The Beat Goes On

Venice is in transition, a time where gentrification is altering the DNA of this historically diverse community. A neighbourhood built by immigrants from all walks of life. While a quick stroll down the boardwalk might suggest that diversity is still a cornerstone in our quirky part of town, more and more you see it’s storied past fading away. Except on Sundays, in the hours leading up to sunset, slightly north of the skate park on beautiful Venice Beach.

Around midday, flags from every country begin to appear, planted in an inviting V-like formation in the sand. The Venice Drum Circle is open to all, regardless of color or religious creed. Boy and girls, young and old. Whether you have mad rhythm or can’t maintain a beat, everyone is welcome. It’s a celebration of inclusiveness, community, joy and unabashedly getting a boogie on with complete strangers.

In a time where the US feels so divided, the drum circle is a welcome reminder of the warm, tolerant, loving people who make up this great nation. Despite what the media clings to, I refuse to believe the majority of Americans thrive on hate. I won’t accept that everything is red or blue, left or right. The United States is a country of immigrants. And while there are still barriers to burst, stigmas to eliminate and glass cielings to shatter, an event like the drum circle represents what the US is all about: a sum of all its beautifully eclectic parts.

Happening every Sunday, from noon(ish) until sunset on the beach where Brooks Ave meets Ocean Front Walk. Bring a bongo, maracas, your best dance moves or any other percussion instrument. See you there, friends.

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6 Songs by Summer

As the saying goes, it’s never too late to try something new. Or learn something new. You’re never too old to tackle something you’ve been wanting to learn, master, achieve or overcome. Leonard Cohen was 33 when he released his first album. Nora Ephron was 42 when she wrote her first screenplay. A good friend of my mom’s was 46 when she competed in her first Ironman. It’s never too late.

I’ve always fantasized about playing guitar. My dad and brother both play. My husband is a natural. My mother-in-law backpacked around Europe with a little acoustic in her 20s, no doubt charming her way across the continent. It’s always been one of those things I wanted to learn.

I can read music. I play piano and flute, an instrument my mom kind of pressured me into because flutes get all the melodies, she would say. I always thought it was kind of girlie instrument until Beastie Boys released Ill Communication and obviously Ron Burgundy has given new life to the delicate woodwind. But guitar is much more badass, and given my taste in music falls on the edgy side, I basically wanted to learn something I could plug in and make a shit ton of noise with.

My dad and my husband bought me an acoustic guitar for my birthday last fall and my goal was to be able to play 6 songs by summer. They didn’t have to be perfect and they certainly didn’t have to be difficult. Just six songs I could play at the beach or around a campfire or alongside my husband.

After scouring the web in search of guitar tabs for some of my favorite songs I realized if you could play a C, D, F and G you can basically play 75% of rock songs ever written. Maybe throw in an A and E minor and you’re golden. Here’s my six:

I Won’t Back Down – Tom Petty
Otherside – Red Hot Chili Peppers
Old Man – Neil Young
What’s Up – 4 Non Blondes
Three Little Birds – Bob Marley
We Are the People – Empire of the Sun

I memorized all the notes, added all the tabs into my phone and practice practice practice. One day I heard the girls who live below us say quite clearly through our thin walls Oh god, she’s playing that song again. Yes she is!

If you’re a beginner like me, here’s a few more simple songs I’m learning:

Today – Smashing Pumpkins
Wheat Kings – The Tragically Hip
Tennessee Whiskey – Chris Stapleton

I’m not exactly ready to plug in and stomp on a distortion pedal, but for now I’m content strumming away at sunset. The other night I was at the beach and this cute couple was taking painfully awkward selfies so I asked if they wanted me to take their photo for them. They were from Milan so I reminisced a bit about when I traveled there and before they left the beach they asked if they could take my photo. That’s the other cool thing about playing guitar. Any instrument, really. It immediately breaks the ice, invokes a conversation and creates a sense of community.

When I walked back to where my bike was parked, two different people approached me to ask if I wanted to jam sometime. JAM? ME? Ha, not yet. But if you see my at the beach stumbling my way through my modest repertoire of songs, by all means join in.

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Venice’s Mosaic Tile House

It’s no surprise to stumble upon an unusually decorated home in Venice. Colourful murals adorning garage doors, alleyways brought to life with artful graffiti and decades-old artefacts lining pathways into overgrown gardens. It’s common to see artists using their home as an extension of their artistic expression here. But none as elaborate and ever-evolving as the Mosaic Tile House at 1116 Palms Blvd.

