by Janice Nigro
We think it’s exciting, adventurous, and life changing to live and meet people around the world. I can say with certainty that it is. Right up until that moment you decide to leave, to move on. That final moment when you pass through airport security and you know you will make your plane-that’s when it hits you-you are leaving a life and great friends you won’t soon see again. It’s a weird life, you think, leaving pieces of your heart behind around the world.
It is easier today to move around the world, so it is also easier to remain in touch. Still meeting up beyond Skype, Facebook, or any of the latest communication/social media apps takes some planning (and money)-involving travel between at least distant cities but more often continents and sometimes even islands.
My Italian friend Vita and I have always kept in touch. We met in San Francisco, only because she could not speak much English at all when she first arrived in the USA. My Italian was not great, but it was good enough to engage her in some activities around the city with friends. It didn’t take long though before her English progressed to a point where it passed my Italian.
I no longer speak the language with her, but when your time together is compressed into a few days every few years, your desire to communicate overrules the game you play learning a language. Some words though, like “andiamo” (let’s go) are best said in Italian.
Since our initial introduction, we have both moved around the world you could say-I moved to Norway and then back to the USA; she to Scotland, Germany, and now England. I have been to most of the places she has lived because I lived in Europe and have reason to travel there, but she finally decided to meet me in my current hometown of LA. She arrived via Norwegian from London and had her first experience with traffic in LA before she ever left the plane. Let’s just say it took a few hours, after landing, to exit the airport.
Her plan for LA was to not have a plan. Fortunately, she isn’t into amusement parks, so I did not have to part with a pile of money to stand in long lines all day only to discover that the rides might upset my stomach. And she likes to walk. It was easy then.
We approached our no plan tour of LA with some European style-we took public transportation, and we ate dinner late. I didn’t think we had a chance to get into a sushi restaurant in Manhattan Beach on a Thursday night without a reservation, but after 8 in the evening, when the European dinner hour begins, we were seated within 10 minutes.
Our first adventure outside of the South Bay was met with some unexpected challenges. Even though it is on the list of 12 things not to do in LA, public transportation really does work here. Whenever I am on public transportation, I meet Europeans or other international tourists, who do what they do at home. I imagine sometimes that they have no sense about how big LA is and what it really means to ride public transportation in the city. I know, and I still take buses and the metro rail partly as a challenge to do so, but usually you can count on it. Usually.
Vita’s introduction to LA public transportation did not go as smoothly as usual. The local bus to reach the metro rail did not even show up that Saturday morning due to a route change for a running race. Plan B was to catch a city bus several blocks away. Easy enough, but while we were waiting for that bus Vita in her simple but fashionable outfit was the perfect non-moving target for some of our local flying wildlife. In true Vita style, glamorous despite the bird bomb, she declared,”It means good luck.” And so began our expectations for something extraordinary to happen that day.
Our luck didn’t seem to be waiting for us at the metro rail station we were heading to. Not a single ticket machine was operational. All four available machines simply spit back our twenty dollar bills fresh from the bank. A couple of policemen saw us and tried to help, explaining that the service guy had just been there. They too gave up after several attempts, and then they let us through without a valid card. Our ride was free.
Our first stop was to downtown LA. Downtown LA is unusual as a metropolitan area because there never seems to be a good reason to go there, especially as a tourist. There are some art museums, and I love seeing the Walt Disney Concert Hall designed by the world famous architect Frank Gehry. We didn’t plan on going inside any buildings though-Vita is from London and I could understand that having experienced that sudden shift in the weather further north when summer turns somehow overnight into rainy fall.
Vita was here to load up on vitamin D.
I was still attempting to make it a cultural tour. We walked to Olvera Street, the founding street of Los Angeles, rather than wait 14 minutes for the next train to Union Station. The metro rail isn’t usually so slow, but it was a fine day to walk anyway. Olvera Street is all a bit hokey, but there are some fun old buildings right in the middle of downtown LA. And Vita got her taste of Mexican food-I don’t know how real it is, but it still fills you up in a good way.
Union Station is right there, closer than I thought. We wandered through the beautiful old building. Maybe it’s not on the list of tours for families with teenagers today, but if you appreciate architecture, Union Station is something to see. The style is Mission Moderne which is a mix of Spanish Colonial, Mission Revival, and Art Deco. I clearly recognized the Art Deco the first time I dashed through the building to catch an Amtrak train to San Diego. It’s hard to believe that such a building exists in downtown LA when you have just passed through some of the more dilapidated neighborhoods to reach it.
