California is hard to describe in just a few words. There are so many words that come to mind! On a few occasions I have had flight stopovers in San Francisco, but that is all I personally know of the mighty state on the US west coast, which by the way is the most populated US state with it’s 38 million people living here. Everything I know, I know from the medias. This is the center for film production, superficial human interaction and extravaganza on a large scale. We like to indulge ourselves in just all these things, back home in Denmark, on our couches in front of our TV´s!
But California has many, very sympathetic and welcoming sides. The state starts in the north with the Redwood National Park and runs apprx. 1240 kilometers to the south, all the way to the Mexican border. The climate changes along the way. From being rather “Danish” with rain, wind and chills in the north, it turns to sunny, warm and mediterranean in the south.
One of the more surprising things for us to see, was that the infrastructure in and around some of the most wealthy neighbourhoods in California was in such a dire need of maintenance. In Beverly Hills and Hollywood Hills we drove around to explore the area a bit. We saw some of the most stunning and magnificent mansions we have ever seen in our lives. But just outside the gates the streets were crumbling and electricity would be supplied to all the big houses from degraded wooden poles, most likely installed sometime in the 1940’s. The term “homeowners association” is not widely used around here. There is no need for any snow- or winter service. There is no one in charge of the maintenance of biking paths, so that the children of the neighbourhood can ride their bikes safely to school (they are driven by a chauffeur in big cars). There is no committee in charge of the annual neighbourhood party. What happens outside the solid and safe walls gating the plots is of absolutely no concern to the owners. But it does look impressive to us, as we drive along Mulholland Drive in our rented, silver Ford Fusion full of excitement.
In other words; this is an area full of contrasts. Which does take some getting used to! During our ride through Hollywood we saw all the things we know from our TV’s and the medias: Walk of Fame, with the many stars in the pavement on Hollywood Boulevard. The Kodak / Dolby Theatre, home of the annual Academy Awards ceremony. And of course Rodeo Drive with it’s many fancy stores. But just around the corner we also saw all the desperate dreamers, with their disillusionment, begging for money as they walked up and down the street. Some may have been disguised in Superman, Spiderman or Darth Vader costumes, but they all asked the same question: “Got any spare change?” The gap between rich and poor, between success and daydream and between trendy and hopelessly outdated is incredibly big, and at the same time incredibly narrow. It is a fine line! Some of the people we met on Hollywood Boulevard were most likely very talented. And I have no doubt that all the copywriters that we saw at the local Starbucks café, sitting with their MacBooks writing the next blockbuster, were all hardworking talents just waiting for their chance. The so-called “x-factor” that will determine whether you make it or not is really all about timing. And luck. Obscene amounts of luck!
It was actually a sad sight and we did not stay for long. It is surreal to walk around in one of the most exclusive areas in the world and just have a feeling of sadness inside. Empty faces. Sad and lonely people all around us. But as soon as you got eye contact with anyone, they would light up, smile and convince you with that big Colgate smile that “Thing’s couldn’t be better!”
But thankfully California is a lot more than just Hollywood. We began our adventure in the state all the way up in the northwestern corner. In the Redwood National Park. Here we saw the greatest, biggest living trees we have ever seen. Mighty and majestic they stood there in the woods, towering over everything. It seemed like they almost touched the sky. The guidebooks said that we should remember to hug a tree while visiting. So we did. Although we were nowhere near being able to reach all the way around any of them. Anton found a small tree, probably “only” around 100 years old or so. But he couldn’t reach all around that either. And we did not even see the biggest and oldest ones in the area. If it hadn’t been for the absolutely horrible weather, we would have done a greater effort to get to them, but it was pouring down all day long. We would have had to walk for quite a bit to get to see the worlds biggest and (most likely) oldest tree. But we did not feel like getting into our hiking boots, raincoats and all. And besides the car was so nice and warm and comfortable. So we skipped the biggest ones and only saw the trees that were near the road. One might regret the laziness by now, but they were quite impressive just the same.
Not many kilometers after our meeting with the big trees it started to snow. Quite a bit. Winter weather is not all that uncommon in northern California, but it doesn’t get REALLY unpleasant every year. But that is just what happened, just as we had to cross a pass in the mountains. Rain turned to sleet, and sleet turned to snow. Within a short period of time a thick layer of ice covered the road and our speed dropped to about 5 kilometers per hour. Then we stopped completely. For about two hours. Then we moved forward, slowly, for a little while. And then another halt for about one hour. Finally we crossed the last pass and we were on the “other side” of the mountains. The south side. By then the time had reached almost 8 pm and we were getting tired. This was definitely NOT the kind of California we were expecting! Where was all the sunshine, the palm trees and the exotic drinks? Everyone we met assured us that this was highly unusual for the area, and that they had not seen this kind of snow in the last eight years. Coming from Europe, used to Central European winters, we know about winter driving. The problem is that in northern California they do not have an adequate winter service to clear the roads. A few times we saw a snowplow but it only scraped the top of the ice. They did not throw any salt or gravel like they do in Europe. So it really did not help at all.
We arrived at the hotel without any physical or psychological damage and by the next morning all the snow had melted away. Being on the southern side of the mountains we were not expecting any more snow further on. We were told that that would REALLY be unusual.
