Im in southern California. I dont really know where. Normally, you have a sense of where you are that is built up from overlapping kinds of knowledge. You can find your region or country on a globe, your street on a map. Your home sits in the center of a network of places that you go to regularly. Its part of a fabric whose warp and woof are people you see (these are the people in your neighborhood), the routes you take to the store or school or work. Its refined by a sense of the culture and history of the place. Its polished by a knowledge of all kinds of quirky thingswhich restaurants have the nice bathrooms, which parks dont have too rambunctious a crowd of kids playing in the afternoons. Maybe you sense the geomagnetic field, without being aware of it.
Here, in contrast, I have none of that. Once I reached San Jose airport, I entered a world of alternate coordinates: a flight number rather than a sense of a place, a hotel name and street address rather than a distinct point on a map. Theres the occasional bit of local cultureall the food service people at San Jose seem to be Philipino, and the shuttle drivers in Orange County are Iranianbut theyre exceptions. And Im now at an Embassy Suites hotel, which is part of a shopping mall: theres a JC Penneys on one side, a Beverages and More and a Strouds on the other. The logical end-point for a journey into a serial-numbers-filed-off space.
Information that youre not aware you possess until you miss it: the very definition of tacit knowledge.
Actually, the thing isnt just that my mental GPS cant calibrate. There are some recognizable things here, theyre just unexpectedly close together. I got a little tour of the area on the SuperShuttle. We first touched down briefly in Irvine, where I once gave a terrible job talk (but then again, I dont know I would have been happy living down here); we then drove to Anaheim, which I had no idea was so close. We were driving past block after block of hotels, and I wondered what in the world could support so many hotels; I happened to look out the opposite window and saw Disneyland. Duh-oh! Then it was back onto the highway, past Cal State Fullerton (or so said a sign on the roadside, with a Carls Jr.; at least CSU got top billing). Finally we reached Brea, wherever that is.
The first time I came to southern California, I kept having the weirdest dj vu. It all seemed so strangely familiar, even though Id never been here before. I couldnt pin it down; then finally it hit me. Xevious! Id probably spent hundreds of hours flying over that video game landscape of grass, groves of trees, blacktop and sleek buildings and now I was driving through it. Someone at game design company Namco must have had a serious sense of humor. Not having touched that game in a decade, I dont quite have the same double vision. But I still think the mix of palm trees, neon, and concrete is the apex of friendly artificiality. No one does fake like Americans.
But its often an interesting fake. This hotel, for example, is your basic Business Hotel Box, with a central atrium courtyard (a radical architectural move in 1974, thanks if memory servesto John Portmann, who wasif memory serves againwidely reviled among Serious Architects); but for the Hotel Theme, the decorator chose, of course, Ancient Egypt. This might be a politically explosive choice today, but I suspect that when it was made, there was a wax museum or amusement park that was renovating and had some Egyptiana to let go cheap. I especially like the giant sarcophagus outside the King Tut Bar and Grille.
Though I suppose any attempt to give some distinctiveness to a hotel space should be applauded, even if that distinctiveness is imported from a civilization that lived 3000 years ago on a different continent. And to be fair, otherwise sensible nineteenth-century Americans had a mania for Egyptiana, which they used in funerary architecture. You can still run into curious bas reliefs and blocky, winged buildings in Connecticut and Vermont.