We were on our way to catch a metro rail to an area of the city I have been obsessed with lately-the downtown LA Arts District. Art is everywhere on the once abandoned warehouse buildings and the Museum of Ice Cream is located there. The museum is not what we thought (and you need reservations), but we found a building painted entirely in pink and goofed around taking Instagram worthy photos of no artistic value whatsoever.
On another day, we visited Los Feliz, another neighborhood of LA that I wanted to see. It was easy enough to go there after a visit to the Hollywood Farmers Market on a Sunday. I thought we could uber up to the Griffith Observatory and have a look out over LA. It gives you that feeling of looking out into a grand movie set whether day or night. It was too hot really so I took her to Jeni’s Splendid Ice Cream where I indulged in pistachio with honey and dark chocolate ice creams on a homemade waffle cone.
Then it was back out into the heat to find the metro back home.
I am smart about the friends I choose. This one can cook and she likes to do it. Vita is a master at making risotto. You can’t ask her how to do it-you just have to watch, like most Italian cooking. We got the ingredients to make risotto alla funghi (a mix of mushrooms) one night, and it was as if I had imported my own Italian cook all the way from London just to make that one dish for me. One of those nights when I believed I was eating the best meal in all of LA.
The favor was reversed the next night though because with the help of my brother, we made homemade pasta for Vita and his friend. It was not a hard sell because Vita had the good sense to travel home to her village of Carovigno in Puglia before coming to the USA. She brought precious treats-olive oil and parmigiano from her hometown.
I am no match for her mother who can shoot out orecchiette like a precise machine in the heat of an Italian summer afternoon, but my pasta is pretty respectable. We didn’t need much because of the fresh-from-Italia ingredients, but we did add fresh heirloom tomatoes on top which were a hit with Vita now living in London. Having lived in northern Europe, I knew what a tomato could taste like there.
People never quite grasp exactly how big LA is. Visitors have a long list of things to see, but it’s not clear until they arrive and get into it that they fully understand what people refer to as LA. LA landwise is expansive, and the traffic makes the distance seem greater. No matter how you do it, you are traveling in some sort of a vehicle for a good part of the day. So the one thing that probably made LA, LA, but people spend too little time there, is the beach. The beach is the one thing that is no-travel-required from my apartment. You just have to walk across the street.
The beach is a true wilderness right in a city that is the epitome of all the good and the bad that goes with being an urban center. Proof was in a pod of super charged dolphins showing off for us one morning-flapping their tails and jumping like happy swimmers cooling off from the summer heat.
We went up the coast to visit more famous beaches. Santa Monica, which was closed one day due to a bomb threat, and Venice, which must now be able to boast of the greatest cloud of pot smoke worldwide. Seriously, it’s no longer a place to take the family (if it ever was).
Malibu was a beach on my list of places to try to reach by bus (ironic I guess considering who lives there) for a couple of reasons-to see the beach and to go to Grom, the real Italian gelateria that now has locations in the USA. Taking the bus to Malibu is not difficult during the week. It’s easy enough to get to Santa Monica from Hermosa Beach any day of the week, and I discovered that the Malibu bus runs fairly frequently during the week. Somehow we timed everything right and got to the stop for the 534 to Malibu right as it was about to show up.
My excuse for taking the bus to Malibu was a visit to the Getty Villa. It’s free if you go without a car, but you cannot walk up the drive. You have to call for a driver which takes some time due to the organization of the roadways there.
In retrospect, the Getty Villa was perhaps the wrong place to take a real Italian, but I love the view up there. I don’t know how other Italians view it, but Vita thought it was odd to visit a replica of a villa in Ercalano which houses Italian artifacts collected by a wealthy eccentric man from the US. I still learned a few things from the architecture tour, like it’s all built to make you feel as if you are in an excavation site, and I won’t forget to try to visit the real site back in Italy.
The tour was over and after the long convoluted drive back to the bus stop on Pacific Coast Highway, we waited for the magic bus to take us to Malibu. We didn’t have to wait too long for it, but it was no more special looking than any other city bus. It’s a cheap ride though along a beautiful coastal highway. The bus is better than driving in some ways; you can stare out at the ocean without having to pay attention to the road. And you are seated above the traffic. I found Grom at Malibu (you have to take a look at my previous piece on finding Grom) and then we went out to the beach.
My crowning achievement as a host to LA was to have Vita download the Uber app and successfully schedule a pick up at 4:30 AM for her flight out to New York City.
We say good bye in English which sounds so final. Italians say arrivederci which means “until we see each other again.” For my friend Vita, it is always arrivederci…I know we will meet again, but where exactly in the world, we never know.
©Janice Marie Nigro/janikiInk.com