The L.A. Effect

Basking in the city's peculiar radiance in the hills outside of Rome

By Rebecca Helm-Ropelato
Rebecca Helm-Ropelato is a freelance writer living in Lariano, Italy.

March 20, 2005

During the almost three decades I called Los Angeles home, I became accustomed, as Angelenos do when traveling, to the lame jokes about earthquakes and California crazies, the raised eyebrows from those who regard L.A. as an X-rated phantasm, and to the look of awe at times in the eyes of some dreamers, young and old, longing to explore the city's legendary myth. Revealing where I was from always evoked reaction. Since I have moved away, it has been the same.

I now live in Lariano, a tiny town in the countryside south of Rome. I moved here almost four years ago after marrying an Italian. When he suggested we live in Italy rather than the United States, I yielded without much struggle. I envisioned living in a traditional Italian villa, one of old, heavy stone construction—a stereotypical image picked up from old movies. Instead, arriving here, I found myself unpacking in a modern new house, California ranch in design, with palm trees and cactuses in the frontyard. In a way, it was a reassuring sameness.

Perhaps because I had so many unfamiliar things swirling around me, including a new language, the enormous difference between the size and culture of Brobdingnagian L.A. and Lilliputian Lariano wasn't uppermost in my mind. But often, the first thing I heard was: "Los Angeles to Lariano!" The magic of the City of Angels was potent even here, I found.

It altered the way many saw me, but I considered the effect largely a distortion. L.A. is certainly big, powerful and celebrated. It's stressful and challenging, a bewildering and fascinating maze of cultures, subcultures and lifestyles, and cherished home for millions who wouldn't live anywhere else. But it is just a place, I thought, like so many other places. And a place to which I've said goodbye.

It wasn't even a regretful goodbye. When I lived in L.A., I often felt hostile toward the city from being trapped for hours in traffic or being forced to endure the ill-tempered behavior of people with too many differences in the same place at the same time. I echoed common complaints: L.A. sprawls too much, has no architecture to speak of, blah, blah, blah. I was more critic than fan.

One day a few months ago, I decided to write an article about Lariano. I began to look closely at this nondescript village, wondering why its longtime inhabitants love it so. It was then that I understood how completely my everyday perspective is colored and shaped by my memories of Los Angeles, and that those memories are filed in my mind under a powerfully resonating name, home. I never see—cannot see—this little town without the warm visual overlay of the enormous city there. And all my previous hissing and booing has transformed into applause.

Writing a description of the single, short and narrow main street that blips through Lariano, I saw the multi-laned L.A. streets extending for miles from downtown to bump into the beaches of Santa Monica, Venice and Malibu. In that same picture were the many rows of tall, skinny palm trees filtering the Southern California sunshine onto the sidewalks and pavement. Lariano sits on the side of a mountain just outside a dense chestnut forest. Here are vistas of the Apennine ranges and of the Mediterranean glimmering far in the distance. As I focused on describing this, pictures of the Los Angeles skyline rose companionably in my mind, daytime and nighttime, the snow-peaked mountaintops of Big Bear on clear days in February, and the intensely colored sunsets so routine on the Pacific horizon.

New images kept announcing their presence: the lassitude of a Sunday afternoon, the air stirred and warmed by Santa Anas; the subtle perfume of desert air; the oddly comforting quiet of ordinary neighborhoods in the Valley, especially in the months when the temperature rises above 100 degrees; the broad, broad beaches, spreading north and south along the South Bay and Malibu coastlines; and so many freeways, always there, always near, always offering escapes to other places.

From more than 6,000 miles away, Los Angeles turns its poetic face to me. Now my mind is filled with sweet reflections; they are neither happy nor sad, just immediate and powerful. The life editor within looks back in wonder at this big, incomprehensible city and deletes the dull and annoying.

It feels redundant to mention how famous Los Angeles is across the planet. Other great cities find fame as places of extraordinary beauty, architecture, history or culture, qualities that Los Angeles shares in varying degrees. But L.A. is singular: Films and television have made it a ubiquitous presence, either as foreground or background. Los Angeles has become the world's hometown. Millions who have never been there consider it familiar. It is luminous in global culture. Angelenos may take it for granted, but it knows its own grandeur. And when you say you're from there, some of its stellar light falls onto you.