What is there to love about Los Angeles? Plenty – like those moments when I’m driving south on the 2 freeway, gazing at the silhouettes of palm trees in the hills above Dodger Stadium and the setting sun reflecting off the downtown skyscrapers, and my Ipod shuffles up a melancholy song. Suddenly I feel like a character in a movie. The camera scans the landscape, then zooms in on my profile while the soundtrack of my life plays in the background. Does anyone else ever have those moments, or am I completely self-centered and crazy?
One of those moments struck as I drove back into LA for the first time after our long absence. After we visited my mom and picked up my car in Morro Bay, I followed Niels and the dogs down to LA. We hit the usual traffic jam in Santa Barbara (with no warnings like the large flashing signs in France that warn “Bouchon! Bouchon!”). We steered clear of a few crazy-eyed drivers here and there. We passed a brush fire in Ventura. We descended into the smoggy, helicopter-filled skies and 100 degree heat of the San Fernando Valley. Major culture shock! Niels called me and yelled, “Welcome to LA!”
As we entered the last stretch of our trip and passed Griffith Park, Tammy Wynette and George Jones took up residence in my back seat. Tammy sang about crying a “million tears” in Southern California from a “tiny room right over that flashing neon sign that says . . . bar,” while George sang about missing her in Tennessee. Luckily, although we don’t live the life of “silver screens and limousines,” we also don’t live in a tiny room over a bar. Stepping through our front gate, I was happy to be home. The dogs were thrilled to be back in their huge yard. The hummingbirds were everywhere. And after unloading the car we settled down to sip cocktails (Pimm’s Cup, anyone?) “in the blue, red, and grey” (2) (more like pink, red and orange).
I am adjusting to life in Los Angeles, trying to maintain the sense of wonder that filled our days in London. And so, every morning, I sit on the Western porch of our house and read a poem from Poem for the Day: One. Although mostly poems penned by dead white British men, I find a couple jewels every week – after all, some of those men were amazing poets. Today I was inspired by the following sonnet, penned by William Wordsworth on September 3, 1802:
Composed upon Westminster Bridge
Earth has not anything to show more fair:
Dull would he be of soul who could pass by
A sight so touching in its majesty;
This city now doth, like a garment, wear
The beauty of the morning; silent, bare
Ships, towers, domes, theatres, and temples lie
Open unto the fields, and to the sky;
All bright and glittering in the smokeless air.
Never did sun more beautifully steep
In his first splendour, valley, rock, or hill;
Ne’er saw I, never felt, a calm so deep!
The river glideth at his own sweet will:
Dear God! the very houses seem asleep;
And all that mighyt heart is lying still!
I miss London!! Reading this poem, I regret that I never made it to Westminster Bridge at dawn. But then I remember that the Tube doesn’t run that early in the morning, and I made it to Westminster Bridge many times for sunset. The vibe at sunset is completely different – frantic multitudes rushing in every direction, bumper-to-bumper taxis and double decker buses, street performers singing and playing, crowded tourist boats lining the Thames. Nonetheless, London from Westminster Bridge was just as beautiful at sunset.
Since we’ve been back, I have frequently been asked what I miss most about London. I miss the moments when, wandering down an old alleyway, sitting in a wood-paneled pub, or finding myself in a hidden garden square, I fell through time and found myself engulfed by the smells, sounds and ghosts of another London – the London of Queen Elizabeth I, Cromwell, Samuel Pepys, Dickens, Caesar, or Churchill. I miss strolling along the Thames, imagining hundreds of masted boats moored before London bridge, while people crowd the wharfs as they transact business or prepare to embark on a journey. I miss sitting on the top floor of a double-decker bus, listening to Coldplay on my Ipod, while London streams by. I miss cramming into the Tube with a million other people, wondering whether Duffy really left a lover at Warwick Avenue Tube Station every time I passed it on my way home. I miss hanging out with Niels in Hyde Park and Hampstead Heath, watching Rocky and Stella laugh and play.
Most of all, I miss walking everywhere, miles a day, and being in the midst of so many different people living their lives and exuding a constant, frantic energy. In LA – as in most places in the U.S. – our most common mode of transportation isolates us from the life going on around us. Guess I should start taking the bus to work – and in the process reduce my environmental footprint just a small bit!
In early June, a few weeks before we left London, we visited Finland to attend the wedding of Niels’ second cousin, Juha, and his bride Katri. They were married on the outskirts of Helsinki in a stately old manor house that was set amidst an explosion of green trees, green grass, and green shrubs. In fact, it was green green green everywhere in Finland, as if the flora were partying after their confinement during a long, hard winter.
