Editor’s note: Longtime Santa Monican Charles Andrews just returned from traveling across Europe in a camper van for one year, with his family.
One of my best friends, after just a couple of encounters with me soon after our return from Europe, jokingly needled me with, “Man, if Europe is so great, what are you doing here? Why don’t you just go back?”
My wife Dian says she could travel forever, and she mostly means it. My daughter Nicole,18, will almost surely revisit places she loved and those we missed but starts school at Santa Monica College this fall, and sorely missed “being with my own age group.” My preference would be maybe three months a year somewhere else (like, Tangier, Morocco), but of all the world I’ve seen I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else but Santa Monica. The longer I’m back the more I’m appreciating the U.S. and Americans, in often subtle ways, and especially Santa Monica.
Even in our little ol’ beach town there’s an energy, an atmosphere you don’t find “over there.” Sure, in the center of London, Paris, Rome, Madrid, you’ll find a bustle like in any world capital, like Manhattan or downtown L.A. But as I observe Santa Monicans with a fresh eye I see a certain something, and I’m starting to believe it’s part of that which draws the world still to the troubled shores of America. It’s a feeling that here, even in tough times, anything is possible.
Of course, the downside is that we tend to throw away everything that’s so last week in favor of the new for newness’ sake. As I traveled around every corner of Europe I saw so many things that were done better than we do them here, and kept wishing that we could learn from each other, find the middle ground that keeps the best but progresses.
Mostly I observed a regard for the humane, the beauty of everyday life that seems often steamrolled here for the almighty bottom line. Sometimes it seems everything is measured in dollars in America, but across Europe there is more consideration for the aesthetics of life, for spirit-renewing time off, for family and friends, green living space mostly uncluttered by commercialism, city design that renews and refurbishes first and allows mostly change which fits and is pleasing. (All of this being a generalization, of course; Europeans all have their gripes with what is happening in their cities, their countries.)
We saw dark faces and Middle Eastern and Asian garb everywhere we went, even in Nordic reaches, but I got the feeling those who were different were tolerated, accepted even, but could never become true Norwegians, Greeks, Spaniards. I love Santa Monica’s diversity and the fact that, despite lingering prejudices, there is no one way that “real” Americans look. You can be dark as midnight or white as snow and be an American, maybe with family going back 300 years or more. You can dress like a farmer or a fashion model or a Finnish fisherman, you’re still an American. There was some years back a young American who totally loved and absorbed Japanese culture and language and after many years there became one of the greatest sumo wrestlers ever, but he could never be considered Japanese.
It’s all tied together, I think, the fact that we’re a new nation (carved, tragically, from the land where native peoples were dispossessed) populated by immigrants, on paper all equal. We’re not saddled with the class distinctions of Mother England and many other ancient nations. I believe it’s our best natural resource. Travel abroad has probably increased my dissatisfaction with and complaining about our shortcomings, but until you do (and most Americans don’t) you also don’t really understand what our strengths are.
What else has struck me about returning home? I went into detail in the last column about driving differences, and that still hits me every time I get behind the wheel — which I’m doing less of, and more walking, because I got used to it and because in Santa Monica you can and because it helped me drop nearly 30 pounds in the last year. But I’ve also observed that I’m more tolerant now of bonehead drivers or good drivers who make bonehead moves, maybe because I was, for the past year, the bonehead at times with the European way of driving, and was rarely honked or screamed at. No one tried to run me off the road, not a single gun was pointed my way.
Music: I love the wealth of music we have here, especially in the summertime. There’s no place I’ve been that even comes close. I strolled down the Venice boardwalk a few days ago and heard street musicians who could tour clubs in Europe, same at the recent Main Street SOULstice festival. I just went to the Santa Monica Pier concert and heard two excellent reggae bands, despite the disappointing no-show of the headliners, The Mighty Diamonds. You have Third Street Promenade, the concerts at Culver City, outstanding jazz at Hollywood and Highland, more free shows at museums and parks and music stores, the Hollywood Bowl and the Greek and Universal, at a couple hundred clubs, so much right here in Santa Monica, an embarrassment of music riches. Go! Get out of your house and enjoy!
It’s gotten a bit rainy lately but our weather still can’t be beat in my book. We put up gladly with rain and cold (in April and May) in places like Scotland, Norway and England, because that’s the way they are, and why the countryside is so awesomely gorgeous. But I could never live there. Ever notice how many Brits and their pubs and shops we have in Santa Monica?
The People’s Republic of Santa Monica (coined as an epithet but I’ve always embraced it), is in many ways an exception to the failings I see in the rest of America. We do preserve and renew and make green (Heal the Bay, building height restrictions, and Ocean Park Boulevard is getting nice new medians right by my home), better than most places. It’s easier to make your own town better than to affect the entire country. Keep it up, Santa Monica. Glad to be home.
You can follow Charles Andrews’ daily blog at http://anandrewsadventure.blogspot.com.