Dr Johnson said that “a man who has not been in Italy, is always conscious of an inferiority, from his not having seen what it is expected a man should see”. Well, I have been to Italy plenty of times. I know all about Italy. Beautiful architecture, lovely weather, centuries of artistic genius, yadda yadda. But I did feel inferior about never having been to America (never having left Europe, in fact). I was about the only person I knew who hadn’t been, which was beginning to feel like a dangerous defect for a social commentator. When everyone else started proffering illuminating first-hand experiences, I was condemned to grin awkwardly and repeat some stuff I’d picked up from The Sopranos.
Well, now I have been to America, I feel a sense of superiority and plan to laud it over everybody for the foreseeable future. Not only did I go to America, but to California — generally acknowledged to be one of the more markedly nuts and futuristic bits of the country. The land of self-driving cars, wokeness and the metaverse. I was accompanied by my girlfriend, who has been to America plenty of times and was able to keep me in the loop about things like driving on the wrong side of the road and calling it a check not a bill and a tomayto not a tomarto.
We start in San Francisco, which is supposed to ease me into the experience. I have been told it is one of California’s more European cities on account of it being small, relatively walkable and full of charming Victorian buildings. But European cities all have a cathedral and a square with gift shops and cafés in the middle. Radiating out from there, they get progressively less interesting and less historic the further you go. American cities, however, are planned out on grids. And there’s no way of telling which bit of the grid is better than any other. In any European city the cathedral is my true north. So I spend the first half of the holiday shouting “Where’s the cathedral?!” at my exasperated girlfriend. “Shhh,” she says, “you’re annoying the Americans.”
Thanks to my cathedral-related disorientation we walk in a lot of different directions and therefore see a lot of San Francisco; streets and streets of elegant and colourful townhouses. In a haze of jet lag we eat dinner in a Chinese restaurant called Empress by Boon (five-course fixed menu, £80; theempresssf.com) — its fish dumplings have been elegantly painted to look like fish. Is this culinary literalism an American thing?
Our vast hotel — one of truly American proportions — is the Westin St Francis on Union Square. And although it might look like a prison from the outside, it’s a palace on the inside. I am reluctant to leave our apartment-sized room but we do, to ride electric bikes over the Golden Gate Bridge in a hail storm. I put the bike into max power mode and flee back to the hotel at warp speed.
When it stops hailing we go to the City Lights Bookshop — the one where all the Beat poets used to hang out and read one another their over-excitable poetry. It is surprisingly good for a tourist bookshop. We visit the Golden Gate Park, which has a huge greenhouse that is comfortingly based on the one at Kew, and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (great building, indifferent paintings). We also wander round Haight Ashbury, which used to be the weird heart of Sixties counterculture but is now mainly just stressed millennials sitting outside cafés sending messages on Slack.
Our next stop, a four-hour Amtrak journey down the coast, is Carmel-by-the-Sea, a cutesy place where everybody is old and incredibly rich and the massive houses are called things like Ye Humble Ocean Hermitage. To my considerable embarrassment our hotel is called the Tally Ho Inn, so whenever anybody asks where I’m staying I mutter the name under my breath. But this does the (cough, splutter) Tally Ho Inn a disservice, because the place is amazing. They stick us in a massive room with a balcony, a huge blue view of the Pacific and a Jacuzzi the size of a British swimming pool.
I spend a not inconsiderable amount of time sitting in the Jacuzzi drinking (free, unlimited!) lemon tea and reading novels. But I am wrenched away to have lunch at a place called Village Corner (mains from £15; villagecornercartmel.com), which serves a caesar salad the size of my head. Very American, I’m sure. I overhear a woman talking about how her dead mother has been influencing her chakras; over the road, a man parks a van covered with slogans suggesting that Stephen King was responsible for John Lennon’s murder. I had assumed from all the olde worlde names, posh cafés and conspiracy theories that Carmel was a conservative sort of place, but a local explains to me that what we witness is actually lefty crankiness left over from the Sixties. I would explore this further, but the Jacuzzi calls.
