An Irishwoman's Diary

 

Woody wasn't even slightly thrown when I asked why so many homeless people congregated in Santa Monica. Clad in shorts and sporting an enviable tan, our car rental rep said they came because of the climate, the generosity of the natives and the hot lunches doled out daily on the lawn of City Hall, writes Mary P. Wilkinson.

He may well have been right. Most of the homeless I saw did look well fed and well dressed, especially the guy on roller skates complete with what looked like a cast-off designer backpack slung across his shoulder.But it was Woody's advice on driving in California that sank home. It was blunt. He warned us that if we did happen to hit somebody to make sure we finished the poor sucker off. This is Sue City, he said, with a conspiratorial look. He wasn't kidding - or was he? We laughed. Nervously. After all this was LA.

We drove up the Golden Coast with Woody's words ringing in our ears. We had spent seven years hacking it in the old sod and here we were, back in California, looking to see why we left this place of white sand and pink houses. We found our questions hard to answer.

Gated castles

Malibu was our first stop. There is no disputing that this is a nice place, nestling between the Pacific Ocean and deep, wooded canyons. We played guess games about who lived in the gated castles glimpsed in yonder hills. In the parking lot of the coffee shop we pulled into, we found ourselves among a cluster of red and silver convertibles. Our dusty brown rented Impala with its Virginia licence-plates seemed oddly out of place. It was only 8 a.m. and the serene queue for cappuccino that stole out the door bespoke beauty. Tanned. Gym-disciplined. Our children were the only ones to be seen, yet they too were catered to as we watched them play in the early morning sunshine that filtered through the eucalyptus trees in yet another playground, this time belonging to the coffee shop. We were smiling.

Without even realising it, we were smiling along with everybody else. Smiling is a big thing in California. But so is holding doors open for people. So is welcoming you into a store. So is having a nice day. The unequivocal friendliness of the people is immediately obvious. Courtesy is around every corner.

Patriotism is big too, even bigger than smiling. But to be patriotic in California means something different. It's kosher. The stars and stripes are always visible. They hang from home porches, car windows, the walls of the freeways. One day at lunch a little girl at the next table began to sing the national anthem. The place hushed. You may say that it was a bit much, but hey, what's really wrong with it? Nothing. Right! And in just under three weeks I never heard a four-letter word being uttered, never saw anyone drop litter and never saw such pride of place before in my life.

Cars left open

My mother-in-law doesn't lock the front door of her house. It wouldn't dawn on her to do so. She was amazed at my concern about locking up. She had just broken her foot and her neighbours come to visit her daily. Care packages are left on her doorstep. Visiting my husband's old high school, we saw how cars too were left open, with knapsacks thrown in the back seats. Nobody will touch them. Call it trust. Respect.

But it's the Pacific Ocean that keeps the whole place turning. The beaches, long and pristine, are the centrepiece of this place. Underneath the ubiquitous palm trees, people walk, sit and watch the waves, jog, play frisbee, surf, fly kites, walk their dogs - on leashes. All dogs must be leashed. It's the law and the law is enforced.

It is also the law that smoking in public places is prohibited. It is amazing to sit in a bar and not see one smoker in the place. Yet everyone is having a good old time.

We spent a lot of our visit in restaurants. The food is good. You get value for your money. Breakfast is a social event in California. At Loulou's place we could have sat all day drinking her freshly brewed coffee. All refills are free. She told me that she tried 20 different types of coffee before she hit on the right one. It was excellent. Loulou was proud of her restaurant. The kids loved the chocolate chip pancakes with buckets of maple syrup. We finally left, reluctantly - totally coffeed out!

Working hard

Our journey covered many miles, staying in many motels. Maxine ran her motel like a five-star hotel. Judging by her deathly pallor, she never left the building. But this was her life. You could have eaten off the bathroom floor. Her grandmother came from Ireland but she couldn't recall from where. All the Woodys, Maxines and Loulous we met were good people, making their way, working hard.

And so we came home with many more questions and far fewer answers than when we confidently embarked on our trip. This time they weren't about California, though. They were about where we had come from. We wondered about the litter thrown on our streets. About why there is so little courtesy on the roads of our country. About why young thugs are allowed to roam the streets, terrorising old and young alike.

Why is this all tolerated? The answers did not come. It made me wonder too why people can be so cynical about America. Maybe that cynicism could be turned into something a little more positive. For a start, we could start telling other people to "have a nice day".

MARY P. WILKINSON