Stuck.

Los Angeles freeway

LA freeway

So tell me folks, does this picture fascinate you? Make you want to stare at it for hours? No? Me neither. Out of all the pictures I took and the wonderful people I met on my trip to the US this must be one of the LEAST fascinating. It is, however, stuck on my digital photo frame in the kitchen right now, and I’ve been staring at it for the better part of the day, if only because the power switch is hidden behind a rather large and heavy chair, and I’ve been too busy (lazy) to move it.

I thought I might blog about being stuck, about how we end up in these thought pathways that we don’t know how to get off, because our own heads are too big and heavy and we’re too busy (lazy) to move them, but then I realised that…well…I’m really tired. And all of a sudden the picture wasn’t about being stuck any more, but about those very first, very earliest memories of my first ever day in a foreign country.

I couldn’t get over how not-foreign everything looked. The airport was like the ones I’m used to (okay, about a zillion times bigger), and African-American people didn’t look like African-Australian people (now that was an interesting observation. Possibly because the African-Australians in Tasmania are, for the most, very recent migrants or refugees, and are still much more African than they are Australian. This manifests itself in lots of very subtle ways, but it was still noticeable).

There weren’t any other Australians, but it was easy to ignore that at first. You just kind of presume they’re somewhere else, maybe in another room, that where you are just happens to have a really large amount of American visitors. It took me a good few days to get over the amazing “co-incidence” that EVERYBODY I met was American. Wow. Really? You too? The fact that I stayed with Australians (*waves HELLO to Theresa!! I’m imagining you picking the kids from school!!*) helped propagate that myth in my mind. But I digress.

The man who took me to Theresa’s house was Lebanese, and that didn’t help either, because I automatically presumed he was Lebanese-Australian and driving a taxi in Melbourne, not Lebanese-American and driving one in LA. LA looked like Melbourne. I’ve said that before, and I may say it forever. My very first thought of being in a foreign country was how like home it was*. We talked about Lebanon and how he misses his family, and his teenage kids and what they’re doing in school, and his wife who’s a nurse, and he pointed out his house to me, a double-story place with a little balcony overlooking the freeway, all of which he would return to after he dropped me at Theresa’s house, the last run on his graveyard shift. I took photos out the window, just because. This was one of them.

He stopped at the mall and bought me a coffee at Starbucks, which felt equally Melbourne-like, which I commented to him, except for the fact that we don’t have Starbucks any more because they pulled them all out. He told another man, an American man, who laughed a little and said “Australians are smarter than Americans then”. And with that I knew the truth: I hadn’t left Australia at all. The reason I was so groggy was because I’d been drugged and driven around Melbourne for fourteen hours.
Obviously.

Well…not really. After all, I had a stamp in my passport finally. And everybody drove on the wrong side of the road, and there were vegetables on everyone’s front porch. I got it. Eventually.

It’s been good to remember that day, to remember my taxi driver and the man at Starbucks. I don’t feel like the picture is about “stuck” at all any more. It’s about memory.

I’ll fix the photo frame. But I might, just randomly, pause it again in a couple of days, and allow another memory to overtake me. Nothing better, when you’re stuck at home, to be stuck in your mind in a foreign country.

*All that changed the day I landed in the Mid-West. The Mid-West is like being on TV. THAT was when I discovered what culture shock felt like.

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The Valley of Love

LA Day 3. Raining. Postponing our trip to Hollywood until the afternoon because apparently Californians are awful at driving in the rain, and there’s likely to be an accident. Also, apparently people in LA are so unused to rain that at the first two drips out come the umbrellas and raincoats. This is a desert, after all. And the other thing that’s funny – particularly funny for Tasmanian parents who have fought the good fight to buy their children parkas or warm clothing in winter at Target and have found them sold out within the first day – there are enormous quantities of parkas and snow coats in the shops in the mall. Theresa tells me this is quite, quite unneccessary, because it never actually gets that cold. This is a desert, after all.

I do realise that I had, in fact, believed all the stereotypes about LA and completely forgotten the fact that out of all of the city’s 15 million people, many of them (most of them) are very, very normal. Yes, even here in the Valley. It’s a nice neighbourhood with nice schools and friendly people (even with the pumpkin thing). There are, however, a few strange things that I’ve learned about the place.

  1. Sometimes they charge you money so they can insist that you keep your lawn immaculate and your garbage in.

    Theresa says these are fire hydrants. I suspect they come alive at night and roam.

I know. Theresa tells me that they bought a house in an “older” area of the Valley (cicrca 1980s), because if they bought a house built after 2001 then they’d be charged a MONTHLY fee of $200-$500 by the Homeowners Association. This fee then holds them accountable to laws such as the need to have their wheelie bins in by a certain time in the morning (the wheelie bins are HUUUUGE by the way, and collected weekly), the need to have their lawns IMMACULATE (ie no longer than 2cm in length) and their houses in general to be postcard-perfect. Theresa tells me that they used to live in a rented apartment in such a neighbourhood. They didn’t have to pay the fee – that was the owner’s responsibility – but they had to abide by the rules. Theresa says once she put her garbage bags outside the door for twenty minutes while she mopped the floors, and by the the time she got them in again there was a nasty letter taped to her door.

