Thursday, 22 April 2010

Ingrate From The Land Of Dreams

"You're from California?" the girl on the bus says, her eyes wide, her voice thick with admiration. "I've always wanted to go to California! What is it like?"

Questions like this always make me squirm. California is too big and diverse to sum up in one sentence. "Well, my hometown is a lot like this," I say, gesturing at the eucalyptus and pepper trees outside.

"Is Hollywood like this?" she wants to know.

I tell her that Hollywood is hot and crowded, that there are too many cars and too much noise. But I can still see the stars in her eyes.

"You must have been to -- where was it? -- Universal City," she says breathlessly. "What is it like?"

I feel silly. I can barely remember Universal City. "It was very nice."

We pass a sprawling low-roofed house with a tile roof. It's surrounded by a bank of lantana and a bougainvillea with bright magenta blossoms grows up over the arched gateway. If it weren't for the signs in Turkish, we could easily be in my hometown. All of a sudden I feel odd: a little homesick, a little unappreciative. Sometimes I almost feel like I'm throwing away a gift, living abroad for so long when I come from a place that so many people dream of visiting.

I get off the bus and head for my favorite charity shop. The staff here are exclusively expatriate British women and most of the time they ignore me, but today the ladies behind the counter are in a talkative mood. "Where are you from, if you don't mind my asking?" one of them wants to know. I tell her.

"Oh, California! Lucky you!"

Her friend nods. "But I'll tell you where I've always wanted to go: New York."

I blink at this. "I lived in New York for a year."

She wants to hear all about it, so I tell her a little about the noise, the fantastic restaurants, museums, and shops, the incredible energy, and the three case-hardened locks on my steel-framed apartment door.

The woman who thinks California is swell frowns at that. She says that another place she'd really love to visit is Las Vegas.

At this, I have to smile. "Umm, I once spent a summer in Las Vegas actually."

The woman looks a little skeptical. "Really?"

So I tell her about the big, flashy casinos, the dazzling neon lights, how I was too cheap to gamble, but was thrilled with the all-you-can-eat breakfasts for less than two dollars. Both women narrow their eyes at this. If you could put a thought bubble over their heads, it would read What kind of idiot spends a summer in Las Vegas and never gambles?

"You never gambled at all?" the first woman asks in a voice tight with incredulity.

"Once, but I felt cheated when I realized I'd blown fifty cents, so I never did it again."

They laugh, wrongly believing this to be a joke. "But the Nevada desert is really beautiful," I tell them.

The first woman shakes her head. "If I ever go to Las Vegas, I'll never see anything but the inside of a casino!" she assures me.

Another British woman has been listening to our conversation. "You know the city I've always wanted to visit?" she says breathlessly. "Miami!"

At this, I almost burst out laughing. If I were back home, I'd be looking out for the man from Candid Camera.

"Ooh, I know why -- Miami Vice!" one of the other women coos.

"I've never seen Miami Vice," I tell them, unable to help myself. "But I spent a year in Miami when I was a teenager."

I don't blame them for the quick looks they traded back and forth. If I were them, I wouldn't believe me either.


Vijaya said...

Hee hee ... actually the Pacific NW is the most beautiful place to be :) You'll see ... come and visit me.

AnneB said...

I can't believe nobody asked you about Madison!

Postman said...

What are they going to say next? Milwaukee? And how come everybody always goes for Southern California, anyway? They never say a word about Sacramento (up around where I was born)!

Robert the Skeptic said...

I think we all have romantic ideas of far away places. Visiting is one thing but living there is quite another.

Vijaya is correct, though, the Pacific Northwest is a wonderful place to live... but we usually don't let that become widely known. If too many people figure that out, well... there goes the neighborhood.

So Vijaya: shhhhhhh!

Blythe said...

The first time I went to Las Vegas, I tried gambling, but every time I put a quarter in the machine I thought, "I could have used that to do a load of laundry."
I think every place is mythologized to some extent, but I think that "California" and "New York" have been rendered into Utopia (Nowhere). I used to find it strange that so many Californian's expressed a desire to be in Montana. We are such restless animals, always prowling in the landscapes of our imaginations.

Blythe said...