We partied as well – for nine hours. After the bride and groom were married, we toasted them with champagne. Then we had an amazing dinner with white and red wines. We took a break for the night’s entertainment – a Finnish drag queen who impersonated, among others, the Finnish President, Dolly Parton, and Cher. Then we had desert with madeira and port. There were more toasts to the bride and groom, including a reading by Pertti, Juha’s father, from the Kalevala, Finland’s national epic. Then the dancing began, accompanied by an endless supply of beer (Lapin Kulta) and whiskey. We finally caught the chartered bus back to Helsinki at 1 a.m. But we were slightly tardy getting back – the best man was so busy regaling the bus with stories, he forgot his girlfriend. After driving for a few minutes, his cell phone rang, the bus stopped, and we turned around to pick her up.
Needless to say, I had a great time meeting Niels’ many Finnish relatives for the first time. Luckily, they spoke English very well – and I look forward to spending more time with them during future visits.
We also went to Finland to spread Niels’ mother’s ashes. Niels and Kirsti surreptitiously spread a portion around their grandfather’s grave in the military section of Hietaniemi Cemetery in Helsinki. The lovely cemetery was full of simple but elegant headstones and memorials.
We had several days to walk around and explore the unusually warm Helsinki. How can I possibly describe how lovely Helsinki is? It is made up of craggy peninsulas jutting into an ocean filled with little islands dotted with colorful Finnish cottages. We visited one island, Suomenlinna, which served as a Swedish fortress for many years. We visited several architectural landmarks, including Temppeliaukio (Rock) Church, the Lutheran Cathedral, and the Helsinki train station (designed by Eliel Saarinen). We ate grilled herring and salmon in the outdoor market of Helsinki Harbor, guarding our food from the claws of aggressive sea gulls. We also did a little shopping – I had to buy some Kalevala Koru jewelry, and Niels finally picked out a Kalevala Koru wedding ring. We stupid Americans almost got hit by bicycles several times – until we figured out that the Finns take their bike lanes seriously. Peds are required to stop and wait for the light to change before entering any bike lane. Here are some pictures:
We also spent a couple of nights in Lapland. For our first night, we drove up to Hammerfest, Norway, where we were appalled to discover whale on the dinner menu and curtains that did not keep out the midnight sun. I mean, common, you’d think the Norwegians would at least have decent curtains! On the second day we returned to Inari, where we spread the rest of Niels’ mother’s ashes in Lake Mutus (Mutusjarvi). Lapland is covered with woodland and pristine lake after lake after lake, and is suffused with a soft glowy kind of light. I couldn’t get over the quality of the light, falling amongst the pine trees and reflecting off the lakes. We drove down a dirt road and found a spot where we could hike to the lake’s edge, across from the cottage where Niels and his family had spent previous summers.
We spent the night on the banks of a river in Hotel Inarin Kultahovi. If you ever go to Lapland, you must stay and eat here. We had an amazing dinner of fresh trout and perch, local mushrooms, potatoes and a green salad; I didn’t try the reindeer, however. Then we retired to our room and took a sauna. I think our next DIY project will be installing a sauna in our basement.
I cannot wait to go back to Finland. Maybe next time we will go in the winter!
Beside me, above me, all around me, dirty blue sky dotted with jet planes from LAX; below me, salt water, sea lions, and fish. Silence, occasionally punctured by the snapping canvas of a passing sailboat. Sandwiched between sky and ocean, alone in my blue canoe, I paddle and breath to an internal beat: one, two, three, . . . twelve, then switch the paddle to the other side of the canoe and start over. An eight foot swell lifts my canoe and gives it a push. I dig my paddle into the swell, faster, faster, and ride the crest for five seconds. Then, the swell moves on, and I resume the slower rhythm: one, two, three, . . . twelve, blending into the water and sky, feeling the water slide under me, my abdomen, chest, arms, and back alert for the next swell. Silence, now punctured by a passing speedboat cutting through the blue, its passengers yelling, raising their beers to my health, laughing. I maintain my balance, one, two, three, . . . twelve, swaying in the washing machine of the speedboat’s wake. Silence again, another swell. I concentrate, dig my paddle into the wave, transfer the strength from my legs, stomach, shoulders, and back down into the water, bam, bam, bam. Flying through sky and ocean, lifted by the swell, I can’t help but giggle. The swell moves on. I stop, take a deep breath and gaze at the ant-like people cluttering the beach, behind them a hazy city stretching eastward. I lie back onto the canoe, and lose myself in sky while the canoe rocks and slides. Shutting my eyes, the sun warms my eyelids, chest, and thighs, sinks into my bones. Alone, a tiny speck in the vast sky and ocean, just me and the Spirit whoever or whatever She may be, all around me space. A pause.
Living in LA – it’s not so bad.
One Last Swim
As an ending thought, check out the gold medal, synchronized swimming performance of Elie and Stella:
(1) Lyrics from Southern California by George Jones and Tammy Wynnette.
(2) Lyrics from Blue, Red and Gray by The Who.
(3) This one is obvious. Lyrics from London Calling by The Clash.
(4) Another obvious one. Lyrics from Walking in LA by Missing Persons.
(5) Lyrics from So Fine by ELO.
(6) Lyrics from Where to Now St. Peter? by Elton John.