Monday, April 28, 2014

A British gardener, abroad

Not only is there plenty of space to furnish, there's a lot of land to cultivate in our rambling garden. We have inherited a vast (to my eyes) wilderness of pebbles, citrus trees, and terraces begging to be planted at the back of the house. As well as the fruit trees and grape vine, the former residents bequeathed us masses of chard, a small pomegranate bush and a junior avocado tree. But there's space for an awful lot more.

Frankly, I am intimidated. I've never gardened anywhere you need to actually water the garden in April. And my collection of well worn books of advice on how to cultivate fruit and veg just don't seem relevant anymore.
I love the commentary on the sweet potato being 'unacceptable as an accompaniment to meat'. This truly is a book for the most British horticulturalists.

And this - on chillis - 'don't even try a small piece unless they are part of your heritage'. 

Notes on growing sweet corn 'as far north as Yorkshire'. Sadly, irrelevant.

I guess gardening books don't travel terribly well. Thank heavens, then, for dear friends who saw the gap in our knowledge and knew just how to fill it.
The bible of Californian horticulture
Thank heavens too for Home Depot, and their large and inexpensive nursery. We have started to fill the gaps in the garden: with corn, eggplant, lettuce, and tomatoes so far. I'm spending hours poring over my Sunset book to figure out if that strange mottled beetle is friend, or foe, and if/how exactly to 'pinch out' a Serrano pepper. I'm getting some good advice on how much water to give a grape vine and citrus trees when you live somewhere with no rain. And I'm building little rock boundaries around my plants, to retain the water - which is something I remember seeing on a Comic Relief film about how African communities could survive a drought.
In my wildest dreams, when I started cultivating my little London garden a decade ago, I couldn't have imagined I'd ever be drought-proofing a pomengranate bush.

Friday, April 25, 2014

The Great American Easter Egg Hunt. British style.

Isn't it strange how America is all about the separation of Church and State - and yet massively religious? That fact struck me anew this Easter.

In Britain, Church and State are coupled in all sorts of strange ways, which means - among other things, of course - that the whole country gets a four day weekend to mark the resurrection of Christ. Including the 40% of the population who don't identify as Christian. And while everyone I know enjoys creme egg season, I'd suggest only a handful go to Church or mark it in any way other than enjoying some Bank Holiday afternoon drinking.

Over here in the land of the free, Easter is unmarked by the official calendar. And yet, the whole country goes nuts for it. By which I mean every supermarket has an aisle selling not just Easter eggs, but baskets, marshmallow chicks, cards, bonnets and all manner of Easter themed party favours. People put Easter flags (with pictures of eggs, or rabbits, or very occasionally a crucifix) outside their homes. Businesses too put Easter themed decorations up, so there are pictures of bunnies and chicks on the doors of most of the nail salons and dry cleaners in Hermosa Beach. The church behind our house was packed beyond capacity, and everyone there was in their Easter Sunday best. The Easter bunny had a photo booth set up in our local mall. And then there are the Easter egg hunts, where children run around looking for huge quantities of sugary chocolatey eggs and bunnies. Everyone with children has to get involved in some way in an Easter egg hunt. Even the White House hosts one. They are crucial.

I tried to keep my British cynicism about all this extra consumption celebration under wraps. After all, we don't want Lady P to be ridiculed by her peers for being the only baby on the block who didn't take part in an Easter egg hunt. So we set up a hunt for her.

Instead of chocolate eggs, I put bunny-shaped wholegrain crackers inside little plastic eggs. Also, because she's only just 14 months old and new to this whole 'hunt' thing, we made them really rather easy to spot.
It was not quite a Great Easter Egg Hunt. More a Small Easter Biscuit Collection exercise. Still, Lady P enjoyed it and - so far - doesn't know what she's missing out on. Long may it stay that way. I suspect in years to come, like all the other mugs, we'll be getting up early to leave 'Easter bunny tracks' in the garden, and stashing refined sugar far and wide. I'd like to put that off as long as possible.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Fantasy house hunt

Now our real house hunt is over, and we are unpacked and settled in, I can get back to a much more enjoyable kind of house hunt: the fantasy one. I get plenty of fodder from my jogs along the beach, but I also like to scour the pages of DIGS, the South Bay's freebie real estate rag.

