Coming out of the flat agricultural land of the Central Valley, through the hills and down into Los Angeles, you might feel you were in Southern Europe. The same lushness of greenery and bright flowers, the odd palm tree, houses with red tile roofs perched on hillsides and the same luminosity to the air (yes, thankfully, the smog is much reduced). From above, you get a sense of the hugeness of metropolitan LA. One city merges into another; 13 million people densely packed into one of the most diverse cities in the world. Braced for a stay in a noisy, bustling, hustling city, we were happy to find that our flat in a mid-century low-rise building was in a quiet residential area sandwiched between Santa Monica Boulevard and Melrose Avenue, with touristy Hollywood to the North and exclusive Beverly Hills to the West. (One night we did hear a spectacular car chase nearby though, complete with loud impact bangs, screeching tires, and a police chopper beating overhead).  

Melrose Avenue Flea market

Having done the touristy stuff on a previous visit with kids, we wanted to experience LA more like locals do, and that meant going shopping for fresh food. We drove to Korea Town (because ethnic shops usually have the best value) and found a Korean shopping mall with free parking. It was as though a section of Seoul had been transplanted to LA. Not one of the sales staff, except the odd Mexican, spoke more than very broken English. The stores had names such as ‘BooBoo’ and ‘Chocolate Chair’ (they sold chocolate – not chairs – I know you’re wondering).  

After puzzling over the strange vegetables in the supermarket for a while, MLH looked around and said: “Oh my God, I’m a visible minority in a visible minority.” But the fresh food was wonderful. We spotted a busy cafeteria, and had lunch there, sharing a table with the only other non-Asian shopper; a large Los Angeles native of Mexican descent in his mid-fifties who was tucking in to a spicy fish stew “but hold the shrimp, I have a heart condition”. As we chatted, he wistfully gave us a list of places to eat in LA which were obviously off the menu for him now. Canter’s for New York style bagels, Phillipe’s for gravy-dipped beef sandwiches, The Pacific Dining Car for burgers.

Well provisioned, we set off to explore the neighbourhood and – where to begin? It is such a mishmash. The stores on Melrose Avenue give you an idea of the eclectic nature of the area. A taxidermy store called ‘Necromancer’ displayed a snarling wolf while next door a man lay on a dentist’s chair getting a tattoo. The Bentley and Rolls Royce mechanic shared sidewalk space with Russian shops selling vodka and caviar; vintage clothes shops were cozy with S&M suppliers and brunch spots. At the trendy Melrose Trading Flea Market, I did research for those of you who like to keep up with the trends:

  • Food: Poke (pronounced Pokei – Hawaiian raw fish/rice bowl)
  • Drink: Ginger/turmeric/lemon tea: shade grown coffee
  • Alcoholic drink: wine (no craft beer here – too fattening)
  • Social: Brunch/at the car wash/open-air concerts
  • Personal development: Pilates/psychics 
  • Clothes: vintage 60s and 70s boho and vintage t-shirts, cut off jean shorts

Anything would look good on the hordes of young, good-looking, fit people who flow in and out of these markets and stores. Many seemed to be art, film, theatre and music students returning for the new academic year. Some appeared to be actors. In the supermarket, there were ads for voice coaches and classes teaching techniques for remembering your lines and How to be Successful in the Music Business. At a bus stop, someone had left behind a screenplay for Pulp Fiction. MLH and I are not movie buffs, and we did not grow up with American TV shows, but it is still fun to drive past a studio and see an actor pacing outside, script in hand, practising his lines.

Now that we were comfortable in the Melrose area, MLH started planning where we could explore the following week. Meanwhile, I had a problem. It was MLH’s birthday the next day, and I didn’t have a gift for him….