More of a love story than a tourist attraction, the enchanting 1940s house brought to life piece-by-piece over the past four decades, is the home and story of Cheri Pann and Gonzalo Duran. Married for over 20 years (Cheri mentioned Gonzalo was her third husband I believe), both around 80ish, their relationship and artistic partnership seem to have the fiery energy of a couple of 20-year-olds. His studio displays mechanical sculptures and multi-media pieces that challenge the meaning of devotion and love while her studio displays a floor-to-ceiling gallery of portraits of her beloved in various moods, expressions and color palettes. In a way, the place feels like a mutual shrine between the couple, but in no way do they make guests feel as though they’re intruding.

You can book an appointment to visit the Mosaic Tile House for $12 and Cheri offers a guided tour, sharing a few stories along the way until she disappears to let you meander through the home, studio, garden and surrounding yard – everything but the couples bedroom – as long as you like. Gonzalo was there too the day we visited, working on various projects in the front garden. He was kind enough to take a few artistic snaps for my husband and I, ricocheting our image from a reflection in one of their tiny, mirrored mosaics. My husband took a stab at it himself (last pic below) and did a pretty bang up job.

Our timing, luckily, was impeccable as we arranged to drop by in late March when the wisteria was in full bloom – an annual event that only lasts for about 2 weeks. Their front gate is dripping in the pretty purple blossoms, which made the visit all the more magical and colourful. Aside from the intricate detail and the incredible energy of the place, I was most surprised by the kitchen and bathroom, which are both completely covered in mosaic tiles and other curiosities. You would assume it would make the home look messy, but somehow the chaos of it all felt very neat and tidy. Even the hot tub in the backyard is decorated with a mosaic archway, you guys. It’s really a sight to behold.

Los Angeles has a lot to take in, if you’re traveling through, but if you crave something a little offbeat and local, stop by and soak in the kookiness and beauty of this place. Cheri and Gonzalo couldn’t be more friendly and gracious; you’ll feel like family by the time you’re saying your goodbyes.

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Coming to America

I’m not really much for milestones. My husband and I don’t really celebrate our birthdays beyond dinner and handwritten cards. Ditto for wedding anniversaries. Professional milestones come and go, more or less unnoticed, and I’m certainly not acknowledging the fact the my 20-year high school reunion is this year, although that’s more of an I’m-too-young-how-can-this-be kind of thing. It’s just not my jam. But today marks one year from the day we arrived in Los Angeles to embark on a brand new chapter, and I can’t help but call it out.

The hours leading up to our departure from our hometown of Vancouver, BC are so vivid, it’s like my psyche secretly tucked away those final moments because it knew I’d feel sentimental 365 days down the track. And wouldn’t you know it, my own subconscious was spot on. We had a great life that we were uprooting. But as I’ve written about before, that life became cyclical. Our friends were moving on to new adventures, many of them starting families and moving out of the city. California was our next step. Our foray into the unknown.

Two pieces of luggage each, some precious family photos that don’t exist digitally and a little black and white photograph of Vancouver that I ripped from the front of a tear-inducing farewell card a friend gave me were all we had room to bring. The first 6 weeks were spent bouncing between Air BnB’s while trying to figure out where we wanted to lay down some roots. Luckily, we followed longing over logic and settled on Venice, a neighbourhood in the midst of intense gentrification driving the cost of living through the roof. Nothing new to a couple of Vancouverites and we didn’t come to California to be landlocked. We needed to be near the sea.

In the past year we’ve created a home in a neighbourhood we love alongside neighbours we adore. We’ve made lifelong friends, established our careers here and adopted the cutest rescue pup you’ve ever laid eyes on (total crazy dog lady bias). We’ve road-tripped all over this great state with so much more to explore. We’ve built a life here.

The novelty of biking everywhere, walking around barefoot every day, having fruit grow on our trees in winter and watching pink sunsets adorned with silhouettes of palm trees from our kitchen window doesn’t get old. Not yet, anyway. I hope it never does.

