"Ah," he says, "Florence, beautiful Florence. We're brothers, right? I'm from Campobasso". In the unlikely event of your ever needing to know, Florence is in central Italy and Campobasso is in the South and the two cities are so far apart, geographically and culturally and historically, that the fact they happen to be in the same country does not matter. And I know this because I was born in Florence but my dad is from Campobasso. But this guy won't have it. He says, "Brothers, right? We come from the same place."
He drives a Bentley. I know this, because he wanted to make sure I noticed the key fob. And because he told me. Repeatedly. Not the new one either, he drives the old Bentley Continental GT, the '03 version, with the 6.0 L W12 twin-turbo 'motor'. "This baby is so damn quick, I can't keep up". He's talking about the Bentley. "That's not very eco-friendly, is it?" I'm just trying to tease him. While I believe that eco-cars can be tremendous fun, I'm frankly not very interested in the eco-friendly side of eco-cars. Which sounds like a contradiction and it probably is. "No," he says, "but who cares, right? This baby is so damn quick." You said that.
His name is Greg, or Bob, or Bud, or John. Or it may have been Jack or Stan. A monosyllabic name that immigrant parents give their newly born American kids so they can adapt and mingle with the other kids. Greg or Bob or Stan was born in California, never got out of California and he's never been to Italy, and he's probably never going to either. He told me his family came all the way from Campobasso two generations before him. So he's as Italian as the laptop I'm using to write this. To be honest, I didn't want to talk to him but he wanted to talk to me and I couldn't really avoid him because there's no one else around. My best friend is swimming in the pool although we were clearly told not to, our girlfriends are drunk and everybody else, and I mean the entire city, appears to be asleep. That's the first thing that surprised me about LA. It rises up early and goes to bed even earlier. Even in Hollywood.
It's 11 PM and we're lounging by the pool at the Roosevelt Hotel, a historic Hollywood landmark, and I wasn't supposed to be here. I was supposed to be in Budapest but then my best friend, he's a flight attendant, called me and said, "I've got stand-by tickets to LA the day after tomorrow, get the ESTA and we're off". So I did. We landed in good time and we were picked up at the airport by a friend who drives an "import", that's a Mercedes in case you were wondering. I ask what she thinks about this Merc, "you know, it's like, quite comfy" she says. And then it would be, it has to be. If you were to calculate the speed limit based on what drivers do, you'd say the speed limit is about 3. So "quite comfy" is all they're looking for in a car. Nobody drives very fast in Los Angeles. Partly, that's because the police take speeding very seriously, but chiefly, I suspect, is because they're just not interested. Speed is vulgar. Speed is something they do in the outback, not in LA because "like, going slow is, like, quite comfy".
The first thing I do, the very minute I'm off the plane wherever I am, is get a "motoring" feeling. I wanna see what people drive, how they drive it, what they think about cars. It's like a -bug- and it won't let me go. I start by looking around while I'm still on the plane ladder. I look at the vehicles I'm surrounded by. Airport vehicles, cabs, private hire cars, mini-vans. California is in America but lives on a planet of its own and at LAX, what you see is mostly "imports", usually Japanese or Mercedes, and hybrids. A lot of hybrids. Fair game to them, Californians adopted hybrids way before it was fashionable and way before governments told us that diesel is the work of the devil and we must burn our diesel cars immediately. Credit where credit's due because in a country that seems to happily dwell in its own contradictions, California always showed consistency. And at the same time, they never gave up on their enormous V8 "motor", you know that typical 7L V8 with 200 hp that does 1 mpg with a top speed of twelve. They love it here. Always have, always will. Wasteful and wonderful.
LA is a non-place. It is arguably the most important non-capital city in the world (it isn't even the capital of the State of California, that's Sacramento), and even if you've never been here, it feels familiar because you've seen it a thousand times in a thousand films and even more episodes of various TV Shows with tall, handsome California boys and girls with a tan. This is the most important city of one of the most relevant locations in the modern world. Hybrid cars, technology, movies, plastic bodies, veganism, organic this, eco-friendly that. Whatever novelty or modern malarkey you're using or thinking of using, it was probably created here. And if it wasn't, this is where it became big. Tesla and Apple. Even Barbie and the nicotine patch were invented in California. Then we get to the Toyota Prius. America is the second largest market for electric and hybrid vehicles and a lot of these vehicles are sold in California. To get an idea, in 2013, the three cities with the highest electric drive car registrations, including hybrids, all-electric cars and plug-in hybrids, were all located in California. That's probably because the Prius is "like, quite comfy".
The Japanese kick-started the hybrid revolution but it then travelled across the globe and landed in sunny California, Californian motorists adopted this, and Uber, and car-sharing, and all of that, a little earlier than anybody else. This is a state that is by definition the modern equivalent of what you might call a "pioneer". Only New York, right on the opposite side of the country, can keep up with it. When it happens in California, the rest of the world follows suit. This is the state that welcomed a former body-builder and made it an actor first, and then governor.
Arnold Schwarzenegger, as you do in California, converted his Hummer (yes, the HMMWV) into a hybrid. He later got rid of it for an electric G-Wagon. This is probably the best description of LA. Nowhere else could you pull this off. And to me, this is, and please remember I'm a foreigner and I only know this city superficially, the best thing about LA. By a distance as a great as the road that connects Nevada and California across the Mojave desert: Los Angeles reacts. It adapts and moves on to the next thing. Whatever works. Whatever needs doing. No filters, no hesitation, no medieval nostalgia. It doesn't get stuck on things that don't matter anymore. And this is what makes it what it is.
It's a conglomerate in search of individuality, suburbia in search of a town. It is the unfinished product with raw ingredients. Whatever it lacks in history, it makes up for in real-world chameleon-like mobility.
photo credit: Alessandro Renesis / getty images
words: Alessandro Renesis