one early afternoon. On a Saturday.

The proof that the heat was no joke.

I know I will not do much justice to tell you what it felt like, and what all these landmarks I have mentioned look like in reality, so I won't even waste my time or yours. I will just make a brief list of 10 things that will stay with me, as a vivid testimony that my eyes have seen this, my skin has felt this, my pores have absorbed this dreamy, raw, real, dirty, loud, busy, wide, smelly, green, balmy (at an almost constant 75F), claustrophobically agoraphobic, surreal, shameless, shameful and intoxicating city.
  1. We have parked our car on Sunset Boulevard, and walked around Whisky a Go Go. Call me  a hippie if you want, but this was my number one must see. We did not care for the bands playing during the weekend that we were there, and wanted to explore other parts of the city that evening, so we didn't go in. But just to see the building, with its historic marquee and hear the sound of music coming from inside was breathtaking for me. I could only imagine Jim Morrison walking through the door, on the way to his first concert there. Or last. What is the difference?!

    Whisky a Go-Go on Sunset Boulevard.
  2. I have always wanted to see the stars on Hollywood Boulevard (is there any human in the whole world who doesn't know about these?!), but I never imagined that the very first star I would come across with would be … The Doors. This is not made up. Right as we were coming out of the subterranean parking lot, the first thing I saw when walking my first steps on The Boulevard was The Doors star.

  3. I think “Pretty Woman” made Rodeo Drive famous, too, and the movie does it justice. Stores lined up like forbidden fruits, so posh and upscale you feel dirty and low class, no matter who you are. I walked into one, just to see if I felt different, and I did: like I was breaking into a house that wasn't mine. They have a hostess and a personal shopper and an assistant to check you personally out at the end – all personalized, all yours. I don't think I have seen enough dollars in my life to afford something from one of these places. But it was good to put some real pictures and a palpable experience into my brain.

    Cars, people, billboard, and road signs on Rodeo Drive.

  4. Another thing that I believe defines a place is the food. California always stands out for me in freshness. Especially when it comes to veggies and fish, they seem to do a good job, just about anywhere you go. I also look for what really a place has to offer that is singularly theirs.

    The fish tacos on Venice Beach, at
    On The Waterfront Cafe ( did disappoint, I must say. It was one of those fish sticks businesses, which was disheartening because we were on the beach. However, the guacamole was better than the one I had in Mexico or anywhere else. Californians know their avocados. At least. And you had a taco and a cold brew on Venice Beach. How much more picky can you get, right?!

    Street food on Hollywood Boulevard, outside the Chinese Theater.

    Although a (local) chain,
    Creme de la Crepe ( was amazing. It had a cozy, small boutique eatery kind of feel, very French and very fresh. Where can you get warm fresh French baguette for breakfast with a serving of homemade strawberry jam?! As my husband said “that jam was not jam, it was the strawberry!”

    The very inviting, very French Creme de la Crepe Restaurant
    We ate at Dinah's (,
    too which is a local emblem, we found out, having appeared in many movies (google it to find out). They had a collection of vintage radios and you really feel like you stepped back in the 50's when you walk through their door.

    Dinah's Restaurant in Culver City.
  5. Speaking of Venice Beach – it is everything you see in the movies, except not as swallowingly huge – bright, busy, eye-popping, gregarious, loud, fast, sandy, and smells like a cross-between sun lotion and stopped up public toilet ... We walked for about a couple of miles (one in either direction) alongside homeless people, artists, t-shirt stores, palm readers, beer patios, walls covered in murals, cafes wreaking of pot, and (very) high end small apartments sprouting almost right from the sand.

    Venice Beach has a timeless quality about it. You have the feeling that this place has seen pretty much everything there is to see: from sex on the beach to murder, homeless folks dying in DT spasms, from Flower Power beauties clad in leis, from
    "couples, naked race down by its quiet side" to the police chasing riots and putting away protesters. The history of Venice Beach, no doubt, can be captured in one family album's worth of time, but it would be a thick and diverse album. You also have the feeling that the story of Venice Beach is far from being wrapped, yet. 
    In a city that has almost exclusively million dollar homes, I wondered how much an apartment on Venice Beach would cost. I researched this: a one bedroom apartment was listed at 1.85 million dollars. Now, why would you spend this kind of cash in a building two feet away from people peeing on walls and drunks throwing up 24/7?! I suppose because you can and you only live once. LA is nothing if not the American Sybaris.