Next up is Santa Barbara, which for all its glamorously skinny, tufty-headed palms — the supermodels of trees — has the slightly melancholy air of an out-of-season British seaside resort. The melancholy is dissipated by a wine-tasting at the Margerum Wine Company. I have always enjoyed wine tastings because my very limited knowledge and understanding of matters oenological means I am unable to distinguish between good wine and bad wine. To me it’s all good. There’s never that disappointing moment that proper wine people must get where they sniff a brimming glass and are completely crushed to discover notes of fresh apple instead of astringent summer meadows or whatever. A couple of upscale American gentlemen pour us glass after glass and purringly hymn the virtues of the Californian climate and the excellence of its vineyards. There’s a charcuterie board. There’s a “herbally enhanced digestif”. There’s ice cream which tastes of “herbally enhanced digestif”. I get carried away and start telling people I’m getting notes of blackcurrant from everything. It’s marvellous.
To refresh afterwards we go in the sea, which is completely freezing. We discover later (why didn’t we look this up beforehand?) that it’s actually colder than the Atlantic at this time of year. As I hyperventilate on the shore, I speculate that Santa Barbara may be more of a summer sort of place than an early spring one.
We take the Amtrak down the coast, a route that has endless astonishing views of the ocean. I don’t even mind when our train is delayed and dawdles along the clifftops — more time to watch the orange sun melting into the Pacific horizon. Los Angeles is mainly made up of motorways, so arriving by train feels like a category error — like trying to visit the moon on an ocean liner. I make up for it by taking Ubers on hour-long journeys between hotel and restaurants, which obliterates my savings and destroys any remaining dreams of home ownership.
Los Angeles is the most interesting bit of the holiday. We wander round the canals of the Venice district — it really is what Venice would look like had it been built by Californians — and go to various health food cafés, where everybody serving us looks and talks like the Duchess of Sussex. At a French restaurant, République, the prices cause me to have a small nervous breakdown (mains from £37; republiquela.com). It is clearly classier and better than anywhere you could go in east London. But I’m charmed to notice that the interior is done out to look like a French alleyway — to get to the loos you have to go through an archway. It has a slight air of an ultra-sophisticated Disneyland. Except at Disneyland I imagine nobody serves you food as delicious as the cauliflower carbonara and confit duck we have.
Fortunately the Getty Museum — which occupies a kind of modernist Bond villain palace on a hill overlooking the city — is free and full of good art. Amid all the Monets, Van Goghs, Cézannes, Cranachs and Titians, I have the comfortable sensation of having been briefly returned to Europe. The painting of which the museum is justifiably proudest is Orazio Gentileschi’s gorgeous and solemnly mysterious Danaë and the Shower of Gold, which is worth schlepping up to the Getty for just by itself.
One more thing that has to be mentioned about California, which will disturb any British visitor, is the homelessness. I had been warned, but I wasn’t mentally prepared. Thanks to the opioid epidemic and the housing crisis, the outskirts of every city look like a scene from a film about the apocalypse. Taking the train out of San Francisco, some passengers closed the curtains. The tracks are surrounded by a straggling shantytown where some people live in tents and burnt-out cars. Others are just lying there in the mud. It is extraordinary that such a disaster can unfold in a rich country. It makes you very grateful for the welfare state. And it also makes all the cocktails and Uber trips and nice hotel rooms feel slightly but unignorably morally compromised.
It’s this sight that forces home to me how incredibly different America is. I spent the first half of the holiday exclaiming that it is all so similar to Europe. I had seen American streets so often on TV that I had an almost eerie sensation of having walked into a familiar dream. The homelessness is one of those things that makes you realise that under the surface it’s not the same at all. It strikes me as a harsher place, more uninhibitedly mad (why does every other Uber driver want to talk about Atlantis?), but full of a distinctly un-European energy and sincerity that warmed even my crusty old-world heart. And just look at me — I have opinions on America! Now I just have to inflict them on somebody’s dinner party.