2. They make movies everywhere.

In this previously-rented apartment their little girl went to a local kindergarten. It was in Pasadena. One time Theresa went to pick up her little girl at the end of the school day and found a bunch of strangers there filming a movie. That kindergarten was also used for the remake of the Fame movie, and featured as the orphanage in Stuart Little.  Anywhere is fair game for location shoots.

3. Even in the Valley there are “bad neighbourhoods”.

Yes. When Steve and Theresa first started looking for a house in this area their real estate agent warned them off certain districts, known as the “bad neighbourhoods”. Yeah.
Ummm…yeah. I don’t know how to say this really any better, so I just will. According to the real estate agent a “bad” neighbourhood is such because of…oh no…Small Houses, and…even worse…Train Tracks. (Everybody who lives near me stop laughing now. Pick your jaw off the floor!). Granted, “small houses” are trailer-parks (with all the associated stereotypes) but seriously, these aren’t caravans like we know them: they are literally Small Houses. With gardens, and flowers and all that stuff. Just instead of solid foundations they have wheels.

I think, looking at the place, the majority of suburban Australia, especially the areas built in the post-war era, would be considered a “bad neighbourhood”. And, train tracks? I think that makes most of Melbourne, Sydney, Perth and Hobart “bad neighbourhoods”. Its the Valley.

So that’s LA. Today I get to do my best Billy Joel impersonation and “say goodbye to Hollywood” (okay, bad joke). Tomorrow…Sacramento!

Thanks for coming with me on the trip. I’m loving your company!

La la la…Los Angeles

I MADE IT! I’M IN THE USA!

I dragged my stupidly tired and jet-lagged self off a plane at 6.30 in the morning yesterday and waited in a stupidly long line with passengers from two other planes while a gorgeous Hispanic lady with so much make-up you’d think she was about film a TV show (oh heck, this is LA…maybe she was!) herded us through and into our places and made us giggle, which was no small feat considering we’d all been on a plane all night.

I caught a door-to-door shuttle bus to my friend Theresa’s house. These are amazing things, like group-taxis kind of, and it cost me $65 for an hour-and-a-half ride with a wonderful Lebanese-American man who told me heaps about LA and even bought me a coffee from Starbucks. Yes. Americans are wonderful.

The first thing I noticed was how much it looked like Melbourne. We didn’t see any of Downtown LA, but the suburbs are just…Melbourne…but bigger. And MORE. They even have Westfields, to complete the illusion – that IS a Aussie company, isn’t it? I felt the need to keep half an eye open for stray Banjos Bakeries, and felt sure that any minute my Lebanese-American driver was going to tell me he was really Lebanese-Australian, and that we’d be approaching the Dandenongs any time soon. Then I saw the mountains.

The mountains behind LA are beautiful. More than beautiful. They are spectacular. THey rise up out of the flat valley floor like a wrinkle in a blanket, and they’re wrinkly and ancient looking and at the same time look like the hand of God could come along and smooth them, blanketlike, at any time. My driver says they were pushed up by the movement of the earth plates. They are the result of the famous San Andreus Fault Line, and they go all the way up the West Coast of the USA and into Canada. I wanted to go and climb them and explore all over (which is not possible this trip). Theresa later told me that there are coyotes there, and it’s rattle snake season. Their house backs onto a sandy desert hill, and it’s not safe to explore there either, for the same reasons.

But I love it here. I love seeing old friends, and being able to hang out and relax and chat and simply spend time together. Any amount of sleeplessness is worth it to spend time with these lovely people again.

Here are the main bits of difference I’ve noticed day 1:

Milk comes in gallon-bottles.

There’s garbage disposal.

All the houses are made of stucco. There are no brick houses anywhere – they’d crack with all the earthquakes.

In this neighbourhood every second house has a US flag hanging on the front porch (I’ve been told this was for Remembrance day) and pumpkins out as decorations (go out for Halloween, stay out until Thanksgiving, and as soon as they come in the Christmas decorations go out). But they still don’t EAT pumpkins…only ones in cans.

I’m told it’s really hard to buy electric kettles. Most people have the old-fashioned sort that you put on the stove top and take ages to boil. Theresa bought her electric kettle in a Camping shop. (Yes. Because I’d pack an electric kettle if I was going bushwalking and living in a tent for a week too!)

Theresa’s kids are petrified of house flies. There was a tiny one outside on the deck, and the youngest screamed and ran inside. Here there are no flying insects! No flies, no mosquitos, definitely no enormous blowflies like at our place at the moment.

You can’t say the word “toilet” (Theresa’s kids don’t even know what it means! I told one of them I had to go to the toilet before I played another round of cards, and she looked at me funny and said “what?”) although you can – and should – wear ugg boots* in public. Here that is not at all Bogan. Here it is the height of fashion!

So Aussie friends, when you boil your kettle today think about America. And then, when you go to the supermarket and see people in ugg boots, congratulate them on their excellent fashion sense – even if it is in the wrong country.

Image

*I presume everybody knows what ugg boots are. Sheepskin boots. In Australia we think of them as bedroom slippers, and only wear them outside the house in desperate times…or if we forget.

