Imagine an eight-year-old English boy arriving at LAX for the first time in his life. Having taken off from a freezing, raining London, he arrives 14 hours later to a freezing, raining Los Angeles. He is, of course, unsurprised. Why should the weather be different in one place from what it is in another?
And then, Gate 6B in the USAir terminal, where the flights from London arrive, is filled with waddling, red-faced Britons waiting for their latest consignment of Marmite and Weetabix from home, all of them looking as catastrophically un-American as it is possible to look.
They’re proud of not being Yanks, even if the weather back home is a bit naff. They wouldn’t be Yanks for anything, even if Yanks are all right when push comes to shove. These are the folks who fly Union Jacks over their villas in Westwood and who’ve never eaten sausages and eggs with maple syrup in their lives. In airports all over the world you can see this scene: the Brits waiting for the stuff from home.
Tadzio, coming like a bullet out of the boarding tunnel and seeing this utterly depressing and familiar sight, assumes that nothing ever changes and says, “Look at all those miserable hags, Daddy.” “Hags” in this context I take to mean native Anglos of either sex, but the older women are already glaring.
“You re in America now,” I advise. “It’s best not to call people hags. They might get upset.”
“They don’t look like Americans, Daddy.”
“No, they’re not. You’ll see some Americans in the elevator.”
His eyes go wide. The idea that Americans actually exist has finally hit him. For weeks he has been grappling with the concept that California is one place and America another, while both being the same place, but now the fact that he is actually in a place that is not inside the TV tube has sunk in. He is absolutely astonished.
We dawdle into the elevators and his eyes go even wider. A 300-pound woman is in there with a luggage cart, the back view of a colossal battleship towering over him, and she is rasping in Brooklynese to a little woman behind her, “So, tell, Judith, tell; Max has this rosl to drink, he’s in heat, so, Judith, tell, oh my gawd, what happened...?”
Tadzio turns and stares. They exist. They actually exist. Television doesn’t lie. They are alive inside the TV. “They do talk like that,” he says, breathlessly. “I thought they were just sort of cartoons on TV. But they do talk like that.”
“Like Star Trek.”
The woman looks down, dumbfounded. The elevator is very small. Thank God he hasn’t observed, in that crystal clear posh English trill, what loud, fat hags they are. As in Star Trek, we might be beamed somewhere unpleasant, and in the twinkling of an eye.
Out on the roads, the enormity, strangeness, and sub-tropicality of LA. suddenly seem much more obvious. The eight-year-old in the back seat has changed the way this familiar landscape appears.
“Oh dear, it’s a jungle,” he observes straightaway. (Palm trees. He’s never seen them before.) “Do they have animals?”
“But this is Los Angeles. It is, actually, a city.”
“Then why does it looks like a jungle?”
“I don’t know, but it’s still a city.”
He looks unconvinced. “If it’s a city, why aren’t there any people?”
“Because they’re in the cars.”
“But why are they all in cars?”
“Because they’re going places.” We are, of course, in a traffic jam.
“Then why aren’t they going?”
“It’s called a traffic jam. It’s a form of entertainment.”
“But why don’t they take the train?”
“Because there aren’t any trains.”
It begins to dawn on me how interminable these dialogues are going to be. The freeway has five lanes, all going the wrong way. Even these days, the cars are occasionally enormous. All the lanes go at the same speed, overtaking at random. Why? A motorcycle cop, weaving by, wears jackboots and a holster with the visible butt of a gun — “Cor, a gun!” (never seen a real one). What is “24-hour”? What is “drive-thru” (and why is it spelled wrong)? What is “gas”? What is “interstate”? What is “All You Can Eat”? What is “combo breakfast”? What is “El Toro mall”?
It’s a solid Toontown with multicolored things galore that you can’t quite figure out. Neons, billboards, giant images of baby food for slavering eight-year-olds. And within an hour, this one is clamouring for a stop at the El Toro mall — or, for that matter, at every bright electric sign that pops up. Here, even a carpet store neon looks, to an English kid, like an invitation to rave it up.
Malls — in the open-air, vehicle-oriented California sense — do not exist in Europe. The electronic order board of the drive-thru McDonald’s, though, is infinitely more exotic even than this immense space dominated by nothing but a parking lot. Nestled in an artificial copse of spotlit yuccas, the thing seems completely appropriate to the folks who speak like beings from Star Trek.
