I’ve just come to the end of my second day of classes (and my second week in LA), but so much has already happened. I’m currently sitting in my dorm room at 2am surveying all the clothes sprayed across the floor and looking out the window at the handful of other illuminated rooms. I feel that indescribable sort of rush of being in a completely new place, of having countless people to meet -- of having a clean slate and starting afresh. Such a huge change from a fortnight ago, when I was eating Newtown Thai with a group of friends and frantically trying to sort out enrolment. So what’s happened since then?
Well after months of preparation and procrastination, the day eventually arrived when I was set to head off. In typical style, I’d left most of my packing to the night before – a night when I also had tickets to the Law Revue (fantastic by the way) – so everything was very rushed. I realised at 4.30pm that I needed academic transcripts before I left the next morning, and I only made it to the student office with 2 minutes to spare before they closed!
In the end everything worked out fine and I was soon headed for the airport. On the way, there was a report on the radio that Kanye West had just been arrested for lashing out at paparazzi in LA airport. Only missed him by a day…I was clearly going to a pretty exciting place!
The plane trip was great - free seats either side all the way - so the 21 hour trek actually slipped by fairly quickly. I have a much stronger memory of noticing the heat and, funnily enough, the smell just as I arrived in LA. The air seemed to have a different tang to Sydney air, probably because of the ridiculous level of pollution (LA is in a valley and it never rains, so all the smog just accumulates in the atmosphere). I don’t notice it anymore, but you can always see the grey layer of haze that sits over the horizon.
My trip from the airport confirmed a lot of the stereotypes I’d heard about LA. We were listening to a college football talkshow on the radio (they take their college sports very seriously here); we passed countless fast food restaurants and taco shops; and we got caught almost immediately in an authentic LA traffic jam. LA is a really massive city (there are over 10 million people in the county) but unlike New York, everybody here drives cars because the city is so spread out. Looking at the map before I came, I thought that I’d be able to walk to quite a few places, but even the closest ones turned out to be an hour away by bus!
At least there’s something to look at. The streets here are lined with banners for new TV shows including, surprisingly enough, an American adaptation of Kath and Kim! I thought this one was pretty funny too, especially the tagline on top:
I got the sense that this really was the throne of the entertainment industry. All the big companies – Paramount, Universal, Fox, Warner Brothers etc – have studios in LA, and there are a lot of young people driving around in luxury cars. But the gap between the rich and the poor is remarkable. In the shadow of the skyscrapers and brightly coloured advertisements live countless armies of homeless people. Most are fairly friendly – some of my first conversations here were with amicable hobos near the bus stops – but crime and gang activity abound in some districts. There’s an area in downtown LA called ‘Skid Row’ where you should apparently never go.
Luckily, however, UCLA is nestled happily in West LA in an area called Westwood - right next to Hollywood, Beverly Hills and Bel Air! And the campus is absolutely lovely. I strolled through the first day I got here and was really blown away …
I had one free weekend before orientation began, so I decided to do what any self respecting human would do when in LA. I went to Hollywood! I saw the walk of fame, the Hollywood wax museum and the Kodak theatre where the Academy awards are held, which you see here:
The initial glamour wears off incredibly quickly though. Hollywood is not a place of any great substance. I found it pretty tacky really. There are souvenir shops at every corner and dozens of guys dressed up as movie characters offering to pose for photos … for a handsome tip of course. Apparently Spiderman is always the most popular (which explains why there were 4 spidies there that day), but I was told that these guys usually earn between $400-$600 a day just in tips!!! Only in LA.
I ended up also taking a tour of Beverly Hills, which left me with the same sort of uncomfortable aftertaste. Don’t get me wrong – Beverly Hills is lovely. You cross the road and all of a sudden you’re surrounded by palatial mansions and flowing green lawns. The trees that line the streets are specially imported and cost $5000 each.
Here, there are no sidewalks– a subtle indication that outsiders don’t belong – but tour buses roll through in files. So all of the houses are surrounded by huge walls and gates. Many have dogs and security guards. I got a sense not so much of luxurious exclusivity as of celebrities trapped in their own wealth. They build garishly ostentatious mansions and then hide away inside them as tourists drive by trying to catch a peek. Is this the lifestyle so many people aspire to? Well I suppose it’s better than Skid Row!
Back to Westwood. The international orientation program was absolutely fantastic. I met people from all around the world – from South Africa to France, Brazil to Bhutan! There were a fair number of Australians along with me – I had a good discussion about Western Australian politics with a friend from Perth as we were navigating our way through campus. In general, the people are excited, passionate about what they’re studying, and really eager to make friends, which has been brilliant!!
What’s more, we were given really good advice on enrolment issues, LA culture, and the activities offered on campus. You can do practically anything at UCLA. There’s sailing and windsurfing down at Santa Monica beach, African drumming classes, camping trips, hip hop training, yoga and crocheting … all organised by the university. The facilities themselves are amazing too. There are 5 or 6 pools, a ridiculously good gym, a tennis stadium, and a basketball pavilion where the gymnastics were held for the LA Olympics…there’s even a little planetarium. Down the road in Westwood (which acts as a sort of university town surrounding the campus itself) there are 5 cinemas, many of which host the red carpet premieres of big movies. Celebrities seem to be spotted around the area quite a lot – people like Kiefer Sutherland, Ben Stiller etc (sorry to name drop – I really don’t care too much – but it’s interesting to know).
Sometimes the school screens new movies on campus before their release date, and the actors and directors often come to speak. Last weekend, there was a huge party to welcome back all the students as they moved in. They had organised a concert with some fairly famous artists like Estelle and Hello-Goodbye, and afterwards thousands of students crowded into the basketball stadium for a dance that continued well into the night.
I’m still finding my feet and trying to draw in all the new experiences. I’m really interested by the subtleties of American college culture, and the differences between LA and Sydney. The Mexican influences, the food, the weather (it’s sunny every day…every single day!), the bizarre tipping rituals, the frat houses are all really interesting phenomena from an outsider’s perspective, but I’ll have to wait until next time to discuss. There’s so much going on and school hasn’t really even started yet!