There are too many reasons to include in one post, so they are divided into sections.
Living in summer sunshine, almost every day, all day. Mostly there is no need to pull back the curtains to check the weather before you dress – every day is like the most perfect summer’s day that you could ever remember, back in Britain. Clouds and rain are so rare, that they are reported extensively on the news when they show up, usually between January and February.
The ‘winters’ are not much different from the summers, except that the highest, mid-day temperature can be in the mid-80’s (30 c) in the summer, and just in the 70’s (20c) in the winter.
The lack of rain might be hard to comprehend for natives of the UK. It rains so very rarely that the leaves on the trees become dusty. One evening I noticed, through the window, that the lights of cars were being reflected in the watery surface of a street, and felt homesick for a moment. When I got outside, I realised that sprinklers used to keep the grass borders on the sides of pavements alive were spilling out onto the road, creating the illusion of rain.
The nights are also not quite as long in the winter. Los Angeles is roughly the same latitude as Egypt, which means that the sun sets fast, in the winters around 4-5pm, and in the summers around 7-8pm. On an overcast, rainy mid-winter afternoon in England the street lights go on and it can be too dark to walk the dog as early as 3.30pm. Sunset in California meant that the clear blue sky turned to green, then gold, providing an extension to the day, so that the winter nights did not seem as long.
In the summer you rarely need even a cotton cardigan, except late at night. In the winter it is possible to wear a coat early in the morning, but never cold enough for frost, or to need gloves, either early in the morning or late at night. For the 11 years that I lived there, this meant that I could leave my apartment most days, wearing what British people would think of as summer clothes, perhaps with a cotton cardigan or sweatshirt in case the air-conditioning was turned up too high, or if it got cooler in the evening.
Working on the campus of the University of Southern California, in the height of summer it was good to get outside into the heat, to warm up from the air-conditioning. I would dodge from the shade of one palm tree to the next, to save my back from burning through my blouse. In the winter slightly warmer clothes could be worn, but I never needed tights.
My job, at the University of Southern California’s Film School
At the end of the first year in the city, when my Rotary scholarship money ran out, I got work at the University where I had been studying, so that I could finish my degree. I soon found out that there were many perks to working on campus, (aside from the free tuition at one of the world’s most expensive, private Universities).
A music series was held in a beautiful church on campus, where graduate conservatory students performed wonderful solos, and the audience was bribed to attend with free pizza and cookies. At the film school where I worked, there were frequent screenings of newly released movies, with a panel discussion featuring those who had worked on the films, like the director, producer, actors. This is how I got to hear Peter Weir discussing his films, ‘Picnic at Hanging Rock’ and ‘Witness’, before a small group of about forty students. Another day, Tom Hanks shared his stories about the industry. Oliver Stone came into the office to borrow a phone, after giving his talk. These talks, and many others, eventually inspired my first book, ‘Is there life after Film School?’
Despite the lure of free concerts and talks, I often took lunch breaks in the University’s sports centre, about fifty yards from my office. This meant that I could swim outdoors throughout the year, in blazing sunshine in the giant, lovely pool that had hosted the 1982 Olympics.
After the swim, there was always time for a soak in the jacuzzi and sauna overlooking the pool, my eyes closed against the bright sun. This was almost an everyday treat. I worked my way up to doing forty lengths, equal to one mile, and became much fitter than when I lived in Britain.
For lunch there were several restaurants and cafes, and even though my job was low-paid, I could sometimes afford to eat at my favourite place, which was a food truck in the maintenance area, used by mostly Latina staff. The truck offered a perfect grilled sandwich with jalapenos, and the staff were incredibly friendly and helpful when I tried out my basic Spanish with them.
More often I ate my lunch at my desk after the swim, extending my lunchbreak by another hour. This was possible because the American system, of having only ten days’ holiday a year, meant that we had an additional month more at work compared to our British and European counterparts. We got through the same amount of work, but it was spread out, and many of us had no problem trying to make up for missed holidays, by cutting ourselves some slack.
Living and exercising outdoors
At the end of my first year, when I could afford a car, I could get to the beach at the weekends. The bike path that stretches along the length of Santa Monica runs over twenty-two miles, from the Pacific Palisades north of Santa Monica, to Torrance beach at the other. Early morning or late afternoons, when the path was less crowded, were best. On summer nights, I could collect my bicycle or rollerblades from home after work and get to the beach with time to cycle from Ocean boulevard, just south of Santa Monica, under the pier and up to the point where the bike path ended, at the Pacific Palisades. As I rode back, the air grew cooler and the Santa Monica pier would be lit up.
Many of the canyons of the city terminate in State Parks, with clear, wide trails (wide enough for fire engines to get up, or designed as fire breaks), and snake their way gently up and around the hills, giving expansive views of the city and beaches below. Topanga State Park was big enough to get lost in, and the vistas from its highest point stretched the entire length of the bay, down to Longbeach, and up the coast past Malibu.
Other favourites included Solstice Canyon, Franklin Canyon and Malibu Creek State Park, which were all around half an hour’s drive from where I lived.
Working full-time, I could never have a pet, but one day borrowed a red setter and headed off with a friend deep into Malibu Creek park. Suddenly we were overtaken by a group of about a hundred people, clad in purple robes, who marched quickly and silently past us in the direction of the highest point of the park, on some clearly important, devotional mission. As we speculated what kind of belief system this group might be connected to, we suddenly realised that the red setter had joined them, and was already over half a mile ahead of us. My companion set off at a heroic speed, and managed to retrieve the dog from his new friends just before they turned a corner and disappeared from view.