I miss Canada, but mostly Canadian things. Like the CBC and maple tress in the fall and people who understand what I’m on about when I throw down a little French (you don’t realize how much you do it until you leave!). I miss Canadian values. I miss our families and our friends, who luckily are only a short plane ride away. I miss my girlfriends and the feeling of collective world domination that comes over me every time we get together and polish off a few bottles of wine. I miss writing from our “perch” in Yaletown, overlooking our rainy city. I think of those things often.

But as I write this, the sun is pouring into our little beach pad and the smell of orange blossoms is everywhere and I’m grateful. Grateful to our wonderful American friends, who despite what’s going on in the media at the moment are some of friendliest most welcoming people on the planet. I’m grateful my husband is just as happy as I am here. It’s been a wild ride, Cali. And we’re just getting started.

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Extreme close-up family selfie.

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Venice Walk Streets

When I travel somewhere new, I’m always on the hunt for something way, way off the beaten path. Places where only the locals go. Sometimes, you’re lucky enough to discover these places all on your own. A wrong turn that transforms into a serendipitous discovery. An inadvertent tip from an overhead conversation in a coffee shop.

There’s a place in Venice that, for some reason, no one really talks about. It’s not as iconic as the Venice sign or as colourful as the boardwalk but it’s a welcome retreat from the crowds and turistas.

The Venice Walk Streets, a set of pedestrian only inland walkways dating back to the 1900s, were originally part of Abbot Kinney’s vision to create a city in SoCal modelled after it’s Italian namesake. When the walk streets were first developed, mostly entertainers and people who worked at the Venice Pier lived there. Today, the streets are lined with some of the most expensive real estate in Los Angeles. Julia Roberts lived there until recently.

Despite the influx of affluent residents, the walk streets have managed to maintain their magical appeal. Elaborate gardens, gateways and kitschy artefacts adorn each property as passers-by try to discreetly take a peek. A tree canopy keeps the walkways mostly shaded, making it one of best places to go for a stroll during the summer months. It’s a bit like falling down a rabbit hole and stepping out into another era, psychedelics not necessary.

Although a friend – and long time local – told me about the walk streets, I’m sure I would have found this part of Venice eventually. It’s easy to lose track of time wandering around this wacky neighbourhood. You never know who or what you’re going to find.

The walk streets are Nowita Place, Marco Place, Amoroso Place and Crescent Place. I recommend beginning at Lincoln Boulevard next to Painted Ladies and following Nowita all the way to Shell Ave.

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Keep Venice Weird

For decades, Venice has been known as a place where the wonderfully weird and way-out converge. A community of nonconformists trying to preserve a piece of Los Angeles that’s still pure in origin and protected from over-gentrification.

Despite the influx of newly renovated mid century mod palaces, pretty faces and tech companies migrating to the neighbourhood en masse, Venice is still weird.

The Venice Boardwalk is where the more colorful locals tend to congregate, although anywhere between Washington and Ocean Park, and east towards Lincoln is a people-watching paradise. Middle-aged men whizzing by on skateboards with the same temerity of a teenager, because no one gives a fuck how old you are. It’s irrelevant. No one is judging anyone. Everyone simply observes.

Even on upscale Abbot Kinney people don’t take themselves too seriously. One night, after too many craft cocktails, we found ourselves at Abbot’s Pizza for a slice on the way home. While in line, a popular 90s dance track came on and my husband started to boogie a little. Then the woman in front of him, dreadlocks piled high on her head with a toddler in tow, began to dance uncontrollably until the whole line-up was going for it.

During lunch one day, we overheard the table next to us chatting with some older gentlemen who declared they were long-time Venice residents. When asked what they did for a living, they said they used to play with a band called The Mamas & the Papas.

We’ve become addicted to what I call affirmation shakes at Café Gratitude on Rose Ave. When ordering, you ask for your smoothie beginning with ‘I am’ followed by whatever concoction you’ve chosen, like ‘Grace’ for example (my favorite). I am grace. And then you suck it back through a paper, recyclable straw while listening in on the tarot reading going on at the next table.

Staying on Victoria Ave, a sleepy, palm-lined street about 10 minutes by bike from the beach, characters still emerged daily. The Barry Gibb lookalike who walks his little dog every morning – same time – always rocking an ankle length fringed vest and flowing scarf to match. The mysterious tube TV that was left on our sidewalk and remained there for 10 days. The artists, established and aspiring. Folks who never left the 70s…or the 70s never left them.

