Nick Says: Latin America was behind us. Now it was time for the last three weeks of our grand adventure, and also time for a complete change of scene. We would be saying goodbye to the rough and tumble of Central America, and hello to the slick bright lights of the USA. It would also mark a change in the dynamic between me and Bee. Where before she had been the one in the unknown, having never backpacked around the developing world, we were now jetting to the West Coast, a place I had never been to, but where Bee had lived and worked previously, and knew very, very well. We would also be staying and seeing friends and family, so would no longer be relying on our sometimes unreliable wits to get ourselves around and out of scrapes. It would be a hectic and very different last few weeks, and one which should provide a refreshing and acclimatising end to the 6 month journey.
To get to LA though, we first had to catch a flight from Cancun. We’d heard rumours about bad weather in California, but basically dismissed them as shameful lies. It never rains in LA! But halfway through our 5 hour flight the captain came over the intercom to warn us of a massive storm system we were about to fly into. LA hadn’t seen weather like this in years apparently, which was obviously just our luck. The crew started preparing the cabin for a bumpy landing an hour before we hit LA, and just in time too, as the turbulence slammed into us and rocked the aircraft all the way to our destination… although since our 8-seater plane ride back in Panama, we are cool cucumbers in these situations! As we neared the city, our pilot was able to skirt around the giant, almost cartoonish looking storm-clouds, and I could peer out of the window and see the bright lights of the City of Angels. It looked spectacular, and also massive. We were back in the Western world.
Bee’s cousin David, who lives in LA, had kindly agreed to put us up during our stay there. His partner Katie, who is a genuine American and not just an interloper, picked us up from LAX and decided to give a Californian newbie the perfect introduction to the city – an immediate stop at In-n-Out Burger. YUM! Despite my exhaustion (we’d been up for a loooong time by this point, plus you know… 5+ months in South & Central America) it was every bit as delicious as had been promised. Imagine a delicious McDonalds, and cheaper; for once the burger hype was justified. What followed over the next few days was a whirlwind re-immersion into life as we once knew it. On Saturday we were invited to the 1st birthday party of Katie’s nephew, and got to spend an afternoon surrounded by family. If there was one thing we had been lacking over the last few months, it was these type of interactions. We’ve been lucky enough to meet and stay with some of the most incredible people, but I guess there’s no substitution for a day of quality family time. It was both comforting and made us feel further away from our own families. That evening, we tagged along with Katie and David as they went to the launch party of a video Katie had shot (this being the home of Hollywood, she’s of course a hotshot big-cheese cinematographer). Despite buying new threads back in Cancun, me and Bee felt like we were on Mars – we were at a party in downtown warehouse, surrounded by fashionable LA hipsters, chatting about cool things, and we had almost no idea how to engage with it all! It was like remembering a language you once knew, and feeling your way through it. Luckily the people we did chat too were all really friendly, and I think we managed to fake our way through it with wide eyes.
Our packed weekend finally ended with an iconic LA event, the Oscars! In a previous job at Sky, I had to work the UK transmission of this once; and pulling an all-nighter fuelled by Haribo and coffee was not fun. Much more civilised was being able to watch it during the evening, with a few beers and knowing it was all happening just a few miles away. We were back with Katie’s family, and played an Oscar ballot. Despite the fact we haven’t seen almost all of the nominated films, we still managed to guess our way through a few categories and came home with a mighty $14. Oh, and to cap the night off the documentary that Katie had helped film took the Best Documentary prize, so I guess we watched the event with a (very modest) Oscar winner!
Bee Says: As Katie headed off to work on the Monday, we got lucky and David’s scheduled translation work was late arriving which meant he could pack us into the car and zoom us up to Beechwood Drive. From there we hiked an hour through the rambling Hollywood Hills and eventually got up close and personal with the iconic sign. Despite visiting many times, I had no idea you could get so close to the sign and enjoyed seeing the imperfections and jaunty angles that aren’t visible from a distance.
