I forgot to pack my cynicism

(Sunday afternoon.) Right now it’s hard to believe California’s original boosters were in any way exagerrating. Trundling south from Santa Barbara on the Pacific Surfliner, listening to the sunny sounds of Camera Obscura, marvelling at the ocean’s dazzle, kids waving from the sand, palm trees and sea birds, surfers gliding the waves. It’s the middle of winter and the world is like the start of a David Lynch movie, when the world is way too good to be true.

No matter how much time I spend in America, I still feel like an East German exposed to the wonders of the West for the first time.1 From the UK I can barely see past the US leadership’s arrogance and dumbness, the appalling inequality, the endless rivers of SUVs propelling us to a new ice age, etc. etc. But once past the intimidation of customs and immigration I remember everything I like so much about this country.

Despite all that’s wrong here, things just seem to work, particularly compared to Britain’s relentless hobble of brokenness.2 While I hate car-culture, America makes being reliant on a car as pleasant as it could be. Service is routinely efficient and pleasant, everything but falling ill seems cheaper and (right here at least) it’s the middle of winter and I’m wearing a t-shirt.

The seduction kicked in pretty early, with a bus driver going out of his way — with a smile — to pick up me and another late arrival at LAX, before a drive up the coast watching the sun slowly burn into the Pacific; a fiery panorama so drop-dead breath-taking it could only have been conjured in the dark heart of the most ruthless pro-Californiann marketing agency.

Once in Santa Barbara it was good to catch up with Ted, and meet Jessica, and the past few days have been grand.

I often forget how wonderful the food can be out here. Inexpensive, informal but delicious sushi, Thai, Mexican and this morning’s Cajun breakfast leave me despairing at London’s over-priced, over-fussy establishments (see also my previous rant about the capital’s lack of Mexican, which could be extended to a lack of American-style breakfasts as an alternative to the greasy spoon). The past couple of days have been filled with browsing used bookstores, enjoying the sun, and attending a couple of film festival parties. Not to mention visiting the twice-weekly farmers’ market, where dozens of stalls gorgeously heaped with piles of stunning fruit and veg made me embarrassed to also describe Stoke Newington’s offering as a farmers’ market.

Santa Barbara is an implausibly beautiful place, to the extent that I expected to find Mickey, Goofy and chums propping up the backs of the town centre’s immaculate storefronts. After living in Hackney I can’t understand how an urban centre can remain so clean. State Street’s flowers and trees remain un-vandalised, vertical surfaces aren’t covered in fly-posters and graffiti, traffic glides around calmly. We sat and chatted on benches outside Borders, a couple of feet from the road, barely noticing the trucks trundling past, wondering at British youths’ tendency to bored violence and destruction.

Sure, like any David Lynch, the disquieting underbelly is out there somewhere — not least in the price of property in Santa Barbara — but even so, I’m taken in. And I swear those kids on the beach are waving in slow motion.

  1. I have vague feelings this analogy is offensive to someone, but it always springs to mind.
  2. OK, part of this difference is the difference between living and working in a country and going there on holiday. It’s easy to avoid the difficulties of daily life when you’re staying with friends, eating out a lot and generally not worrying about getting up for work. But even so.