I arrived in Los Angeles on August 16, 2001. Eleven hours (and counting) before that, I had boarded a plane in London. I told the lovely Virgin Atlantic staff on the check-in desk that I was emigrating. I did my most winning smile. They upgraded me. I slid into seat 2A at the front of the plane, sipped the mug of tea they gave me while grinning massively out of the window as we took off. I was leaving the life I had known behind and starting again. It all felt tremendously exciting.
What could go wrong? I had a work visa, a job at a digital agency, a studio apartment, which looked very nice in the pictures I'd seen online. It was true, I only knew one person -- but he was a Hollywood agent, so that was a good start.
Sadly, I also had a broken heart (just been dumped after five years), my books and personal papers remained in a storage unit until 2004 (but I didn't know that then) and I just had two large duffel bags with clothes and basic travel-sized items and no credit. Years later I would laugh with friends and say I came to Los Angeles with two pieces of luggage -- and a lot of baggage.
In the cab ride from LAX to Westwood, I gazed happily at the blue-blue sky, the palm trees and the beautiful people in sunglasses driving glamorous cars on the freeway. My sunny optimism was slightly challenged by the greenish-gray of the stucco on the quite frankly ugly apartment building. But the kidney-shaped pool in the front courtyard was exactly how I imagined. The sweet surfer dude manager of the building loped down the corridor in his board shorts and flip-flops to open up my new apartment. I tried not to cry.
It was much smaller than it looked online. But there was wall to wall white shag pile carpeting which sort of made me think of the Valley of the Dolls so that was ok. The previous tenant had left food in the fridge. I had never seen a fridge that big -- or so many giant jars of pureed apples.
In England we only eat apple sauce with roast pork on Sundays in country pubs and I couldn't see myself trying to cook in this tiny alcove of a kitchen, let alone roast a suckling pig.
The French windows (which had looked so nice in the pictures online) were cracked and looked straight out onto the street. I sat down on the shag-pile carpet and made a list. Whenever I get worried about things, I make a list. It was a slightly daunting list. It started with buy furniture, get a phone, rent a car and then I gave up. I walked to the corner and found the nearest café, sat at the counter and ordered something called a California salad.
With the first bite of avocado I felt at home. The waitress -- we'll call her Cherry -- became my L.A guardian angel. In my first weekend in L.A., Cherry told me where to rent a car, how to buy furniture (the delights of Target) and even how to make a phone call (we don't dial 1 for outside the local area in England so I was mystified until Cherry helped out).
Driving on the other side of the road was hard at first and I waited a week before I tackled the 405. And now, of course, I know to avoid the 405 at all costs. I had done my research before coming here. I like to be organized.
And I'm not the first English person to have blossomed in Southern California. I devoured everything the writer Christopher Isherwood wrote about his adopted city, back in the 1940s, and followed his footsteps into Santa Monica Canyon and along blissful coastal drives. On my first Sunday (I was still on London time), I woke up at 4:00 a.m. and remembered that the English painter David Hockney, when he arrived here in the 1960s, got into his car and drove the length of Sunset Boulevard. So I did the same.
I ended up a bit confused when I reached the not-so-pretty bits, so turned around and headed back west just as the sun came up over the Pacific Ocean. I parked the car at Gladstones and sat on a rock. There were very few people around at that time of the morning. The ones that were there were silently watching the sunrise. Suddenly there was a break in the surf and I saw my first dolphin. I couldn't believe it. I was living in paradise.
And then the dotcom crash happened.
Within four months, the company I worked for went under, and took my work visa with it. My savings dwindled very quickly, my debts mounted and I had 60 days to find a new job before the immigration authorities would demand my exit from the United States. I broke my lease (not recommended) and was surprised to see that the surfer dude manager of the building owned an actual suit, which he wore to court to give evidence against me. A friend suggested I moved -- temporarily -- into someone's spare room in Silver Lake.
Wearily, I packed my belongings into a friend's truck and followed her in my car, not enjoying the blue-blue sky or the palm trees or the beautiful people in sunglasses driving glamorous cars nearly as much this time. But I perked up immediately when we arrived in Silver Lake. The house was a tiny bungalow strung up with twinkle lights. It looked 3/4 sized. Which is good because I'm sort of 3/4 sized myself.
The man who opened the door was wearing eyeliner and eye-wateringly tiny shorts. This was David. He became my fairy godmother and over the next 60 days listened to my daily tribulations of trying to find a job while my visa time was running out.
He showed me to my room, which wasn't strictly a room, it was part of the living room with double doors and curtains made of strangely familiar red material. I peered at the drapes curiously.
"Oh," said David, "A friend of mine supplies textiles to Victoria's Secret."
I looked again.
Yes, I was now living in a tiny 3/4 sized bungalow living room in Silver Lake with bra material as drapes over the glass doors. It all seemed fitting. And again, a lot like Valley of the Dolls, which is how I always imagined Los Angeles to be. It was perfect.
Thirteen years later and a great many adventures later, I'm still here. Well, I'm back here. I ended up moving to New York City for seven years, for work, and returned home early last year.
I said home.
Because that's how it feels.