Please excuse the apostrophe in Californian's. I'm a little punchy--so much to do, so little time.

Miss Footloose said...

This made me smile! It is always a bit of a surprise or strange to hear the impressions foreigners have of your home town or country. And the US is so huge! And everybody is rich and has a house with a swimming pool.

I love when they ask me if I know so and so, from Holland, because, well it's a small country and all 16 million of us must know each other ;)

Bish Denham said...

Ha ha ha! So where haven't you been? Actually I get the same sort of question when I tell people I'm from the Virgin Islands. "And you live here?!?"

Marcia said...

How about the Great Lakes? Door County? (Wisconsin's Cape Cod?)

Falak said...

I can imagine how you must have felt:)Though in my case it's the other way round. Every time I end up talking to a new person in college and they come to know that I used to live in the UAE and came to India for my studies they give me this incredulous look and say 'why did you leave Dubai and come here?' Some how UAE always translates to Dubai even though that's not where I lived ... I wonder why....

Mary Witzl said...

Vijaya -- I loved Oregon and Washington when I visited there -- especially the rain. If we ever go there again, I will be sure to look you up!

AnneB -- You and I know that Madison, Wisconsin is absolutely one of the best, cleanest, prettiest cities in America. If I'd stayed at the charity shop any longer, I'd have told the ladies that, though I suspect they'd be more impressed by the glitz of Las Vegas and the razzle-dazzle of New York.

Postman -- I was born and raised in Southern California and there is much about it that I hold dear, but it beats me why everybody prefers it to Northern California. Let's keep it that way, though, okay? Imagine what happened to Los Angeles happening to Crescent City and Santa Cruz. Not nice to think about, is it?

Robert -- We all know about Californication! You should have seen Riverside back in 1962. It was a charming little city with bright blue skies, stunning banks of ice plant, and endless groves of oranges. Every time I go back, I feel like crying.

The Pacific Northwest ought to dedicate some kind of monument to the rain for keeping out the spoiling hordes.

Blythe -- That's EXACTLY what went through my mind -- the endless uses of a quarter, and every single one of them more compelling than the thrill of watching metal clunk down a slot.

We loved Montana when we were there, especially Butte. Someone told me that Butte had a reputation for being an unattractive town and I was gobsmacked. Whoever finds Butte ugly would be well advised to give Riverside, California a miss.

(You're just like me. Whenever I let my apostrophes stray or mess up on spelling, it drive me half wild!)

Miss Footloose -- YES! And we all drive our cars even if we're only going half a block, have backsides the size of Texas, drink coke for breakfast, and voted for George Bush. Sigh...

I get the "Do you know...?" questions from time to time when I tell people I lived in Tokyo. "Oh, maybe you met my friend Keiko there! Did you know anyone called Keiko in Tokyo?" Keiko being about as common in Japan as Mary is in the U.S.

Bish -- Actually, I can see their point! :o) But even paradise has its not-so-great points and everyone has their own reasons for moving on.

It was just so bizarre that all the places I happened to have lived were all the places these ladies wanted to visit. By the time I left, I felt quite embarrassed -- as though they thought I was pulling their leg.

Marcia -- I've never been there! Now I'm thinking I really have to go. The next time we're in Wisconsin, that will be on our itinerary!

Falak -- Now I feel embarrassed: is Dubai part of the UAE? Please set me straight!

We watch Al Jazeera here and every time we see anyone in Dubai being interviewed, he or she is almost always Indian. I get the impression that half of India must be there, so maybe people are surprised that you did it the other way around and went from Dubai to India...?

Charlie said...

So tell us about the time you lived in Mongolia, Abyssinia, Tibet, Alabama . . .

Angela said...

I'm surprised they didn't stop at that point and just ask you where you haven't lived, lol!

Falak said...

Hee hee... Yes Dubai is one of the seven emirates {states} that make up the UAE... But I live in the city of
Al-ain which is also in the UAE:) What I meant was that somehow people always think that Dubai is a nation in itself. Like New York= the US.... Sorry if I confused you with my muddled up explanation.....

Kit said...

The only place in America I've been to was LA and it didn't grab me, but I like the sound of Northern California...!
People in SOuth Africa who haven't travelled are often amazed that we chose to come here from London, when so many are heading the other way. Then I tell them about the weather.

laura said...