Tadzio speaks into the microphone, orders, and then subjects the cheeseburger to minute analysis. The bread is not as it is in England (not soggy). Everything tastes different (that is, has taste). And the ketchup is, staggeringly, free. He wants another one. We drive ’round a second time, and the ritual is repeated. The fries, too, are not soggy. There is ice in the Coke cup. And you do nothing but drive ’round the corner to get another one.
The third time, feeling a little sick, he asks for lots of ice. Ice is fascinating. When you ask for ice in England, the acned prol behind the counter will fix you with that look — Don’t get smart with me, you foreign toff — and tell you in that long-rehearsed nasal sneer of class war, “We ain’t got the machine, ’ave we?” as if you had just asked for an impromptu blood transfusion. Ice technology, well known to the Romans, does not seem to have penetrated the British consumer market. “Is the ice free, too?” the child asks.
Yes, the ice is free. So are the ketchup, the pickles, and the napkins. And the ice is free like the rest. “Why is everything free?”
One day he will look back and remember the white, toothpaste faces of the McDonald’s milkmaids and the sunset behind the billboards and the unsoggy bun with its free ketchup as something dreamlike and superior to reality. An introduction to the sunny Paradise of Infants.
We stop in Del Mar, at the fabulously tacky II Fornaio restaurant with its terrace of plastic winged horses and huge braziers, the inimitable Mafia decor of the Southlands. It is, he says seriously, the most beautiful place he had ever been in his life.
For him, there’s no effort at thought at all. The reason is perfectly obvious.
“Because,” he says, “you can see the sky when you eat.”
Coronado is the perfect place for the foreign child. Oblivious to the things that might irritate an adult — the suburban quiet, the tenuous connection to the mainland — he loses himself in the revery of a California so true to its transatlantic TV image that the similarity is worrying. There, he points out, you have the gleaming supermarket with merry Christmas music and no crowds. There you have the endless, wide, spic-and-span avenues lined with colonial villas, palms, and flags. The cuckoo-land ice cream parlors with their chocolate-coated bubble gum cones. The Big Ben electronic chiming clock. The solitary diner on Orange with its lone, Hop-peresque figure hunched moodily over a greasy plate of pancakes. And because everything is already so thoroughly known in advance, the child simply floats into it without noticing that he is actually in a real place at all. As I later found, he drew no distinction whatsoever between Disneyland and the outside world. To him, the two places were unseparated. There was no physical sign that marked one off from the other.
Compare Coronado, on the other hand, to Brighton, the seaside resort town near London
where he lives. A British resort is based fair and square on dilapidated splendour, earthy sexual vulgarity, and extremely moderate doses of culture. They are the places you go, like the characters of Evelyn Waugh’s Handful of Dust, for a dirty weekend at the Metropole (Brighton’s counterpart to the Hotel Del). In summer, millions of pale proletarians from the industrial cities swarm onto the shingle beaches with deck chairs, wearing knotted handkerchiefs on their heads, and eat millions of tons of pale, fat fries and pickled onions.
By comparison, Coronado seems positively Swedish. The streets are impeccable and largely empty. Military blonds swagger about in baseball caps. And you have the feeling, as in Sweden, that if a rose were suddenly to plop out of shape, a police car would be on the scene in a second, siren blaring, ready to rectify the fault.
To an English child, though, the strangest thing about it is the lack of people. On the beach: “When are the other people coming?” In Vons: “Why don’t we have to queue?” On the sidewalk: “What holiday is it?” Then there is the service, even in Day and Night, the home-style kitchen on Orange. There is no weary and sullen slamming of saucers on tabletops, no venomous glares when you ask for, say, ice. And that word “Enjoy!" every five seconds. Distinctly peculiar.
In England, Tadzio once explained to me what the word “waiter” meant. “It’s the people who are sitting around waiting for their food.” It seemed plausible enough there. Here, though, everything happens immediately. As in Star Trek. No waiting, plus the word “Enjoy!” Are we really on some hedonistic alien planet where starship crews go for vacations, where life is immortal, and “love spasms” are conducted pleasantly in restaurant booths? Is the word “Enjoy” really a Klingon greeting, much like “Hello” or “God be with you”?