It is an intoxicating blend of the desirable, and the pretentious. The cover says it all.
'Retraite elegant' indeed. Pretentious, moi?
For what it's worth that home on the cover is not in France, but according to the ad, it easily could be. Or at least 'anywhere from Marseille to St Charles Avenue to the Hill section of Manhattan Beach'. Last week's cover was a Napa farmhouse. Only not in Napa, but in Manhattan Beach.

See what I mean about the weird absence of a sense of place around here? I mean, you live in a great, beachy SoCal town - why would you want to imagine you live anywhere else?

Another thing I'm baffled and intrigued by is the Honor Roll of architects. This ad describes the home as being representative of some of the best architects in town: 'starting with Pat Killen to Nota to Starr then back to Killen then Lee to Meyer then back again to the architect of this home, Pat Killen'. Confused much? Me too. But I suspect if I keep up my readership of DIGS in a few months that sentence will make perfect sense and those names will be as familiar as a list of BBC news anchormen.

Let's take a closer look at one of these flights of fancy. This home was apparently inspired by a 'personal journey through the hills of Tuscany'. Quite often when I get back from a nice holiday I decide to build a house to remind me of it. It's more cumbersome than a photo album but oh, so much more evocative.
Check out this Old World styled pool table:
And this Tuscan gym:

Here's another winner. How convenient, to be able to park your car right there in the living room! Oh, wait, or is that just a really luxurious garage?
Now you can see why I love DIGS so much. It's part salivatory surf through beautiful homes, and part just pure goofiness. I'll know we've made it when I'm actually looking through it for somewhere we might really live. Till then, I'll keep dreaming of a home in the Tuscan hills, with space in the living room for a fast car.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Estate agents with personality

When we outgrow the Sugar Cube and are ready to move into an elaborate mansion on the beach, how should we choose our realtor? I guess I'll just base it on the advertising.

Kudos to this guy for the beach community-relevant metaphor.
'There is a perfect wave brewing in the real estate market right now'.

A close up of the realtor about to hit the waves. In his suit.
But I think Alison, shown below, is that bit more creative. When you think about the South Bay, of course you think about surfing. So obvious it's boring. How about a nice Segway pun, complete with a shot of her in action on the beach, instead? Brilliant.

These ads are from DIGS, my favourite free magazine ever. But we shouldn't ignore street advertising. Given their love of a neat rhyme, I feel Kevin & Kaz & I would get along very well.

Choices, choices. This personality-lead approach is rather different to the UK, where all estate agents kinda look the same from a distance, and you just go to the guys who are least annoying. That's all well and good if you're just buying a house. But over here, it's much, much more than that:
So that's alright then.

Monday, April 14, 2014

We furnished it! Sort of.

I know you've been worried sick about how we've furnished our outdoor space. Allow me to put your mind at ease.

We bought a cool outdoor rug for not a lot at Gumtree, our favourite 'cute stuff' shop in Hermosa. That, and the bistro table and chairs, mean the patio is done. Complete. You want to lounge out there? Grab a cushion from inside and prop yourself up that way.

We also inherited a knackered old table and benches from former Sugar Cube occupants. And found two incredible bargain dining tables, which I have sanded, and primed, and painted for outdoor use. As one of them was a Pottery Barn closing down sale $150 bargain, and the other bought for $75 from the sidewalk section of a Salvation Army store, I took a fairly slapdash approach to painting them. Thick brush strokes, drips and all. The expression 'if a job's worth doing, it's worth doing well' did not apply.

Still, they look jolly nice. Throw in a handful of IKEA chairs and some little solar paper lanterns, and we are all set. For at least a season or two, till that paint peels off and the pine splits.

As for the office deck, and that sunny spot, I think we'll worry about them next summer. Rome wasn't built in a day and the Sugar Cube garden will not be finished in a day (or a year, even), either.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Leaving the bubble

As you may have noticed, I love Hermosa Beach. I also, as previously posted, like being in a comfortable rut. So two months into our new life here and I have established a fairly small radius within which I operate. It's about the size of Hermosa Beach. Well, we have everything we need right here, why would I ever leave?

It took our first house guest to drag me out of the bubble. Lady P's godfather, my old and very dear friend, The Gambler, has come to town. He loves being schooled in animal sounds by Lady P, and jogging along the Strand with me. But after a couple of days in the bubble I sensed he had itchy feet.

So it was that we hired bikes from the Hermosa Cyclery and took the bike path up to the Marina Del Rey.
As we passed the industrial sites of El Segundo I started to doubt the merits of leaving the bubble
...but before too long we were enjoying the cheesy delights of 70s tourist spot 'Fisherman's Village'

... and we got to gawp at plenty of beachfront real estate on our way too
Emboldened, I braved the freeway traffic to take him even further afield. The Getty Center was well worth the drive, and an afternoon's mooching around Santa Monica was fun.