I wrote a couple of quite detailed blogs last year during my weeks in LA, here and here. If I’m honest, I have a chequered past with LA and one that other readers might empathise with. The first time I visited LA, I came as a tourist off the back of a road trip with Craig, and we had two days to explore. Whilst the company and the food was wonderful, I really didn’t like LA. We went to the walk of fame, we saw the sign, we hung out in Hollywood, sat in traffic for longer than we spent on Santa Monica pier and attempted to find Mullholland Drive but got lost, about five times. LA is tough as a first timer, and also as visitors with no locals to help guide you into the treasure troves off the tourist trap worth seeing. I actually think without some heavy research or on-hand help, it’s virtually impossible to enjoy LA. I left that experience thinking I would never come back. In a lucky twist of fate, I’ve now been back multiple times through work! When I returned last year, I had my wonderful friend Nora and my cousin & Katie to show me around and it made an incredible difference. Before, I had impatiently shrugged LA off as plastic, pedestrian-impossible and lacking any sort of community. Now I know that there are incredible (walkable!) neighbourhoods, a shed load of free local fun to be had and that it is actually one of my favourite places in the world to visit. I was SO wrong before, but I wanted to mention it to anyone who might have similarly discounted it, based on the opinion that it’s all celebrity home tours and stars on the sidewalk.
For this trip we have been based in Echo Park, an LA suburb that has enough to explore you could basically spend a week here alone. A few of our favourite places to lurk have been The Brite Spot diner, where we even spotted a famous-looking band having a meeting with their elderly, cigar-touting manager. Here you can eat breakfast all day (God bless America!) and other such beauts as peanut butter pie and tuna melts. We had a nose around the Time Travel Mart, the Dave Eggers inspired creative writing work shop for local kids, disguised behind a futuristic store front. Here we picked up an amazing CD called Chickens in Love which features lyrics written by the kids and recorded by local artists like Fiona Apple and The Cold War Kids. The songs are so good, and one even got used in a Judd Apatow movie last year meaning all the kids involved had enough royalty $ to pay for college. We spent some time lazing in Stories, an achingly cool bookshop and coffee shop that serve up a mean iced mocha to slurp whilst you browse their vast local history section.
We ate pizza slices as big as our heads at Two Boots (an NY institution that I was so excited to see here on the West Coast), we nosed around the endless great value vintage shops and I bought myself an is-it-too-much? letter jacket to keep me snug in San Fransisco, if I dare to wear it. Echo Park is named after the beautiful park, funnily enough, which had a total revamp last year. We have been feeling the loss of regular mile long hikes now we are in car-crazy Cali, so we took daily walks around the lotus-covered lake to stretch our twitchy legs.
The best day for me was when we discovered a brilliant book called Secret Stairs by Charles Fleming that Katie had received as a gift. The book is inspired by my favourite style of British hiking book, the ones that start and end in a good country pub! Secret Stairs has tons of walking guides in all areas of Los Angeles, and I think would be a really great gift for anyone moving to/visiting LA as it totally busts the myth that you need to have a car to enjoy it. We picked out route 11, taking us two hours around Echo Park and Angelino Heights. The book draws your attention to the mysterious antique urban stairways that dot LA, as well as how to spot the most beautiful Victorian houses. At one majestic old home I stuck my nose up to the original iron gate and fell in love with a huge wild flower meadow garden. My snooping was spotted by the owner and he came out and chatted to us all about his flowers, vegetable patch and ways he kept his home authentic. He even gave me a huge bloom to take on the rest of the walk.
We made a cat friend, fell in love with nearly everything we saw and ended the hike with a plate of “Southern Decadence”; Chicken fried chicken, egg, plastic cheese, southern biscuit and sausage gravy.
The next day we veered off the Secret Stairs itinerary and free-styled with a hike to Silver Lake, another nifty neighbourhood packed with things to explore. We chose to take in the delights of a $1 fish taco stand called Seven Seas and the foot sign which apparently is a local institution.
A huge treat for us in LA came courtesy of my last tour-guide Nora, who now lives in Berlin so wasn’t here, but who I thought of constantly whilst retracing our steps. When she heard of our engagement, she offered us a very generous present to celebrate in the shape of her uber-talented Hollywood photographer mum, Denise. She very kindly took some official engagement photos for us, out on Santa Monica beach as the sun dipped into the sea. We dashed around in the waves, threw seaweed at each other and generally messed about thinking we hadn’t really got started with the proper bit. Little did we know that Denise is such a photography wizard that she caught all the magical moments we were sharing and produced a gorgeous set of snaps that will hopefully gain us iconic status on our parents’ walls (an aim we haven’t yet achieved!) Not only was Denise a talented artist, she was also amazing fun to hang out with. I can see where Nora gets it from! We passed the crazy LA traffic hours there and back nattering about all sorts and were really sad to wave goodbye to yet another new LA friend.