But if it’s madness you crave, the Boardwalk is your jam. You’ll encounter iconic buskers that work the strip every day like Harry Perry, who rocks out on guitar while twirling circles around the tourists on his jacked-up rollerblades. Being recognized by him is kind of like a Venice rite of passage. There’s the Venice Beach Freakshow luring lookie loos in with America’s smallest man and the bearded lady – the best 5 bucks you’ll spend at the beach. There’s the transient travelers with signs that say ‘will strip for cash’ or ‘field goal my nuts for 20 bucks’. Or the more creative offerings like the First Organic Television, which is basically a guy with a TV screen wrapped round his face shouting nonsense at you as you scurry past him.

One of the things I love most is the non-stop party vibe of Venice. Men on roller skates dancing to disco in the basketball courts before the b-ballers arrive. While cruising the bike path, every few minutes someone breezes by with a ghetto blaster blaring everything from Marvin Gaye to the new Kendrick Lamar album. And what better way to end a day in Venice than jumping into the centre of the Drum Circle – a weekend ritual that goes from late afternoon until sunset – and dancing like hundreds of eyes aren’t watching your every move.

The woman we stayed with – Jenny, a designer and long time Venice resident – told us a story of how she had to leave for a while to appreciate how special her neighborhood is. Right around the recession she needed to, as she described, restore her faith in Americans. So she kitted out a VW van and embarked on a road trip that followed along the outer edges of the continental US. North along the west coast, east through the mid west, south along the eastern seaboard until her beloved van blew up in middle-of-nowhere Florida. Literally, flames a mile high.

Not wanting to quit before her journey was complete, she bought a miniature school bus and converted it to a road-trip-ready vessel that would carry her through the final leg of her tour.

These are the people who built Venice. The weird and the wonderful.

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Viva Venice

Three years ago, I was in San Diego on business and decided to extend my stay in SoCal to meet my husband for the weekend in Los Angeles. We settled on Venice, having never spent much time there before. I remember very distinctly sitting on the patio of a Mexican restaurant on Washington Boulevard, waiting for my husband and fantasizing about what it would be like to live there.

The breeze was constant, the temperature was perfect and the vibe was friendly. Neighbourly. And peaceful. Like stumbling upon a tropical oasis in the middle of an arid desert, Venice seemed like a tight-knit community tucked away in the chaos of LA County.

After a few more subsequent trips south, we find ourselves back in Venice to soak up the warmth and the weirdoes. The nouveau bohemians and the Jim Morrison tribute bands. Aspiring artists and American-made treasures ­– vintage, reworked or made new. Musicians seeking a new scene or experience to draw inspiration from. Writers, like me, in sidewalk cafés lingering long after their americanos are finished.

After surviving another long, wet winter on the west coast of Canada, every time I step outside here I breathe a sigh of relief. No socks, no umbrella, no bra. My suitcase was stuffed with only sandals, flowing dresses and kimonos, things I seem to accumulate like crazy despite the cooler climate of home.

We bike everywhere. Big rusty cruisers and no helmets, right alongside the bustling traffic heading to the beach. Something I’d never attempt at home, but all the locals do it, so somehow that makes it feel safe. You hear so many horror stories of traffic in LA, but not in Venice. Not if you do it right.

We’ve holed up in a quaint B’n’B hidden amidst sprawling bougainvillea and lemon trees. Our host has lived in the neighbourhood for 20 years and tells us how much the area has changed. Shortly after she took possession of the house, a teenager was shot and killed down the street. Venice 13 gang tags kept popping up on her fence and well-known hipster haven Abbot Kinney was nothing more than a few shops and dive bars. Balancing gentrification and the history and character that makes Venice so special is delicate business.

While some of Venice’s more iconic sights like Muscle Beach and the longstanding Freak Show will always draw a crowd, it’s the allure of the unexpected that pulls me in. The tropical flowers that grow in every nook and cranny of every side street. Designer pop-up shops in parking lots (I scored a dress and kimono by Mumu yesterday). Masterful murals adorning doorways and alleyways while skaters fly by on their longboards. The charm never seems to fade.

Maybe it’s just a honeymoon phase. Maybe there are dangers and nuisances the locals are concealing. But from where I sit on this breezy backyard patio just off of Abbot Kinney, the fantasy continues.

Standing on a hill in my mountain of dreams,
Telling myself it’s not as hard, hard, hard as it seems.

– Going to California, Led Zepplin

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