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Insights From Outside--Southland as 7 Million Foreigners a Year See Us

November 08, 1986|LYNN SMITH | Times Staff Writer

Maybe it's the same old Clifton's Cafeteria to you. But to Giovanna Terminiello, an art historian from Liguria, Italy, it's an exotic sight marked "Don't miss!" in her Italian tourist guide.

Terminiello tracked down Clifton's while in Los Angeles to arrange an exhibit honoring the 500th anniversary of Christopher Columbus' discovery of America. "I like everything that is different from what I expected!" she said through an interpreter. In Los Angeles, she also discovered avocado, kiwi fruit, seedless grapes and potato skins with Cheddar cheese and bacon.

No Complaints

"She likes everything," confirmed Sim Smiley, the interpreter who accompanied Terminiello on her U.S. government-sponsored tour. "So many visitors complain about the food."

Terminiello is one of 7 million people who every year leave their hometowns around the world, their tightly knit cities of cool cathedrals or humid military conflicts, and friends and food they understand for brief forays into the vast foreign carnival of Los Angeles.

They are the visitors most of us notice only on weekends: the Italian-speaking diners next to you on the patio of a chic Los Angeles restaurant, the unified group of camera-carrying Japanese at Disneyland, the family in relentlessly upscale South Coast Plaza whose dress, although stylish and contemporary, jars slightly with the prevailing suburban insouciance.

Since foreign visitors stay longer and spend more, the Greater Los Angeles Visitors and Convention Bureau is printing brochures in Japanese, Spanish, German and French to encourage this, said Bill Arey, director of visitor marketing for the bureau. He hopes they will see Los Angeles as a destination resort, a balmy land of swimming pools and cold drinks, relaxed life styles and good food, a place of culture.

Strange Food--and People

What they actually see, according to some of this season's visitors, are a vast land of hodgepodge buildings and hotel lobbies, surprisingly good air and strange food, a place where the natives are slow, unsophisticated, difficult to communicate with, perhaps dangerous, and prosperous.

" Bellissimo, bellISSimo! " murmured Terminiello under a stale, smoggy sky as she wandered past the gardens, Ionic columns and colonnades of the J. Paul Getty Museum in Malibu, a copy of an ancient Roman villa, many of whose art works came from Terminiello's native land. "The idea of Roman architecture to us . . . we think of ruins. To have a piece of architecture in perfect shape is completely new to me. Almost theater-like!" said Terminiello, 47, a friendly woman wearing sensible clogs and pearls and carrying her flight bag.

She walked into a room whose temperature and humidity are perfectly controlled to preserve the artifacts. She gazed at a 2,300-year-old bronze Greek statue. "I envy the financial resources." She smiled. "We're so poor in Italy."

"First thing they ask, 'Where is Burt Reynolds?' Or Michael J. Fox," said Ted Payne, a guard at Paramount Studios in Los Angeles where thousands of foreign tourists come each year to watch tapings of television shows. "We attract 'em. They all know Paramount."

On a recent damp morning, a contemporary variety show, "Solid Gold," drew tourists from England, Sweden, Switzerland as well as the entire Nicaraguan all-star baseball team.

"We are not political. We just came to play baseball," said Jorge Pong Roberts, 25, a third baseman from Managua who wore a gold cross and a red T-shirt with the words, " Che ... Has la victoria siempre ." ( Che . . . always go for victory.) In between games with local college teams, the athletes followed plans made by their sponsor, Bats Not Bombs, a Los Angeles-based citizens' diplomacy group.

Serious and quiet, the 20 athletes sat in the studio, watching dust curl up into a sea of colored triangles beamed down onto the stage from a ceiling of lights. The audience warm-up man told them when to stand up and clap, to smile and have a good time.

"Where you guys from now anyway? New York? I'll give you my wallet now," the man joked. The team members leaned forward, wondering what to do.

Nicaraguans are used to living with daily tension, said Roberts, a civil engineer who learned English at school. Traveling does not make the tension go away. "Anyplace we go, we have to have in mind the situation in our country," he said.

"Anybody from outta town? Nicaragua? Glad you made it! . . . I speak Spanish," says the warm-up man. "Reseda. Tujunga. Tarzana." They smile.

At the urging of the warm-up man, the Nicaraguans start to clap to the country music of the Dwight Yoakam Band: "Gi-tars, Cadillacs, hillbilly music, it's the only thing that keeps me hangin' on. . . ."

The team coach laughed and said something to Roberts. "He says we have to pass a hat for money to buy some pants for this guy," said Roberts, indicating the torn blue jeans of the lead singer. "He says he wants to dance una salsa ." Another player puts on earphones to listen to Mexican music from a tape player.

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