The first day, I thought I would take him to Sea World. The drive through the city, in a burst of winter sunshine, completely perplexes him. Where is the city? Do people live in the buildings with reflective, glass-like surfaces? Why don’t we live in one of them instead of in a silly Spanish villa? Airplanes roar barely feet overhead (absolutely illegal in Europe) — wonderful, “Why can’t we have a house right underneath the airplanes?” But Sea World itself, because it is vast, logical, and cleanly spacious, is the biggest surprise of all. To understand why, you have to close your eyes and imagine the dismal, malodorous Brighton Aquarium.
It’s a fearsome, dripping 19th-century hovel of a place, with gloomy, algae-green tanks so small that even the soporific piranhas can hardly turn around in them comfortably. Mournful groupers and dazed, six-inch baby sharks (“Shark Attack!” shouts the garish poster in the lobby) seem lost in a grubby revery...resembling somewhat the people watching them.
Sea World, though, is a child’s vision of what all aquariums should be when you go to Heaven. The sharks are big, and there are, in addition, Louisiana alligator fish, piranhas in reasonably threatening numbers, and slobby walruses that eat from your fingers. Not only that, but unemployed people in Baby Shamu costumes come up to you and rub your chin with their fluffy fins. Aside from that, though, the tanks are not ridden with 19th-century angst, and the gleaming vegetation, the whiff of the sea, and the happy voices warbling over microphones give you a sense of, well, a radiant future just around the corner. For the fish, it must be the difference between spending your life in a tenement in the Bronx and retiring to a beach-side mobile home in Florida.
Tadzio: “The most beautiful place I’ve ever been in my life.”
But don’t you remember Paris, Rome, the Dordogne...Windsor Castle? No, he shakes his head. They didn’t have alligator fish and shark tanks. Boring. And no donut shops with apple fritters. A worrying love affair with nonculture might well be developing here.
“Can we sleep here?” he asks, as if used to the possibility that here you can do anything you want with the right credit card.
“No," I say reluctantly, “you can’t sleep in the shark tank."
“Why don’t we stay in a hotel next door?”
“Because I want to come every day.”
He’s as sure about Sea World as he was about II Fornaio.
“Every day. And Sunday."
“Well” (I stingily compute two weeks’ entrance fees to Sea World and feel a rising liver attack). “There are other things to do here. Tomorrow, for example, we’re going to the space theatre. What fun that’ll be. There’s a film about tropical rainforests in a 360-degree cinema. And don’t complain about not going to Sea World. If you’re lucky. I’ll take you to see Fires of Kuwait”
On the way home, we see a flamingo flying across one of the flat lagoons. Tadzio raises his eyebrow, says nothing. After killer whales and bubble gum-flavored ice cream, a flamingo, if it is a flamingo, seems very ordinary. Or perhaps it isn’t a flamingo at all. Perhaps I have simply begun to see flamingos, and it doesn’t seem extraordinary at all. “It might have been a cartoon,” Tadzio says, and shrugs.
Only when it rains do you discover how much San Diego is dependent on weather for its sense of its own soul. Under a canopy of ominous cloud (it is the end of February), the city seems to lose its way, to develop a slight panic. What is there to do when the beach shuts down? Well, that is why the city came up with a model railroad museum. The idea was that when it rained, you would take your disgruntled and bored kids to look at perfect miniature reproductions of the Southern Paciflc-Santa Fe Tehachapi Pass rail artery or things called the Cabrillo Southwestern O-Scale Exhibit, and their brattish, neurotic, bad-weather antics would melt into an ecstasy of dazzled awe at the prowess of mini-railroad engineers.
Alas, the concept belongs firmly in the 1950s.
Today the San Diego Model Railroad Museum in Balboa Park (in a claustrophobic basement of the Casa de Balboa building on the Prado) is filled with charming wonders of a bygone era — the Southern Pacific semaphore cycles every five minutes, the Minton Cronkhite Pioneer Model Railroader photo display and, as the “Museum Highlights” guide points out. Soda and Snack Vending Machines — that seem to leave a vast crowd of glassy-eyed, high-technology-oriented children languidly indifferent. The intricate landscaping of the San Diego & Arizona Eastern HO-Scale Exhibit, with its marvelous tunnels, tiny mesquite trees, and slopes of scrub make no impact whatsoever on eyes accustomed to the acrobatics of virtual reality and Super Mario.