Nick Says: One of the most fortunate things in our lives is the fact we have friends spread out across the world. LA seems to be a particular hot-spot for them though, as a week into our stay here we were able to meet up with Julien, a super-stylish Frenchman we befriended at the same Edinburgh TV Festival where me and Bee met. The five of us went to dinner at Umami Burger, a small chain of burger joints which Bee had rhapsodised about since her last trip out here. At the risk of turning this into a food blog, it was sublime. Feeling powerful, I took on the Manly burger – a calorie busting concoction of a delicious beef patty covered in beer battered string onions, bacon lardons and secret Umami sauce. I’m dreaming about it now. Afterwards, we hit up the Dresden, made famous from the film Swingers, where we drank Blood & Sand (a classic LA cocktail) and listened to the iconic Marty & Elayne play tunes such as ‘Stayin’ Alive’. I felt so money baby.
Transferring to Julien’s swish West Hollywood condo for the next few days, we got to explore yet another side of LA. We’d spent a week in the cool neighbourhoods similar to those we’d lived in while in London, now Julien was going to show what made LA so diverse and rewarding to visit. One of the best things about visiting a friend or local in another city/country is that they always have their favourite spots to show you, and often a ready-made itinerary to take guests on. I know I was the same in London, where I would take guests to my favourite cafes in Kentish Town, then normally the British Museum and one of the parks, before a few of the best pubs in North London. Julien was no different, and he started the day with a coffee and a stroll around the Hollywood Boulevard. We took in the Walk of Fame, the Dolby Theatre, and Mann’s Chinese Theatre, and while I know it’s the MOST touristy thing you can do in LA, I couldn’t help but get a massive kick out of seeing it all. I liked the fact they have prepared the way for Oscar winners up to 2076 on the pillars displaying the names of past winners (what happens after though is a mystery). I liked being reminded of my favourite actors on the Walk of Fame. And I especially liked how crappy the footprints and handprints of the stars were outside of the Chinese Theatre. I guess I always expected it to be a very slick affair, but it was really DIY and rough. Basically if you out your hands in wet cement and scrawled ‘Morgan Freeman’ or something with a stick, you’d basically get the same look.
After this though, Julien (who had become incredibly LA and bought himself a convertible) drove us through the mountains to one of his favourite places to get brunch, The Old Place on Mullholland Highway. Decked out like a Wild West Saloon, it was the perfect place to spend a few hours, and meet up with Aud, Julien’s fellow French friend who was up for the day. It definitely felt like we were getting to experience what life was like in LA for locals. Unlike London and New York, they don’t seem to be all consumed by their work and putting the crazy hours in which really benefit nobody. While of course they’re just as obsessed with getting ahead as those places (perhaps even more so with the nature of the entertainment industry), it also feels like they have a good work/life balance. People know when to take time off and relax, they’re not chained to their desks, and to be honest no-one seems to be doing the traditional 9-5. It overall seems like a far more relaxed big city then some of the others I’ve been to. A perfect example of this was the next stop on the Julien tour – Malibu! We chilled for a few hours at Zuma Beach, and Julien explained that no matter how hectic his work gets (and he’s another mega cheese), he can just come to the beach at the weekend, forget about all his stress, and feel like he’s gone on a holiday. Not bad. It also seems necessary to have this escape route when you have to deal with the LA traffic, which had been particularly nightmarish for us all week. Seeking to escape it on our return back to town, Julien pulled up to a swish bar in Malibu for cocktails – despite the obvious fanciness, no-one batted an eyelid if you rocked up in boardies and flip-flops. Hmm, seems like I could have just worn my backpacker clothes in LA after all…
Bee Says: Alas, our LA week was over far too quickly and it was time to hop on a $5 megabus (A great British company! who knew they were in the US too?) to take us from the City of Angels to… Sin City! I’ll leave you with a few gems that we like to call “overheard in LA”, which we genuinely did hear in the last week:
“I just can’t change this look. This is the look that sells.”
“I’m not contacting HBO until they call me back”
“I play the keytar on occasion”
“I’m thinking of moving to Portland” (three times)
“I’ve quit smoking, I’ve quit drinking, I’ve even quit drugs. My only vice now is eating at The Brite Spot.”