Why this girl from the Valley is not a Valley Girl

I was eleven when the voices started. They may have been around before, but it was eleven when I noticed them, although, more accurately, it was eleven when the voices noticed ME. I hadn’t changed, pretty much from the beginning. Same hair, too-thick and cut short, boy-short – not bobbed or even mullet or any other pretty girl-style. Same shoes that were too squat and laced, never buckled like girl’s shoes. Same boy’s shorts and boy’s track suits with stupid flared legs (with zips in the leg for extra flare, as if the teasing I already copped wasn’t enough for them), and the same grey boy’s jeans in winter, because they’re warm, because dresses aren’t practical. I don’t like practical. I like GIRL. I am one. I am.

The voices had faces, and the faces had bodies, and those bodies had hair that was always perfect and swooshed in the wind, and their jeans didn’t wobble on the ankles when they ran, and their fluorescent fold-down socks always matched their t-shirts and their jumpers, and the way their fringes curled at the top, and the way their shirt collars sat up and the bottoms hung down were always perfect, and always exactly right. They knew that, and they made sure I knew it too, in voices as cutting as they were breezy and off-the-cuff. It was only the malice in the eyes that gave away their real intent.

By the time I was twelve, and then thirteen and fourteen, and beyond, the faces and the bodies that housed them had moved on to other classrooms and other prey, and although the physical voices went with them they had trained me well enough to replicate them every day on my own. They didn’t need to be there to do it for me any longer, I could do it all by myself. “Oh Megan, did you get your hair cut again?” I’m saying it myself this time. Yes. Boy-short. Again. “Oh they’re nice new jeans Megan”. Yes. For a boy. “Oh, what a lovely t-shirt!” and pity about the absence of anything in the rest of the outfit that matches.

I tried so hard to fit in. I tried to find ways of altering the clothes I had, and tried hard to make something beautiful out of the things my mother brought home for me from the sales and the second hand shops and the discount bins, and from the things I bought with my own hard-saved money. At the end of the day though the voices were always stronger. They became my voice, and they knew and they told me the thing that I would never admit with my own voice: that I would never fit in, that no matter how hard I tried I was just Wrong.

Being wrong all the time is hard, and knowing that you’ll never, ever be right is harder still, so by the time I was sixteen I rebelled, and decided that if I was going to be wrong I’d do it on my own terms. My boy-short hair was finally long enough to put up in a ponytail, and I let it grow down almost till I could sit on it. I snubbed my nose at fashion stores and danced in hippie pants and old men’s shirts with the collars cut off, in army trousers with lacey edges and endless pairs of stripey stockings. I found funny hats and patchwork jackets and t-shirts with badges and strange slogans that meant nothing to anyone but me. I got my ears pierced and wore a cat in one side, and later I got my nose pierced and wore a frog in it. Because I could. Because there was nothing stopping me now, no voices, no eleven-year-old girls with eyes full of malice, no fashion, no fear.

That’s a lie, that last bit.

I WAS afraid. I wouldn’t walk through the fashion shops, I avoided the trendy areas. I steeled myself when I had to walk past trendy girls with perfect hair and make-up and clothes done just-so. I’d never walk into fashion stores, not ever, because the minute I did I was eleven years old again and there were the voices jamming me over the loud-speaker system in my mind: What are YOU doing here? You don’t fit. You are wrong. You are bad. You are ugly. You don’t deserve to walk in a place this pretty. Why don’t you just GO.

I fought those voices, one new t-shirt at a time. Every time I walked into a fashion outlet I forced myself to stay. I forced myself to move in, to the back of the store, to not be afraid, to try things, to buy things. It’s taken a long time to feel comfortable, but gradually, in the way things do, things are changing. This is a good thing.

This is a good thing, because in slightly over two weeks I’m going to be dragging my disheveled and jet-lagged self right into the heart of middle-class suburban Los Angeles, to my friends’ house in the Santa Clarita Valley.*

I love my friends. I can’t wait to see them again, it’s been far too long. I can’t wait to see where they live, and what they do, and what life is like for them now in the USA, so far from little ol’ Tassie where we first met. I should have picked up on this though a while ago, when I first read the post about my friend’s six year old daughter going to a kid’s party with the stylist who did all their hair and (probably) make-up. I should have thought it through. I should have realized when I first saw a photo of their house, that this was a Valley – even perhaps THE Valley. I hope they don’t carry poodles in their handbags.

 

It’s a bit late now though. I’m going. And honestly, it’s time to root those voices out once and for all, to embrace my inner Valley Girl (hang, on, do I even HAVE one?) and get a mani-pedi (WHAT!!???) and a great haircut (HUH???) and boldy go where no Megan has gone before. Because, as they say in the Valley, “Whatever”.

And as to those eleven-year-old voices? I’ll put on my very best Valley Girl voice and put up my newly polished nails and say “Talk to the HAND, because the face IS NOT LISTENING!”

Legally Blonde 2

*I wrote a post very early on in my blogging life, called “Hey, where did all the perfect people go?” I can answer that really well now: they went to Los Angeles.