Friday, March 02, 2007

San Diego by day

I awaken to sunlight streaming through a gap in the curtains. After a rather tricky shower (changing in the shower cubicle, shoving my clothes outside onto the tiles, then reaching out to grab them back and get dressed), I go downstairs to enjoy my free pancake breakfast.

The kitchen is busy, but not crowded. I talk to a fellow traveller, a Greek-American from Arizona, as I make my hotcakes on a griddle over the stove. We sit together at the common room table and idly chat. He has trouble understanding me because of my accent, asking me to repeat myself several times, even acting out what I’m saying once or twice.
‘You don’t seem to have any trouble understanding us’ he says.
I tell him that I’ve grown up with American accents, as have the rest of the world. On television and cinema screens. His name is Vangeli.
‘That must be pretty common in Australia’ he says. ‘You have such a large Greek population.’
Melbourne has the second-largest of any city in the world, outside Greece, but I’ve never heard the name. He thinks my name is odd.
‘Jo? Really?’
I wonder how on earth I will go in Mexico, where people literally speak another language.

ABOVE: Encinitas beach

Vangeli is going to Ocean Beach nearby, to a café with wireless, and asks if I want to come. My plans include exploring the beach, so I accept. (And yes, in case anyone is wondering, I talk about my husband a lot, and it turns out that he is pining for a girl back home.) The Pacific is a pulsing ocean here, with dark waves and yawning stretches of beach. I see no surfers today, though the water invites surfing. The bordering communities of Ocean Beach and Mission Beach are sleepy seaside suburbs, with cafes and pubs and hamburger shops and quirky clothes stores. The style is laid-back California cool. In the café where we stop, a selection of herbal teas is lined up along the deliberately worn wooden counter in egg-sized porcelain dishes. Vangeli leans in to sample each one, inhaling deeply, before choosing one.

ABOVE: Mission Beach

He embraces this place, where he desperately hopes to move from his desert home, with the fervour of a convert. His feelings for his home country, the USA, are similar, resembling the zeal of a born-again Christian – he moved here fourteen years ago. We talk about my impressions of the country, and his own first impressions. He is bemused by the idea that Americans don’t have a good sense of humour – particularly irony, and surprised when I mention Australia’s fine tradition of anti-Americanism (he ASKED, people!)
‘It’s because of the war, right?’
I tell him that the war hasn’t helped, in some circles, but that it pre-dates the war. Australia is on side, I tell him. We’re the deputy sheriff of our region, representing the United States! He was not aware of this.
‘Who is your Prime Minister?’ he asks. I tell him. ‘Ohhhh yes. He was here a while ago.’
Our anti-Americanism is more to do with cultural imperialism and PERCIEVED arrogance, I say.
Vangeli, like most Americans (according to him), was initially in support of the war, because of 9/11 and the potential threat of attack by Saddam Hussein, with his connections to al Qaeda. But now, he is against it. It was not done properly, he says. The US should have enlisted the help of other Arab states in the region.
‘But I don’t think they agreed with the war.’
‘They would have wanted to get rid of Saddam Hussein. Saudi Arabia would have paid for it if we’d asked.’
This is the problem. The war is bleeding the US government coffers dry. The first war was justified because the US didn’t pay for it.

On immigration, this recent arrival is in harmony with John Howard’s thinking. He believes that people should integrate, frowning on the multitude of communities mushrooming across the country. He particularly disapproves of the cultures ‘down there’, said with a nod down the coast towards Tijuana. They don’t seem to have made any progress. They don’t have a work ethic.
‘Until recently, Tijuana dumped its sewage in the sea, and it would end up over here’ he says. ‘I think we put pressure on them and they’ve stopped, now.’

Is the US, partial desert California in particular, concerned with running out of drinking water? He shrugs.
‘I guess we’ll just build a plant to convert sea water into drinking water. They do it all over the world.’
He is matter of fact; unemotional about the issue that is currently so fraught in Australia.

I should mention here that Vangeli has a PhD in Urban Planning, with a history of very good jobs in the field, particularly in community and city planning. He is smarter than your average American (or Australian, for that matter).

We pick each other’s brains on America and Australia and impressions.

‘I don’t see any of the really fat people everyone talks about’ I laugh. ‘In Australia, we hear that there are a lot really obese people here.’
‘Oh, they’re here’ he says, serious all of a sudden. ‘There are some VERY FAT people here. But we’re at the beach. Everyone wants to look good, here.’
We’re also in a very affluent area.

ABOVE: More Encinitas beach

I see far less of San Diego than I want to. I see some spectacular beaches, where I walk on the sand and scramble over rocks, peering into rockpools and meeting octopuses, crabs and tiny fish. I see seagulls hopping across the rocks and pelicans soaring over my head. I see swaying palm trees many times higher than the buildings they frame – everywhere I go.

ABOVE: La Jolla, San Diego's most affluent area. Also a location filimg spot for 'Veronica Mars', for the interested ...

But I don’t see Old Town, the original San Diego, preserved for modern-day use as a tourist attraction, housing restaurants, museums and gift shops. I don’t see the famous Gaslamp district, home of San Diego nightlife, except fleetingly. And I don’t see Balboa Park or San Diego Zoo or downtown.

But San Diego does give good beach. And this is my most relaxing stop so far.

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