But rain is so rare here that the entire room is crammed with confused adults and confused children trying very hard to ogle and gasp at the “Railroad Women” display and the scale reproduction of the Santa Fe-San Diego freight yard while quite obviously wishing they were somewhere else. After three minutes Tadzio is yawning. The danger sign of Infant Tedium. Trains, it appears, ignite no fire in the contemporary juvenile imagination.
Next door, in the science center, though, the unfathomable enigmas of engineering provide more macho titillations. In England, science museums have always been the last resort of parents grappling with ungrateful offspring and inclement weather. When you couldn’t be banished to a cricket field, you were dragged to a vast, drafty Victorian museum stuffed with Tyrannosaurus rex skeletons and ancient, creaky models of Archimedes’ Screw. As it happens, the science center also has an Archimedes’ Screw, the device used by the Greeks to haul water from a lower to a higher level and which provokes in children historical questions of mind-boggling profundity. Were Greeks invented, for example, before dinosaurs? Were water screws invented after insects or before them? Turn the transparent plastic screw and you see the water dribbling up the threads in little slews, borne upward by a seemingly miraculous sleight of hand. Once in motion, however, the process becomes hypnotic. Tadzio has found his toy.
It’s impossible to know what children will remember of their childhood holidays. Of my own annual summer journeys through the south of France in the ’60s, I can recall only two things: the smell of sticky mint syrup put into parrot-green children’s sodas and the shiny little Citroen Deese model cars that came in canary-yellow boxes and were sold in cafes behind the pipe equipment counter.
What will Tadzio remember of California 1993? A plastic Archimedes Screw and a Santa Fe line model railroad choo-chooing over cardboard mountains? Or else thunderstorms, apple pie in wet Julian, an abortive trip to a desert arroyo that ended with a cascade of brown water chasing us down a badlands ravine? It could be that nothing at all will remain except one irrational detail. On his return to England, he telephoned to say that the one thing he missed (apart from 36 cable channels and palm trees) were the hard, salted chips that come in plastic baskets in Mexican restaurants. In one place the owner had come out and given him a purple origami bird that he had kept for weeks. The origami bird and the chips had fused to form an imperishable memory. The restaurant? La Cantina, Adams Avenue, El Centro. He even remembered the clock on the wall and the words El Mejor Reloj in green letters on the dial. Sea World, the Coronado Hotel, LAX, and Balboa Park he had almost entirely forgotten.
They say that every child dreams of going to Disneyland, but since EuroDisney opened just outside Paris a couple of years ago, the yearning of European children to disport themselves in the company of that famous menagerie of demented ’toons has lost some of its inaccessible romanticism. Now they can get on a train and be there in a matter of hours. And EuroDisney is the brightest star in Disney’s crown to date, the most technically modern Disney facility in the world.
Most Americans, though, don’t realize how much ideological resistance the French Left put up to EuroDisney. The magazine L'Actuel even represented the site as an earthquake-style disaster zone, with concentric rings of “catastrophe.” Screaming that the nation’s youth was being hopelessly Americanized — or rather, Southern Californianized — the CGT trade union boycotted the opening, effectively paralyzing all ground transport, while the nation’s youth went happily ahead and indulged in the Disney orgy with a clear conscience.
In most European middle-class families, though, Disney is thoroughly suspect when it comes to cultural pedigree and moral conditioning. Considered tacky, embarrassing, and possibly even spiritually subversive, it becomes almost a point of political pride for parents to boast, “Well, we wouldn’t allow James to go to Disneyland in a million years. Think of the effect on his education. Or, well, his sexual development. We couldn’t possibly let him be Southern Californianized. He mightn’t be able to get a job afterwards.”
