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A Night Train to Vienna

I have returned to this big, sprawling, tentacled octopus of a city thinking about Paris and Vienna and a train hurtling through the twilight at 190 miles an hour.

I’m also thinking about a walk along the Seine on a day so bright it hurts the eyes and about listening to a string quartet playing “The Blue Danube” on a frosty Vienna night with the Danube right outside our door.

Poetry is written about the kind of vacation we took, Cinelli and I, from L.A. to Chicago to New York to London to Madrid to Paris to Vienna.

I’m a guy from East Oakland happy with a cheeseburger and a dry martini, but my wife is a lover of culture and longed to see the great art museums of the world.

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They sprawl like castles of creative history guarding the works of Monet and Cezanne and Picasso and Renoir and Van Gogh and so many others, I’ve got to concentrate hard to isolate my memories of them.

Their ghosts swirl like ribbons of mist through the Art Institute in Chicago, the Guggenheim in New York, the Tate in London, the Prado in Madrid, the Louvre and D’Orsay in Paris, the National Gallery in Vienna.

There were other art galleries too, sandwiched between the big ones, but I can’t remember their names. I can, however, remember a small cafe on the Rue de Rivoli where I sipped cognac on an amber-colored night and tried to forget the octopus that is L.A.

This city is so damned much with us.

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I mention the night train from Paris to Vienna because that ride through the countrysides of France, Germany and Austria convinced me that you can’t escape L.A.

Ten thousand miles away from here we struck up casual conversations with two travelers who boarded the train at separate stops and, can you believe this, one was a biochemist from Woodland Hills and the other an Austrian hippie who once worked in Topanga and still has a girlfriend in Calabasas?

I mean, we’re out in the middle of nowhere and these guys appear like popup figures in a birthday card and tell us they’re our neighbors.

That’s not all. In the International Herald-Tribune, which I picked up as often as I could, there was no escaping stories about O.J., the Menendez brothers and Heidi Fleiss, and on CNN they never stopped profiling the LAPD.

“If we ever got to a remote corner of the universe,” Cinelli said as we knifed through the foothills of the Alps, “there’d be someone there from Chatsworth and a television special on the La Brea Tar Pits.”

But even if you can’t escape L.A., running off to foreign places offers new perspectives on where we live. All those great cities I mentioned represent an old world of late dinners and classical music, existing comfortably in their own rich history.

L.A., on the other hand, is like Alicia Silverstone in “Clueless”: young, sexy, modern and beguilingly naive, a triumph of image over substance, more worried about what to wear than what to think.

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In a more specific comparison, we’re about 50 years behind all those ancient European cities in terms of public transportation, but when we try to finally build a subway, protests mount, tunnels collapse and streets cave in.

If we were an ancient city and tried to build a castle, the turrets would topple off during the ribbon-cutting.

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But even so, it’s good to be home.

As we flew in over L.A. at twilight, its streets glowed like flecks of magnesium from the Valley to the ocean, and the headlights of its cars on the freeways were jewels of lights laid on velvet.

The beaches shone with their own luminescence and the last rays of the sun splashed the sky with ever-softening pastels. The surf sparkled and the mountains rose into the darkness like walls of a . . . well . . . castle.

“We don’t need the Vienna Woods,” Cinelli said as we drove home, “we’ve got the Santa Monicas.”

I think about that now as I roam the city, the memory of a night train to Vienna growing dimmer, like the details of a dream blurring into shadow.

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We’re a city in the midst of change, convulsed by crime and circumstance, tearing down and building up, blowing horns and beating drums, trying to figure out who we are and where we’re going.

L.A. is on its own kind of night train, hurtling through history to some unknown destination, flashing past forests of trauma, climbing mountains of despair.

So I’m coming aboard again after six weeks away, curious about the destination, entranced by the passengers, ready for the ride. Cinelli said it best: “The honeymoon’s over. You feed the dog, I’ll do the dishes.”

Auf Wiedersehen, Vienna. Au revoir, Paree. Good morning, L.A.


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