The best walk was at Point Dume State beach, which is on the coast just north of Malibu, and features a small cliff at the end of the beach. It is used for many TV shows and films, and is taken as the archetypal Californian beach, but creates a false image – Santa Monica Bay is fringed by continuous car parks and roads, including a motorway, and comprises of a vast stretch of dry sand, groomed by machines each night, which the tide never reaches.
It was a joy to show any visitors from England around Point Dume, because it fulfilled their image of what a Californian beach should look like. On the same day that my old friend, Teresa, arrived from a British winter, jet-lagged and pale, I took her straight out for a walk up the cliff at the end of the beach. The view from the top of the promontory is vast – the point marks the northern end of Santa Monica bay, and provides views all the way down to the Palos Verdes peninsula, with Catalina island in the distance.
As the sun set, we had an unexpected treat – a group of grey whales began to breach and play in water below us. The whales pass along Californian coast on their migration from the warm waters of Mexico, up to Alaska, every year, and seemed to like to stop by the deep water at the base of the cliffs at Point Dume, because I managed to see them breaching and churning the sea there many times.
Another special night at Point Dume, on New Year’s Eve in 2002, heavily pregnant with my daughter, I managed to climb, slowly, with another English visitor, to the top of the cliffs, to watch the sun sink into the ocean. Trudging back towards my car, along the beach, we turned our gaze to the ten foot waves crashing onto the sand, and were rewarded with the spectacle of a group of dolphins, surfing skilfully into the shore, over and over, as the water turned gold, then scarlet. It was a perfect end to my child-free existence – my daughter was in my arms by the time the sun had set the following day.
The perfect weather also means that fewer supplies had to be taken when venturing outside. In England I always take a thermos, waterproofs, a good map, check the forecast and am prepared to cancel if it gets really bad. There is no need for this in California.
One year I joined the Sierra Walking club and went with a group up Mount Baldy, about an hour’s drive east of the city of Los Angeles. We were rewarded, after a long slow trudge up a trail, with panoramic views across the entire San Gabriel Mountains. The summit is flat and stony, and at over 10,000 feet, gives the same kind of views as you get from an aeroplane as it ascends – the grid-like patterns of roads and houses below giving way, on the horizon, to a golden haze. The walk was made easy by being expertly led, and as the walk started at over 4000 feet, the climb was not too tough.
The University had a polo club, that rumour had it was subsidised by a wealthy donor. While I was taking classes at the film school for free, as allowed by my job contract, I was still classed as a student and was allowed to join the Polo Club.
Lessons were held at a stables on the far side of the valley, which was run by an Argentinian professional player, Eduardo. As the arena was floodlit, I could drive up to the club, with the roof down on my car, and spend the evening playing on the sand arena. It was totally blissful, to ride flat out after the ball, learn to use a mallet, to score in the mini games we played. The polo ponies are so well trained, that as you whack the ball with a mallet, they take off after the ball, then slow down, positioning themselves perfectly alongside the moving ball, ready for the rider to to take another swing with the mallet. Cantering after a ball, mallet raised, you always had to be keenly aware of the location of your team-mates, and opponents, preparing for the next pass. For the duration of play, everything else faded and I just became one with the pony, the mallet, and my team.
In the UK I would not have imagined that polo was within my reach, that it was only for young Princes with fortunes to spare on strings of million pound ponies. It really is a brilliantly absorbing, complex, satisfying and sociable game, one that I would never have dreamed of attempting to play if I’d stayed in England.
Ironically, many years later, back in England, I found that the polo world is very welcoming, and managed to play at a stables in Epsom, for not much more than I had paid in LA. However, I would never have had the idea, had it not been for my experience at the Calfornia Polo Club.
Los Angeles does not have many parks in the traditional English style – with groomed flower beds, a bandstand, a paddling pool and playgrounds. Instead it has one gigantic space – Griffith Park. Its 4000 acres straddle the Santa Monica Mountains. The Park has been used as a location for movies from Sunset Boulevard and Back to the Future, to LaLa Land and sometimes a trail would be closed, with the inevitable black catering truck and security, indicating that another film was being shot. Mostly it is an urban wilderness, but it also contains features like the Hollywood Sign, the Observatory made famous in the film Rebel Without A Cause, a museum, many picnic and play areas, and my favourite, an equestrian area.
One stables, the Circle K, allowed good riders to take its horses out unaccompanied, a freedom I had never come across at a British riding stables. All the stables used Western Saddles and bridles, which I found much easier than what Americans call ‘English style’ – it’s like the difference between an automatic car, and one with gears. Much less to do, and much, much harder to fall off.
Another stable, based on the southern side of the park, took riders over the shoulder of the mountains, past the Hollywood sign, then down the other side, for a meal in a Mexican restaurant, followed by a moonlit ride back to the stables afterwards. The ride over to the restaurant seemed long and hot, but the ride back, after the meal and a bottle of cold beer, through the cool moonlit night, with the twinkling carpet of lights from the city below, was magical.
During my fourth year of living in California, a friend who commuted very long distances asked me to exercise her horse, a beautiful Arab pony, when she was away. This meant that I could explore trails that snaked around the mountainous park by moonlight, on this willing pony. One night when riding out late, on my own, a coyote emerged from the scrub and trotted ahead of me. The stars had come out, I was in a tee-shirt, and the evening breeze on my forearms was warm and light. It was in March, and knowing from relatives that the winter weather back home was awful, made the rides in the park all the more enjoyable. The loan of the pony continued through to the autumn, when, in the cooler autumnal evenings, with the lights of the city sparkling in the valley below, guiding the pony along the empty, dusty trails of the park, enveloped in the desert heat, I felt very privileged to have escaped the rain and gloom of England.