it's so easy in this blue/where everything is good
Halfway through my second quarter, halfway through my life here, I take a long road trip south.
Bijan lives in Irvine, an hour out of LA, so on Friday we cut our final classes and drive down for the long weekend. The I-5 is straight and heavy with traffic as we leave Davis. Bijan's car is still covered in mud from a previous nighttime photo adventure and my pictures through the windshield are spotted with dirt, but as we turn south the sun dips over the mountains to our right and fields of pink almond blossom shimmer on the hazy purple vista that stretches eastwards all the way to the flat horizon.
We pass the time listening to radiolabs and stop at Kettleman City for Starbucks as the stars peep. There’s a labrador in the back seat of a pickup and I’m about to suggest stealing it for the weekend when the owner appears. Bijan is almost more excited to see Bubbles, his beagle, as he is to see his family.
Buoyed on coffee and the gentle crescendos of passing headlights we leave the monotony of the San Joaquin valley for the Grapevine, a mountainous road that winds through Tejon Pass north of LA. There is a perfectly full moon. Bijan points out the radiator water stations for big-rigs on the side of the road as we climb steeply, passing lorries with their hazard lights blinking. Shadow-mountains loom in the dark on both sides and the moonlight glints on snow in the distant top hills. We reach 4000 ft, wind down the window and let the cool night air deafen the radio for a while.
The temperature rises as we leave the mountains and head for the city, following a river of headlights towards Los Angeles. I put on Springsteen and then Jackson Browne, thinking about this landscape and this new heat. There are palm trees and neon lights. LA appears as a skyline to our left as Bijan avoids downtown traffic in favour of the freeway. He points out landmarks from his childhood: the huge oil rig with its painted stars and stripes, lit up like a little city in the west, and the space rocket outside the science center you used to be able to climb. We hit traffic by LAX and I tingle at signposts pointing to Long Beach, San Diego, Sunset Boulevard. Irvine is one long straight road that passes a university I might have gone to and the high school where all Bijan’s stories took place: a movie set where other lives have or could have played out. When we turn up the hill Bijan waves to the gatekeeper, and then we floor it up the long curved road to the top, looking out suddenly over the bright dots of the cities and highways below. Bubbles runs to the car as we pull into the drive.
In the morning we have breakfast in the garden, overlooking the canyon and the city. From up here you can see the ocean over the hills, the untouched slopes saved from property development in the north, Irvine, Santa Ana, and perhaps LA below in the distance. There is sweet Persian tea and fruit salad and croissants and omelette and bacon and strong coffee for Bijan. Everything is good.
We are still groggy from our long drive, so I lie lethargic in the morning light which pools on my bed. It spills in through the window glass, cascading specks of gold dust that turn like shoals of startled fish when I whistle softly into the air. The light here is nothing like home - England home - grey and exhausted. It is not like Davis, where recently the rain has split it into a thousand shards that glance off the sidewalk when you step in a puddle. It is not like Tanzania, where the bright flatness of the desert shimmers white when you wake in the morning. This light tumbles through no clouds, touches no forests or factories before it spills into this house. There is a purity in it, like mountain air or spring water. It has a gentleness I didn't expect. I watch it play against my bedroom wall, and then take a walk through other quiet rooms to see whether it can be photographed.
The edge of the Pacific lies fifteen minutes down the freeway. Laguna Beach is awash with skinny girls in denim shorts and big sunglasses. We walk down to the shoreline with Bubbles pulling at her lead, past upmarket boutiques, gift shops, ice cream parlours, and over the little intersection where the Pacific Coast Highway begins. Bright parasols and sunbathers in bikinis litter the sand, and I think of my friend Milly back home, telling me about The OC, and kick off my shoes to walk barefooted along the beach.
The water is not cold and the sand is warm and I am grateful that I never applied to UCSB or UCSD or even UCI because this is part of California which I want to keep special. Paying in dollars and looking left before right and stopping at In n Out on a busy Friday night are second nature now, but the Pacific still gives me a thrill. The skinny girls sunbathing in bikinis and the surfers riding waves onto the shoreline remain fictions to me; they are part of a picture-postcard California that I get to kick my shoes off and walk around in occasionally, on weekends like this.
All of SoCal is like this to me, I think as we follow the edge of the surf past the palm trees and million-dollar beachside apartment blocks. There is an unreality to this place. Partly it is because this California still exists to me mostly in movies and pop songs and glossy travel ads, and when I am here it is as though I am passing through a giant film set. And partly it is because the culture itself down here feels so far removed from everything I know - removed from any kind of bleakness or poverty or upset or complication.There is sunshine on steroids, there is wealth and beauty and abundance. How strange to imagine it is possible to grow up here, to know this as home. It feels so foreign to me. But: how nice to escape, just for a little while.
Back on the boardwalk, Bijan’s mom Shiva takes snaps of us on her cellphone and then we choose ice cream from the parlour across the road. (I remind myself it’s February.) Bijan points out the murals that cover empty walls all over the town and tells me about Laguna Beach’s flourishing art community – a testament to which are the handful of small shops along the beachfront which will develop my 35mm film. Something about this makes me think of my Aunt Anne, who lives in a seaside town on the grey English coast and whose paintings hung in the walls of my childhood homes. Leigh-on-Sea shares little with Laguna Beach, but I imagine her here anyway, painting the warm vibrant seascape and enjoying the little boutiques and dressing better than any of the locals.