We drove to San Francisco where we met with one of Alexandra’s old friends from Munich, Thomas, who now lives in Silicon Valley and works in a garage specializing in foreign cars. He was able to tell us about a “full-time” life here in the US, and he would give us many comparisons to life back in Europe. According to Thomas life in the US is certainly not bad, but if you are not working hard (given of course that you HAVE a job) life will quickly get complicated. It has gone downhill over the past decade. On particular areas like medicare and social security, America is now in such a bad shape, that those who can are starting to look into relocating to other countries. Or at least starting to plan how to get out, if and when they are going to need medical help. Those who are not in a position to be able to relocate will have to live with an immense pressure (that is how I see it) to earn money to pay for their house, their (expensive) insurances and all of their other monthly living costs. On top of that, you have to bear in mind that in the US there is no such thing as a three months notice like I know from Denmark. If you lose your job, you are oftentimes out from one day to the next. If you have a long history with the company you might have a few weeks, but that’s it. Then your salary stops!
This almost makes me happy and proud of the high Danish tax percentage and the safety it provides. In spite of the cost. Surely I would like to see my tax money spent a little wiser but generally speaking we should not complain. On the other hand, here in the US - and most noticeable in California - you really do have almost endless opportunities to make it big and become rich. On a grand scale! If you are really good! And I like that as well. No boundaries. No raised fingers. No envy. But I guess I have lived for too long in Denmark to fully believe in minimal government and low taxes at any price.
One of the people who really made it big and has made a lasting impression on almost any child in the western world in the past 60 years is Walt Disney. A bit south of Los Angeles he opened up Disneyland in 1955. Over the years it has become one of the biggest attractions in America. On an average day apprx 45.000 guests enter the gates. Every morning there are long lines to get in. And even inside the park people are lining up to get “Fast Track Passes” to some of the most popular rides. A Fast Track Pass will give you a timeframe of one hour during which you can go almost straight through (once), and bypass the normal waiting lines. At any other time you are most welcome to join the normal lines if you want to ride more than once. A Fast Track Pass is quite handy if you are not loaded with patience and have a few kids with you. But just to get those Fast Track Passes takes quite a while. Alexandra volunteered to wait in line for this, while Anton and I started to explore “Carsland”.
Already the day prior to our Disneyland visit we went to the ticket office to get our tickets, so that we would not have to wait in line for too long in the morning to get through the gates. Anton had a hard time falling asleep that night. He was so excited about meeting Mickey Mouse. If we had also told him that he was going to meet Mater and Lightening McQueen he most certainly would not have slept at all! So we kept that little secret to ourselves.
When he saw Mater as one of the first things in “Carsland” he was totally ecstatic! He really did not know what to do. And the whole concept of lining up, waiting for your own turn to get to meet and take a photo with your hero was something he did not understand completely. But it all went fairly well, I must say. And over the next hours we met Pluto, Mickey (Anton got really starstruck there!), Mater, Lightening McQueen, Woody and Jessie from Toy Story and a princess with a purple skirt from a fairytale that I do not recall the name of. And then, of course, we also met Santa Claus. I almost forgot that he also lives in Disneyland!
It is EXPENSIVE to go to Disneyland! But once you are inside all rides are free. You only have to think of the food and drinks you will be needing. And then I noticed that the attention to detail with which everything is built is absolutely stunning. It is a COMPLETE joy and pleasure to walk through the park. Staff is present everywhere to ensure that all guests are comfortable. Constantly there are service people walking around with a broom and dustpan to remove fallen leaves, candy wrappings etc from the sidewalks. On the day of our visit it was rather windy so they had a lot to do! Everything is really nice and neat. It is all “Good, clean family entertainment!” They know how to do this!
Needless to say the biggest joy of taking your child to such a park is to see his complete thrill and joy. It was all over his face the entire day! Fortunately we had booked a hotel in walking distance from the park, so that we did not have to drive or walk for very long to get back and go to bed in the evening. And fortunately we had thought of taking the stroller with us. It has spent a long time in the trunk by now, but for some reason it just made good sense to us to bring it along for our Disneyland visit. So when we had finished our evening meals and went for a last walk through the park, enjoying all the beautiful rides and attractions around the big lake, Anton was put in the stroller and quickly fell asleep. Knocked out by all the impressions of the exciting day.
We had talked about buying a two-day pass for us. But we decided on just one day. This turned out to be the right decision. It just takes a little while for a small child to absorb and process those kinds of experiences, and Anton did not sleep very well the following night. He yelled and screamed about Lightening McQueen. And to be honest, we, the parents, were also knocked out. Two days would have been too much. There were MANY guests in Disneyland on the day of our visit. I dread to think of a visit during a peak season!
Deliberately we are avoiding to go through downtown Los Angeles. Everyone says it is really a disappointment and not a pleasant experience. It may seem unfair that we are not giving the largest city of California a chance to prove the rumours wrong. But we have come to the conclusion that all the things we are not going to make while we are here during this particular journey, we will have to come back to see some other time. Tickets from Europe to the US are no longer that expensive.
Instead we have been strolling through downtown Pasadena and San Diego. Both these cities are remarkably easy to get around. Pasadena even seemed a bit “small-town-ish” to us. Although it did have its fair share of expensive cars and upscale shops in the main street. San Diego reminded me of Southern Europe. With a significant Mexican touch (it is only about 25 miles from the Mexican border) there was a warm and relaxed atmosphere in the city center that I really liked.
We have already spent a few weeks here in California and we are nowhere near finished. In the next blog you can read about our roadtrip out in the wild, California nature, a trip along the historic Route 66, and about our preparations for Christmas, including a long awaited visit from Denmark!
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