So the pilgrimage to Disneyland is not a thing to be taken lightly. With sickening predictability, the dread day approaches, and there you are in the giant Disney parking lot, Snow White section, wondering how long exactly your nerves are going to last in this gigantic maelstrom of jingles, bird-song, goofy laughter, and clicking Japanese cameras. Can that precious, politically correct sneer on your face withstand the onslaught of such cunningly and insidiously orchestrated pleasure? The forecourt behind the turnstiles bears a huge sign that reads “Disneyland, Population 300,000,000” — an ominous announcement. Is the U.S. population close to that of Disneyland, or is it the other way around? The answer can only be terrifying.
For someone coming from EuroDisney, though, Disneyland has a surprisingly quaint charm. Some of the installations date from the ’50s and make not even the faintest pass at modern credibility. Take, for example, the hilarious Underwater Encounter in Tomorrowland. Small yellow submarines take you “on a journey to the North Pole and back” underwater, a trip that Tadzio wants to take because it promises the right level of adrenaline-pumping, naked terror that small children regard as the only mode of authenticity in fairgrounds. True, the submarines are dark and clammy and they actually submerge. The fear factor is certainly there. What, after all, if the thing capsizes and you have to beat the oversized woman with the birthmark and the hairy lip to the escape hatch? Would you and your offspring prevail or would they? We peer through the dingy portholes, though, and find ourselves in the bottom of what looks like a mucky, unswept local swimming pool.
“Fascinating creatures of the deep,” the voiceover growls, doing a Captain Nautilus act over that strange gaseous sound that submarines are supposed to emit below water, “never before seen by the eye of man.” Tadzio cocks his head. Does the announcer mean those rubber fish floating with wires stuck into their bellies that hover like garish bath toys over the slopes of waving fake seaweed? Or the beaming plastic mermaid that suddenly pops out of a cave looking like some bizarre naval warfare dummy used to fool torpedos (“Oh! Look, folks, a real live mermaid!”)? Tadzio is already giggling.
A rubber shark looms up out of the dark, as convincing as a prop from a Godzilla movie, held in place by those alarmingly visible wires. No one reacts, as if it might be impolite to boo during a very clever mime that is only pretending to be abominably awful; and when the submarine has resurfaced, they leave with a quiet and subdued air, dazed beyond any cogent reaction. A child ahead of us turns to his mother and says, boomingly, “Mommy, was that as much crap as I thought it was?”
“Don’t say crap,” she hisses, bending over him to smother his voice. “Say silly.”
“Mommy,” he starts again, “was that as much silly as I thought it was?”
Even worse, though, is the jungle tour in Adventureland that has you taken around some tropical rivers in an open boat with a hopeless, wise-cracking guide who comes out with a fearsome diarrhea of witticisms about cannibals, animals’ lunches, and hungry, bone-nosed natives. Everybody gets wet, doesn’t laugh, and comes out mildly bemused or irritated. At one point a terribly ridiculous papier-mache croc appears at a river bend, jaws swinging open to a sound of ancient cogs and levers, and the guide, whipping out a little colonial pistol, fires six or seven ear-splitting blanks into its eyes.
The children on board burst out laughing. But a devastating, sarcastic laughter, which makes the guide even more embarrassed than he already is to be showing folks around something so savagely outclassed by the likes of George Lucas and the designers of the ghastly Splash Mountain. Being archly postmodern, of course, he tries frantically to ironize everything and show us that he knows that we know that he knows that it’s all a big joke. But the kids aren’t having it. A papier-mach£ croc is a papier-mache croc. They want, when all is said and done, naked, barbaric fear. Fear that catapults you back into the Stone Age. “I think,” says Tadzio wistfully, “that it’s time to go to Space Mountain.”
Of all Disney’s attempts to do highly unpleasant things to the human nervous system, the notorious Space Mountain has to be the most Hunnish. It is infamous, even among English schoolboys who have seen its horrible nightmares again and again on television. The contraption consists of a huge ice-cream cone mountain, white on the outside, containing within it a roller coaster plunged for the most part in total darkness. This is an exquisite idea: to propel you screaming at 100 miles an hour along a twisted ribbon of track while giving you just enough light to espy, far, far below you, vast chasms of machinery, and hurling you around it so fast that you cannot even remind yourself you are not going to die.
The queue is immense, down ramps and through sinister spacecraft windows. The distant screams of terror are promising. Tadzio began licking his lips. There is a malicious streak in little boys, those famous torturers of flies and frogs. He looked up at his trembling progenitor and smiled slyly. “This, Daddy, you’re going to enjoy.”
