LONDON CALLING

Re-creating European cities

The shops are tidy in a somehow traditional way, the walkways between the stores congested with street vendors, again in a way that bespeaks a respect for the order of heritage. No, you can't say nouveau riche much better than Newport Beach, yet as I stroll through the Fashion Island shopping center about a half-hour before it opens, it occurs to me that this place really does remind me of a European city. And not in a bad way. I spent three years in England during college, and I'd often take the train to London, where I'd spend hours wandering the streets. You can walk for miles in London, just window-shopping or watching people. Most European cities are like that: they seem to share the incongruous feeling of being contained and yet completely open, of feeling secure and comforting even as a cold wind blows between the buildings.

And now, suddenly, I'm feeling the same thing here, at Fashion Island, although it could be that I'm just romanticizing the whole thing.

I've always hated malls, hated the way people crowd together and swarm over the advertised life. And on the few occasions that I absolutely must go to a mall, such as before Christmas, I go anywhere but Fashion Island. Not only because it's a mall, but also because it's expensive. Even South Coast Plaza has a Sears, not to mention a secret history as a 1980s punkers hangout—secret because all traces of it have been completely erased so that it won't offend any current post-punk patrons. The nicest thing I'd ever thought about Fashion Island concerned its open space—it's just about the only place with room between buildings—but I'd quickly concluded even these spaces were packed with smugness.

But there I was at Fashion Island, a bit before 8:30 in the morning, long before most actual customers would arrive to do their Christmas shopping. I wanted to see this place with fresh eyes, unbesmirched by people at their worst. However, it's apparently impossible to get there that early. Still swigging coffee as I parked my car and stumbled onto the grounds, the first sight that grabbed my attention was a huge white fir decorated with gargantuan ornaments and surrounded by faux Christmas presents—including a Jaguar with a red ribbon around it. Sigh. A sign informed me that it was the largest natural Christmas tree in the country. That it was 110 feet tall. That it weighed 17,000 pounds. The text rambled on about how the tree was harvested in an "environmentally friendly manner." I made notes as if preparing an obituary and wondered how old it was.

About this time I noticed a large man in a black suit, talking on a cell phone and watching me. I ignored him and moved on. And it was while wandering the deserted walkways, being followed by a Man in Black, that I began to feel as if I were strolling through a city in Europe. My thoughts drifted back to a trip to Paris, where I bought roast pheasant from a street-corner stand. The stands here were still closed, but their signs indicated they also would soon be purveying their goods. Okay, not roast pheasant but "golf supplies" and "vitamins" and something called "Ethnic Groove," anyway.

That's when it hit me: Fashion Island is re-created Europe, only Europe as seen through wealthy Orange County eyes. In London, this would be Knightsbridge, only free of the eccentric bustle of street artists and musicians scrabbling for a dollar or grubby punk rockers glaring at you when your gaze lingers on them too long. Yes, that's it! And less! Fashion Island is London without starving, waifish children (when I lived in England, London had the highest child-homelessness rate of any city in the so-called First World) watching you expectantly, hoping that you'll hand them a pound coin.

I stopped in the middle of a lane, closed my eyes, and tried to picture the neighborhoods in London where I used to wander. I could see the august British Museum—a gray, imposing building housing the treasures of the British Empire. When I opened my eyes, I saw the Museum Store.

I closed my eyes again and thought of Atlantis Books, the ancient little antiquarian bookstore around the corner from the British Museum. I opened them and began to wander that very path—retracing the steps from memory, at least—and sure enough, I came to Barnes & Noble.

I looked around. The Man in Black was still following me. I wandered past the Kiddie Choo-Choo and came to a fountain that vaguely reminded me of one I used to sit by at Trafalgar Square. I began writing again and got lost in my note-taking. When I emerged, I noticed I was no longer being watched. Which was nice. And so was the view from my fountain-side perch: I could see over the escalator that leads up from the main parking lot out to the Pacific Ocean, which lay beyond the tips of trees that obscured the dense development and PCH traffic of Newport Beach.

I wandered aimlessly until I came upon a small koi pond outside the food court. I sat there for a while and watched the large, golden fish swim back and forth. My mind drifted then, stopping and starting on the kind of random thoughts that hit you when you're alone: money problems, a sick friend. I eventually realized I had spent more than 10 minutes just watching fish. I collected myself, got up and started walking toward the Atrium Court to get a cup of coffee. A thin man, about 35, wearing a dirty white T-shirt, sandals (without socks) and wrinkled pants shuffled by. He was carrying a sagging backpack. He looked around—looked at me for a second—then faced the pond and proceeded to dip his feet into it. It struck me that he was homeless, probably recently so. He stood in the pond and watched the water reflectively.

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