I bet those women had a blast talking about you after you left! I wonder how they'll treat you the next time you go in.

e said...

Ever been to Paris??? The last time was at fourteen; I'm trying to plan another trip there...

Southern California is beautiful, but way overpopulated with too much traffic and not very pedestrian or wheelie friendly...and I've never been to Hollywood or Universal--no interest...

Mary Witzl said...

Charlie -- Whew! I'm clear on the first three places, and I was only in Alabama long enough to get from Bayou le Batre to Pensacola. But I've spent a lot of time in Pensacola...

Angela -- There was something really weird about the fact that all the cities they mentioned were ones I'd lived in. I felt they were wasted on me.

Falak -- No, I came muddled to begin with, and now you've set me straight! I've never been clear in my mind just what Dubai was. I knew it wasn't a city, but I wasn't entirely sure how it fit into UAE. Thank you!

Kit -- I was born in L.A. County and I miss a lot about it. I know there are many beautiful places there and I yearn to hear Spanish spoken and eat Mexican food, but the climate in Southern California is too hot for me and I hate to see how my own hometown has been largely over-developed.

You'll think I'm crazy, but I love the climate in the U.K. I'm thrilled when it rains all the time! Still, South Africa sounds beautiful.

Laura -- We went there again just yesterday and they were a little cool. That may have been because when my daughter was in the changing room, we squabbled in Japanese together, as we often do. I suspect the ladies there can't quite figure me out.

e -- How exciting! What month are you going, and for how long?

I've been to Paris twice. The first time was 25 years ago, but the last time was a couple years back when we got lost trying to drive through Paris, to Cahors. Midtown Paris at eleven P.M. is a scary place.

Falak said...

Your always welcome Mary!

Anne Spollen said...

When people meet me, they are surprised I grew up in NYC. They say, "I never would have thought that because you actually have manners." Well, how rude is it to insult someone's hometown like that? No one realizes that.

I understand why NY and CA would have such a lure. They are where the beautiful folks live, or are perceived to live.

Robin said...

Hahaha! They deserved everything they got. What's this with all the skepticism? Polite interest is where it's at, Girls!

laura said...

Oh Mary! Sometimes funny things hit me in such a way that I 'squeak' and actually feel weak with laughter! That's how I felt when I read that you and your daughter squabbled in Japanese in front of these ladies during your next visit to the store.
Among this particular group, I'm sure this was the final nail in the coffin for you!!

adrienne said...

Sounds like a challenge to find somewhere you haven't been!

Mary Witzl said...

Falak -- :o) (I can tell other people now!)

Anne -- Uh oh: I've done this! I worked in New York City for a year and it took me some time to get used to the different pace and different, um, manners. I think we feel that New York, being so big and bold and wonderful, can take it. We forget that it really IS the hometown of an awful lot of people.

You wouldn't believe the number of times I've heard that Woody Allen joke about the only advantage to living in California being that you can turn right on a red light. Or asked if I spent all my time at university surfing...

Robin -- But I sounded like such a phony by the time they got to Miami! The fact that they picked all those particular places was just surreal. I really felt like I was making it all up and I was sure they thought so.

Laura -- From the way they act, they can't figure me out! I sometimes think they imagine I'm playing with them -- making up a pretend language, talking trash about all the places I've spent time in.

Adrienne -- I've never been to any countries in Africa, to Iceland, to Afghanistan or India or Pakistan or Indonesia...I feel sad to think of all the places I haven't been. But those ladies don't want to go to any of those places, it seems.

Marian said...

Lucky you, Mary! I've always wanted to visit California and Japan, not necessarily in that order.

Despite not speaking any Japanese other than "konichiwa", "sayonara" and maybe a few bad words that I picked up from Kill Bill.

Mary Witzl said...

Hi Marian -- Kill Bill has taught quite a few people the odd Japanese word, and I mean that in both senses. The Karate Kid Shogun, and The Last Samurai were also instrumental in getting people interested in Japanese.

I got a LOT of French from Les Cages au Folles, and some of my best students tell me they've picked up their impressive English idioms from American movies, so I think we're all onto something.

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