August 8, 2014 3:37 pm

Star spotting and shark dodging: FT writer’s Los Angeles story

Matthew Garrahan looks back on eight eventful years in California and a city of ‘hidden delights’
Matthew Garrahan in Santa Monica, Los Angeles©Jack Belli

Matthew Garrahan in Santa Monica, Los Angeles

“Los Angeles? Sorry to hear that,” smirked one colleague in 2006 when I told him my wife and I would be leaving London for the west coast to work as a correspondent for the Financial Times. His reaction was fairly typical: most people responded as if my new posting was in Siberia rather than southern California. “I went to LA once,” one friend said, with a shudder. “All I saw were freeways. Horrible place.”

Eight years and three children later we are finally leaving Los Angeles and I am delighted to reveal that the doomsayers were wrong. The city is not the Botoxed, gridlocked, cultural wasteland they warned me about. It is, in fact, a glorious place: a collection of distinct districts, like Venice, or Los Feliz, each with their own flavour and character. The traffic is no worse than London (with its straight, long boulevards LA is easier to navigate), there is stunning architecture everywhere, the beaches are beautiful and the sun shines most days.

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We wanted to live near the beach and found a townhouse in Santa Monica, a 15-minute walk from the beach. It was idyllic: lofty palm trees lined the streets and in the evenings the smell of eucalyptus plants would waft through the air on a warm breeze. People were impeccably polite and cheery strangers would say hello to us in the street – initially bewildering for a couple of Brits from London used to avoiding all eye contact with passers-by.

My wife, Rachel, was heavily pregnant when we left London and after a month in Los Angeles, before all of our belongings had arrived via ship from the UK, we decided to drive to San Francisco for the weekend.

Venice Canal district©Getty

Venice Canal district

This turned out to be a mistake. Our son (Felix) was not due for another five weeks but decided to put in an early appearance shortly after we arrived in the city. We left our hotel in the middle of the night and drove at breakneck speed up and down the steep ravines that pass for San Francisco streets to a nearby hospital. He was born the next day but a scary moment followed when he stopped breathing and was rushed to intensive care. Ten days later we were cleared to take him home – 400 miles away – and, slowly, very slowly, drove back to find a house in chaos: our UK shipment had arrived and furniture was strewn everywhere.

I initially got a kick out of bumping into a quinoa-toting Harrison Ford at the supermarket

It was a chaotic start but we managed to settle in. We went for walks by the Venice canals and marvelled at the fantastic houses built next to them. I had been a sporadic runner in London, but the more agreeable weather meant I ran more in LA, finding routes that took me along the beach, next to the bikini-wearing rollerbladders and ageing muscle men that form a familiar backdrop in a thousand Hollywood movies.

My wife also settled in: it turned out having a baby was the perfect way to form enduring friendships in a new city. She also took the opportunity to change careers and began making jewellery and writing about it. I had worked for the FT in London and had switched from a large office packed with people to a small room in my house with a crying baby next door. These were unusual writing conditions – a naked toddler bursting in mid-way through a phone interview with the then California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger wasn’t ideal - but being around my son and, later, his brother and sister was worth the occasional disruption.

Downtown Venice Beach©Robert Harding

Downtown Venice Beach

Los Angeles is a celebrity-heavy city and although the novelty of star-spotting wore off, I initially got a kick out of bumping into a quinoa-toting Harrison Ford at the supermarket. Or the time in a Mexican restaurant when we found ourselves next to a paparazzi-fleeing Jennifer Garner (she commiserated with my coughing son, who had narrowly avoided choking on a partially chewed tortilla chip).

The tone was set early on by an odd hotel party we stumbled into on Sunset Boulevard in our first week in town. In attendance were Chelsea football club’s first team, the rapper Snoop Dogg and, most bizarrely, Tony Blair, fending off well-wishers and autograph hunters of the pre-selfie generation with a grin.

Entertainment touches everything in Los Angeles. After one long and extremely dull interview with the then mayor Antonio Villaraigosa at City Hall, I asked a passing police officer if he knew where the exit was. He looked at me blankly. “Sorry pal, I have no idea,” he said. Didn’t he work there? “No, I’m an extra for those guys.” He pointed down the hall, where a camera crew was preparing to shoot a scene with Donald Sutherland, who was poring over his script.

Santa Monica Pier at sunset©Della Huff/Alamy

Santa Monica Pier at sunset

The entertainment industry is woven into LA life but so is the fear of imminent disaster. Brush fires are common: several years ago I reported on wildfires that devastated large parts of San Diego County and drove through the night to the site of the fiercest blazes. I had to stop about 50 miles from my destination (comfortingly, at a spot next to a large nuclear power plant) because an entire hillside was burning. Bushes, trees – even electricity pylons – were on fire.

