The Familiar and the Foreign

We all know what America’s like, right? We’ve seen it all on TV and in films, we’ve heard the music, eaten the food, worn the clothes. We know how they speak and how they spend their free time (when they get any). So it doesn’t make a particularly exotic or surprising foreign holiday destination, I suppose? Well maybe, and maybe not. Thinking that you already know a place can make it all the more pleasantly surprising when you come across those little differences.

I recently spent two weeks in California (this is the bit where residents of other states cry “But that’s not the real America!”) where I encountered both the expected and the unexpected. One unexpected thing was my own reaction to the general look and feel of the towns. For example, I loved the slightly run-down, funky, lived-in feel of some of the residential areas we saw in LA and San Diego. We visited friends in the wonderfully-named “Normal Heights” and I was happy to wander the streets at magic hour, soaking up the casual, relaxed atmosphere and popping in to the excellent secondhand bookshops and pizza and beer bars.

And yet on one grey afternoon in downtown San Diego I found myself reacting quite strongly against the architecture. Now I’m not one of those people who looks down on Americans for having less history than us (as if it were their fault…):

And yet I found myself uncomfortable surrounded entirely by hotels, housing and retail outlets which had obviously all been designed and built within the previous 100 years. I’d never been conscious of it before, but having centuries-old structures woven into the fabric of a town gives it a distinct character and texture which I found missing here. Obviously this kind of situation isn’t unique to America as plenty of other countries regularly build new towns from scratch. China does it all the time, and there are a few in the UK too. But I think if I were to spend any long period of time here (or even live here) I’d start to get itchy after a while and find myself saying “But where’s all the old stuff?”

This isn’t going to turn into a grumpy old rant about modern architecture, but we did see one mystifyingly (and ironically) soulless building in LA. I don’t mind modern design, even when it comes to churches, but Anaheim’s Crystal Cathedral goes beyond inspiring minimalism into “aircraft hangar” territory. Nothing about this glass and scaffolding structure seemed to me to foster feelings of community or love.

Driving through the hinterland we passed a lot of enormous fields containing what looked like square mile after square mile of crops (grapes, asparagus, garlic…), but once the food made it to our plates we didn’t get the super-sized portions we might have expected. Then again we didn’t eat at McDonalds, and maybe California is more health-conscious than other places in this regard. What we did eat was very tasty though. Lots of burritos and tacos; Mexican food isn’t that easy to find in Belgium, and what there is isn’t very good, so this was something of an education. We also had superb Dungeness crab cakes in Boudin’s bakery in San Francisco.

A big surprise for me was the California style of sushi. It tends to be more elaborate and sweeter than Japanese sushi, which is more concerned with zen-like calm and simplicity and the freshness and quality of the fish. But I could definitely get used to this style too. This one from Monsoon in Santa Monica is topped with slices of mango.

We only had the pizza once, and it wasn’t the stereotypically meaty, greasy New york-style pie. These slices (from left to right chorizo, wild mushroom and potato and prosciutto) came from the Blind Lady bar in San Diego linked to above. The base was a little tough but the toppings were tasty.

One US delicacy I simply had to try during my visit was a Twinkie. Despite the disbelief and disparaging comments from my San Diegan friend I’d always wanted to taste one of these, as I’d seen constant ads for them in the DC comics I read as a child (see here for an exhaustive collection of scans). It was pleasantly soft and creamy, so I’m not quite sure where all the Twinkie hate comes from. Can someone explain?

And while asking for explanations, can anyone enlighten me as to why you would want to eat scones (and call them “biscuits”) covered in white sauce and gravy…for breakfast?

Finally some liquid refreshment. Europeans tend to look down on US beer as weak and flavourless, but I found a few brews to my liking. I bought these two from a shop in Yosemite. The amber ale was delicious.

But the pale ale had a strangely bitter (or as the tasting notes put it, “piney”) aftertaste.

The full set of California photos, including more shots of Yosemite moss than you’ll ever need, can be seen on flickr here.