    Parade of flags on Venice Beach, with the Romanian flag to the right. Somewhat of a full circle. 

    Venice Beach visuals
  6. Remember that movie with Michael Douglas, “Falling Down”? His car breaks down in rush hour LA traffic, and he abandons it where it's at and starts walking across the city, all mad as hell. I always thought “yeah, right, Michael! Who does that? Who leaves a car abandoned in traffic?!” Well, I am here to tell you that LA people do! We were on this severely backed up highway, just a few minutes (normally, but there is nothing 'normal' about LA traffic) from hour hotel, in a high-rise residential neighborhood, and there was this car flipped completely upside down in the middle of the road. The traffic was backed up for miles and we were not going anywhere. Some people pulled on the shoulder or in the median, stopped the car, took their backpacks, put in their iPhone earbuds, and off they went. All I could think of was that they must live nearby in the many flat buildings we saw around us, and they could just walk to their homes and come back later for the car?! Very strange indeed. And traffic was, by the way, where we spent about 30% of our time in LA. 


    Traffic on Rodeo Drive
  7. Possibly the most recognizable landmark of LA is The Hollywood sign. I wanted to ensure that I would not leave this city before I took one shot, at least, of it. I am not sure what it is – it is nothing but some huge, horribly industrial-looking letters, kitschily displayed in blinding white paint on top of a random hill. They have nothing of the reverence and history of Louvre and The Tower of London, and nothing sacred and awe-inspiring like Notre Dame or Westminster Abbey. And yet, they are, to me, as pausing, and as reflective. They bear in their name and symbolism the essence of this city: LA would be nothing without the world of Hollywood. America would be a very different country without Hollywood, as well. And to so many LA is America, still.

    We drove up this steep hill (Muholland Highway) through a very posh neighborhood, to get closer to The Sign. The streets were almost Italian in width – extremely tight and with cars parked everywhere. Lots of “do not park” signs and “stay away from my gate.” But we managed to reach the closest point to it, and I jumped out to snap my shot, my husband frightened someone would shoot him for stopping on this narrow lane, guarding the car. Another bucket list item crossed.

    The Hollywood sign, as seen from Mullholland Highway

  8. The Dolby Theater, home of The Oscars, star attraction of the Hollywood Boulevard, although done up in red regalia and about half a trillion natural white roses, for a multi billionaire's daughter's wedding, was old, drab, and very dirty. Emphasis on very. It definitely did not have the posh allure that E! portrays in their broadcasts before the ceremonies. Hollywood Boulevard was wall to wall of people that day (a Saturday of all days!), very similar to the Vegas strip on a torrid day, or New Orleans during an exhaustingly humid afternoon. I kept thinking I have waited 30+ years to see this theater and all I wanted to do now was get the heck out! I felt about seeing The Dolby somewhat similarly to what I felt when I saw Buckingham Palace – the shine, the glamour, the stones and glitz are missing in real life.

    The Dolby Theater
  9. You go to cities like LA, and New York, and Paris, and London for their history, but also for their art. You are almost always guaranteed to see an exhibit or ten that hub really important and remarkable artistic works. We only had two days in LA, so we could not afford the luxury of time to visit all the artistic venues it hosts, but we did visit The Getty. It was the best time spent during the whole time we were there – and this was surprising to us. The complex is not only a masterpiece of modern architecture, its location is also key, atop a hill with the entire LA bowing down at its feet, but it also collects beautiful works of art, amongst which: 17th century oil paintings, a collection of pastels, even, which were amazing in detail and elegance and quality of preservation, old Irish photographs, Greek and Roman statues in a state of impeccable wholeness, Louis XIV furniture, and some of the most elegant gardens I have ever seen. But the one exhibit that really shocked me was the one on concrete poetry. I will let you google it yourself and find out what that means, because it was news to me, ashamed I am to say, because I am, after all, a literature major. It was truly a mind-opening, enriching experience.