But it all started to look a bit hairy again when we ventured into hipster paradise, Downtown LA, full of warehouses and pop up shops and moustachioed boys in jazz shoes. We had a lunch reservation at Factory Kitchen and parked a couple of blocks away (being the Brits we are). Wow, those downtown blocks are long and bleak.
DTLA. Not as pretty as Hermosa.
Lunch was great but the walk to and from was not. 'Hurried and tense' is not my ideal post-meal constitutional. Having learnt our lesson we drove the remaining 2 blocks to the heart of Little Tokyo. A brief sampling of Japanese American history and coffee rounded off our big city adventure perfectly.

Then it was back to the beach. Phew.

It was really great, being forced out of the 90254 bubble. There's a whole exciting world out there. But The Gambler's gone now. So TLOML are now enjoying not leaving the bubble again till someone else makes us.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Furnishing the Sugar Cube

Furnishing the Sugar Cube itself is no great challenge. Its modest size will happily accommodate our modest furniture. We had to buy some bookcases and a new sofa bed and that's about it.

Furnishing the garden which surrounds the Sugar Cube is not so easy. As well as the lovely, pebbled backyard we have a patio alongside the living room, and a newly landscaped area next to the office.
The backyard, complete with grape arbour

The office's backyard
And to fill all these various, spacious spaces, we have... a small bistro table and two chairs.

The right thing to do, for the long term, is to go and buy a good, solid teak dining table and chairs. The arbour is about 15 foot long, and is crying out for a long Italian-style table. Then we need a picnic table or a bench, or both, for the space by the office. A breakfast-sized table and chairs for the patio, which is closest to the kitchen so a natural spot for morning coffee in the sunshine. And maybe some lower seating there too, so we can chill outside while Lady P learns to walk / ride a bike/ skateboard on the patio. Oh, and a couple of loungers for this sunny spot in the backyard.

My guestimate suggests that to furnish the entire outside space the way we'd like, we'd need to sell the baby, or a kidney, or both. So it's time to be creative (or, as some might put it, cheap).

I know, I know, first world problems.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

An architectural tour of Hermosa Beach: a journey through space and time

Not only do the Haves and Have Nots live side-by-side here. So do the New England Quakers and the Medieval Spanish and the Balinese. Or so it would seem.

Back in the early 20th century, when Hermosa was developed, there were beach cottages. Then came little white box sugar cube houses and their mid century modern bungalow buddies. Then the 80s happened and the money and taste explosion spewed an unrestrained expression of personal style in the shape of massive houses. There are plenty of shiny, post-modernist monstrosities dotted around Hermosa from that era.

In the 90s, this is what the future looked like
As well as the hangover from the post-modernist era, Spanish style was also pretty big in the 90s. You see some nice examples of houses that look very authentically Californian, with their terracotta roofing and sweet Spanish pottery tiles on the steps.
A pretty contemporary Spanish (right next door to a 70s beach cottage).
You also see a lot of their ugly sisters, or 'the Matador's Miniature Castles', as I call them. The Venetian palaces I see are probably from that time too, a time when people dreamt of a more ornate balustrade, or some swagged curtains around their window, or a portico on their patio.
A slice of Venice. Next to a slice of Cape Cod.
Then came the '00s, and the Craftsman, and the Cape Cod and their shingled, white trimmed brethren. And nowadays if you're building a new house in the South Bay it's all about the Balinese and the Plantation style.

All of which is well and good. Each to their own, and all power to those home owner for building the castle of their dreams. The weird thing is the way they sit side-by-side. It's such a hodgepodge. I'm used to England where for the most part houses look like their neighbours, thanks mainly to the fact that it was all built a long time ago.
Old El Paso

Industrial chic meets beach cottage

Neoclassical meets contemporary

Victorian splendour wedged between a slice of Mexico and some midcentury modern. Wonder which was here first.

I like the freedom here, but with idiosyncracy comes a disorienting sense of misplacement. I mean, this is not Cape Cod. Or El Paso. So why live in a house that was designed for that climate? And it must be odd to gaze out from your Venetian balcony onto a house that looks like a 1960s library: like being in a timewarp. And how irritating to be living your sleek, Balinese, luxury hotel-style dream right next door to some salty old seadog. That's the price of freedom, I guess.