As the vehicle gathered speed, I feel the solid presence of some unnameable doom. We were not designed by Nature to do figures of eight at half the speed of sound in bat-like darkness while simulated galaxies blink around us. The adults scream uncontrollably. Guttural, here-come-the-lions screams. But the two children on board are silent. At last, above this infernal cacophony of mindless fear, the posh little eight-year-old English trill suddenly comes alive. As we roar down a near-vertical incline at mind-boggling velocity, Tadzio too screams, just once, “It’s relaxing!” The screaming dies for a moment. Have they heard what they just heard? The eight-year-old is relaxing? There was a groan of disbelief. And then comes that cackling, gleeful, demonic laughter. I think of fireworks stuffed inside helpless frogs, flies without wings. “Lord of the Flies.”
It is a terrible thing to admit to cowardice in front of one’s own child, but twisting his arm and explaining to him the unpredictable effects of gravity on the human digestive system, I drag him by force to the gentler space journey of the Star Wars venture, where elaborate ramps manned by squawking droids lead you past posters advertising the joys of such things as skiing on the planet Hoth and visiting charming tribal villages on Endor.
This is in reality the best show in Disneyland, and it is the only one, apart from Thunder Mountain, that has been minutely reproduced in EuroDisney. The first problem, though, is that with an eight-year-old who truly believes the gibberish coming over the loudspeakers is a slice of bona fide Hothian, you are condemned to queue up eight or nine tirties to see the same thing. And the second problem is that it cruelly exposes all the inadequacies of one’s parental philosophy; you are universally expected to be raising an enlightened, caring, pacific infant who will one day grow into a beautiful New Man, complete with apron and baby powder. And lo and behold, you are sitting next to your creation in the Star Wars show, and the little beast is screaming at the screen as alien craft are blown out of the sky with high-powered lasers, “Yeah! Gotcha! Awesome!” Mortified, you look around to see if anyone has noticed. Blood lust in an eight-year-old, and you’ve failed to nip it in the bud? And not only that, but he wants to go round again. And again. Blow up more aliens with lasers. It’s relaxing.
You put on your shades and slink about. Has anyone noticed that it’s your eighth time? But the third problem, of course, is that the real reason you’re wearing those shades is that it is you who really wants to go back in. It’s you who is the bloodthirsty child thrilling to the zap of lasers. The place has been built, after all, for you.
At sundown the park closes with the trees by the magic castle twinkling with fire-fly lights and the palms silhouetted against a naptha sky. On Main Street, the majorettes go through their last twirls, and the lustrous red doors of the firehouse close over the horse-drawn engine of chrysanthemum steel. The candy shops turn down their chandeliers, and the period Southern pharmacies with their displays of glycerine soap and denture powder sink into the first crepuscular shadows. All day there has been no sign whatsoever of those life-size Mickeys and Plutos who are portrayed as pursuing visitors with awkward affection. But now, on the way out, we see a Mickey being led away by a plainclothes gentleman whispering into a walkie-talkie. Has Mickey done something untoward, or is he a child pornogra-pher in devilishly impertinent disguise? He looks as if he is being led off to some grim destiny — Mauschwitz, perhaps — and his head is hanging low. It is the perfect end to a perfect day. Not even the glowing, demented facade of Toontown is more deliriously satisfying. And of course comes the inevitable line from T: it is, without question this time, the most beautiful, beautiful place on earth. More beautiful, even, than the place on Brighton pier where they sell cotton candy and octopuses made of chewing gum or that even stranger place where alligator fish come out of the dark and piranhas kiss in whorls of coral.
At the end of two weeks, the issue has been decided. San Diego was “paradise,” and nowhere in the world could be better. There are pirates there, and spaceships, and 36 channels, and palm trees, and courtyards with yuccas, and carrot muffins as large as human heads, and people who speak like Klingons, and chocolate-coated bubble gum ice creams as large as anything dreamed of by Willy Wonka, and sharks, and papayas, and Archimedes’ Screws.
After a long flight, he telephones me to say that he is home safe again, and I ask him what it feels like to be back in England. There is a long pause while he makes up his mind.
“Nice,” he says, both dreamily and factually. “Nice and grey.”*