    And this is ultimately why I travel, right?! The good and the bad and the different all blend in to create an experience which is like no other, stranger and newer than my stomping grounds that I see daily, and that much richer.

    Concrete poetry and gardens at The Getty

  10. The last thing that will forever stay with me was probably the most shockingly ubiquitous: the smog. I have read about the California smog for decades, but I have never seen the LA skyline quite so mucky, desolate, and gray in any of the movies, pictures, or friends' albums. I have never shot a skyline more desperate, and more disarmingly desolate. If it were not for the hub-bub of the traffic, I would have thought we were in a town after the atomic bomb has fallen and everyone has died. 

    I was shocked that the fog never lifted in the three days (some partial days, too) that we were there. Like a hopeless burka, it enveloped the city into darkness, in the middle of an otherwise calm and cool day, hiding its beauty away. The vibrant city I was hoping to find was alone, stranded, smelly and remote, with only the sick and threatening warmth of a human burning oven … 

    Despite the dirt and the filth in the air, the mighty city of LA borrowed something from the mighty desert that surrounds it, and the dirty polluted “a
    ir felt electric with promise”, secrets; you almost can hear its heart beating bloody and unapologetic into another day …

    I commend you to cut through the smog, though, and dare to explore. Driving around Beverly Hills, with the posh lawns, giant palm trees almost snapping they are so tall, and thoughtfully diversely architectured homes is a treat you don't see anywhere else. The hole-in-the-wall eateries are worth the traffic fight. But unfortunately, what will stay with you, the 'overall' summarizing picture of LA, from afar, will be the skyline – and that is a sad sight. Saddest I have seen in a long while. It is sort of ironic: California is always a leading force behind recycling, anti-pollution, renewable energy, and the likes. And its most iconic city fails to live up to those efforts.


    As you enter the state of California, from Nevada, you see this immense solar power plant. The giant mirrors intensify the sun rays and multiply its power million-fold. It looks amazingly intimidating and powerful, and yet ... it's just the sun. The intensity of the heat around these few miles of road is the highest I have ever felt in my life.

I could not help but pause at the irony of this picture: the LA skyline.
People of LA are happy and content, but also tired. They are not the pawns walking in robotic gestures of the metros of New York City, hurryingly staring at the pavement. They walk slower, and smile more. They are making up a perfect and customary American mosaic adding to it their different backgrounds, cultures, skin tones, music, accents, and attire. They are not boring, for sure. Nothing about LA is remotely boring. Just a bit lost, and a lot sad, and tired. But there is this life you feel the pulse of very clearly as you watch lights coming on across the metropolis, and the sky dipping behind the hills into another night. This energy that makes the heart of the city beat, in the dark cloud of smog.

As I look back at LA, I hear Jim singing:

Well, I just got into town about an hour ago
Took a look around, see which way the wind blow
Where the little girls in their Hollywood bungalows
Are you a lucky little lady in the City of Light
Or just another lost angel?
City of Night, City of Night ...
L.A. Woman, L.A. Woman
L.A. Woman Sunday afternoon
Drive through your suburbs
Into your blues, into your blues (...)
I see your hair is burnin'
Hills are filled with fire
If they say I never loved you
You know they are a liar
Drivin' down your freeway
Midnight alleys roam
Cops in cars,
The topless bars
Never saw a woman...
So alone, so alone
Motel, money, murder, madness
Let's change the mood from glad to sadness
(The Doors: LA Woman)

And now, many moons after I heard this song for the first time, I actually know what he means. 

The dream, as all dreams, was worth having for 30-40 some odd years. And it's good to meet your dream. Even when it wants.

Click the picture to access the album that captures this trip. The true beauty of The Getty gardens and art, details of Hollywood Boulevard, more Venice Beach life, and more await ... 

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