By Lorraine Seal
Lorraine Seal is a fellow expat blogger who moved from Los Angeles to Ireland and on to Salzburg, Austria. Her blog, A Spy in Another Country, is about "the European gestalt as experienced by an American woman married to an Irish man". Across the Pond asked Lorraine for a guest post on the things she misses about Southern California.
As I write this, it’s been three years to the day I departed Los Angeles for life in Europe. This morning, I think of you and your family in Southern California, beginning a new phase of your lives. You asked me what I miss, and I had to think a bit before I could answer. In the time I’ve been here, I’ve made a point of remaining focused on living where I am rather than looking back. Our intention is to stay in Europe, so I’ve tried to avoid comparisons or to consider what I miss.
But since you ask, yes, there are sights and tastes and sensations that stand out vividly as I let my imagination wander through the landscape I inhabited for over twenty-five years.
I know, for instance, that right now the valleys and the hillsides simmer in August’s heat. It’s the hottest time of the year, inevitably, as the children prepare to go back to school, listless in airless classrooms for the first week or two. Triple-digit temperatures – 40 or so by European reckoning – prick your skin, leave you gasping, as you step into the heat. It helps of course that it’s dry, but opening the door of a car that’s been sitting in the sun will release a burst of super-heated air; the steering wheel scalds at the lightest touch.
Even so, the suggestions of fall are there, if you know how to look for their subtle signs. Though hot, there is a softening of the texture of the sun on your skin. The broad fat leaves of the sycamores in the canyons are fading, their edges crinkling with gold. Overhead, red-tail hawks effortlessly ride unseen currents, their tails glowing golden brown in the light, like the leaves of the sycamores. Every few feet in some neighbourhoods, large amber spiders weave gossamer webs stretching from tree to tree across sidewalks. Fat and full-bodied, the spiders catch the sun like translucent gold, the light shining through their bodies turning them to colour of maple syrup.
In the back garden of our old house, starlings and squirrels will be competing for the black mission figs on the splayed tree there. It will be thickly hung with fruit, plump, purple-black skin splitting, the voluptuous flesh inside deep crimson, sweet and obscenely seductive. With the heat, their perfume intensifies. I used to stand under the tree, plucking figs and pulling them apart to eat, one after another, juice running over my fingers.
The street where the house stands, in the Newbury Park section of Thousand Oaks, is lined with liquidambar – sweet gum – trees. Their leaves will be drooping with the heat, too. But rather than fading, they will be already ripening to colours deep and bright, unusual in Southern California. Soon, against a sky of brilliant blue, air raked clear of haze – stripped even of moisture – by Santa Ana winds, they will glow like jewels: ruby, rose-pink, burgundy, gold, bronze, copper.
Were I there, taking my evening walk through the hilly streets once the grip of heat had loosened, I would see looming above the neighbourhood the mountain peak called Old Boney, which stands at the north-western tip of the Santa Monica Mountains. By Austrian standards, it’s not a very high mountain, rising only to about 3,000 feet, if memory serves. It takes its name from the sandstone extrusions along its spine, jagged sand-coloured knobs that turn nearly copper in the late afternoon light. By dawn they glow rose-pink. I have climbed Old Boney three times. Although that would not be seen as an accomplishment by those who have mastered Hoher Dachstein, Untersberg or any of the other peaks near Salzburg, for me it was a badge of honour. Old Boney was ‘my’ mountain.
What else do I recall? What else do I miss? The piquant odour of the St John’s bread trees in the small square in front UCLA’s Schoenberg Hall on a fog-shrouded winter’s morning. Vivid lavender jacaranda blossoms, their colour almost incandescent as they break through the silver mist of a spring morning, on the campus’s sculpture garden or along Wilshire Boulevard by LACMA. Dry sycamore leaves crunching underfoot on mountain trails or scratching like withered claws as they are blown along the dusty streets of La Crescenta. The water garden with its lilies behind the Norton Simon, refreshing on a hot afternoon.
If I had a magic carpet that could take me there for the afternoon, I would swoop into the back garden of a young friend’s house. I’d collect her and her three daughters – the youngest of whom I’ve never seen or held – and fly us all to Baja Fresh. The one in Sherman Oaks would do, just on the corner of Ventura Boulevard, where the thick slabs of sidewalk are uneven, pushed up by sprawling roots of trees that shade the street. There I would order chicken nachos – hold the sour cream. I’d squeeze my nachos with fresh lime, add jalapeños and pour on the tomato-cilantro salsa. I’d savour the chicken clunks, black beans and corn chips just on the verge of wilting under the melted cheese. I’d eat American style, fork in right hand, and dip up the cool, rich guacamole with hand-held chips. There’d be enough left over to take home, and tomorrow I could look forward to a breakfast of cold chicken and black beans sandwiched between limp chips, glued together by congealed cheese and smeared with fading guacamole.
It would taste like heaven.
Good luck to you and your family as you begin your new adventure, Christina.