Surfers on Malibu Beach©Robert Landau/Alamy

Surfers on Malibu Beach

There are other natural threats. One morning we received text alerts from a local emergency system warning that a large mountain lion had wandered into a nearby street. Another time, a wildlife walk in Topanga Canyon was disrupted by a very long rattlesnake which, startled by my children, rattled its tail loudly, sending them (and their father) running in terror.

I was intent on learning to surf but the first time I took a board into the Pacific I noticed a blurry white shape appear alongside me in the water. It was a shark – quite small, although its size may have grown bigger in subsequent tellings of the story – but thankfully it had no interest in me.

Clockwise from top left: the couple at this year’s Oscars; Rachel with the children; Iris with balloons; on an Airstream trip©Instagram @rgarrahan

Clockwise from top left: the couple at this year’s Oscars; Rachel with the children; Iris with balloons; on an Airstream trip

Yet the danger that looms largest over – or rather under – Los Angeles is an earthquake. Occasional tremors are common: some, as we discovered, are bigger than others, such as the relatively minor 4.4 magnitude quake that caused books to fly off shelves and bounced us out of bed early one morning several months ago – and prompted news anchors on a local television station to (rather amusingly) dive under their desks in fear.

In 2009 we ran out of space in our house when we had twins (Iris and Noah), so we moved to a larger, Spanish-style place in nearby West Los Angeles. Travelling was harder with our larger brood but we could manage road trips. We went to Big Bear Lake in the mountains outside Los Angeles where I tried – and failed – to put snow chains on our car in the middle of a blizzard. We drove to Yosemite National Park, where the kids were able to scramble up the easier peaks for jaw-dropping views of the valley. We enjoyed weekends in the wine country outside Santa Barbara and saw the enormous sequoias and wild bears in Kings Canyon.

View towards El Capitan in Yosemite National Park©Susanne Kremer

View towards El Capitan in Yosemite National Park

Most of the people in Los Angeles are from somewhere else so it is easy to make friends. And there is always something to do, from evenings outside at Hollywood Bowl concerts to the one-off live performance of Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction script that we saw recently at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

It is a vast, sprawling and diverse city with canyons to hike and state parks to explore. It has the best Korean and Mexican food in America and, in the case of In N’Out Burger, the best hamburger chain. Of course, it can occasionally frustrate: the film business often sucks the oxygen out of a place that has much more to offer and which other big, global city has no train line running to its airport? Also, some stereotypes hold true, such as the prevailing need to eat overly healthy food that is dairy, gluten and taste-free (I recently had a breakfast meeting with someone who ordered a kale shake and soy-cheese omelette). Yet Los Angeles is full of hidden delights and we loved it from start to finish. After that early encounter with the shark I even learned to surf. It only took me eight years.

Matthew Garrahan is the FT’s former Los Angeles correspondent. He is now the FT’s global media editor

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Inside knowledge

Pros

● Year-round sunshine

● Beautiful beaches

● Great places to visit: Santa Barbara wine country, Palm Springs, nearby national parks and mountains. Living in Los Angeles means you can surf and ski on the same day

● Great natural produce: citrus fruits, peaches, tomatoes and the world’s best avocados (and guacamole!)

Cons

● There is often little alternative but to travel by car

● Parking can be expensive

● The time difference with Europe can be frustrating, as can the wait for theatrical productions to reach the west coast

Will Rodgers Historic State Park A beautiful spot in the hills above Sunset Boulevard. Great walking trails offer terrific views of Los Angeles and the Pacific. There is also a polo field, some lovely picnic areas and lots of space to kick a ball around

Hide Sushi on Sawtelle Boulevard In a city packed with some of the best sushi restaurants in the US, this is a hidden gem on a street sometimes referred to as Little Osaka. Try the “Scallops Dynamite”

Surfing at sunset The beach at the end of Sunset Boulevard is a great surfing spot. The rocks can make getting into the water a bit difficult but the long, easy waves are good for beginners

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Buying guide

$500,000 A large one-bedroom condominium in West Hollywood

$1m A three-bedroom house with patios in Laurel Canyon

$2m A four-bedroom house with a tennis court and chef’s kitchen in Bel Air

Photographs: Jack Belli; Getty; Robert Harding; Della Huff/Alamy; Robert Landau/Alamy; Instagram @rgarrahan; Susanne Kremer

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