I’m creeping around the house this morning so as not to awaken the latest houseguest, my cousin, Fritha, who flew in from London yesterday. Destination California hasn’t been so hot this year, so Chez Jacqueline has been low on bookings. For all of us who live in places that people will spend a small fortune to travel to on vacation, you’ll know what I mean. This place is like a veritable B&B at times. And even though I’m very single-minded (“We can’t go to Universal Studios/the beach/Santa Barbara until I’ve finished this chapter/article/essay.”), being a tour-guide for my chosen land is a mantle I slip on easily. I’m the archetypal “My party this way” docent.
Of course, the best laid plans tend to go awry in spectacular fashion. My parents first visited in 1992, so I rented a very nice car for the occasion. Now, my mother is the worst, and I mean THE WORST – backseat driver you will ever come across, only she has to sit in the front of the car because she’s even more annoying if she sits in the back. I was once only five minutes out of SFO, having just picked them up, and I was forced to point out that the ‘plane was still on the ground, and that tickets for a return journey could be purchased with no problem whatsoever if she didn’t put a sock in it. My old car at the time – a very shaky semi-automatic VW Bug of some vintage – would have made her faint (which might have been a good thing), hence the rental. Lovely car, but the complete engine failure after only a few seconds warning left us at the side of the 101 for several hours while we waited for a replacement vehicle.
My dearest friend, Anne-Marie, who I have known since we were both ten years old, came over from the UK in early April. What with raising three kids, a husband who spent much of his time overseas, and a demanding new career, it was the first time she’d visited me in America. I had pointed out that our rainy season might still have a bit of wind in its sails, but we should be lucky. Needless to say, it was just tipping down when I struggled through traffic to pick her up from LAX. There were floods on the 101, and you daren’t even think of PCH (usually a winner with the tourists), as houses were slipping into the ocean. We had barely left the airport when she turned to me and said (in her slight Catherine Zeta-Jones Welsh lilt), “It’s like the bloody Brecon Beacons in winter, Jack.” Which was, of course, a perfect moment to shelve the plan to play Beach Boys CD’s while driving alongside the Pacific, and instead belt out, “It Never Rains In California, It Pours.”
There are the wonderful moments associated with being tour guide, especially as it reminds me why I live here, and why it’s the place of my choosing. I laughed out loud while driving across the Golden Gate Bridge with Charlotte, my 17-year-old God-daughter (and Anne-Marie’s daughter). I had just picked her up from the airport, and here she was squealing– and you know how teenagers can squeal – as she wound down the window and yelled out, “Good Morning Cal-eee-forn-eee-aaa!” before snapping photo after photo of the bridge and the Bay. I wanted to write a story about Charlie’s visit, about the joy of seeing her not only discover a place she’d heard so much about, but about me discovering who she was as a young woman, because I hadn’t seen her since she was eleven. And she discovered something about herself here, a confidence, perhaps, because the following year she went off on her own to Australia and Indonesia for six months.
When Anne-Marie visited, I took her on the same journey along PCH that Charlie and I had taken five years earlier, only in the opposite direction, south to north. By the time we reached San Francisco, my old pal was dying to make a dream come true. “Can we go really fast up and down those hills, like they do in the films, you know, like a car chase?” This is what happens to women after fifty. As I turned into California Street from Montgomery, Anne-Marie yelled out, “Ahhhhhh, look at THAT! Come on, let’s GO!”
Call me a dream-maker. I could’ve got a ticket, but I didn’t.
The memory I’ll cherish most from that visit, was the time we spent at Treebones, at the southern end of Big Sur. It’s an “eco-resort" where you stay in yurts. That first night was a howler, a huge storm that rumbled in off the Pacific and threatened to render us yurtless. But a beam of bright sunshine pierced through the skylight in the morning and the birds were in full voice as we clambered out onto our deck. The Pacific looked like cut glass, and the air was warm. I turned to Anne-Marie. “Welcome to California, My friend.” And we both wept at the beauty of it all, and the fact that we’d been friends for more years than we care to admit.
So, I’m off to put the kettle on now. I’ll make a cup of tea for Fritha and take it to her room, then I’ll open the curtains so that she can lay back and look out at the mountains. And I’ll do my docent thing.
“Welcome to California. It's a lovely day.”