We take the 133 home, the sunroof open and the wind playing with the ends of my hair. I am still thinking about our walk in the surf and why I am feeling not-quite-here. In the front seat Yauss turns up the radio as we speed through the stark hills, and the sun ricochets off the side of silver SUVs. I watch a plane climbing at 45 degrees into the clear blue sky. And I'll never go home again/And nothing's wrong but nothing's true.
When I am shooting film I am living inside my experience. Life is chaotic and spontaneous and I photograph it from inside. Later, when the pictures appear, solid in my hand, I rearrange them on my carpet to find the narrative, constructing the memory of what I lived. This is how I make my film diary. But driving along the 133, with Lorde on the radio and the caress of the warm wind and the palm trees on the hills, and the plane taking off from John Wayne in the distance: the space between lived experience and constructed narrative collapses. I know, very strongly and suddenly, how I will remember this weekend.
Back home I go straight to my room and write this entry for an hour.
As Bijan tells me, with only the hint of self-irony in his smirk, he’s kind of a big deal when it comes to coming home. Irvine is a long way from Davis – far enough to warrant a plane ride, if I hadn’t been so insistent on experiencing a Real American Road Trip – and I guess that distance is amplified when your family is as close as Bijan’s. In the evening we drive to his grandparents’ house on the other side of the city for dinner with his relatives, specially arranged for this weekend visit.
On the long journey south Bijan has been teaching me some basic Farsi. I've listened to him, sometimes, on the phone to his grandparents in the car and thought about how close language is to music, how strange and beautiful some cadences sound without comprehension to contextualise them. Ziba speaks Farsi too; I've heard it at the Islamic events she's taken me too, and in moments when she'll drop a word like a pebble into the well of our conversation and send out ripples of meaning which I can't access. When we arrive at his grandparents the conversation around the garden tables takes natural form in this language. I have been reading a lot for a class on migration and diaspora, and while I sip hastily on a glass of wine I think about how language is tied not only to culture but to memory and place, how it is exclusive and excluding but also how it can be offered up as a gesture, as a gift. Bijan has taught me how to say salam and chetoori and khodahafez: words which, when I use them hesitantly now, stand in as tokens of gratitude for the hospitality I have been so warmly shown here.
His grandfather wants to see copies of the California Aggie, the newspaper Bijan and I work for on campus, and to know why the latest edition has a blank front page. Bijan explains the long campaign the newspaper has been running to save its funding and its future, and how the idea for the front page came from an article I'd read on Libération, where the French paper had printed empty frames in the place of images to draw attention to the importance of its under-paid photographers.
The photograph I take of this conversation makes me smile later, when I have the prints in my hands. Partly because it is a sweet moment, but also because it is a photograph which came out of a need for translation. Bijan is explaining the Aggie campaign, and I understand this through the paper-prop and his gestures, but they are speaking a language I don't understand and I, a little awkward and on the periphery of the event, raise my camera to find a way to configure the moment into a language I can. There is another tongue I speak through, personal and private, and I voice myself quietly with my shutter. For me the photographs shows the memory of words and gestures and images coming together to make cross-cultural, cross-generational, coherent understanding.
Outside there is late afternoon sun and sweet lemon trees and a lot of people I am befriending. Bijan's grandmother has cooked kabab and huge bowls of rice and salads. Bijan and his cousins fight over sabzi and I remember to try the tahdig, the crispy rice layer from the bottom of the pot, and (surrounded by the grinning boys) a cup of doogh, which is less terrible than Bijan implied.
As the sun sets Bijan shows me how to pull oranges from the trees using a claw-catcher, and how to tell whether a lemon is sour or sweet. We slice the tough pith with our fingernails and smell the yellow skins. His grandma sends us home to Davis with heavy bags of citrus fruits, ripe for playing sweet-sour switch tricks on his housemates.
Before we leave, Bijan wants to show me his grandma's paintings. Her workroom is full of canvases and brushes and glass water jars stained pink with pigment. Stacked against the walls and on shelves are beautiful landscapes in a style I recognise from paintings hanging on the walls of Bijan's home.
When we return his grandfather has disappeared. We find him in his study, a room lined with books bound in bright blue and inscribed in gold and smelling of the good old-book smell. He is standing on a chair, rooting around in the back of a cupboard, and as Bijan beseeches him in Farsi to come down he emerges with an old Minolta. It is prettier than mine, and older. Patiently, Bijan translates for me how his grandfather used to love taking photographs, until it got too difficult to have film developed. The images on the walls of his study which I had been admiring, of places which looked exotic to me with arches and those same bright blue and gold designs, were taken by him in Iran.
We head home with the Minolta over Bijan's shoulder, and in the dark kitchen I take out a roll of my black and white film for him to use up before we leave for Davis the day after tomorrow.